Friday, August 29, 2008

The Five New Shows the Networks Should Be Embarrassed to Have on Their Fall Schedules

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

Last week I identified the five new programs I was most looking forward to seeing. So it only seemed right, in a yin-yang kind of way, to choose five new shows that I think represent everything that is wrong about current network television (based on their descriptions, since none of them have aired yet).

Yeah, I completely understand that they’ll all probably get good ratings, and they will be profitable (in the short term, anyway). But that doesn’t make them good, and they certainly shouldn’t make their networks proud. And, most of all, I don’t believe they’ll be good for the long-term health of television.

Oh, and yes, I know they’re nearly all reality shows. I am fine with that. Really. And just like some of my top show predictions turn out to be duds, there is always the chance one of the dogs in this compilation will end up being great. I just won’t know about it, because I won’t be watching.

So, with no further fanfare, and in reverse order of lack of quality, here are the five new shows I think the networks should be embarrassed to have on their schedules:

5. “The Mentalist” (CBS, Tuesdays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern)
One of the best things about television right now is that there is no shortage of new, innovative, fresh ideas. And not surprisingly, many of these programs are hits. There are high-quality, inventive shows like “Lost” and “Heroes,” popcorn thrillers with unique premises like “Prison Break” and “24,” comedies that take fresh and smart approaches like “How I Met Your Mother” and “30 Rock,” soaps that break new ground like “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Gossip Girl,” and, yes, even reality shows that show creativity of thought, like “Amazing Race” and “Project Runway.”

Unlike their studio film counterparts, the creators of television series have the green light to think outside the box and concoct unique and innovative programs.

Which is why there is no excuse for derivative and uninspired new shows like “The Mentalist.” This police procedural is about Patrick Jane, a con-man psychic (played by Simon Baker) who nevertheless can use his well-developed observation skills to solve crimes. The tagline could easily be: “Fake psychic. Real detective.” Except that the slogan is already being used by “Psych,” a series currently in its THIRD season on the USA Network, which also features a guy who pretends to have psychic powers.

“The Mentalist” could be forgiven for poaching the central premise of “Psych” if it added something fresh to the approach. And while there is no doubt that “The Mentalist” strives to be darker than “Psych,” the description of the show on the CBS Web site reads like a parody of tired television police procedurals: “Jane’s role in cracking a series of tough high-profile cases is greatly valued by his fellow agents. However, no-nonsense Senior Agent Teresa Lisbon openly resists having Jane in her unit and alternates between reluctantly acknowledging Jane's usefulness and blasting him for his theatrics, narcissism and dangerous lack of boundaries.” Change the names, and you could probably apply the quote, in some fashion, to half the police procedurals on the air. Change the law enforcement theme to medicine, and the guy is House.

“The Mentalist” just feels like a lazy, pandering attempt to attract viewers. It could work, but it also has the potential to feature an audience with a median age in the “Murder She Wrote” demographic.

4. “Stylista” (CW, Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern)
“Life on Mars” made my top five most anticipated shows because, among other reasons, it was the cross-breed of two quality programs: “Swingtown” and “Law and Order.” “Stylista” is the anti-“Life on Mars,” finding itself on the shame list because it is a direct knockoff of one of the lowest gutter-dwelling shows of all time, “The Apprentice.” “Stylista” is like that awful Donald Trump vehicle combined with “America’s Next Top Model,” since it follows a group of women cat-fighting for a job as an editor at Elle (and Tyra Banks is a producer). Derivative and exploitive is not a good combo.

Sure, “Stylista” might get good ratings, but if you cancel a show like “Aliens in America” (a year after booting “Gilmore Girls” and “Veronica Mars”) and add a Trump knockoff the next season (as the CW did), you should expect your program to end up on this list. And I’m happy to oblige.

3. “America’s Toughest Jobs” (NBC, Mondays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern)

This looks to me like “Amazing Race” dumbed down for “Fear Factor” fans, as contestants compete by performing dangerous jobs. The idea is to watch people perform hazardous tasks like logging, oil drilling, driving on icy roads or ice fishing. In other words, to enjoy the misfortune of others. But if you’re going to go down that road, don’t the activities in “America’s Toughest Jobs” seem a bit tame? After all, we live in a reality television world in which contestants routinely are forced to eat insects and grisly animal parts. It takes a lot to shock viewers.

And if “America’s Toughest Jobs” is trying to take the high road, I’m still not impressed. The show still depends on the voyeuristic appeal of watching people in peril. Not to mention that the premise of the show is stolen from “Dirty Jobs,” which has aired for the last five years on Discovery. And on “Dirty Jobs,” instead of exploiting contestants trying to win money, it is the host that performs the unpleasant career tasks, lending the program an air of respectability.

So “America’s Toughest Jobs” manages to be exploitive, tepid and derivative, all at the same time, one-upping “Stylista.” That’s enough to land it one spot lower on my list.

2. “4Real” (CW, Sundays at 6 p.m. Eastern)
I would describe the premise of “4Real,” but I’m in awe of the text on the CW’s Web site, so I’ll let it speak for itself: “4Real is a series of half-hour television shows that take celebrity guests on adventures around the world to connect with young leaders who, under extreme circumstances, are affecting real change. These are the real heroes of our time.” The celebrities include Cameron Diaz, Mos Def, Joaquin Phoenix, Eva Mendes, Casy Affleck and Flea.

Yes, because what we want to do with our young leaders is grant them the counsel of actors and musicians (several of whom have done time in rehab). We wouldn’t want to hook them up with, say, scientists, philanthropists or elected officials. No, the bass player of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is clearly the way to go.

If “4Real” isn’t the defining moment and nadir of our celebrity-obsessed culture, I don’t know what is.

Oh, and I believe that it should be a law that any show whose title uses a numeral to indicate a word should be canceled immediately (except, of course, for any program created by or starring Prince).

1. “Hole in the Wall” (Fox, Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern)
A remake of a Japanese game show, I fully admit that much of my disdain for “Hole in the Wall” comes from my post-traumatic stress from having watched an episode of “Wipeout” earlier this summer. This humiliation-fest is billed as a kind of human Tetris, as teams of competitors try to fit their bodies into cutouts in a wall that is sent hurtling towards them. Miss, and you end up in the drink.

I described “Wipeout” in my review in this space as being the real-life incarnation of the “Ow, My Balls” show depicted in Mike Judge’s movie “Idiocracy.” I can easily imagine “Hole in the Wall” following “Ow, My Balls” on that film’s fictional Violence Channel.

