Thursday, August 30, 2007

“How I Met Your Mother” Shows Traditional Sitcoms Can Still Work

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

It’s a tough time to be a devotee of traditional sitcoms.

It is almost hard to imagine there was a time when a network could air two hours of half-hour comedies on a night, and that lineup would rule the ratings and be dubbed “Must See TV,” as NBC did on Thursdays in the 1990s. It’s also hard to picture that in the 1996-1997 season, the schedule featured “Seinfeld,” “Frasier,” “Friends,” “Roseanne,” “Murphy Brown” “Mad About You,” “NewsRadio” and “Spin City,” all at the same time. All of those shows were traditional, multi-camera offerings taped in front of a live audience.

What a difference eleven years make. In the upcoming season, ABC is not returning a single half-hour comedy, CBS and the CW each have three holdovers, NBC brings back four (all on Thursday night), and Fox welcomes back only one non-animated sitcom (CBS, ABC and the CW have some mid-season replacements). None of the networks are introducing a whole lot of new comedy programming this season. CBS, Fox and the CW will debut only one half-hour sitcom each, ABC has three, and NBC does not have a single new half-hour comedy on the schedule. (And, as I discussed on August 9 in this space, TBS’s attempts to fill the void have, for the most part, fallen well short of the mark.)

Of the few comedies on the schedule, many are not even traditional, multi-camera sitcoms. Sure, I love NBC’s Thursday night comedy lineup, featuring the top-notch “Scrubs,” “30 Rock” and “The Office,” along with the entertaining “My Name Is Earl.” But all of those shows are single-camera productions that, while truly innovative and feature superior writing and acting, are not the traditional multi-camera sitcoms I grew up with, like “The Odd Couple” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” If comedy was thriving on television in the single-camera format, I wouldn’t mind so much. But the problem is that there are hardly any comedies on television anymore, regardless of format.

In fact, not counting the new shows being introduced this fall, there is exactly one multi-camera sitcom currently airing that is at the same quality level as the shows from the 1996-1997 season I listed above: “How I Met Your Mother.” As a hip, interesting show about twentysomethings on CBS, a network whose programming generally tilts towards the old folks, “How I Met Your Mother” has struggled to gain big ratings, earning just enough viewers and critical acclaim to hang on for a third season beginning this fall. It may be shot in a traditional, multi-camera format, but like classic sitcoms of the 1990s, it employs an innovative structure, making it an uneasy fit with the other more traditional (read: boring and cliché) half-hour programs CBS surrounds it with, namely the overrated “Two And A Half Men.” This season “How I Met Your Mother” will be paired with a new show, “The Big Bang Theory” (8:00 and 8:30 on Monday nights), that looks like it has the potential to be a good fit. Time will tell.

“How I Met Your Mother” follows five twentysomethings living in present day New York City. The stories are flashbacks, the tales of an off-screen narrator (an uncredited Bog Saget) telling his two kids, not surprisingly, how he met their mother (we don’t know yet who turns out to be the wife). Saget is the voice of Ted (Josh Radnor), an architect who for the first two seasons pursued, finally reeled in, and then lost local television anchor Robin (Cobie Smulders). Ted lives with his two college friends, longtime couple Marshall (Jason Segal, a member of Judd Apatow’s unofficial repertory group) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan of “American Pie” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), who married in last season’s finale. Hanging around to provide outrageous comic moments is the gang’s friend Barney (Neil Patrick Harris, playing a cleaned up version of his fictional self as portrayed in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”), a walking ball of id in a suit (always in a suit).

What I love about “How I Met Your Mother” is that the writers/creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas have taken a conventional setup (post-collegians coming of age in New York), placed it into a conventional format (the multi-camera sitcom), and then proceeded to regularly and systematically blow it all up, producing something that is like nothing else on television. While the show has trended to more traditional storytelling (no doubt a network “note” to try and boost ratings), it still plays fast and loose with sitcom rules of plot and character. A signature “How I Met Your Mother” move is letting a storyline play out and then going back to a seemingly insignificant moment and revealing the events from a different character’s perspective, only to have that moment take on new and important meaning. The episodes are constructed like the best films, where you can go back and see the seeds that were planted to justify exciting payoffs and twists.

Bays and Thomas also give their actors some of the sharpest comedy lines this side of Dunder-Mifflin and Sacred Heart Hospital. Barney’s fun and games with the English language (usually involving some riff on how “awesome” he is, or how “legendary” one of his exploits will be) get all the attention, but all of the characters get the chance to kill with expertly constructed dialogue, especially the playful repartee between Marshall and Lily.

The writers also cook up some of the most inspired and bizarre plot scenarios on television. Again, Barney gets the high-profile ones (for example, episodes built around his belief that Bob Barker is his father and his exploits with his gay, African-American brother, played by Wayne Brady), but there are plenty to go around. Last year’s two-part finale had you convinced Ted and Robin were either expecting a child or concealing that they had eloped, only to reveal at the end that they had broken up but wanted to hide the fact from their friends so as not to ruin Marshall and Lily’s wedding day. In another episode, Robin’s deep, dark secret (and fear of malls) is exposed, but it’s not what anyone thinks (including Barney, who is so convinced she was a porn star, he engages in a “slap bet” with Marshall over it, with Lily as the referee). Turns out, it was her career as a bubblegum pop singer in Canada when she was a teenager (under the name Robin Sparkles) with a song (called, of course, “Let’s Go to the Mall”) and video that were pitch perfect for the genre. (You can see a clip from this part of the show here, and the Robin Sparkles MySpace page here with the video in its unaired entirety.)

Where the show really excels is with its characters. As over-the-top as Barney is, these are five people that truly like each other, and that we, as an audience, like to spend time with. Ted and Marshall rival J.D. and Turk of “Scrubs” for the title of the closest heterosexual guy couple on television (their sword fight to determine who gets their apartment after Marshall and Lily get married was a piece of physical comedy worthy of the best moments on “Frasier,” only to be topped by the ensuing scene in the hospital after Lily is accidentally stabbed). You could argue that, really, Ted, Marshall and Lily are in one big relationship, with this idea becoming more overt late last season with Ted’s aborted move to Robin’s apartment. Left by themselves, Marshall and Lily go from liberated to terrified at the prospect of not having Ted around, with Marshall coming to the conclusion that they were like a rare South American tree that needed to grow around a second tree to survive. When Ted returns home and Marshall and Lily sandwich him into a hug, the moment was both gut-busting funny and poignant, all at the same time, with Radnor’s confused look acting as the cherry on the sundae.

“How I Met Your Mother” provides weekly proof that the sitcom is not (or should not be) a dying art form. I just hope enough people watch this season to keep the show going. If “How I Met Your Mother” gets canceled, and if none of the new shows take hold (how much faith do you have that a thirty-minute comedy featuring the Geico cavemen will last?), what are we left with? The sitcom, with a long and rich history, ranging from “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” through to “Seinfeld,” could become extinct. That is something that Barney would certainly not think is awesome. And he would be right.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Between Helmsley and Vick, the News Is Going to the Dogs

Let's get one thing straight: The law does not allow you to leave money to a dog. And, thankfully, it does not allow you to make dogs fight or torture them, either.

It seems like you can't walk five feet today without someone talking about Leona Helmsley leaving $12 million to Trouble, her pet Maltese, in her will (while leaving only $5 million each to two of her grandchildren and stiffing the other two completely).

Only, Helmsley did not leave money to Trouble. Dogs are not recognized as people under the law. They can't own property, they can't vote and they can't walk around unsupervised (oddly, the same views I'm guessing Larry Craig holds about homosexuals, publicly anyway). Give credit for correctly identifying in its headline that Helmsley funded a $12 million trust in her will to care for Trouble. I know a trust is not as glamorous to think about as a lawyer in a suit putting a $12 million check into Trouble's mouth, but hey, I don't make the laws.

It seems like dogs have taken over the news the last few days. While Trouble is rolling in it (which usually means something entirely different when applied to dogs), even without the money, he is decidedly better off than the pit bulls under Michael Vick's care. Actually, Trouble is a double winner, because not only did he not have to fight to the death, he also no longer has to contend with Helmsley, something that some people might have argued was quite similar.

Vick is acting contrite now after pleading guilty to running a dogfighting operation and torturing dogs to death who didn't perform up to his expectations. Lucky for Vick, his Falcons coaches didn't have the same standard for him, or he would have met the same fate as the pit bulls he dispatched.

Vick and the rest of America can rest easy now, because Ron Artest is here to make things better. That's right, Artest said he approved of Vick's apology and has offered to help him. After all, who wouldn't want the counsel of a man who started the worst athlete-fan brawl in American history, was arrested for beating his girlfriend (the mother of one of his children), and has spent more time in David Stern's office than the FBI agents investigating Tim Donaghy. I have a feeling that when Falcons owner Arthur Blank and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told Vick he needed to find a better class of people to surround himself with, Ron Artest was not who they meant.

