Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A New Year Means New Premieres, Good and Bad

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

I love January. And not just because the hated Christmas music goes away. No, January is like a mini version of September, with the launch of new programs and new seasons of existing shows. To celebrate, I decided to write a mini version of my annual shows-I'm-looking-forward-to column. But as I started my research, I immediately discovered that the second-half schedule was far more dicey than I had hoped. So I have no choice but to lay out both the programs I am most looking forward to, and the ones I am most sure to avoid.

On the positive side:

3. (Vacant)
I couldn't find a third show I was genuinely looking forward to seeing. Sure, if NBC comes out with the rumored "Office" spin-off or Amy Poehler project, I'll definitely want to watch them. ABC's decision to reboot the short-lived but little-watched 1998 series "Cupid," which was created by "Veronica Mars" head honcho Rob Thomas and starred Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall, would certainly be a contender, only it doesn't launch until late March, putting it too far out in the future for this roundup. (The new "Cupid" will also be run by Marshall and will star Bobby Canavale.) And if I was a "Buffy" fan, I'm sure I'd be salivating over the February 13 bow of "Dollhouse," even with the reported script problems. But with Ashton Kutcher producing two of the handful of new programs, it's not surprising I can't find a third new offering to fill this slot.

2. "Trust Me" (TNT, Mondays at 10 p.m. Eastern, debuts January 26)
Okay, maybe a "witty drama" (according to TNT's Web site ... the network's description carefully avoids the term "dramedy") about two advertising guys is going to instantly get my attention, since I'm such a devotee of "Mad Men," and I was a huge fan of "thirtysomething" back in the day. But the reason that there was never a doubt I would give "Trust Me" a chance is that one of the two leads is Tom Cavanagh, the love-him-or-hate him comic actor who starred in the smart and funny "Ed," as well as playing J.D.'s brother in six episodes of "Scrubs." There is something about Cavanagh's characters that evoke humor and emotion, from his bowling alley lawyer Ed (sorry, as Ed would note, he owned a bowling alley and was a lawyer, two different things) to his slumming indie music exec on the missed-the-mark "Love Monkey" to his turn as Eli's flashback father on "Eli Stone." Cavanagh's fellow Mad Man on "Trust Me" is Eric McCormack, still trying to find a post-Will (of "Will & Grace") role that sticks. The casting seems right: McCormack as the responsible family man, Cavanagh as the boyish irresponsible bachelor. Between Cavanagh, advertising and a dramedy, I have to give this show a shot.

1. "Scrubs" (ABC, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern, debuts January 6)
NBC obviously had a love-hate relationship with "Scrubs." The network kept the single-camera hospital-based sitcom on the air for six seasons despite dismal ratings, but moved it all over the schedule like a television nomad, virtually ensuring it would never find an audience. Which was a shame, because few shows are as funny, entertaining and moving as "Scrubs." Mixing wacky humor with gut-punch drama, "Scrubs" is an innovative half-hour comedy that helped pave the way for critically acclaimed programs like "Arrested Development," "The Office" and "30 Rock." ("Scrubs" is the kind of program that can make you laugh with scenes like this one, entertain you with clever moments like this one, but tug at your heartstrings with a sequence like this one.) NBC foisted the ultimate indignity on "Scrubs" last season when, after the writers' strike was settled, the network did not allow the sitcom to come back and film a series finale. Enter ABC, whose sister company produces the show (and reaps its syndication profits). ABC snapped up "Scrubs" for a final season, and we will now have a chance to see its story lines wrapped up.

On ABC.com, you can watch two question-and-answer videos with executive producer Bill Lawrence and star Zach Braff, in which Lawrence promises that the tone of the final season will return to the show's roots of mixing comedy and drama. Personally, I never thought "Scrubs" lost much over the years, but you get the feeling that this season is going to be pitch-perfect, and not just because many of the guest stars who stopped by Sacred Heart Hospital over the first six seasons (and there were a ton of them) will be making cameos in the final episodes. And Courtney Cox will appear in the first three episodes as the new chief of medicine. If you're a "Scrubs" fan, you won't want to miss the last season. And if you haven't watched the show, there is still time. Watch the quick primer on ABC.com, and episodes run in syndication on Comedy Central, TV Land and local stations. I am certainly excited for the return of "Scrubs."

What I'm not at all excited about is:

3. "Momma's Boys" (NBC, Mondays at 9 p.m. Eastern, debuted in its time slot on December 22)
My review two weeks ago says it all.

2. "Game Show in My Head" (CBS, Saturdays at 8 p.m and 8:30 p.m. Eastern, debuts January 3)
Here's the thing: I love game shows. I despise hidden-camera ambush programs. So "Game Show in My Head" gets double demerits from me, one for being a hidden-camera ambush program, and one for besmirching the good name of game shows. I enjoy watching greedy contestants ask one of 26 beautiful women to open a numbered case while Howie Mandel tries to build tension. I have been known, on occasion, to watch Jeff Foxworthy figure out if people are smarter than a fifth-grader. I have even enjoyed watching Bob Saget see if one contestant could beat 100 others. And, if pressed, I'll confess that I have watched Wayne Brady guide a karaoke singer through a string of tunes in an effort to win a million bucks. But a studio-based Joe Rogan (think host of "Fear Factor," not his early work on the underrated sitcom "News Radio") telling contestants through an earpiece to do wacky and embarrassing things in public? With Ashton Kutcher, he of "Punk'd," as one of the producers? Count me out. Emphatically.

1. "Superstars of Dance" (NBC, Mondays at 8 p.m. Eastern, debuting Sunday January 4)
Suddenly, turning over five prime-time hours a week to Jay Leno seems like a good thing for television, when you consider that NBC will air two-hour editions of "Superstars of Dance" featuring, among others, Michael "Lord of the Dance" Flatley throughout January. Talk about copy-cat bottom feeding. ABC has the wildly successful "Dancing with the Stars." Fox has the decently rated "American Idol" for dancers, "So You Think You Can Dance." The best NBC can do is come up with is the sloppy thirds of "Superstars of Dance," which will offer, according to the network's Web site, "a breathtaking international dance competition." Somehow, I doubt any viewers will be taking any more than the normal amount of breaths. The description then goes on to brag that the show comes from the "masterminds" of "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance." Can you contain yourself, America? So NBC is third in on the dance show bandwagon, with a show that is a knock off of a knock off of "American Idol." Wow. No wonder NBC is in so much trouble.

As a public service, here are a few debuts that didn't make either list: Ashton Kutcher and Tyra Banks team up to produce "True Beauty" (ABC, Mondays at 10 p.m., debuting January 5), which sticks six hot women and four studly guys in a house to find the most beautiful ones, inside and out (the contestants don't know about the inside part); "Flashpoint," which follows an elite Toronto police unit, returns January 9 (CBS, Fridays at 9 p.m. Eastern); Tim Roth can tell if your lying, and he and his team use their ability to help the law in "Lie to Me" (Fox, Wednesdays at 9 p.m., debuting January 21); Kyra Sedgwick and her southern accent return when the new season of "The Closer" bows on January 26 (TNT, Mondays at 9 p.m. Eastern); and Joss Whedon unveils his newest creation, the Actives (one is played by Eliza Dushku), people who have their personalities wiped clean so they can be reprogrammed and sent on missions, when "Dollhouse" premieres on February 13 (Fox, Fridays at 9 p.m. Eastern).

Monday, December 29, 2008

Hamas Is Largely to Blame for Israel's Gaza Offensive

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

Wading into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dangerous work. It is an exceptionally charged issue, with both sides capable of as much passion as you'll experience in discussing a foreign policy dispute. Personally, I have been shocked and unnerved at some of the venom unleashed in the comments to past articles on the topic that have appeared on The Huffington Post. I can't help but think that if only people read up on the history of the conflict, they would see that things aren't as black-and-white as their fire-breathing comments would have you believe.

I am ashamed to say that the Israel-bashing has made me reluctant to write about the issue, at least in my contributions to this site. But after watching the conflict in Gaza unfold over the last three days, I have decided that it's time for me to venture into the breach and make my opinion known, damn the consequences. It's time for me to explain why I think the treatment of Israel has been unfair.

I understand that the history of the Middle East, going back to 1948, or even to the 19th century, is messy. Any side looking to make a point can cherry pick historical facts to bolster an argument. While I would feel confident arguing the Israeli side of the issue, I know that I am not going to win over anyone in one blog post. The whole issue is just too complicated.

But what I feel I may be able to accomplish in this space is to provide a counterweight for some of the subtly biased reporting on the Israeli actions in Gaza over the last three days. From reading or watching most news accounts, you might think that Israel, virtually unprovoked, has started indiscriminately bombing in Gaza, causing massive civilian casualties. The New York Times quoted Iran's religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni, saying, "The horrible crime of the Zionist regime in Gaza has once again revealed the bloodthirsty face of this regime from disguise," as if his opinion was just another equally valid point of view. I will attempt to provide some context here.

It is important to understand that threats to Israel's survival are not theoretical. From the moment of the country's formation in 1948 to the present day, it has been surrounded by hostile neighbors who have wanted to see its destruction and used force to bring such an outcome about. Israel was attacked by neighboring nations in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. The country's seizure of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 occurred in this context. More recently, Israel has had to withstand suicide bombings, in which Palestinian terrorists would kill and wound innocent civilians inside Israel.

In 2005, Israel withdrew from Gaza, dismantling all of its settlements and evicting its settlers, some by force. Palestinians proceeded in elections to put into power the terrorist group Hamas, which does not recognize the right of Israel to exist. With Israel gone from Gaza, Hamas seized on the opportunity to launch attacks from Gaza on civilian populations in Israel, firing more than 4,500 rockets and mortars into Israel since 2005. And Hamas used civilian areas as cover for the launching points for its attacks.

