Thursday, March 27, 2008

Britney Wasn’t the Biggest Guest Star on “How I Met Your Mother” This Week

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

It was the most hype the modestly-watched sitcom had ever faced. The media breathlessly reported that Britney Spears was going to make her latest comeback with a guest appearance on “How I Met Your Mother” (CBS, Mondays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern). If you asked me immediately after I watched the episode, which aired on Monday, “What did you think of Britney?”, my response would have been, “Britney was in this episode?”

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but you have to understand that despite the middling ratings, “Mother” has a strong fan base who appreciates this smart, innovative comedy that manages to balance wacky time-shifting plot lines; clever, conversational dialogue; and well-developed, interesting characters with quirks that are both funny and real. As a proud, charter member of the “Mother” fan base, I watched the hype and hoped that Spears’s appearance wouldn’t put a damper on one of my favorite programs, which was only just returning from its strike-imposed hiatus. But when the episode aired, I got an unexpected surprise, and it had nothing to do with Spears. Because in the opening scene of the show, I, and I’m sure many “Mother” fans, immediately realized that the press had seriously buried the lead. At least for us.

Monday’s episode, for “Mother” fans, didn’t turn out to be about a supporting part played by a fading teen pop starlet. No, Monday night was all about the guest star turn of Sarah Chalke (Dr. Elliot Reed on “Scrubs”) playing, believe it or not, yet another doctor, albeit a far less neurotic one than the woman who can be heard yelling “frick!” in the halls of Sacred Heart Hospital. On “Mother,” Chalke played Stella, a dermatologist with a tattoo removal practice, who is the latest potential love interest for Ted (Josh Radnor). Series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas knew exactly what they were doing in pulling off the Spears-Chalke bait and switch. The episode opens with a shot of Ted seemingly looking at Spears (as Stella’s assistant, Abby, who has an unrequited crush on Ted), while Bob Saget (as future Ted) talks in a voice over about how sometimes you see someone and instantly know that she is the person for you. Only, just when you’re sure Saget is talking about Spears, Chalke comes through the door, grabbing Ted’s attention (and ours).

Since I am also a huge “Scrubs” fan, putting “Scrubs” and “Mother” on the Mount Rushmore of current sitcoms with “30 Rock” and “The Office,” watching Chalke effortlessly banter “Mother”-style with Radnor was kind of like a sci-fi geek watching Princess Leia making out with Counselor Troi. Two worlds colliding in a most pleasing way. Chalke fit in seamlessly with the stellar “Mother” cast, enjoying entertaining scenes with Jason Segal’s Marshall (he goes to check out Stella for Ted, but quickly becomes sidetracked by an iffy mole on his neck) and Neil Patrick Harris’s Barney (Stella confesses her "foliculaphilia" -- mustache fetish -- to Barney, even if the conversation later turns out to have never really happened, part of a lie told by Barney to trick Ted). With “Scrubs” finishing its run this season, it would certainly be good news if Chalke were to join the cast of “Mother” for next season. I am sure that Stella interacting with the girls, Marshall’s wife Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Ted’s ex Robin (Cobie Smulders), would be equally entertaining.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Enough with the worship of the show and tell us about Spears! Fine. While I certainly wasn’t happy about someone as talentless as Britney potentially muddying the pristine waters of the “Mother”land, I was pretty excited at all the attention the sitcom was getting. After all, it has not yet been picked up for next season, so anything that helps put the show on the radar is a good thing. And in fact, the episode garnered more than 10 million viewers, by far its highest tally of the season. So it was a positive experience.

I know, you’re now saying: No, the performance! How was her acting? Was she any good? Was she a train wreck? Did she flash the screen while going commando? Okay. I suppose I have to talk about her acting. Did the presence of the questionably sane Spears bring down the show? No. Her part was small, and while she certainly wasn’t good, delivering rushed, over-the-top, gimmicky line readings that were out of step with the rest of the cast, the damage was minimal. Her character was meant to provide comic relief, not carry the plot forward. And even with her amateurish performance, some of her lines got laughs. Oh, and she kept her nether regions covered at all times. So at least we had that going for us.

Despite the risks, Spears’s appearance was worth it. If people tuned in to see if she would make a fool of herself (come on, few people were watching and hoping that she was good) and came away with an appreciation for this top-quality comedy, then that’s a good thing.

“Mother” asks more of its viewers in terms of remembering past episodes than any other comedy on the air. The show routinely pays off jokes set up episodes earlier, and does so without any explanations, expecting its fans to get the reference. And yet, amazingly, anyone who tuned in for the first time on Monday night to catch Spears was perfectly able to enjoy the action on its own terms. Whether it was Barney ruining one of Ted’s 10 chances to impress Stella by tricking him into growing a mustache just to win a bet, or Lily sending Barney for a “time-out” at their regular bar when he performs a magic trick involving fire, the moments worked on their own, even if you’ve never seen a minute of the program before. And yet die-hard fans were treated to call-backs that added another layer to the humor, like Ted’s mustache and the gang’s regular taxi driver (and his signature “hello!”) chauffeuring Ted and Stella on their date.

While Monday’s episode, as a whole, did not live up to the standard of “Mother” at its absolute best, it ended on a very positive note, featuring one of the sweetest and cleverest moment’s in the program’s history, one I hope will charm newbies into coming back. Knowing that Stella only has two minutes to eat lunch and no other time to socialize, Ted arranges a two-minute date that includes dinner, a movie, a walk and dessert. (You can watch it here.) Set to “Thirteen” by Big Star, the sequence is heartwarming in the way the best movie romantic comedies can be, and yet contained a flurry of lines to make you laugh (like, after watching about five seconds of “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” Ted says, “Worst movie ever,” to which Stella replies, “Yeah, I almost walked out, like, five times.”).

(In case you are wondering what I consider to be the classic episodes of “Mother,” there are so many to choose from, but I always go back to the first season’s what-happened-to-Ted-last-night yarn “The Pineapple Incident” and the second season’s “Slap Bet,” which introduced us to both Robin’s teen pop incarnation Robin Sparkles and, well, the concept of a slap bet.)

Maybe I’m so blasé about Spears’s turn on the program because “Mother” fans are used to guest stars who you would not expect to see on a sitcom with not-so-great ratings. Past episodes have featured Mandy Moore, Heidi Klum, Wayne Brady, Enrique Iglesias, John Cho, Bryan Cranston and Jane Seymour. So you’ll forgive us if we don’t get too excited about Spears’s few minutes on “Mother.” But if the appearance of one tabloid sensation brings new viewers and some much-needed time in the national pop culture spotlight, well, it’s a small price to pay.

Maybe I have a new answer when people ask me, “How was Britney?” Rather than saying, “Who cares?”, which is how I’d like to respond, maybe I’ll just say, “She drew more than 10 million people to the show.” Ultimately, to those of us who love “How I Met Your Mother,” that statistic, and the improved chance of surviving for another year, is far more important than the level of suckitude of Spears’s performance. Now, if someone would just ask me, “How was Sarah Chalke on the show?” That would put a smile on my face.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

McCain's Iraq Claims Are Based on a Myth

"[A] central battleground in the battle against al-Qaeda is in Iraq today."
"We're succeeding. I don't care what anybody says. I've seen the facts on the ground."
- John McCain, March 25, 2008, according to an AP story in USA Today

John McCain has plainly said that his fate in November's election may very well be tied directly to his stance in Iraq. Namely, his view that the surge has been successful, and that the United States needs to stay in Iraq, otherwise, al-Qaeda will win.