The Vick and Helmsley stories both show how low people are capable of going. As a vegetarian and supporter of animal rights, I completely understand how pets become members of a family. I do not in any way mean to question or make fun of the level of love that Helmsley obviously had for Trouble. But, I also understand that dogs, victims of their own DNA, do not have the mental and physical capacity to own possessions. The real story here is that Helmsley had millions of dollars, but clearly lived a bitter, lonely life. Her husband and son were dead, and even though she had four grandchildren, she left more money to her Maltese than she did to all of her grandkids combined. She even tossed $100,000 to her chauffeur, while stiffing two of her grandchildren (getting in her last licks in saying that they know why they were ignored). I guess it's true that money can't buy you happiness. Sadly for two of the grandkids, they will never get a chance to find out.

As for Vick, there was a lot of talk about how his apology seemed heartfelt. But really, when he is awaiting sentencing and facing a lengthy jail sentence, the loss of his livelihood, and the prospect of having to return a big chunk of his earnings from the last few years, what do you expect the man to do? You would have to be one colossally stupid individual to rile the judge, the league, and the public by saying anything other than, "I royally screwed up and I'm sorry." Then again, you'd have to be colossally stupid to risk your livelihood all for the joy of torturing dogs to death and betting on which of them will kill the others. So, at this point, anything is possible.

How sorry can Vick really be? When someone acts out in the heat of the moment, you can believe they may regret their actions. When Artest went into the stands to attack a fan in Detroit and Jose Offerman swung his bat at a pitcher in Bridgeport, while their actions were indefensible, they made split-second decisions (albeit horrifically poor ones). Similarly, when athletes slip into the abyss of drug and alcohol abuse (like the sad story of 25-year-old basketball player Eddie Griffin, who died when his car plowed into a train in Houston earlier this month after years of battling alcoholism), as frustrating as it is to watch these addicts throw away opportunity after opportunity, you understand that they are ill and may not have the capacity to get well.

The Vick story is quite different. He consciously, actively and purposefully directed a dogfighting operation, including torturing dogs to death for not performing, over a period of years. Not seconds or minutes, or even days or months, but years. He didn't have an addiction to gambling, alcohol, food or drugs. No, he chose to actively participate in a barbaric practice and to commit cruel and heinous acts on innocent creatures simply for kicks and giggles. They say that serial killers in their youth often torture animals. This is the conduct Vick was engaging in. His behavior was amoral, repulsive and far outside the boundaries of any civilized society.

It's hard to believe he can go from barbarian to truly sorry in a matter of weeks. It is far more believable that he is sorry he got caught; that he recognizes that he was an idiot to risk his freedom, lucrative career and way of life for what he viewed as a hobby. I don't believe for a second he thinks he did anything really wrong, or that he recognizes how far out of line his behavior and actions were.

I think the statement of Vick's mother, Brenda Vick, to the New York Post just three days ago reveals the true lack of Vick's remorse. She was quoted as saying, "They are trying to put my baby in jail, and for what? Everybody makes mistakes. ... He is not a criminal ... He's a good person. He has a big heart, and it just hurts."

"For what?" As if he merely scalped a Super Bowl ticket or drove fast on the highway. No, he tortured animals. For money. Over a period of years. And, he ran a gambling operation. If there is one thing professional athletes know from day one that they are to avoid like the plague, it is gambling. "He's a good person." Good people do not electrocute and drown dogs to punish them for not fighting well enough. Good people don't own anything called a "rape stand." And good people don't lie to the face of their employers, causing them great embarrassment later, weeks before getting busted. "He is not a criminal." Um, actually, he violated several federal felony laws. That pretty much is the definition of a criminal. Brenda Vick doesn't get it, and I doubt Michael Vick does either.

Speaking of dogs, President Bush went to New Orleans today to commemorate the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Which, by the way, is more than he did in the days after the storm, when he had his crony "Brownie" uselessly presiding over the situation while people suffered and died. CNN reported this morning that it was Bush's 15th trip to New Orleans since the storm hit, not bothering to mention the epic mismanagement and indifference he showed at the time. As Evan Thomas wrote in a Newsweek article dated September 19, 2005 (found on, "[H]ow the president of the United States could have even less 'situational awareness,' as they say in the military, than the average American about the worst natural disaster in a century—is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace."

A fitting end to a week that went to the dogs. If only the ending was as happy for everyone as it seems to be for Trouble.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

With Craig Outed, It's Time for the GOP to Abandon Its Alleged Moral High Ground

It looks like we have yet another gay Republican on our hands. "Not that there's anything wrong with it," as the characters on a famous episode of "Seinfeld" repeated over and over again.

News reports yesterday revealed that earlier this month, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after he was arrested in a Minneapolis airport bathroom for allegedly using signals to make sexual overtures to other men. (Click here for the New York Times article on the incident.) Craig now claims his actions were misconstrued, and he should not have pleaded guilty. Craig denied last year that he was gay after someone claimed the senator had engaged in sexual activity with men.

When the media outs someone as being homosexual, my first reaction is, generally, who cares? I am a firm believer that an adult individual's consenting bedroom habits are irrelevant to me. I don't care what my straight friends do with their spouses and lovers in their bedrooms, so why should I care what gay and lesbian people do behind closed doors?

If Craig had been a normal Joe Citizen, I wouldn't have cared less that a man was looking for sex with other men in an airport bathroom, other than to be outraged at the idea that someone could be arrested for that conduct. If anything, I would have felt bad that a successful guy felt the need to keep his true sexual desires a secret and look for anonymous sex in a bathroom rather than pursue a more overt relationship.

But politics has a way of making the irrelevant relevant, and Craig is not just another closeted gay man. He is a sitting U.S. senator. More than that, he is a Republican, a member of a party that has made great political hay bashing homosexuals. According to the website OnTheIssues, Craig voted for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriage, against prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation, and against adding sexual orientation to the hate crimes statute.

I don't think Craig is immoral for wanting to have sex with men, but I certainly think he is immoral for acting so hypocritically. He is a man who has profited politically from the hysteria against homosexuality encouraged by the GOP, and he affirmatively voted for legislation that attacked the rights of homosexuals, all while he was, himself, allegedly a homosexual. There is something especially pathetic about someone who is so weak he has no problem publicly engaging in hateful behavior against an innocent group even though, privately, he may very well be a member of that group.

I hope the Craig affair (pun intended) once and for all puts to rest the idea that Republicans occupy some kind of moral high ground. It is often estimated that about ten percent of the population is gay. It's time to recognize that this figure means ten percent of all people, not just ten percent of non-Republicans or non-Christians.

Craig's alleged outing is just the latest in a recent rash of Christian conservatives who turned out to be hypocrites. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) was a crusader for family values issues and child protection, but he resigned after being caught sending suggestive emails and text messages to teenage boys who used to be pages in Congress. Reverend Ted Haggard, founder of the New Life Church and a crusader against homosexuals, bought crystal meth and visited with a male prostitute. James Guckert, using the name "Jeff Gannon," posed as a kind of faux journalist in the White House press corps to toss softball questions to President Bush. Turns out he was also offering his services on gay escort websites under the name "Bulldog."

And it's not like straight Republicans are paragons of virtue, immune from the immoral behavior they crusade against. Newt Gingrich assailed President Clinton for his sexual indiscretions, all, it turns out, while he was cheating on his wife with a staffer. His apparent successor as Speaker of the House, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), had his candidacy derailed when Larry Flynt uncovered his extramarital affairs. More recently, it was revealed that Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), another family values crusader, had engaged the services of a noted Washington, D.C. madame (which I wrote about on July 11).

The bottom line is that the Republicans have been very successful in recent years getting certain sectors of the electorate to vote against their own interests on the idea that the GOP was more likely to look out for their conservative, Christian beliefs on issues, especially gay marriage. In light of Haggard, Foley, Gannon, and now Craig, isn't it time that this dysfunctional connection is cut once and for all?

I'm sick and tired of hearing that the Republicans are the party of family values. The top three Democratic presidential candidates are still in their first and only marriages. John Edwards is still married to his college sweetheart, Barack Obama has remained with the woman he met when he was a summer associate, and Hillary Clinton, despite the hate thrown at her by the right wing, has remained with her husband (some guy named Bill who allegedly had an eye for the ladies). This pattern lies in stark contrast to three of the top four Republican hopefuls, with the front-runner on his third marriage, the so-called "conservative" candidate on his second wife (who is nearly 25 years his junior), and the "straight talk"-turned-conservative establishment entrant having left his first wife to marry his second one.

To be clear, I am not necessarily casting aspersions on or judging the conduct of any of these individuals (except Foley, because he was not dealing with consenting adults). But I am arguing that the Republicans should not be allowed to portray themselves as the presumptive candidates of family values, when their personal lives no more adhere to these values than those of the Democrats. And since the GOP has profited so greatly from the politics of hating homosexuals, the party has to be called to task on the fact that many of these bashers turned out, in their private lives, to be engaging in this very activity.

After all, shouldn't true "values" include judging people by how they treat others, not who they choose to have sex with behind closed doors? And shouldn't "values" teach tolerance and love of others, not organized campaigns of hate and intolerance?

It's time for politics to concentrate on issues that matter, like Iraq, Islamic fundamentalism, the environment, education, and the economy, rather than focusing on "wedge" issues like gay marriage that are brought up solely to sway voters, not because the issues are especially important. And it's time Americans recognize that party and religious affiliations are no clue when determining if someone is gay or straight, committed to his/her family or not. There are homosexual Democrats and homosexual Republicans, and there are family-oriented Democrats and family-oriented Republicans.