To me, if you have to air programs of people getting slammed by moving walls into water to get ratings, it’s not worth it. But for Fox, with the truly odious “The Moment of Truth” on its schedule, “Hole in the Wall” won’t even be the network’s most offensive show.

Monday, August 25, 2008

At Jones Beach: Five Bands, One Concert, One Decade (the 1980s)

Last Friday, on a beautiful night at the picturesque Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, Martin Fry, lead singer of ABC, in the middle of a song, looked at the crowd and said, "Isn't it great to be back in the 80s?" For five bands and an audience of fortysomethings, it really was. None of the five acts on the Regeneration Tour could have played a hockey arena-sized venue on its own (and several couldn't have done so even back in the decade of the skinny ties). And for the fans, it was a true nostalgia trip, a chance to revisit the soundtrack of their high school and/or college years for four hours on a Friday night.

The show kicked off with synth-pop curiosity Naked Eyes, who had the unenviable task of playing in daylight to a very sparse crowd (the theater eventually filled to about two-thirds capacity). Lead singer/rhythm guitarist Pete Byrne, backed only by two keyboardists and a drummer (who played an electronic kit), still can sing, opening and closing the band's 25-minute set with its two hits ("Always Something There to Remind Me" and "Promises, Promises"), both of which sounded great. But the thin backing and slight songs were no match for the cavernous stadium, making Naked Eyes seem like no more than a novelty act.

A Flock of Seagulls followed with a 25-minute set of repetitive, spacey 1980s pop. Lead singer Mike Score (the only original member on stage) sounded pretty rough around the edges. Back in the day, I kind of liked the Flock, but this show was lackluster. While the band played two of its minor hits ("Wishing" and "Space Age Love Song"), there was a just-going-through-the-motions feeling to the set, as if the whole thing was just an excuse to get to the band's big hit, "I Ran," which did get the crowd up and dancing.

The fun of "I Ran" was a good segue into the surprise of the night, the outstanding ABC. Fry, wearing one of his signature glammy suits (this one was orange), entertained the crowd, making use of his Bryan-Ferry-on-Prozac vocals, sly wit and stage presence of a 1960s soul star to lead the spot-on band through an entertaining 35-minute set. ABC turns out to be one of those bands where you know more of their songs than you think you do, so it was able to play its 1980s MTV standard "Poison Arrow" second and close with Top 20 hit "Look of Love," leaving plenty of material, including two Top 10 hits ("When Smokey Sings" and "Be Near Me"), to fill out the program.

Before the show, I would have equated ABC with Naked Eyes as an act that had no relevance outside of the 1980s. But after watching Fry and his backing musicians (Fry was one of only two original ABC members present) perform, ABC acquitted itself as a legitimate band.

As if any further proof was needed, after a short break, ABC's band (minus Fry, but plus a lead guitar player) returned to back Belinda Carlisle, lead singer of the Go-Go's. On paper, Carlisle was the "one of these things is not like the other" act of the night: She is a solo artist rather than a band, she is a woman, and she is American. But it was nice to get a break from the parade of keyboards-based acts and listen to some guitar-oriented pop rock.

Carlisle is one of the rare performers who seems to get better with age. She has developed not only her vocal abilities, but her stage presence, honing a fun, sexy, sometimes bitchy vibe that works (at least for me, my wife found her to be a bit annoying, especially when she playfully told the crowd to "shut up" so she could perform the breathy, near-whisper third verse of "Mad About You").

Her 35-minute set mixed three Go-Go's songs in with her solo hits. I prefer the Go-Go's to Carlisle as a solo artist, but I noticed something interesting about the Go-Go's songs during the show: They work much better when performed by the actual Go-Go's. ABC's band provided a kind of polished bombast to "Vacation," "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "We Got the Beat" that took the charm out of these slight-but-fun anthems. Even with that complaint, though, Carlisle's set was my favorite one of the night.

But she was not the headliner. That honor fell to the Human League. And once the band's set began, you kind of realized why. To many Americans, the Human League is the one-hit wonder with the massive 1981 hit "Don't You Want Me," but in its native U.K., the band is far more successful. As an early synth-based outfit, its influence is apparent in the techno and industrial acts that followed. And unlike Naked Eyes, Flock of Seagulls and ABC, the Human League has continued steadily on the scene after its 1980s highlight to the current day.

The great thing about a multiple-act bill is you will sometimes get to see a type of show that you never would think to attend on its own. In this case, I have never seen anything like the Human League. Lead singer Philip Oakey and back-up vocalists Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall (all in the band since 1980) sang in front of four evenly spaced all-white platforms, each containing a backing musician dressed in black (from left to right, a drummer, guitar/keyboardist, keyboardist, and Apple laptop operator). The Human League was the only act to make use of video, deploying on-the-nose images (like the faces of British and American politicians morphing into each other, a not-so-subtle indictment that all politicians are alike) on a series of hanging rectangular screens at the back of the stage.

The 45-minute set felt different than the average rock show, and not just because the songs were dominated by keyboards and electronic beats rather than power chords. Oakey, dressed originally in a black trench coat (looking like a middle-aged Neo from "The Matrix") and later in a suit, led the band through a highly-choreographed, almost formal show. He told us no less than three times that "We are the Human League" and "This is the Regeneration Tour." It was an interesting and odd combination, half Motown revue and half scene from "1984" (the book, but the year also kind of applies, too).

Like ABC, the Human League have more songs that you know than you think, including "Human" (a number-one hit in the U.S.), "Fascination," "The Lebanon" and "Mirror Man." By the time the band got to its faithful but energized take on "Don't You Want Me," the portion of the crowd that was skeptical at the beginning of the set (some of the less open-minded folks fled in a panic at the onslaught of electronics and lights that accompanied the band's first number) had been won over, singing and dancing along. Sulley even let the crowd sing one of the lines from her verse of "Don't You Want Me" ("I still love you").

Don't get me wrong: I am not selling all my Tom Petty CDs and trading them in for techno recordings. But I was happy to get an opportunity to see what a show like that entailed, and it was genuinely fun watching the Human League do its thing.

Come to think of it, the idea of sampling a half-hour (give or take) of five acts, most of whom didn't need much more, was one of the best things about the Regeneration Tour. You never really got bored. The bands stayed around just long enough to play their few hits, and then they cleared the stage, making room for the next act. Well, that and the nostalgia factor. On a pleasantly cool and clear Friday night at the beach, it was, in fact, great to be back in the 1980s.

