Thursday, May 29, 2008
“Last Comic Standing” is better than “American Idol.”
Okay, I knew that would get your attention. I know the ratings for “Last Comic Standing” (Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on NBC) don’t even rise to the level of nipping at the heels of “Idol,” and I also get that “Last Comic Standing” sometimes feels like it was thrown together by a basic cable network.
But as I watched the premiere of the sixth season (yes, sixth season ... I am as shocked as you are) of “Comic” last Thursday, I couldn’t help thinking that despite the fact that the show is far from perfect, and even though it hasn’t captured a place in American pop culture like “Idol” has, it is, to me anyway, a more enjoyable viewing experience.
Let’s start with the performers. As a guy who loves comedy and has no interest in teen-friendly pop music, clearly, I start with a bias in favor of "Comic." But beyond my personal tastes, I think the comedians are way more interesting to watch than the singers. The audition episodes of both shows mix the good and the awful, but the rejects on "Comic" are more interesting. Singing is more objective than being funny. It is (or should be) clear to the lousy crooners who take their shots at "Idol" auditions that they're bad. Which means they're either looking for publicity or so deluded, I feel a little guilty laughing at them. And besides, how many different ways are there to sing badly? It all starts to run together.
The walking disasters on "Comic" are way more interesting to me. Comedy is personal. More than 10 million viewers each week tune in to "Two and a Half Men," voluntarily, I assume. But to me, watching my computer crash would be funnier than that train wreck of a show (and I'm a writer, so that's really saying something ...). So I think it's way more plausible that the parade of people who go onstage at the "Comic" auditions and bomb honestly think they're funny. And that's way more interesting than a guy's voice cracking as he tries to sing "I Will Always Love You." Not to mention the sheer variety of ways that comedians can suck, from the raving lunatic who had one of the judges fearing for her safety to the guy who dressed in an alien outfit and tossed off one-liners in a deep baritone and the nut job in a chicken outfit who relied on even worse one-liners playing off bird noises.
I also find the good performers to be more entertaining on "Comic" than on "Idol." Good singers are a dime a dozen. It's a rare case when "Idol" finds someone with true star quality. It feels like for every Kelly Clarkson, there is a flood of Justin Guarinis, Ruben Studdards, Diana DeGarmos, Jordin Sparkses and Bo Bices (all winners or runners-up). Maybe we expect less from comedians, but sitting through an episode of "Comic," you're bound to laugh several times at truly funny bits. Don't get me wrong. It's not like the "Comic" winners are dominating prime-time television or anything, more likely using their new-found title to book themselves into comedy clubs across the nation. It's not that the Dat Phans and John Heffrons (past winners) of the world have done better than the "Idol" champs and runners-up, but, while on the stage, their best moments deliver in a way the singers on "Idol" rarely do.
Take the two twins in the "Comic" premiere who constantly talk over each other, for example. They tested the boundary between annoying and funny, but their act was pretty out there. What was the most innovative thing an "Idol" contestant has done? Blake Lewis beat boxing? Enough said.
Even more than the performers, the judges on "Comic" are infinitely more entertaining than their "Idol" counterparts. Year after year, “Idol” sends Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell out on audition after audition, and to performance show after performance show, so much so that there is virtually nothing left for any of them to say that would surprise, move or entertain us. Abdul’s lack of basic coherence has officially moved from funny to sad; if Jackson was any more prone to repeating bland statements from an increasingly limited pool of comments, he could be George W. Bush’s press secretary; and Cowell’s British bad boy act has grown tired and cartoonish.
“Comic,” on the other hand, features different celebrity judges in each audition city. And they're a lot more interesting, too. The debut edition of the show had Richard Belzer (“Law and Order: SVU”) and Steve Schirripa (“The Sopranos”) making the yea-or-nay determinations in New York, while Kathy Najimy and comedy legend Fred Willard handled the judges' table in Tempe, Arizona. Belzer and Schirripa, emitting pure New York attitude, had an easy rapport with each other, mixing spot-on judgments about the comics with smart, funny comments meant to entertain. Willard just brings so much joy to the stage. He clearly was having fun watching the performers (good and bad, mostly bad), and yet he wasn’t a pushover, even if he claimed to be (mainly because he likes impressionists, but the one they let move on was great and ended up being one of the three semifinalists). I find Najimy’s persona to be too big and too fake for my tastes, but at least she made coherent observations on the competitors.
In other words, it was like a Bizarro World version of the "Idol" judging sessions.
Future "Comic" judges are equally interesting, like George Wendt and John Ratzenberger of “Cheers,” Neil Flynn of “Scrubs,” Angela Kinsey and Oscar Nunez of "The Office," Dave Foley ("Kids in the Hall") and Richard Kind ("Mad About You"). I'd rather spend an hour with anyone on that list than Abdul, Jackson or Callow.
The real edge for "Comic" comes in the host. Bill Bellamy is a solid, professional comedian with a playful, engaging personality and decent material. Ryan Seacrest is, well, Ryan Seacrest. First-round knockout to "Comic." And that's even taking into account the "Comic" roving reporter/co-host, English presenter Fearne Cotton, who is so loud and grating, if someone tried to put together a second generation Spice Girls, she would surely be booted out of it for being even too annoying for that shrill-fest. The fact that she is easy on the eyes is the only plausible explanation for her presence on this (or any) show.
As much as I truly believe that "Comic" provides a superior viewer experience to "Idol," I also fully acknowledge that the programs are watched against a completely different set of expectations. "Idol," regardless of what I think, is fodder for water-cooler discussions. Seemingly everyone you meet watches the show and, even more than that, has strong opinions on who they like and dislike. The bar is raised so high, it is not only virtually impossible for the program to reach it, but it makes experimenting a risky proposition. How do you mess with the number one show? If you are a network executive, you do so at your own peril.
"Comic," on the other hand, flies so low under the radar, I have no doubt that most people reading this article will say to themselves, "That show is still on the air?" Going in with low expectations, you don't need that many funny comedians to make it a worthwhile endeavor. And nobody is going to ask you the next morning what you thought of the previous night's show, unless you actually work at a comedy club.
So there you have it, incontrovertible proof that "Last Comic Standing" is better than "American Idol." Well, incontrovertible to me, anyway. Is "Comic" a great show? No. But compared to the average summer reality series (last week also brought us the premieres of "Living Lohan," about Lindsay's manager mother and her aspiring singer/tabloid casualty daughter Ali, and "Denise Richards: It's Complicated," about the actress who is anything but), "Comic" starts to look like a pretty good option.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
For what has to be a great majority of Americans (based on Bush's 28 percent approval rating in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll), it has been assumed that the Bush administration was less than candid with the American people on a litany of issues, including the rationales for beginning the disastrous war in Iraq and the public identification of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame. (I wrote about the Plame issue on June 5, 2007, if you want a refresher course.)
For years, the administration has maintained the increasingly lame-sounding party line that on Iraq, the executive branch was simply relying on intelligence it was provided on Saddam Hussein's weapons programs that turned out to be incorrect, and as for Plame, the White House maintained simply that they knew nothing about the whole issue.
And then along came Scott McClellan.
McClellan was George W. Bush's second White House Press Secretary (also known as the American incarnation of Baghdad Bob), serving from July 2003 to April 2006. McClellan has a book coming out on Monday in which he does something few Bush administration officials have ever done: He breaks ranks and tells the truth about what went on in the Bush White House. Some excerpts have leaked out, and McClellan's frank language is startling. This isn't a kiss-and-tell gossip tome, but nothing short of claims of criminal behavior in the executive branch.
On Iraq, McClellan writes that Bush and his advisers "confused the propaganda campaign with the high level of candor and honesty so fundamentally needed to build and then sustain public support during a time of war." He also says that Bush led a "political propaganda campaign" aimed at "manipulating sources of public opinion" and "downplaying the major reason for going to war. "
Regarding the Plame case, according to the Politico.com article that broke the story about McClellan's new book, McClellan "suggests that two top aides held a secret West Wing meeting to get their story straight about the CIA leak case at a time when federal prosecutors were after them — and McClellan was continuing to defend them despite mounting evidence they had not given him all the facts." McClellan claims he did not know the true facts about the situation until two years later.
Of course, like any organized crime figure who breaks the code of silence, McClellan's former Bush administration's comrades have come out in force today to throw him under the bus and claim that his charges are without merit. You can't blame them. For a good six years or so, the Bush White House had a strategy of just denying things, no matter how obviously false the denials were, and the media and the American people were more than willing to lap up the lies.
But it's 2008 now, and the country has moved on from Bush. What McClellan is saying isn't news to most of us. It's not like the reaction to his book was, "Really? That stuff happened?" It's been more akin to, "Wow. We've known it all along, but I can't believe someone from the administration is actually admitting it."
But that shouldn't lessen the outrage we should feel as a country about what McClellan is saying. While he addresses other issues (including the administration's abject failure to deal with Hurricane Katrina, spending, he says, "most of the first week in a state of denial"), the Iraq and Plame charges jump out and beg for attention.