Republicans do not have an exclusive on family values, although they seem to have a hold on hypocrisy and using hate to gain votes. I'm sure most Americans, including the "Seinfeld" characters, would say there certainly is something wrong with that.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Gonzales Steps Down, But Bush Remains Stubborn to the End

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has finally resigned. The Gonzales saga has been as drawn out as its result has been inevitable. With both Democrats and Republicans in Congress favoring his ouster, it is not surprising that this day has come. But, it is illuminating as to how long it took for it to arrive.

Gonzales testified before Congress for the first time on the dismissal of eight U.S. Attorneys on January 18, more than seven months ago. Soon after, the investigation began (on March 19 I defended the Gonzales investigation in this space). As the months wore on and Gonzales testified before Congress several times, he dug himself a deeper and deeper grave. His favored answer when questioned seem to be some variation of "I don't remember." He soon lost support from Democrats and Republicans alike.

Except for one Republican: President Bush. Just as virtually every observer decried Gonazles's confusing and less-than-forthcoming testimony, Bush said he did a great job.

So, when the day arrived that Gonzales finally did what he should have done months ago and gave up the job he had butchered from day one, did Bush finally come around and realize that he had made a mistake in supporting someone that most members of his own party thought was not fit for office? If you answered yes, you are either incredibly naive or have spent the last six years in a coma. No, in a Yahoo!/AP article on the resignation, Bush was quoted as saying, "After months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to resign his position and I accept his decision."

See, it isn't that Gonzales has lost the confidence of a majority of the country. No, it's the "unfair treatment" that Gonzales has endured. As if poor, hard-working, effective, law-abiding Gonzales was randomly set upon by a herd of jackals in Congress, rather than the truth, that Gonzales has done a horrendous job, including making false statements to Congress. Notice, Bush never pointed to the Democrats (as he usually does) as the perpetrators of this "unfair treatment." He couldn't, considering that some of the loudest voices calling for Gonzales's ouster (as well as, apparently, some of the softest voices behind the scenes) were from Republicans.

In an April 24 article here, I laid out why Gonzales's alleged misdeeds were important and rose to a level requiring an investigation. Now that Gonzales is gone, his legacy should entail something far more odious than his deception of Congress (which is, in and of itself, pretty odious). Rather, Gonzales should be remembered for the politicization of the Justice Department.

When Gonzales moved from being Bush's White House Counsel to replacing John Ashcroft as the attorney general, he acted like he had gotten a promotion within the same company. Same responsibilities, better salary and perks. So, when he went from serving in a political role, where his job was to protect the interests of the president, to being the highest ranking law enforcement agent in the country, where his job is to protect the law, he never changed his way of doing business.

Only, the attorney general is not supposed to be the president's henchman. Rather, the attorney general has always been treated as an independent enforcer of the law who, once appointed, was supposed to be outside the political sphere of the White House. It's not like Bill Clinton was a big fan of Janet Reno, and Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus refused Richard Nixon's demand that they fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate independent prosecutor, leading to their dismissals in the so-called Saturday Night Massacre. You can't help but think that had Alberto Gonzales been the attorney general in 1973, not only would he have acceded to Nixon's demand to fire Cox, but he would have also sent a couple of CREEP operators over to shred some files, just to make sure the Big Guy knew whose side he was on.

Unlike all of his modern predecessors (including the very conservative John Ashcroft), Gonzales viewed himself as an organ of the White House, not as an independent law enforcement officer serving the American people.

If Gonzales turns out to be an aberration -- that is, if Bush appoints a respected legal mind, no matter how conservative he/she is, and if the next president follows by appointing a non-crony -- then we can look back on the Gonzales reign in the Justice Department as one of history's big screw-ups and move on. But if Gonzales's assault on the independence of the Justice Department becomes the new way of doing business, history will point to his time in office the way the George H.W. Bush's Willie Horton commercial against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race is viewed as the patient zero of offensive attack television ads.

And how fitting is it that Bush has not learned his lesson. Even with the vast majority of Americans, inside and outside of the beltway, coming to the conclusion that Gonzales was a disaster who had to go, Bush was stubborn to the end, insisting that he knows better than everyone. Where everyone saw incompetence, Bush saw outstanding service. Yet again, Bush hasn't learned from any of his mistakes (from the ongoing quagmire in Iraq to continuing to hire cronies after "Brownie" failed miserably after Hurricane Katrina), and the American people are left holding the bag, forced to suffer through Bush's mistakes. The whole world knew this day was coming, that Gonzales was the proverbial dead man walking. Only Bush saw fit to drag this ordeal out for more than half a year.

At least it was good to see that like the Iraqi parliament, Bush is on vacation yet again. (Bush seems to go on holiday more often than a travel writer.) While some have criticized him for leaving Washington so often, I applaud him. The last place I want to see George W. Bush is anywhere near the White House.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

For Better and for Worse, Sports Reporters Invade ESPN

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

A well-written sports column is one of my favorite things. There is something about the sports world that lends itself to essays that make you laugh, think and/or consider important issues. If a columnist can be insightful and funny at the same time, he or she can be sure that I will be a loyal reader.

I recently exchanged emails with a friend of mine who was complaining about how shallow and unreasoned he found sportswriters to be, and I made the point that it wasn’t always like that. I explained to my friend that when I was in college in the Boston area in the mid-1980s, the Boston Globe boasted an impressive roster of reporters and columnists, including Peter Gammons, Bob Ryan, Will McDonough and my favorite at the time, Leigh Montville. I used to look forward to the sports section the way some people await the latest Harry Potter novel.

I did have to admit, however, that the art of writing sports has taken a beating in recent years. A big part of it, I believe, is the explosion of opportunities for sports reporters and columnists to go on various ESPN shows where they are generally rewarded for their outrageousness and volume rather than any kind of thoughtful analysis. Norman Chad, one of the biggest offenders in this regard, wrote a column in the Washington Post on August 13 that essentially made this very argument. He notes that while going on television used to be a side diversion for sportswriters, it’s now an integral part of their career arcs.

While it’s great if newspapers can influence sports television broadcasting, it certainly is not promising if the culture of television is taking over sports writing. It got me thinking about the rash of sportswriter-driven programming on ESPN, because while I certainly would be in favor of an improvement in the standards of sports writing, not all of the shows are bad.

As Chad notes, the patient zero of the sportswriters-on-television-phenomenon is the Sunday morning staple “The Sports Reporters,” which was hosted by Dick Schaap from the show’s inception in 1988 to his untimely death in 2001. The concept of the show was simple: Consummate journalist Schaap sat on a set with three sportswriters and discussed the sports events of the day. The core group of journalists included a pre-“Tuesdays With Morrie” Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe, Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News (with a brief detour to New York Newsday) and Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser of the Washington Post. Each show ended with the reporters giving “parting shots,” which were essentially one-minute oral columns. While none of these journalists were shrinking violets, under Schaap’s leadership, the discourse was generally smart and often funny, and the parting shots generally exhibited the best qualities of a good sports column. Until a few years ago, “The Sports Reporters” was must viewing for me, a Sunday morning ritual that my wife knew was sacrosanct.

ESPN anchor John Saunders took over the moderator’s chair after Schaap passed away, and while I like Saunders as a broadcaster, the show suffered a bit from the loss of Schaap, who was a longtime print sports reporter (that’s what the show is named for, right?). And while Lupica, Ryan and Albom continue to appear on the show, they are often surrounded by sports anchors better known for their work on television. It’s still a good show, and the parting shots still often resonate, but it’s no longer appointment television. Whether that is because the show has changed a lot, or because ESPN, thanks to the success of “The Sports Reporters,” is now inundated with similar programming, I can’t say for sure.

If “The Sports Reporters” laid the foundation for writer-driven sports broadcasting, the catalyst for the explosion of such shows was “Pardon the Interruption” (or “PTI,” as it is better known in the sports world). While clearly a sports show, “PTI” (which airs daily on ESPN at 5:30 p.m.) took things a step further, pairing Kornheiser and Wilbon, the two Washington Post reporters, in what was described as a television version of their real-life relationship. They are two friends with different backgrounds -- Kornheiser is a fiftysomething Jewish guy from New York, who goes to bed early and hates to travel; Wilbon is a fortysomething black guy from Chicago, who spends more time traveling to sports events than staying at home in Washington -- that loved to good naturedly argue sports. The two hosts run down the sports topics of the day, which are laid out Web-style on a list on the side of the screen. There are special segments and, often, a five-minute interview is featured in the middle of the show.

Kornheiser is loud, certainly as interested in entertaining through the antics of his on-screen persona as he is making cogent points about sports issues. And while Wilbon is more sedate and less gimmicky, he is not averse to taking extreme positions to get a rise out of Kornheiser and, presumably, the audience. (It is Kornheiser that wears the crazy outfits during special segments, whether it’s the swami hat for a crystal ball feature or the police hat when they play “Good Cop, Bad Cop.”)

