Monday, June 30, 2008
I had resisted the earlier Ringo tours, feeling like it was a cynical money grab. A little Ringo goes a long way, and while seeing a Beatle is always a draw, Starr doesn't have the catalogue -- in the Beatles or solo -- of Paul McCartney, the other former Beatle that has hit the road regularly since the late 1980s (and whose shows I have found to be outstanding).
Then, last year, I started listening to Wolfgang's Vault, a site with a tremendous collection of live concerts available for free streaming (many of which come from old King Biscuit Flower Hour radio programs), and I heard a 2001 All-Starr Band show. Listening as each of the band members took a turn or two at playing his or her hits, it all sounded like so much fun. (The 2001 version featured Roger Hodgson, Ian Hunter, Howard Jones, Greg Lake and Sheila E., while past tours have included artists like Joe Walsh, Jack Bruce, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Nils Lofgren, Clarence Clemons, Billy Preston, Todd Rundgren, Dave Edmonds, Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, Timothy B. Schmit, Mark Farner, Felix Cavaliere, John Entwistle, Peter Frampton, Eric Carmen, Paul Carrack, John Waite, Rod Argent and Richard Marx.) The concert reminded me of something I'm too young to have seen for myself, namely the old Motown reviews, where a gaggle of the label's artists would go out on the road together, all backed by the same band. Tom Hanks did a good job of capturing the feel of a similar tour in "That Thing You Do!" I was intrigued.
So off to Westbury I went, expecting a fun night. And my expecations were met, as the band treated the audience to a fun nearly two-and-a-half-hour concert. At one point, Stuart, who has previous Beatle experience as part of McCartney's touring outfit, mentioned to the crowd that the All-Starr Band has "a great spirit." And it came through during the show.
Starr has a substantial pressence that belies his exceptionally elfin stature. As the ringleader of this traveling circus, he emcees the show like an old Catskills comic, tossing off one-liners, many of which sound like he's used them hundreds of times before, but others seeming like they're improvised in the moment. For the most part, Starr stood out front on the songs he sang, endearingly dorky as he danced in place while he crooned. For the numbers in which his colleagues took over lead vocals, Starr moved back to his drum kit, providing some steady rhythms, but leaving the heavy percussion lifting to Bissonette.
In a telling moment, after the band finished the Average White Band hit "Pick Up the Pieces," Starr said to the crowd, "I wish I had grown-up songs like that." And he had a point. Beyond the heavily George Harrison-influenced Starr solo hit "It Don't Come Easy" that kicked off the show, most of the selections from his songbook felt juvenile compared to the hits played by the rest of the band. While a Beatles throwaway like "Act Naturally" or even a classic like "Yellow Submarine" might induce nostalgic smiles, the songs don't really hold up well to 21st Century ears. And Starr's more recent solo work, including his tribute to Harrison "Never Without You," ode to his home town "Liverpool 8" and advice to the world "Choose Love," are so simplistic musically and on-the-nose lyrically that they have a child-like quality. Endearing, yes, but as I said, a little Ringo goes a long way.
Which is why the rock and roll revue format of the All-Starr Band makes for such a great show. You get your fix of seeing a living Beatle. You get to hear great songs like "It Don't Come Easy," "With a Little Help from My Friends," "Oh My My," "I Wanna Be Your Man" and "Photograph." But before you go into sugar shock from too much Ringo, someone else steps up to the microphone to sing a true rock hit.
Squier provided the old-fashioned, hard-rock element to the evening, leading the band through his hits "Lonely Is the Night" and "The Stroke," and offering a powerful acoustic version of his rocker "In the Dark." Not many people think of Squier as a guitar player, but he consistently offered dead-on licks to the night's songs. I espcially liked the kind of heavy, acidy sound he used while playing the chords to "Yellow Submarine." Winter nearly stole the show with his energetic performances of his hits "Free Ride" and "Frankenstein," as well as his backing instrumnetation, ranging from the atmospheric keyboards on Wright's "Dream Weaver" to the rocking saxophone on Hay's "Who Can It Be Now?" Winter's energy and playfullness was essential to the party vibe of the concert.
I walked away thinking how much fun it would be to see Winter and/or Squier on their own. They both have proven the ability to headline, and they demonstrate it in the All-Starr Band.
Wright provided the Light FM portion of the evening, doing a good job on his easy listening singles "Dream Weaver" and "Love Is Alive." He told a neat little story about how he met Starr while playing on Harrison's "All Things Must Pass Album," and how "Dream Weaver" was inspired by a poem he read in India, having gone there thanks to Harrison's invite. Hay played the two best known hits by his old band Men at Work, a version of the reggae-inspired "Down Under" that removed the "inspired" part of the description from the equation and a faithful take on "Who Can It Be Now?" Hay's major contribution to the night's festivities was providing stellar background vocals, especially, at key times, adding some strength and resonance to Starr's thin crooning.
Stuart, in addition to his acoustic cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You," led the band through the Average White Band singles "Pick Up the Pieces" and "Work to Do" (originally recorded by the Isley Brothers). Like Winter, Stuart really embraced the fun of the evening, maintaining his signature shuffle, swagger and style while laying down the night's bass lines. Bissonette, best known in some circles for playing in David Lee Roth's first post-Van Halen solo band, also seemed to have a big smile on his face the whole evening, often looking over at Starr while the two played together. You could amost read the expression on his face as saying, "Holy crap! Do you believe I'm playing with a Beatle!"
While the band always sounded great and seemed to enjoy playing together, it was sometimes almost disconcerting to watch them on stage. Visually and stylistically, on first impression, anyway, they do come off as a bit of a motley crew. I wonder what the low-key Hay would have said if you told him before his first All-Starr Band gig in 2003 that someday he'd be strapping on a Les Paul and playing power chords while singing "Stroke me, stroke me"? He probably would have thought you were mad. Same for going to Bissonette in 1985 and telling him he'd be playing "Dream Weaver." It was hard to reconcile the uber-nerdy Wright, looking like a less cool version of Art Garfunkel (and that's saying something), balding and wearing a tails-like jacket, across from the tall, albino Winter, with his free-flowing white hair and 1970s rocker wardrobe. Same for Squier, rocker-dude thin and wearing a fashionable retro T-shirt, trading chords with the chubby, folksy Hay, who sported a loose button-down shirt and barely moved from his spot the whole night. To the average rock fan, the whole thing, on first glance, looked like it made no sense.
But musically, it all came together just fine. Everyone made it work. And everyone seemed happy to be there. It's a shame it took me 10 tours to finally get around to catching Starr's ever-changing rock and roll revue. But having finally made my way there, assuming I like the bulk of the members of his next All-Starr Band, I have a feeling I'll be back.
Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band
Capital One Bank Theatre in Westbury, June 29, 2008
With A Little Help From My Friends Introduction
It Don't Come Easy
What Goes On
Memphis in My Mind
Lonely is the Night
Pick Up the Pieces
In the Dark
A Song For You
Never Without You
Work to Do
I Wanna Be Your Man
Love is Alive
Who Can it Be Now
Oh, My My
With A Little Help From My Friends
Give Peace a Chance (just the chorus)
Friday, June 27, 2008
When the USA Network premiered “In Plain Sight” (Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern) last month, I thought to myself, “Just what we need: Another police procedural starring a film actress playing a difficult cop.” After all, the networks are littered with one-hour programs about crime solvers, and TNT has seemingly started an Actress Over 40 Career Reclamation Project, giving homes to Kyra Sedgwick (“The Closer”) and Holly Hunter (“Saving Grace”) as law enforcement professionals with problematic personal lives. (Both shows return with new seasons on July 14.)
I passed on watching the debut of “In Plain Sight” because the ads for it made it feel like a knock-off version of its TNT forerunners. After all, while Holly Hunter has won an Oscar and Kyra Sedgwick has received a Golden Globe nomination for playing Julia Roberts’s sister, Mary McCormack’s most memorable film role was playing Howard Stern’s wife in “Private Parts” (unless you think her turn opposite David Spade in “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star” was her standout moment). Okay, she was in “Deep Impact” and “For Your Consideration,” and she played Russell Crowe’s wife in “Mystery Alaska,” but, certainly, McCormack’s movie career doesn’t hold up to Sedgwick’s or Hunter’s. And nothing about “In Plain Sight” looked fresh or interesting. The ads, to me, felt like it was a cheap effort to draft on the success of other shows.
But then a funny thing happened: “In Plain Sight” got some good reviews, and in a summer overrun with game shows and reality programs, it actually started generating some of that amorphous-but-oh-so-important buzz. I remained cynical. Another police procedural? And one centering on female-male, polar-opposite partners? I wasn’t buying it. I had to see for myself, so I tuned in on Sunday.
Turns out, I was wrong. Really wrong. Something that became especially apparent when I went back and watched the pilot online. “In Plain Sight” blows “The Closer” and “Saving Grace” off the map.
McCormack stars as Mary, a U.S. Marshal in New Mexico charged with protecting and transporting members of the federal witness protection program. She lives with her boozing, deadbeat mother, Jinx (the names on this show are so on-the-nose you’ll wince, by the way), played by the reliably ditzy Lesley Ann Warren. Jinx is prone to statements like, “Relationships end. Jewelry is forever.” In the premiere, the mother and daughter are joined by Mary’s sister, Brandi (Nichole Hiltz), who takes after her mother, but has developed a nose for crime, as well. Due to the nature of Mary’s work, her mother and sister don’t know what she really does for a living.
