Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Who Is to Blame for Lead Paint in Toys? Bush and You

[NOTE: I also posted this article on If you like it, please go to it here and recommend it, comment on it, etc. Thanks.]

It has been a bad year for Chinese imports. Not for the Chinese, mind you. Through August, China enjoyed a nearly $164 billion trade surplus with the U.S. in 2007, well ahead of last year's figures at that time. No, it was a bad year for Americans with Chinese imports. Highlights included the recall of 1.5 million Chinese-manufactured toys (for starters) when it was discovered they contained dangerous lead paint, and the earlier pet deaths linked to tainted dog food made in China. These incidents shined a light on what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration called "manufacturing control issues" in China.

Beyond the Chinese themselves, over whom we have little control, who is responsible for these blunders? To me, there are two clear culprits: the Bush Administration and You. Yes, You. I'll explain later.

As for the Bush administration, the news of the last few days has focused on efforts by the Democrats in Congress to beef up funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to help address issues related to consumer safety. President Bush, of course, is opposing the measure. He says the Democrats are politicizing the issue. How? By trying to help make the problem better? That's more than Bush is doing, especially since his lack of oversight is partially to blame for this mess in the first place. "The Democrats are playing politics" has become Bush's go-to defense line with any domestic problem, just as "the Democrats are hurting the troops" is his default attack on criticisms of his disastrous Iraq policy. It's so transparent, it's amazing it still works.

It's not the Democrats who are politicizing this issue. Rather, Bush is inserting his businesses-should-be-unregulated-and-allowed-to-run-amok views into the matter, allowing his right-wing ideology (which is not adhered to by the majority of Americans, I'm sure) to interfere with efforts to protect American consumers.

You see, this legislation is just another example of the failure of Bush's policy on government oversight of businesses, which is essentially to appoint a member of an industry, who wants to help the industry make more money and has no interest in protecting Americans, to oversee the regulation of that industry. It is the proverbial coyote guarding the hen house. Bush has done it with energy, pollution and mining, just to name a handful of examples, and it extends to the CPSC.

That's right, the Democrats in Congress are trying to give more money and power to the CPSC to help prevent problems like lead paint ending up in children's toys, and who is opposing it? Believe it or not, the acting chairwoman of the CPSC, Nancy Nord. Yes, Nord is trying to kill the legislation to better fund her own agency. Makes no sense, right? Ah, but it does. It's right in line with the Bush administration's core belief that any government regulation is bad government regulation. Nord's position before coming to the CPSC was as the Director of Federal Affairs for Kodak. The guy Nord replaced at the CPSC, Hal Stratton, before coming to the commission started the Rio Grande Foundation, whose mission statement says it believes in "the importance of individual freedom, limited government, and economic opportunity." It's like asking a master bank robber to write the federal laws on armed robbery. How do you think he would come down on tax breaks to banks for hiring armed guards? Profits trump safety every time for this administration.

Obviously, legislative battles and policy wranglings aren't as sexy as fires in California and South Carolina, so you have to believe too many people will listen to the president's protestations that the Democrats are playing politics and take him at his word. But, that leads us to the second party responsible for the China-imports mess: You.

As you may recall, last year, Time named You as its Person of the Year. Sure, Time meant the selection to reflect the proliferation of the reliance on user-generated online communities like YouTube and MySpace to solve problems, but the empowerment issue is the same. It's up to You to decide what is important to You. In the context of the battle over the new legislation, it's up to You to get the real story, to investigate how the Bush administration has acted to virtually eliminate government oversight of industries by appointing industry-puppets to regulatory posts. And it's up to You to figure out that while Your kids are playing with toys slathered in lead paint, Your executive branch is acting to prevent additional oversight of the parties that put the lead paint into Your children's hands.

But the issue is so much bigger than one policy battle. Why do we have toys and dog food and so many other products coming to us from China in the first place? Because You have decided in the last ten years or so that You want to pay as little as possible for as much as possible, damn the consequences. You want your $49 DVD players and $12 shirts and, yes, $10 toys, but You don't want to think about the consequences for those cheap prices. You have decided that the cheap consumer goods are more important than our economy (all the American manufacturing jobs lost overseas), our security (our consumer needs, including oil, drive our relations with countries who provide us with what we need), and our character (the Wal-Martization of America's small towns and suburbs, and the death of mom-and-pop stores, comes directly from the drive for the cheapest goods possible). You have made a choice. You have decided to prioritize Your values in this way. So, You are living with the results. If You think that the toys and the dog food are the end of this story rather than the beginning, You are wrong.

Sure, Bush's policy on government regulation of industries hurts average Americans. It happens in multiple sectors, and it happens again and again. But, ultimately, he is allowed to do it, because the American people let him get away with it, either through choice or sloth (and neither is any better than the other). It is also the consumer culture the American people have chosen to follow that opens the door for all kinds of problems, the lead paint in toys being the least of it.

If Americans could kick our crack-like addition to oil, the effect on our foreign policy would be momentous. But let's be serious here. Americans have shown that we have no interest in sacrificing for the sake of our country's future. Not by paying more taxes, and not by changing how we live our day-to-day lives, including what we're willing to put up with to keep our access to cheap consumer goods.

As they expression goes, you reap what you sow, and right now, Americans are reaping a lot of garbage, from lead paint in toys, to the Global Warming crisis, to a war in Iraq and its devastating effects, both at home and abroad. The current American crop is as toxic as the toys imported into the country from China. And You are to blame. So, don't You think it's time that You do something about it?

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Rod Shows His True Colors: Shades of Green

"When they say it's not about money, that means it's all about money."
- The late George Young, long-time general manager of the New York Giants (NFL)

Yankee fans spent 2007 trying to convince themselves Alex Rodriguez had changed. But yesterday, A Rod showed that he has always been the same guy, an ego-driven, money-hungry player completely lacking in respect for the sport that has made him a very rich man.

In 2007, Yankee Universe chose to put aside A Rod's two-for-15, zero RBI performance in the 2005 American League Division Series and one-for-14, zero RBI mark in the 2006 A.L.D.S. (with the Yankees going out in the first round each time) and treated him like a Yankee hero. Flashbulbs popped every at-bat that he went for home run number 500 (and it was a lot of at-bats, because in typical fashion, A Rod had trouble handling the pressure, taking nine games to reach the mark after clubbing his 499th dinger). Number 13 jerseys were ubiquitous in the crowd at Yankee Stadium. A Rod's successes were greeted with standing ovations, and his failures were, for the first time, met with silence (that is, he wasn't booed).

Yankee fans were told numerous times last off-season: "Be nice to this guy, and he'll play better. And, he'll stay." As simple as this request seemed on the surface, the Bomber faithful understand that being a true Yankee entails more than hitting a lot of home runs. Rather, it comes down to adopting a team concept, putting ego (and personal statistics) aside for the sake of winning, and coming through in big moments, when the pressure is on. In other words, Yankee fans were asked to treat A Rod like he had accomplished something, even though, by these criteria, he had done nothing. Supporters were asked to act like he was a Yankee great, even though he had done nothing to warrant inclusion with Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez (let alone Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle) as key cogs in championship clubs.

But the New York supporters sucked it up and pretended that A Rod had actually done something, in the hopes that wishful thinking would make it true.

And what did Yankee Universe get for their blind faith? They were swindled like marks of a master con man. I'm not just talking about A Rod not showing up in the post-season again in 2007 (four for 15, 1 RBI), because on the list of culprits responsible for the loss to the Indians, you would find, in order, Chien-Ming Wang (you can't have your ace lit up twice in four games and expect to win), Derek Jeter (too many momentum killing double plays and strikeouts in key situations) and the Lake Erie midges that swarmed Joba Chamberlain in the eighth inning of Game 2. A Rod was hardly the number one goat, but then again, his agent, Scott Boras, keeps telling us how special A Rod is. But special players rise to the occasion in the big games. Reggie Jackson, David Ortiz, Joe Carter, and Bernie Williams don't come close to A Rod's career numbers, but all four lifted their teams in October. A Rod, on the other hand, was just another baffled Yankee hitter against the Indians. (To put things in perspective, Melky Cabrera, who batted .188 in the 2007 post-season, matched A Rod's one home run and doubled A Rod's series RBI output, two to one.)

Again, though, Yankee fans were not necessarily fleeced because of what A Rod did (or didn't do) in four October games against the Indians. Rather, A Rod showed his true colors when, during Game 4 of the World Series, with the Red Sox about to clinch a championship, he had Boras (a man who would trade a year of happiness for an extra nickel) announce that he was opting out of the final three years of his Yankee contract and becoming a free agent.