“PTI” is fun to watch, despite the histrionics, for one simple reason: It’s enjoyable to hang out for a half hour with Kornheiser and Wilbon. Despite the shtick, they both obviously know their sports, and they are masters at the art of combining insight and humor (which, as I said, is the key to my sports heart). Most of all, it’s the clear affection, rapport, history and chemistry that these two guys share that makes the show special. When they make fun of each other (as they always do), it is obvious that not only is it all in good fun, but it’s the exact behavior they would exhibit if they were sitting in a diner rather than on the television set. “PTI” is not the product of a network executive randomly suggesting two people to host a show together and hoping they get along. Rather, the program is about an interesting relationship that already exists.

(A whole column could be written on the racial aspect of “PTI,” how there is something heartening about a black guy and a white guy sharing a genuine relationship on the air, and how they treat race in their interactions. For the purposes of this article, let’s just say that in its subtle lead-by-example way, watching “PTI” probably does more for race relations in this country than any “very special” episode of a television show or Oscar-bait film.)

In the wake of the success of “PTI” and “The Sports Reporters,” sportswriter-driven shows started popping up on ESPN, either as stand-alone enterprises or as sections of other shows. One of the first to come out was “PTI”’s lead in, “Around the Horn.” The show isn’t just not worthy of its forefathers, it is unwatchable. “Around the Horn” features four sports writers and an insipid host yelling and screaming, but saying nothing, and certainly not being themselves (or at least, I desperately hope these guys are putting on an act). The show was originally conceived as “Sports Reporters” meets a game show (like a sports “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”), where four journalists, one from each of the four sections of the country, argue about sports, with the loud and abrasive host, Max Kellerman, assigning points to the participants when they make good points. The reporter with the lowest point total at each commercial break is booted off.

Soon after the show began, the four-region format was abandoned, and Kellerman left to host his own show elsewhere. He was replaced by the even-more-annoying Tony Reali, the “stat guy” from “PTI” who kept score on some of the games on that program. The fact that Reali has remained on “PTI” while hosting “Around the Horn,” and the fact that he is clearly treated as a level below Wilbon and Kornheiser, is actually a perfect statement on the quality of the two shows.

While some otherwise insightful reporters, like Ryan and Jackie MacMullan of the Boston Globe, appear on “Around the Horn,” they are drowned out by writers who are willing to yell and scream and behave like idiots in the interest of getting some television time. Frequent guests include a decent writer like Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jay Mariotti, who on this show becomes a raving, barking lunatic, and Woody Paige of the Denver Post, who symbolizes the very worst of sportswriters appearing on television. Paige tries so hard to be outrageous and entertaining that he is generally neither. He achieves a level of obnoxiousness that is usually reserved for late night local cable television used car lot commercials, and he never has an interesting or insightful sports point to make. If it wasn’t for the existence of Skip Bayless on ESPN, Paige would be the most useless sports reporter on television. I don’t know how anyone could stand to watch him for more than 15 seconds without reaching for the remote control and a bottle of Tylenol. Same goes for “Around the Horn.”

“Around the Horn” is a scream-fest. It is a living, breathing symbol of all that is wrong with the sportswriters-on-television trend. There is no real discussion. There is no discourse. There is nothing that makes you think, and certainly nothing to make you laugh. It’s four screaming idiots trying to jam points into ten-second windows, while an even bigger idiot makes even more insipid points while moderating the show. Reali is the cherry on the top of this crap sundae. Putting a guy who lacks any insight and has no journalistic credentials in the moderator’s chair is like handing the keys to an insane asylum to a bipolar schizophrenic. No good can come from it. And no good comes from watching “Around the Horn.”

While I enjoy “The Sports Reporters” and “PTI,” I can’t help wonder if 10 years from now I’ll be blaming them for the downfall of sports writing in newspapers. Then again, I wonder if 10 years from now there will even be printed newspapers for writers to write in (after all, at this moment, you are reading this online). I guess the rule is to enjoy sportswriters on television when they bring their skills to a new medium, like on “PTI” and “The Sports Reporters,” and avoid them like the plague when they allow television to take over their values as reporters, as we see in “Around the Horn.” Remember, to paraphrase the surgeon general, exposure to Woody Paige can be hazardous to your health.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What If We Leave Iraq? Nobody Can Be Sure, But I Don't Trust the Administration's Predictions

At least 250 people were killed today in suicide bombings in Iraq. That's approximately eight times the death toll of the Minneapolis bridge collapse and about 40 times the number of miners trapped in Utah, the two news stories that have dominated news coverage the last week or two. And yet, the Iraq story has barely registered in news coverage.

Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, told CNN that the bombings, which targeted the Yazidis, a small Kurdish sect that has ticked off Muslim extremists (they think the Yazidis are blasphemers), were "an act of ethnic cleansing." He also said that the attacks were a "trademark al Qaeda event" meant to "break the will" of the American people and show that the surge is not working.

The point that Gen. Mixon seems to be missing is that the will of the American people, as demonstrated in opinion polls and the biggest survey of all, the 2006 elections, is for America to get out of Iraq. Not to mention that the surge is not working, when you consider that any solution in Iraq has to be political. The Iraqi government is falling apart (with nearly all of the Sunni legislators gone), and what's left of the parliament is on a month-long vacation. So, even if the surge has brought about a slight decrease in violence (a point that is certainly up for debate), that minor victory is meaningless if the Iraqis can't agree on a way to govern themselves, live in peace together and divide up the country's resources.

The drumbeat coming from the administration of, Hey, if we go, there is going to be chaos in Iraq, including maybe a full-scale genocide, is really starting to bug me. I feel like the media isn't doing its job (big surprise) in taking a critical look at this argument, especially in three regards.

First, as Gen. Mixon himself pointed out, the factions are trying to wipe each other out right now, even with the U.S. in Iraq. Since al Qaeda's goal is to drive the U.S. from Iraq, it seems fundamental that, political consequences and realities aside, since our presence is inciting violence, our absence would cut back on at least some of the violence. The administration never seems to recognize and account for the simple fact that most of the world, including virtually the entire Muslim world, views the American invasion of Iraq as being wrong (and, in most cases, criminal). So, while our absence won't stop the clashes between the Iraqi factions, it will stop the violent activity aimed at ejecting us from the country.

Second, why is it that nobody questions the predictions of an administration that has been 100% dead wrong in every single aspect of the Iraq war? We were not treated as liberators. The war did not pay for itself. The Iraqis did not put their liberation from Saddam Hussein above their centuries-old factional divisions. The number of occupying troops was not sufficient for the job. The insurgency was not in its "last throes." It was not a good idea to disband the Iraqi army. It was not a good idea to purge the Baathists. And, it was not a good idea to leave weapons storage facilities unprotected in the early days of the invastion.

So when the people that have been wrong at every turn tell us there will be chaos, why does that conclusion go unchallenged? If the weather forecaster on your morning news show of choice got the weather prediction wrong every single day, you would start watching another network's news. If a CEO was wrong about every prediction of success for the company's new products, that CEO would be fired. And yet, when these incompetents speak, the media bows its collective head and says, "Yes, master, we will print your pearls of wisdom as if they were presented to us directly from a supreme being." No, they are being presented by people with a lower batting average than the 1962 New York Mets.

McClatchy reported on Monday that the U.S. Army conducted a day of war games (in the safety of a Virginia conference room) and determined that while it would be easy to withdraw U.S. troops, once they were gone, Iraq's government would collapse and the country would descend into chaos. As if the government is functioning so great now? And all is calm and peaceful? What really got me about this story was a paragraph buried in the middle of the article. It read:

"The Army staged the one-day exercise earlier this month at a Hilton hotel in suburban Springfield, Va ., and invited 30 Iraq experts, among them serving and retired officers and Iraqi exiles."

Iraqi exiles. Really. Um, aren't they the ones that provided the bad intelligence that was relied on for all of the awful decisions made in the early days of the war? Asking an Iraqi exile about potential outcomes in current-day Iraq is like going to the starters on the 1952 Boston Celtics to determine how a ban on baggy shorts would go over in the NBA next season.

Another thing that made me smile is that an anonymous participant, in making the argument that the troops would not face much fire in leaving the country, noted, "Why would they stop us? They have been telling us to leave." Right. So, if the administration knows this, why is it so hard to fathom that our presence inspires violence?

Of course, the panel went on to conclude that once we left, the Shiite militias would drive the Sunnis to Anbar, the Sunni and Shiite factions would fight each other for power in their regions, Turkey would be pulled into a conflict with Kurds in the northern part of the country, and the Maliki government would fall unless it was propped up by Iran. Basically, the country would be facing a fate worse than a legion of Britneys and Lindsays liquored up on the roads of Iraq.

It's true. They said so. Because the exiles told them. Uh-huh. Based on the track record of these "experts," forgive me if I don't take them at their words.

Finally, the whole argument of the U.S. having to stay in Iraq to prevent genocide is essentially circular. The world told Bush not to invade Iraq. He ignored all warnings and invaded anyway, only his reasons for going in were shown to be wrong, and his predictions for the course of events proved to be way off the mark. Al Qaeda, which wasn't present in Iraq before the war, then flooded into the country, thanks to our invasion. Then, Bush goes to Americans and says we have to stay because we have to fight al Qaeda there. Uh, Mr. President, you allowed it to happen in the first place. That's like collecting mice in your yard, setting them loose in your house, and then asking for a government grant to bring in an exterminator to kill the mice infestation in your home.