Set Lists
Friday August 22, 2008
Nikon at Jones Beach Theater

Naked Eyes
Always Something There to Remind Me
Fortune and Fame
Losing You
Get on It
Promises Promises

A Flock of Seagulls
Modern Love Is Automatic
The More You Live, the More You Love
Space Age Love Song
I Ran

For the Very First Time
Poison Arrow
How to Be a Millionaire
Tears Are Not Enough
Be Near Me
When Smokey Sings
Look of Love

Belinda Carlisle
Live Your Life Be Free
I Get Weak
Circle in the Sand
Leave a Light On
Mad About You
Our Lips Are Sealed
We Got the Beat
Heaven Is a Place on Earth

Human League
Mirror Man
Tell Me When
Love Action
The Sound of the Crowd
The Lebanon
Don't You Want Me
Together in Electric Dreams

Thursday, August 21, 2008

August 21, 2008: The Day John McCain's Campaign Died

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

No, unfortunately, I don't think that John McCain's campaign is really over. But there has been an amazing confluence of events in the last 24 hours that have undermined every key basis of McCain's campaign, so much so that it is hard to see how anyone who is not an extreme right-wing Republican could even consider voting for him. If McCain survives the last 24 hours, I'm not sure what it will take to stop him. You start to wonder if he could drop his pants in the middle of a town hall and still suffer no consequences.

Just think, in the last 24 hours:

McCain has made Iraq and national security the center of his campaign. He has unabashedly flouted his support of the war in Iraq, and he has repeatedly suggested that Barack Obama does not have the judgment necessary to be president because, among other things, he supports timetables for the withdrawal of American troops from the country. He has accused Obama of trying to "legislate" defeat.

Well, first, in July, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq was necessary, seriously undermining the whole Bush-McCain strategy for staying in Iraq. McCain brushed off Maliki's remarks as the Iraqi prime minister just playing politics, not expressing his true beliefs.

But now McCain's biggest nightmare has come true. Today we find out that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice appeared with the Iraqi foreign minister to announce that the two countries have agreed that a timetable should be set for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

McCain now stands alone. After all his criticisms of Obama's judgment on this issue, the Iraqis and even the Bush administration have now been forced to concede that a timetable for withdrawal is necessary (essentially adopting Obama's long-held position). McCain's criticisms have blown up in his face. Anyone paying attention would have to laugh off his claims now that his judgment on Iraq is superior to Obama's (especially considering that Obama opposed the war, while McCain told Americans it would be an easy victory, we would be greeted as liberators, and we would only be faced with a short engagement).

Throughout the campaign, Obama has hammered home the point that the real war on terror is based in Afghanistan, and that more troops were needed there to secure the country. In July, McCain mocked Obama's position, calling him naive and premature. Again, McCain used Obama's plan as an example of his lack of judgment.

McCain also had maintained that the war in Iraq was not affecting the ability of the U.S. to send a sufficient amount of troops to Afghanistan, something that was directly contradicted in early July by Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he said, "I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq. Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there."

Mullen's repudiation of McCain's position didn't knock him off his high horse, but yesterday's actions by the Pentagon sealed McCain's fate on this issue. The military announced (quietly, with little media coverage) that 11,000 soldiers would be sent to Afghanistan.

Once again, Obama took a position, McCain mocked him and claimed it showed bad judgment, and then, ultimately, Obama's stance was proven to be correct and was adopted. What can McCain say now?

How Many Houses?
Moving from the substantively important to America's obsession with silliness, when John Kerry was photographed windsurfing during the 2004 campaign, he cemented his image with voters of being an upper-class elitist, out of touch with the day-to-day lives of the common folks. The judgment wasn't based on policies, since Kerry's positions were unquestionably more in tune with those of the average blue collar worker than the stands taken by George W. Bush. But in our image-is-everything culture, the photo resonated with many voters, confirming that Kerry was not one of them. (The need for a candidate to be "average" is insane, but that's a discussion for a different article.)

Yesterday, McCain had his windsurfing moment. When asked how many houses he and his wife owned, McCain said he didn't know and would have to check with his staffers. After the McCain campaign said the answer was at least four, Obama later happily pointed out that, in fact, the McCains had seven homes. If McCain's remark last week at Rick Warren's values forum about $5 million being the threshold for being "rich" (watch for yourself here) didn't sink the idea of McCain as a "man of the people," then not knowing how many houses he owns should put McCain's regular guy status over the edge. Maybe once and for all people will realize that McCain is a man of extreme wealth. To borrow the famous Seinfeld phrase, "not that there's anything wrong with it," but being rich is not the image the McCain campaign likes to project for its candidate.

Can you imagine if Obama ever said he didn't know how many homes he owned? He would be done. This should be McCain's windsurfing moment. Let's see if the media and the public treat McCain the way they treated Kerry.

The Draft
Yesterday, a woman in a town hall meeting in New Mexico, after a long list of thoughts, said that she didn't see a way to go after Osama bin Laden without reinstating the draft. McCain responded by saying, "I don't disagree with anything you said." (Watch for yourself here.)

Clearly, such a policy would not be popular with a huge percentage of young people and parents. Maybe McCain really is in favor of bringing back the draft, and maybe he is not. If he's called on it, I'm sure he'll try to dodge the issue and deny that he even said it (after all, he never suffers consequences for his lies, so why should he stop?).

But for a presidential candidate to say that he "doesn't disagree" with reinstating the draft is a major gaffe. Again, if Obama made such a statement, it would be all but game over for his campaign. Let's see if McCain survives it.

All and all, not a banner day for McCain's ambitions (yes, he has them) for the White House.

There is no doubt that McCain's candidacy has been on an upswing, and recent Rasmussen polls have shown him gaining in key battleground states like New Hampshire. But by every measurement, the last 24 hours should be devastating to the McCain campaign. He has been undermined and proven wrong (and worse, Obama has been proven correct) on his bedrock issue of national security, specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan; he has exposed himself to the electorate as wealthy and out of touch; and he has advocated for, of all things, reinstating the draft. If McCain survives the last day, I fear it means that voters, for whatever reason, don't want to hear the truth about John McCain.

Is today the day that McCain's campaign dies? It should be. Let's see if it is.