A little more than six months ago, Egypt brokered a cease fire between Israel and Hamas. The truce ended on December 19, and it was Hamas, not Israel, that refused to extend it. In fact, The current attacks began before the cease-fire agreement expired. In the last six weeks, Hamas has fired more than 400 missiles into Israel, including 40 Qassam rockets and mortars since December 19.

With Hamas attacking Israel, and with Hamas unwilling to extend the truce, Israel responded with the current offensive. While so many news reports have focused on the civilian casualties, given that Hamas uses civilians areas as cover to launch their attacks, it is shocking how relatively low the percentage of civilian casualties has been. As of this morning, of the 315 Palestinian fatalities, only 51 have been civilians. To be clear, my point isn't that 51 lost lives isn't tragic, rather it's that with Hamas putting its own people in danger by using them as cover for their assaults on Israel, the fact that roughly five in six fatalities have been military targets demonstrates that Israel is not indiscriminately attacking civilian populations.

And yet, Israel has continued to provide aid to Gazan residents, allowing 10,000 tons of food, tools, raw materials, medicine and medical equipment into Gaza since Dec. 7. Israel also provides 70 percent of Gaza's electricity, and Hamas has reportedly engineered blackouts to inflame the population against Israel while using the power for its own needs.

I am continually amazed when commentators and government officials assert that Israel should show restraint. How would any one of these countries and individuals react if it was their nation that was attacked daily by its neighbor, especially if that neighbor was an internationally recognized terrorist organization that didn't recognize the right of the subject of its attacks to exist and was dedicated to its destruction?

But that is the situation with which Israel is faced. Hamas will not recognize Israel's right to exist (calling the Jewish state "the Zionist entity"). And in retaliation for Israel's offensive, Hamas has fired rockets that have reached within 25 miles of Tel Aviv.

What is it that the critics would have Israel do? How do you negotiate with people that want to destroy you? How do you allow attacks on your civilian population on a daily basis without doing anything to protect your citizens? It feels to me like the critics ask Israel to make sacrifices and take risks that they themselves would never undertake for their home nations.

It seems to me that the critics would have Israel accede to all Palestinian demands, which would result in handing over huge chunks of land to a population bent on destroying Israel, both through attacks and assimilation, if the so-called right of return was granted. (From East Jerusalem, Hamas's rockets could hit virtually any point in Israel, including Tel Aviv, Haifa and West Jerusalem.) In my estimation, anyone who thinks Israel is somehow responsible for the current clashes with Hamas does not, in a practical sense, think Israel has a right to exist as a country. After all, short of surrendering, there is nothing that Israel could do that would satisfy Hamas, and without a right to defend itself from attack, Israel's survival would be in doubt.

I am all for a two-state solution. But both states have to respect the right of the other to exist, and nothing in Hamas's actions has demonstrated that it is in any way willing to take part in such an arrangement. Hamas wants a one-state solution, and that one state is not Israel.

(As a side note, the Palestinians still push for a right of return for those who fled and/or were pushed from the new state of Israel in 1948, which has been one of the primary issues acting as an impediment to peace, but there were an equal of number of Jews displaced by Arabs at the same time, and yet no Jews are claiming a right of return.)

Has Israel always acted correctly? Of course not. I dare you to show me a country that has conducted itself perfectly all the time. But how is it that Hamas, a terrorist organization that refused to extend the truce and fired rockets at civilians on a daily basis, gets so much sympathy, with Israel condemned for defending itself? In a vacuum, there is no defense for Hamas in this situation. So it seems to me that those that speak against Israel for its current Gaza offensive are doing so because they will never support Israel's side in the conflict with Hamas and the Palestinians. They see the West Bank barrier and the West Bank settlements and the other alleged transgressions by Israel without considering what prompted the actions in the first place (namely 60 years of attacks by its neighbors, most recently via suicide bombers killing civilians). It feels to me as though there is nothing Hamas could do to Israel that would, in the minds of Israel's critics, justify Israeli retaliation.

Hopefully, in the not too distant future, Palestinians will rally behind moderate, non-corrupt leadership, and a fair two-state solution will be hammered out under which both of the countries' citizens can live in peace and prosperity. But until that day comes, as long as the Palestinian people throw their lot in with terrorists like Hamas, who, in their name, attack civilian targets in Israel, a two-state solution cannot be put in place, and the Palestinian people will have to bear the consequences of their leaders' actions.

In an ideal world, a military action like the Israeli offensive in Gaza would never happen. No person of conscience can truly look at what is going on there and not feel sad. But at the same time, the Hamas bombing of Israeli civilians is equally disturbing, and there is no obvious alternative available to Israel to defend its citizens. It feels unfair to me when people take Israel to task without placing any significant blame on Hamas. And that is why I felt it was time for me to speak out.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Virtual Gift List for This Holiday Season

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

I recently gave in to the requests of several friends and colleagues and joined Facebook. There are things I like about the social networking site (keeping up with friends, the highly addictive Scramble game) and things I don't (how can a site with so much traffic be so clunky, poorly designed and counterintuitive?). But the one thing I will not participate in is the giving and receiving of virtual stuff via Facebook. People are constantly sending each other gifts, everything from hugs to beers to Christmas ornaments to challas. You don't actually give or get anything, though, other than an icon for your page. What's the point? I don't get it.

But then it occurred to me: If the rules are now that you can give crap to people without actually having to give them anything in reality, well, then that opens all kinds of doors. With these new rules on giving in mind, here is my virtual gift list for this holiday season:

To Dick Cheney: A vacation. I don't think people understand how tiring it can be to personify evil on a day-to-day basis. It takes a lot out of you to trash the constitution, take away the rights of the American people, advocate for and approve torture, and lead the way in convincing the president to plunge the country into a needless war and a poorly planned occupation that has cost us thousands of lost lives, hundreds of thousands of disrupted and damaged lives, and coming up on a trillion dollars. So Dick needs to be sent on a vacation, and I know just the place: a federal penitentiary. I think a solid two-to-four year stretch would do him good, hopefully in the same place that Bernard Madoff ends up. That way, they can both meet the six-foot-five, 300-pound inmate who can teach them the prison meaning of "undisclosed location."

To Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada: Teeth whitening kits. The three holdovers from the New York Yankees' 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 championship teams (add Andy Pettitte to the list if he takes the Yankees' one-year contract offer for next season) probably cannot stop smiling at the chance to return to the glory days now that the team has acquired C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett this off-season. If nothing else, Jeter won't have to answer the "When are you moving to first base?" questions anymore. On a related note:

To nearly all of the ESPN on-air personalities: Red Sox jerseys. This way, the network can come clean and stop trying to hide its thinly-veiled deep love for the Red Sox and hatred of the Yankees. Eric Kuselias moaning and whining about the Teixeira signing this morning was hilarious. He read three emails totally obliterating his point of view (that the Yankees' signing of free agents this off-season, even though they had a ton of money coming off the books, is destroying baseball), but his responses to the emails were at the "am too!" level of argument and were exactly what you would expect from an angry Red Sox fan. It was good television, but not in the way Kuselias was hoping for, I'm sure. Let's throw in a Red Sox cap for him, too. (Mike of the great Yankees blog River Avenue Blues made an excellent rebuttal to the Kuselias position, as articulated by the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.)

To Rod Blagojevich: The Elvis Presley CD "Elv1s 30 #1 Hits." The Elvis-loving, hair-obsessed, wiretap-starring, potty-mouthed governor of Illinois is so detached from reality, I'm sure he won't find anything at all discomforting in hearing "Suspicious Minds," "Way Down," "Too Much," "Don't," "Surrender" (maybe he mistakenly thinks it's one song, "Don't Surrender"?), "(Now and Then There's) A Fool Such as I," "(You're the) Devil in Disguise," "A Little Less Conversation," and, of course, "Jailhouse Rock."

To David Paterson: Noise-canceling headphones. Ten months ago, the guy was living a quiet, anonymous life as the lieutenant governor of New York. One call girl bust later, and Paterson was thrust into the role of leading a state with a projected deficit of tens of billions of dollars. And, to boot, he now has to appoint someone to fill Hillary Clinton's senate seat, knowing that the person will have to stand for election in 2010, at the same time he himself will be running for re-election (as will be New York's other U.S. senator, Charles Schumer). Oh, and Saturday Night Live decided to portray him as a bumbling, clueless, coke-snorting doofus. Between budget cuts, tax and fee increases and those pesky senate-seat seekers, it seems as though everyone in the state with any connection to government wants a few words with him. Poor guy. Paterson is in need of those high-tech noise-canceling headphones, stat! If he can't make those harassing him go away, maybe the headphones can at least help him tune them out. The way he has handled his new role with humor (his condemnation of the SNL sketch was an exception, not the rule) and a practical approach to the state's problems, he has earned my respect. That's all well and good, but I'm sure he'd rather have the headphones.

To the executives at financial institutions that took U.S. bailout funds but still paid themselves hefty year-end bonuses: Reinforced athletic supporters (regardless of gender). The size and density of the steel balls it took to lead a company to financial ruin, take money from the taxpayers, and then reward yourself with a bonus for your efforts must be massive. Without the proper support, I shudder to think what will happen to the streets and sidewalks of our nation.

To Al Franken: A Washington, D.C. apartment. For use, of course, when he serves his six-year term as Minnesota's junior U.S. senator. Hey, I can hope, right?

To Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman: A Sunday morning television program. These two New York Times op-ed columnists have been cranking out consistently smart and to-the-point analyses of the current economic crisis. They would offer a relevant counterpoint to the usual partisan bickering of politicians on Meet the Press and This Week, and they certainly would blow away the bloviating of the George Wills, Cokie Robertses and Sam Donaldsons that run wild on Sunday mornings. Friedman's column today was exceptionally thought-provoking.

To the female contestants of every reality dating show on television: Gift certificates to high-end hair salons, tattoo removal centers and self-esteem seminars. Do I really have to explain?