I'm not saying that everything will be peachy if the U.S. pulls out of Iraq. What I am saying is that just because the administration says things will be bad, it doesn't mean it necessarily will be. They have no credibility left. It is agreed on all sides that for Iraq to survive on its own, its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions need to find a way to agree on how to divide the country's assets, and a method of governing that they can all live with.

By taking out Hussein and propping up the government for several years, right or wrong, the U.S. gave the Iraqi people an opportunity to get past their divisions and find a way to come together. Instead, the Sunnis got so frustrated they dropped out of the government and the legislature took a month vacation in August. The Iraqis in power showed that they were way more interested in acting strictly in their self-interest and avenging wrongs from the past under the cloak of American protection, rather than making any meaningful concessions to get to a political solution.

Well, it's time for the American gravy train to be decommissioned. The U.S. has done enough (too much, most would say) to provide the Iraqis with a chance to save their country. We have given thousands of American lives and billions of American dollars. As importantly, we've let the enemy in the "real" war in Afghanistan gain in power. The people that not only did attack us "here," but who want to do it again, have been allowed to plan freely, while the might of the U.S. has been squandered in a war in Iraq we had no business starting.

With all due respect (which is very little) to the experts in the Bush administration, I don't believe you. And, if you turn out to be right, well, then the situation was created by your mistakes of the last four plus years, and the blood will not be on the hands of those who supported a pull-out (as the White House likes to say), but on your hands for starting and bungling the war, and on the hands of the Iraqis that didn't sacrifice to save their own country. Either way, your credibility is gone, and you need to shut up.

It's time to start challenging the proclamations from "experts" who are never right. At the very least, it's time we at least hold them to the standard of weather forecasters. Although for these guys, that might be a stretch.

[Note: After reading this article, a friend emailed me this link to a 1994 interview with Dick Cheney in which the future vice president explains why it would have been a bad idea to depose Saddam Hussein at the end of the Gulf War. Too bad the modern Dick Cheney didn't listen to the 1994 Dick Cheney.]

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Phil Rizzuto Will Be Missed

Here's the windup, fastball, hit deep to right, this could be it! Way back there! Holy cow, he did it! Sixty-one for Maris! And look at the fight for that ball out there! Holy cow, what a shot! Another standing ovation for Maris, and they're still fighting for that ball out there, climbing over each other's backs. One of the greatest sights I've ever seen here at Yankee Stadium!
- Phil Rizzuto's radio call of Roger Maris's 61st home run on October 1, 1961

Despite a thrilling ninth-inning win for the Yankees that featured another lights-out appearance by rookie phenom Joba Chamberlain, yesterday was a very sad day in the Yankee universe. Phil Rizzuto, a Hall of Fame Yankee shortstop and longtime Yankee announcer, passed away at the age of 89.

"Scooter" worked for the Bombers from his signing of a minor league contract to play shortstop in 1937 to his retirement from broadcasting after the 1996 season, but he never left the Yankee family. For many years he was the face of the organization, at once the team's biggest fan and its most beloved employee. Not bad for a kid that grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and only signed for the hated rivals in the Bronx when then Dodgers manager Casey Stengal told the diminutive shortstop: "Kid, you're too small. You ought to go out and shine shoes."

When Rizzuto was unable to attend Old-Timers' Day in 2006 and again in 2007, I, like many Yankee fans, knew he had to be in bad shape. Scooter was always one of the last guys to be announced during the pre-game ceremony, and he always earned one of the loudest ovations. Old-Timers' Day was his day, and if he wasn't there, it was clear something was very wrong. As it turns out, he was in a nursing home in New Jersey, no longer able to live at home with his wife of more than 50 years, Cora.

I knew this day was coming, so I was not surprised to see the report of his death go up today on But that didn't make it any easier to take. There are few public figures that we get to know and love via television to an extent that their losses feels like losing people we knew. For me, Phil Rizzuto was one of those people.

My earliest memories of being a Yankee fan are of watching and listening to games announced by Rizzuto, Bill White and Frank Messer. My dad may have taught me about baseball and the Yankees, but Scooter was my Yankee guide, keeping me company while I watched and learned. I am convinced that part of my love of baseball and the Yankees comes from the joy that Rizzuto imparted from the booth, and the fun that he and White brought to the game, while at the same time respecting baseball and using their wealth of knowledge to educate viewers.

I noted that Rizzuto's death was at the top of a list of stories on that also contained the news that Don Imus was settling his lawsuit against WCBS and negotiating his return to radio with WABC. At first, it seemed wrong that Scooter would have to keep such odious company on this sad day, but it occurred to me the juxtaposition was actually quite perfect, since it was a reminder that Rizzuto was everything that Imus isn't -- good-hearted, positive and joyful.

Scooter was a very good baseball player, winning an American League MVP award, playing in five All-Star Games, and manning the key shortstop position for Yankee teams that won seven World Series titles, leading to a woefully belated invitation to the Hall of Fame in 1994. But Rizzuto's legacy goes well beyond his playing statistics.

He faced early derision from other players because of his Italian ancestry. Joe DiMaggio had to intercede, and Rizzuto was eventually accepted by his teammates. And yet, Scooter didn't emerge bitter. He was happy-go-lucky and always proud to be a New York Yankee. I don't mean to suggest that Rizzuto was a civil rights activist, but he lived his life in a way that, intentionally or not, set an example, sending out the message that he didn't care what color you were, he cared about who you were and what you could do. Whether it was his interactions with teammate Elston Howard (the first African-American Yankee), or later his jovial banter with White during telecasts, you got the feeling that the idea of hating anyone for any reason was beyond Scooter's makeup.

After he retired as a player, Rizzuto moved up to the broadcast booth, where he relied on his goofy charm rather than a polished presence. In a traditional sense, Scooter was not a legendary announcer in the same category as Mel Allen and Vin Scully. He was apt to Yogi-esque malapropisms, and it was not unusual for him to completely bungle the call of a play. But Yankee fans didn't care. They knew where Rizzuto was coming from. He loved the Yankees, and despite his occasional bobbles and constant self-deprecation, he knew baseball backwards and forwards.

Most of all, the fans loved Scooter himself. He would talk on the air about a good cannoli he ate, offer well-wishes to people celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, and wander off on topics far off the path of the game he was presumably watching. (When he kept score, he would write "WW" for "wasn't watching" when he missed an at-bat.) But that was Scooter. He wasn't some kind of canned, prefabricated character. He was genuine, and the fans loved him. And, he always was right on top of the action when the game got serious. As much as Rizzuto liked to joke around, he loved baseball and the Yankees even more.

Scooter's reactions to the events around him were real. His trademark "Holy Cow!" wasn't a studied, carefully crafted signature line (like you might find used by a current SportsCenter anchor), but just the way he spoke when he was excited, whether he was in front of a microphone or not. When he called someone a "huckleberry" for doing something wrong, there wasn't an ounce of venom behind it. It was just his good-natured comment on the situation.

Because he was beloved, Rizzuto was always in demand outside of baseball. He did a string of commercials, most famously for The Money Store (you can watch one of them on YouTube). He was the mystery guest on the first ever episode of "What's My Line?" (and appeared several times over the show's run). He also famously provided the spoken/broadcasted bridge to the Meat Loaf hit "Paradise By the Dashboard Light," with his play-by-play of a batter's trip around the bases used to represent a couple's first time having sex. There have been conflicting stories as to whether Rizzuto knew how the recording would be used, but after he took heat from conservative groups for appearing on such a racy track, he didn't throw Meat Loaf under the bus and create a stir that he had been victimized. Rather, Scooter just laughed it off, letting the whole thing take residence as another funny story in a long, happy and successful career.

While I like the current Yankee announcers (especially the exceptionally bright Ken Singleton and the observant and dryly funny Paul O'Neill), Yankee telecasts haven't been the same since Scooter moved on. While you probably wouldn't use tapes of Rizzuto in a broadcasting class as examples of the right way to do it, his combination of spirit, warmth, good nature and baseball knowledge added so much to Yankee broadcasts. As a kid, I couldn't have imagined a world where the Yankees existed without Rizzuto, and I still feel that way sometimes.

Today is a sad day for Yankee fans, and for anyone who was lucky enough to catch Phil Rizzuto being himself for America, whether he was appearing on a rock record or doing a commercial with Yogi for a radio station. I will miss him as a part of my youth and as an integral piece of my affection for the Yankees. George Steinbrenner, in a statement, said about Rizzuto's death, "I guess heaven must have needed a shortstop." More likely, heaven must have needed a nice man. And now they've got one.

Monday, August 13, 2007

See Ya, Rove! Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out!

The news lately has been more depressing than usual. Miners are trapped in Utah. Bodies are being found at the site of the Minneapolis bridge collapse. Grim reports continue to flow from Iraq. The New York Times's front page article yesterday discussed how the Bush administration failed to sustain victory in Afghanistan, finding itself bogged down in Iraq.

So, one has to savor good news when it arrives, and today is just such a day. Karl Rove announced that he is resigning, effective August 31. Ding, dong, the witch is dead.