Essentially, the former White House Press Secretary has come out and admitted that the administration manipulated the facts to convince this country to go to war in Iraq, a blunder that has resulted in a calamitous chain of events, including the loss of more than 4,000 American military personnel, the wasting of nearly a trillion dollars at a time of economic uncertainty, the death of tens of thousands of Iraqis and the displacement of millions more, the rise of power and influence in the region of Iran, the loss of focus on the true enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the diminution of American influence and respect in the world.
And all of that carnage came not from the administration getting a bum steer on intelligence, but as part of a plot to engineer conditions for war. We always knew this, but now McClellan is saying it.
As for the Plame affair, Bush's historic and disgraceful pardon of Scooter Libby for lying in testimony about the leak doesn't change the fact that the administration used the identity of an undercover CIA agent to issue political payback to someone for writing a New York Times op-ed piece in which he truthfully told the American people that one of the administration's rationales for going to war with Iraq was completely false.
If, as McClellan suggests, White House figures (people like Elliott Abrams, Libby and Karl Rove, and, who knows?, maybe even the vice president himself) met to synchronize their testimony on the Plame leak, it is not just a scandal. The law has a neat little phrase for such actions: Obstruction of justice. That's a pretty serious charge. Not that anyone will be surprised that such a meeting might have taken place, but, again, to see it come from the pen of a Bush insider like McClellan just may be the smoking gun many have been waiting for.
McClellan's revelations only serve to verify what so many of us already knew, namely that this administration regularly and intentionally misled the public, acting without hesitation to do whatever it deemed necessary to further its extreme right-wing agenda, the war in Iraq and the outing of Plame being only two prominent examples.
As the country moves towards an election to pick Bush's successor, McClellan is demonstrating for the electorate how the last president went about his business. That is good news for Barack Obama, considering John McCain's clear record of supporting Bush. (A Congressional Quarterly voting study revealed that John McCain voted with Bush 95 percent of the time in 2007, and 89 percent of the time since Bush took office, and the alleged maverick McCain managed to vote with his fellow Republicans on 98 percent of his votes, 43 of 44, in 2007, up from a still-high 76 percent in 2006.)
It's somewhat comical to watch the Bush loyalists frantically trying to portray McClellan as a disloyal, disgruntled nut job, because what they can't get past is that the former press secretary's words ring true with a vast majority of Americans. The country doesn't trust Bush anymore. Which makes McClellan more credible than the administration could ever imagine.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
It was not surprising that Lumet, a New York-based filmmaker who started in live television and mostly stayed clear of the studio system, would tap Pollack, who also started in live television but who became a successful Hollywood director and producer, as the living embodiment of quality. Despite their different career paths, they were (and Lumet still is) two of the best filmmakers in the business.
I'm sure Pollack would be proud to be remembered in this way. He was always a Hollywood director and producer with impeccable taste. Pollack only directed 19 narrative feature films over the last 45 years (and only five since 1990), but his credits include some of the best-known, successful and critically acclaimed movies of their eras: "They Shoot Horses Don't They?", "The Way We Were," "Three Days of the Condor," "Absence of Malice," "Tootsie" and "Out of Africa," just to name a few.
Pollack moved seamlessly among genres, just as capable at directing a Robert Mitchum crime thriller like "The Yakuza" as a Dustin Hoffman comedy like "Tootsie" or a sudsy love story like "The Way We Were." Which makes sense, when you consider that Pollack was the consummate actor's director, and his movies boasted a who's who of Hollywood's biggest stars of each era in which he worked, ranging from his frequent leading man Robert Redford to (in chronological order) Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Al Pacino, Sally Field, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Bill Murray, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Holly Hunter, Ed Harris, Harrison Ford, Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman.
Two of Pollack's films in the early 1980s, "Absence of Malice" and "Tootsie," were major influences in shaping the kind of filmmaker I aspired to be. It would seem, on the surface, that a tense drama about the fallout from a reporter investigating a liquor warehouse owner whose father was a mob boss would have little in common with a comedy about a struggling actor who cross-dresses to get a soap opera role. But both movies were driven by real characters, not easy-to-peg, two-dimensional, cardboard cut-outs. It was the people on the screen that engaged you, and Pollack, along with the spot-on screenplays, brilliantly shaped stories around these interesting, engaging characters.
Pollack's work with Newman, Field and Melinda Dillon in "Absence of Malice" is about as good as it gets in film: Newman, with his barely contained anger always lurking just below the surface of his proud, controlled alpha male exterior; Field, slowly realizing the human carnage of her actions as a reporter, but unable to stop being one long enough to really see what is happening in front of her; and the horror on Dillon's face as she discovers that her darkest secret had been plastered onto the front page of the local newspaper. Pollack captured moments that were seered into my filmmaking consciousness: Dillon, early in the morning, going from lawn to lawn collecting newspapers in a heartbreakingly futile attempt to stem the spread of her secret; Field learning what it is like to be the other side of the notebook when her colleague slips into hard-nose-reporter mode while debriefing her about her experience with Newman's character; and Newman moved to near violence against Field as he confronts her after he experiences a tragedy.
And as dark as "Absence of Malice" was, a year later, Pollack directed Hoffman in a performance of pure comic brilliance, playing a difficult, perfectionist actor so desperate for a last chance that he auditions for a soap opera as a woman. The last-straw showdown between Hoffman's character and his agent (played by Pollack) should be screened in every film and acting class as a primer on how to play comedy in a smart and real way. I can't imagine improving on Pollack's handling of Hoffman's dogged insistence that he couldn't sit down while playing a tomato in a commercial (because tomato's can't move, of course) and his boasts at his ability to play vegetables at an expert level, as well as the agent's had-it-up-to-here decision to tell Hoffman's character he's alienated everyone in the business.
It's not surprising, given Pollack's way with actors, that he, too, was an exceptional performer. One thing I loved about Pollack was that he clearly acted because he wanted to, not because he had to, and yet while his appearances were rare, he was equally likely to take a small part in a film directed by a legend as he was to step into a sitcom. He was a successful Hollywood director without a trace of attitude about appearing on television. Aside from playing Hoffman's agent in "Tootsie," Pollack's most memorable movie turns include Tom Cruise's contact to the underworld in Stanley Kubrick's last feature "Eyes Wide Shut," a philandering husband in Woody Allen's "Husband and Wives," and the commanding head of a corporate law firm in "Michael Clayton." He also recurred as Will's father on "Will and Grace," as well as popping up on "King of the Hill," "Frasier" and "Mad About You" (not to mention on "The Sopranos").
As an actor, Pollack always enjoyed an easy-going, natural demeanor in his performances, often adding heart to an otherwise not-so-lovable character. Despite being Hollywood royalty, Pollack had perfected the art of being down-to-earth on the screen.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Pollack turned his attention to producing, bringing nearly 40 movies to the screen during that time. Many of the movies were lower-budgeted, independent projects, in which he used his clout and skill to get smaller stories made, including two movies I especially liked an awful lot: "Searching for Bobby Fischer" and "Sliding Doors."
Sydney Lumet was right to single out Sydney Pollack as an example of quality. I will miss Pollack, both as a filmmaker and as someone who enjoys watching movies and television. I will miss his understated performances on the screen, as well as the character-driven movies he was partial to shepherding into movie theaters. Do yourself a favor and add "Absence of Malice" or "Tootsie" to your Neflix list. You will see why the film world is a much poorer place today than it was yesterday.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
I was going to point out the inequity of rewarding states for violating party rules they agreed to, and the chaos that could result in 2012 and future primary seasons if there are no repercussions for states moving their contests earlier and earlier in a race to be first. I might even have noted that Clinton is asking to have votes counted in Michigan when she was the only major candidate on the ballot (not exactly a fair election, unless, of course, you are a big fan of the Soviet Union).
I was going to argue that it was clear that Clinton was only taking the position on seating the full delegations from Florida and Michigan because she is about to lose (or already has lost, depending how you look at it) and thinks she needs the votes and delegates won in those tainted contests. And finally, I was going to note that Clinton's false sanctimony on the issue is exemplary of the very inauthenticity, slipperiness and lack of moral center that her numerous and vociferous detractors regularly accuse her of exhibiting.
But I decided I'm not going to write about Clinton today (at least any more than I just did). It's time to move the focus of the coverage of the election away from Clinton and to the two candidates who will actually contest the election in November. The chorus of Clinton supporters saying she has a "right" to stay in the race are only arming the Republicans in the fight for the White House. For every minute Clinton is in the news making self-serving remarks like she did yesterday, that's one minute that is being diverted from the all-but-inevitable John McCain-Barack Obama matchup. That means that the outrageous comments made by McCain and his supporters get pushed to the periphery.
Exhibit A: Rev. John Hagee. Sure, McCain hasn't had a longstanding relationship with Hagee like Obama had with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but what McCain did with Hagee is actually worse. McCain knew (or should have known) about Hagee's extreme and bizarre views, and yet with that full knowledge in hand, he not only actively sought Hagee's endorsement, but said he was proud to have it, even after McCain was made aware of some of Hagee's statements.