There are two major problems with McCain's basic premise. The average voter may be surprised to learn who we are really fighting and that it's not so easy to define "winning."

From listening to the statements of pro-war Republicans, you would think that the U.S. military was primarily fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq. That's why you get statements like McCain's assertion set out above (and this has nothing to do with his gaffe, claiming that Shiite-controlled Iran was training Sunni-affiliated al-Qaeda in Iraq). Thanks to the way the Republicans have framed the issue, the weakness of Democrats in getting the facts out, and the uselessness of the media that merely parrots what the administration says about the war, most voters probably believe we are primarily fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq. That is completely false.

A recent study found that less than 4 percent of attacks on U.S. troops were committed by al-Qaeda in Iraq.

McCain loves to talk about al-Qaeda in Iraq. Last week in London, McCain said, according to an AFP/Yahoo! article, that the issue in Iraq is "whether we withdraw and have Al-Qaeda win and announce to the world that they have won and things collapse there, or do we see this strategy through to success?"

If only 4 percent of attacks in Iraq are by al-Qaeda, how is it that al-Qaeda would be winning anything in Iraq? But McCain and the Republicans know that al-Qaeda is the all-purpose scare tactic that can win arguments where logic would fail. Want to stay in Iraq? Well, tell the people it's al-Qaeda! That will get them to let us stay! Everyone is afraid of al-Qaeda!

So if we're not fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq, who are we fighting? Well, essentially, we are taking sides in a series of civil wars. Not only are Sunnis and Shiites fighting each other, but the Shiite government is in conflict with other Shiites, including the Mahdi Army led by Moqtada al-Sadr.

Which raises my second point. What is victory? Bush and McCain both like to play the "refuse to lose" card in Iraq. That's another effective way to convince voters to support something that otherwise defies logic. Ask Americans if they want to lose, and, of course, they'll respond, "Hell no! I want to win!" Even if they don't know what constitutes winning and losing.

This isn't World War II, which had armies and clearly defined objectives. Hitler was deposed and France was free of German occupation, so we won. Cue the celebrations. There is nothing like that in Iraq. The country is a complicated mix of groups (Shia, Sunni and Kurd) and sub-groups (sects within these groups) with centuries-old grievances and battles, not to mention the feelings of entitlement or payback (depending on which Iraqi you are talking to) after 24 years of Saddam Hussein's brutal rule.

Maybe, just maybe, if there was an Iraqi government that was free of these sectarian battles, there would be something to support. But the Maliki government has demonstrated that it is more interested in asserting Shiite power and punishing those who prospered under Hussein's dictatorship than it is in moving the country forward in any kind of unified way.

So, essentially, all of these groups are fighting with each other, and our soldiers are in the middle, protecting certain of the combatants, and paying others not to fight. All while we send hundreds of billions of dollars into this misguided war effort, and suffer 4,000 American military deaths with tens of thousands more wounded.

The whole selling point of the surge was that if we brought down the violence, the government could do the reconciliation work that would lead to a calm, free Iraq. Well, our military did its job and lowered the violence for a while. Can't we call that a victory? Can't we say, "Hey, we overthrew a dictator, held elections, helped lessen the violence a bit, and gave the Iraqi government a chance to bring the people together. Mission accomplished."

Because if we're going to depend on the Iraqis putting aside hundreds of years of blood feuds so that we can say we are winners, that's a lousy bet. Virtually no significant movement has taken place in political reconciliation. The violence is escalating again, with Sadr's followers and the government clashing again, bringing talk of the need for a "re-surge." Only, we can't sustain the first surge, with the military stretched dangerously thin as it is.

Today McCain said that leaving Iraq would be "an act of betrayal." I find that fascinating. Nobody betrayed the American people more than George W. Bush for foisting a costly, devastating, misguided, poorly planned, unnecessary war on the American people that has only served to weaken our country, hurt our reputation, and make us less safe. To support a continuation of that policy would be the real betrayal.

I would have no problem with McCain succeeding or failing in November based on his Iraq policy. Only I fear that voters won't have all the facts when they make that decision. There may be no real "winning" in Iraq, but come the general election, there is clearly one way to be victorious: We are successful if John McCain is not the next president. McCain thinks we are winning in Iraq. Wow. I'd hate to see what losing looks like.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Obama Is Held to Different Standard for Supporter's Offensive Comments

If you turned on CNN or Fox News in the last week, you would think that Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to get support from a wacko religious leader.

In 2004, George W. Bush accepted the endorsement of Rev. Pat Robertson, and yet CNN and Fox News didn't play endless clips of this exchange between Rev. Jerry Falwell and Robertson on the September 13, 2001 edition of the "700 Club" after the 9/11 terrorist attacks:

Falwell: "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'"

Robertson: "Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government. And so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do. And, the top people, of course, is the court system."

Falwell: "Pat, did you notice yesterday the ACLU and all the Christ-haters, People For the American Way, NOW, etc. were totally disregarded by the Democrats and the Republicans in both houses of Congress as they went out on the steps and called out onto God in prayer and sang 'God Bless America' and said 'let the ACLU be hanged.'"

Are Falwell and Robertson's words any better than what Rev. Jeremiah Wright said?

Even in 2008, Obama is not the only candidate to take the endorsement of a loony religious leader. Rev. John Hagee had this to say about Hurricane Katrina:

"All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are — were recipients of the judgment of God for that. The newspaper carried the story in our local area that was not carried nationally that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades. So I believe that the judgment of God is a very real thing. I know that there are people who demur from that, but I believe that the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment. And I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans."

Looking for something not about homosexuals? Well, how about this Hagee gem:

"The United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West… a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ."

And yet, John McCain, had no trouble accepting Hagee's endorsement, even after he was informed of Hagee's views. McCain responded, "all I can tell you is that I am very proud to have Pastor John Hagee's support."

If you believe that candidates are responsible for the statements of religious leaders from whom they accept endorsements, well, then the idea of a potential commander in chief finding common ground with a guy hell-bent on going to war with Iran because it will bring about the end of the world might just be a wee-bit cause for concern, no?

Okay, before you right wingers start sentencing me to forced viewing of Bill O'Reilly's idiotic show, I admit that, yes, you can make an argument that accepting an endorsement is less severe than joining a church and having that church's pastor become a part of your spiritual life. I get it. But I would ask this question in response: Does anyone really believe that this distinction is the reason Obama is getting pounded by the media?

Let's face it: As Obama alluded to in his brilliant speech last Tuesday (I recommend you read it in its entirety, which I reprinted here), many religious leaders make political statements that their followers may not agree with. And how many people in pews stand up to challenge the speaker or leave the church, synagogue or mosque over it?