To the network executives that program reality dating shows: DVDs of the reality shows they program. Have they actually watched these programs? I can't imagine they have.

To the viewers who watch reality dating shows: Lifetime access to the Girls Gone Wild series (for the men) or the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime (for the women), as well as subscriptions to The Nation. This way, the men can get their fill of watching pretty young girls get drunk and take their clothes off and the women can see an endless supply of sappy romance, all without taking up valuable space on the networks' schedules. And when the viewers are done, they can cleanse their brains (and souls) by reading important political reporting in The Nation. No? Oh well. It was worth a shot.

And to Barack Obama: A portable DVD player. This way, no matter the time or place, he can watch DVDs of his history-making year and, maybe for the first time, enjoy the ride, without worrying about the day-to-day stresses of running a campaign, a transition or a government. It will also remind the president-elect why a majority of the American people supported him, and what he promised to do (and not do) as president. Despite some complaints in some quarters, I think he has done an excellent job so far of staying true to his obligations (even though I'm really uncomfortable with Rick Warren's presence at the inauguration). The DVD player would be a good tool in making sure he continues the good work.

Happy holidays.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Momma's Boys" and "Double Shot of Love": Tis the Season for Sleazy Dating Shows, Apparently

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

Last week, I wrote that NBC's decision to move Jay Leno to prime time was bad news for scripted shows, but that it could have been worse. Well, ladies and gentlemen, may I present the "worse" to which I was referring: "Momma's Boys," which launched on NBC last night and will air at Mondays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Viewers were also reminded of how bad things can be when the sequel to "A Shot of Love with Tila Tequila," "A Double Shot of Love," debuted last week on MTV (new episodes air Wednesdays at 10:00 p.m. Eastern).

Yet another entrant into the dating show sweepstakes, "Momma's Boys" has 32 women fighting for the attention of three men, with the twist being that the mothers of the three bachelors move into the house with their sons' pursuers. Virtually everything about this heaping pile of dog poop is manipulative, exploitative and mean-spirited.

Now before you go accusing me of being a curmudgeon who doesn't understand the dumb fun of reality television, let's set the record straight: I watched both seasons of "Rock of Love," in which has-been rocker Bret Michaels spent a couple of weeks making out with a collection of party girls. I even watched both seasons tracking Scott Baio's quest to grow up. I can rock the mindless reality show with the best of them. But where Baio, Michaels and the "Rock of Love" contestants weren't hurting anybody or anything other than themselves, those around them and the ear drums, eyes and self-esteem of their viewers, "Momma's Boys" is far more insidious. It's lazy. And creepy. And it's straight-out offensive.

The "Momma's Boys" house is filled with the same assortment of types you'd find in any dating show. There is the doctor and the shy hippie chick (who cleans up rather than socializing), the religious southerner and the loud, dumb southerner, the nude models and the non-nude models, and enough alcohol, peroxide and silicone to have the house classified as a chemical storage facility.

And then there are the mothers. Lorraine, the youngest of the three, still makes her firefighter son Michael's bed and calls him 100 times a day. At one point she tells the camera, "I pity my husband," and I thought to myself that I did, too. She talks about how great her son's body is, which is creepy enough, but not quite as creepy as Khalood, the Michigan mother to hockey player Jo Jo, who points out the sexy body parts on a photo of her son in a way that left you wondering if she needed some time alone with the picture. Of course, creepily drooling over a photo of her son while talking about how hot he is might be the least off-putting thing about Khalood, given that her video (played for the 32 women) talks about how she "can't have" a girl who is Jewish, black or Asian for her son. The woman has to be white, Catholic, not too tall, and not have a large butt (ironic, since, to borrow an old dozens joke, when Khalood sits around the house, she sits around the house). In the end, she says the girl for her son has to be just like her. I think she will be out of luck unless the producers hid a fat, loud, domineering, obnoxious, inappropriate, racist girl somewhere in the house. Hey, if Khalood can wait 20 years for Adolph Hitler Campbell's little sister, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell, to grow up, she will be all set! Khalood hilariously claims she is not racist because she has black friends and knows "half of the Detroit Lions."

Poor Esther, mother to Rob, is portrayed by the producers as a stereotypical Jewish mother. With her frequent use of Yiddish terms and New Yawk accent, and her pride in buying her son's underwear, she comes off like Mike Myers's "Saturday Night Live" character, Linda Richmond, if she had taken a master class on how to be more stereotypically New York Jewish.

So if watching three mothers, one of whom is a racist, creepily hug, kiss and drool over their good-looking sons sounds like fun to you, then "Momma's Boys" is right up your alley (it also means that you really should seek some kind of professional attention, too).

"Momma's Boys" is truly odious in how it plays up every stereotype you can imagine. Beyond Esther's devotion to her "mensch" of a son, the show seems to have a rule that none of the black women can have clips of interviews shown unless they exaggeratedly move their heads like they were one of Whoopi Goldberg's characters. Rather than highlight some of the more articulate responses to Khalood's racism (one of the African American women has a master's degree, another is a nurse), the producers chose to show a woman saying to the camera, "Bitch, are you crazy?"

It seems as if the entire show is dedicated to portraying every woman in the most negative light possible, both the mothers and the contestants (although many of the women make it easy on the producers to do so). And none of them have any sense of themselves. A holier-than-thou woman named Jessica, reacting to one of the other women's admissions that she posed for Playboy in 1999, says she has "too much respect" for herself to do something like that, but apparently not too much respect to go on a sleazy reality dating show. And, like in every other dating program, the women talk about being there to find love, which means that there are only two possibilities: they're lying, or they're stupid enough to believe that going on television and competing with 31 rivals for the attention of three men they've never met is the best way to find a soul mate. Either way, it's hard to care what happens to them.

In fact, the mothers and bachelorettes are so over the top, I started to feel like they were, at best, being coached, or, at worst, actors playing parts. Esther's pronunciation of some of the Yiddish terms felt forced. Maybe she was nervous, but maybe the producers were feeding her lines. Hippie chick Megan (the compulsive cleaner) and vacuous and childlike Cara especially felt to me like they were actresses portraying extreme characters, but maybe the casting people just did an amazing job finding these oddballs. Whatever the case, it doesn't make for entertaining viewing.

The central conflict of the show, repeated again and again in the debut by the narrator, is what the men will do when their mothers disapprove of their choices of women. Will they side with their mothers or their girls? In real life, there could be some real drama in this set-up. But in the world of a reality television show, in which no right-minded person could honestly believe that true love is a realistic outcome, the drama is nonexistent. Will a guy pick a fling with the 2008 Penthouse Pet of the Year (yes, she's one of the girls) or listen to his mother and shoot her down? Duh. No guy agreeing to go on a program like "Momma's Boys" is going to turn down a romp with the hottie.

"Momma's Boys" does not offer a dose of trashy, silly dating-show fun (like "Rock of Love"). Rather, it makes you uncomfortable, trying to produce entertainment from watching a racist woman spew hate (and women hurt by the words react to the comments), mothers seemingly get aroused by their sons, and a group of mostly vapid and self-esteemless women behaving in ways that set back the women's movement 50 years. "Rock of Love" may be a guilty pleasure, but watching "Momma's Boys" just makes me feel guilty.

"Double Shot of Love," by comparison, is harmless. Although I wouldn't call it much fun. Don't get me wrong, there are things in the show that could easily offend. It's just not as blatantly mean-spirited as "Momma's Boys." To me, the problem with "Double Shot of Love" is that I just wasn't entertained.

Taking over the bisexual bachelorette reins from Tila Tequila are the so-called "Ikki" twins, Vikki and Rikki. The sisters are given 12 women and 12 men from which to choose their true loves (ahem). I'm not quite sure what the twins have to offer as show leads, short of looking awesome in matching bikinis. Maybe that's all that's needed and I'm overthinking it. But the Ikki girls don't have a lot of personality, and their line readings can be extraordinarily wooden when they talk to the camera.

The guys fighting for the Ikki's affections represent a limited group: Several are tattooed, pumped-up meatheads, others are glammed-up club owners and party planners. There is a token geek, and an emo-looking singer in a band. And there is one conservative (politically) party boy who makes it through the first elimination largely because one of the twins has a thing for Boston accents. Meanwhile, the girls aren't much different from the women on most reality dating shows (like "Momma's Boys"), except for one who is more masculine than the rest.

It seems the appeal of "Double Shot of Love" comes down to watching pretty people wearing little clothing while making out a lot. Both the guys and the girls have to do a "fashion show" for the twins, the women dressing as "sexy" farm animals (in a moment of questionable taste, the one girl who was not skinny portrays a cow) and the men donning odd superhero costumes (I guess clearing actual superhero duds would have been too expensive). Throughout, there is a lot of hanging out in bathing suits and tiny outfits.

And there is lots of kissing. Several of the girls make out with the twins on the first day, as do a handful of the guys. One dude walks into the house for the first time, grabs Rikki, and shoves his tongue down her throat. He survives elimination because Vikki said he was sweet when they spoke, but her definition of sweet seems to be limited to the fact that the always obnoxious jerk didn't stick his tongue down her throat.

I give the producers credit for coming up with some inventive stunts. The contestants are brought to the mansion in giant crates (one for each gender) dangled from helicopters. I'm not convinced that they were really in there (the hidden camera footage seemed staged), but even if it was all fiction, it was a funny idea. And the first episode turns on a kind of "Parent Trap" meets "Debbie Does Dallas" gambit, as the twins pretend to be one person, taking turns meeting the contestants but not letting on that they had switched. At the end of the hour, at a pool party at which the male and female suitors are together for the first time, Ricki says she has a confession to make, framing it like she's about to admit to being a guy (although standing in her bikini, it would seem quite obvious she was a woman). She then brings out Vicki, much to the delight of the remaining contestants, male and female alike.