The Five New TV Shows I Most Look Forward to Seeing

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

It’s that time of year again. Everywhere you look, there are promotions for the upcoming television season, with much of the advertising focused on the new shows. If statistics hold, a big chunk of the newbie series won’t survive to Thanksgiving, and very few of them will be around next year at this time. Nevertheless, every year I put my cynical nature aside (ever so briefly) and embrace the new crop of network offerings, hoping to find the next “How I Met Your Mother,” “Pushing Daisies” or “Heroes.” Of course, this year required some extra digging, since last season’s writers strike limited the number of new pilots picked up for this fall, and I’m not nearly as excited about this year’s new shows as I was about last year’s slate.

After looking over the programs making their debut in the coming months (as well as the days and times they will air), I have compiled my annual list of the five shows I am most looking forward to seeing. As always, my selections are heavily influenced by my genre preferences (sitcoms good, police procedurals not so much), so take my suggestions with that grain of salt. And my initial reactions are not guaranteed to survive the reality of the offerings once they hit the air. Of the five programs to make my rundown last year, one turned out to be awful (“Carpoolers”), and another was a huge disappointment (“Private Practice”), while the other three were winners (“Pushing Daisies,” “Samantha Who?” and the dearly missed “Aliens in America”).

Last year, ABC garnered four of my five slots, but this year the Disney-owned network is only launching two new shows. The dominant network on this season’s list is CBS, which holds down the top three positions, in no small part because it is the only outlet to increase the number of sitcoms it is airing next season.

As always, in reverse order of anticipation:

5. “America’s Toughest Jobs” (NBC, Mondays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern)

Psych! Just kidding. Wow, if you believed me, I can only conclude that this is the first column of mine you’ve ever read (I’m not a fan of the reality shows). It’s a shame that NBC, the network of Must See TV (“Seinfeld,” “Friends,” etc.) and three of the best sitcoms currently on the air (“30 Rock,” “The Office,” “My Name Is Earl”) has become the Desperate and Relying on Reality Shows to Pull Us Up from the Basement Network.

5. “90210” (CW, Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern)

No, this time I’m serious. Look, I didn’t say that the list would be the five shows I thought would be most Emmy-worthy, or the five shows I thought would be the best. It’s the five shows I most want to see. And there is enough behind “90210” that I will want to see the first episode. I can’t promise I’ll stick around for the second one, though.

I’m old enough to have watched the original (although I stopped after the first few seasons), so there is a major curiosity factor involved to see what the creative team does with the update. That, alone, wouldn’t allow “90210” to muscle its way onto my top-five list. So what was the factor that put what will undoubtedly be a sudsy, silly soap opera over the top? Easy. The original show runner was supposed to be Rob Thomas (the creator of “Veronica Mars,” but he left when two of his own shows got picked up for development by networks), and the executive producers are Jeff Judah and Gabe Sachs, who created the underrated one-season-and-done program “Life As We Know It” and were producers on Judd Apatow’s brilliant “Freaks And Geeks.”

If CBS Paramount (the production company and co-owner of the CW) reached out to Thomas, Judah and Sachs rather than, say, writers from one of the network’s teen series like “One Tree Hill” or “Gossip Girl,” there has to be a reason. There must be a vision for the show that runs deeper than pretty girls and pretty boys hooking up in sunny Southern California. Maybe not, but I’ll be on hand to see for myself.

(Also, any show that can find a place for Jessica Walter, who was brilliant on “Arrested Development,” deserves at least some respect.)

4. Life on Mars (ABC, Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern)

An adaptation of a British program of the same name, “Life on Mars” is “Law and Order” cross-bred with “Swingtown.” How can you go wrong with that formula? Detective Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara, “Men in Trees”) is hit by a car and, voila!, he finds himself in 1973. Can a modern cop survive the gritty mid-1970s streets of New York City without the technology he’s become accustomed to? And what of his 2008 life, which includes his cop girlfriend Maya (the return to television of Lisa Bonet)? Will Sam be able to get back to the present? At least he has the fetching Gretchen Mol to keep him company in 1973, but as women were not yet allowed to be full-fledged police officers, Mol’s Annie is limited to assistant work, even though her skills outstrip those of the guys she works with.

One thing I found intriguing about “Life on Mars” is that the team running the show consists of the guys from “October Road” (including feature film director Gary Fleder). Like it or not, that drama was smart and heartfelt, which tells me that “Life on Mars” will involve more than just solving dry police cases with groovy 1970s anachronisms to provide some comic relief (although I have no doubt there will be plenty of pre-disco era fun to go around).

“Life on Mars” may be one of the rare cop shows to function on multiple layers, putting the emotional lives of its characters on an equal plane with the crime solving. I look forward to finding out.

3. Gary Unmarried (CBS, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern)

Sure, this sitcom’s basic story sounds like the male version of “The New Adventures of Old Christine”: Gary (Jay Mohr) tries to manage his relationships with his two kids, his ex-wife (who has recently become engaged to their marriage counselor) and his new love interest. But what propels this comedy onto my list is the choice of Mohr as the lead. Since his outstanding comedy “Action” was prematurely axed by Fox in 1999, I’ve been waiting for Mohr to get another shot at starring in a sitcom. Instead, he has been relegated to guest turns in other series, some good (“Scrubs,” “The West Wing”), some not so good (“Las Vegas,” “The Man Show”), before settling in as a supporting player on Jennifer Love Hewitt’s “Ghost Whisperer.”

With “Gary Unmarried,” Mohr finally has a second chance, and I’m betting he makes the most of it. He has always been more than just a comic or “Saturday Night Live” sketch guy (both of which he excelled at), showing in his film work that he is a nuanced actor who knows how to play a scene (think of his dismissal of Tom Cruise’s eponymous football agent in “Jerry Maguire”).

Given that executive producer Ed Yeager’s last show was “Still Standing,” I’m a bit concerned that Mohr could be saddled with inferior material. But with the very funny Paula Marshall playing Gary’s ex-wife, at least he will have another pro to work off of. And I was encouraged by the scene that CBS is previewing on its site (you can watch it here), since Mohr does a lot with not much.

“Gary Unmarried” is certainly worth a shot. Mohr has earned it.

2. The Ex-List (CBS, Fridays at 9 p.m. Eastern)

The premise of this one-hour dramedy is silly but effective: A bachelorette party psychic tells Bella (played by “Grey’s Anatomy” amnesiac basket case Elizabeth Reaser) that she has already met the man who is her soul mate, so she begins a journey to reconnect with every man she’s ever dated, befriended or otherwise come across. Kind of like what Scott Baio did on his VH1 reality show last year, only with fewer Playboy models (presumably).