No, if we are completely honest about this whole issue, we know what the furor over Wright's statements is all about: Playing on Americans' fears of African-American anger. It's about reminding voters of all the charged and difficult issues surrounding race, and digging into their inner fears and biases that come with the topic. The manipulation of Americans using the Wright videos is more insidious, and more damaging to the American psyche, than anything Wright himself said. I'm not supporting his words at all. On the contrary, I'm saying that as wrong-headed as Wright is, using his words as a way of intentionally playing on nearly 400 years of racial history in this country to scare white voters away from Obama is even more damaging to any hope of national unity.

The irony of the Wright flap is that Obama's campaign (and, you can even argue, his life) has stood as an antidote to the divisive approach to race taken by people like Wright, and even as proof that Wright is wrong in his bleak outlook of race in America. A friend of mine sent me an interesting Chicago Tribune article by Steve Chapman that makes the point that if Wright believes everything he says, why is he supporting a candidate like Obama who rejects Wright's pessimistic, backward-looking view of race relations in the United States?

Reduced to its basics (which is always dangerous, but, in this case, not inaccurate), Obama is seeing such a strong wave of backlash because he and Wright are black. Americans are less afraid of white religious fanatics like Hagee and Robertson. And for the media to treat the issue so inequitably is shameful.

It would seem that different parties have different agendas for keeping the Wright story in the news cycle. The campaigns of McCain and Hillary Clinton can use the issue as a way of winning votes (a McCain staffer was disciplined for publicizing a Wright video). And the news media (especially CNN) apparently believes that showing the inflammatory images is a way of getting viewers. Why else would the network seem to have Wright on an endless loop? Even this morning, as John Roberts interviewed a political pundit, the video of Wright, gesticulating wildly on the pulpit, ran side-by-side with the talking head. What is the news value of the Wright footage? I would argue it has none. But like the images of a car wreck or police chase, it attracts viewers. Or at least CNN seems to think it does.

Instead of pounding the story into the pavement, maybe it's time for the news outlets to investigate McCain's wacky religious supporters. (I would prefer that CNN publicize the issues and the records of the candidates, but we know that issues are just too boring to discuss when there is a viewer-generating faux scandal that can be fomented instead!) Maybe the American people would see that Obama isn't the only candidate with an out-of-the-mainstream religious leader backing his candidacy. And then, just maybe, we can move on from the whole Wright issue.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

“The Return of Jezebel James” and “Miss Guided”: Hotly Anticipated by Me, but Worth the Wait?

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

This was a big television week for me.

Until its swan song last May, “Gilmore Girls” lived in the top spot on my TiVo Season Pass list. And if you ask me who my favorite comic actress is, one of my top five would definitely be Judy Greer. As luck would have it, in the last week, two new sitcoms have debuted, one created by Amy Sherman-Palladino (the overlord of “Gilmore Girls”), and another starring Greer.

Sherman-Palladino’s “The Return of Jezebel James” (Fox, Fridays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern) made its long-awaited debut on Friday, airing its first two 30-minute episodes. Is it anywhere near up to the standards of the late great “Gilmore Girls”? Well, let’s just say that if Lorelai and Rory Gilmore were watching, much mocking would have taken place.

In “Jezebel,” successful book editor Sarah (Parker Posey, with her high-energy personality permanently set to maximum) decides she wants to have a baby, only to be told by her doctor that she cannot because she suffers from Asherman's syndrome. In a display of classic Sherman-Palladino wit, Sarah refuses to accept the news, demanding to meet with Asherman to try and persuade him he’s wrong.

Sarah then decides to ask her ne’er-do-well sister, Coco (Lauren Ambrose of “Six Feet Under”), who is currently living on a friend’s couch, to carry a baby for her. Sarah and Coco haven’t spoken in a year, making the request a long shot. Coco is not receptive to Sarah’s initial overtures, but she is eventually convinced when she learns that Sarah used her imaginary friend (the titular Jezebel James) as a book character (yeah, I didn’t get it either), and by the prospect of having an actual place to live.

So the show becomes a 21st century distaff “Odd Couple,” with the successful, neat, organized, driven older sister opening her home to her unmotivated, sloppy, slacker younger sibling. Sarah and Coco are so far apart in age, look nothing alike, and behave so differently that their disconnect begs for some kind of explanation. None was forthcoming in the first two episodes, but I hope it will be addressed in the future.

It gives me no joy at all to report that the show simply doesn’t work. Not the performances, not the set up, not the writing, and certainly not the staging.

Posey and Ambrose don’t seem comfortable in their roles. Sarah is supposed to be difficult yet lovable, like Lorelai was on “Gilmore Girls,” but Posey lacks Lauren Graham’s warmth, and, not incidentally, the endearing character traits and rich material that Graham had to work with. She comes off shrill in a way Lorelai never did. Ambrose seems flummoxed by her character’s motivations, alternating between two emotions: brooding anger and exasperation. And their meddling parents, Ronald and Talia (Ron McLarty and Dianne Wiest), are too wacky and neurotic to be believable, even by “Gilmore” standards. In the second episode, Talia sits in a cold car for 45 minutes because Sarah never actively invites her to come in. Emily Gilmore would have never been written so broadly. Emily would have walked in and berated Sarah for her lack of manners, all while keeping her outer civility in place. Emily was a rich television character. Talia, on the other hand, would fit in nicely on any of the broad sitcoms of the “According to Jim” ilk. The people in “Jezebel” could use some of the heart and fleshed-out nature of the denizens of Stars Hollow.

The writing doesn’t live up to Sherman-Palladino’s earlier material. (Or, maybe more accurately, she’s channeling her inner “Veronica’s Closet,” rather than her primal “Gilmore Girls” or “Roseanne.”). The dialogue has the “Gilmore”-style brisk pace and challenging pop cultural references, only it feels empty. “Gilmore” was never about snappy dialogue for snappy dialogue’s sake. The words were always in service to the story and the characters. You don’t feel that with “Jezebel.” Much like the final season of “Gilmore” (Sherman-Palladino left the show the summer before), it feels like someone doing an imitation of Sherman-Palladino’s signature style.

The biggest miscalculation of “Jezebel,” I think, is that Sherman-Palladino seems to be cramming “Gilmore”-like, talky dramedy material into the traditional sitcom format. The intrusive laugh track, and the less realistic sets you get with the studio-based, multi-camera set-up, don’t serve the writing, which leans heavily on quirks of character and language. “Gilmore Girls” worked because it was cinematic in scope. It set up a fairy tale world where the quirky Connecticut town filled with oddballs created a family for a single mother and her daughter. “Gilmore” also gave it’s strange townies human, multi-faceted personalities. “Jezebel” currently lacks these attributes, and the traditional sitcom format only highlights what is missing.

A scene in a run-down diner in which Sarah asks Coco for the big favor starkly makes this point. The diner set was so stagey it made the eatery in “Seinfeld” look like it was a working restaurant on the Upper West Side. And a running gag involving a stoner waiter not willing to serve outside of his area fell flat on its face. Seconds into the scene, I found myself pining for Luke’s Diner and an appearance by Scott Patterson to throw a sense of humanity into the proceedings. Not the reaction, I’m sure, Sherman-Palladino was going for.

Look, the pilot of “Friends” is nearly unwatchable, and that program went on to dominate the airwaves for 10 seasons and produce some of the great sitcom writing of the decade. I’m not suggesting that “The Return of Jezebel James” is destined to be in constant rotation on TBS. But Sherman-Palladino has already demonstrated that she is immensely talented. So I’m not writing off “The Return of Jezebel James” just yet. But she has some work to do to right the ship.