"Double Shot of Love" is a by-the-numbers, MTV dating show. Not good, but what do you expect from MTV nowadays? I hold NBC, on the other hand, the network of "The Office" and "30 Rock," to a higher standard. "Momma's Boys" doesn't belong on a network, managing to be creepy, joyless and offensive all at once. Suddenly, five nights of Jay Leno at 10:00 p.m. is starting to look good. So long as he doesn't bring Khalood on to let her talk about how hot her son is, and how much she wants him to be with a white woman.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cheney's Confession Should Lead to Criminal Investigation of Bush's Torture Policies

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

All it took was two words. Two simple words from Dick Cheney -- two words we're used to seeing in a completely different context -- settled a question I had been ambivalent about since Barack Obama was elected president last month. The question was, "Should Democrats go after Bush administration officials for the extra-legal activity of the last eight years?" Thanks to Cheney, I think that the Justice Department should investigate the criminal activities of, at the very least, the soon-to-be (but not soon enough) ex-vice president relating to the U.S. practice of torturing prisoners.

What were the two words? "I do." ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl interviewed Cheney on Monday and, at one point, asked him:

"[O]ne of those tactics, of course, widely reported was waterboarding. And that seems to be a tactic we no longer use. Even that you think was appropriate?"

To which Cheney replied: "I do."

Earlier in the interview, Karl asked Cheney, "Did you authorize the tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?", and Cheney replied:

"I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn't do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it."

(Keith Olbermann pointed out on Countdown last night that Cheney lied when he made that statement, since he and Bush first authorized the tactics used against Mohammed, and then the CIA came back looking for confirmation of the legality of the practices. Olbermann cited the bipartisan senate report on the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib on this point.)

In other words, the sitting vice president of the United States of America went on national television and admitted to millions of viewers that he was a war criminal.

Think I'm exaggerating? I'm not. Waterboarding has been established in international law as a form of torture that is unlawful. After World War II, American prosecutors cited waterboarding as a war crime committed by Japanese officers. They used different names, like the "water cure" and "water torture," but the practice was essentially the same.

Cheney denies that the U.S. tortured prisoners during the Bush years, but his denial is weak, since he is admitting to putting into place practices that have nearly universally been considered to be torture.

Let's be clear what we are talking about here: As Evan Wallach, a judge in the U.S. Court of International Trade who teaches the law of war at Brooklyn Law School and New York Law School, and a former JAG officer, wrote in the Washington Post in November 2007:

"The media usually characterize the practice as "simulated drowning." That's incorrect. To be effective, waterboarding is usually real drowning that simulates death."

In another article by Wallach, he describes the practice in more detail, using testimony by American military personnel who experienced waterboarding. It is chilling to read, so disturbing that I have chosen not to reproduce the passages here. If you want to read it for yourself, click on the link and do so. Let's just say that the practice is more than just unpleasant; it results in the victim experiencing actual drowning.

As angry as I was (and continue to be) about the blatant disregard for the constitution and the rule of law showed by Bush and his administration, I was always hesitant over whether going after them would do more harm than good. When the Democrats won control of Congress in November 2006, there were calls by many on the left for the party to bring impeachment charges against Bush, Cheney and others. Rep. Dennis Kucinich did, in fact, introduce impeachment resolutions against Bush and Cheney, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not allow the resolutions to move forward in the chamber.

After living through the ridiculous and baseless impeachment charges brought by the Republicans against Bill Clinton, I am leery of Congress using the impeachment hammer inappropriately. I also felt like such action would turn the truly abhorrent actions of the Bush administration into a political circus, having the effect of giving Bush and his cronies cover for their shocking behavior. "See, the Democrats are trying to score political points." And since, with 49 Republicans in the senate, it was highly unlikely any convictions would be secured, impeachment attempts would have handed Bush and the others exonerations, making it look like they had not committed any wrongful acts.

So I opposed bringing impeachment charges against anyone in the Bush administration. But the idea of Obama's Justice Department examining possible criminal charges against them raised different issues. In 2009, when Obama takes over, the country will be facing an array of difficult problems, including the worst economic downturn since World War II and wars in two countries, not to mention potentially explosvie situations in Asia from the Middle East to Pakistan. Remember, all it takes is 41 Republican senators to filibuster and kill any legislation. Addressing these problems will require Obama to gain at least some support from the Republicans. The question becomes: Do we want the new administration fighting the battles of the last president or working full-time on the problems facing the country today? Related to that, do the Democrats want to drive the Republicans into defense mode, leading to obstruction, or is it time to try and forge a more civil relationship so that Obama can get his programs through Congress?

But at the same time, I was troubled at the precedent that would be set by allowing government officials to flout the law and not be held responsible for their illegal actions. The message should be sent at all times that nobody is above the law. Say what you want about corruption in Illinois, but no shortage of the state's recent governors have found themselves behind bars (or, possibly, in Rod Blagojevich's case, on his way). Something seemed wrong -- and weak -- to me about letting Bush spend eight years taking actions that struck at the heart of American democracy, and then not holding his administration responsible for its actions. What kind of message would that send?

I was torn. And then Dick Cheney uttered those two simple words: "I do." And the scales tipped. Here's the thing: If members of the Bush administration would have at least acted like they might have done something wrong, a truth-and-reconciliation-type Congressional commission like the one currently under consideration could have found out what happened, and we could have learned our lesson and moved on. At least maybe. But if Cheney is going to go on national television and endorse torture, I feel like he has tied the hands of the country. How can we change our image, both to the rest of the world and to our own citizens, if we allow a sitting vice president to confess to supporting a policy of torture and do nothing about it?

No, Cheney has tipped the scale. I would hope that he has now forced the hand of Obama's choice for Attorney General, Eric Holder (yes, it will be Holder, the GOP whines about Marc Rich and Elian Gonzalez are acts of pathetic grandstanding that should go nowhere). I think Holder now has to investigate, in some fashion, allegations of criminal activity by members of the Bush administration, at the very least relating to torture. And he should do so, even if Bush pardons some or all of the actors involved.

Of all of Bush's enablers, Cheney was always the most unapologetic and brazen about defending the misdeeds of the administration. It will be only fitting if his decision to openly confess to aiding in torture leads to investigations of the Bush administration's illegal actions. There was a time I wasn't sure if such a course of action was wise. Thanks to Cheney, I now think we have no choice in the matter. Let's hope Obama and Holder agree.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Is Leno's Move to Prime Time Good for Television?

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

In a recent profile of Robert Downey Jr. in Entertainment Weekly, the writer noted that smoking cigarettes was one of Downey's last vices. My reaction was, “Well, smoking is bad for him, but it beats him doing heroin.” That story came to mind when I heard about NBC’s plan to hand it’s weeknight 10 p.m. slot over to Jay Leno.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should first admit that I am not a fan of Leno or his version of “The Tonight Show.” I find his monologue jokes obvious and, even worse, not funny. I think his “Jaywalking” segments, in which he asks people on the street questions in order to laugh at them when they demonstrate ignorance, is mean-spirited and more sad than funny. And I'm not a fan of Leno's interviews, which can feel impersonal at times.

But my feelings about NBC’s move have nothing to do with my opinion of Leno or his show. “The Tonight Show” and its star are unquestionably popular, earning high ratings in the late-night slot, beating the far superior (in my opinion) David Letterman. And as a fan of late night talk shows (I like both Craig Ferguson and Conan O’Brien, although I think Conan is a bad fit for the “Tonight Show” desk, but that's a discussion for another day), I certainly have no inherent problem with the genre.

So why is NBC turning over five hours a week to Leno like a drug addict smoking cigarettes? I'm getting there.

Back in February, I wrote about how the short-sighted approach taken by networks was eroding the traditional bond between the medium of television and its viewers. How nickel-and-diming the writers into a strike, as well as the practice of employing a quick hook on low-rated new shows and the substitution of mediocre cheap reality programs for underperforming quality scripted offerings, demonstrated a practice of maximizing short-term profit at the expense of the long-term health of the industry.

Moving Leno to 10:00 p.m. checks many of the same boxes as dropping reality shows onto a schedule. NBC knows that the ratings for the talk show many not be as high as some of their scripted offerings. After all, at 11:35, Leno draws less than five million people. But like reality fare, a program like "The Tonight Show" is far less expensive to produce than a scripted series, even with the host's sky-high salary. Multiply that by five, and you can see that NBC will be saving a boatload of money in production costs. That lowers the bar for the ratings. Leno doesn't have to be an "American Idol"-level smash to succeed. In fact, the show can finish third in its slot and still be hugely profitable.

But on its face, the decision to fill five hours of prime time with a talk show, possibly the hardest five hours to fill with a hit (staying up to 11 p.m. is past some people's bed times), is a blow to scripted programming. That is potentially five fewer dramas (or ten fewer sitcoms) on the air, which, in turn, means that many fewer writing staffs, casts and production crews. And, even more importantly, that is five fewer hours that a new generation of television watchers will expect scripted storytelling. With the networks having experienced a huge drop off in ratings in the last ten years in the face of challenges from cable, the Internet and other distractions, every little surrender like this one just further pushes television away from its past special place in the living rooms of Americans.

But when you look at what NBC could have done, suddenly the decision to turn the 10 p.m. block over to Leno is more like Downey smoking cigarettes rather than doing heroin. Why? Well, it could have been much worse. NBC could have filled the time period with nonsense reality programs like "The Biggest Loser." Or worse, the network could have fallen back on past vices and gone with episodes of exploitative inanity like "Dateline: To Catch a Predator." While Leno's prime-time version of the "Tonight Show" won't help NBC build loyalty with its viewers (I don't see a daily Leno offering being appointment, TiVo-Season-Pass-inspiring television), at least the network is choosing to showcase a genuine star in a proven format with a built-in audience.

And in the world of modern network television, especially with the inability of the networks to consistently turn new programs into hits ("The Mentalist" is the only debut show this season that can truly be termed a hit), "it could have been worse" is actually not too bad.