On the job, Mary’s partner is a U.S. Marshal named Marshall (see, I told you), played by New York stage veteran Fred Weller. Mary and Marshall are constantly bickering, like an emotional odd couple: she’s a mess, he’s always in control. But where this relationship could go the route of mind-numbing cliché in the hands of less skillful writers, it achieves so much more, mostly due to the palpable chemistry between McCormack and Weller. They manage to convey the affection these two people have for each other without ever indicating it in obvious words or mannerisms. The subtlety of their performances makes this a television pairing worth following.
In Sunday’s episode, Mary opens a letter addressed to Marshall and finds that he is thinking of leaving government work. After he is wounded on duty, she asks him why he was considering changing careers, and he explains that being her friend is like training an exotic animal, in that he is constantly either protecting her form the world, or protecting the world from her. It was a touching moment, but it was more than that, revealing a complexity to the relationship that wasn’t visible in the regular give-and-take between the partners.
I also liked how the writing, while sometimes embracing classic television clichés, also did a great job of playing off of audience expectations for effect. In the premiere, Mary holds her cell phone out the window of her car so she can claim not to hear her boss and thus disobey his order. It was a moment we’ve seen a million times before, the renegade cop flouting authority to do the right thing. But just when you think you have the show pegged, the rug is pulled out from under your feet.
Minutes after the cell phone gag, Brandi, blonde and pretty, is left by Mary’s on-again-off-again boyfriend in his car in front of a youth center. Two criminal-looking kids make some leering comments to her, and we think we know where this is going, with the little blonde white girl cowering in fear. Turns out, Brandi is not so innocent. As Mary is explaining to her boyfriend on the phone that Brandi likes to steal cars, we hear the engine turn over and the car pull away, leaving Mary’s boyfriend stranded at the center.
Similarly, Mary and Marshall take a Ukrainian witness to her new apartment in town, and she breaks down upon the realization that she is not only stuck in this small town far from New York, but she will never see her family and friends again. Mary consoles her, and we think we have a read on the situation, that this poor bookkeeper has the purest of intentions. When she finally pulls herself together, though, Mary asks her if she needs something special from the grocery store, and the witness responds by asking when she gets the “new breasts” she was promised by the government. Even the brave witness has an agenda.
“In Plain Sight” does have a kind of schizophrenic quality with its tone, bouncing from the serious to the light-hearted and back, with no segue to let the audience get comfortable. One second Mary and Marshall are bantering and needling each other about something unimportant, next thing you know it, a New York Mafioso hit man in the witness protection program is throwing corpses around a morgue in a grief-driven rage as he looks for his son’s body. The balancing of tones isn’t quite there yet, but it’s not enough to get in the way of the entertainment.
And “In Plain Sight” is entertaining. Funny at times, the program is, at heart, a hardcore police crime drama, with shootouts, chases and everything you would expect from cops and bad guys. Sunday’s episode featured the great Dave Foley as an acid-tongued, asthmatic, diabetic, whiny front man for a female assassin named Lola, who, after being captured, agrees to deliver his boss to the law. Mary and Marshall have to transport him, and what ensues captures everything that works about this show.
One moment, Foley is trading insults with Mary, telling her she is touching him inappropriately, to which she sarcastically shoots back that she is into “pasty accountant types.” But soon after they hit the road, their vehicle is attacked, leading to a shootout, Marshall being wounded, and the agents and their charge holing up in an abandoned building in the middle of the desert. The comedy and thriller aspects both work. (And bonus points to any show that has its lead character sing the words to the Kinks classic “Lola” as a way of figuring out a key clue in solving a crime mystery.)
The only thing that doesn’t work for me is the balance of Mary’s family and work lives. In Sunday’s episode, we cut back and forth between Mary working on her case with Marshall and Jinx trying to sort out her money problems with Brandi, mostly by sitting in a bar and getting drunk. Brandi, Jinx and Mary don’t share any screen time until the last shot of the episode. The problem is that nothing bound the two stories together until that last moment. It was jarring to go back and forth between two plots with such different feels. It felt as is the two arcs were being jammed together, regardless of whether they fit properly or not.
But that’s a small nit to pick. “In Plain Sight” is a funny, exciting police program with strong writing and a stellar cast. McCormack and Weller especially do a great job humanizing their characters, giving them a depth that you might not have guessed was there from seeing a commercial for the show.
Don’t make the same mistake I did and let this little gem slip away.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
A Pearl Jam concert is a tricky event to review. Oh, sure, you can knock out what a casual fan needs to know in a paragraph (I went yesterday to the second sold-out night of back-to-back concerts at Madison Square Garden; good band; energetic and engaging, if slightly incoherent lead singer; some songs dissolve into Who-like extended jams while others burst forth in short explosions of power; two-hour, 45-minute set mixing hits, covers and obscurities; two special guests: C.J. Ramone and Ace Frehley ... look at that, I took care of it in a parenthetical, kind of). But the thing is, there are precious few casual fans at a Pearl Jam show, which makes the concert unlike nearly anything else in rock music.
Pearl Jam, one of the few survivors of the early 1990s Seattle grunge scene, has built a phenomenon. The band does more than just sell out entire tours, it has attracted a maniacally obsessive army of supporters. And the band happily plays to that intensity. Where most acts on tour might adjust a song or two from their set lists from night to night, literally hundreds of songs will be in the hopper for a Pearl Jam tour. Of the 30 selections from the Tuesday night show at the Garden, only 11 of them made their way into the concert on Wednesday.
And while it’s common for an artist to throw in a deep album cut on a tour to shake things up, a huge chunk of a Pearl Jam set is devoted to B-sides and obscure songs on even obscurer albums. Last night’s concert featured a lot of familiar songs, at least as far as Pearl Jam concerts go (you could still have constructed a two-hour set of radio friendly cuts the band didn’t play, like “Jeremy,” “Black,” “Daughter,” “Animal,” “Spin the Black Circle,” and “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town,” just to name a few), but the night also included two numbers with running times of less than a minute and a half. No other band I know of regularly inserts what are essentially album throwaways into their live sets.
But here is what is truly astounding: That’s exactly what the fans want. Being at a Pearl Jam show in which the band plays some sought-after nugget for the first time in a long time (or, even better, ever) is the Moby Dick to this audience of Ahabs. Walk around the arena at a Pearl Jam concert and you are sure to pick up pieces of conversations that begin with, “Did you hear they played” some song in some city. It’s not unusual to look out over a hockey arena during a rock concert and see 19,000 people singing along to part of a song. At a Pearl Jam show, that happens virtually every song, from the familiar chorus of a radio-friendly cut like “Even Flow” to the barely known “Lukin” off of the hardly noticed album “No Code”
Pearl Jam fans barely even need to be prodded. When lead singer Eddie Vedder, alone on the stage, noodled the first few notes of “Better Man” on his guitar, 19,000 people proceeded to sing the entire first verse (seemingly before Vedder was ready), without the front man playing a single note. The crowd then waited patiently until Vedder played another two or three notes on his guitar, spurring the faithful to sing the entire chorus.
This kind of crowd participation and assumed knowledge of the band’s catalogue makes attending a Pearl Jam show a bit daunting, not just to casual fans, but even to actual fans who don’t have a near-religious devotion to the band. You start to feel like a virgin at a “Rocky Horror” screening or a visitor to someone else’s church. Everyone around you seems to know the words and hand gestures, while you look on as an outsider.
That’s not to say that watching a Pearl Jam concert isn’t a lot of fun, even if you’re not an obsessive fan. The band puts on an entertaining show. Vedder knows how to keep the crowd interested, and the songs are strong, ranging from straight-up rockers ( “World Wide Suicide”), to powerful introspective mid-tempo anthems (“Release”), to more abstract, dissonant rants (“Rats”), to songs that mix up two or more of these elements (“Rearviewmirror”).
Despite Pearl Jam’s more ambitious urges, the band members are quick to talk about their classic rock influences, especially the Who. Most shows feature a cover of “Baba O’Riley” or “Love Reign O’er Me,” but last night that slot was filled when Ace Frehley of Kiss came on stage to play “Black Diamond” with the band, featuring drummer Matt Cameron on lead vocals and guitarist Mike McCready singing the introduction (just like drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Paul Stanley do on the Kiss original).
But even a Kiss cover can spawn joy in the ranks of the Pearl Jam faithful. You see, the band covered “Black Diamond” once before (in Chicago’s The Vic Theater on August 2, 2007, as the amazingly comprehensive official band site, www.pearljam.com, reveals ... as an aside, the site is worth a look, since it carries so much information about every show the band has ever played), so the fact that they played it last night -- with Ace Frehley on guitar, to boot -- will send shockwaves through Pearl Jam nation.
Actually, “Black Diamond” is a good metaphor for the whole show. Pearl Jam fans saw it as an amazing “get,” witnessing the second-ever band rendition of the song. More casual fans got to rock out with a fun arena rock anthem. Everyone was happy, even if it was for different reasons.
By the time the band finished its marathon show with a finale of “Alive” and “Yellow Ledbetter,” the house lights had been turned up, and the crowd’s vocals had risen to a fever pitch, virtually drowning out Vedder. It seemed only fitting that the fans would take center stage, considering what a huge role they play in a Pearl Jam show. Luckily, for those of us less obsessed with the band, the intensity of the hardcore fans added to the concert experience.
And “experience” really is the right word. A Pearl Jam show is an event rock fans should catch at least once. You don’t even have to study the band’s material in advance, I promise.
Madison Square Garden, June 25, 2008
World Wide Suicide
Marker In The Sand
State Of Love And Trust
Who You Are
Given To Fly
Do The Evolution
I Believe In Miracles
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
The statement is made in the U.S. media, over and over again, as if it is as factual as the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening: "The surge is working." But just because the media has parroted the talking points of the Bush administration and John McCain's campaign in making such an assertion, it does not make it true. And a report released by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) yesterday does something that McCain and the White House probably wish would not be done: actually evaluating progress in Iraq against the goals the administration laid out in January 2007 when undertaking the surge. Guess what? In many material ways, the surge isn't working. Sorry to rain on the parade of CNN, Fox News, ABC, CBS, etc. with the facts.