Four days after “Jezebel” debuted, “Miss Guided” (ABC, Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Eastern), a new single-camera sitcom starring Greer, aired a sneak preview episode before settling into its normal time slot. “Miss Guided” is off to a much stronger start than “Jezebel.”

As I said, Greer is one of my favorite comedy actresses working today, even though she is often relegated to second-banana roles in fluffy fare like “13 Going on 30.” She is one of those actresses you’ve probably seen a million times, but may not place right away because she can be so chameleonic (she’s been in “27 Dresses,” “My Name Is Earl,” “American Dreamz,” “Arrested Development” as George Bluth’s secretary, “Elizabethtown,” “The Wedding Planner,” and “Adaptation,” just to name a few of her more memorable appearances). Greer has a way of popping into a scene (or episode) and subtly taking it over. Like her turn as a seemingly sweet prostitute opposite David Duchovny in “Californication,” as she picks him up, plays with him, and then calls her pimp when he doesn’t have any money on him, but later demands that the muscle who comes to extract a pound of flesh leave Duchovny’s face intact because, she says, he’s so good looking. The part allowed her to play smart and coy, sexy and demure, warm and tough, all at the same time. When Greer inhabits a role, it often seems as if she is the only actress who could pull it off quite that way.

Which makes her choice to take on “Miss Guided” a bit puzzling. Greer’s Becky is a terminally optimistic, saccharine-sweet guidance counselor working at her alma mater. As she sweetly tells us (the characters do a lot of fourth-wall breaking on this show), she wasn’t the most popular kid in school, but she did partake in a lot of activities, as the yearbook reveals her to have been in groups like the debate club and the Milli Vanilli fan club, which had all of two members. Becky is pretty one-note, and certainly not one of the more interesting characters Greer has ever had the chance to inhabit. But she does give Becky a charm and depth that, well, no other actress could pull off in quite that way.

I liked the writing well enough. The pilot had a lot of clever laughs, showing a deft touch with both visual and dialogue-driven comedy. The episode opened with an amazingly prescient scene, in which Becky has to break up a fight between two students, one of whom is the school mascot (in costume). Earlier this month, the mascots of Oral Roberts University and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis got into an on-court scrap during a game, which added another layer to the already clever bit. There is a great moment when Becky tells us that she was in the “Sound of Music” in high school opposite her crush, but we then get to see her parents’ video of the moment, including her mom noting that they can leave because she said her one line. As the end credits rolled, a funny sight gag had Becky making a comparison about how her job is like her car, just as it gets crushed by a driver’s education vehicle. I also really liked a running gag involving the Spanish-speaking janitor, who, after the Spanish teacher is fired over material found on his computer, notes (in Spanish) that he turned down the chance to replace him because, “I didn’t want anyone poking around my hard drive.”

In general, I found “Miss Guided” cute and clever, but not much more than that. However one scene gave me hope for the future. Becky, who planned the climactic high school dance, finds herself on the outside again, looking through the window as her crush, auto mechanic-turned-Spanish-teacher Tim (Kristoffer Polaha), dances with her nemesis, homecoming-queen-turned-English-teacher Lisa (Brooke Burns). It goes back and forth from poignant to funny as she is startled by one of the outsider kids who is also on the outside looking in. Even in her lowest moment, Becky masterfully makes the boy feel better about his lot in life, telling him it’s okay to be weird, while, at the same time, convincing herself of the same thing. It is nice to see that after 20 minutes or so of silliness, Becky is actually good at her job. It was also very satisfying that the moment isn’t allowed to play as sappy. Just as the feel-good aspect is setting in, and you think the scene is over, the boy asks to touch Becky’s “boobs.” And what really makes the scene is Becky’s reaction: She just smiles, completely not put off, and politely declines. In this scene, Greer gets a chance to flash a bit of the greatness she has displayed in other roles, and “Miss Guided” hints at what it can become.

I was less excited about the rest of the cast, though. Chris Parnell plays the vice principal as if he’s still doing a sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” He is way too over-the-top for a nuanced single-camera sitcom like this one. Burns and Polaha aren’t much more than pretty faces. Sure, the homecoming queen and school stud aren’t supposed to be great conversationalists, but these characters just weren’t interesting enough to keep up with Becky. I quite liked Earl Billings, though, as the jaded, monotone, can’t-be-phased principal. He provided some solid deadpan laughs.

“Miss Guided” has potential. It does, though, have the unfortunate assignment of lining up on Thursday nights against one of the two or three best sitcoms on television, “30 Rock” (as well as against the entertaining “My Name Is Earl”). With the dearth of good comedies on the air, I wish the networks would avoid putting them against each other.

“The Return of Jezebel James” may not be as good as “Miss Guided,” but I’ll be watching both. After the six years of “Gilmore Girls” Sherman-Palladino provided us with, it’s the least I can do.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama's Race Speech Shows Why He Really Does Embody Change

We used to live in a sound-bite era, where people only really got to hear candidates in short 10-second clips on the news. Now we live in the YouTube days, where more of what a politician says is available, but few people take the time to seek out longer stretches of speeches (you have to understand that there are only so many hours in the work day, and yet so many bears bouncing on trampolines and cats doing wacky things to cover).

Barack Obama gave a speech dedicated to race yesterday. For more than a year, he has consciously conducted a presidential campaign based on inclusion rather than on racial identity. He wasn't the black candidate, he was a candidate who would lead Americans into a new era, who just happened to be biracial. But when CNN and the other news outlets started showing (on a seemingly endless loop) clips of Obama's longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, making incendiary statements that most Americans found offensive, Obama was forced to address the race issue, really for the first time.

Since then, clips of the speech have been shown on the news, and commentators have weighed in on how the remarks were perceived, and what the effect of Obama's words would be on his candidacy. But few watched the entire speech. I confess that I hadn't seen the whole thing, either.

Today, a friend of mine emailed me the entire text of Obama's address. As I read it, I was struck at how powerful and insightful his words are (I guess words do matter, after all). I couldn't help think that in an era where entire campaigns are boiled down to empty, poster-ready platitudes, Obama's candidacy truly does embody change in that he has a modern outlook on the world, one which contrasts sharply with the backward-looking, outdated views of George W. Bush, John McCain, and, yes, even Hillary Clinton.

Michiko Kakutani wrote a review in the New York Times yesterday of "Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power" by Fred Kaplan. The book argues, to quote Kakutani, that "the Bush administration’s failure to come to terms with a post-cold-war paradigm ... left America’s power diminished, rather than enhanced." It struck me as interesting that this review came out on the same day as Obama's race speech. The confluence of the two events hammers home the point that the United States has to modernize its outlook on the world if it wants to keep up. (A similar point was made in a great New York Times Magazine article by Parag Khanna that I wrote about on February 5). And of the three remaining presidential candidates, Obama is the only one who seems interested in following that path.

So I urge you to read Obama's speech. I will even post it below to make it easy for you.

I have no delusions that the YouTube generation will pay more attention to politics than those of the sound-bite era did. But I do hope people will spend the 20 minutes it will take to read Obama's address before casting a ballot in a Democratic contest or in the general election in November. I have a feeling it could change a few minds.