But will this be a trend? Will we soon see CBS moving Ferguson to 11:35 p.m. and Letterman to 10:00 p.m.? It would certainly save money, but CBS has its share of hits at 10:00 p.m. (although with demographics that skew geriatric). Could this inspire ABC to jump into the 10:00 p.m. slot with a talk show, either using its existing late night guy, Jimmy Kimmel, or luring a bigger name to go to war with Leno? (Fox and the CW do not program after 10:00 p.m., so they would not be able to directly compete at that hour without a change in arrangements with their affiliates.) Given Leno's strength as the premier brand in the late-night talk genre, it's doubtful that it would happen right away. But if Leno generates better-than-expected ratings at 10 p.m., and, as a result, NBC makes piles of cash, you can be sure that the other networks will be looking to replicate the formula for themselves.

So I have mixed feelings about NBC's groundbreaking new strategy. But when Leno's show hits the air next season, I will keep telling myself that at least nobody on the screen is trying to win a contest to lose the most weight.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why Are Congressional Democrats Giving in to Bush on the Auto Bailout?

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

It is a sad day for Democrats. And I'm not even talking about the unbelievable and despicable acts of corruption committed by the hare-brained and silly-haired governor of Illinois. (Although every Democrat should stand up and call for his immediate impeachment if he refuses to resign.) No, I am referring to the Democrats completely caving in to George W. Bush on the auto bailout.

You would think that winning the White House and overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress would instill some backbone into Democrats on Capitol Hill. You would, of course, be wrong.

Consider this passage from a Yahoo/AP story on the bailout negotiations:

"One potential stumbling block remained. Democrats' were still refusing to scrap language, vehemently opposed by the White House, that would force the car manufacturers to drop lawsuits challenging tough emissions limits in California and other states.

That measure "kills the deal," said Dan Meyer, Bush's top lobbyist.

Senior Democratic aides acknowledged as much Tuesday and said they expected the provision to be dropped."

So let me get this straight: Bush, with his 29 percent approval rating, has the nerve to try and dictate to the Democrats, who just won convincing victories in last month's elections, what the terms of the bailout should be, and the result is ... the Democrats acceding to Bush's demands?

Why? And how? How can the Democrats allow this to happen?

Bush wanted the bailout money to come from previously approved funds that were intended to help the automakers modernize their operations to produce greener cars, while the Democrats wanted the money to come from the $700 billion bank bailout allocations. Even though Detroit's survival is directly pegged to the companies developing the next generation of green vehicles (they have already failed in the market in developing cars consumers want to buy now), the Democrats caved.

Bush then wanted to appoint the so-called "car czar" to oversee the auto bailout money, without the Democrat-controlled Senate having the power to confirm the pick, even though Bush's term ends in a month and a half and, again, the public voted for a Democratic president and increases in the Democratic majorities in Congress. Not to mention that Bush's rhetoric has emphasized busting union contracts over the automakers making energy-efficient cars. And with all this in the hopper, what do the Democrats do? They cave, and Bush gets to pick the car czar.

But the real kick in the butt, the thing that absolutely demonstrates that congressional Democrats have no intestinal fortitude, is the issue quoted above, the requirement that the automakers drop lawsuits over emission standards.

Isn't the whole point of the bailout to let the American car companies survive so that they can make the next generation of energy-efficient cars? So why should they be allowed to fight emission standards? It should be a basic, rock-solid premise of the bailout that the automakers will be full partners in the energy policy of this country that will be seek to end dependence on foreign oil and build a green economy that will both revitalize the economy and help in the battle against global warming. By not agreeing to drop the fight over emission standards, the car companies are demonstrating loudly and clearly that they have no intention of really changing. And if that's true, they shouldn't get a penny of public money.

I just don't understand why the Democrats in Congress are caving so easily. And not just because their electoral success and Bush's all-time-low approval ratings put the party in a position of strength. What I really don't get is what the hammer is that is causing them to crumble. What is the "or else"? The answer you will hear is, "If we don't get money to General Motors and Chrysler, they will go into bankruptcy, and millions of Americans will lose their jobs." But if the party is truly looking out for the workers, why are they allowing Bush to demonize the union contracts? And, more importantly, the future of American auto workers depends on a viable industry emerging from this mess. That will not happen if money is handed to the companies so they can just continue their "business as usual" approach, one that has failed miserably and brought them to near extinction.

The Democrats in Congress should stand up and say the party supports a bailout, but only if it leads to a restructured, environmentally friendly, energy-intelligent, viable American auto industry. The deal the Democrats are striking with Bush doesn't do any of that, and congressional leaders should be strong enough to say that they won't support legislation that won't work. After all, in less than six weeks, the party will control the White House and enjoy large majorities in Congress.

By taking such an incomprehensibly weak position, the Democrats are ceding the high ground to their Republican rivals. In the Yahoo/AP article, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the proposed deal "fails to require the kind of serious reform that will ensure long-term viability for struggling automobile companies." Sadly, he's right, even if he is making the statement for the wrong reasons. By caving on the emission standards and taking the money from a fund meant to modernize the automakers' operations, the Democrats are supporting a plan that does nothing to force the car manufacturers to make more energy-efficient cars.

And there is no evidence that Detroit really understands the need to change how they do business. Thomas Friedman wrote today in his New York Times column that General Motors passed on a revolutionary new electric car plan (believe it or not, a good analogy is to the iPod and iTunes store), developed by an American company, that is about to be rolled out for testing in several countries, and that has the support of Honda, Mitsubishi and Subaru. The current management of GM just doesn't get it.

The bottom line is that the three U.S. automakers have such a failed business model, they do not deserve federal assistance. If the government is going to intervene to save American jobs, then any plan should insist that the Big Three radically change their business models. General Motors, Chrysler and Ford do not seem to want to do that, and Bush is fine with letting them go along as they are (after all, Bush is a friend to the oil companies and no help in helping to combat the effects of global warming). It is the Democrats' place to step in and have the strength to say that if the automakers want taxpayer money, they have to make changes.

But the Democrats in Congress are not acting with strength. They are behaving as if they have no power and no options. And there is no reason for it. They are battling an unpopular president whose failed administration will be swept into the dustbin of history in 41 days, and yet they are losing the fight. From the behavior of congressional Democrats, you would think that John McCain was taking the oath of office on January 20.

As damaging to the party's reputation as Rod Blagojevich's corrupt antics are, his crimes are still the acts of one man. Far more damaging to the Democrats is the inability of leaders in Congress to stand up to a lame duck president and to allow $15 billion of taxpayer money to be handed to companies that have shown nothing but arrogance and incompetence. Everyone said that Barack Obama would have to face many difficult challenges in the early days of his presidency. Sadly, one of the biggest might be the weakness and ineffectiveness of his fellow Democrats in Congress.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

"Spectacle: Elvis Costello With ..." Is a Fresh Take on the Talk Show Genre

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

The talk show format is so entrenched in television history that it's really hard to do something fresh in the genre. A guy or gal sits behind a desk (or maybe on a couch or stool) and talks to famous people who are usually plugging something. There can be tweaks (think James Lipton's "Inside the Actor's Studio"), but before long, the new approach becomes standard, too. That is why I was so impressed with the new music-themed talk show on the Sundance Channel, "Spectacle: Elvis Costello With ..." (new episodes air Wednesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern). It's fair to say that we now have a genuinely unique take on the genre.

A lot of the freshness of "Spectacle" flows from the host. Costello is not completely new to the talk show world, having sat in for David Letterman on a couple of occasions in the past. But what makes Costello such an interesting presence is that not only is he relaxed, conversational, entertaining and funny, but he is also a genuine student and fan of music. So when he interacts with his guest (the series premiere featured Elton John), he offers insight and passion that is missing from most television interviews.

The debut began with Elvis and his all-star backing band (including several members of his outfit, the Impostors, along with piano legend Allen Toussaint) performing Elton John's "Border Song," a savvy choice as the rhythms and flow of the number played to Costello's strengths as a performer.

Costello then introduced John, big-band style (with musical accompaniment and carnival barker lines like "Duke Ellington was not a real duke"), and the two dove headfirst into a joyous discussion of music. It reminded me of the final scene in Cameron Crowe's film "Almost Famous," when the rock star (played by Billy Crudup) finally sits for an interview with Patrick Fugit's teenage reporter and responds to the question of what he likes about music with: "To begin with, everything." Costello and John got into a discussion of influences, with names like Laura Nyro, Leon Russell, David Ackles and Carole King being thrown around fast and furiously. And they talked about these musicians (and others, like Norah Jones and Rufus Wainwright) not in a detached, academic way, but more like two friends talking about their buddies. It was a great dynamic for the viewer, more listening in than being shut out.

What makes Costello such a perfect host for the show is that he is a true equal in the discussion. When John made a reference to King, Costello quickly noted that she was already an established songwriter by the time she broke through as an artist with the classic album "Tapestry." Recognizing a subtle point like that enriched the whole conversation.

"Spectacle" takes a 180-degree opposite approach to the questioning from a program like Lipton's "Inside the Actor's Studio." The queries did not consist of a fawning and academic chronological rundown of John's work. Instead, discussions circled back to some of his albums, not always in any kind of logical order. The conversation dictated the biography, not the other way around. So it was more natural and less forced than most talk show conversations.

And because Costello could engage John as a colleague, it led to stories that strayed from the tried-and-true anecdotes we've all heard about a performer like John, who has been in the public spotlight for so long. Nothing felt rehashed. We didn't just hear stories about how John and long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin write separately, but we were treated to anecdotes about a young Taupin staying with John in his mom's house in suburban North London, and how the two men would go to the record store each day to pick up music that they could ferociously study and dissect to see why it all worked.