Now, don't get me wrong: Players have every right to take advantage of whatever options are available to them, and to make as much money as they can in the limited years that they get to ply their trade. But you can't have it both ways. Some players look to maximize every dollar they can earn, making the value judgment that raking in the most money is symbolically (or actually) the most important pursuit of their careers. Others want to get rich, too, but they also want to win and, even more crucially, they want to be a part of something. They want to be a member of a team that competes to win. They understand that to be successful, personal goals have to come second to team goals. A Rod had every right to try and go for the highest possible number of dollars, but in doing so, he has to relinquish any claim to caring about anything else.

By opting out of his contract a full ten days before he had to, and by making the announcement during the marquee event of his sport, A Rod demonstrated exactly what his value system entailed. That is, A Rod is first, last, and always about one thing: A Rod. He is an ego run amok. How often do you hear teams looking for players with that quality?

After all, the Yankees had made it clear that they would be willing to offer A Rod an extension that would be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million a year for five years (beyond the three years at $27 million already left on his record-breaking ten-year, $252 million contract). Knowing Boras's sleazeball ways (just ask the Dodgers and his handling of J.D. Drew's opt-out last year), A Rod would not be on his way out of New York if there wasn't a team out there whispering that it would offer more.

Again, A Rod has every right to try and do better than an eight-year, $240 million offer (on top of the approximately $180 million he has already made from the contract he opted out of). But that means he is the guy that puts a few extra million above all else. Former Giants General Manager George Young was right when he famously uttered the quote that started this piece. A Rod can say whatever he wants about the uncertainty surrounding the Yankees, from a new manager to pending free agents to the Steinbrenner sons asserting themselves in the front office, but it's a load of bull. He's going for every penny he can get, like a ten-year old sprawled on the floor gathering coins from a crashed piggy bank.

A Rod's actions speak louder than his words. After spending an entire season talking about how much he wanted to stay in New York, and after being embraced by Yankee fans like never before, he didn't even bother to wait for the ten-day period to expire. He didn't give the Yankees a chance to pitch him an extension. He knew that the Yankees had said, in no uncertain terms, that if he opted out of his contract, which would result in the Yankees losing the $21 million the Texas Rangers had agreed to pay the Yankees to subsidize A Rod's contract as part of the 2004 deal that brought A Rod to New York, it made no financial sense for the Yankees to pursue him in free agency. So, he knew that by taking this action, he was saying goodbye to the Yankees, or taking a huge risk on the belief of his agent that the Yankees were bluffing.

In effect, A Rod showed, yet again, that he is a me-first baseball player, one who fundamentally doesn't understand the concept of being part of a team. Nowhere is that clearer than in his decision to try and upstage his sport's biggest moment, the last game of the World Series. Again, it wasn't about baseball or the Yankees, but about A Rod himself. And how fitting that he placed himself above the game on the same day he didn't bother to show up to accept the Henry Aaron Award from Aaron himself. A Rod couldn't have sent a stronger message that he has no respect for the game if he had bought a billboard at Coors Field for last night's game.

Where do the Yankees go from here? I think that from a long-term perspective, they are much better off not being tied down by an eight-year, more than $200 million commitment to a player with a questionable make-up that has never shown that he can be a force in the post-season. But it would be truly unfair to A Rod's regular season numbers to deny that losing him will have an impact in the short term, mainly next year. After all, to get to the post-season, you need to have enough hitting to win, especially when you plan on relying on a lot of untested young arms in the starting rotation. The Yankees were missing a big right-handed bat this year, so with the loss of A Rod, now they need two. And as much as Yankee bashers would have you think the Bombers can just buy whatever they want, it's not true. There are not a lot of dependable right-handed bats on the trade and free agency markets right now.

So long as the team doesn't panic and give away too much of their young pitching to replace the hole A Rod has left in the lineup, I think the long-term effect of A Rod's departure will be positive. With a new manager and A Rod gone, the Yankees can build an environment with the types of players that help you win. They can try and build the next era of championships.

If I was Brian Cashman, my first move would be to try and get Joe Crede from the Chicago White Sox to play third base. The White Sox would like to move Crede, since he is due to make more than $5 million in 2008, and they have the inexpensive second-year player Josh Fields waiting in the wings to take over. Crede had injuries in 2007 that limited him to 47 games, but in 2006 he blossomed, hitting .286 with 30 home runs and 94 runs batted in. He is a good fielder and has a good reputation as a team guy. And, most of all, he has demonstrated his ability to flourish on the big stage, hitting .294 with two home runs in the 2005 World Series and .368 with two homers and seven runs batted in in the 2005 American League Championship Series. Sure, Crede's regular season numbers are quite a tumble from A Rod's 2007 accomplishments, but, unlike A Rod, Crede has demonstrated that he knows what it takes to win big games, and he won't hurt the chemistry of the locker room. It would be a step in the right direction in demonstrating that winning goes beyond putting up numbers that make fantasy league owners drool.

You see, I believe it's no coincidence that A Rod has failed on the big stage time and time again. Despite the one-on-one, pitcher-versus-batter battles of baseball, the sport is still, at heart, a team game. The teams that win tend to play the right way. They get good pitching, timely hitting, and avoid the kind of mistakes that sink games. It doesn't necessarily take big sluggers to win the World Series.

Don't believe me? Between 1996 and 2000, during which the Yankees won the World Series four of five years, the heart of the order averaged the following seasons:

Paul O'Neill
.302 batting average, 20.2 home runs, 106.8 runs batted in

Bernie Williams
.324 batting average, 26.2 home runs, 107 runs batted in

Tino Martinez
.278 batting average, 28.2 home runs, 115.4 runs batted in

These guys posted very good numbers, yes, but none of them even sniffed the level of A Rod's 2007 season (.314, 54, 156). And yet, while those guys won four rings, A Rod only got out of the first round with the Yankees once in four years. I think it's interesting that Martinez's best year in that era (.296, 44 home runs, 141 runs batted in) came in 1997, when the Yankees lost in the first round to the Indians. In fact, between 1996 and 2000, no Yankee player won a league MVP award. The lesson isn't that you can't win with a guy having a monster year. That's just silly. But what these numbers do tell you is that you don't need a guy putting up huge MVP numbers to win the World Series.

In fact, winning in the regular season and succeeding in the playoffs are two very different propositions. During the regular season, batters can fatten up on bad pitching and bad teams to pump up their statistics. There is no shame in that. You have to beat the bad teams to make it to the post-season, and not every batter can make mediocre pitchers consistently pay the price for their mistakes. Rather, cashing in on bad pitches is what makes guys like A Rod able to put up monster numbers like he did last season. But in the playoffs, you rarely get to face a pitcher that is less than good. The skill as a hitter then becomes finding a way to succeed against good pitching, whether that means working a walk, slapping a single the other way, or thinking your way through an at-bat and being able to put yourself in a position to hit a ball hard. That very skill is one that A Rod has not mastered, and, more importantly, he has shown no indication that it is an ability he will ever have.

Simply put, again, winning in the post-season is about good pitching, timely hitting and avoiding mistakes. While during the regular season A Rod demonstrated a nearly unparallelled ability to succeed, he has not demonstrated the ability to solve good pitching, hit in the clutch, or make good decisions in the post-season. It's that simple.

So farewell, A Rod. Let your post-season struggles, me-first attitude that infects a locker room and year-round self-obsession become some other team's troubles (how perfect would it be for A Rod to replace Barry Bonds in San Francisco?). If the Yankees are smart, they will acknowledge A Rod's impressive regular season accomplishments and move on, building a team that succeeds in October. That is one thing A Rod has not been able to accomplish so far. George Young's quote goes both ways. For the Yankees, it's about the money; the money they no longer have to waste on a toxic player with one run batted in in his last 44 playoff at-bats, and who is zero for his last 18 in the post-season with runners in scoring position.

Best of all Yankee fans can go back to waiting for players to earn their status as greats before being prematurely coronated. They were burned once by A Rod. It will be hard to get them to fall for another false idol anytime soon.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

“Grey’s” and “Earl” Change, but Is It for the Better?

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

There is a well-known website, Jump the Shark, whose sole reason for existence is to measure when television shows start to go bad. It exists because shows almost always do, eventually, go bad. It’s hard to sustain the quality of a program over the long haul. Really hard. Like, trying to get Donald Trump to shut up hard. It’s rare for a television show to avoid a decline, and it’s even rarer to find one that does so without making any major changes to its core cast and concept. (“Scrubs” springs to mind as a current offering that has managed to dodge the bullet.)

What’s worse is that there is no formula to follow to guarantee a drop-off in quality. Sticking to the show’s tried-and-true premise and making a radical change have both produced successes and failures. This is clearly a case-by-case issue.

In an October 19 New York Times article, Edward Wyatt pointed out that “Prison Break” and “House” have both taken their characters on different courses this season but have achieved conflicting results (“House” is a hit, while the ratings for “Prison Break” have plummeted). To me, no two shows have undergone more interesting overhauls this season than “Grey’s Anatomy” and “My Name Is Earl.” (Coincidentally, both shows feature blonde actresses who won last year’s Emmy for Best Supporting Actress, Jamie Pressly in the comedy category for “Earl” and Katherine Heigl in the dramatic category for “Grey’s.”)