Barack Obama
March 18, 2008

"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union."

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America 's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution -- a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States . What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part -- through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk -- to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign -- to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America . I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together -- unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction -- towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.

This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own American story.

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas . I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners -- an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts -- that out of many, we are truly one.

Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina , where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans.

This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either "too black" or "not black enough." We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.

And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.

On one end of the spectrum, we've heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it's based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we've heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely -- just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country -- a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

As such, Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems -- two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way.

But the truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God's work here on Earth -- by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

In my first book, Dreams From My Father, I described the experience of my first service at Trinity :

"People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend's voice up into the rafters....And in that single note -- hope! -- I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories -- of survival, and freedom, and hope -- became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shame about...memories that all people might study and cherish -- and with which we could start to rebuild."

That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety -- the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America .

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions -- the good and the bad -- of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America , this country that I love.

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America -- to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.

Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.

Legalized discrimination -- where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments -- meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families -- a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods -- parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement -- all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What's remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn't make it -- those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations -- those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience -- as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze -- a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns -- this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy -- particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction -- a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people -- that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances -- for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs -- to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives -- by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Ironically, this quintessentially American -- and yes, conservative -- notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright's sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country -- a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen -- is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope -- the audacity to hope -- for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination -- and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past -- are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds -- by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand -- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle -- as we did in the OJ trial -- or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina -- or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don't have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington , but who can take them on if we do it together.

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should've been authorized and never should've been waged, and we want to talk about how we'll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

I would not be running for President if I didn't believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation -- the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.

There is one story in particularly that I'd like to leave you with today -- a story I told when I had the great honor of speaking on Dr. King's birthday at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta .

There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence , South Carolina . She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that's when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.

Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother's problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn't. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley."

"I'm here because of Ashley." By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.

But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia , that is where the perfection begins.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

These Are Embarrassing Days to Be a Democrat

I feel like I'm in fourth grade, and our teacher agreed to leave us alone for 10 minutes while she spoke to the principal. And the second she left the room, while most of us were behaving, two of the destined-for-life-behind-a-fast-food-counter kids lit the teacher's coat on fire. Of course, the teacher would never trust us alone again.

I feel that way because I am a Democrat. More specifically, I am a New York Democrat.

I have watched in horror since Super Tuesday as Hillary Clinton has done everything short of Photoshopping photos of Barack Obama having sex with Elliot Spitzer and Ashley Alexandra Dupre to destroy any chance Obama had of beating John McCain in November (even though, more and more, it has become apparent that she cannot secure the nomination without breaking the party in the process, which I discussed in my March 5 article). And, obviously, it keeps getting worse.

It's not bad enough that Spitzer, who, in 2006, picked up nearly 70 percent of the vote and liberated the governor's house from 12 years of Republican occupation, put together an arrogant and careless first year in office. No, he had to inflate his federal-deficit-sized hubris to comic proportions and make multiple visits to prostitutes through an escort service. On that had a Web site. Using his real address.

Then, for a few days, we Democrats started to think to ourselves that it might be all right. The new governor, David Paterson, arrived with a movie-of-the week worthy back story. He was the first African American governor in New York, and the first legally blind governor anywhere. Paterson was so well-liked when he was the minority leader in the state senate that he maintained a good relationship with senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, even though Paterson's main goal was taking back the chamber for the Democrats. We Democrats allowed ourselves to think that, maybe, just maybe, this wall all for the best.

And then, a day after Paterson was sworn in and gave a widely lauded speech to the gathered dignitaries, he admitted that from 1999 to 2001, he and his wife had affairs. I'm not judging the man, but it certainly doesn't help the image of Democrats in New York.

You might think that the Spitzer/Paterson follies would be my low point for the week, but, oddly enough, for me, it got only worse today.

It was reported today that a poll showed Clinton had widened her lead over Obama in Pennsylvania. Her lead jumped from six points on February 27 (49% to 43%) to 12 points yesterday (53% to 41%). As I discussed on March 5, it is virtually impossible for Clinton to catch Obama in pledged delegates, and it is extremely likely that the delegate difference when the process is over will roughly approximate where it is now. So, only one of two things can happen. Obama can get the nomination. Or Clinton can get the nomination, but only by persuading superdelegates to vote for her, which would mean her prevailing despite winning fewer delegates, votes and states. Such an eventuality would be ruinous for the party.

As a result, each piece of positive news for Clinton, and each day that her candidacy remains active, is terrible news for Democrats who want to win the general election in November.

Meanwhile, Obama has had to contend with the omnipresent images on television of the man who baptized his children and performed his wedding ceremony bashing white people and supporting Palestinians. And no, it's not just Fox News, but the allegedly (what a laugh) liberal news outlets like CNN that have given Jeremiah Wright more air time than an "American Idol" contestant.

Not surprisingly, in an economic and political climate that should have the Democrats in a commanding position in to win in November, the latest polls have Clinton and Obama virtually tied with McCain. Can you imagine what the polls would say if the economy was going strong and things were peachy keen in Iraq? It's scary to consider.

If Clinton and Spitzer were the fourth graders in the teacher-free classroom, they wouldn't have set the teacher's coat on fire. No, more likely, they would have ignited a nuclear weapon in the middle of the class. Because that's the level of destruction they are inflicting on their party.

It's an embarrassing time to be a Democrat. In fact, the only thing that could be more embarrassing would be to be a Republican.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

“Canterbury’s Law” and “New Amsterdam”: Fox’s Take on Law and Order (and "Law and Order")

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

Fox has unleashed two new hour-long law and order (lower case) offerings on Monday nights, both named for their main characters. “Canterbury’s Law” (8 p.m. Eastern) handles the “law” side of the equation, while “New Amsterdam” (9 p.m. Eastern) covers the “order” part of things.

I can almost see the pitch that led to the pick-up of “New Amsterdam”: It’s the first half hour of “Law and Order,” but with a science fiction aspect and flashbacks. Lasse Hallström, the Swedish director of such gooey confections as “Chocolat” (bad pun intended) and “The Cider House Rules,” is one of the executive producers, which is an immediate message that “New Amsterdam” will go deeper into its characters than your run-of-the-mill police procedural.

The series follows New York homicide detective John Amsterdam (Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is just your average Big Apple cop who just happens to be more than 365 years old. You see, back in 1642, when Dutchman John was in New Amsterdam (as New York was known then), he saved the life of a Native American girl during a massacre of her tribe. Since you couldn’t call 1-800-FLOWERS in the 17th century, the girl, instead, casts a spell ensuring that John cannot age or die until he finds his true love.

Fast forward to 2008, and John, having lived through numerous eras in New York history, is now partnered in the NYPD with tough chick detective Eva Marquez (English-born actress Zuleikha Robinson), where he uses his memory of previous life experiences to help solve crimes. In Monday’s episode, flashbacks centered on John’s time as a Civil War field doctor and the patient whose leg he had to amputate. This experience comes to John’s mind (and our screens) as he and Eva investigate the murder of a psychiatrist, possibly by a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (a fantastic Orlando Jones).