“The Ex-List” is executive produced by Diane Ruggiero, who, as one of the key people behind “Veronica Mars,” has already demonstrated the ability to take out-there material and make it smart and entertaining. And director Timothy Busfield showed on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” that he can keep things moving. I don’t look for “The Ex-List” to be the critics darling that “Veronica Mars” was, but I have a feeling it will be a fun hour of television each week.

(Bonus points to the show for its Friday time slot, which means that it will not be up against any program I currently watch.)

1. Worst Week (CBS, Mondays at 9:30 p.m. Eastern)

This single-camera sitcom’s premise is nothing to get too excited about: Sam is engaged and his fiancĂ© is expecting their first child, but they haven’t revealed their impending marriage or parenthood to her parents yet. As hard as Sam tries to impress the in-laws-to-be, he ends up making mess after mess.

And while the online preview is funny enough (you can watch it here), it doesn’t scream, “This program is a classic.”

So why is “Worst Week,” which is an adaptation of the British hit "The Worst Week of My Life," at the top of my anticipation list? Mainly, because of who is behind the camera. Like with racehorses, it can be dangerous business to judge future performance based on pedigree. But much like horse owners who will pay seven figures for a yearling because of who his parents are, I am going to take the plunge and put my faith in executive producer Matt Tarses, who cut his teeth as a writer on two of the greatest single-camera comedies ever: “Sports Night” and “Scrubs.” If Tarses can harness three-quarters of the comedy and smarts of those two programs, “Worst Week” will be the best new show of the season. And with fellow “Scrubs” and “Sports Night” colleague Marc Buckland on board as director, there seems to be enough comic ability on tap to keep the show from missing the comedy bull’s-eye.

Another reason I’m excited about this show is Kurtwood Smith taking the role of Sam’s future father-in-law. While Smith appears to be reprising his “That 70s Show” persona as the perennially pissed-off father, I think that’s a good thing. Smith’s deadpan, acidic punch lines were always good for a laugh, and I look forward to enjoying his cranky charm on “Worst Week.”

Honorable Mention

Filling the first four slots was easy for me. It was choosing the fifth one that was a challenge. While “90210” won out, I easily could have substituted “Eleventh Hour” (CBS, loved the cast and premise, but being a Jerry Bruckheimer procedural meant it would probably be too cold for me), “Do Not Disturb” (Fox, Jason Bateman directed the pilot and the executive producer comes from “Arrested Development,” but the sitcom stars Jerry O’Connell, and I still haven’t recovered from getting burned last year with his lame turn in the ridiculous “Carpoolers”), “Easy Money” (the CW, love the idea of a dark comedy created by alums of “The Sopranos” and “Northern Exposure,” but the set-up, focusing on a family of loan sharks, didn’t float my boat) or “Surviving Suburbia” (the CW, I always want to support new sitcoms, but the generic-sounding plot description -- new neighbor shakes things up -- dropped the program just out of my top five; maybe I’m also leery of investing in a CW sitcom after the network broke my heart by canceling “Aliens in America”).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When Journey is Only Kind of Journey ... and Blown Away by Heart and Cheap Trick

If you closed your eyes last Thursday night at the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater and listened to the music blasting from the sound system, you could have sworn that Steve Perry and his bandmates in Journey were performing on the venue's iconic stage set in the water. But when you opened your eyes, there was no escaping the kind of odd sight: Four middle-aged rockers backing a young, tiny guy from the Philippines (seemingly wearing Perry's straight, sweat-soaked hair), performing for a sold-out crowd.

That's because the current incarnation of Journey features Arnel Pineda, a Journey cover band singer discovered on YouTube by guitarist and band founder Neil Schon. Pineda sounds disturbingly like Perry, with a high-pitched wale that punches the emotions of Journey's arena anthems and power ballads. The only real difference was Pineda's habit of overarticulating certain words. But short of getting Perry himself, I'm not sure you could have found a more precise replication of the band's hit recordings. Pineda ran around the stage with a permanent smile (much like Perry used to), clearly excited at the prospect of touring with his idols. It was good enough fun, although there was something a little empty in Pineda's vocals, as if he couldn't quite connect with the material because, after all, he's not Perry (even if he sounds so much like him).

Pineda was backed by Schon, founding bassist Ross Valory, keyboardist/guitarist Jonathan Cain (who joined for the blockbuster Escape album) and drummer Deen Castronovo, who has been with the band since 1998, long after its glory days had ended. This version of Journey did a workman-like job running through its hits, leaning towards the rockers and away from the slower songs (other than the back-to-back renditions of "Faithfully" and "Open Arms").
There is no way I would have attended this show had it not been for the two opening acts, Cheap Trick and Heart, but as I sat and watched the Pineda-led version of Journey on the stage, I couldn't help but remember that Perry wasn't even the band's original lead singer. The original incarnation of the band featured lead vocalist Gregg Rolie, best known as the singer of Santana's "Black Magic Woman." So there is a certain what-comes-around-goes-around aspect to Perry sitting on the sidelines while Pineda performs for 15,000 people every night.

Then again, the Rolie-led Journey put out three albums without much success. When Perry joined the band for its fourth record, Infinity (which featured radio hits "Lights," "Anytime," "Feeling That Way" and "Wheel in the Sky"), the Journey we all think of took hold. So it's hard to think of Journey without Perry. Maybe that's why Sunday's performance, while fun enough, didn't feel authentic, even with Pineda's dead-on impression of Perry. The same can be said of the selections from the band's new record, Revelation, which all sounded like Journey songs, but, like the rest of the show, seemed just off.

But maybe the real reason the Journey set felt inferior was because the band followed two much better outfits.

After a 90-minute rain delay (during which nearly nobody left, since the arena was packed), Cheap Trick opened the show with a 30-minute blast of energy. Demonstrating how they have survived pretty much intact for more than 30 years, vocalist Robin Zander, guitarist Rick Nielsen, drummer Bun E. Carlos and bass player Tom Peterson (who took a seven-year sabbatical from the band beginning in 1980) ran through a set of garage rock songs, most of which are staples on the radio. A recent Entertainment Weekly review of the new Jonas Brothers album commented that the teens were obviously heavily influenced by Cheap Trick. At first, that upset me, equating a teen pop outfit with the great Cheap Trick. But then it occurred to me that so many young hard rock bands have a lot to owe to the boys from Rockford, Ill.