In the case of “Grey’s,” this season’s changes were not entirely driven by the show’s writers. When ABC fired Isaiah Washington over the summer, series creator Shonda Rimes was left to pick up the pieces of losing one of her central characters, along with one of her primary story lines (Washington’s Dr. Preston Burke’s romance with intern Dr. Cristina Yang, played by Sandra Oh).

Rimes had already taken a chance earlier and spun off another main character, Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh), into a new show (“Private Practice”). She was also faced with the problem of accounting for the professional progression of the show’s doctors (the interns couldn’t be interns forever), essentially forcing her to shake up the medical dynamics on the show.

For the most part, the injection of new blood has been good for “Grey’s.” By the end of last year’s third season, the plots and dynamics had gotten stale. The will-they-won’t-they waltz of whiny, self-centered intern Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and hangdog, brooding neurosurgeon, Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), had settled firmly into “Who gives a flying, uh, damn anymore?” territory. Same with the repetitive, opposite’s-attract head-butting of Burke and Cristina. And I’m not sure anyone ever cared about the highly improbable love triangle between put-upon nerd Dr. George O’Malley (T.R. Knight), emotionally unstable Dr. Izzie Stevens (Heigl) and bullying orthopedic surgeon Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez).

In general, the characters had become so self-involved and so increasingly unlikable that any sense of identification or empathy was lost, returning only briefly when a tragic patient emerged to tug at our heartstrings. And when you care more about the guest stars’ characters than the leads, well, the shark and the jumping ramp are clearly in sight.

So what happened this year? Well, we still have the love triangle and the weekly Meredith-Derek dance, but some new elements have enlivened the increasingly moribund Seattle Grace hallways and elevators. The interns are now residents (except for George, who flunked his exams and has to repeat the year), opening up a whole new dynamic: Cristina wants to be the heir apparent to the “Nazi” nickname given to Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), refusing to learn her interns’ names, instead addressing them by number; Izzy struggles to get the respect of her charges who have heard about her killing her patient/boyfriend Denny; Dr. Alex Karev (Justin Chambers) is forced to relate to a new group of people (never a good thing for him), including Norman, an intern old enough to be his grandfather (Edward Herrmann, far more jovial than his stern turn as the family patriarch on “Gilmore Girls”); and Meredith has to be a teacher, not easy for the me-first doctor who still has plenty of her own issues to address, and even more difficult when it involves supervising her long-lost half-sister, Dr. Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh), someone she would be much happier ignoring completely.

But as an audience, I don’t think we can agree with Meredith’s take on Lexie. Lexie is nicer and far more self-aware than Meredith, which makes us root for her in a way we could never pull for ice princess Meredith. Like Meredith, Lexie recently lost her mother (“Grey’s” parents have the life expectancy of Chernobyl survivors), but unlike Meredith, Lexie lost a parent with whom she was close. And yet, Lexie’s fortitude in soldiering on is something Meredith, who seems to get waylaid by the slightest setback, can learn from.

Shaking up “Grey’s” represented a huge risk, since the show has a huge audience on the night with the highest profile (Thursdays) and demands the highest commercial rates of any scripted program. But the gamble seems to have paid off, at least in the short term. Lexie, Norman and the changed medical dynamics give us something else to concentrate on other than the show’s elements that had grown tired and off-putting.

The changes on “Grey’s” have acted like a defibrillator shock to the show, jerking it to life. The patient is still in guarded condition, but at least it has a heart beat, along with a chance to survive and thrive.

Meanwhile, over at “My Name Is Earl,” the new direction has been undertaken wholly voluntarily. There have been no cast changes, and the core characters remain intact: reformed petty criminal Earl Hickey (Jason Lee); his child-like brother, Randy (Ethan Suplee); his trailer trash ex-wife, Joy (Pressley); Joy’s good-hearted witness-protection-program refugee husband, Darnell (Eddie Steeples); and the gang’s friend Catalina (Nadine Velazquez), a motel maid and exotic dancer who just may be the smartest one in the bunch.

In the show’s pilot, Earl finds karma thanks to winning the lottery, getting hit by a car, and watching Carson Daly (believe it or not). He decides to reform his life by making a list of everything he did wrong and trying to make up for his misdeeds. For the first two seasons, each episode was structured the exact same way: Earl chooses an item from his list and, with Randy in tow, sets out to fix the chaos he had wrought. In nearly every episode, he would find that things are not as easy to make right as he thought they would be, and, since he lives in such a small town, Joy, Darnell, Catalina, and a host of other recurring characters would figure into the problem. But, in the end, Earl would find a way to make things right, ending each episode by crossing the item off of his list.

Then, in last season’s finale, everything changed. Earl decided to take the rap at Joy’s trial (she stole a store’s truck after they wouldn’t let her return a television, but, oops, unbeknownst to her, the truck had an employee in the back at the time) so she can avoid a “third strike” that would send her to prison for life, taking her away from her two kids. It seemed unlikely that Earl would spend much time behind bars, since it would be hard for him to cross items off of his list while he was incarcerated. And yet, as the new season began, that is exactly what executive producer Greg Garcia has decided to do.

The third season of “Earl” has completely reinvented the premise of the show. Earl is in jail. Still. While in jail, he is powerless to work on his list. So, for the first time, the episodes are built around premises completely unrelated to Earl’s list (although, even in prison, he can’t escape figures from his past ... again, it’s a small town). Instead, the characters all have to deal with issues related to Earl’s incarceration, with Earl trying to survive, Randy suffering from severe separation anxiety (that he addresses by becoming a guard at the prison), and Joy wrestling with her guilt (although, last week she is relieved to find out that by tricking Earl into marrying her years ago, she saved him from participating in a big robbery that would have landed him in jail for a long time).

Instead of being bound to Earl’s list, plots have revolved around more adventurous ideas, like Earl trying to make peace between two rival gang leaders in an effort to cut time off of his sentence (turns out the gang leaders are in love, and the fights are a chance for them to get close), and a truly surreal exploration of the imaginations of the main characters (all fueled by Earl’s writer’s block in a prison creative writing class).

Garcia’s decision to blow up the show and start over again was risky. While “Earl” is hardly a hit on the “Grey’s Anatomy” level, it is a solid performer and part of NBC’s critically-revered, demographically desirable Thursday night lineup of single-camera, half-hour comedies. And since it is not a ratings juggernaut, any alienation of the show’s fan base could have swift and irreparable repercussions. Was it worth it? So far, the shake-up has been a big success.

You see, “Earl” was always my least favorite program of the two-hour NBC comedy block. I found “The Office,” “30 Rock” and “Scrubs” to be far more interesting and unpredictable. As I noted earlier, every episode of “Earl” followed the same track, but its saving grace was that the jokes were sharp and the actors were solid, so while the show was a formula, it was an entertaining one. It also didn’t hurt that Garcia made great use of guest stars, making ingenious choices like casting Norm McDonald in the role of the son of a character earlier played by Burt Reynolds (you may recall that McDonald often spoofed Reynolds on “Saturday Night Live”).

But no matter what else Garcia did right, the formula was bound to wear thin eventually. He took a solid risk by weaning the audience off of the list-item-per-episode format of the first two seasons. In doing so, it freed Garcia from having to make a list of his own misdeeds one day that begins with: “Ran my show into the ground by clinging to a formula too long.”

Monday, October 22, 2007

Bush Has a Funny Idea of What It Means to Protect the Troops

[NOTE: I also posted this article on If you like it, please go to it here and recommend it, comment on it, etc. Thanks.]

President Bush today asked for an additional $42.3 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing his total request for 2008 to $189.3 billion. To head off a challenge by the Democrat-controlled Congress, he said, according to a article, "America should do what it takes to support our troops and protect our people."

When I read his quote, it made me think of a seven-year-old who realizes that a guilt trip works on his parents, so he uses it again and again, thinking that the 19th time will be as effective as the first. "You didn't let me have popcorn at the movies" might buy him an extra half hour before bed that night, but it's unlikely that two weeks later, the same guilt trip will net him any benefit.

Bush has the same urgent, myopic attitude as the seven-year-old. At the slightest hint that he might not get he what he wants for the war in Iraq, he screams out, nearly reflexively, "The troops! Support the troops! The troops are what we need to support! Do you NOT want to support the troops?"

Unfortunately, the Democrats in Congress have been like the nervous first-time parents, terrified of doing something wrong with their child. Any time there has been a threat of looking like they're not supporting the troops, the Democrats have collapsed faster than the Jets offensive line.

Which makes the analogy about the seven-year-old less appropriate than, perhaps, a 16-year-old that saw the principal making out with the school nurse and claims to have a photo of it. The principal believes that his career can be ended by the kid's photo, so he caves instantly. The only difference is that in Bush's case, there is no photo. Bush's record on the war, and, more specifically, his record on caring for the troops who have been thrown into this war, is so abysmal, it's the Democrats who hold the incriminating photo.