The crime plot of “New Amsterdam” really does unfurl remarkably like the first half hour of “Law and Order.” Once the crime occurs, the detectives track down new leads, each one pointing in a different direction, twisting and turning until the true killer is revealed. Monday’s episode even centered on a topic covered by a recent “Law and Order,” the controversial practice of therapists convincing patients that they have buried memories of abuse.

And “New Amsterdam” makes use of the New York streets the way “Law and Order” does, giving the action an air of authenticity, unlike the vast majority of New York-set shows that are primarily filmed elsewhere. (Both “New Amsterdam” and “Canterbury’s Law” are filmed in New York, even though the latter program is set in Providence, R.I.)

“New Amsterdam” departs from the “Law and Order” playbook in its look inside the life of its protagonist. In the pilot, John has a heart attack on a subway platform when he sees emergency room physician Sara Dillane (Alexie Gilmore). She rushes him to the hospital and treats him, but he dies on the table. Only, as we know, John can’t die, so he wakes up in the morgue and walks out of the hospital. This convinces him that Sara is his true love, the one that can finally end his long journey. Sara, on the other hand, only knows that one of her dead patients disappeared on her, making her interested in discovering what happened.

The two meet again in Monday’s episode, when John and Eva investigate the psychiatrist’s death. Sara treated the suspect with the victim in the emergency room. Unlike many shows about a protagonist with a secret, John is open about his past with many people, including Eva, his cranky colleague (TV veteran Robert Clohessy), or his 60-ish son (Stephen Henderson). But John, at least at first, can’t tell Sara the truth about his life.

There is a lot to like about “New Amsterdam.” It works as a competent police procedural, and I am interested in how the John-Sara relationship will play out. (The second episode ends with a somewhat predictable complication/twist.) The flashbacks are a nice breath of fresh air, although the Civil War one was a bit over the top. (John’s medical assistant turns out, in the end, to be Walt Whitman.) The parallel between the wounded vet in the civil war flashbacks and the murder suspect in modern times, and the lesson that war has always been hell, is a bit obvious, but also effective. And Coster-Waldau is an engaging lead, nicely shading his character’s world weariness with a dark sense of humor. My only real problem with his performance is that, at inopportune times, he slips out of his American accent (a well-chronicled pet peeve of mine).

But, for the most part, “New Amsterdam” is a nice twist on an old formula.

“Canterbury’s Law,” on the other hand, is less successful in its efforts to pull off a new kind of network television lead character. Julianna Margulies is Elizabeth Canterbury, a Providence defense attorney who specializes in murder cases. She is a flawed protagonist in the vein of recent basic cable anti-heroines like Holly Hunter’s detective in “Saving Grace” and Glenn Close’s lawyer from hell in “Damages.” Elizabeth drinks, cheats on her husband, and bends the rules in defending her clients, all, from what we can tell, caused by her pain over the loss of a child.

I’m all for difficult protagonists, but in “Canterbury’s Law,” the material doesn’t live up to the challenge. The pilot centers on the murder of an 11-year-old, and Elizabeth’s client, Ethan, a mentally fragile guy in his 20s who had already done time for sleeping with his 15-year-old girlfriend when he was 20, is on trial for the crime. Everyone, including Russell (Ben Shenkman), Elizabeth’s lead associate and a former prosecutor, thinks Ethan is guilty. Only Elizabeth thinks he’s innocent. Which is great, but the problem is, the victim’s father is portrayed as such a monster, anyone who doesn’t suspect him hasn’t watched a television cop show in the last 30 years. It doesn’t help when Elizabeth makes lame declarations like, “I know when someone’s lying to me.” Not much to base an entire career on, if you ask me.

Everything in “Canterbury’s Law” is too broad and too cliché to work. The prosecutor, Zach (Terry Kinney), is comically bad to the bone. When Russell asks him if the police denied Ethan his medications before getting him to confess, Zach reaches an Al Pacino-level of outrage and throws pieces of his sandwich at Russell as he leaves. If Zach's mustache was waxed, I’m sure he would have twisted it compulsively while tying a damsel to the railroad tracks. Actually, that damsel could be Elizabeth’s young associate, Molly (Trieste Dunn). If Molly was any more wide-eyed, she’d be an anime character. And Elizabeth is prone to lame proclamations. When one of the associates asks her how she sleeps at night representing murderers, she says, “I sleep the sleep of the righteous.” At that moment, I was feeling the nausea of the nauseated.

There is also an off-putting story line involving Elizabeth cheating on her seemingly supportive and caring husband (Aidan Quinn) with a sleazy private detective, who, at the start of the pilot, she is defending at trial. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with her because she ends the affair with the guy (even though she goes to him for help with her case later), and because, as she explains to him, she had do something to wake herself up. Uh, try a cup of coffee. Or parachute from a plane. Her lame excuse for her infidelity didn’t fly with me and, I suspect, most viewers.

The pilot was directed by Mike Figgis, he of dark, broody films like “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Internal Affairs.” And he brings his darker vision to primetime television. Literally. “Canterbury’s Law” is shot in low-light, with grainy, washed out, desaturated images, far more reminiscent of an indie film than a Fox television show. But cool, moody images don’t count for much when the characters are so two-dimensional.

The series is executive produced by, among others, Denis Leary, who, in shows like “The Job” and “Rescue Me,” has specialized in getting audiences to care about hard-to-like characters. But his previous creations were far richer and more interesting than the lot in “Canterbury’s Law.” There isn’t enough to the people in his new show to make us want to spend an hour with them. Part of the problem is Marguiles. With her scary dragon-lady eyebrows and Leona Helmsley-inspired makeup, she plays Elizabeth so harsh, and so stern, that you just can’t get inside of her enough to care.

In the pilot’s climactic courtroom scene, Elizabeth gets the evil father to confess on the stand, Perry Mason style, culminating in the guy punching her square in the mouth. It was a well-written moment, but I don’t think it played like the folks behind the show hoped it would. Instead of showing us Elizabeth’s vulnerability, it only makes her seem more robotic. She stands up and spits out, through the blood on her face, “Defense rests.” I understand that she was willing to put her own health at risk to make sure the correct child-killer went to prison, but still. Is she human?

In the end, it’s as if the show wants to visit the dark side, but not stay too long. While Nicolas Cage’s suicidal alcoholic dies at the end of “Leaving Las Vegas,” Elizabeth scores a television-friendly victory for Ethan. A tag scene showing her drinking and in pain, as Russell recognizes how the case was more about avenging a boy’s murder (like the death of her own child) than saving an innocent man, felt tacked on, a last-ditch effort to retain the show’s edge. But without interesting, multi-faceted characters, no amount of Elizabeth’s angst matters.

On Monday nights, I would rather spend an hour with time-traveling John Amsterdam than dour, scowling, cheating Elizabeth Canterbury. Fox did a better job with the “order” than with the “law.” Hey, now that Fred Thompson has nothing better to do, maybe he can pop up to Providence and see if he can help. “Canterbury’s Law” could use a little of the expertise demonstrated by “Law and Order.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Random Thoughts on Spitzer's Disgrace

It was just last week that I wrote an article about how the Democrats have an uncanny ability to blow winnable presidential elections. It has often been written that New York Governor Elliot Spitzer had presidential aspirations. Maybe he was just in a hurry to take his turn destroying his chances at moving into the White House.