John added astute observations, like how much more varied the musical influences were then (soul, blues, folk and pop all being thrown into one big barrel), and more amusing ones, like how he and Taupin always looked for the American pressings of records because the cardboard was better, and how English fans considered the U.S. issues of records to be the definitive versions, while American fans felt that way about the U.K. ones.

And the relaxed, conversational style also coaxed more personal stories from John, with Costello content to let his guest speak without interruption for long stretches, something you would be less likely to witness from a classic talk show host. John's confessions ranged from how Russell's acceptance of him gave him the confidence to succeed as a performer, how important Taupin is to him (they've never had an argument in 41 years), how his ambition was to have any job in music (musician, executive, even record store clerk) so he was thrilled but surprised to be a pop star, and how much he learned about stage craft when, before he was a successful solo artist, he played in Patti LaBelle's back-up band (which featured a pre-Supremes Cindy Birdsong). John also lamented how artists in the 1960s were not compensated properly, telling a story about how he picked up Martha and the Vandellas at the airport when they came to England for a tour, but it was "shocking" that he had to give them money because they didn't have funds to pick up their dry cleaning.

I think my favorite moment of the show was when Costello and John discussed their stage names. Costello admitted that his manager came up with his, and he seemed happy enough about it (saying he wore it like "a suit of armor"), noting that if he performed under his real name, Declan MacManus, the audience would be "expecting a guy in a cable-knit sweater singing whaling songs." But the name change seemed more personal for John, who was born Reginald Dwight, even though he picked it in a hurry (Elton was the name of his sax player). At first, he mirrored Costello's approach, expressing that "if you're going to make a record, Reg Dwight is not going to make it." But he went on to explain that he no longer thinks of himself as Reginald Dwight and hates when people call him that, even relating that he used to cringe when Eric Clapton insisted on calling him Reg (but that he couldn't stand up to Clapton "because he's God"). The discussion produced an insight into John's vulnerability that you wouldn't catch in virtually any other talk show.

It was also helpful that there was a piano on stage, so John could hop on to explain some of his points, whether it was how his "Burn Down the Mission" was heavily influenced by Nyro's groundbreaking writing style (she "broke the template"), or how Russell's piano style differed from his own (complete with a dead-on impression of Russell's playing and singing).

By the time Costello and John, joined by the band, dueted on Ackles's "Down River" to wrap up the show, the hour had flown by, and the line between performance and talk show, interview and conversation, had been completely blurred, producing something wonderful and unique.

Future episodes will feature diverse guests like Lou Reed (with Julian Schnabel), James Taylor, the Police, Tony Bennett, Rufus Wainwright, Herbie Hancock and some little known sax player named Bill Clinton who held some other important job outside of music.

"Spectacle" is a real treat, an opportunity to listen in as a great performer and songwriter like Costello, who also happens to be especially engaging, hangs out and jams with some of the most important musicians of the last 50 years.

Early in his career, in 1981, Costello proved himself to be mature and insightful (as well as funny) in a great interview with Tom Snyder on the "Tomorrow Show." (You can watch the interview and performances, part one here and part two here, including Costello discussing his famous dust-up on "Saturday Night Live.") It's not surprising that the young punk rocker would grow up to be a stellar television host himself, even if he rejects the notion of "maturing" in the interview. If Snyder was still alive, I have no doubt he would heartily approve of "Spectacle." I certainly do. And if you give it a watch, I'm sure you will, too.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bush's Interview wtih Charlie Gibson Marks the Start of His Effort to Revise History

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

The inevitable campaign to revise the history of the George W. Bush presidency has apparently begun. In an interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson broadcast on Monday, the soon-but-not-soon-enough-to-be ex-president made several eye-roll-inducing statements that feel like the first salvo in a war to completely recast the Bush years.

I'm all for Barack Obama's mantra of looking forward. I was even fine with his decision to let Joe Lieberman back into the fold. But sometimes it's okay to look backwards, and we have to make sure our history is accurate so that we decrease the chances of repeating our mistakes. And the eight years of Bush's presidency were chock full of sins, mortal and otherwise. That's why I think it's essential that, as a country, we are vigilant about not letting Bush or his team of enablers prevent us from remembering what actually happened when he was president.

For example, in discussing the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush claimed: "I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess." He makes it sound as if he was a passive receiver of the reports on the subject, and that the existence of WMDs was the real reason he started the war in Iraq. We know now that neither of those claims are true; that the president cherry-picked intelligence information to make his case for war in Iraq, and that the weapons of mass destruction were merely a pretense for that war. As former CIA director George Tenet told Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes last April, as early as the day after the 9/11 attacks, the White House had started using the tragedy to justify action in Iraq, with Pentagon advisor Richard Perle telling Tenet, "Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday, they bear responsibility," even though Tenet knew that Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks.

The Iraq war must be remembered as being a result of Bush's foreign policy objectives, not as an unfortunate byproduct of Bush getting bad intelligence on WMDs.

What really bugged me about the Gibson interview was Bush's effort to portray himself as a compassionate advocate for the American people. He said at one point:
"One of the things about the presidency is you deal with a lot of tragedy -- whether it be hurricanes, or tornadoes, or fires or death -- and you spend time being the comforter-in-chief." But it was Bush's disdain for government and the people it serves, as evidenced by his policy of appointing unqualified political cronies to run agencies like FEMA, that helped intensify the effects of Hurricane Katrina, the biggest natural disaster his administration faced. People died while Bush and his administration did nothing. That should be the take-away point from the Bush administration's handling of crises, not that he was some kind of "comforter-in-chief."

Similarly, Bush made wholly ludicrous claims to Gibson about trying to change how partisan Washington was. He said he "knew that the president has the responsibility to try to elevate the tone, and, frankly, it just didn't work, much as I'd like to have it work." He would have liked to have it work? This is the president whose Justice Department asked nonpolitical appointees about their political allegiances (and researched their political activities). This is the president who treated the Justice Department like his personal law firm, ensuring that it protected his administration's officials rather than the rights of the American people. This is the president whose administration outed the identity of an undercover CIA agent as retribution for her husband writing (accurately) that a claim made in Bush's State of the Union address was false. And this is the president who commuted the sentence of an official in his administration who had been convicted for lying and obstructing justice in the investigation of the identification of the CIA agent.

In short, this was the most political, divisive president in recent history, who took the approach that "working together" meant doing exactly what he wanted. For him to now claim that he wanted to "elevate the tone" of political discourse is absolutely laughable. Bush said, "9/11 unified the country, and that was a moment where Washington decided to work together. I think one of the big disappointments of the presidency has been the fact that the tone in Washington got worse, not better." But nobody was more responsible for the deterioration in the tone in Washington than the president himself.

I was also struck by Bush's effort in the Gibson interview to absolve himself of blame for the subprime mortgage crisis and near collapse of the financial system. He said: "You know, I'm the president during this period of time, but I think when the history of this period is written, people will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so, before I arrived ... And when people review the history of this administration, people will say that this administration tried hard to get a regulator."

Look, by no means was Bush the only one responsible for what happened. The Clinton administration also moved to free the financial industry from regulation. But it is certainly false that Bush "tried hard to get a regulator," with recent reports (like this one from, of all places, Fox News) revealing that the administration ignored warnings about the imminent dangers posed by the rampant practice of extending of unwise mortgages. To me, the big point here is that no president (maybe even no political figure) has stood as more of a towering symbol of the leave-corporations-alone, the-free-market-cures-all approach to governing than Bush. And the recent economic collapse has been a total repudiation of this position. For Bush to portray himself now as someone who sought to limit the abuses on Wall Street is nothing short of absurd.

Bush also made silly statements in the interview on topics like immigration and how he "kept (Americans) safe for eight years" (conveniently forgetting that he was the president during the 9/11 attacks and how his administration ignored warnings that some kind of terrorist action was imminent, including a memo entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" ), but you get the general drift.

We need to push back on efforts like this interview to recast the Bush presidency. It's important that we remember that Bush is not the "comforter-in-chief," but the guy who oversaw and/or was directly responsible for illegal wiretapping, the demise of habeas corpus, the adoption of torture, denying and then ignoring global warming, failing to address America's dependence of foreign oil and failing to develop any kind of energy policy that didn't involve putting more money into the pockets of oil companies, blocking advances in stem-cell research, eschewing competence in government in favor of ideology and religion, the subprime mortgage scandal, numerous government failures in areas ranging from FEMA to mining to product safety, the politicization of the Justice Department, the shoddy treatment of veterans, deteriorating relationships with the rest of the world, and, most of all, the unnecessary, financially draining, national-reputation-staining, poorly managed war and occupation in Iraq, which will stand as one of the greatest foreign policy blunders in American history and resulted in the loss of thousands of soldiers, the disruptions of the lives of tens of thousands of military personnel and their families, the placement of U.S. military preparedness at a dangerously low level, and the expenditure of approaching a trillion dollars (including the disappearance of billions of dollars for which there is no accounting).

The colossal failures of the Bush administration should be what is remembered about Bush's eight years in office, not some feeble attempt to show what a principled guy he was.

When asked by Gibson what advice Bush had for Obama, Bush said: "One of my parting words to him will be: 'If I can help you, let me know.'" For the sake of the country, I hope Obama never calls on Bush to help with anything. After eight years of failure leading to the dire circumstances in which the country finds itself, I'm not sure we can stand any more of Bush's help.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thankful for Simple Pleasures on Thanksgiving

[The editors of Huffingtonpost.com asked me to write a Thanksgiving-themed column. What appears below is the result. You can access it on Huffingtonpost.com from my author page here.]

I have so many important things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

I could write about how thankful I am that my country decided to send a smart, forward-thinking Democrat to the White House just four short years after re-electing a historically awful president who had demonstrated his incompetence in myriad ways, including ensnaring the nation in a needless, poorly managed and draining war in Iraq. And I could express my thanks that my country, with a difficult history of race under its belt, looked to an African American candidate to lead us at such a difficult time, no matter if a voter opted for Barack Obama despite his race, because of it (for what it would mean symbolically to the world), or if race had no bearing on the decision at all.