We already knew that Hagee called Catholicism "the great whore," and that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment to New Orleans for the city's embrace of homosexuals.
This week, Hagee's latest off-the-wall remarks came to light, as a sermon emerged in which he said that Hitler was sent by God to trigger the Holocaust so Jews would be forced to move to Israel. (Audio is available at this link.)
In April, on ABC's "This Week," McCain admitted it was a mistake to seek out Hagee's support, but he didn't back down. He said he was "glad to have his endorsement" and added, "I admire and respect Dr. Hagee's leadership ... I admire and appreciate his advocacy for the state of Israel, the independence of the state of Israel."
Right. McCain admires and appreciates a man who said in a 2006 book that "the Holocaust was the fault of Jews themselves -- the result of an age old divine curse incurred by the ancient Hebrews through worshiping idols and passed, down the ages, to all Jews now alive."
The way McCain has flip-flopped on many of his major views from his 2000 run for the presidency to this try at gaining the White House, it should come as no surprise that he is happy to be in bed with a dangerous wack-job like Hagee. McCain is the man who, in 2000, called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance" and criticized Bob Jones University, but who, this time around, bowed down to these very same folks, speaking at Falwell's Liberty University and Bob Jones University and courting the support of Hagee and other fundamentalist preachers.
But instead of covering McCain's flip-flop on right-wing fundamentalists, tax breaks for the rich, torture, and a host of other important issues, the media is airing Clinton's mock outrage over the delegates in Michigan and Florida. I'm not immune. This article that complains about the coverage of Clinton spends half its space doing just that.
If Clinton wants to stay in the race, fine, I get the importance of her run to many voters and the fact that she came within a hair of winning the nomination. But if she cares at all about beating McCain in November, she has to stop the completely insincere grandstanding, especially when her assertions are so obviously contradicted by her own statements and conduct from last year, when she figured she would win the nomination easily.
Let the voters get to know Obama: The more he talks about issues, the more his numbers seem to go up. Let the voters get to know McCain: The more his views are given a mass airing, the more it becomes apparent how closely he has voted with Bush, how much he wants to continue Bush's policies in key areas like the economy and Iraq, and how much his views have flip-flopped since 2000 (showing that he is no longer as independent as people seem to think), and the more he will be revealed as an unattractive candidate to Americans sick of the Bush administration and its policies.
It's time for Obama and McCain to take the spotlight. And it's time for Clinton to exit the stage, gracefully, I hope.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Ten brides-to-be, wearing wedding gowns, will climb a 15-foot slice of wedding cake smack in the middle of Times Square in New York on June 3. No, Vera Wang has not moved her bridal store to the top of the giant confection. WE tv is promoting the new season of its show “Bridezillas,” which launches on June 1, with a contest. The network is giving $25,000 to the woman who can make it to the top the fastest.
When I heard about this silly event, and how eager 10 brides were to humiliate themselves in public, I was reminded of how far reality competition shows have penetrated not only into the prime-time television schedule, but into the American consciousness. So it was not lost on me that I read about WE tv’s stunt on the same day that “The Bachelorette” (ABC, Mondays at 9 p.m. Eastern) premiered its latest season.
“The Bachelorette,” in addition to being part of the first franchise of modern dating competition programs, is also one of the few in which a woman is the central figure being pursued by a bevy of suitors. (Tila Tequila’s “Shot of Love” is another, but not all of the contestants seeking to be with her are men.) When Alex Michel rejected Trista Rehn for Amanda Marsh in the final episode of the inaugural season of “The Bachelor,” Rehn was given the chance to turn the tables and sift through 25 guys to find her true love, and “The Bachelorette” was born. This campaign marks the fourth season of the show (there have been 12 editions of “The Bachelor”), and the woman in question is, once again, a former “Bachelor” contestant, 26-year-old DeAnna Pappas, who was one of the two finalists for Brad Womack last year. In a “Bachelor” first, he ended up picking neither of the women. So now Pappas has taken over the rose-distribution powers for this season.
I won’t pretend that I’m a fan of most reality television shows, nor that I have seen more than three episodes of “The Bachelor.” But as much as I hate to admit it, I watched the debauchery on “Rock of Love” (both seasons), which featured Poison singer Bret Michaels looking for love in a house filled with strippers and women who could easily pass for strippers. I wanted to catch the season premiere of “The Bachelorette” to kind of examine the ground zero of what the genre has wrought.
The whole “The Bachelor” / “The Bachelorette” franchise is the Rosetta Stone of reality dating competitions. Premiering on March 25, 2002, the show established the template for a tidal wave of programs to follow. You can draw a straight line from Michel, the first bachelor, asking a woman if she would accept his rose (signifying that she could stick around and participate in a group cat fight for the right to date him) to Michaels on “Rock of Love” asking a groupie wannabe if she was willing to wear a backstage pass and remain in the house to “rock my world” (translation, stick around and participate in a group cat fight for the right to date him -- while drunk and topless). The elaborate elimination ceremonies (accompanied by overly dramatic music), confessionals to the cameras, arranged dates, quests for one-on-one one time with the star, elaborate pre-commercial previews, and so much more, all go back to “The Bachelor.”
So what did I think? Well “The Bachelorette” certainly doesn’t sink to the same low-brow levels of “Rock of Love,” “Shot of Love” and “Flavor of Love,” for example. For one thing, on “Rock of Love,” very little felt real. Most of the monologues, events and relationships seemed choreographed by the writers. If an article was published tomorrow that proved that the whole thing was a fake, and that Michaels was in a long-term relationship but just did the show as an act to resurrect his career, I would have had no trouble believing that the report was true.
But “The Bachelorette” feels a lot more plausible. Pappas is either an actress of Streepian proportions, or she really thinks she can find love on this show. And that level of authenticity makes the goings on more engaging. There are some sweet moments (not an adjective that springs to mind in most dating shows) as Pappas interacted with her suitors, and by the time the roses were being distributed at the end, I couldn’t help myself from rooting for her to keep and dump certain bachelors. (Cutting a lot of contestants the first day, in this case 10 of the 25, is another show trait that has been adopted by many of the “Bachelor” knock-offs.) I was happy to see Pappas, for example, send scary-but-buff fitness trainer Greg packing. His seemingly drug-induced rant as he left, which included shredding his shirt in an “Apocalypse Now” Martin Sheen-in-the-hotel-like moment, only verified her good judgment.
And it was nice to see a contestant take some heat for not wearing a suit to the initial cocktail get-together, instead of, say, a contestant being urged to get naked (although that, eventually, happens in the first episode of “The Bachelorette,” too, although in this case, it’s just one of the guys who decides to show off his wares on his own).
In other words, I completely see the fun people find in a show like “The Bachelorette,” especially for female viewers who get to indulge in a fantasy of dressing in fancy clothing and being courted by 25 men, most of whom are exceptionally good-looking and successful.
And yet I couldn’t help being disturbed by the show far more than any trashy fun I could derive from the proceedings. Throughout the two-hour premiere, Pappas hammers home the point that she is in search of true love and ready to settle down with the man of her dreams. She admitted to looking for a “fairy tale.” No harm there. But she also repeatedly said that she believes in the show as the method to fulfilling her goals, noting that she fell in love with Womack on “The Bachelor,” even if he didn’t return her feelings.
So here is a movie-star gorgeous young woman, who is also personable and engaging, first agreeing to go on a television show and compete with 25 other women for the affections of one man. And then, after having her heart broken twice (once in the finale, and again in the reunion episode when she tried and failed again to woo him), she goes back into the fishbowl of reality television to try and meet someone else.
Some might call Pappas a romantic. I would call her mentally ill.
I’m sorry, a fun and exceptionally beautiful woman has no shortage of ways to meet men, and nearly all of these paths are more responsible and have a likelier chance of success than talking to them while multiple cameras and microphones watch and listen in. The idea that a woman who should have zero trouble finding an army of potential suitors in the real world would go on a television show as the primary means of meeting her future husband is insane. I thought people went on reality television to be on television, not to actually find love?
“The Bachelorette” can wrap the show up in as much talk about true love that it wants, but, in the end, this is a NASCAR race of the heart, with people tuning in to see the crashes. The program is saying to the audience, “Come watch this silly woman try and find love in an ass-backwards way! You know it’s gonna be great drama when things go south!” But what’s worse is that the show is also sending the exact opposite message, sucking in viewers (mostly women) to the idea that she just might find her husband on the air. After all, Rehn ended up marrying the man she chose on “The Bachelorette,” so why can’t Pappas? But a better question is, while Pappas could meet her Mr. Right in this bizarre way, why would she want to?
The whole mess of why she’s there makes it impossible for me to enjoy the dumb fun that is buried in the program. Trust me, I get that I’m overthinking this, but isn’t it about time we start thinking at least a little about these things?