The mainstream media is barely even acknowledging the report's release. At the time of this writing, the GAO report didn't even warrant a headline on the CNN.com home page, although CNN did see fit to include Imus's allegedly racist remark, pirates kidnapping European tourists, a British man accused of killing his wife and child, a prisoner's escape gone bad, the cost of orange juice in "paradise," a calf with an extra snout, and the denial of a U.S. visa for Boy George. And there is a headline that the Iraq military will control Anbar province, but there is no mention of the fact, cited in the GAO report, that only nine of Iraq's 18 provinces were controlled by the Iraqi government, even though the goal was to have Iraq control all 18 of its provinces by the end of 2007.
Since the mainstream media won't report on the GAO report, I decided to go through it myself to see what is there. The report states that some progress has been made in Iraq, but that in many other ways, things are not going well.
Rather than just stick to the GAO's conclusions, I took from the report some disturbing findings, many of them uncontested (yes, I know the Departments of Defense, State and Treasury objected to the conclusions, but in addition to the GAO being nonpartisan, the report also acknowledges and addresses the complaints of the departments), that point to the larger problems with the U.S.'s occupation of Iraq. Here are some of the highlights (or, really, lowlights):
Bill Clinton famously once said: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." The Bush administration had no effective plan to handle a post-war Iraq. The incompetence shown was disastrous. So why would anyone think for a second that the White House had a post-surge plan?
And the GAO report finds just that, that the Bush administration has no plan for what to do next. With the 18-month surge coming to an end in July, the report says that the administration has not set out "strategic goals and objectives in Iraq for the phase after July 2008 or how it intends to achieve them" and "an updated strategy is needed for how the United States will help Iraq achieve key security, legislative, and economic goals."
What did the Defense Department and State Department think of this statement? They were against it, of course. According to the report, the two departments said that the surge strategy "remains valid." But if most of the goals laid out by the president in January 2007 have not been met in July 2008, how can the plan still be valid?
Once again, the White House has no plan. Is this is a rerun?
When the White House and McCain say "the surge is working," how is it different than Bush's disastrous "stay the course" strategy in Iraq that failed and supposedly necessitated the surge in the first place? Keep that in mind the next time you're asked to support an open-ended troop commitment.
The report acknowledged that violence was down in May (after rising in March and April) and attributed the reduction to three factors: "1) the increase in U.S. combat forces, 2) the creation of nongovernmental security forces such as the Sons of Iraq, and 3) the Mahdi Army's declaration of a cease fire." What do these three conditions have in common? They are all temporary and unlikely to continue in the future.
Congressional testimony by generals in April, an April press release by Republican Senator Richard Lugar and statements by former secretary of state Colin Powell on Good Morning America in April all agreed on one premise: The U.S. military is stretched beyond its limits and cannot sustain current troop levels in Iraq indefinitely. The Sons of Iraq is a Sunni group that has fought al-Qaeda (fellow Sunnis) in Iraq. Groups like the Sons of Iraq are paid by the U.S. military. When the money stops, there is no guarantee the cooperation will continue. And as the GAO report points out, these groups have not reconciled with the Iraqi government, which is a recipe for future problems. As for the the Mahdi Army, its leader, Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said two weeks ago that he is setting up a fighting force specifically designed to fight Americans in Iraq, after making clear in April that he is not interested if fighting Iraqis but did want to fight U.S. troops. So the cease fire is, at best, to quote the report, "tenuous."
With all three elements affecting a drop in violence in Iraq being so precarious, it stands to reason that the drop in violence is also fragile, something both the GAO and the Defense department acknowledge. And the GAO report cites findings from the United Nations that violence in Iraq could "rapidly escalate."
Finally, the report notes that while violence is down from past levels, it is still high enough to keep a significant number of Iraqis displaced from their homes and to stymie rebuilding efforts in the country.
That, to me, sounds a lot more complicated than the simple campaign rhetoric of "the surge is working."
The purpose of the surge was to give the Iraqi government "breathing space" to enact laws to bring together Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, resolve their differences and establish a democratic government. In fact, President Bush said in January 2007 that the Iraqi government would be held to benchmarks, and if the government did not meet these goals, U.S. support would cease. Bush said in January 2007: "America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people."
Has the Iraqi government followed through on its promises? Well, the GAO reports that while some legislation has been passed to restore Ba'ath Party members to government (although many have questioned the legitimacy of these efforts), give amnesty to some detainees and define provincial powers, on many of the larger, stickier issues, no progress has been made. The report notes that the Iraqi government has not enacted "important legislation for sharing oil resources or holding provincial elections" and that "[e]fforts to complete constitutional review have also stalled."
In other words, we were told that the surge was put in place to provide temporary peace under which the Iraqi government could step up and pass necessary laws so that the Iraqi people could govern themselves. These laws were supposed to be passed and in place by now. This was one of Bush's benchmarks. But, according to the report, the Iraqi government has not met its obligation.
Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, should all be outraged at the piddling amount of money the Iraqis are spending on their own rebuilding efforts. Remember all those claims about Iraqi oil revenues paying for the war? Well, it hasn't even come close to working out that way. As American expenditures approach the $1 trillion mark, the GAO report reveals that "Iraq spent only 24 percent of the $27 billion it budgeted for its own reconstruction efforts" between 2005 and 2007. And things are moving in the wrong direction. The report says that "Iraq's central ministries, responsible for security and essential services, spent only 11 percent of their capital investment budgets in 2007 -- down from similarly low rates of 14 and 13 percent" in 2006 and 2005.
The White House and McCain may cite an increase in the number of Iraqi forces, and the report backs that claim up, saying that Iraqi security forces had grown in number to 478,000 in May 2008, up from 323,000 when the surge began. However, what the GOP doesn't discuss is that the benchmark set up in January 2007 by the Bush administration was for these forces to be able to act independently, without being propped up by the U.S. military, and in this regard, the Iraqis have fallen way short of their obligation. The report says that the Iraqi military has shown "limited improvement" in this area, noting that "the number of Iraqi army battalions rated at the highest readiness level accounts for less than 10 percent of the total number of Iraqi army battalions."
Poking a little deeper into the issue, the report notes that the four causes of the lagging readiness rate are "(1) the lack of a single unified force; (2) sectarian and militia influences; (3) continued dependence on U.S. and coalition forces for logistics and combat support; and (4) training and leadership shortages." The first two problems relate directly to the failure of the Iraqi government to take the necessary steps for reconciliation and the creation of a unified government (again, the reason for the surge in the first place). As for the dependence on U.S. forces, the report notes that "contracted logistics support in some form will be necessary for 2 to 3 years." How do you think the American people will feel about that? And, more importantly, three more years of American support for the Iraqi military goes against Bush's benchmark.
The GAO report says that U.S. goals for oil, electricity production and water production have not been met. There were two statements in this section of the report that caught my attention.
One of the headings is, "Iraq Needs an Integrated Energy Plan." My initial reaction was, "Yeah, so does the U.S."
In that section, the opening line reads: "As we reported in May 2007, a variety of security, corruption, legal, planning and sustainment challenges have impeded U.S. and Iraqi efforts to restore Iraq's oil and electricity sectors." Later, the report says: "For example, the lack of cooperation and coordination between the Oil and Electricity ministries, particularly in supplying appropriate fuels to the electricity sector, has resulted in inefficiencies such as increased maintenance costs and frequent interruptions in electricity production, according to U.S. officials."
Cutting through the technical jargon, what jumped out to me is that while thousands of U.S. soldiers have died, tens of thousand have been wounded, hundreds of thousands have had their lives disrupted with dire consequences, and the American government has hemorrhaged hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money at a time when the U.S. economy is sputtering, the Iraqis are engaging in petty power battles rather than supply electricity to their people.
If the surge was supposed to give space for the Iraqis to work out their problems, this is yet another area where the Iraqis have come up woefully short. How can the surge be working if the Iraqis are more interested in maintaining their little fiefdoms in the government rather than providing basic services for their people?
After looking through the GAO report, I can't help but wonder: What the hell are we still doing in Iraq? Why are we spending billions of dollars to prop up a government that is seemingly putting power retention over making the hard decisions necessary to reconcile the differences between the country's religious groups (assuming such a reconciliation is even possible)?
And why, if the benchmarks have not been met, are we continuing down the same path that has not worked, especially since the reduction in violence is so tenuous and connected to volatile factors?
I think what the GAO report makes clear, above all else, is that contrary to what the mainstream media and the GOP would have you believe, the surge has not worked, not enough anyway, and, even more importantly, the administration has no plan as to what to do next.
John McCain loves to talk about "winning" in Iraq. After reading the GAO report, winning, to me, would be getting our military out of Iraq as quickly as possible. They've done their jobs, it's the Iraqis who have failed to step up. It's time for the U.S. military to go home.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
TBS, one of the last networks making comedy a priority, unveiled a new season of two of its sitcoms last Thursday: “The Bill Engvall Show” (new episodes air Thursdays at 9 p.m. Eastern) and “My Boys” (new episodes air Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. Eastern). I reviewed both of these shows last season, so I was curious to see if “Engvall” had gotten any better, and if “My Boys” was still funny.
Stand-up comic Engvall plays Bill Pearson, the buffoonish king of his family castle, who, with his light-years-smarter-than-he-is stay-at-home wife Susan (the always solid Nancy Travis) is raising a brood of sitcom clichés: The pretty, shallow blonde high schooler Lauren (Jennifer Lawrence), the moronic space cadet middle schooler Trent (Graham Patrick Martin), and the brainiac nerd boy Bryan (Skyler Gisondo).