Are you following my analogies? That's okay, I'm not sure I am anymore, either.

The bottom line is that for Bush to make the argument that he is protecting the troops is the height of chutzpah. From the first day of the war, Bush has shown a disregard for the troops that would have gotten a Democratic president impeached by a Republican Congress. From the conditions at Walter Reed, to sending the troops to Iraq without body armor, to the delays in providing bomb-resistant vehicles, to back-door drafting reservists and national guard members, to sending troops into battle without proper planning for the aftermath, Bush is every soldier's worst nightmare.

If you don't believe me, just ask the parade of former generals who have slammed Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, including, most recently, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, who led the U.S. forces in Iraq. Sanchez called Iraq a "nightmare with no end in sight."

In response to Bush's request for funding, the article quoted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as saying Congress would not "rubber-stamp" the president's request. He added, "In the coming weeks, we will hold it up to the light of day and fight for the change of strategy and redeployment of troops that is long overdue."

Yes, Harry. Long, long overdue. And why? Because you and your party didn't stand and fight when you had the chance. You got scared of being painted as not supporting the troops. I hope Reid means it this time, because Bush's hurting-the-troops taunts have gotten old and ring hollow, and I suspect the American people know that by now. At least, they know it in the five seconds between watching stories about Britney's custody battle and Ellen DeGeneres's meltdown.

I've said it before, and I think it's only truer now: The American people voted the Democrats into control of Congress in 2006 to do one and only one job, and that was to change Iraq policy. So, if the Democrats stand up to Bush, no matter what ridiculous accusations he makes, the electorate will respect and support the party for sticking to its guns and attempting to meet its mandate.

In the article, Bush is also quoted as telling the Democrats, "Congress should not go home for the holidays while our troops are still waiting for the funds they need." Again, I feel like Bush does not even recognize the inherent hypocrisy (and comedy) in what he is saying. After all, he had no trouble putting a "surge" in place, requiring our troops to endure hellish temperatures over the summer in Iraq, all while the Iraqi government took a month-long vacation, one reluctantly reduced from two months after Americans complained.

As oblivious and suggestible as the American people have proven to be, I think even they have reached the point where they've had it with Bush's through-the-looking glass statements on supporting the troops. Americans have had it with the president's war in Iraq, and they are looking for someone, anyone, to do something about it.

The Democrats can be those people. Harry Reid can be that guy. Nancy Pelosi can be that gal. It's time for them to finally -- finally! -- make a stand. It's time for them to force Bush to do something to change his failing policy, and his seeming willingness to throw away an unlimited amount of money and ruin an unlimited number of lives, all in the name of continuing a ruinous and disastrous war.

The old expression says that sticks and stones can break bones, but words can never harm. Never has that adage been more true than in this situation. Let Bush bluster all he wants about protecting the troops. His words have no power anymore. To quote Dan Aykroyd as Bob Dole on the old "Saturday Night Live," "You know it, I know it, and the American people know it." It's time for the Democrats to know it, too.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

“Samantha Who?” - Not Sure, But It’s a Lot of Fun Finding Out

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

The desire to have a “do-over” with one’s life is a common emotion. (If your life is so great that you wouldn’t change a thing, please move away from the rest of us. It’s for your own safety.) The new ABC half-hour comedy “Samantha Who?” (ABC Mondays at 9:30) taps into this nearly universal feeling to great effect.

Samantha (Christina Applegate, in the role of her life) is a nasty, materialistic, condescending, philandering, nearly friendless alcoholic, but when we first meet her, she is a sweet, confused woman who awakens from an eight-day coma with complete retrograde amnesia. She remembers nothing about her life and doesn’t recognize any of the people around her, which of course also means she has no idea who to trust or listen to. The first person she (and we) meet is her selfish, manipulative mother, Regina (the always great Jean Smart), who is videotaping a plea to “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” to remodel her house because her daughter is in a coma.

Samantha moves home with Regina and her father, Howard (Kevin Dunn), an oblivious jokester, until her self-described best friend, Andrea (Jennifer Esposito) shows up and informs her she hasn’t been in touch with her family in two years. Andrea is our first clue that the sweet Samantha we are watching is not the Samantha everyone knows, as Andrea is also a nasty, materialistic, condescending snake. Andrea is the type of character who hands a drink to an unwitting Samantha event though she knows she is an alcoholic, and after Samantha finds an Alcoholics Anonymous 30-day chip in her purse and storms off angrily, all Andrea can manage is, “Worst 30 days of my life.”

Samantha then moves in to the apartment she shared with her boyfriend, Todd (Barry Watson), who seems uneasy about being around her. Andrea drags Samantha to a party for someone named Rene, and that’s when the stuff hits the fan, and Samantha gets a glimpse of who she was pre-coma. She finds out that Rene is a guy she was sleeping with, even though he is engaged to another woman (he tries to arrange a tryst with her for the night of his wedding). Samantha also finds out that Dena (Melissa McCarthy, channeling the ditsiest side of her Sookie from the “Gilmore Girls”), who has portrayed herself as a close friend of Samantha’s, hasn’t been close to her since seventh grade (when Samantha got cool and Dena did not).

When Samantha confesses her infidelity to Todd, he is ecstatic, since, he reveals to her, he dumped her minutes before she was hit by a car. In a flashback to the day they met in a coffee shop (she stole his latte rather than wait for her own), we get to see the old Sam for the first time, and the difference is shocking. Applegate, who since her breakthrough on “Married With Children” has stumbled through a career of failed TV series (“Jesse”) and second banana roles in lame movies (“Surviving Christmas,” “The Sweetest Thing”), has found the right role for her talents. She fully inhabits both the “good Sam” and the “bad Sam,” so much so that she seems to change physically depending on which side of her personality she is inhabiting.

In the only misstep of the pilot, Sam gets sage advice from the cliche of the strong, silent African-American blue-collar worker (in this case a doorman), Frank (a sorely miscast Tim Russ, the Vulcan Tuvok on “Star Trek: Voyager”), who, using philosophical prose (that she needs explained to her more specifically, which is no shame, since he’s not making much sense), guides her to move back home with her folks, which she does.

“Samantha Who?” is a single-camera sitcom that truly both needs and takes advantage of the single-camera format. (Single-camera shows, like “Scrubs” and “30 Rock,” are shot like movies, as opposed to the more staged, multi-camera approach of traditional sitcoms like “Seinfeld” and “Friends”). The comedy is not your classic set-up/punch yuk-fest. Despite the high-concept premise and over-the-top side characters, Samantha (and the show, for that matter) have more nuance and heart than you would expect to find in a typical sitcom.

That is not to say, of course, that the show isn’t funny. Because at times, it is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Samantha’s voice over is very entertaining, featuring clever comparisons of good and bad things about having amnesia. Her reaction to her clothes, including picking up a very small, slinky dress and asking, “I have a daughter?”, was both funny and revealing. And, in an uproarious, uncomfortable tour de force set piece, a beleaguered Samantha, after getting kicked out by Todd, ends up at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where she proceeds to interrupt the gathering, vent, and eat various desserts, before being thrown out by the group leader. Any show that has the audacity to stage a scene that involves the lead character getting booted out of an AA meeting is, in my book, off to a good start.

This is a show that has the goods to stick around a while. The writing is sharp, the cast is great, and the result is entertaining and funny. In a time where half-hour comedies are struggling to survive, it is especially gratifying to find such a high-quality comedy that works. (The show drew 15 million viewers on its first outing, so it seems that America agrees, although I hope the numbers are not just a product of the cushy post-“Dancing With the Stars” time slot.)

“Samantha Who?” is the last of the five new shows I was looking forward to seeing to air, and it is one of my two favorites from the bunch (along with “Aliens in America”; “Carpoolers” doesn’t work, “Private Practice” was a let down, and I like “Pushing Daisies”). Unlike so many new offerings by the networks, I doubt we will all experience amnesia a year from now, trying to remember that “Samantha Who?” ever existed. No do-over necessary on my decision to watch this show. It’s a keeper.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The 2008 Election Is a Choice Between the Corporations and the People

[NOTE: I also posted this article on If you like it, please go to it here and recommend it, comment on it, etc. Thanks.]

The presidential campaigns seem to get bogged down in minutiae, both important (whether to talk with leaders of hostile nations) and meaningless (how much a haircut costs; whether a candidate has stopped wearing a flag pin on his lapel). But what often gets lost in the debates is the larger, broader questions, like who the government is there to serve.

I can't say that I watched every George W. Bush campaign appearance in 2000 and 2004 (talk about a masochistic endeavor), but I'm quite sure that at no point did he stand up and say, "I promise to use the powers and resources of the United States of America to seize on tragedies to implement radical privatization strategies and line the pockets of my corporate buddies." If he had, surely, he would not have been elected, either time.