There is also an argument to be made that “The Bachelorette” reinforces stereotypes of women and unrealistic expectations in its audience, but I’ll leave that discussion to the sociology majors to debate. It’s enough for me to know that the whole spectacle made me uncomfortable, and in a worse way than the raunch-fest of “Rock of Love” made me ashamed to have watched it.
Something tells me the “Bridezilla” brides clawing through cake in Times Square in two weeks are loyal fans of “The Bachelorette” and will tune in for the next seven weeks to see if Pappas finds her true love. I would respectfully suggest to them that they, and Pappas for that matter, might want to consider some healthier pursuits.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
I have always found it appalling how conservatives use Kennedy as a punch line. Yeah, the guy had his troubles, from Chappaquiddick to alcohol abuse and several unsavory family incidents in between. But when history looks back on Kennedy's life and career, his problems will be a footnote to a much larger and more important story on perseverance, strength and accomplishment.
Here is a man who lost his oldest brother in World War II and his remaining two older brothers to political assassination, leaving him at the age of 36 with the awesome responsibility of taking on the leadership mantle for a high-profile political family often likened to American royalty. Can you imagine how conservatives would react if anyone threw eggs (as they do all the time at Kennedy) at a conservative politician with a parallel history of loss? The outrage would be monumental. Rush Limbaugh would shatter a sphygmomanometer (it's one of these) and Bill O'Reilly would call for a federal investigation (but it would take him multiple takes -- interspersed with verbal attacks on his producer -- to do it).
When Kennedy's career does come to an end, what he should be remembered for is the courage he showed in being a consistent liberal voice no matter how unfashionable the times held such conviction. When you consider how conservatives pillory Hillary Clinton for operating as a spineless political animal, you would think Kennedy's steadfast defense of traditional liberal values would earn him respect, even if the right wingers disagreed with his politics. Maybe I'm giving his opponents too much credit.
I know that to me, personally, during times when it was unfashionable, Kennedy was a beacon, a constant reminder that there was no shame in being liberal. When Ronald Reagan was at the height of his popularity, Kennedy was one of the few voices of dissent, rejecting Reagan's trickle-down economics and tax cuts, opposing things like oil subsidies tucked into the tax-cut legislation.
Even more importantly, on October 11, 2002, 13 months to the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, only 21 senators had the sound judgment and moral fortitude to defy the fear-mongering and false patriotism of the administration and the fear of political reprisals to vote against the resolution authorizing George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq. Kennedy was one of those 21 senators.
To put the issue in perspective, here is a list of Democratic senators from blue (that is, fairly safe) states that voted in favor of the war: Joe Biden (Del.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Thomas Carper (Del.), Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), Chris Dodd (Conn.), Diane Feinstein (Calif.), John Kerry (Mass.), Herb Kohl (Wisc.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Robert Toricelli (N.J.). Clearly, some of the senators, like Lieberman, made a choice based on their beliefs that giving Bush war power as a tool against Iraq was a smart move. But you have to figure, given the political and social climate at the time, that more of the "yes" votes were made to protect against attacks in future campaigns.
Clinton and her supporters have argued that Barack Obama's opposition to the war was meaningless because he didn't have to actually cast a vote in the Senate on the resolution. Well, Kennedy did have to make a decision, and unlike Clinton and nearly 30 other Democrats, he voted against the war, a stand that has been more than vindicated five-plus years later.
As stalwart as Kennedy is in supporting liberal causes, he has not been afraid to reach across the aisle to work with Republicans. He might be a symbol of modern liberalism in the senate, but he has behaved as a flesh-and-blood human being, not some kind of single-minded ideologue. His friendship with ultra-conservative Utah senator Orrin Hatch is well-known in Washington. And it was just this past year that Kennedy teamed up with conservative senator John McCain (yes, he is conservative, voting with Bush 43 of 44 times in 2007) to produce a compromise bill on immigration.
And despite Kennedy's early struggles with his personal demons, he did eventually get them under control, living a healthier life, settling down with a wife, and comporting himself like one of the elder statesman in the senate.
I hope Kennedy successfully fights this tumor and suffers as little as possible. The man has suffered enough in his life. The right-wing crazies like Limbaugh, O'Reilly and Ann Coulter may want to turn Kennedy's life into a joke. I hope that as he battles this latest setback, he is given the respect he has earned through a life of public service. We have a much better country because of Ted Kennedy. I just hope that people remember that in the weeks and months ahead.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
More than five million “Scrubs” fans tuned in last Thursday to watch the last episode of the sitcom for the season (or maybe ever), and, a couple of minutes into the action, most of them probably had the same thought at the same time: What was Dr. Kelso doing in the hospital?
Let me explain. Last Thursday was not only the season finale of “Scrubs,” but the finale of its run on NBC. That means that unless reports were true and ABC was planning on picking up the show (ABC did, in fact, pick up the show this week as a mid-season replacement next year), last Thursday’s edition was to be the series finale.
So loyal fans had every right to expect something special. But what we found was that the last episode of the season wasn’t even the last episode of the season! Three weeks ago, the staff, after doing nothing, finally rallies to save the job of chief of medicine Dr. Kelso (Ken Jenkins), only to have the cranky sexagenarian quit anyway. It was a major moment in “Scrubs” history, since, other than Dr. Elliot Reid’s (Sarah Chalke) short-lived time at an endocrinology fellowship and free clinic (after the fellowship is canceled), the main cast members have stayed in Sacred Heart Hospital for the entire seven-year run of the show. Two weeks ago, Kelso is shown in his retirement, responding to a phone call asking for help from Carla (Judy Reyes) with uncontrolled laughter before hanging up.
So when Dr. Kelso appears in the hospital early in the season finale last week, laying down the law on work hours to the doctors, “Scrubs” Nation let out a collective “What the ....”
Clearly, NBC and/or the show’s producers decided that the theme of the episode that aired last week, in which the cast all take on medieval roles in the bedtime story Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley) tells his son, was grander and more fitting for a finale, in case “Scrubs” did not return next season, than the two episodes that preceded it chronologically. So the network just aired them out of order, holding the Dr. Cox story for last week.
I’m sure the writers’ strike, which led to fewer episodes being shot this season, had the effect of condensing story lines. And I’m also sure that series executive producer Bill Lawrence had a pretty good idea that his creation was heading to ABC next year. But still: After sticking with the show through multiple time-period shifts and routine graveyard scheduling against juggernauts like “Grey’s Anatomy,” the fans deserved better than a non-finale.
At least the episode was funny. It was almost worth having it air out of order to hear Dr. Cox, as a medieval night, say to a disease monster: “My name is Percival Cox. You're killing my friend. Prepare to die,” in an homage to “The Princess Bride.” And more importantly, “Scrubs” fans have another season of the show’s potent mix of silly comedy and heartfelt drama to look forward to, so a lousy season swan song (or, really, a complete lack of one) is a small annoyance to endure.
Maybe bad season finales are contagious, because on the same night that Dr. Kelso stepped into a time machine, “30 Rock” said goodbye for the summer without putting its best foot forward.
Again, I have no doubt that the abbreviated run of episodes faced by show-runners thanks to the strike had to be a royal pain as they tried to wrap up their story arcs for the year. That has to be a big part of the explanation for why “30 Rock,” which is usually so sure-footed and confident in its story telling, finished the season off so haphazardly.
It felt to me that the final half-hour encompassed what was supposed to be the last two offerings of the term. For most of Thursday’s episode, Jack (Alec Baldwin) is in Washington trying to get out of his new job as a Homeland Security director in the comically crumbling Bush administration (along with a beaten-down, ineffectual career government slave named Cooter played by the perfectly cast Matthew Broderick), while, back in New York, Liz (Tina Fey) deals with a pregnancy scare, Tracy (Tracy Morgan) and Frank (Judah Friedlander) work on their porn video game, and Jenna (Jane Krakowski) helps Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) evade the sabotage of the evil head page to get his application in to be a page at the Beijing Olympics. It all leads to Liz deciding she wants a baby. Then, in the last minute, we get a lightening-fast three-month flash-forward that shows us Kenneth being threatened by a gunman while he is in bed with a Chinese woman, Jack about to make out with Cooter (it involves a “gay bomb” ... don’t ask), and Frank emerging (with a full beard) after playing a prototype of the porn video game for three months, prompting Tracy to declare that he is going to be billionaire.
I nearly got whiplash. It’s as if the episode that was supposed to get us to the cliffhangers was left behind when the post-strike cuts were made.
The other problem with the season finale, which has really been an issue for a while now on the show, is that “30 Rock” seems to have lost its focus. Go back and read my description of what the characters were doing in the last episode. Not one word is mentioned about “TGS,” the sketch program they all work on. Jack is not even working for NBC, and, most disturbingly, Jack isn’t even in the same city as Liz. One of the things that made “30 Rock” so great was the interaction of Liz and her co-workers as she tried to put on a good program despite the mountain of obstacles thrown in her way by her colleagues. I want to see her and the gang worrying more about “TGS” and less about increasingly broad side topics like porn video games and pregnancy scares. It’s hard to believe that these story lines come from the same show that introduced us to “MILF Island” (and the faux reality show’s catch line for booting competitors: “We no longer want to hit that. Get off MILF Island!”).