Last year, I called “Engvall” “dated and offensive to women,” railing against an episode plot that revolved around Bill’s distress at his discovery that Susan, horror of horrors, had a small bank account of her own. This season’s premiere of the show, I am happy to report, did not feel sexist, but there is no doubt that the sitcom trades in a 1950s ideal of family and feels woefully out-of-date in 2008.
The premiere is built on the slight and not terribly funny story of Bill being upset that his kids collect their allowances but don’t do their chores, so he orders them to clean up the garage. When the little monsters refuse (asking what’s in it for them), Bill cuts them off from everything (food, their rooms, etc.) until they capitulate. The plot points were as predictable as you can imagine. The kids are strong at first, Bill starts to cave only to be propped up by Susan, until finally the children cave and clean the garage.
If you think this all sounds way too slight of a story on which to base an episode of a sitcom, you are correct. The secondary plot, involving Susan’s ability to upgrade her cell phone for free while Bill could only get token freebies (reception dots and a case) was equally superfluous.
I guess what I’m saying is that while last year’s episode was offensive, this year’s premiere committed a far greater sin for a sitcom: It wasn’t funny. I didn’t laugh once. There wasn’t one line of dialogue, set-up or visual that entertained me. It was about as boring as 30 minutes of television can get.
Part of the problem is the cast. While Travis has good comic instincts and adds life to an underwritten character, her work is wasted, as she is surrounded by a motley crew of actors. Engvall is awful, even by comic-turned-sitcom-star standards. He is stiff in his line deliveries, overly emotive in his inflections, and just seems to be trying to get from mark to mark successfully while not blowing his lines. None of the kids are interesting, all bland and lifeless in a bad sitcom way.
The end credits of “The Bill Engvall Show” indicate that the copyright holder is Very Funny Productions Inc. I’m not sure what the name refers to, but it can’t possibly be this show.
“My Boys,” on the other hand, is sharp and fresh in a way that the “Bill Engvall Show” can only dream about. Shot in a single-camera style (like NBC’s Thursday night comedies), “My Boys” centers around Chicago sports writer P.J. (Jordana Spiro) and the surrogate family of guy friends (and her brother) with whom she hangs out.
In last year’s season finale, P.J. had just boarded a plane for Italy with her gal pal Stephanie (Kellee Stewart) and Stephanie’s boyfriend, but we didn’t know which, if any, of her possible suitors was joining her. This year’s premiere answers the question in the first scene, and it turns out it’s none of the above. P.J. ditches her flawed pursuers (a business titan, a baseball player, and her college flame) to ask Bobby (Kyle Howard), one of the guy friends in her group with whom she had a fling. P.J. decides she has feelings for Bobby, but after Stephanie ditches her boyfriend the second day in Italy, any chance to move out of the friend zone with Bobby is dashed.
“My Boys” has a quirky, just-off-center sense of humor that really works. Bobby doesn’t tell the gang he’s off to Italy, so when he doesn’t return any of their calls or emails for 24 hours, Kenny (Michael Bunin) comes to the logical conclusion that he has to be kidnapped or dead. While P.J. is away in Italy, Mike (Jamie Kaler) gets the gang banned from their regular watering hole because he wooed the waitress by talking like Matthew McConaughey, slept with her, and then declined to call her afterwards. My favorite moment of the episode came after P.J., upon returning home, fixes everything with the waitress, but when she is told Mike’s appeal was his Texan accent, P.J. immediately calls him on doing McConaughey.
Kenny’s worrying and P.J.’s knowledge of Mike’s propensity to break out a Matthew McConaughey persona to woo women successfully plays off the pseudo-family dynamic of the group, which is far more interesting than anything going on at Bill Engvall’s sitcom house.
There is also so much more happening in an episode of “My Boys” than you'd find in "Engvall." In addition to P.J.’s efforts to woo Bobby, Stephanie trying to recover from her breakup, Kenny looking for Bobby, and the gang trying to figure out what to do without their regular bar, Brendan (Reid Scott) copes with his radio station changing from rock to easy listening and P.J.’s brother Andy (Jim Gaffigan) enjoys the spending power that comes with his new corporate law job. A bit more interesting than household chores and cell phone woes, no?
But it’s the cast that makes “My Boys” work. The guys have a nice rapport that makes the kind of jabbing that good friends share with each other feel natural and lived in. My favorite scenes in the show tend to be the weekly poker games in P.J.’s apartment, where everyone sits around the table, jokes around and argues. It’s a good ensemble.
And Spiro, as the center of the storm, is everything Engvall isn’t. She is real, relaxed and engaging, and, most importantly, knows how to get a laugh without overselling the punch line.
“My Boys” may not be an elite sitcom like “How I Met Your Mother,” “The Office,” “30 Rock” or “Scrubs,” but it is funny and provides a half hour of entertainment. In the modern television landscape, that’s a pretty big deal. And it’s a claim that “The Bill Engvall Show” can’t make.
[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
I have a word of advice for my fellow Democrats, and here’s a hint: It involves chickens, counting and eggs.
I recently attended the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis, and it seemed like every speaker’s presentation, as well as all my conversations with fellow attendees, started with the premise that Barack Obama is a lock to win the presidency in November.
In the last week, this site has featured a great article by Arianna Huffington comparing John McCain's 2008 campaign to Bob Dole's candidacy in 1996 (no, I'm not kissing up because she's the boss; read the article, it's very persuasive) and a fascinating piece by Steve Rosenbaum arguing that McCain is so sure to lose, by August he will drop out of the race in favor of another candidate.
Don't get me wrong: I think that the Democrats have an amazing opening to win back the White House. After all, as I frequently point out, George W. Bush's approval rating is at a historic low (28 percent in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll), and 81 percent of the country thinks we are on the wrong track, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll. And Obama is certainly a better candidate than John Kerry, already showing that he has a better rapport with people and a willingness to fire back at Republican smears as they happen, rather than letting the right-wing attack machine define him the way the "swift-boaters" nailed Kerry.
It's just that there are also a lot of challenges to overhaul, and I don't want Democrats to take things for granted and have regrets in November. Or, put another way, I don't want the party to be the next 2007 New York Mets (who blew a seven-game lead with 17 games to play), or the next Leon Lett (fumbling while prematurely celebrating a potential touchdown after a fumble recovery), or, gulp, the next Kerry.
What scares me is that on the left there seems to be the pervasive idea that it is common knowledge among Americans across the country that McCain has become a joke, a Bush clone with a campaign loaded with lobbyists who has become so addled that he comes off as desperate and out of touch when he speaks. It makes me uneasy, because it is dangerously similar to the mood on the left in 2004, when so many of us figured that the country couldn't possibly return to office someone as incompetent, deceitful and destructive as Bush. The problem was, while the left knew about Bush's lack of fitness for office in 2004, the rest of the country hadn't reached that conclusion yet. They did, and by November 2006, the voters had tossed the Republicans out of power in Congress. But it was too late for the presidency, and we have had to endure four more years of scandals, incompetence, a sagging economy, and an ongoing debacle in Iraq.
I hope, in time, the rest of the country will come around to the point of view of McCain held by those of us on the left. I think it's pretty accurate, and with more light on McCain, it will become obvious to more voters. But, like Bush in 2004, I don't think everyone is there yet.
There is still this idea in the culture (reinforced by the mainstream media) that the current McCain is not far off from the the 2000 version of the candidate, the independent reformer who did break from his party on environmental and campaign reform issues, rather than the guy he is, who voted with Bush 95 percent of the time in 2007 and 89 percent of the time since Bush took office (according to a Congressional Quarterly voting study), as well as voting 98 percent of the time with his fellow Republicans (43 of 44) in 2007. Too many Americans still think of McCain as a maverick, rather than as the senator who voted against health insurance for children, against a ban on torture, and against a farm bill that contained a repeal of the so-called Enron Loophole that has been partially responsible for the current high gas prices.
There is also the problem of the right-wing smear machine, which has been effective in scaring independent voters in presidential elections in the past few years. Fox News has already started a fear campaign, between the "baby mama" reference to Michelle Obama and the claim the Obamas engaged in a terrorist terrorist fist bump. The right is already trying to scare Americans into being fearful that Obama is in league with scary figures like Iran, Hamas and Jimmy Carter.
Much like Dana Carvey's Garth in Wayne's World, many Americans fear change. They may say they want it, but the reality of something innovative and different can drive them to something familiar and comfortable, especially if they are afraid. And especially if they are senior citizens. And that is what the GOP is going to try and capitalize on. They've started already. McCain and his surrogates are sending the signal that it's a dangerous world now, and he'll keep you safe, while the new, young guy will not.
And let's not be naive and ignore the fact that when it comes to change, asking some older folks (and younger folks, for that matter) to vote for an African-American guy named Barack Obama is a factor. Twenty percent of voters in Ohio admitted that race affected their votes in the state's primary. That's how many admitted it. But how many more either are embarrassed to say they are uncomfortable with a black president, or are not even aware that their predispositions about race affected their decision-making process? If you don't believe me, take a walk around a retirement community in Florida and listen to what some of the old folks have to say.
I think America has made great progress on race, and I believe that enough Americans are ready to elect an African-American to the presidency. But it is a real issue that Obama and the Democrats will have to overcome in November.