I could write about how thankful I am that Arianna and her stellar editorial staff have allowed me to express my opinions in such an important forum like Huffingtonpost.com, and that so many people seem to read my work and chime in with their own comments.

And I could write about how thankful I am to have a supportive and loving wife, a great family, and a fun and inspiring group of friends.

But I won't be writing about any of these important things, mainly because I just don't think it would be especially interesting to anyone not named Mitchell Bard. No, instead, I'm going to express my thanks for some of the simple pleasures in my life. Because no matter how silly nearly everything on my list is, every item brings me joy on a regular basis.

I am thankful for the Mount Rushmore of current network situation comedies: How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, 30 Rock and The Office. I am old enough to remember a time when comedies dominated the networks' schedules (as well as the ratings), when a serial drama meant a nighttime soap and a reality program was the news. So with fewer and fewer sitcoms on the air, I savor the 30-minute bursts of smart, original laughs these four programs provide to me, week after funny week. And with the news the way it's been the last few months (years, really), we all need to laugh.

While I listen to all kinds of rock music, I am thankful that I have recently rediscovered my guilty-pleasure love of rock anthems, which make me smile and allow me to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. My five favorite classic rock anthems, which I define as dramatic, emotional, over-the-top songs in which the singer seems to be pleading for us to do something and which contain at least one passage that induces audiences to pump their fists, are, in order: "Baba O'Riley" by the Who, "More than a Feeling" by Boston, "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" by U2, and "Alive" by Pearl Jam (with honorable mention to "Highway to Hell" by AC/DC, "I Love Rock N' Roll" by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, "Juke Box Hero" by Foreigner, "Livin' on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi, and "Find Your Way Back" by Jefferson Starship).

And speaking of music, I am thankful that my midlife crisis this year didn't involve a sports car or a fling with a younger woman, but instead led me to purchase tickets to seven concerts this past summer, all by artists who got their starts in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s (The Eagles, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Billy Joel, Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, a triple bill of Cheap Trick/Heart/Journey, Pearl Jam, and the Regeneration Tour, which featured Naked Eyes, Flock of Seagulls, ABC, Belinda Carlisle and the Human League).

I am thankful that even as I make my way into my early 40s, I can still appreciate a stellar teen movie like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, which features two talented, relatable and likable leads; genuinely smart and funny writing; and a dead-on eye for downtown Manhattan (not to mention a great soundtrack).

I am thankful that after more than 200 trips to Yankee Stadium in my lifetime, I still got a thrill all 10 times I entered the Cathedral of Baseball this past season, and was genuinely emotional during my last trip to the stadium for the third-to-last home game ever in the old building. And I am thankful that despite the Yankees pricing box seats in the new stadium at an amount roughly equal to the gross domestic product of several Central American countries, I will still be able to retain my $25 nosebleed seats for my Friday night season ticket plan next season.

And while we're discussing ridiculously overpriced sports tickets, I am thankful that this year I got to attend my first Arsenal match at the wondrous Emirates Stadium in North London and not only enjoy 90 minutes of outstanding atmosphere, including non-stop chanting and singing, but also witness a 2-0 victory for the Gunners.

And finally, I am thankful for my pet rabbit Oscar, who can be found roaming free in our kitchen and living room. Despite being convinced at every moment of his life that predators are out to get him, he manages to remain a ridiculously cute, well-behaved and entertaining presence in our home. Maybe there is a lesson in there for all of us. Or maybe it's just fun to watch a rabbit submerge his head in a pile of hay looking for the perfect strand to munch on. I'll leave that for you to decide.

I wish everyone a happy and peaceful Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 21, 2008

It's Time for a War on War on the "War on Christmas"

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

After enduring eight years of a president who was determined to impose his religious beliefs on the country, I've just about had it with people trying to shove religion down my throat. Maybe that is why I have no patience for the (completely ludicrous) claim that there is a "War on Christmas," made by right-wingers like Bill O'Reilly. But what put me over the top is that now a deputy editor of the once reputable Wall Street Journal has weighed in on the issue, actually equating the current economic crisis with the fact that people say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

Daniel Henninger wrote in the WSJ yesterday:

"This year we celebrate the desacralized 'holidays' amid what is for many unprecedented economic ruin -- fortunes halved, jobs lost, homes foreclosed. People wonder, What happened? One man's theory: A nation whose people can't say 'Merry Christmas' is a nation capable of ruining its own economy."

Henninger's point is that the economic downturn was caused by "borrowers, lenders and securitizer shamans" who were "operating in a zero-gravity environment, aloft on moral hazard," which was due to a loss of "responsibility, restraint and remorse." He goes on to say that "responsibility and restraint are moral sentiments," and that "the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous." He claims that the "disappearance of 'Merry Christmas'" is indicative of this "dereligioning." Thus, the link between not saying "Merry Christmas" and the failing economy.

Convinced? Me neither.

Somehow, people like Henninger and O'Reilly think it's important that people say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays." But what Henninger and O'Reilly don't seem to want to understand is that the United States of America, as much as they would like it to be otherwise, is not a Christian nation. The majority of its citizens may currently be Christian, but, again, that does not make the country, as an institution, Christian.

(Full disclosure: I am a nonreligious Jew, so the "War on Christmas" crowd will, no doubt, dismiss all of my opinions.)

The last time I checked, the First Amendment was still in full force and effect. As a reminder, it says:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

You will notice in the very first words of the Bill of Rights that the founders made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that there was to be no one religion "established" for the country. The First Amendment makes clear that everyone should be allowed to practice his/her religious faiths ("or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"), but that no one faith was to be elevated above the others by the government. Being Christian does not make one more American.

And yet that is exactly what the O'Reillys and Hennigers of the world seem to want. I'm sorry to report this fact to them, but not everyone in this country celebrates Christmas. According to a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study from earlier this year, 1.7 percent of the population identified themselves as Jewish, 0.6 percent as Muslim, 0.7 percent as Buddhist, 0.4 percent as Hindu, 0.7 percent as Jehovah's Witness, and more than 0.2 percent as from "other world religions." On top of that, according to the Pew study, more than 16 percent of Americans do not consider themselves any religion.

All of that translates into millions of people who do not celebrate Christmas. Do O'Reilly and Henninger think that these people should be made to feel "other," outsiders in the American experience? I hope not. That is not what America is about. Many of the founders of the country moved here to flee religious persecution. They just wanted to be free to practice their own religion here. And that doesn't mean that only they get to do so.

This country has some tragic history when it comes to its treatment of minorities. We enslaved African Americans as recently as 145 years ago, and we had laws on the books repressing them until quite recently. It was only 65 years ago that we rounded up American citizens who just happened to be of Japanese descent and placed them into internment camps solely because of their country of origin. And it was only two weeks ago that three states voted to amend their constitutions to ensure that homosexuals cannot enjoy the same marriage rights as heterosexuals.

In light of that history, it seems to me that we, as a nation, should be looking at more ways to come together and make everyone feel a part of the American family, not stressing our differences and making those in the minority feel as though they are not true Americans. And through the simple act of saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," we, as a country, can show our tolerance for other faiths and make everyone feel a part of the holiday season.

If nothing else, doesn't it come down to simple manners? Why would you want to say "Merry Christmas" to someone that doesn't celebrate the holiday? Clearly, such a greeting is only going to make the recipient uncomfortable, pointing out that he/she does not practice the same religion that the majority of the country does. Meanwhile, the dreaded "Happy Holidays" invocation is actually inclusive and polite, saying, in effect, "There are a lot of holidays this time of year, so if any of them apply to you, we hope it's a nice time for you." Isn't such a tolerant attitude more in keeping with what the United States is supposed to represent?

Of course, nothing I've said would stop those who observe Christmas from going to church, decorating their houses (inside and out) and celebrating with their families and friends. And certainly, saying "Happy Holidays" in public venues doesn't stop two people from greeting each other with "Merry Christmas" when they both observe the holiday. My only point is that in public displays, when not all of the recipients will be Christian, there is nothing wrong with using the more inclusive "Happy Holidays." That idea hardly constitutes a "War on Christmas."

There is also a dangerous, insidious strain to the movement complaining of a "War on Christmas." Go back to Henninger's words in the WSJ. He says that "the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous." I refuse to accept that the immorality of finance professionals is due to a lack of religious piety. The implication is that without religion, there can be no morals or ethics. I, and I'm sure many others out there, absolutely reject such an assumption. Moral behavior does not have to come from the teachings of a religion. An atheist is every bit as capable of drawing on his/her beliefs to lead an ethical life as a religious person.

And by turning to an argument about Christmas, Henninger is also implying that it's not enough to be religious, you have to be an adherent of his religion. That is certainly a dangerous idea, and it is also completely sanctimonious, given the myriad scandals that have enveloped U.S. churches in recent years. Being religious didn't stop, for example, priests from molesting boys (and the church covering it up), nor did it prevent Rev. Ted Haggard, the founder of the New Life Church, from getting caught buying crystal meth and patronizing a male prostitute (after crusading against homosexuals).

I would further argue that the injection of religion into politics has not produced the kind of moral and ethical behavior Henninger longs for. It seems to me that the emergence of an argument that if you oppose the Republican party and support the Democrats, you are somehow not righteous in the eyes of the church, is a pretty dangerous way of thinking. I don't think it's helpful that a South Carolina priest would tell his parishioners that they should not accept Holy Communion if they voted for Barack Obama. And I don't think the national interest is served by actions like the recently deposed Republican North Carolina U.S. House of Representatives member Robin Hayes saying during the campaign that "liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God."