Like “Scrubs,” “30 Rock” will be back next year. I am confident that without the strike interruption, the brilliant comedy will get back on track.
Tonight, the other half of the NBC Thursday night schedule, “My Name Is Earl” and “The Office,” bow out until next season. Let’s hope whatever virus infected the finales of “Scrubs” and “30 Rock” doesn’t jump weeks and afflict “Earl” and “The Office,” too.
Here is a quick recap of how the concerns about this week’s upfronts that I wrote about last week played out. I will save my thoughts on the new shows added to the schedule for another day.
The post-“Office” time slot currently held by “Scrubs” will be filled by a prime-time, politically oriented version of “Saturday Night Live” until the election. An “Office” spin-off will then jump into the 9:30 space for the second half of the year. And Jimmy Fallon was, in fact, tapped to take over for Conan O’Brien when he moves into the host’s chair of “The Tonight Show.”
The big news, of course, is that “Scrubs” will join ABC as a mid-season replacement next year. “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” however, was picked up by CBS, so it won’t be moving to ABC. “October Road” and “Miss Guided,” two guilty pleasures of mine, didn’t make the cut, along with “Carpoolers” and “Caveman,” which will be missed by nobody.
I am ready to send flowers to CBS head honcho Les Moonves. Not only did the network renew “How I Met Your Mother,” it also added a second night of sitcoms. Yes, you read that correctly, a broadcast network is opting voluntarily to air more sitcoms next season than it did this year. Please look away. I don’t want you to see me cry, even if they are tears of joy.
The Murdoch network canned the promising “Back to You” and yet found room for another season of the generally reviled “’Til Death.” Go figure. “New Amsterdam” also didn’t make the schedule. Nice to see my occasional guilty pleasures “Don’t Forget the Lyrics!” and “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” return. Let’s hope the “Lyrics!” producers decide to do more celebrity episodes. Watching Bret Michaels go out on the hair metal category was priceless.
The CW canceled “Aliens in America,” opting to include only two sitcoms on its entire schedule. Interestingly, the mini-network licensed its Sunday nights out to an outside company to handle the programming, much in the same way the networks rent out weekend mornings to companies to air kids’ shows. Sunday nights are a heavy viewing night, but it’s also a time that the big networks unleash their heavy hitters, which usually resulted in the CW’s slate getting pummeled in the ratings. Not sure what kind of shows the licensing deal will leave us with, but it will be interesting to see what happens.
The current media environment is such that there was something shocking about the directness Olbermann showed in responding to several of George W. Bush's assertions made during a Politicico.com interview.
But, and I'm sure I'm not alone, I loved it.
It was gratifying to see a member of the media, even one known for holding liberal views, angrily and articulately espousing what so many Americans (based on Bush's 28 percent approval rating, maybe even most Americans) believe. And I won't lie: I liked seeing a liberal commentator be so fearless and forceful in fighting back against an administration that has successfully bullied the press, Congress, other members of the executive branch and, via the use of fear mongering, the American people for the last seven-plus years.
The mere fact that in 2008 a news commentator had the chops to put together a well-organized, well-written and well-researched 12-minute (yes, the commentary is 12 minutes long) piece is, in and of itself, an accomplishment. I am fully aware that conservatives, many of whom despise Olbermann (probably not in small part for his constant and cutting criticisms of conservative commentators/circus side shows Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh), will dismiss his remarks as being just another liberal rant against Bush. But I challenge anyone to point out any serious logical or factual flaws in the arguments that lie below Olbermann's acidic delivery.
I'm sure critics will also call Olbermann disrespectful for using such coarse language in describing Bush and his administration. Those same critics will criticize Olbermann, a television news commentator, for showing emotion, in this case anger and rage.
But it was Olbermann's unabashed, uncensored calling out of the president and his people, and his unhidden anger, that made the commentary so special. For the last seven-plus years, this administration has run roughshod over the constitution, the government, the American people and everything that makes the United States of America a special country. People should be angry. People should be pointing fingers. It's about time. As Bush took apart this country's ideals and reputation, two bricks at a time, people were too silent and too civil. Olbermann has been one of the few people unafraid to scream from the rafters that an assault on our country's values was under way. And last night's speech was no different.
I think everybody should watch Olbermann's commentary. Some will be appalled, but far more people, I think, will be heartened. They will find Olbermann's assertions true, and his anger justified. Watching will be a validating experience for many, witnessing a public figure give voice to what is inside of their heads and hearts. And for those who hate Olbermann and/or approve of Bush? They should watch anyway to see what so many of us are feeling.
You can watch the first part of Olbermann's commentary here, and the second section here. I will also embed the videos at the bottom of the post.
I am curious to see the reaction to Olbermann's attack. There was a time, I'm sure, when conservatives would have rioted, demanding General Electric remove him from the air. But I will be surprised if last night's tirade even registers a blip on the country's radar now. I think the country has had it with Bush and his antics, and, more importantly, Republicans. When the Republicans can't hold a U.S. House of Representative seat in Mississippi (in a district Bush carried in 2004 by 20 points), even though money was spent linking the Democrat to Barack Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, it shows how angry Americans are. The sound of shoulders shrugging at Olbermann's remarks could be deafening, which would really demonstrate a change in how things are now in these United States.
Which is why I am probably far from the only person with this thought on my mind: Thank you Keith Olbermann. Keep up the good work.
Part 1 of Keith Olbermann's May 14, 2008 Special Commentary on George W. Bush
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Only, it wasn't.
The discussion amongst the journalists and pundits centered on whether Hillary Clinton's landslide win over Barack Obama had changed anything in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and whether the results showed that white blue-collar voters won't cast a ballot for Obama.
Isn't that an awful lot to read into an election in a small state where about 330,000 people voted and only 28 delegates were awarded?
Looking back on last night's primary results, contrary to the coverage of CNN and MSNBC, I saw a different set of headlines.
Headline: Clinton Picks Up 12 Delegates
Clinton picked up 12 more delegates than Obama (20 to 8), meaning that Obama's overall pledged delegate lead is now 156 (1600 to 1444, according to CNN) instead of 168, with only 185 or so pledged delegates left to be awarded. So from a purely numerical standpoint, last night's primary result was virtually meaningless. A fact that surely would have shocked our visiting alien.
Headline: Obama Picks Up Two Superdelegates
In fact, after the West Virginia results were announced, two undeclared superdelegates threw their support to Obama. While Clinton's decisive victory made for a nice media story, the party seems to be moving forward under the assumption that short of a major gaffe, the nomination will belong to Obama.
Headline: West Virginia Didn't Hold the Most Important Election Yesterday
If you don't believe that there are bigger issues in play than the Clinton-Obama clash, consider this: In a special election for a U.S. House of Representatives seat yesterday, the Democrat beat the Republican. Oh, wait, I seem to have buried the lead: The district is in northern Mississippi, and the seat had been held by a Republican since 1994. Bush won 60 percent of the vote in the district in 2004, and the Republican strategy in the special election was to tie the Democratic candidate to Obama. This Democratic win follows similar recent victories in special elections for seats formerly held by Republicans in Illinois and Louisiana.
What does this have to do with the Democratic presidential race? Well, consider that the Clinton camp is arguing that the result in West Virginia demonstrated that Clinton is more electable than Obama, because she has been able to get far more of the blue-collar white vote than he has.
But the result in Mississippi illustrated that the question of who will win in this year's general election goes beyond the cults of Clinton and Obama. Sure, white blue-collar voters have seemed to prefer Clinton to Obama, and that played out in West Virginia, where a majority of the voters did not have a college degree. But if Obama is so scary to these voters, why did the Republican strategy fail in Mississippi? Well, I would argue that just because white collar voters like Clinton, it doesn't mean that those same voters will vote for McCain in November if Obama gets the nomination. In fact, a Quinnipiac University poll released today has Obama beating McCain by a larger margin than Clinton (47 to 40 versus 46 to 41).
Clearly, the polls at this stage are virtually meaningless, with so much time remaining before November. But the point remains that just because Clinton is doing well with a demographic now, it doesn't mean that the same demographic won't support Obama in November.
Headline: Clinton's Electability Argument Ignores Two Key Points
The electability argument offered by Clinton and her supporters vociferously all over the television yesterday ignores two issues that, for some reason, are rarely raised by the media.
First of all, the Clinton campaign takes as a given that success in primaries automatically translates to success in general elections. If that point was true, we would be discussing the last eight years of the Gore administration. In 2000, Al Gore won the Democratic primary in New Hampshire, while George W. Bush was trounced by 16 points by John McCain on the Republican side. By Clinton's theory, that would have boded well for Gore in November, but, in actuality, Bush beat Gore by a percentage point in the general election. Had Gore carried New Hampshire's four electoral votes, he would have been sworn into office in January of 2001 instead of Bush.