Zander's vocals are as sharp as they've ever been, and Nielsen, never the most technically proficient guitarist, makes up for it with his showmanship, entertaining the crowd with his antics, which included the use of multiple guitars (my two favorites are his five-neck monster and the one that is a cartoon version of himself) and enough picks thrown into the crowd to last the average amateur guitarist for life. Peterson and Carlos are the rocks, providing the steady rhythms for Zander and Nielsen to go wild over.

Seeing Cheap Trick is a treat (no pun intended). It's a lot of fun watching these guys rock out after all these years.

But the highlight of the night was Heart's 45-minute set. When Ann Wilson opens her mouth and sings, you can't help but stare in wonder at one of the most powerful vocal instruments in rock music. Still strong and clear after all these years, Wilson's vocals make you stand up and take notice. But Heart would not be Heart without Ann's guitarist sister, Nancy (a.k.a Mrs. Cameron Crowe), who is the musical soul of the band. Taking the lead on most of the night's songs, Nancy played with joy, bopping around the stage looking like a soccer mom whose left the kids home for the night to have some fun partying at the local rock club (not far from the truth).

While Ann is the one with the vocal chops to pull off covering songs by the Who and Led Zeppelin in the set, Nancy is the one who really seemed to be enjoying herself, and whose contagious good cheer spread to the crowd.

Running through a set heavy with its 1970s hits (the 1980s pop era was represented solely by an acoustic version of "Alone" and Nancy's ballad "These Dreams"), Heart showcased its strong musicianship and catchy-hook-infused hard-rock songwriting. Forty-five minutes wasn't nearly long enough to enjoy the Wilson sisters.

Which is one of the reasons the Journey show fell a little flat for me. Watching Cheap Trick and Heart was worth braving the rain, experiencing two of the more influential and dynamic hard rock bands of the 1970s. Not surprisingly, following these two acts, everything about Journey felt a little contrived. Journey has always been a guilty pleasure for me. But last Thursday, there was a bit more guilt and a little less pleasure.

Set List
Thursday August 14, 2008
Nikon at Jones Beach Theater

Cheap Trick
In the Street (the theme to "That 70s Show," originally performed by Big Star)
California Man
I Want You to Want Me
The Flame
Goodnight Now
Dream Police

Magic Man
Straight On
These Dreams
Love Reign O'er Me (yes, the Who song)
Going to California (yes, the Zeppelin song)
Crazy on You

Never Walk Away
Only the Young
Stone in Love
Change for the Better
Ask the Lonely
After All These Years
Wheel in the Sky
Open Arms
Don't Stop Believing
Separate Ways
Wildest Dreams
Any Way You Want It
Be Good to Yourself

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Why Does the Media and the American Public Allow McCain to Ignore the Facts with No Consequences?

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

Picture this scene: Britney Spears and Paris Hilton stand in front of television cameras at a press conference and declare that they are virgins. What would the reaction be from the public and the media? My money would be on bedlam. The backlash would be immediate. The media would slam the two women as liars and hypocrites. After all, the statement would be obviously false on its face, given that Spears has two kids and anyone with an Internet connection can watch Hilton engaging in sex. Americans would boycott Spears's next recording and whatever it is Hilton does to make money.

Why do I paint such a ridiculous scenario? Well, because it stands in stark contrast to how John McCain is treated. He can seemingly say the most ridiculous and obviously false things, and yet he is never taken to task by the media or the American public for his fabrications.

It all started with McCain's embrace of offshore drilling as a major energy issue, as he relentlessly argued in ads and speeches that the practice was a path to energy independence. He did so even though it is accepted by nearly everyone that offshore drilling would produce no oil for a decade and then have virtually no effect on gas prices. (Bush's own Energy Information Administration has found that offshore drilling would at best result in oil production in 2017 and the effect on pricing would be insignificant, and that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would not result in oil production until 2018, and the effect on pricing would be a reduction of 75 cents a barrel, or less than one percent of the current price.)

Nevertheless, despite knowingly making false statements, McCain's strategy worked. A July Rasmussen survey found that 57 percent of respondents favored offshore drilling, with 56 percent of those asked believing that offshore drilling would cause gas prices to fall. No doubt, McCain's misinformation campaign had something to do with these results.

Not surprisingly, it has seemingly been a strategy of "all lies, all the time" for McCain ever since.

In his speech to war veterans yesterday, McCain had the nerve to accuse Obama of supporting Sen. Jim Webb's G.I. Bill only for political reasons. McCain claimed his own opposition to the bill was an effort to secure better legislation. McCain said: "As a political proposition, it would have much easier for me to have just signed on to what I considered flawed legislation. I'm proud to say that the result is a law that better serves our military, better serves military families, and better serves the interests of our country."

That all sounds nice, except that it's patently false.

The only change made to Webb's bill was a transferability provision (allowing spouses and family members to use benefits), and it was one that Webb said had been in the bill for six years (you can see Webb explain McCain's role in the legislation here). The bill didn't change, only McCain's position did. The real reason McCain relented had more to do with the fact that the G.I. Bill was attached to war spending legislation. McCain and Bush gave in to the veterans benefits to ensure getting their precious money to continue their endless war in Iraq. After all, on last night's edition of Countdown, Keith Olbermann noted that McCain had voted against more than $5 billion in veterans and military benefits in several pieces of legislation, covering such items as health care and equipment for the troops. Did all those bills have flaws, too?

Further evidence lies in the records of Obama and McCain on veterans legislation. The major veterans groups have given far superior grades in this area to Obama. Think Progress collected some of these ratings, pointing out that Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America gave McCain a grade of D on his voting record, while awarding Obama a B+; Disabled Veterans of America cited a 20 percent voting record on veterans issues for McCain, while Obama posted an 80 percent total; and Vietnam Veterans of America found that McCain sided with the organization's position only eight times in 23 votes, whereas Obama was with the group on 12 of 13 votes.

There is no way around the fact that by claiming to change the legislation and then supporting it, McCain was able to win political points, providing himself with some cover against charges that he has been largely AWOL in supporting legislation beneficial to veterans. So for McCain to accuse Obama of acting politically regarding Webb's G.I. Bill is not only wrong, but an example of McCain attacking Obama over something of which McCain himself is guilty.

And yet, McCain gets away with it.