And yet, that is exactly what President Bush has done since taking office. Despite a singularly catastrophic presidency, probably one unmatched in modern U.S. history for incompetence and blundering, it may actually be Bush's underhanded and purposeful shilling for corporations that will end up being his legacy, even more, possibly, than his reactionary judicial appointments and debilitating and crippling folly in Iraq.

I feel a need at this point to make it clear that I am not part of the anti-globalization movement. I've never protested at a Group of Seven summit. I pride myself on being measured and practical, and I'm not sure the anti-globalization advocates are actually helping make things better. That said, it doesn't mean that everything the movement stands for is necessarily wrong.

On "Real Time With Bill Maher" on Friday, Maher interviewed Naomi Klein, the author of a new book called "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism." Klein explained the premise of her work, essentially that while corporations, by definition, have always sought to take advantage of situations to maximize profits, governments, including the Bush administration, are now actively facilitating this process for the companies, to the detriment of ordinary citizens. Klein cited as examples the privatization of the public school and housing systems in New Orleans after Katrina and the privatization of the homeland security business after 9/11. She especially notes the privatization of the war in Iraq, made public now with the controversy over the behavior of private security firm Blackwater, and observes that the worse things get in Iraq, the more profitable it becomes for the global corporations allowed by the Bush administration to profit from the war (you can watch the entire Klein interview here, although there is a glitch that repeats the first minute or so of the interview).

Klein told Maher, "It's about the politicians who think government should be an ATM machine and just transfer wealth to their friends in exchange for a deposit in the form of campaign contributions."

She also notes that the Bush administration gives lip service to the idea of free markets as a way of allowing government to act in collusion with corporations, which, in effect, destroys free markets. "It's not free for anyone but the contractors," she said in the interview.

I'm sure many conservatives (and even some liberals) might disagree with Klein and/or think that she takes her point too far. But what cannot be reasonably debated is that the conduct of President Bush's administration has demonstrated that it holds as a core view that the purpose of government is to act as a mechanism to help large corporations extend their reaches, regardless of the consequences for the electorate, especially in industries in which the members of the government have experience (like oil). The no-bid Halliburton contracts related to the Iraq war are popular examples of this idea, but it goes much further that that, maybe nowhere more apparent than in the Bush administration's policy of appointing individuals loyal to industries to head the government entities tasked with the job of overseeing these industries. (The Utah mining disaster is a recent example of this ridiculousness.) Bush's policy has been to let the coyotes guard the hen house, effectively destroying government oversight, which only hurts the ordinary citizens of the country, but removes pesky impediments like health and safety concerns from corporations making more money.

If you look at the front runners in the Republican race for the presidential nomination, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson all fall squarely into the Bush camp on this issue. John McCain might have been more independent at one point, but his rush to the right in a misguided effort to win the nomination probably means that he would be no better than the others. The only candidate with any support that you could argue would not act as a facilitator for big business would be Mike Huckabee, but then you better be ready to turn the government over to a former preacher who doesn't believe in evolution. It would be trading shilling for corporations for shilling for Jesus.

The bottom line is that despite all the debates, campaign speeches and interviews, presidential candidates are rarely (if ever) asked to answer basic questions regarding their broad view of the role of government. It's too much to ask the Britney-obsessed media to do its job and force the candidates to at least talk about this vital issue (even if it's unlikely they would answer honestly).

The media never talks about how Bush campaigned so hard against gay marriage in 2004, and yet his first initiative after winning the election (when he said he was going to spend some of the political capital he had won) was to try an privatize social security. Do you think all those "values voters" who put Bush over the top in narrow races in swing states like Ohio pulled the lever for Bush while saying to themselves, "This is the man that will turn my retirement money over to Wall Street"? I don't think so.

The American people, as voters, have to put aside the petty personality concerns and, even before exploring the candidates' views on key issues, ask themselves, "Will this person, as president, put the country first or the needs of corporations first?"

Americans have to remember what the Bush administration did in New Orleans and Iraq, doing a terrible job of serving the people who needed it most (the displaced in New Orleans, the soldiers in Iraq), all while corporations got phenomenally richer off of these disasters. Bush's world view is not shared by most Americans, Republican and Democrat alike. And it's time for voters to wake up and realize that no matter how much a Republican candidate talks about banning gay marriage or keeping the country safe from terrorism, if he is following in President Bush's footsteps, everything he is saying is just talk. The true action will come to protect the winner's corporate buddies at the expense of the very voters who put him into office.

The media likes to reduce complicated political positions to simple sound bites, so you would think that putting aside all these messy issues for a simple question would suit them. "Mr./Ms. Candidate, as president, would you serve the people or the corporations? How would you do that?" Seems simple enough. But it will never happen.

Many Republicans, including Bush, love to play the game of misdirection, talking about issues that will get them votes (like gay marriage), but never discussing the party's true agenda (transferring wealth to corporations). It has worked beautifully for them, as American voters have allowed themselves to be fooled.

If Americans don't ask themselves these simple questions about the candidates in 2008, there is a good chance we will have four more years of Blackwater and Halliburton prospering while soldiers and stricken citizens suffer and die. Four more years of a diminished position in the world while oil prices reach all-time highs ($85 a barrel today).

This is one of the times where the bigger picture is more important than the individual issues. Or, to paraphrase James Carville circa 1992, "It's the power of the people, stupid."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Wednesdays Are New and Often Entertaining at ABC

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

Bob Dylan famously noted in "Like a Rolling Stone" that: "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose." ABC, which had a dearth of hits at the end of last season, took that advice to heart, assembling a Wednesday night lineup made up entirely of new shows, three one-hour dramas, all arriving, for different reasons, with a high-profile and a lot of buzz. (Two of the three offerings appeared on my list of five new programs I was most looking forward to seeing.)

The new ABC Wednesday night kicks off with "Pushing Daisies," which has to be the show that most divided critics over the summer, with one camp hailing it as the next big thing, while the rest viewed it as treacly, smug and precious beyond belief.

Directed with an affection for colorful, storybook visuals by Barry Sonnenfeld, and laden with mannered dialogue that falls somewhere between film noir and a Hal Hartley film, "Pushing Daisies" centers on Ned (Lee Pace), a pie shop proprietor, who can bring people back to life by touching them. As in any fantasy, there are rules: Once Ned works his magic, a second touch kills the subject forever. And once he does bring someone back to life, he has 60 seconds to kill them, otherwise someone in the area will bite the dust instead. But in so many ways "Pushing Daisies" is not a typical fantasy, combining elements of romance, comedy and crime procedurals, touched off with the 21st century accessory of an overriding murder mystery that plays out over the course of the season.

For now, at least, you can find me in the camp of the show's admirers, mainly because of the clever characters and the actors who play them. Ned supplements his pie income by working with Emerson (Chi McBride), a gruff private detective who is the only person that knows about Ned's gift. When Emerson hears of a murder case with a reward, Ned brings the victim back to life just long enough to find out how he/she met his/her maker. Emerson and Ned split the ensuing reward fifty-fifty.

Their routine is interrupted when Ned brings back to life his childhood crush, Chuck (Anna Friel), who was killed on a cruise she was sent on under shady circumstances. But after Ned wakes her, he doesn't have the heart to send her back to the beyond. Part of the problem is that Chuck didn't see who strangled her. More importantly, as a child, Ned discovered his power, first by bringing his dog back to life (who still lives with him, all these years later), but later by saving, then accidentally killing (with a second touch), his own mother. And when Ned saved his mother, Chuck's father was the one to pay the price. Ned wants to tell Chuck, but he cannot bring himself to do so.

Chuck and Ned quickly feel an attraction (he did save her life, after all), but, of course, they cannot touch, or Chuck will be killed for good. It's a great set-up. Romance stories need a barrier to the couple getting together, and there isn't a bigger impediment than death (just ask everyone who profited from “Ghost”). There is a moment at the end of the pilot episode when Ned holds his own hand to simulate holding Chuck's, and she then does the same, that represents the reason why the critics (and viewers, I'm sure) are so split. Some people will find it overly sentimental, while others will melt. I liked it. It was a sweet moment, mainly because Pace and Friel both bring an effortless humanity and heart to the mannered characters.

The supporting cast is excellent. Kristen Chenoweth adorably plays Olive, Ned's pie shop employee, who has a crush on him. Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen Greene play Chuck's aunts, who raised her after her father died. The former synchronized swimmers became agoraphobic after Kurtz's character lost her eye in a cat litter accident (yes, it's that kind of show).

The overriding murder mystery (who killed Chuck) isn’t really absorbing. But I found the writing sharp and clever, and the characters engaging, interesting and funny, which is enough to keep me coming back to the town of Couer d' Couers (this quirk-fest loves naming things with repeated words) to see what these wacky people are up to.