Most people who even occasionally keep up with politics know what kind of horrible qualities Rove represents in an arena where if you want to be known for being dirty, you really have to go above and beyond. But with cable news networks more concerned with Paris Hilton than Paris, France, it should come as no surprise that the average American may not know who Rove is, and certainly most likely does not know the amount of power he wielded in the White House. Rove was more than just the architect of Bush's election campaigns. And yet, so little about his background is generally known to the man or woman on the street. A little digging shows that he stood as an appropriate symbol of everything that is wrong with the Bush administration.

It has been widely reported that Rove's first teenage foray into politics involved him stealing stationery from the headquarters of a Democratic candidate for Illinois state treasurer and using it to print up invitations for "free beer, free food, girls and a good time for nothing" that he promptly circulated to the city's soup kitchens and in the red light district.

It's not like his dirty tricks approach to politics ended there. Rove was a protege of Donald Segretti, an "original gansta" political trickster who did time for his role in the Watergate affair. Segretti coined the lovely term "ratfucking" for his practice of making up lies about Democratic candidates, like forging a letter on the stationery of Sen. Edmund Muskie that falsely accused Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson of fathering an illegitimate child with a 17-year-old girl. (What is it with these guys and stealing stationery?)

One particular angry writer called Rove "America's Joseph Goebbels," presciently taking him to task in 2002 for painting presidential candidate George McGovern as a "peacenik" in 1972, even though McGovern was a fighter pilot and war hero during World War II. In 2004, Rove would pull the same trick on Sen. John Kerry, painting the man who served and was wounded in Vietnam as the coward, while offering his guy, who sat out the war and didn't even bother to finish his unfairly-attained National Guard duty, as the true patriot. It's no surprise, given that Rove, like his boss, got an exemption from the Vietnam draft under dubious circumstances (according to Wikipedia, he maintained his student 2-S exemption status for six months beyond the date he dropped out of the University of Utah).

Rove also fit in perfectly with Bush's anti-"Best and the Brightest" approach to hiring staffers. I wonder if Americans know that the man who held the title of Deputy Chief of Staff and was one of the president's most powerful advisors was a college dropout, leaving school after a year to work for Lee Atwater, the man who used the racially charged Willie Horton advertisement to smear Gov. Michael Dukakis in the 1988 campaign of W's father. You have to hand it to Rove: When comes to being a morally empty political trickster, he didn't mess around, learning from the very best in the field.

It doesn't take a PhD to draw the line from stealing stationery to outing an undercover CIA agent as payback for her husband's New York Times op-ed piece challenging the administration's pre-Iraq war intelligence. (I wrote about the Plame outing on June 5, 2007.) It was in Rove's DNA.

As you may recall, Bush ran in 2000 on a platform of bringing honor back to Washington. Call me crazy, but I would argue that having a top advisor be one of the biggest political dirty trick instigators of all time is far less honorable than engaging in oral sex with an intern. But that really sums up Bush's time in office; it was always appearance over reality. Bush could say he was a "compassionate" conservative, and that made it okay that he actually curtailed federal stem cell research funding, connived the country into a catastrophic war in Iraq it had no business engaging in (all while losing ground in the war against the real enemy in Afghanistan), and stuffed his administration with under-educated, under-experienced cronies based on their geographic (i.e. being from Texas) or religious (i.e. graduating from Pat Robertson's bottom-quartile university) background (which I wrote about on April 16, 2007).

Rove knew that the American electorate was lazy and not engaged, and as a result, he could trick them into believing what he wanted them to believe about his candidate. So while the blame lies with the citizens that voted Bush into office twice (and the nearly half of the electorate that didn't bother to vote either time), Rove has to take his share of the blame as the man who manipulated the system. Bush is a president who loves to talk about the American values of freedom and democracy, but few embody those qualities less than Rove.

Ultimately, Rove will have to live with the legacy of being known as a political dirty tricks artist who manipulated candidates into office. Clearly, he has no problem with that characterization. But the American people should be more disturbed, and they can show it by making sure that Rove's beloved party is shown the door in the November 2008 election. If it doesn't happen, the Democrats won't have Rove to blame. To see the culprit, they'll only have to look in the mirror.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

TBS Offers Original Sitcoms With Mixed Results

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

TBS, whose daily lineup is heavily reliant on reruns of older sitcoms (“Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Sex in the City,” etc.), has jumped into the current comedy void this summer with new episodes of three original half-hour shows. This is welcome news in an environment that is not friendly to sitcoms. Few get on the air, and even fewer (basically, NBC’s Thursday night lineup of “My Name Is Earl,” “30 Rock,” “The Office,” and “Scrubs” and CBS's “How I Met Your Mother,” are worth watching, and the critics love “Everybody Hates Chris,” too) are worth watching. But the key question is, Will TBS’s offerings, “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” “The Bill Engvall Show” and “My Boys,” do more harm than good?

“Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” debuted first, on Wednesday June 6. I have already discussed this show in an earlier article, so I’ll move on to the other two. (One-line review of "Payne": Awful and racially offensive, but I acknowledge that Perry is not making the show for me.)

On Tuesday July 17, TBS debuted “The Bill Engvall Show,” starring the FOF (Friend of Foxworthy) and Blue Collar Comedy veteran.

Try this plot on for size: A husband is distressed when he discovers that his wife, a stay-at-home mom, has a small separate bank account of her own money. He is further upset when she decides to start a muffin business. As demand grows, the husband bristles at the increased load of household chores, which he is inept at trying to perform. Meanwhile, his best friend and his co-workers assume that if his wife is working, he must be having money problems. In the end, the wife misses her family and gives up her successful business to go back to doing the household chores. If your first guess was that I have described an episode of “I Love Lucy” or “Leave it to Beaver,” you would be more than 50 years off. For as much as the story sounds like a relic from the 1950s, it actually aired on this week’s episode of “The Bill Engvall Show.”

I kept waiting for the twist that would allow this show to not feel as dated and offensive to women as it was, but the modern element never came. Instead, I watched in amazement as one woefully out-of-time scene after another unfolded before my eyes. A lunch cart clerk gives Engvall’s character a free bag of chips with his sandwich as charity since he must be having money problems if his wife is working. Engvall’s character can’t heat up frozen pizza or do laundry without the colors running. He asks his best friend, Paul, if his ex-wife ever worked, and Paul tells him that his ex-wife was a magician, because she made his money disappear. If you find that punch line funny, maybe “The Bill Engvall Show” is for you. (After all, somebody is watching this monstrosity, considering its debut episode drew 3.9 million viewers, a hit by basic cable standards.) But, if you found the joke predictable, not the least bit funny, and offensive, then this is a series you should make sure to avoid.

Engvall is a stiff and uncomfortable presence on the show as Bill, a therapist who may be the least believable medical professional on television. Like “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” the sets are distractingly cheap (can’t TBS afford to stage a show?). The views out the living room window look like Monet paintings, and the backyard set was so false at first I thought the producers were doing it on purpose as some kind of joke. There wasn’t a single punch line that didn’t feel recycled from a decades-old sitcom, and the characters, as you can guess from the description of this week’s plot, are strictly two-dimensional sitcom types. The three kids are a precociously smart younger son; a floppy-haired, Tiger Beat-friendly, dim-bulb middle child; and a pretty, blonde high school-aged older sister. When have we seen that before? Oh yeah, in every mediocre family sitcom ever made.

At least “The Bill Engvall Show” is providing work for some engaging actors, although you can’t help feeling bad for them that they’re stuck in this mess. Nancy Travis, whose short-lived sitcom “Almost Perfect” from the mid-1990s was vastly superior to her current gig, plays Bill’s homemaker wife. Tim Meadows, who when properly employed brings a great deadpan wit to put-upon characters (like his principal in “Mean Girls”), is not well-served portraying Bill’s best friend, a misogynistic Lothario. This week’s episode also featured two very funny character actors, Aloma Wright (Nurse Laverne on “Scrubs”) and Richard Gant, as a couple seeking counseling from Bill. I couldn’t help thinking that the actors would need counseling after slumming on this show and having to deliver sub-“According to Jim” punch lines.

TBS redeemed itself with the second season of “My Boys,” which launched on Monday July 30. The show follows sportswriter P.J. (the quirky and engaging Jordan Spiro) and her close-knit group of friends and poker buddies, which includes her henpecked brother, Andy (Jim Gaffigan); her colleague and former fling, Bobby (Kyle Howard); her college best friend and potential love interest, rock DJ Brendan (Reid Scott), her best college girlfriend, the unabashedly girly Stephanie (Kellee Stewart); the neurotic Kenny (Michael Bunin); and the guy’s guy (so much so he has no furniture in his apartment except for a recliner and a giant television), Mike (Jamie Kaler). From time to time, the annoying-but-means-well Trouty (Johnny Galecki) stops by to throw the group into chaos.

The show has attracted an impressive array of guest stars, including Laurie Metcalf as P.J.’s favorite aunt (a free-spirit who engages Kenny in a fling), Nicole Sullivan as Kenny’s new girlfriend who was pregnant when he met her (we later learn she’s a surrogate) and Neil Flynn (the janitor in “Scrubs”) as a retired baseball player who takes advantage of fans that have the misfortune of recognizing him.