Primary elections ask voters to choose which candidate they would like to see be the nominee of a party. General elections than ask a very different question, namely which candidate of which party do you want to see hold the job. Think of the issue in terms of the states not in play in November. Sure, McCain easily won the New York Republican primary, and Clinton trounced Obama in the state, but you would be hard-pressed to find a McCain staffer who thinks McCain can beat either Clinton or Obama in New York in November. Similarly, it's very nice that Obama solidly defeated Clinton in Alabama by 12 points while McCain managed only 37 percent of the vote in the state, losing to Mike Huckabee. But I'm sure Obama's staffers aren't counting on any electoral votes from Alabama in the general election.
The second elephant in the room (pun intended, because the Republicans know it all too well) is Clinton's unfavorability ratings. It's Election Strategy 101 that candidates with high negatives in poll numbers have trouble winning elections. One major metric used by the parties to gauge which senate and house seats are vulnerable to challenge is the disapproval rating of the incumbent. And while there is no doubt that Clinton has pockets of fiercely loyal support, when it comes to the national perception, she consistently maintains shockingly high disapproval ratings.
As far back as last July, before the campaign turned competitive and, at times, nasty, Clinton, who at the time was the front runner in all of the national polls by large margins, still had a 48 percent disapproval rating in a Gallup poll. Things have only deteriorated from there. In March, a Gallup poll revealed that only 44 percent of respondents found Clinton "honest and trustworthy" (compared to 63 percent for Obama and 67 percent for McCain) and only 47 percent would "be proud to have [her] as president" (compared to 55 percent for McCain and 57 percent for Obama). By a mid-April Washington Post-ABC News poll, only 39 percent of respondents found Clinton to be "honest and trustworthy," thanks, most likely, to the Clinton campaign's decision to go negative in Pennsylvania.
A study done in early May by the Pew Research Center found that Clinton lagged behind both Obama and McCain in nearly every measurement of integrity and likability. Consider these numbers:
McCain 65 percent
Obama 61 percent
Clinton 42 percent
McCain 26 percent
Obama 32 percent
Clinton 50 percent
Obama 25 percent
McCain 37 percent
Clinton 53 percent
McCain 36 percent
Obama 38 percent
Clinton 55 percent
You might think that these traits should have no bearing on who would make the best president, but, remember, we are talking about Clinton's electability argument here, and there is no doubt that likability and trust are key issues to voters in presidential elections.
The Pew poll showed that Obama's numbers had slipped a bit from March to April (thanks in no small part to the flap over the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I'm sure), but even with Obama's losses, he still had considerably higher ratings than Clinton in every category.
I am not suggesting whether the negative perception of Clinton is fair or not. That's a separate argument. What I am saying is that this view has been consistently held by the electorate, and would have a profound influence on the results in November if she was the Democratic nominee.
To be clear, my point here is not that Obama can win or that Clinton cannot. Again, those are separate arguments. The special election in Mississippi for the house seat shows an opening for both Democrats in November, and the clear liabilities of the two Democrats -- along with the false image of McCain's independence held by many voters -- demonstrate the potential for both Democrats to lose the general election.
My point is simply that when Clinton and her supporters forcefully argue that results like the one in West Virginia last night establish that Clinton is more electable, they are conveniently leaving out the unreliability of primaries as an indicator of general election success and her historic record of low favorability ratings.
Headline: Clinton Gives the Speech in West Virginia That She Should Have Given in Indiana
Olbermann announced on MSNBC last night that Clinton campaign chair Terry McAuliffe said that Clinton's victory speech in West Virginia would be the greatest speech of all time. While I think the work of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner are safe from Clinton's challenge, and while her remarks contained some world-class obfuscation regarding the rules and history related to the seating of the delegates from Florida and Michigan, the speech was responsible from the point of view of limiting the damage to the party's chances in November.
Unlike her "this is the tie-breaker, it's on to the White House" delusion-fest after Indiana and North Carolina, Clinton avoided saying a negative word about Obama last night. In fact, she went to great lengths to accomplish three goals, only one of which would negatively impact Obama: She argued to the superdelegates that she was the more electable Democrat, she asked for money, and she went to great lengths to say that the most important thing to her is beating McCain in November, almost as if she was auditioning for a place as Obama's running mate.
While the electability portion of her speech disturbed me a bit (based on the points I made above about the flaws in her arguments), over all, I was very pleased that her statements had taken on a more civil and conciliatory tone. Sure, in an ideal world, Clinton goes on television tonight and tells her supporters that she is stepping aside to give the Democrats the chance to get behind a candidate and beat McCain in November, but they should support Obama with the same gusto with which they supported her, because the two of them are more alike than different. But we know that's not happening. So I'm happy to settle for Clinton continuing in the race, but avoiding the kind of divisive statements about Obama she has been prone to making, like her remark to USA Today on Thursday that "Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again."
If Clinton's post-West Virginia address represents her approach to the remainder of the campaign, that's good news for the Democrats. If her strategy is, as some of the pundits suggested last night, to be the understudy, acting presidential, talking positively, and standing ready, willing and able to serve if Obama trips between now and August, then the next few weeks should not hurt Obama's general election race. Only time will tell if Clinton sticks to this course, though.
Pity our poor alien friend, trying to figure out this mess. If the mob of "experts" on CNN and the Mount Rushmore of NBC political hosts can't get to the real issues, what hope does he or she (or it, if the alien is from a nongendered race) have?
Thursday, May 8, 2008
Next week the broadcast networks will reveal to the world which programs will appear on their fall schedules. The execs will tell us which shows will live, and which will disappear from the prime-time landscape. The so-called upfront presentations in New York are intended for advertisers, but as an avid follower of television, they’re a big week for me. Kind of like a four-day version of the announcement of the NCAA March Madness brackets.
So here is my network-by-network look at what issues I am thinking about with next season's schedules.
NBC, Monday, May 12, 2008
NBC, which spent the 2000s plummeting from the top of the ratings pile to the depths of despair, has decided to take a different approach to scheduling, eschewing a traditional glitzy upfront presentation and moving towards a year-round schedule. Kudos to the network for trying to shake things up, although Fox found a few years ago that premiering new programs outside of the fall time period in which viewers are used to looking for new shows is a dicey proposition.
I took a look at the NBC schedule while researching this article, and I came to a stunning conclusion: Aside from the Thursday night sitcoms, I don’t watch a single prime-time offering on the network. (Well, I will occasionally catch an episode of “Deal or No Deal,” but it is far more likely that I’ll watch that game show in a CNBC rerun.) So it’s not like I’ll be waiting on the NBC announcement to see if any of my favorite shows have been cancelled. We know “Scrubs” is done on NBC, and “The Office,” “30 Rock” and “My Name Is Earl” are sure to be back. My first order of business will be to check out the sitcom (I’m assuming programmers won’t throw in another genre amidst the single-camera comedies) chosen to join the Thursday night lineup. I’ve also heard good things about “Chuck,” so I’ll be interested to see where it is placed on the schedule for its sophomore year. And maybe one of the new NBC offerings will get my attention.
I think what a lot of people (including me) are really waiting to see from NBC is if the rumors are true and Jimmy Fallon will be handed Conan O’Brien’s slot in 2009, when O’Brien shoves Jay Leno out of the “Tonight Show” host’s seat. Anything that leaves Leno out of a job is fine with me, although I think O’Brien and his quirky brand of comedy are more suited for the 12:30 slot.
ABC, Tuesday May 13, 2008
ABC poses an interesting dilemma for me. On the one hand, I watch more shows on ABC than on any other network. (As you may recall, when I compiled my list of five new shows I was looking forward to for Fall 2007, four of them were on ABC.) But the network took a big chunk of the drama out of its upfront months ago when it announced that the whole Wednesday lineup (“Pushing Daisies,” “Private Practice” and “Dirty Sexy Money”) would be back in the fall, as would “Samantha Who?” Clearly, ratings winners like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Brothers and Sisters” aren’t going anywhere, and I’m not sure many of us care if “Carpoolers” will return. And, sadly, I hold no hope that “October Road” and “Miss Guided” will make the grade (yeah, it’s a bad pun, so sue me) for 2008, but maybe I’ll get a rare nice surprise from a network. I’m just not counting on it.
So what is there to look for at the ABC presentation on Tuesday? Well, one super large thing: If you believe what you read (and I hope you do, since you’re reading this), ABC is considering taking on “Scrubs,” which has been cast off by NBC. While the ratings for “Scrubs” haven’t been strong in quite some time, the show is a winner in syndication and, surprise, Disney (who owns ABC) owns the show. So it might make financial sense to squeeze another year out of the critically beloved hospital-set sitcom. ABC is also supposedly looking to scoop up “The New Adventures of Old Christine” if the Julia Louis-Dreyfus comedy is the loser in the CBS battle royale for a spot on Monday nights. “New Christine” never sucked me in, but if it’s part of an ABC sitcom night, I may just have to give the “Seinfeld” alum another chance.