Finally, the Democrats will have to overcome a recent history of failure in presidential elections if Obama is to win. Since 1968, only three Democrats have been elected president. Jimmy Carter won in 1976, and he had the extraordinary circumstances on his side of running just two years after the Watergate scandal destroyed trust in the federal government, especially in Republicans. And Bill Clinton won in 1992 and 1996, but he never received a majority of the votes. In each election, Ross Perot ran and siphoned votes away from the GOP candidate. That's it. Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry all went down to Republican opponents during that time, and, based on the circumstances, you would have to say that Dukakis, Gore and Kerry all blew great chances to win. Is the debacle of George W. Bush enough to push 2008 into the column of the Democrats? I think so. I hope so. But only time will tell.
Remember, even though Obama is doing better in early polling against McCain than Kerry did at this time against Bush, according to Real Clear Politics, Obama is up by only an average of 4.2 percent in national polls by Rasmussen, Gallup, Reuters/Zogby, ABC News/Washington Post and Cook/RT Strategies. These numbers don't scream that a win is inevitable. Rather, they look like the mark of a close race. Even more troubling, some of the polls covered by Real Clear Politics have McCain ahead in Michigan, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, Missouri, New Mexico and Nevada (with McCain ahead on average in Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire and Nevada). Again, not numbers that lead to a conclusion that McCain is done.
I understand that Obama has been surging in the polls lately. I am optimistic that as time goes on, and as the voters get to know Obama and see what McCain really stands for, Obama's campaign will get even stronger. And I believe that if things go well, the Democrats have a great chance of winning in November. But that is a far cry from the sense of inevitability that I have sensed on the left.
Which is why I beseech Democrats not to take an Obama win for granted. We can't assume everyone in the country is aware of McCain's weaknesses and fidelity to the Bush agenda, or know that the Internet rumors about the Obamas are false, or understand the real positions Obama and McCain have laid out. It is our job to get out there and make sure as many people as possible are as informed as possible, and how they don't have to be afraid of voting for Obama. If word gets out, I think the conditions favor the Democrats. But that's a big "if."
We, as Democrats, cannot count our chickens before they hatch. If we do, we might have to endure four more years of a Republican president laying eggs.
There was a moment 40 minutes into the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night that exemplified why the sold-out crowd was watching one of the premier bands in rock and roll: The large video screen captured Petty with a giant life-is-great smile on his face while wandering the stage and strumming his guitar. So what? Well, the moment occurred while opening act Steve Winwood was on the stage performing two of his classic hits (“Can’t Find My Way Home” and “Gimme Some Lovin’”) with the Heartbreakers.
That Petty, an expressive and engaging front man himself, could slip into the roll of rhythm guitarist/backup singer so easily is what makes this outfit so great. Yes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have had a string of hits. And yes, the band is a proud member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But, at its core, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is simply a great rock and roll band.
And yet, at the same time, there are few groups that have had a career like this one. Launched in 1976, four of the five original members (Petty, lead guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and bass player Ron Blair, in his second tour of duty, having replaced Howie Epstein after he succumbed to his drug problems) were on stage for the show. How many bands, while at the top of their popularity, would take two years off to tour as the backing band for another artist (as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers did for Bob Dylan in 1986-87)? How many bands from that era can still sell out Madison Square Garden, without the benefit of first breaking up, taking time off, and then embarking on a reunion tour? And how many bands can boast a 32-year long history of consistently making music and hitting the road to play for large audiences, with no long hiatuses?
I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live for the first time in 1984, and I can honestly say that 24 years later, they haven’t lost a beat. While the band members can see 60 coming up in the not-too-distant future, they haven’t surrendered to Father Time. There has been no movement towards mellowing the band’s sound; just the opposite, in fact. Campbell only picked up his mandolin once all night, and the set was heavy on rockers, those familiar to casual fans (“Refugee,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “American Girl”) and those not (“Honey Bee,” “You Wreck Me,” “Cabin Down Below”). The quiet moments were few and far between, although a nearly acoustic “Learning to Fly” was nothing short of mesmerizing.
It was as if the band members had made a concerted effort to rock out. Tench’s piano chords propelling the chorus of “Free Fallin’” surged forward with a ferocity that shouldn’t work for such a sweet song, but did. Ditto for the driving beats of drummer Steve Ferrone (the “new” guy, since he joined the band as recently as 1995, four years after Scott Thurston was added as an additional guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist), who seemingly defies the laws of physics by playing with the force of John Bonham while maintaining the still upper body of Charlie Watts. Ferrone’s powerful strikes pushed quieter songs like “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down” to new levels.
And Campbell is simply one of the greatest and most distinctive rock guitar players of all time. He is equally comfortable shredding, like on the solos in “Refugee,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” “You Wreck Me,” and “American Girl,” as he is providing soulful licks to mid-tempo numbers like “Saving Grace” and the Traveling Wilburys hit “End of the Line.” Campbell is one of the few guitar players whose sound is so signature, you can pick him out easily when you hear a song he plays on (think of his work on Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” which he co-wrote). But, as I said, Campbell showed up Tuesday night ready to rock, and he is the true power behind the Heartbreakers.
What was fascinating about the show was how after all these years, this was essentially the same Heartbreakers that emerged in 1976 as proponents of classic American rock and roll, with the same unearthly ability to play perfectly together, as if they had some kind of mental telepathy going on between them. And the members of the Heartbreakers play with such joy, like there is nowhere they’d rather be than on stage making music. Petty certainly plays up the arms-stretched, drink-in-the-adoration-of-his-fans pose way beyond the level anyone should, but it feels okay, because, at a base level, it seems sincere.
And, of course, Petty is adored, with the crowd breaking into “Pet-ty!” chants between songs. The fans are part of a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live experience. They sing along with more lyrics than most of the members of the band, and for a vast majority of the night, they were on their feet, moving along to the music, just how the band seemed to like it.
Even after 32 years, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is still a force to be reckoned with. The band’s two-hour set was completely satisfying, mixing hits, album tracks, obscurities (like “Sweet William,” which was released only on a European EP) and a cover (Van Morrison’s “Mystic Eyes”), and yet when it was over, you realized you could easily make up a second two-hour show of songs that got radio play but didn’t make Tuesday night’s set (just to name a few examples, there was no “Breakdown,” “I Need to Know,” “Listen to Her Heart,” or anything from “Hard Promises” or “Long After Dark”).
But a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show is not about the hits. It’s about watching one of the great straight-forward rock and roll bands of all time excel at what it does best, entertaining a capacity crowd of devotees. When Petty said, “I don’t think there is a better room for rock and roll music than this one,” I’m sure he meant it. But I couldn’t help thinking that any room is a great room for rock music when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is playing there.
Steve Winwood opened the show, playing a mix of music from his previous bands Traffic and Blind Faith, his 1980s solo career, and his new album “Nine Lives.” Trading off between guitar and keyboards, Winwood’s voice was just as perfect as ever, hitting the high notes as easily as he did when he was a teenager in the Spencer Davis Group 40 years ago. He even showed off his underrated guitar chops with an amazing solo at the end of the Traffic classic “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” Backed by an eclectic four-piece band (two of whom were percussionists), Winwood provided a nice survey of his diverse, interesting and productive career. He was a good fit for a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show.Set List
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Madison Square Garden
Tuesday June 17, 2008
You Wreck Me
Last Dance With Mary Jane
I Won’t Back Down
Even the Losers
Cabin Down Below
End of the Line
Can’t Find My Way Home (sung by Steve Winwood)
Gimme Some Lovin’ (sung by Steve Winwood)
Face in the Crowd
You Don’t Know How It Feels
Learning to Fly
Don’t Come Around Here No More
Runnin’ Down a Dream
Monday, June 16, 2008
Yesterday, a cable news anchor promised to "break down" whether Barack Obama's remarks at a South Chicago church were heartfelt or part of a "Machiavellian" attempt to change his public image. Was this report from Fox News? Nope. The anchor was Rick Sanchez of CNN. (Remind your conservative friends of Sanchez's actions the next time they call CNN liberal.)
Such irresponsible, tabloid journalism is especially outrageous, coming during a weekend of mourning over the untimely death of the great "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert. Russert's responsible, balanced and researched approach, with a laser-like concentration on the issues, stands as a 180-degree counterpoint to Sanchez's pandering garbage.
Obama's lecture was about the responsibility of fathers to take responsibility for their children. What is there to break down? Is Sanchez suggesting that Obama is not in favor of loving parenting? Or that it was not normal to discuss this topic on, yes, Father's Day? It certainly couldn't be the fact that Obama was worshipping on Sunday, seeing as his 20-year association with a church is well-known, thanks to the media coverage of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
So what was Sanchez suggesting? I would argue that Sanchez's remark was part of a larger trend.
Fox News, in a more obvious and crass way, has already established one of its approaches to attacking Obama: It will try to scare people by implying that Obama is "different." How else do you explain Fox News using an on-screen super that referred to Michelle Obama as Barack Obama's "baby mama," or a Fox News anchor calling a fist bump between the Obamas a "terrorist fist jab"? Besides being culturally ignorant (a "baby mama" is an unmarried mother of a man's child, while the Obamas were married for six years before having their first of two daughters, and a fist bump is such a common sports celebration, you can watch George H.W. Bush engage in one here), the references are offensive.
There are still conservatives that will tell you with a straight face that Fox News is a legitimate news outlet, but these kinds of ridiculous games that portray Obama as out of the mainstream are more reminiscent of Soviet-era Tass than anything resembling journalism.
Sanchez's promise to "break down" Obama's remarks on fatherhood, which were anything but controversial, are no better than the antics of the folks at Fox News. Sanchez said there was something questionable about Obama's motives, even though there was not a single shred of evidence to support such an assertion. Whether Sanchez's motivations were sensationalistic (to boost ratings) or partisan (to help McCain) doesn't really matter. The bottom line is that he is engaging in innuendo as to Obama's motives in a way that is irresponsible and offensive.