Clearly, I'm not making the argument that all religious people are bad. (Sorry, but I can't help but anticipate the potential "he is criticizing religion!" charge of those who believe there is a "War on Christmas.") What I am saying is that there is nothing in being religious that makes someone inherently more moral and ethical than someone who is not religious.

So you'll forgive me if I don't buy into the Henniger/O'Reilly view of America. I see this country as a place in which we respect the religious beliefs of all of our citizens, and, more importantly, we would not seek to impose our faiths on our neighbors. And yes, I would like to see a country where we don't seek to make non-Christian citizens feel like they are not part of the national fabric by pointing out to them, again and again, that they are different than a majority.

Or, put another way, I want to live in a tolerant, respectful country that says "Happy Holidays," rather than a divisive nation that seeks to make people uncomfortable by saying "Merry Christmas." Isn't that what "peace on earth, good will toward man" entails? There is no war on Christmas. We only ask that those who celebrate the holiday not insist that those who don't celebrate with them. Actually, that statement of my belief is my declaration of war on the war on the "War on Christmas."

Happy holidays everyone.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Samantha Who?" and "The Big Bang Theory" Are Very Different, but Both Deliver Laughs

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

"Samantha Who?" (ABC, Mondays at 9:30 Eastern) and "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS, Mondays at 8:00 Eastern) have a couple of things in common. They are both sitcoms in their second seasons, and both air on Monday nights. But beyond those surface facts, the two programs are different in nearly every way. Well, except one: They're both funny.

"Samantha Who?" is an ambitious, single-camera comedy that burst onto the scene last season with high ratings, mainly thanks to its cushy scheduling slot after "Dancing with the Stars." The high-concept premise follows Sam (Christina Applegate) as she wakes up from a coma with amnesia (she was hit by a car), only to discover that she was a mean, boozing, selfish, cut-throat workaholic before her injury. Determined to be a better person, she sets out to do better, which isn't easy, since she is surrounded by a motley crew of potential obstacles: her manipulative, trophy-wife-gone-to-seed mother, Regina (Jean Smart); her fellow barracuda best friend Andrea (Jennifer Esposito); and her awkward, Newfie-loving, terminally uncool childhood best friend Dena (Melissa McCarthy), who used Sam's amnesia as a way of reinserting herself into Sam's life.

The first season of "Samantha Who?" was clever and ambitious, and Applegate showed a great comic touch, especially in essentially playing two characters: the current "good Sam," and, in flashbacks, the old "bad Sam." (You can read the review I wrote last year here.) As last season came to a close, "Samantha Who?" had cemented a place on ABC's schedule, and I had high hopes for the future.

Which is why the season premiere was such a disappointment. The episode turned on a predictable and less-than-funny dance contest that Regina wanted to win over her long-time rival. She dumps her delighted husband (Kevin Dunn) as her partner in favor of Sam after seeing one of her old dance recital videos (Applegate, who starred on Broadway in "Sweet Charity," certainly knows how to move). But, of course, post-accident Sam turns out to have forgotten how to dance. By the time the episode's climactic contest scene rolled around, in which Regina asks Sam to dance with her, even though she's awful, I felt like I was watching any run-of-the-mill sitcom, not one that was so promising last season.

Luckily, as the season wore on, the show started to find its footing again. An episode about Sam deciding to work as a volunteer in Africa, but then chickening out and going into hiding in Chicago instead, had as silly a premise as the season premiere, but the comedy was sharper, and it was good to see "good Sam" in a little more human way. Things got much better with the next installment, "The Pill," in which Sam's doctor gives her a pill that helps restore some of her memories (but only while she's under the influence of the drug). The flashbacks gave Applegate the chance to play "bad Sam," to great comic effect. By the time the end of the episode rolls around, and Sam is desperately trying to act on what she has discovered about herself and her relationship with her ex-boyfriend/current roommate, Todd (Barry Watson), before the drug wears off, the "Memento"-like sequence was both funny and heart-tugging. In other words, like the old "Samantha Who?"

"The Pill" seemed to turn the tide, and the three offerings that followed, which have concentrated on Sam's new relationship with a wealthy environmentalist, Owen (James Tupper), and her new real estate business with Regina, were much stronger. Sam working her way through her feelings for Todd has been fertile ground for comedy and plot development, and her "Odd Couple"-like business interactions with her mother have been very entertaining (like Regina's declaration that cupcakes are in for house showings, while chocolate chip cookies are passe, but Sam saves the day by serving smores).

To me, "Samantha Who?" works best when the action revolves around Samantha. I still don't like Tim Russ's doorman, Frank, which I still think is a case of monumental miscasting, and as much as I loved McCarthy as Sookie on "Gilmore Girls," Dena is like Sookie on amphetamines, and she's sometimes a bit hard to take. As is spending time with the with the loathsome Andrea, who starts to grate after a while. I am totally uninterested in whether she will succumb to the wooing of Todd's old friend Seth (Stephen Rannazzisi). But when we are with Sam, the show works. Full credit to Applegate, who gives the performance of her career, and to the writers, led by executive producer Donald Todd, a true TV veteran (he was a writer on "Alf"), who keep things funny and interesting.

As an aside, Applegate's breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent double mastectomy before the season started hasn't been a distraction. I'd challenge anyone who didn't know about the story to see any difference in her performance, wardrobe or appearance. Obviously, Applegate's health is far more important than "Samantha Who?", but it's nice that she seems to have both under control.

"The Big Bang Theory" is, in so many ways, the opposite of "Samantha Who?" "Big Bang" is a traditional, multi-camera, studio-set sitcom, with more of a set-up-punch approach to its comedy. When it debuted last year in the slot after the great "How I Met Your Mother," I thought it was funny, but I wasn't sure there was enough there to support an ongoing show. (You can read my review here.) A little more than a year later, I am happy to say that the concept works just fine.

Far less plot oriented than "Samantha Who?", and also less interested in character development, "Big Bang" goes straight for the laughs. The program follows roommates and friends Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons), two physicists who share an apartment in a slightly run-down Pasadena building. In last year's pilot, blonde aspiring actress Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moved in across the hall, and Leonard was immediately smitten. The Penny-Leonard will-they-or-won't-they arc was the closest thing "Big Bang" had to a an overriding plot, and it was nearly disposed of in last season's finale and this season's debut. Leonard and Penny finally go on a date in the finale, but by the end of the first episode of this season, Leonard had blown things, and the two were just friends again. So much for any plot dependence.

"Big Bang" is happy to introduce a new story each week meant to mine comedy from its ensemble. Leonard is the more socially adept of the roommates, able to successfully interact with other human beings in normal situations. He's even been able to bed two women this year, including fellow scientist Leslie (played by Galecki's former "Roseanne" castmate Sara Gilbert, who is a recurring presence on the show). But Leonard knows he's a nerd, and while he's not entirely happy about it (he will often try and hide a geeky activity when Penny enters the room), he also has enough self-esteem to know that he's fine as he is. As the more human of the two, Leonard is the heart of the show. He's the guy we're rooting for.

Sheldon, on the other hand, is the guy who makes us laugh. Although Sheldon may not always know why. He is completely befuddled by societal niceties (and he only has a passing interest in them, at best). For example, when a science groupie offers to bring Sheldon dinner, he doesn't see she is smitten by him, so that when Leonard asks him if he knows what just happened, he responds, "Yes, I just got a free dinner." Sheldon is really not, by any definition, a nice person, what with his single-minded pursuit of his goals (which range from his lofty science ambitions to his refusal to change his everyday routines, like where he sits in the apartment and what night the group plays "Halo"). But as "Big Bang" is going for laughs first and foremost, we, as an audience, are more likely to give Sheldon a pass, especially since, nearly always, he faces comeuppance for his selfish actions.

The excellent ensemble is rounded out by the two scientists who hang out with Leonard and Sheldon. Raj, from India, somehow plays into and also explodes the worst TV stereotypes of people from his country. His computer video conversations with his parents, which bring out the cultural tug-of-war Raj experiences, are always good for laughs. He is no wilting flower around the guys, but in the presence of a woman, he is unable to speak (unless he's drunk, in which case he becomes another person, confident and arrogant).

The funniest character on the show just might be Howard (Simon Helberg), usually referred to by his last name, Wolowitz. Howard lives with his mother and "only" has a Masters in engineering (as Sheldon likes to remind him, even though he builds stuff for the space program), but he is constantly on the prowl, trying to land beautiful women. You have to give the guy credit for taking so much abuse but continuing to move forward. While watching "America's Next Top Model" (a shameless plug for a corporate sibling of "Big Bang"), Howard refers to each of the women as "the future Mrs. Walowitz," and he ends up using every scientific tool at his and Raj's disposal to track down the models' house. Once they get there, when Raj asks which way they should go, he says, of course, to "follow Mrs. Walowitz."

The producers made a smart decision this season to slowly develop Penny from the kind of traditional sweet-but-dumb bimbo she was early last season into a more three-dimensional character. Penny now may not be book smart, but she is certainly sharp enough when it comes to people. A credit to the show is that even though Penny has dated a parade of good-looking guys, you totally believe she would hang out with the four dweebs in the apartment next store. Because to Penny, they are not just four dweebs. They are individuals: One she genuinely likes (Leonard), one she tolerates (barely) because she understands that he doesn't know better (Sheldon), one she likes but can't really have much of a relationship with because he's mute around her (Raj), and one she can laugh at while rejecting his advances (Howard).

"Big Bang" has developed into the kind of solid, funny sitcom that used to be more common on the networks' schedules. It is looking for a broader audience than "30 Rock" or "The Office," and it doesn't aim to be as cinematic as "Samantha Who?" It just wants to make audiences laugh. And it does so, in fact much more so than "Two and a Half Men" (Chuck Lorre is an executive producer on both "Big Bang" and "Two and a Half Men").

As different as "Big Bang" and "Samantha Who" are, they both deliver laughs on Monday nights. And with so few sitcoms on the air right now, I am grateful to have them both.