Next up on Wednesday nights for ABC is a new show with a familiar character, the "Grey's Anatomy" spin-off "Private Practice," which moves down the West Coast from Seattle to Santa Monica with Dr. Addison Montgomery (no longer Sheppard). "Grey's" creator, Shonda Rimes, has said that she envisions the characters in "Private Practice" as the grown-up counterparts to the high school-like gang at Seattle Grace Hospital, but I find the Santa Monica crew to be even more childlike.

Addison was one of my favorite "Grey's" characters, a strong, funny and beautiful woman surrounded by a lot of immature people. That Addison is virtually nowhere to be found in “Private Practice.” While Addison, at Seattle Grace, was a world-renown neonatal surgeon, at the co-operative practice in Santa Monica, she, like all the women in the office, has been reduced to a whiny, neurotic basket case.

The pilot opens with a guest appearance by Seattle Grace's chief, Dr. Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.), who is upset that Addison has given her notice. Richard tells her that she is too good to throw away her career by trading the state-of-the-art facilities in Seattle for the backwater co-op in Santa Monica. By the end of the first episode, I agreed with him, which is not, I'm sure, what Rimes was going for. In Santa Monica, Addison is constantly uneasy and uncomfortable, spending her time wallowing in self-pity and taking it out on the alternative medicine guy at the practice, Pete (Tim Daly in deep, dark, soulful, introspective, handsome mode, making Patrick Dempsy's McDreamy look like a circus clown), who kissed her in the "Grey's" episode from last year that acted as the show's de facto pilot.

And how can Addison, who was such a good mentor to the interns at Seattle Grace (when she wasn’t kissing one of them), be so rude to William (Chris Lowell, who spent last year on "Veronica Mars"), the practice's receptionist and a midwife in training (much fun is at his expense by Addison because he says he is in a "midwifery" class, but not only did I not find “midwifery” that funny, it made me like her less that she was so mean and found it so entertaining). Where Addison was the first to give a chance to an ambitious intern in Seattle, she refuses at first to let William help when she has to do a cesarean in the office. If you are going to spin off a character from a hit show, why change her? And for the worse, no less? I don't get it.

The other women working with Addison aren't much better. The practice's queen bee, Addison's old friend Naomi (the great Broadway talent Audra McDonald, who here is just asked to look constantly depressed), spends all her time pining over the husband who left her, the practice's general practitioner, Sam (Taye Diggs), who coincidentally lives next door to Addison's new place. Naomi, like Addison, is an expert in her field (a fertility specialist), but she is also a basket case, locking herself in her bathroom and eating from a whole cake. She is jealous of Sam to a point that seems beyond unhealthy. When his friends get Sam a stripper (invading Addison's home to watch through the window), even after Sam ends up diagnosing the woman rather than ogling her, Naomi reacts like he just sent a busload of children off a cliff.

Naomi (as well as Addison, for that matter), could use the aid of a psychologist. Unfortunately, I'm not sure the one in the practice would be of much help, since Violet (Amy Brenneman) is even more pathetic than her co-workers. She is obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, who has moved on to another serious relationship, to the point that I'm quite sure he would have no trouble getting a restraining order. It's hard to take Violet seriously as a healer of patients with mental problems, knowing that she is a set of night-vision goggles away from a trip to the loony bin. Violet seems more like a character in a ripped-from-the-headlines Lifetime movie, rather than a member of an ensemble spun off from one of the top-rated dramas on television.

Even the only strong woman on the show, the chief of the local hospital, Charlotte (KaDee Strickland, late of the David E. Kelley flop "The Wedding Bells," who again seems to have ended up as a positive presence in a less-than-great show), is her own kind of basket case, the heartless hard-ass who demands respect. For a show written and created by a woman, it's hard to believe how all of the women are the embodiments of negative stereotypes.

As you watch "Private Practice," you'll probably just want to yell at these women and tell them to grow up and get on with their lives. They're attractive, and they're successful doctors. It's hard to feel sorry for them.

The practice in "Private Practice," like the hospital in "Grey's Anatomy," seems beset by an ungodly volume of disasters. Naomi makes a point of telling Addison how the alternative practice takes pride in treating a small number of patients. Nothing short of an evil curse on the property can explain, then, how such a small pool of patients can produce such a high number of disastrous medical calamities. Their malpractice insurance must be through the roof. Hire a stripper for a doctor? Of course she is going to have a rash on her butt. Bring in a healthy pregnant teenage girl with a disapproving father? There is no doubt she will go into immediate distress, necessitating an immediate emergency cesarean with the lives of the mother and the baby in great danger. A man comes in to donate sperm for a fertility treatment? You almost hear yourself yelling: "Don't go in there!" just as he has a stroke and dies.
I had hoped that “Private Practice” would provide a “Grey’s Anatomy” level of fun, but with a focus on adults who were less self-absorbed. So far, that hope has not been fulfilled. Instead, the show follows a group of people it’s hard to care about. And that’s not a good sign.

"Dirty Sexy Money" finishes off the night. Billed as an update on the old-time soaps like "Dynasty" and "Dallas," the show follows the Darling family, kind of a more screwed up version of the Kennedy clan. Donald Sutherland plays the patriarch, Tripp, who presides over his brood while quoting literature and writing artistically crafted observations in his journal. His wife, Letitia (Jill Clayburgh), is more emotional, still reeling from the death of her lover, the family's attorney, Dutch. The kids run the gamut of dysfunction: Patrick (William Baldwin), the married state attorney general with senatorial aspirations, who is having an affair with a transvestite; Karen (Natalie Zea), the oft-married, insecure socialite, who knows her golf pro fiance is more interested in her money than her personality; the vacuous, partying twins Juliet and Jeremy (Samaire Armstrong and Seth Gabel), whose closeness is threatened when Jeremy takes up with Juliet’s ex-BFF (Juliet hates her because she committed the unpardonable sin of stealing her bangs); and Brian (Glenn Fitzgerald), a reverend who seems to hate everyone. Brian may be the most evil character ever to appear on network television (in his own way worse than the bad guys on "24" trying to destroy the world). He is a money-grubbing, angry, bitter, nearly sociopathic guy who, after his mistress dumps their sevenish-year-old son on him, tells the boy that his mother will take him back "if I have to shoot you at her with a cannon." Brian handles the situation by dropping the kid off at the family lawyer's office with instructions to get rid of him.

That family attorney is the show's protagonist, Dutch's son, Nick (Peter Krause). As the pilot opens, Nick, who runs a small public interest law practice with his loyal paralegal, Daisy (Laura Margolis), is dodging his father's lunch invitations. He thinks Dutch ruined both of their lives by dedicating his life to the Darlings at the expense of his own family. But after Dutch dies in a private plane crash, Tripp asks Nick to take over. Nick agrees after Tripp agrees to spend $10 million a year on Nick's charities, but he becomes disillusioned and quits. When he hears that Dutch was having an affair with Letitia and figures out that Dutch might have been murdered, Nick decides to keep the job to figure out who the culprit was, much to the chagrin of his supportive wife, Lisa (Zoe McLellan).

"Dirty Sexy Money" may have its roots in shows like "Dallas," but it is unmistakably modern. The show is edited in a quick-cut, MTV style that is meant, I'm sure, to keep the action moving along. And, of course, having a long-term, overriding murder mystery is certainly an of-the-moment element of the show.

Judging "Dirty Sexy Money" as night-time soap, it hits all the marks. The writing is clever (I particularly enjoy the running gag of the ring tones Daisy programs into Nick's phone for each of the Darling children), and the cast is top-notch. Although, watching Krause, who was the star of two of the most influential programs of the last 10 years, "Sports Night" and "Six Feet Under," you can't help think that he is seriously slumming here. But Sutherland is effective as the ambiguous family titan, Baldwin uses the family (Baldwin, not Darling) charm to make Patrick interesting, and Fitzgerald plays Brian without a single wink to the audience to soften the evil within him. "Dirty Sexy Money" feels as fresh as "Desperate Housewives" did when it premiered, and it certainly is more entertaining than "Desperate Housewives" is now.

"Pushing Daisies" and "Dirty Sexy Money" are off to good starts, and I guess there is always the chance "Private Practice" can find its footing. To quote another rock singer, Meatloaf, "two out of three ain't bad."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

“Aliens in America” Is a Welcome Invasion, While “Carpoolers” Is Stuck in the Slow Lane

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

Sitcoms have been around for nearly 60 years, so, as an audience, we have seen a lot. Some have said we’ve seen it all. The better comedies have a way of subverting our expectations, while those that fall into the tried-and-true patterns usually lean to the less interesting. For example, there was a moment in last week’s episode of “How I Met Your Mother” when Marshall (Jason Segal) revealed that he had lied to his wife, Lily (Alyson Hannigan), about including a personal letter in his “death folder.” On a less-inspired sitcom, the plot would have followed the hijinks of Marshall trying to sneak a letter into the folder without Lily catching him. But on a creative, innovative show like “How I Met Your Mother,” the writers took the characters in a different direction that was truer to the characters, more interesting and, most importantly, funnier.