CBS, Wednesday May 14, 2008
Speaking of CBS’s Monday night sitcom scramble, with “The Big Bang Theory” already getting the go-ahead for next year, the big question for me (and probably my biggest anxiety-inducer for the week) is whether the sorely underrated “How I Met Your Mother” survives for another year. The ratings have been stronger since the Britney Spears guest appearance, and “Mother” has the youngest median age (43) of any show on geezer-skewing CBS. Then again, there is always the chance that the network will look at its schedule, filled with one-hour police procedurals aimed at the AARP crowd, and say to itself, “What the hell are we doing with this edgy sitcom about a bunch of 30-year-olds hanging out in a bar? They don’t even solve crimes!” Let’s hope that CBS decides it needs at least one hip show on the air, if for no other reason than to avoid being completely ignored by the generations that don’t remember World War II rationing.
Since I’m still younger than the median age of “How I Met Your Mother,” I’m guessing I won’t be all that interested in the rest of the CBS schedule. But you never know.
CW, Thursday, May 15, 2008
The Franken-network created by the merger of the WB (now available as an online channel) and UPN is still fighting for viewers and attention. It got some real buzz last year with “Gossip Girl,” as well as some critical love for “Reaper.” Both shows were on my “maybe” list to check out when last year’s schedule was announced, but I never got around to seeing either. I’m guessing that won’t change for 2008-09, but I’m open to giving “Reaper” a whirl. Since I’m not a sci-fi guy (“Smallville” and “Supernatural”), nor do I follow the WWE or shows meant for teenagers (“Gossip Girl” and “One Tree Hill”), and since I generally steer clear of broad reality shows (no “Beauty and the Geek,” “America’s Next Top Model” or “Farmer Takes a Wife” for me), I will be watching for Thursday’s announcement for only one thing: Whether the quirky, funny and smart “Aliens in America” finds some way to survive.
It doesn’t look good. The single-camera sitcom got booted from its time slot this year, the CW shut down its comedy department in a reorganization a few months ago, and the network currently has only two half-hour comedies (“Everybody Hates Chris” is the other) on its prime-time strip. But I’m rooting for some kind of miracle. “Aliens in America” handled it’s potentially controversial subject matter (parents agree to take in a foreign-exchange student to provide a friend for their nerdy son, but the kid turns out to be a Pakistani Muslim) without resorting to racist stereotyping or giving in to the impulse to make the kid a 21st century Balki (Bronson Pinchot in “Perfect Strangers”). And it is genuinely funny, playing off an interesting and entertaining family dynamic.
FOX, Thursday, May 15, 2008
I have tended not to be a big fan of Fox. The network has a decent amount of shows I’ll watch on occasion, if I happen on to them at the right time (like “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader,” “Don’t Forget the Lyrics” and “New Amsterdam”). And I enjoy the occasional Sunday night dip into the animated lineup of “Family Guy” (my wife is a big fan), “The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill” and “American Dad.” Of course, Fox boasts two of the most successful programs on the air: “House,” which I admire even if I don’t watch it, and “American Idol,” which I, well, don’t. But of all the shows on the Fox schedule, only one has a spot on my TiVo Season Pass list: “Back to You.” And it’s no sure thing that it will be back for next season.
The comedy, starring comedy veterans Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton and Fred Willard, and executive produced by old pros Christopher Lloyd (“Frasier”) and Steven Levitan (“Just Shoot Me”), carries the weight of being the last great hope for big, traditional, multi-camera sitcoms. With its heavy hitters (and, presumably, their heavy salaries to match), a lot of expectation was heaped on the program, and it was a hard mark to measure up to. But judged on its merits, “Back to You” is really funny, with a very sharp ensemble. The show certainly deserves another year to see if it can find a higher gear, and I think it will get the chance. But if the program is cancelled, I’ll be bummed.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
- Merriam-Webster's definition 2(b) of "delusion"
At about 10:30 p.m. last night, Barack Obama had trounced Hillary Clinton in North Carolina, and Clinton held a narrow four-point lead in Indiana -- with the Obama stronghold of Lake County yet to report. But Clinton took to the podium in front of her supporters and said that by Obama's definition, Indiana was the tie-breaker, and that she had won, so, "it's full-speed on to the White House."
What, has she decided to take a tourist's tour of the presidential mansion? Because short of being invited to visit by George W. Bush before January 2009, or by Obama or John McCain after January 2009, that's the only way Clinton is getting inside.
I don't think it's a stretch to call Clinton's speech last night delusional. After all, she is faced with "indisputable evidence," after last night's results, that she doesn't have a clear path to the nomination, and yet she maintains (at least publicly) a "persistent false psychotic belief" about her chances. Okay, I'm no shrink, so I can't promise that her position is psychotic, but it is patently false.
In fact, I hope that Clinton is delusional. The alternative is that she knows that the party would be ripped apart if the superdelegates give her the nomination, alienating Democratic voters, especially those brought to the political process by Obama, and greatly injuring the party's chances of winning in November. If she's not delusional, and she is seeking the nomination even though she knows it will have disastrous results, then she is dishonest and will do anything to win, just like her detractors claim. And I don't want to believe that. After all, last July, when she was still the unquestioned front-runner, I wrote that Clinton was unelectable. But in my analysis, I was very sympathetic to her, calling myself an admirer of hers and arguing that the negative views held of her by so many Americans were unfair and unfounded.
But her head-scratching speech last night left me in utter disbelief. Clinton gave a victory speech, even though the results signaled that she was all but done. Even before last night's primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, the math didn't add up for her. It was virtually impossible for her to catch Obama in pledged delegates, and thus it was highly unlikely the superdelegates would rip the nomination from Obama's grasp for fear of dividing the party for the general election. And, in the days leading up to the primaries, a strong trickle of superdelegates made their way into the Obama camp, while none managed to make the journey to the Clinton side.
To make a convincing argument that she should be given the nomination, Clinton needed a "game changer" yesterday. She had to show that Obama's campaign was dying, hers was surging, and that momentum was clearly on her side. Coming off a nine-point win in Pennsylvania and her earlier solid win in Ohio, Clinton had to be competitive in North Carolina (a state in which Obama's early large lead in the polls had eroded) and win convincingly in Indiana. Neither happened. Obama soundly defeated Clinton in North Carolina by 14 points and came within 25,000 votes of winning in Indiana, too.
That means that Obama increased his already commanding delegate lead. As of this writing, of the 115 pledged delegates to be awarded in North Carolina, 108 had been determined, with 62 going to Obama and only 46 landing in Clinton's column. In Indiana, since the race was so tight, Clinton's net gain will be one delegate. So, according to CNN, the total pledged delegates tally now stands at 1588 to 1419 in favor of Obama. He has also narrowed her once-commanding lead in superdelegates to a mere 13, 267 to 254. With only 217 pledged delegates left to be awarded, and with the Democrats' system of proportional allocation, that means that Obama has gone from being virtually assured of winning the pledged delegate race to absolutely coming out on top, most likely clinching on May 20 when Kentucky and Oregon hold their primaries.
Short of a major slip-up, it seems nearly impossible for Obama not to be the Democratic nominee. Including superdelegates who have already made their allegiances known, Obama is only 183 delegates away from victory, with 491 delegates still to be awarded (274 superdelegates to go with the 217 to be had in primaries). So even if Clinton wins 60 percent of the remaining elected delegates, she would need to secure 178 of the remaining 274 superdelegates to tip the scale her way. That's almost two-thirds. It's not going to happen.
Put another way, it seems the only way that Obama can lose the nomination is if he goes on television and announces that his running mate will be Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
But last night, Clinton and her supporters said she is on her way to the White House. Which is why I come back again and again to the word "delusional." Her actions would be entertaining, if they weren't so damaging to the party, preventing Obama from organizing his general election campaign and letting the media finally turn its attention to the seemingly daily wacky statements made by McCain, not to mention his voting record of walking in lock-step with Bush.
To me, Clinton's speech last night hit rock bottom when she again referenced her support of a three-month repeal of the federal gas tax that had been originally offered by McCain. Her use of the gas-tax holiday as a central issue in her Indiana and North Carolina campaigns crystallized everything Clinton's detractors accuse her of being. The repeal, along with her proposal to make up for the lost revenue by instituting a tax on oil companies, had no chance of being passed by Congress and signed by Bush, who, if he was any closer to Big Oil, would have an ExxonMobil employee ID card in his wallet. Even more importantly, more than 200 economists (including four Nobel laureates) came out to say that the tax holiday was a bad idea, since it would primarily benefit the oil companies and likely wouldn't lower the price of gas for consumers. And, as Obama repeatedly pointed out, even if the repeal worked and gas got cheaper, the savings would be minimal to consumers.
Of course, none of this even addresses the larger question of global warming, and how higher gas prices and lower consumption are actually positive steps in addressing climate change, nor does it take into account the failing infrastructure of the nation's highways (repairs are funded via the gas tax, something noted by the 200 economists) and the need for the government to support development of alternative energy sources.