As Americans, we are used to presidential contests that feature exaggerations in debates about the issues. On "This Week" yesterday morning, host George Stephanopoulos had to remind Fred Thompson, speaking for the McCain campaign, that an independent source found that Obama's tax plan gave more relief to the middle class than McCain's proposal did. Stephanopoulos also challenged John Edwards, representing Obama, as to the independent finding that McCain's proposed corporate tax reductions could help boost the economy. Thompson even accused Obama of being dishonest, saying that he will raise taxes for more Americans than the select group (those who earn more than $250,000) identified in his plan, with only the vaguest of arguments to back it up (claiming that Obama will need to raise more money than he is saying he will need). This is a normal American political debate on issues. The two sides might exaggerate, but the arguments stick to policy, and the facts can certainly be verified by an engaged moderator or through a little research on the part of the voter.
But this kind of give and take is light years away from the sensationalism showed by Sanchez and Fox News. Rather, based on these early examples, it would seem that Obama will be forced to contend with a "he's different" campaign meant to scare voters away. And because of Obama's unique place in history, these tactics even surpass the "swift boating" of John Kerry for dirty politics.
Obama is the first African-American to earn the nomination of a major party for the U.S. presidency. As such, this presidential campaign will be different than any other that has come before it. And that means that Obama and his campaign have to be ready to fight back when fear mongers in the media engage in these kinds of divisive tactics. They cannot let the impression take hold that these kinds of attacks are legitimate.
But it's also up to reputable news organizations to address the acts of fear mongering as reportable news, just as Keith Olbermann did when he shined light on the Fox News "baby mama" super and the anchor's accusation that a simple fist bump was somehow terrorist in nature. Such coverage wouldn't be partisan. It would simply shine a light on a nefarious practice worthy of being shamed.
It's understandable why the Republicans would want to avoid a debate on the issues. With George W. Bush's approval rating at a historic low (28 percent in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll) and a recent CBS/New York Times poll revealing that 81 percent of respondents said that the country is on the "wrong track," it is clear that McCain will have a hard time running and winning on a GOP platform. But that doesn't make this kind of ugly fear campaign any more palatable.
Tim Russert may no longer be around to keep the playing field fair, but every journalist should aspire to meet the standards he set out. There should no place in our political culture for these kinds of attacks on Obama. They are ugly, and they should not be tolerated by any proud American, regardless of party affiliation.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
An article on the front page of the New York Times yesterday revealed that "tens of thousands" of South Koreans "spilled into central Seoul" to protest a government decision yesterday. What caused such an outpouring of rage? You might be surprised to know that it was the simple act of the government lifting a ban on U.S. beef imports.
Now, I am sure the social, financial and health arguments on both sides of the beef-import issue have merit. To be honest, I don't really care much if South Korea imports U.S. beef or not (I'm a vegetarian, after all). But I took something very different from this front-page story, namely that tens of thousands of Koreans had the civic pride and interest in national affairs to mobilize an angry protest over an issue that, compared to the hurdles the world is facing now, is quite minor.
I couldn't help but contrast the outrage of the Koreans to the absolute passivity of Americans, who this week were subjected to two far larger government decisions that should have provoked outrage. I mean, if the Koreans took to the streets over a food-import debate (yes, I know that it goes to nationalist sentiments, but, again, it comes down to whether or not to allow beef into the country), what would they have done if their government admitted that it lied to them to get them to support a bogus war?
That's right, just last week, a U.S. Senate committee found that President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other high-ranking administration members, in the run-up to the Iraq war, "distorted the facts, or said things that were not supported by the facts, [or] said things they knew or should have known were not true." What was the reaction of the American people? Silence.
Big surprise, considering that the New York Times reported on April 20 that the Pentagon had trained retired military officials to pose as unbiased experts on news shows in the run-up to the war. The reaction to this admission? Silence.
And then this week, the Senate again acted, as the body could not muster the 60 votes needed to kill a Republican filibuster of a bill that would tax windfall profits of the oil companies and direct the proceeds to consumer relief, as well as tax breaks for the development of alternative forms of energy. Keep in mind that the oil companies are enjoying record profits while ordinary Americans are struggling to stay afloat as gas prices hit four dollars per gallon, and the cost of nearly everything else has skyrocketed due to the increased energy costs. Also keep in mind that we are in a global warming crisis that threatens the very existence of humans on earth. Not to mention that the American addiction to oil is a national security problem, keeping us engaged in military activity in the Middle East to protect the country's oil interests.
With a glaring and obvious need for major action to address the short-term and long-term crises posed by the U.S. reliance on oil, the Republicans, as usual, chose to protect corporate profits at the expense of the interests of the American people and the national interest in developing alternative sources of energy. And the response of U.S. citizens to this decision? Silence.
As I discussed on Tuesday, because of the control of the media by a handful of corporations who are more interested in profit and power than serving the public interest, none of these stories got major play in the national mainstream media. So many people would argue that the American people did not have the information, the tools, if you will, to summon outrage over these issues like their Korean counterparts.
I wish it was that simple.
While the specific, nuts-and-bolts details of these recent stories may not have been distributed widely, it's not like the underlying themes (the government lied to make a case for war in Iraq and has no real plan to combat the challenges relating to oil, energy and global warming) aren't out there. Or, to borrow the language of the Senate report, the American people "knew or should have known" that these problems exist.
So it squarely falls onto the shoulders of U.S. citizens to stand up and call for change. Where is the outrage? The soldiers and their families paying a severe price in Iraq (more than 4,000 dead, tens of thousands wounded, and hundreds of thousands having their lives psychologically, financially and personally ripped apart) are not quasi-citizens that don't matter. They are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers; they are us. Contrary to what John McCain thinks, when they are coming home is important. But when a major party nominee for the presidency says it's "not too important," where is the outrage?
Many critics of President Bush, me included, have argued that his deceit and abuse and extension of the power of the executive branch has damaged our democracy more than any president in recent history, even more than Richard Nixon. But another way to look at it is that democracy is working perfectly in the United States. If the idea of a representative democracy is for government and its elected officials to carry out the will of the citizens, and the job of the electorate is to monitor the government and vote out of office those who don't do the job they were elected to do, then things are running smoothly and perfectly. Americans have failed in their job of keeping tabs on what is happening in this country, and as such, the current government in power, across all three branches, has run wild. If the people are unhappy with the actions of its government, they should act. But they haven't. So they get what they deserve.
Put another way, Americans shouldn't complain about skyrocketing gas prices, failed energy policies, a debacle in Iraq and global warming, since they, by not acting, have allowed these situations to spiral out of control. It's as much a fault of the electorate as it is the government carrying out the actual policies.
There is no doubt that the stranglehold a small group of corporations holds on the media is a major problem in this country that has to be addressed. But based on the evidence of the current conduct of the American people, it is hard to argue that a fully functioning free press that exposes the greed and corruption in government would make much of a difference right now.
An effective media is useless if the citizens are too lazy or self-interested to listen. If they lack the most basic sense of the civic obligation of being a citizen in a democracy.
You might think the South Koreans are overreacting, but nobody can say that they don't take their citizenship responsibilities seriously. It's shameful that the Koreans can muster tens of thousands of people in the streets over beef imports, but we can't muster ten protesters over the fact that the President of the United States lied his way into a disastrous war.
Where is the outrage?
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
When you think of CBS, you would be forgiven for thinking of old people watching “NCIS.” While it’s true that the Tiffany Network does offer enough police procedurals to fill a precinct house and features viewers with an average age qualifying them for AARP membership, if you look deeper, you will note that from time to time, CBS takes a chance, like with the innovative sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” But with the debut of “Swingtown” (Thursday, 10 p.m. Eastern), the network has gone further out on a limb than it has ever climbed before. And based on the premiere episode, CBS just might be onto something.
The debut begins with what you are supposed to believe is a woman performing oral sex on a wife-beater-clad pilot. As I said, this is not your grandmother’s CBS. Soon it is revealed that the woman is a flight attendant cleaning spilled coffee off of the pilot’s shirt. It’s not long, though, before “Swingtown” offers scenes every bit as titillating as the opening pretends to be.
“Swingtown” follows several couples and their children in a Chicago suburb during the stereotypically swinging year of 1976, pre-AIDS, pre-Betty Ford Center and pre-Ronald Reagan (and his Meese Report on pornography). At the hub of the group is the pilot, Tom Decker (Grant Show of “Melrose Place”), a Matthew McConaughey-like slacker charmer, and his wife Trina (Lana Parrilla, “24”), who spends most of the episode in revealing outfits and more revealing bathing suits. The hapless flight attendant in the first scene of the premiere ends up going back to Tom’s house for a three-way with Tom and Trina. Trina is a bit jealous, not because Tom has brought another woman into their lives. No, she is an advocate of their open marriage. The problem with the stewardess is her age. “Try to keep it in our age bracket,” she tells him when he asks if she’s jealous.
Our entree to the decadent world of the Deckers is through Bruce and Susan Miller (Jack Davenport of the English “Coupling” and Molly Parker of “Deadwood”), who are riding Bruce’s newfound financial success to a move to the more posh environs inhabited by the Deckers, a few minutes from where they live now. Early on we see that Jack is clueless about Susan’s dissatisfaction with him, sexually and otherwise, so it’s not a surprise when things unfold later. Susan can also be caught looking dewy-eyed at Roger Thompson (Josh Hopkins, “Ally McBeal”), the husband of her best friend/clinging stalker Janet (Miriam Shor, “Big Day”), a judgmental prude. The less-monied Janet is none too happy about her best friend leaving the neighborhood, so much so that she makes her a scrapbook as a parting gift, which I guess in the eight-track era is akin to a mix tape.