Two new sitcoms debuted this week that were on my list of the five debuting shows I was most looking forward to seeing. One, “Aliens in America,” chose the “How I Met Your Mother” path of aiming high, while the other, “Carpoolers,” relied on cliches and themes that have been beaten to death by other sitcoms.

“Aliens in America,” which airs on the CW on Mondays at 8:30 Eastern Time, manages to be funny while also addressing serious themes. In that way, it reminded me of the delicate balance “Scrubs” pulls off, where a scene of a patient dying can follow an instance of wacky comedy, but it never feels inappropriate. In “Aliens” it’s not life and death but religion and politics that provide the edge to the proceedings.

In “Aliens,” a smooth-talking principal (Christopher B. Duncan) talks a suffocating (although I’m sure she would consider herself doting) mother named Franny (Amy Pietz) into taking in a foreign exchange student as a way of providing a cool best friend for her awkward, geeky teenage son Justin (Dan Byrd). While the program’s catalogue shows a blond athletic type, when the student arrives at the airport, he is a Pakistani dressed in the traditional salwar kameez.

When I read about the series over the summer, I immediately thought there were two ways the writers could go horribly awry with the Pakistani exchange student. I was afraid they would take a “24” view of Muslims and portray him as a conniving wannabe terrorist. More likely, I feared, they would turn him into a total caricature, Urkel with a skull cap, acting like a buffoon and providing a 21st century Balki Bartokomous (Bronson Pinchot in “Perfect Strangers”), something this era certainly did not need.

Thankfully, Raja (Adhir Kalyan) is a three-dimensional kid. On the one hand, he is so grateful for the opportunity to live in the U.S. that he immediately helps out with the household chores and even asks permission before moving a book the family had left in his new bedroom. As Franny gets increasingly less comfortable with Raja’s presence in the house (topped off by Justin befriending him and even joining him in prayer), Raja doesn’t let on that he’s aware at the stir he is causing. And yet, when the moment comes that Franny comes up with a lame excuse (an insurance snafu) for why he can’t stay, the expression on his face shows a mix of hurt and resigned acceptance, as if it was something he expected all along. The expert writing and acting of the moment was worthy of a show that deserves a long run on television. And it only gets better when Raja reveals a sad piece of information about his life (I don’t want to spoil it), and Franny, realizing for the first time that Raja is just a scared teenager, melts, inviting him back into the home.

Justin is also a three-dimensional lead for the show, far more down-to-earth and real than the super science nerds of time slot opponent “The Big Bang Theory” (which I like, but not as much as “Aliens”), and yet he has a charm that lets you know that it will not be drag spending a half hour with him once a week. As much as I love the critically lauded “Freaks and Geeks,” the uber dweebs on that show were so real and so awkward, it was often painful to watch, in a good way, of course.

Franny is also a really interesting character. Pietz, after playing a tough Jersey chick on “Caroline in the City” and a hayseed on “Rodney,” finally gets the chance to play a character that shares her Midwestern background (the show is set in Wisconsin, Pietz’s home state). And she nails the vocal patterns and tics of a Midwestern mom. Franny is single-minded in her need to help Justin get through his awkward teenage years, so much so that she virtually ignores her pretty, seemingly less needy daughter, Claire (Lindsey Shaw), who is trying to adjust to her newfound curves and resulting popularity. Even Claire’s declaration that she wants to go on the pill isn’t enough to deter Franny’s attention from Justin and her desire to get Raja out of the house. This mother-daughter and mother-son dynamic is certainly fresh for a television comedy, and it pays off beautifully in the final scene when Claire finally is able to get Franny’s attention at a family dinner (again, no spoilers).

Even the principal, Mr. Matthews, is a fun send-up of the noble African-American authority figure. This guy is not just a school-runner, but he also happens to be, we are told early on, the leading car salesman in the town. And he needs every bit of his persuasive abilities to try and get Franny to agree to keep Raja. In fact, Mr. Matthews has no trouble admitting that another family freaked out when they heard they were getting a Pakistani student and pulled out of the program, so he decided not to tell Franny about Raja’s nationality before he arrived in Wisconsin. Duncan plays Mr. Mathews as the coolest guy in the room and it works. The character is very funny.

Even the father, Gary (Scott Patterson, miles away from his turn as Luke on “Gilmore Girls”), manages to avoid the pitfall of being the trite clueless dad. Gary is, to put it bluntly, cheap, and he is far too interested in the $500 a month he gets for keeping Raja and the free labor Raja provides to maintain any concern over his nationality or religion. The writers skirt the line very carefully, making Gary the broadest character in the family, but at the same time, keeping him from going too far over the edge. Patterson also does an excellent job of making good choices, underplaying Gary’s excitement, giving an almost sly “I know what I’m doing” angle to the character. I think what works best about Gary is that even though he clearly loves to make a buck, the fact that he never says or does anything to give off the impression he has any problem taking in a Pakistani student is the subtle message of tolerance that allows the rest of the family to come around.

Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention the most important thing about the show: It’s funny. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments. Like Franny, so uncomfortable with Raja’s arrival, she insists, without breaking her smile, that he go straight to bed, even though it’s only 6:30 p.m. When he politely notes its early, she finally snaps, telling him that she’s like his mother in the U.S. so he has to listen to her. Franny’s honest observation that they should be able to return Raja, since, “If I ordered a coffee maker and I received a toaster, I'd return that,” also killed.

Unfortunately, “Carpoolers,” on the other hand, does not provide any real laughs. You never know if a new show will work or not, but who would have expected an offering from Bruce McCulloch of “Kids in the Hall” to be so conventional and boring?

The show, which airs on ABC Tuesdays at 8:30 Eastern Time, focuses on four guys who carpool to work together, and three of them are broadly drawn cartoons that belong in one of ABC’s brain-dead sitcoms from the last few years (like my regular punching bag, “According to Jim”).

Gracen (Fred Goss) is the only remotely interesting character of the four. A mediator who is married to real estate speculator Leila (Faith Ford, who is far better than the material she’s stuck with), he exhibits a low-key, the-suburbs-are-killing-me deadpan sarcasm that could have been funny and engaging, if he was in a better show. In “Carpoolers,” however, he is saddled with some truly bad material. Gracen’s plot in the pilot centers around his panic at the realization that -- gasp, hold onto your hats, folks -- with Leila’s success in the real estate market, she’s making more money than him, so much so that she could afford to buy a fancy toaster. Putting aside the bad luck of the real estate market tanking and making the plot point distractingly unrealistic, this conflict -- his wife is making her own money -- is so dated, it feels like something Ralph Kramden would have worried about on “The Honeymooners.” The fact that all of the action in the first episode spins off of this alleged great calamity brings the entire thing down into a crashing heap of irrelevance and boredom.

And that’s not all. Gracen and Leila have a son with the improbable name Marmaduke (T.J. Miller) who is not only cartoonishly boorish and dumb (he walks around in his underwear and doesn’t grasp the most basic of concepts), but appears to be about ten years younger than his parents. I spent the first half of the episode asking myself, “Who is this guy supposed to be? His brother? Her brother?” Marmaduke towers over his parents, both in height and bulk (he’s built like a tight end). When one of the guys referred to Marmaduke as Gracen’s son, I didn’t quite believe it. I thought it had to be some kind of joke. Sadly, it wasn’t. It’s amazing to me that such a glaringly ridiculous notion was able to make it past the network suits.

Ford and Goss have an interesting vibe, though. It’s a shame. I would be interested in a show in which they played this couple, only in a world that was a little more believable. And funny.

The rest of the carpooling crew is just too ridiculous to take seriously (or, more importantly, to laugh at). Tim Peper plays the carpool’s new guy, Dougie, half of a sickly sweet young couple with a new baby. His naivete and need to stay in the carpool are unbelievable and unexplainable.

As is the existence of ladies man Laird (Jerry O'Connell), a newly divorced, swinging dentist (yes, because dentists are known to be such studs). Laird is the alpha male of the group and the ringleader. He is behind making Gracen worry about Laila’s earnings, and he delights in hazing Dougie because he’s the new guy. He also uses his dentist contacts (again, they are really trying to have us believe dentists are cool) to get Laila’s bank balance for Gracen. The one thing Laird can’t do, apparently, is be funny. He, too, feels like a product of an earlier era, kind of like a better looking version of Jerry the dentist on “The Bob Newhart Show.”

But the worst character of all has to be Aubrey (Jerry Minor), who looks and sounds like a hen-pecked, grown up version of Urkel, only less subtle (yes, I meant to write that). Aubrey speaks in an exaggerated, high-pitched geek tone, drives a boxy American car, and works full time while also doing all the housework and child-rearing while his wife sits and watches television. Why does he allow her to do nothing while he hustles around nearly to the breaking point? We don’t know. We don’t even get to see the wife, except for her feet dangling off the end of a recliner. And since her feet look like they belong to Shaquille O'Neal, I’m guessing he’s not putting up with her laziness because she’s hot.