“My Boys” is everything that “The Bill Engvall Show” is not. P.J. is a modern woman, grappling with dating issues while maintaining a great career and a family of close friends. While P.J.’s voiceovers can sometimes be grating, the dialogue and story lines are smart and fresh.

The first episode of this season had us watch P.J. grapple with the fallout from her kiss with Brendan in last year’s season finale. Where “Engvall” would have cast the woman as the victim when things don’t go well for the couple, “My Boys” starts you down the road thinking that P.J. has been victimized, only to twist you in just the right amount at the end as she realizes that she pushed Brendan away by putting her friend before him at the key moment of decision (she brings Stephanie a spare set of keys rather than stay in the apartment and see what would happen with Brendan).

In the second episode, P.J. gets a career break when she is invited to be a guest on a weekly sports talk show. Much comedy ensues, not just from P.J.’s horrendous performance (her attempted catch phrase, “He put the lotion in the basket,” would be water cooler fodder if “My Boys” was on a network), but from the mad panic her friends go through trying to decide whether or not to tell her the truth about her crash and burn.

“My Boys” does a great job of avoiding old and tired sitcom conventions. Even Andy’s wife, when we finally meet her towards the end of last season, turns out to be great and nothing like the demanding shrew Andy has made her out to be. The show also moves in a very naturalistic, laid back rhythm, far less frantic than that set-up-punch staccato of lesser sitcoms. The show is also shot in single-camera format (like “Scrubs” and “My Name Is Earl,” where “Engvall” is in the more traditional three-camera format) with exterior shots and sets that look more natural and realistic than most half-hour television offerings (another huge difference from “Engvall”).

What really makes “My Boys” work, in the end, is the cast, especially Spiro. She’s exceptionally natural and easy-going, and she is pretty in a more realistic and earthy way than you usually experience in sitcoms (think Courtney Thorne-Smith in “According to Jim”). The group has great chemistry and rapport, creating a gang you want to hang out with for 30 minutes each week.

That is not to say that “My Boys” is an elite sitcom at the level of NBC’s Thursday night lineup. There are sloppy errors (P.J., Bobby and the others get way too many sports terms wrong, like when P.J. referred to Cubs manager Lou Piniella as the club’s “coach”), and while the show delivers a lot of smiles, burst-out-loud laughs are far less common. But these are only quibbles. Even in a sitcom-friendly environment, “My Boys” could hold its own with other half-hour comedies.

At TBS, though, “My Boys” is the undisputed champion. Let’s congratulate the network for putting sitcoms on the air. At the same time, let’s hope that the future holds more half-hours like “My Boys.” If the genre is to be resuscitated, it won’t be through lowest-common-denominator bating series like “The Bill Engvall Show.”

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Battle Lines Drawn on Barry Bonds

Late last night (Eastern Time), Barry Bonds clubbed an offering from journeyman Mike Bacsik into the left-center-field bleachers at AT&T Park in San Francisco to pass Henry Aaron and become the all-time home run king in Major League Baseball.

While the Giants fans were ecstatic, across the country the reaction was decidedly more complicated. Outside of the Bay Area, the first words associated with Bonds are not "home run hitter" or "future Hall of Famer" (even though both of those terms might be accurate). Rather, the name Barry Bonds elicits exactly one word in the minds of most baseball fans: "Steroids."

In September 2003, investigators raided the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, better known as BALCO, and soon charges were being leveled that BALCO was supplying illegal performance-enhancing drugs to professional athletes, including Barry Bonds. In fact, Bonds's personal trainer, Greg Anderson, was one of four people eventually convicted in the BALCO case. It became impossible to turn on a sports television show without seeing side-by-side pictures of a wiry Bonds in his younger Pittsburgh Pirates days and a beefier Bonds wearing a Giants uniform.

Bonds is surely not the only person who has taken heat over being perceived as a steroids cheat. After Mark McGwire's pathetic testimony to Congress, in which he answered virtually every question with a lame statement that he didn't want to talk about the past, his esteem in the baseball world plummeted faster than President Bush's approval rating. Once thought of as a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer, McGwire's name appeared on less than a quarter of the voters' ballots for this year's induction. Rafael Palmiero, who achieved two separate milestones that were generally considered a guarantee for induction to Cooperstown (3,000 hits and 500 home runs), has fallen off the face of the earth. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks Palmiero will be voted in when he becomes eligible after the 2010 season.

Bonds is, however, the face of the steroids debate, mainly because he was also one of the most dominant hitters of all time. And, as it became apparent that it was inevitable that he would pass Aaron, much hand-wringing ensued in some quarters. How can a steroids user hold the most revered record in baseball, maybe even in professional sports?

But San Franciscans are not the only ones defending Bonds. There is another group of fans and writers that have reacted to the assault on the slugger by arguing that he is being unfairly targeted.

I am often asked how I feel about the Bonds situation. While I don't think my view is particularly unique, I do feel like many of the defenders of Bonds completely miss the point, while Bonds's critics often fail to recognize his talent.

I would have to say that, for the most part, I am in the anti-Bonds camp. I think it's clear that this guy was pissed off when McGwire and Sammy Sosa got so much attention during their (most likely) steroid-fueled assault on Roger Maris's single-season home run record in 1998, and he felt like if he juiced up, he could break the record himself (and three years later, he did). As such, I feel like Bonds's records are tainted. Bob Costas has pointed out that without the performance-enhancing substances, Bonds would not have amassed the home run total he did, no matter how great he was, and I think Costas is correct.

At the same time, I think it has to be recognized that Bonds is a superior talent. Had his numbers from 1999 to the present followed his earlier career patterns rather than the bump in home runs that actually occurred, Bonds would still be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he still would be considered the dominant player of his era (thanks, in part, to the injury-induced blockade of Ken Griffey Jr.'s production). To reduce Bonds to wholly a product of steroid use is naive. It's not like "the clear" and "the cream" taught Bonds to hit, and it's not like the other players in his era were all clean. No matter how you look at it, Bonds was better than everyone he played with or against.

I find some of the defenses of Bonds to miss the point, though. Ron Parker, filling in for Mike Golic on "Mike and Mike in the Morning" this morning, kept arguing that Bonds shouldn't be singled out because he's not the only one that may have used steroids. What Parker and others who make this argument seem to forget is that Bonds didn't break McGwire's or Sosa's records. He broke Henry Aaron's mark, and Aaron was completely clean. So, even if every baseball player was doing steroids in the 1990s and 2000s, it doesn't make passing a record set by Aaron legitimate. It only proves that Bonds was great relative to the players of that time.

What I find the most troubling about the support for Bonds is the race aspect that seems to accompany it. I have heard more than one person say that Bonds is taking so much heat for breaking the record because he is African-American. While I acknowledge that race plays a role in virtually every corner of American life, I do feel like in this case, such a charge is misplaced.

First of all, the record was held by an African-American player, Henry Aaron. And, while Bonds has had to deal with the scrutiny that has come with the steroid accusations, Aaron had to handle death threats from people who were outraged at the prospect of a black man passing Babe Ruth's sacred home run record. Aaron's ability to merely step on the field, let alone hit home runs and remain a strong, positive presence to the public, was courageous. Bonds, on the other hand, is a victim of a situation of his own choosing. It is hard to feel bad for him, and it is insulting to what Aaron had to survive to suggest that the backlash against Bonds is in any significant way about race.

Further, the overwhelming rejection of McGwire, both by the writers who vote for the Hall of Fame and the fans who watched his testimony, shows that if baseball fans think you've done something wrong, they don't care if you're black, white or purple with pink polka dots.

What do I think this is about, more than anything? Simple. We (that is, baseball fans) are pissed off because Bonds is a jerk. We like when good guys (or, at least, players who appear to be good guys) break records. Watching Aaron set an example of how all people (of all races) should behave in a difficult situation made most Americans root for him. When Cal Ripken, about whom you won't hear a bad word said, broke Lou Gehrig's "unbreakable" consecutive games played record, everyone rejoiced.

But Bonds is not a good guy. He comes off as disrespectful, grumpy, spoiled, entitled, paranoid, and out of touch. He was involved in high-profile infidelities and a nasty divorce. He has failed to realize that writers are the conduit to the fans that make his multimillion-dollar paydays possible, no matter how much he may not like them. And, on top of all of this, he not only got caught doing steroids, but rather than be humbled by it, he kept denying it in the face of all evidence and acted, well, like a jerk. Speaking of jerks, I don't want to be in the business of agreeing with Curt Schilling, but he has a point about Bonds. With all that has been printed about him, if it wasn't in large part true, wouldn't he sue, or at least do something?

There is nothing "everyman" about Bonds. He is not relatable. He doesn't have a great background story about his upbringing, since he was raised in privilege as the son of a baseball star. When the average fan hears him complain about his situation (especially since, in large part, he created it himself), there is no rush of sympathy for the "poor little rich kid."

The bottom line is, I think, most fans didn't want to see a jerk pass Aaron on the home run list. The fact that he is a steroid-using jerk only makes it worse, and it gives the fans something to hang their hats on other than Bonds's unpleasantness.