The kids inhabit a universe of their own. The Millers’ daughter, Laurie (Shanna Collins), is a confident high school AP student who knows her boy-toy boyfriend is a moron (the kid is like a younger McConaughey, making me think he was going to turn out to be Tom’s son, but he isn’t) and is equally adept at charming her young summer school teacher as she is convincing her mother that she’s not sexually active (even though we find out later that she is), and their son B.J. (newcomer Aaron Christian Howles) is smack in the middle of puberty, ogling Penthouse magazines with his best friend, the Thompsons’ son Rick (Nick Benson, “Summerland”), an awkward nerd who lies about fooling around with a girl in his class, who later beats the living daylights out of him. B.J. eventually becomes infatuated with Samantha Saxton (Brittany Robertson of “Dan in Real Life”), who often takes refuge from her coke-addled mother Gail (Kate Norby, “Boston Public”) in the vacant house the Millers are about to move into.
After ogling their new neighbors like starving people looking at a barbecue filled with steaks, the Deckers invite the Millers over for a party. When the Thompsons show up just before the Millers are about to leave, Susan, feeling guilty for the pathetic Janet, invites them to come along. The party is the centerpiece of the premiere, as Trina and Tom expertly lure and seduce Susan and Bruce, all while debauchery goes on around them. In a great moment, Janet, frantically looking for Susan, is instead directed by Trina to the basement, where we’ve learned earlier the “playroom” is located. Janet’s reaction upon seeing the group sex is to stalk outside and demand that the Millers leave with her that instant.
Only, the Millers like it there, and you get the feeling it’s for a lot more reasons than the Quaalude Trina gives Susan. Bruce says they're staying, and Susan smiles in approval. Janet, flummoxed beyond repair, stomps off, only to let out her rage (or is it sexual energy?) with a frantic scrubbing of the inside of her oven (no, that’s not a euphemism).
It might seem like picking on Janet is mean-spirited, but Janet is such a shrew, you want to cheer when Trina directs her to the playroom. Janet is short and dismissive with her ever-suffering and seemingly kind husband, apparently for no other reason than that he doesn’t make enough money. He’s a good enough lug and is patient with her, but she treats him with disdain. You can understand why Susan would have a crush on him.
“Swingtown” reminded me of my experience watching “Mad Men” for the first time, in that both shows took much pleasure in evoking the era in which the shows are set. “Mad Men” delighted in laying out situations that were normal for 1960, but which would be unfathomable today, from the rampant smoking and sexual harassment in the office, to kids being allowed to roam freely inside a large car without a seat belt in sight.
“Swingtown” is more interested in just showing off the wackiness of 1976, jamming in as many period references as it can, like a passenger smoking on a plane, a woman removing the pop top from a can of Tab, the celebrations of the Bicentennial, and Janet complaining about how expensive 88 cents was for a pound of ground beef. Nowhere is the 1976 giddiness more apparent than in the soundtrack, a wall-to-fall offering of music from the era. It makes the use of pop songs in most 1980s teen movies look subtle by comparison. (It didn’t help that there were frequent on-screen ads telling us we could listen to the soundtrack on lastfm.com, which, shock of all shocks, is a sister company to CBS.)
In my review of “Mad Men” last year, I wondered if the show would be able to sustain its interest after the shock value of its 1960s anachronisms wore off. Turns out, the show only got better with time, blossoming into one of the best one-hour dramas on television.
I have the same concern about “Swingtown.” The episode, written by series creator Mike Kelley (“Jericho”), is smart, with more than a few sharp lines and characters you want to see more of (literally and figuratively). And the locations, wardrobe and cinematography are visually striking, looking more like an HBO show than a network drama starring a guy from “Melrose Place.” So I’m inclined to think that “Swingtown” is more than just a product of its quirky period details and copious amounts of broadcast network-challenging sex and drug use, and has a chance to develop into a worthy series.
But I can’t help asking if the sex and drugs -- more accurately, seeing scenes on broadcast television that you are not used to seeing in that context -- are clouding my vision. Laurie strips to her panties and skinny dips in the ocean after giving her himbo boyfriend the heave-ho. The sexual tension between Laurie and her teacher is palpable. Gale scrapes the last bits of her cocaine onto a mirror, and then proceeds to respond to an introduction to Susan by saying, “You got any coke?” By the time we see Susan and Bruce, naked under a sheet, enjoying the last seconds of coupling the morning after their first swinging experience, it’s not even shocking, coming on the heels of the three-way and orgy we’ve already witnessed. Hell, when Trina goes for a morning dip in a bikini near the end of the episode, it almost feels like she’s over-dressed. Throw in the pot smoking and the teenage girl beating Rick until he’s bloody, and you have a ton of sensory overload to deal with.
But I think I have a good idea of why “Swingtown” will be just fine, even as the shock value of the debauchery wears off. After Gale meets Susan and leaves the room, determined to find more coke, Trina casually tells Susan that Gale is “harmless, miserable but harmless. I keep saying they should open up their marriage like everyone else, but her husband is a little uptight.” The smartest element of the show is that the viewer’s knowledge of what happened in the years after 1976 forms an essential piece of the program’s emotional impact. We know now that cocaine isn’t “harmless,” and that while there are still couples who enjoy swinging, the practice no longer has a kind of idealistic, post-Woodstock appeal as a way to save a marriage.
Which why watching “Swingtown” does not feel voyeuristic (at least not completely). Everything is viewed with the hindsight of history, so you’re not watching peers, but relics from an earlier, perhaps more innocent, time.
If you think about it, CBS’s older viewers are the ones who actually remember the “Swingtown” era. For them, the show is nostalgia. So maybe it’s not such a bad fit for the network, after all.
In any event, “Swingtown” is certainly worth a try, certainly on its own merits, but also to encourage CBS to take more chances in the future. The world has enough police procedurals.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
The event, staged every 18 months by the organization freepress, brings together leading media experts from the fields of journalism and politics to give presentations on a variety issues related to the dangers posed by a small handful of large corporations controlling the flow of information to the public. The concern is that since these media conglomerates (often referred to simply as "Big Media") are not primarily concerned with serving the public interest, but instead take as their marching orders the maximization of profits and the maintenance of its influence over the government, citizens are deprived of a meaningful flow of information on which to base important decisions, such as who to vote for and what policies to support.
As much as Fox News would have you believe otherwise, freepress is a nonpartisan organization, and the conference did not allow the endorsement of any political party or candidate. Surely, most of the attendees had a progressive bent to their politics, but that says more about the liberal and conservative ideologies and how they view the battle over whether government should be serving corporations or the people, than it does about any partisan intentions of freepress. I'm not sure Howard Dean or any other Democratic Party leader would have been happy with the remarks of many of the speakers and questioners at the panels and presentations. There was a constant current of healthy skepticism that a Democratic Congress working with a Democratic president would actually embrace the steps necessary to enact real change in the media world.
In fact, the conference was all about getting past the petty partisan bickering exhibited by the Fox Newses of the world and concentrating on important media issues that affect the American democratic process. That didn't stop Bill O'Reilly from slamming Bill Moyers and Dan Rather for speaking at the conference. In fact, when an O'Reilly producer tried to ambush Moyers as he was leaving, the veteran journalist showed why he is so revered as he turned the tables on the poor sap, winning the confrontation by a clear knockout. And it was all caught on tape. (You can watch raw footage of the whole thing here, and Keith Olbermann did a fun little piece on it, which you can see here. I recommend the Olbermann version.)
What's the big deal about Big Media controlling what we see and hear? Well, coincidentally, shortly after arriving home from the airport last night, I turned on "The Daily Show," only to see Jon Stewart do a story on this very issue. You can watch the relevant clip here:
In a nutshell, Stewart notes (far more comically than I ever could) that a U.S. Senate committee released a report last week that found that President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other high-ranking administration members in the run-up to the Iraq war "distorted the facts, or said things that were not supported by the facts, [or] said things they knew or should have known were not true," and yet, the mainstream media barely covered it. It didn't make the CBS or ABC evening news telecasts, and didn't appear on the home pages of CNN.com or FoxNews.com. NBC mentioned the report's existence without providing a single detail.
At the conference, I saw excerpts from the film "War Made Easy," which is based on a book by media critic Norman Soloman, who spoke on a panel. The documentary shows in stark detail how the mainstream media did nothing to challenge Bush administration assertions about Iraq during the critical period leading up to the war in an effort to protect their bottom lines. A series of news clips showed how one reporter after the other parroted the Pentagon's talking points without challenging them in the least. None of this should be surprising in light of the New York Times report on April 20 that the Pentagon had trained retired military officials to pose as unbiased experts on news shows in the run-up to the war.
Former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan, in his recently released book, made the same point, saying the media was complicit, by not investigating the White House's claims, in the administration's efforts to deceive the American public into getting behind the war.
That is why the timing was so perfect to see the Stewart piece on the night I arrived home from the conference. The decision on whether or not to go to war is one of the most morally and politically difficult choices a nation has to make. Citizens are being asked to send their sons and daughters into harm's way. Thousands could be killed, tens of thousands could be wounded, and hundreds of thousands could have their lives disrupted (financially, psychologically, etc.), sometimes beyond recovery. All of which actually happened in Iraq. And the nation's reputation and place in the world, really the very nature of what a country stands for, was at stake.
So the media's failure to challenge the government's use of false information to trick the American people into supporting the war in Iraq is indefensible, from the point of view of maintaining a viable democracy. And the reason that Big Media failed in this regard is directly related to the the flow of information being limited to a few sources, all of whom are financially entangled with the government.