So why did Clinton push so hard for a bill that wouldn't do what it was advertised to do and had no chance of being signed into law? For the political benefits, of course. It was a dishonest and sleazy come-on to voters, pretending to give them something while making it look like her opponent didn't want to give them anything. It was calculated and soulless, the very qualities that many Americans already associate with Clinton.
As far as I am concerned, Clinton lost all sympathy and any claim to the nomination when she campaigned on the gas-tax repeal. So it is only fitting that in her post-primaries speech last night, in which she painted a picture of the race that had no passing resemblance to reality, she again invoked the holiday.
Her supporters might even be worse. On CNN last night, Lanny Davis whined like a fourth grader denied a second cookie at lunch. He made inane points that defied basic election knowledge (like, for example, that Clinton should be the nominee because she won big states like New York, Massachusetts and California, conveniently forgetting that a ticket of Eliot Spitzer and the corpse of Adlai Stevenson would carry those three states for the Democrats), and cried that the votes in Florida and Michigan had to be recognized, even though they violated DNC rules by holding them so early, because Obama did not allow a mail-in re-vote in June (conveniently forgetting that neither candidate campaigned in those states, and Obama's name was not even on the ballot in Michigan). Davis was so shrill and out of touch, I would imagine many undecided voters watching his temper tantrums must have said to themselves, "I don't want to support that guy's candidate."
I found it especially entertaining that Clinton used Obama's tie-breaker quote against him, since she can be pilloried for her past statements, especially regarding how to pick the nominee. Clinton has shifted her view on the metrics of the race so often, you need an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the changes. Keith Olbermann put together a funny and dead-on guide to the constantly evolving arguments of convenience offered by Clinton and her supporters over the course of the campaign. You can watch it here.
I cannot get inside of Clinton's head, but it sure does seem to me that her actions and words reflect a view that she honestly believes that she -- and only she -- can beat McCain in November and save the country from the mess wrought by eight years of George W. Bush. Until she figures out that she is not a modern-day messiah, the Democrats will have some thorny issues to contend with.
How long does Clinton stick with her delusions? Until the convention? The Democrats can't afford to begin the race against John McCain on September 1. I could almost laugh at how out of touch Clinton was in her speech last night. But if she carries on much longer, the entertainment value will disappear quickly and be replaced by the sinking feeling that the Democrats are blowing another winnable election.
The party has to do whatever it can to wrap this up by the end of this month. Many commentators believe that when Obama clinches the pledged delegate race on May 20, the superdelegates will flood to him, essentially giving him the nomination. Let's hope so.
Friday, May 2, 2008
Oh, hello, kettle? This is Monica. You're black.
- Phoebe, to the notoriously competitive Monica, calling her on complaining about somebody else being competitive on the “The One With All The Poker” episode of “Friends,” written by Jeffrey Astrof and Mike Sikowitz, originally aired on March 2, 1995.
Buzz Bissinger is full of shit.
Why am I being so graphic? Well, that takes a bit of explaining. Bissinger, a former newspaper sports writer who is best known for his book “Friday Night Lights,” went on HBO’s “CostasNow” on Tuesday night and took part in a roundtable discussion, led by host Bob Costas, on the current “sports media landscape,” including “the rise of Internet bloggers.” Costas introduced Bissniger; Will Leitch, founder and editor of sports blog Deadspin; and, for some reason only the good folks at HBO can explain, third guest Braylon Edwards, wide receiver of the Cleveland Browns.
(You can watch the panel here.)
After Leitch parried Costas’s opening salvo, which accused the sports blogosphere of being a place for nonjournalists to take pot shots at athletes, Bissinger interrupted the discussion to tell Leitch, “I think you’re full of shit.”
So if Bissinger can attack Leitch personally, I figured I should respond in kind. Why? Because I found Bissinger’s attack to be completely hypocritical.
I’ll explain. On “CosatsNow,” Bissinger’s profane insult of Leitch was just the start of his histrionics. With his voice taking on a decidedly uncivil, angry tone, Bissinger proceeded to launch into an attack on sports blogs, saying they are “dedicated to cruelty, they’re dedicated to journalistic dishonesty, they’re dedicated to speed,” before getting even more angry and demanding to know from Leitch if he had ever read the work of sports writing legend W.C. Heinz. (Leitch said he had, in fact, read Heinz’s most famous novel.) Bissinger then launched into a defense of sports journalism, using Heinz as the point of reference and comparing it to sports blogging by reading, still filled with anger, one portion of one entry on Deadspin.
I think it’s a good rule of life that if you are taking the position that “all (fill in the noun) are (fill in the adjective),” you are probably doing something wrong. All of virtually everything is never always anything. (Say that ten times fast.) There are good and bad building contractors. There are good and bad modern abstract artists. There are even good and bad reality television shows. And yes, Buzz, there are good and bad sports reporters and good and bad sports bloggers. Bissinger’s absolutist attitude uncomfortably reminded me of bigots who will tell you: "All (fill in the ethnic group) are (fill in the insult)."
As I listened to Bissinger’s rant, I couldn’t help think that by his highly flawed rules, I could have made the exact opposite point he was espousing. I could have pulled out columns written by newspaper writers, even ones that are well-respected, that were shining examples of some combination of ignorance, carelessness and just being out of touch, while producing sports blogs that were insightful, artfully written and informative.
Even more importantly, Bissinger’s position misses a larger point, which is that newspaper sports writers seem to have lost their way in the last few years. Last August, I wrote in this space about the dying art of sports writing, and how the rise of these journalists going on television and screaming at each other on crapfests like “Around the Horn” had sullied a long tradition for which I had great affection.
Instead of going after sports blogs, Bissinger should be demanding that his own former profession live up to its ideals. As he went on about sports blogs, the quote from “Friends” I laid out above sprung into my head. In this day and age, sports writers have to be careful about pointing a finger at anyone else and complaining of shoddy journalism.
It’s not like Bissinger offended me because I write a blog. My sensibilities -- and my love of good sports journalism -- closely mirror Bissinger’s value system for content. But as someone who reads newspaper journalists and bloggers, I have come to a vastly different conclusion than Bissinger’s. Namely, sports blogs closely mirror modern newspaper writing, in that both media feature examples of the best and worst of what is out there.
For example, I could imagine Bissinger’s head exploding if he read Fire Joe Morgan, which is dedicated to critiquing and even mocking, often line by line, ridiculous articles and on-air statements by sports journalists. And yet, the analysis of the “CostsNow” showdown that appeared on Fire Joe Morgan was far more reasoned and persuasive (not to mention funny) than Bissinger’s emotional, disorganized and hostile argument on the show.
I remember learning in high school that in order to criticize something, you should learn about it first. As Bissinger fumbled with the pages he had brought on stage with him and struggled to identify the writer of the excerpt he was lambasting, it soon became apparent that he had little to no idea how blogs worked. And in the same way that he essentially accused Leitch of not being familiar with Heinz’s work, I would suggest (because I’m more reasonable, I will not just assume ignorance) that Bissinger has spent little to no time looking at sports blogs. One thing that jumped out at me was his apparent inability to distinguish between what the writer of the blog had said, and what is said by visitors commenting on the article and the issue.
Here is the dirty little secret about sports blogs that might make Bissinger feel better (assuming he can tone down his rage long enough to think clearly for a second): A lot of people don’t read the comments. I don’t. I might be interested in what a writer has to say, but I’m almost never interested in what the comment posters have to offer. You’ll notice that I have disabled the comment function on this blog, and you also cannot post reactions on Fire Joe Morgan.
The sad thing is, I share many of Bissinger’s concerns about our society. It pains me the way the art of language is being downgraded (or even eliminated) in the culture. I am extremely worried at the rampant anti-intellectualism that has grown in the U.S., to the point where being too smart is actually viewed as a bad quality in a politician. And I certainly agree that the tone of many message boards, blog comments and other public fora on the Internet can be abusive and destructive.
But Deadspin posting a photo of Matt Leinart in a hot tub with several women is not the reason that we’re experiencing a drop in the quality of discourse. The coarser elements of sports blogs are symptoms, not the disease. We have CNN treating sensational crimes and celebrity foibles like they're real news, and we have reality television dedicated to seeing real people and C-level celebrities at their worst. Sports blogs are hardly the only place we're seeing a drop in the level of discourse. These problems exist regardless of the medium in which they are expressed. And newspapers are filled with trained journalists who are sensationalistic and/or lazy and/or dense in ways that are often no better than the blogosphere.
It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that the Internet has brought a vast amount of information to our fingertips, some of it being extremely useful and/or entertaining, and a lot of it being garbage. To dismiss an entire medium of expression as responsible for, well, nearly anything is a dangerous proposition.
My advice to Bissinger would be to read some really good sports blogs and then try and tell me that Woody Paige and Jay Mariotti are better just because they work for major newspapers. But Bissinger’s mind is all made up. So I might as well speak to him in language he can understand. As he said to Leitch on “CostasNow,” Buzz, “I think you’re full of shit.”