I'm not ashamed to admit that it was no fun seeing a guy like Bonds break an iconic record held by a man like Aaron. But, I am also honest enough to admit that Bonds is one of the greatest players of all time, steroids or no steroids. Keep both of those points in mind the next time you hear someone joining the Bonds debate.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

If Iraq Can't Keep Its Government Together, What Is There Left for Us to Do?

It's been a bad week for anyone supporting the war in Iraq.

On Aug. 1, the the Iraqi Accordance Front, a Sunni party, pulled its members out of the Iraqi cabinet, leaving only two Sunnis left in the body. Four secularist ministers said yesterday that they would boycott meetings, leaving the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in tatters. Not that the Iraqi parliament is around to deal with the situation, since they have decided to go on a month-long vacation while American soldiers serve in the sweltering summer heat (four more U.S. soldiers were killed today, bringing the death toll for August to 19), a decision even President Bush's Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, denounced on "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

Sometimes I feel like it is easy to lose track of the chain of events that led us from the President insisting to the world in 2003 that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction to the current situation. Once Iraq held elections, our role in Iraq was, we were told by the administration, to provide support so that the democratically elected government could take over providing services to Iraqis and, more importantly, solve the country's political disagreements between the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds to create a unified country.

So, my question is, if the government is not there anymore, what are we doing there? Yes, I know the government technically is still in existence, but for how much longer? The defection of secularists and Sunnis from the government gives credence to the often-levied charge that Maliki is not really interested in political reconciliation with the Sunnis. My understanding is that we're not there to support any of Iraq's factions, but rather to give them an opportunity to work together to build a united government. But, with each passing day, it seems less likely that these groups have any desire to bridge their gaps. They seem far more interested in exacting revenge and fighting centuries-old battles against each other. Which, of course, they have a right to do. But, we do not have to be there in the middle of it, spending a mind-blowing amount of money and sacrificing an unacceptable number of American lives.

The White House is so quick to talk about the need for "victory" in Iraq and the cost of "losing." It's time to reject the administration's framing of the issue. We achieved a military victory when we deposed Saddam Hussein, toppled his administration, and provided the Iraqis with the opportunity to vote for their own government. The question isn't whether we won or lost. The battles have been fought, and the U.S. military was successful. Can't we move on to the next question now? Isn't it time to ask, "Okay, now that we've won, how long do we have to stay?" Isn't nearly five years long enough to give the Iraqis the chance to work out their issues? Don't misunderstand me, these groups haven't been able to settle their disputes in the last 100 years, so there is no reason to believe that five years is enough time to do it now. That goes to why the war was a colossal mistake to begin with.

But, now that Bush has taken us down that poorly conceived, poorly planned path, the real question is, "We know these people will never settle their beefs, so how long do we have to stay there until we will be able to look ourselves in the eye and feel like we gave the sides every opportunity to at least try and come to some kind of agreement on sharing the country's power and natural resources?" I would argue that when the ruling Shias have basked in the comfort of U.S. military safety (or as much security as can be provided under the circumstances) and failed to make any concessions, and when the government is falling apart, and when the parliament feels like it's okay to go on a month-long vacation (it's not like the U.S. military gets to go on any vacation in Iraq), that time has arrived.

The Democrats, fresh from yet another failure to stand up to Bush (caving on the warrantless surveillance bill, an excellent rant on the subject can be found here), need to press the issue with a new vigor. The absolute ineptitude and unwillingness of the Iraqi government has left it morally and practically insupportable. Now is the time for the Democrats to do their job in Congress and act to force policy change on Bush.

The Democrats don't seem to see that when they press the Iraq issue, it's a win-win-win situation for them. If they succeed, they've done what the American people have directed them to do (win number one). If the Republicans support the president, each vote cast by a senator or representative in a swing state to support the war is another nail in that politician's coffin in 2008 (win number two). And, finally, by sticking to their core beliefs, the Democrats get an opportunity to do something they very rarely get to do: look strong and true to their values (win number three).

That is what should happen. I am far less optimistic about what will happen.

If the Democrats needed more evidence to present to the American people that Bush's management of the war has been monumentally incompetent, a recent story about lost weaponry should be the last straw.

While CNN was devoting all its on-air time to the weather, the bridge collapse in Minnesota, and the mine cave-in in Utah, a story was released, with little fanfare, about how the Pentagon lost track of nearly 200,000 weapons intended for Iraqi security forces (not to mention hundreds of thousands of helmets and pieces of body armor). According to an article on, the Government Accountability Office fears that the arms have fallen into the hands of insurgents, and a Pentagon official told the Washington Post that the weapons are probably being used against American soldiers right now. Remember, the GAO is a non-partisan body, and the Pentagon is not denying the GAO's assertions.

(As an aside, if CNN has this information and reported it on its website, why isn't it the lead story on its telecast? Why isn't it devoting 55 minutes an hour to such an important piece of information instead of how hot it is outside?)

The bottom line is that from the first day of the war, the Bush administration has committed blunder after blunder (from the nonexistence of the weapons of mass destruction, to the promise that the war would pay for itself via Iraq's oil, to the assertion that the soldiers would be greeted as liberators, to the failure to plan for the occupation after the war, to the failure to understand the long-held hostility between Iraq's sects ... and that doesn't get us out of 2003). At this point, the White House has no credibility and no track record to be making any decisions.

The country wants change. The Democrats in Congress should make it clear to the Republicans that, to use one of the president's favorite expressions, at this point, on the issue of stopping the war, you are with us or you are against us. The American people have showed the Republicans that there are consequences for mismanaging the war. If the Democrats are not careful, they will find out that those same Americans will hold them accountable for not doing the job they were sent to Washington to do.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Liberal Media? Hardly. Government Reports on Iraq Deaths Go Unchallenged

On July 31, every major news agency reported that American deaths in Iraq were greatly reduced in July. AP, AFP, and Reuters, along with the Christian Science Monitor and CNN, just to name the big guys, all published articles that essentially said that government and military officials pointed to the recent "surge" as a factor in the reduction of the violence in Iraq.

With such media saturation, there is no doubt that the American people were left with the idea that something was moving in the right direction because American deaths in Iraq were, they were told, down in July.

Here's the problem: They weren't.

More accurately, the surface of what the government claimed was true. Yes, fewer American soldiers were killed in July than in previous months. But, as a news item in Editor and Publisher pointed out, American fatalities have always gone down in the month of July, and, in fact, the death toll in July 2007, 78, shattered the previous record for casualties in that month, 54 in both 2004 and 2005.

That is a very different story now, isn't it? One that nearly nobody is reporting.

You see, not one of the major news agencies bothered to do the tiny amount of research necessary to figure out what Editor and Publisher did. Journalism is not taking what the government says and printing it without investigation or questioning. There is a word for that process: "propaganda." Instead, journalists are required to analyze government statements to see if they are factually correct, as well as if they are placed in the proper context.

Consider this analogy. What if Tom Brady gets off to a bad start this season and only throws four touchdown passes in the first four games of the year in September. Then, the Patriots' publicity department puts out a press release saying that Brady threw the most touchdowns in a single month since the previous December. No newspaper would run an article with the headline "Pats Point to Record Month for Brady." Rather, reporters would point out that the Patriots were claiming a record month for Brady, even though he could not throw touchdowns in months the NFL is not in season, and compared to the previous September, Brady's touchdown numbers were way down. The reporters would mock the Patriots for trying to make such a silly comparison.

How messed up is it that sports reporters have greater journalistic skills than the news services covering the war in Iraq?

As I've written many times in this space, democracy requires a free press that reports on what the government is doing. Performing that service demands journalists to do their own homework, not to take the word of government officials as if it was law. What if Woodward and Bernstein had blindly reported the Nixon administration's explanation of the Watergate break-in? Fortunately, they chose to do their own research and to question what was being said by the government. And, as a result, the scandal was revealed.

With the statistics on the July deaths in Iraq, no Woodward and Bernstein-level of sleuthing was necessary. Rather, some simple research and reasoning would have allowed the numbers to be explained more fully and put into context. The failure of the media to do that basic work has had a tremendous effect. The average American on the street now thinks things were better in Iraq in July, when, in fact, it has been by far the worst July in Iraq since the war began. Blame for that basic disconnect from the facts, and an important one at that, lies squarely in the lap of the news outlets. And, if this "news" helps the Bush administration to prolong the war and send more American soldiers to their deaths, the news organizations will have blood on their hands.

We are currently experiencing a crisis in journalism that threatens our democracy. News has shifted from coverage of politics and war to celebrities and scandals. The Hollywood Reporter (via Yahoo!/Reuters) reported that the Pew Research Center for People & the Press did a survey and found that 87% of respondents believed that celebrity scandals get too much coverage. (Shockingly, 2% said that they don't get enough coverage, which caused me to wonder, "Do publicists and tabloid employees really make up 2% of the population?") Sure, maybe the news networks' ratings would differ with these numbers, but the fact remains that there has been a cheapening of news.

When the culture has reached a point in time when every angle of Lindsay Lohan's brushes with the law and trips to rehab are covered and dissected, but the government's spins on war fatalities are vomited out without any analysis, something is clearly wrong. Can it be fixed? Sure, if Americans stop watching the celebrity crap and demand better journalism. Of course, that seems as likely as Fox News challenging the Bush administration on its conclusions.