Iraq was only one glaring example of the perils of media consolidation. One speaker discussed how when 1,200 radio stations dropped the Dixie Chicks from the airwaves after the trio's lead singer said she was ashamed that the president was from Texas, those 1,200 stations were owned by only two entities. Another speaker told the story of a chemical factory explosion in Minot, N.D., and how word about the tragedy could not be broadcast that night on any of the city's six or so radio stations, because all were owned by one or two national companies, who used canned broadcasts originating from locations well outside of Minot.
That was how the conference went. A parade of distinguished presenters, including a U.S. Senator (Byron Dorgan), members of the U.S. House of Representatives, two sitting FCC commissioners, university and law school professors, and leading journalists (such as Moyers, Naomi Klein and Dan Rather), took the stage to make the point of how important a free press is to the functioning of a democracy. Several of them noted that aside from the legal profession, the press is the only occupational field expressly protected in the Constitution.
(You can watch Moyers's rousing address here. It is also available on the freepress home page and the conference home page.)
The conference served as a call to action for me, reminding me how far things have deteriorated in this area and how important it is that citizens stand up and be heard. I was heartened at hearing about how the U.S. Senate, in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, moved to overturn a decision by the FCC last year to get rid of the last shred of media cross-ownership limitation, involving owning newspapers and television stations in the same city. The House will take up the measure, and although Bush has promised to veto it, there is a chance Congress has the votes to override him. Either way, the message of the Senate was clear enough that no company has tried to make use of the new rule since the FCC promulgated it.
I started out this piece by saying that the conference was an epiphanal moment for me. Sure, I've always been concerned about issues regarding the ineffectiveness of the modern mainstream media and the insincerity of the administration. After all, I've been writing this blog for well more than a year. But the conference served so many purposes for my development, teaching me more about media reform, introducing me to the experts and the field, and, most importantly, allowing me to hone in on what the real overriding questions are in the field, not to mention the severity of the stakes, that I walked away with the knowledge that I had to stay on this issue and educate as many people as possible about it.
As I write in the coming weeks and months, I feel like I will be a new blogger. There will be the pre-conference Mitchell Bard, and the post-conference Mitchell Bard, one who is better informed and more focused. I'm sure this article won't be the last my readers hear about the 2008 National Conference for Media Reform. I think that's a good thing. In the time ahead, I hope you agree.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
If some physical evidence was needed of how sensational and crass modern television has become, one only had to watch the debuts this week of “The Moment of Truth” (Fox, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern), back for a second season, and “Million Dollar Password” (CBS, Sundays at 8 p.m. Eastern), the latest incarnation of the classic guessing game.
“Truth,” which returned to Fox on May 27, would have to be included on any list of the all-time most vile network television programs. Host Mark Walberg (not the former Marky Mark) may be hitting a career low, which is saying quite a lot considering that his past work includes emceeing such fine broadcast offerings as “Temptation Island” and “Joe Millionaire.”
Prior to going on the air, a “Truth” contestant answers 50 questions while being measured by a polygraph. Then, with the cameras rolling, Walberg asks the contestant some of the questions, all with several friends and family members sitting onstage. As long as the contestant tells the truth, he or she keeps on a path to win more and more money. A female voice that sounds disconcertingly like the computer in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” reveals if the person is telling the truth or not.
As you can imagine, the questions are not about favorite baseball teams and casserole recipes. On this season’s premiere, Curtis Frank, who looked like Patrick Bateman’s little brother, was asked, among other things, if he had watched gay porn, thought his best friend had hit on his ex-girlfriend, lied about having been tested for a sexually transmitted disease, had sex after hours in his family furniture shop, stole from the family business, and cheated on his ex-girlfriend, all while the ex-girlfriend, his brother, his best friend, and his mother sat less than 10 feet away from him.
Frank, barely relating any sense of shame, answered all the questions, regardless of the repercussions, until he racked up $100,000 in prizes. But at what cost? Well, his admission about cheating on his ex-girlfriend came one question after he admitted that he still had feelings for her. Frank, with the eager assistance of the show, raised the poor girl’s hopes, only to dash them to pieces minutes later. She sat on the stage, obviously devastated, no longer talking much and seemingly trying to hold back an onslaught of tears. You could argue that any woman who thought that this sleazeball was someone worth dating, and who was surprised at his infidelity, was only reaping what she sowed. But that does not absolve us, as viewers, from ogling her as she is being crushed.
And what about Frank’s mother? In an early question, he admits that he relies on money from her to pay his mortgage, and how does he thank her? By dragging her onto a stage to be humiliated on national television. She sat by as Frank made revelation after revelation that was upsetting to her. After Frank reached the $100,000 level and was debating whether he should go further, his mother, nearly in tears, quietly and sadly said, “I don’t want to see anyone get hurt.” Sorry, but that horse already left the barn.
What kind of person agrees to go on television knowing that his or her darkest secrets will be revealed, usually resulting in the public humiliation of the person’s loved ones? There has to be an easier way to pocket some dollars. And why do the friends and family members agree to be a part of this sadistic experience? They don’t even have the chance to win any money! Most importantly, why do we want to watch? These shows are like emotional NASCAR races: Audiences tune in to see the carnage.
I realize that television is littered with the corpses of a flood of manipulative and exploitive offerings, like “Fear Factor,” “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” and “Wife Swap,” so I’m not sure why I was so shocked and offended by “Truth.” The fact that we, as a consumer culture, embrace crappy reality programs is a bit embarrassing to me. But “Truth” takes its to another level. I’m ashamed that this show airs and, even worse, gets good ratings.
Watch if you must, but don’t plan on keeping any of your self-respect.
By the time “Million Dollar Password” debuted on Sunday, I was ready for a little nostalgia. For those of you who may not remember, “Password” was a long-running, popular game show that debuted as a daytime offering on CBS in 1961, before a prime-time edition launched the next year that ran for three seasons. (That’s six episodes of “Password” a week, all hosted by Allen Ludden.) The daytime version, in its original form, ran until 1967, and then ABC aired the show in substantially the same format from 1971 to 1974. The rules were simple: Two contestants were paired with celebrities and took turns trying to get their partners to guess a word by giving one-word clues.
(As an aside, “Password” figured prominently in one of the funniest episodes of “The Odd Couple,” when Oscar and Felix go on the show. If you ever see that it is going to be aired, be sure to watch or record it. Alas, it is not available on DVD yet.)
“Password” was as much about the interactions of the celebrities and their partners as it was about the game, especially since the prize money was negligible. Like many of the game and panel shows of the era, there was a certain laid-back nature to the proceedings, and you felt like you were at a really cool cocktail party, the kind you would never be invited to in real life.
The show was revived as daytime programming twice in the 1970s and 1980s, first as “Password Plus,” and later as “Super Password.” In these editions of the game, the passwords were clues to a puzzle, and a bonus round was added for the winner in which significantly more money could be won.
When I read that the game was coming back to television again, this time as “Million Dollar Password,” I was curious how much of the original format would be retained. Would this just be “Password Plus” with bigger prizes? Or would there be more? The answer, really, is both.
The game, at its core, is pretty much the same. Two contestants team up with celebrities (in the debut, they were Rachel Ray and Neil Patrick Harris) and try and guess five passwords in 30 seconds. After each person gets a chance to give the clues, the celebrities switch sides and play the game again. The person with the most correctly identified words wins and goes on to a bonus round.
Here is where the game changes. The new bonus round incorporates the modern structure of escalating prizes, with a risk in trying to advance to the next level (same as “The Moment of Truth,” too). First the contestant tries to get five out of 10 words in a minute and a half for $10,000, with steps escalating to $1 million, and each level a bit harder (five out of nine, five out of eight, etc.).
The game rules are fine. What is really different about “Millionaire Password,” though, is the production approach. It’s all 21st century effects, with a constant stream of synthy music and flashing lights (straight out of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”) while the game is being played. And the pace is breakneck, with only seconds separating the teams’ turns.
It’s as if the producers of the show are saying to the audience: “We know you’d get bored with the game like it used to be, so we’re going to make it seem more exciting than it is by pumping up the music and lights and rushing through it like we’re double parked.” If you don’t have faith in the game, then why put it on the air? I really don’t think the bells and whistles are going to draw viewers on their own. People watch game shows (or don’t) because of the contest itself. If the game works, then up the prize money to a million bucks and let it roll. The mish-mash of this simple, old-fashioned game with the sleek, speedy presentation is disconcerting.
The producers must have figured, if you’re going to steal the production design of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” then why not steal the host, too? And “Millionaire Password” does just that, with Regis Philbin taking the reins. But it’s not a great fit. When the game is flying by, poor Reege seems overwhelmed, trying gamely to keep up with his lines on the teleprompter as they fly by. Somehow, he also seems a little bored by the proceedings, just kind of regurgitating his old “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” vocal inflections (“one million dollars!”).
Even though “Millionaire Password” does not quite hang together, it’s still not a bad show. Both Ray and Harris were engaging as guests, with Harris especially clever in his jokes. And the game is more fun than the producers think it is. I liked the risk element added to the bonus round. When a Rhode Island bartender, who had all his possessions stolen, risked $100,000 to reach the $250,000 level, only to fall one answer short (he ended up with the safe amount of $25,000), it was a dramatic moment, one that didn’t need flashy lights or music to elicit a reaction from viewers.
There are worse ways to pass an hour on a Sunday night than watching “Millionaire Password,” even with the hyped-up elements. The show is fun enough and certainly harmless.
Which is more than I can say for the exploitive “The Moment of Truth.” If an alien culture decides to observe us, I hope they don’t judge us by “Truth.” If they do, we’re in as much trouble as the beleaguered friends and family members of the show’s contestants.