It’s not like I’m inflicting some kind of external judgment on Aubrey’s life. If he was portrayed as being happy, it might have been an interesting twist. Alas, he’s miserable, telling the guys that the two hours he drives to and from work is the only time he enjoys all day. It’s hard for us to believe, though, since the half hour we spend with these guys is so painful. You want Aubrey to tell his wife to get off her ass and help him, or to pick up his stuff and leave, but the character is such an underdeveloped cartoon, you just don’t care.

The jokes go for a kind of madcap silliness, but they fall flat. Laird recruits Dougie and Aubrey to break into Gracen’s house to steal Laila’s new toaster because Laird is convinced that eliminating it will solve all of Gracen’s problems. The guys twice battle the rich carpoolers for an empty space, both interactions ending with Dougie getting hit by the enemy car. You can kind of see McCulloch trying to be wacky, but his characters and premises are so tired and cliched, the gags fall miserably flat.

Stick with “Aliens” and its mix of heart and comedy. It may be your only chance to spend time with a Pakistani exchange student. It certainly beats being trapped in a car with the guys from “Carpoolers.”

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Yankees Vindicate Cashman, No Matter What Post-Season Brings

The New York Yankees begin post-season play on Thursday in Cleveland, but no matter what happens in the playoffs, 2007 has already been a successful year for the Bronx Bombers. Yes, they staged a rousing comeback to reach the playoffs, but to me, 2007 is a success because it showed that general manager Brian Cashman's bigger plan for the Yankees is working.

As has been reported ad nauseum over the last few weeks, on May 29, the Yankees had a record of 21 wins against 29 defeats and sat last in the American League East, 14 1/2 games behind the first place Boston Red Sox. They were nine-and-a-half games behind the wild-card-leading Detroit Tigers, and seven other teams in the league also had records that were equal to or better than the mark sported by the Bombers.

On that same date, the New York Mets were 16 games over the .500 mark (33-17) and held a five-game lead in the National League East over the second place Atlanta Braves. The Mets also had the best record in the league, 3 1/2 games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers. At that time, there were a slew of media reports writing the Yankees' obituary while anointing the Mets as New York's new premiere team. Owner George Steinbrenner had hoisted Cashman "on a big hook," and by all accounts the era of Yankees success had come to a close.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Yankees' funeral. On Wednesday, the Yankees clinched a post-season spot with a victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, while the Mets crashed to defeat to the lowly Washington Nationals, slashing the team's once-mighty lead over the Philadelphia Phillies to a single game. By the end of the season, the Yanks were preparing for a first-round series against the Cleveland Indians, while the Mets' season was finished, and the team was left to try and figure out how it blew a seven game lead with 17 games to play, one of the biggest collapses in baseball history.

Baseball's 162-game season, combined with a playoff tournament limited to eight teams, is what makes it unlike any team sport in the United States. To use the oft-written metaphor, the baseball season is a marathon, rewarding teams that can survive and persevere over the long haul. It may be a cliche, but it is only used so often because it's true. All of the histrionics of May 29 were by short-sighted individuals who failed to understand that in baseball, you never know what will happen until the season has a chance to play itself out. Luckily for Yankees fans everywhere, Cashman saw the bigger picture.

On July 9, with baseball heading into its annual three-day vacation to make room for its All-Star extravaganza and the Yankees still sitting under .500 (42-43), still trailing the Red Sox (by nine-and-a-half games) and still out of the playoffs (eight games behind the wild card leader with four teams in front of them), I wrote an article asking (begging?) Steinbrenner and Cashman not to panic and deal any of the organization's top prospects for veterans. I noted that Cashman's installation of a sound plan to build for the future around young arms, and to avoid piling up high-priced free agents on multi-year deals, had been successful, setting the Bombers up for success in 2008 and beyond, even if the team's performance in 2007 was not ideal. And I observed that if the team's slumping lefthanders (Abreu, Cano and Damon) started playing to their career statistics, the 2007 Yankees could still make the playoffs.

I am delighted to report that Cashman showed great courage in sticking to his guns, making only two trades before the deadline, both of which were small in scope and smart in execution. He picked up an excellent backup catcher (something the Yanks have lacked for years), Jose Molina (one of the players I cited in my July 9 article for his smart play while he was with the Angels) for a third-tier prospect, and he jettisoned shaky reliever (and Joe Torre security blanket) Scott Proctor for infielder Wilson Betemit. Betemit is a minor upgrade over Miguel Cairo for the utility role, but the true advantage of that deal was that it forced Torre to try some new blood in the bullpen, especially rookie sensation Joba Chamberlain.

Behind the resurgent lefthanded hitters and a relieving corps solidified by Chamberlain and Luis Vizcaino, the Yankees climbed steadily up the standings, so much so that by August 30 they had taken over the lead in the wild card and had moved to within five games of the Red Sox.

I had written in the July 9 article about a New York Times piece on the dominant pitching of the Trenton Thunder, the AA affiliate of the Yankees, and how "what the pitchers do at Trenton for the rest of this year is probably more important than what any player does during that time in the Bronx." Little did I know that two of those pitchers would make an impact in 2007 with the big club: Chamberlain, who posted dominant numbers for the Yankees out of the bullpen (one earned run in 24 innings, with 34 strikeouts and only 12 hits), and Ian Kennedy, who pitched well in some key starts in September.

Meanwhile, after Cashman was vilified in some circles for not parting with Kennedy to get Eric Gagne at the trade deadline, allowing him instead to go to the hated Red Sox, Gagne turned out to be a disaster, posting a 6.75 ERA and 1.875 WHIP (walks and hits per inning) on his way to blowing several key games for Boston. Similarly, Cashman took heat when Texas dealt switch-hitting first baseman Mark Teixeira to Atlanta, but while Teixeira had a nice year, did the Yankees need a slugging first baseman more than Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy and/or Phil Hughes (who would have had to have been part of any Teixeira deal)? Hardly.

The lesson of this season is that when things looked bleak, Cashman stuck with his smart long-term plan for the success of the Yankees. He had done an amazing job over the previous two years of building up pitching prospects via the draft and through trading unwanted veterans (like Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson and Jaret Wright, with Johnson and Wright barely playing before missing the rest of this season due to injuries, and Sheffield, by making ridiculous allegations about Joe Torre's treatment of African-American players, demonstrating why his departure was a case of addition by subtraction). As importantly, Cashman resisted the calls to unload his prized pitching assets for veterans. As a result, the Yankees not only find themselves in the 2007 playoffs, but they look forward to a future pitching rotation that includes Hughes, Chamberlain and Kennedy, all of whom had a chance to get some battle-testing in the heat of a pennant race.

Sure, once the first pitch is thrown on Thursday, I, like most Yankee fans, will be rooting hard for our team, hoping that the bats and starting pitching will be able to overcome a bullpen that is very suspect beyond Chamberlain, a banged-up Vizcaino, and an aging Mariano Rivera. But if the Yankees' season ends without a World Series title, once the dust clears, Yankee fans will have a lot to be happy about. We'll have a spectacular comeback to look back on, and a bright future filled with lots of talented young pitchers to look forward to. And, most of all, we will know that we still support the premiere baseball team in New York.

We have Cashman and Steinbrenner (for not making any stupid deals on his own) to thank for the rosy outlook. Based on how well Chamberlain, Hughes and Kennedy performed for the big club in 2007, I am confident that in the upcoming off-season, Cashman will be allowed to stay the course in building the team the right way. I truly believe the days of the Jason Giambi panic buys are over. It's only fitting that Giambi's seven-year, $120 million contract, which symbolized the moment the Yankees lost the plot and changed the way they did business from the 1990s strategy that produced four world championships (they have not won a World Series since the signing), expires after next season.

In this year's post-season, the Yankees will be counting on several players with fewer than three years of big league experience to make significant contributions, including center fielder Melky Cabrera, second baseman Robinson Cabrera, Game One starter Chien-Ming Wang, outfielder Shelley Duncan, Hughes and Chamberlain. Allowing young players to play key roles on the Yankees is something new to this decade. As a friend noted to me recently, this will be a fun post-season to watch, more than any in a long time, with all of the kids energizing a group of hard-working veterans, not to mention the absence of unlikable characters like Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield, along with the return of Andy Pettitte.

As Johnny Damon walks up to the plate to begin the Yankees' series against the Indians on Thursday, Yankee fans will not only be able to savor a great run in 2007, but can also look forward to the potential for an even better 2008 and beyond. Back on May 29, with things looking so incredibly bleak, who would have thought such a moment would come? Well, Brian Cashman did. And for that, Yankee fans owe him a big thanks. As Damon digs in, I'll be smiling. Win or lose this week, all is good in the land of the New York Yankees. The Mets and their fans will look on, jealous of the team across town, and all will be right in the world of New York baseball.