Since the news broke yesterday that Spitzer apparently patronized a prostitute in Washington, D.C., my in box has been buzzing with comments (as well as some gloating from Republican friends). I find the whole story so amazing on so many levels, I decided to post my nearly stream-of-consciousness responses to the news here.

- The first I heard that there was a news story breaking was overhearing someone say, "Did you hear about Spitzer?" As I scrambled to look on the New York Times website to see what the story was, my initial reaction was, "Wow. Someone shot Spitzer." That gut response demonstrates two assumptions I obviously had internalized (even if I didn't realize it): First, a sex scandal for the self-described law-and-order governor seemed unlikely to me. Second, he's made so many enemies with his hubris during his first year in office, it didn't seem unusual to me that it would move someone to violence.

- My next thought was, "Well, we now know that Spitzer is a true Democrat, because if he was a Republican, the hooker would have been a guy."

- It then hit me that the story was broken by The New York Times. Which means, my Republican friends, that the Times is going to break a salacious politicians-and-sex story, regardless of the party registration of the offender. All the complainers who bitched about the paper's February 21 front-page story on John McCain's relationship with a female lobbyist can forward their apology letters to:

The New York Times
620 Eighth Avenue
New York, NY 10018

(Oh, and those of you who claim that CNN is liberal, keep in mind that not only did they plaster the news all over the place as its lead story, but they kept saying it was news that "rocked the nation." Considering that CNN's sweet spot is stories about celebutantes and crimes involving pretty women, the fact that a governor saw a prostitute was probably enough to send waves of joy through the network's brass. Since when does practicing tabloid journalism make you a liberal? No need to forward apology letters to CNN, though. As purveyors of garbage non-news, they don't deserve it.)

- Once the story had settled in, I got angry. When Bill Clinton was assailed by sanctimonious Republicans over the possibility that he was unfaithful to his wife with an intern, I defended him 100 percent. I felt, first and foremost, that outside of his family, it was none of anyone's business who he had sex with. I also felt strongly that if it was not for all of the years of bogus, politically motivated investigations into every aspect of his past -- investigations, incidentally, that added up to absolutely nothing -- he never would have been in the position in the first place where he was being asked by lawyers if he engaged in sexual activity with Monica Lewinsky.

Having said all of that, Spitzer is a disgrace who should resign.

There is absolutely no correlation between Spitzer's situation and what Clinton did. Because no matter how you feel about whether prostitution should be illegal or not, it remains on the books as an offense. A governor, certainly one that spent the previous eight years of his life as a crusading attorney general, has to respect the law. Spitzer did not. In fact, he acted as if he was above the law, like the laws of the country didn't apply to him. For the chief executive of a state to behave that way is unforgivable.

Even more than breaking the law, Spitzer put himself in a situation where he was endangering the best interests of his constituents. By having sex with a prostitute? No, by committing a felony that a group of people knew about and, presumably, could hold over his head (and by extension, the heads of the people of New York). What if the person who ran the escort service came to Spitzer and "asked" for a favor, implying strongly that failure to comply with the request would result in the governor's name being leaked to the New York Post as a customer. What would Spitzer have done? It doesn't matter, really. The more important point is that by engaging in this behavior, he made himself vulnerable to the demands of felons. And that is even more unacceptable than Spitzer committing the felony himself, since it would put into play that a gubernatorial decision would be made to save his own hide, not because it benefited the citizens that entrusted him with his job.

I have zero sympathy for Spitzer, and he should resign immediately.

- And this led me back to the Democrats' seeming compulsion to self-sabotage. Which only compounds my anger at Spitzer and makes me sad, too. The ground hasn't been this fertile for Democrats since Watergate ravaged the country's psyche in the mid-1970s. There are signs around the country that a big portion of the electorate has had it with Republican rule and wants a change. It began with the Democrats winning both houses of Congress in November 2006, and despite the party's complete inability to stand up to Bush since, the trend seems to continue unabated. In fact, just days ago, on March 8, Democrat Bill Foster won a special election to fill the vacant seat in Illinois's 14th Congressional District. Big deal, you might think. What's so newsworthy about a Democrat winning a race in strongly blue Illinois? Well, a lot, considering that the seat was formerly held by Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the house when the GOP last controlled Congress, and the district has more registered Republicans than Democrats. When you throw in that John McCain endorsed Foster's opponent, the comfortable victory (53 percent to 47 percent) is an eye-opener.

With the country open to the Democrats, it's vital for the party to put its best foot forward. Spitzer, instead, put a different part of his body somewhere else.

My desire for the Democrats to show themselves in the best light and win in November is not just merely a case of, "I'm a Democrat, I want my team to win" rah-rah bull crap. Too much is at stake this time. I fervently believe that Bush and his administration have fundamentally damaged the country, both in what it stands for and how it is viewed abroad, worse than any president in my lifetime, including Nixon. Obviously, the Iraq war and all of the lies, miscalculations, failures to plan, and just plain wrong decisions has led the way, but there is so much more.

Bush on Saturday vetoed a bill outlawing interrogation techniques like waterboarding, telling the world that the United States condones torture. (McCain pointed out on "60 Minutes" on Sunday that the U.S. prosecuted Japanese officers as war criminals after World War II for waterboarding Americans.) Bush has illegally extended the power of the executive branch, threatening the very nature of our checks-and-balances-based democracy. He has also weakened the ability of government to protect its own people, intentionally appointing political cronies to run government agencies in an effort to ensure that they don't carry out their jobs. This kind of anti-government agenda has had wide-reaching effects, ranging from the FEMA debacle after Hurricane Katrina to the acting head of the Consumer Products Safety Commission actively lobbying Congress to not give her agency more resources. And by appointing two young, right-wing justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush has helped ensure that the damages he inflicted on the country will far outlast his ruinous eight years in office.

That is why it is not just about my guys winning. I think that this presidential election is a last-ditch effort for the citizens of the U.S. to stand up and take the country back from those that would do it harm (and, in this instance, I'm not talking about al-Qaeda, although I absolutely believe we can fight the terrorists better with Obama in office than with Bush, who is the poster child for extremist recruitment, or McCain, who essentially wants to continue Bush's policies).

You can't help thinking that McCain is sitting somewhere comfortable with his top strategists and smiling ear to ear. He has Hillary Clinton and her tunnel vision weakening Obama for November. And now he has the Democratic governor of New York paying big money for prostitutes. How do you think that will play in swing states like Iowa and Missouri?

So if Spitzer's commission of a felony, breach of the trust of the people of New York, or placement of himself in a situation where his decisions could be compromised by criminals are not reasons enough to resign, he has to do it for the party. He has to disappear and fade away as quickly as possible.

It's not just about Spitzer. It's about the Democratic party and the future of this country. And it's not like the Democrats need help blowing things in November.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

“Unhitched”: When Mediocre Things Happen to Good People

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

Imagine you are an actress, and, despite your celebrity lineage, you slog through ten years in the business, failing to break through. You settle for roles in movies nobody saw, occasionally getting a regular part on a show that doesn’t go anywhere. And then, one day, you end up on one of the most beloved, innovative, and critically acclaimed sitcoms of all time, where you spend a year as one corner of television’s favorite love triangle. Suddenly, you’re a star. You go on the major talk shows, get interviewed in magazines and newspapers, and, at the age of 31, finally make it. And then, six months later, you are in what amounts to a knock-off of a TBS comedy.