McCain also told the veterans: "Behind all of these claims and positions by Senator Obama lies the ambition to be president." As if McCain hasn't been ambitious in pursuing the White House? In fact, nearly every move McCain has made since he was defeated by Bush in the 2000 race for the GOP nomination has been pointed towards winning the presidency. The list of his flip-flops is lengthy, but amongst the baldest examples of McCain selling out his past ideals for his presidential ambitions are his embrace of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson after earlier calling them "agents of intolerance," his support of making Bush's tax cuts for the rich permanent after he had voted against them at their inception, his vote against an anti-torture bill after he had been a vocal opponent of torture for his entire political career, his decision to abandon the campaign finance reform bill that was named after him, and his move during this year's GOP primaries to distance himself from his own immigration reform legislation, even saying at one point that he would not vote for the same bill if it came up for a vote then.

Again, McCain can make remarks that are obviously, on their face, untrue, but he is not taken to task for his actions.

The G.I. Bill wasn't the only issue McCain was dishonest about when he spoke to the veterans yesterday. He accused Obama of shifting positions on Iraq, when it is McCain who has gone from "they'll welcome us as liberators" and "the war will be easy" declarations in 2003 to his "we knew it would be a long and tough war all along" laments of 2007. He also talked about Obama wanting to "legislate" defeat, when it is McCain's narrative of "winning" in Iraq and the success of the surge that ignores the fact that the goals stated by Bush in his January 10, 2007 address to the American people announcing the surge have not been met (a point noted in a report released by the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), which, I noted on June 24, found that things aren't as rosy in Iraq as McCain would have you believe). And McCain questioned Obama's judgment while referencing the crisis in Georgia, even though it was the Bush-McCain foreign policy that mired the U.S. in Iraq and left its military too weak to address any other threats, including the one posed by the Russians. (I discussed the U.S. military's historically low levels of preparedness in more detail here.) Of course, that doesn't even take into account the fact that one of McCain's top foreign policy advisers, Randall Scheunemann, has been paid nearly $1 million by the Georgian government since 2004 to lobby for the country (taking a payment as recently as April 17 of this year), which leaves McCain's tough talk on behalf of Georgia feeling bought and paid for.

Backlash against McCain for any of these statements or actions? Nope.

So we're left with this conundrum: If Britney Spears or Paris Hilton were to lie about their virginity status, the media and public would go into apoplexy, but the Republican nominee for the presidency can be equally dishonest about important policy issues, and virtually nobody says a word. And if an NBC reporter with a conservative bent, Andrea Mitchell, even suggests that there is a possibility that McCain might not have been in a sound-proof area during Obama's appearance at Rick Warren's faith forum, the McCain campaign responds with a letter charging bias in the press. The McCain campaign seems to think that getting a free ride from the media is its birthright.

Sadly, I think the answer to this disparity lies in the interests of Americans. If voters cared as much about the issues facing our country as they did about Spears and Hilton, the candidates' positions and statements would get the same level of scrutiny the media now focuses on celebutantes and their sex lives. Hopefully Americans will become more engaged as the election nears, at least enough to get McCain to start telling the truth. The more honest McCain is about his beliefs and record, the better it is for the Obama campaign.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Battle of the Surrogates: Should We Be Picking a President This Way?

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

A new threat to Barack Obama's campaign has emerged, and it has nothing to with race, offshore drilling or the surge: Obama is losing the battle of the surrogates. Which raises a question: Is this any way to pick a president?

This issue popped onto my radar on July 5, when Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) sat silently on ABC's This Week while Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) spouted a steady stream of Tass-worthy propaganda about the candidates, specifically that McCain's position on Iraq had been consistent and correct, while Obama had flip-flopped on Iraq and other issues, so much so that the American people cannot trust him to lead. Reed didn't raise any of the obvious responses to Lieberman's pile of horse crap. He never brought up how McCain has flip-flopped on every major issue, nor how McCain was completely wrong in 2002 in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, promising Americans that the U.S. army would be greeted as liberators, that the oil revenue would pay for the war, that the war would be over quickly, and that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Anybody completely ignorant of the U.S. political scene (sadly, including many Americans) who watched the This Week segment would have come away thinking that McCain was rock-solid consistent in his positions, while this crazy Obama guy was all over the place on his views. In other words, the exact opposite of what is actually the case.

Clearly, in a head-to-head debate between Obama and McCain, Obama would have done a far better job than Reed did in setting the record straight. But that fact didn't matter as Lieberman cleaned Reed's clock. (Note to Obama: If you decide you want Reed to be your running mate, please do every Democrat a favor and watch the tape of his abysmal performance on This Week before making your final selection.)

If Reed's impersonation of Silent Bob on This Week was an aberration, it would have been meaningless. But that hasn't been the case. Rather, a trend has developed of Republican surrogates outperforming their Democratic adversaries.

A week after the Reed debacle, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) represented Obama on Meet the Press, squaring off against Carly Fiorina, the deposed Chairperson of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of HP, who now works for McCain's campaign. McCaskill was infinitely more effective than Reed, actually making some salient points and not backing down in her battle with Fiorina. But Fiorina, with her years of boardroom experience, came off as more calm and authoritative than McCaskill, who was so riled up that she seemed to be gasping and jumping out of her seat with every point she made. Fiorina even parried Tom Brokaw's charge that McCain's numberless plan to balance the budget was flawed, asserting that as a businesswoman, she knows budgets, and McCain's plan was sound. She took an obvious flaw in McCain's campaign and made into a positive, while McCaskill wasn't able to make the budget issue stick, even with the facts on her side.

Once again, McCain's surrogate scored a victory over Obama's representative, even though McCain himself would not have fared as well against Obama. Just picture McCain trying to explain his budget plan to Brokaw, with Obama sitting next to him, arguing the weakness of the approach. It would be hard to imagine McCain doing a tenth as well as Fiorina did.

Yesterday morning featured a double feature of Obama's surrogates letting him down. First, on This Week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was completely flummoxed by host George Stephanopoulos's repeated queries as to why she would not allow an up-or-down vote on offshore drilling. At one point, she was so twisted in circles, she sputtered, not answering the question. Pelosi was jumpy and defensive, certainly not inspiring confidence in viewers. (It doesn't help that Congress's approval rating is lower than President Bush's numbers.) And when Pelosi's session was over, former Gov. Tom Ridge, speaking for McCain, sailed in and gave an assured, confident interview. Unlike Pelosi's butchering of the offshore drilling line of questioning, Ridge easily handled Stephanopoulos's probes on how his pro-choice position on abortion could be reconciled with McCain's strong anti-choice stance.