How do you handle it? To find out, just ask Rashida Jones. The Harvard-educated beauty is the daughter of music legend Quincy Jones and “Mod Squad” star Peggy Lipton. She endured ten years of movies with names like “Roadside Assistance” and “Strip Search” (even ending up on the cutting room floor of that one, but that might be a good thing), and managed a season of “Boston Public.” And then, after starring in the well-received British series “NY-LON” (currently in development to be remade for U.S. television), she hit pay dirt: The role of Karen, Jim’s Stamford branch girlfriend on “The Office.” As the girl that got between Jim and Pam, Jones had finally made it.

(As an aside, I am one of the few people in America who was rooting for Jim to choose Karen over Pam, even though I knew the odds of that happening were roughly the same as the networks shuttering their reality divisions to make way for comedy programming.)

Jones did her season on “The Office,” and with the world at her feet, and offers presumably pouring in, she chose as her next move ... “Unhitched” (Fox, Sundays at 9:30 Eastern), a sitcom that feels like a knock-off of “My Boys,” the TBS series about a female sportswriter (played by Jordan Spiro) and her group of guy friends.

I’m not saying “Unhitched,” which made its debut Sunday night, is bad. In fact, I quite enjoyed the pilot, and it certainly is more entertaining than must current sitcoms. But there is nothing at all special about this comedy, and Jones may have the least interesting role on the show. “Unhitched” follows four friends who recently exited bad relationships. Craig Bierko plays Jack “Gator” Gately, whose wife left him for a member of Cirque de Soleil. He is friends with Jones’s Kate, a lawyer who compares every guy to her ex-boyfriend, even though he was, to quote Gator, “a douche.”

Gator and Kate’s two best friends are super broad characters straight out of a multi-camera sitcom (“Unhitched,” like nearly all new comedies, is shot single-camera). Tommy (Johnny Sneed) is a doofus so out of touch with his surroundings that when Gator asks him to take a drunk business associate home, Tommy takes her to Gator’s home, not hers, thinking that’s what Gator wanted. And Freddy (Shaun Majumder) is a nerdy, recently divorced Indian doctor, whose accent is so exaggerated, he makes Apu from “The Simpsons” look like Mohinder from “Heroes.”

At least in the pilot, Jones has the least to do of any of the four main characters. The episode opens with Gator on a blind date with a seemingly normal beautiful woman, who turns out to live in a jungle-like apartment, own a pet chimp, and harbor a desire to have violent sex like the gorillas she studies. The opening scene ends with the chimp wanting to get in on the action with Gator, so that the second scene opens with Freddy, under a sheet, mending to Gator’s injuries in his, um, posterior region. Which leads to one of the best lines of the pilot when Gator describes the chimp as “Bi-curious George.”

Freddy has problems of his own. It’s his birthday, and he is distraught that he cannot repeat his yearly ritual of going to dinner with his wife at his favorite restaurant, “Thank Goodness It’s Friday’s.” So, he hires an escort to go with him to the famed family-friendly dining place. When Freddy falls for the seemingly (the initial impressions of all the dates of the characters in “Unhitched” warrant the tag of “seemingly”) sweet prostitute, he ends up proposing to her after a whirlwind overnight trip to Atlantic City. By the time Johnny Knoxville turns up in a cameo as the hooker’s pimp/boyfriend, things have spiraled far lower for Freddy than you might have guessed.

Tommy, meanwhile, is on a constant quest for women, which includes the 16-year-old daughter of another of Gator’s business associates (he thinks she’s older). He is saved by Gator telling him to “sign her yearbook and start talking with the adults.”

And poor Jones’s Kate is left to cheer up her friends, while going on a date with a Boston Celtics employee who she initially rejected because of his slight stature. The guys urge her to give him a chance, and she does, ending up in courtside seats at a Celtics game and meeting players Paul Pierce and Ryan Gomes. Which would be cool, except Gomes was traded last summer to the Minnesota Timberwolves, something, I’m sure, the folks at Fox were none too happy about. There was no doubt something was going to go wrong with the date, but I was surprised when it turned out to be that the guy was not a team executive, but the leprechaun mascot. This revelation is played like the ultimate embarrassment for Kate, but this view seemed mean-spirited to me. The guy flies into the air and dunks the ball, and she is mortified. Why? The mascot is confident and charismatic. I think what he did was pretty cool. The show, on the other hand, treated the situation like he revealed himself to be a white supremacist. I don’t get it. It certainly didn’t make me sympathetic to Kate’s woes with men.

But I guess I’m overthinking “Unhitched” if I’m judging Freddy’s accent or Kate’s displeasure with her mascot date. I can hear the clamor that it’s “just a sitcom.” And, again, I do acknowledge that the show is funny. When Freddy is under the sheet examining Gator’s behind, and Gator goes to shake Tommy’s hand, Freddy says, “Do not pull that finger.” When Kate asks Gator why he hadn’t signed his divorce papers yet, and Gator says there were still some things he wanted to check, Kate replies, “Why? Is there something you haven’t given her yet?” The punch lines tend to be both funny and smart (the “smart stupid” I wrote about last week).

And the cast is strong. Jones, even though she has little to do, knows how to turn a line. Bierko, who has been successful in theater, is a likable center for the characters to orbit around. And while a bit broad for my taste, Sneed and Majumder generate laughs with their antics.

I even like some of the ways “Unhitched” tries to appear modern. Several scene transitions made use of Google Earth-like satellite photos, showing the change from, say, the characters being in Boston, to Freddy being with his escort in Atlantic City. And the theme song, a dying art on television, is a peppy burst of emo bubble gum that works for the tone of the show. (The song is “Hey,” by Gilmor, which you can listen to at the band’s MySpace page.)

And yet, there is something missing from “Unhitched.” Maybe following up “The Office” was an impossible task, and nothing would have lived up to the heights Jones experienced in the sales office of Dunder Mifflin. But “Unhitched” is something I feel like we’ve seen a million times before. From the tired device of a guy stalling on signing his divorce papers, to the formulaic all-the-dates-will-go-bad plots, it all felt like ground that has been especially well trodden upon. In fact, when Kate is at the Celtics game and meets the players, it kind of felt like Spiro’s “My Boys” character had moved from Chicago to Boston and died her blonde locks brown.

I like “My Boys.” I gave it a good review in this space back in August. But I’m sure no show wants to be known as a “My Boys” wannabe, especially one executive produced by the Farrelly Brothers. (Ah, the chimp attack on Gator’s butt and the Johnny Knoxville cameo make sense now!)

I’ll watch “Unhitched” in the coming weeks. I’ll laugh at its silly humor. I’ll note that it’s a step up from many of the comedy-free sitcoms on television. But I doubt I’ll stop thinking that Rashida Jones deserves more and wondering what would have happened if she was given better material, in the way that “Samantha Who?” is tailor-made for Christina Applegate.

I guess I should be happy Jones is working. “Unhitched” may not be “The Office,” but it beats being cut out of “Strip Search.