If the juxtaposed interviews were a boxing match, Ridge won by a first-round knockout, with Pelosi going through the ropes and landing on the laps of the spectators in the first row. But again, Obama would have handled the offshore drilling question so much more smoothly than Pelosi did. The Pelosi-Ridge battle was especially vexing, since it turned the dispositions of the candidates upside down. Obama is cool under pressure, rarely allowing himself to be riled. McCain is more liable to stammer, evade and come off as uncomfortable. And yet, to anyone watching This Week yesterday, Ridge was the voice of reason, and Pelosi seemed less credible.

Minutes later, Lieberman went head-to-head against Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on Meet the Press. While Kerry performed better than Pelosi had, he was anything but a good representative for Obama. There is something in Kerry's tone, combined with his inability to cut to the heart of issues, that renders him a less than convincing debater. Considering his off-putting style and the fact that he lost the 2004 election employing that same style, who thought that this guy would be a good choice to advocate for Obama's positions? Obama should be trying to distance himself from Kerry, not look for ways for Americans to think of them together. What's the point of Obama hitching his wagon to someone who has already been rejected by the voters? What's next? Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale speaking for the campaign?

There are really two issues here. The first is if Obama is being well-represented by his media surrogates. That's an easy one to address: No. McCain's representatives are doing a far better job than Obama's proxies in these debates. And, more importantly, McCain's people are doing better than McCain himself would have done in these appearances, while Obama's surrogates have not come close to performing at the level their candidate regularly achieves. So the solution to this problem is easy: The Obama campaign has to be more aggressive and selective in choosing its spokespeople, using more strong, smart advocates like Sen. Joe Biden and Sen. Jim Webb, and keeping Pelosi and Kerry as far away from the media as possible.

The second issue is more philosophical: Should we be judging the candidates by their stand-ins? Does Fiorina's and Ridge's debating skills mean that McCain would be a better president than Obama? And does the inability of Reed, Kerry, McCaskill and Pelosi to speak compellingly on television mean that Obama shouldn't be president? Even more to the point, as voters, are we served by listening to these surrogate debates? I would argue we are not. The question is whether Obama or McCain would be a better leader for the country, and whose policies would better serve the country's vital interests. Whether the candidates' representatives can accurately and effectively make those arguments has no bearing on the underlying arguments themselves.

But as much as I can say that surrogates shouldn't be called in to speak for the candidates, the reality is that this practice is not going to stop, not with the networks needing to fill time in a 24/7/365 news cycle. There will be shows seeking to put representatives of each campaign against each other, and there will certainly be a guest arguing for McCain on all of them, given how well his surrogates have done so far. So it's not like Obama has a lot of options, short of leaving the McCain side unopposed and turning ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and CNBC into, essentially, Fox News. Obama has no choice but to play the surrogate game. But, again, that means that his campaign has to be more engaged in monitoring who is going on these shows to represent the candidate.

It's been a bad week for the Obama campaign, with McCain's new tactic of attacking Obama in false, pandering commercials actually gaining traction with voters. But as Obama moves to fight back, his campaign needs to keep in mind that it's not just the man-to-man battle with McCain that he has to win, but also the larger fight between his surrogates and McCain's stand-ins. Obama is used to winning head-to-head matchups. It's time for him to realize that his teammates are letting him down.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Yes, McCain's Attack Ads Are Pathetic, But Obama Can't Assume that Voters See It

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

As we all know, John McCain has gone negative. And he has done so in an especially egregious and clumsy way, resorting to lies and obvious pandering in an effort to scare voters away from Barack Obama.

But here's the thing: It's working. And it's time for Obama and the Democrats to recognize that fact in crafting a response.

Nowhere is the McCain bungling strategy actually succeeding better than on the issue of offshore oil drilling. Every piece of evidence says that this kind of exploration will do nothing to help the price of gas in the short term, and it certainly won't do anything to help the energy and global warming crises the country is now facing. And yet, McCain keeps hammering Obama in his ads, saying that Obama is against lower gas prices because he won't support offshore drilling. And the statements in these attacks are blatantly dishonest, mischaracterizing both Obama's positions and the effects of this kind of exploration.

By any reasonable analysis of McCain's strategy, it should not be working. To a rational observer, the attacks smell of desperation and reveal a candidate without a plan, and they should be driving voters straight into the Obama camp.

And yet they're not.

A Rasmussen survey on the offshore drilling issue last week found that 57 percent of respondents favored offshore drilling, which makes sense when you consider that 56 percent of those asked thought that offshore drilling would cause gas prices to fall. In Florida, a recent poll revealed that 60 percent of the people supported drilling.

In other words, more than half of the American people (based on the polls, anyway) are relying on false data to make their judgments. On last night's Countdown With Keith Olbermann, Paul Krugman cited a finding from Bush's Energy Information Administration last year that offshore drilling would produce no oil until 2017, and the effect on pricing would be insignificant. The EIA also reported in May that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would not result in oil production until 2018, and the effect on pricing would be a reduction of 75 cents a barrel (less than one percent of the current price) in 2025. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a senior advisor to the McCain campaign, admitted to the Los Angeles Times in June that offshore drilling would have no immediate effect on gas prices.

So if it's crystal clear that offshore drilling won't lower prices at the pump, how is McCain turning this into a winning issue for his campaign?

On Countdown, Krugman said that Obama has fallen into the trap of thinking, "This is so ridiculous, nobody is going to believe (it)." Krugman thinks Obama was being "dismissive" when he needed to be "outraged" and come out with a strong statement to the effect of: "(McCain) is insulting your intelligence, he is really doing bad stuff." I think Krugman is right, and the Obama campaign has to take Krugman's advice and be more aggressive in fighting the obvious lies and distortions that McCain is shoveling into the marketplace of ideas.

But what Krugman is really saying is that voters are uninformed and/or uninterested, and that Obama has to take action based on that assumption. Sadly, I think the evidence supports Krugman's premise, but I'm outraged that this is the case. Yes, Obama is running for president, so, by definition, he has to make his case to the American people, but should the case have to be this hard? Shouldn't Americans themselves take the responsibility of understanding the basic issues being discussed in the campaign? Should a candidate really be responsible for spoon-feeding every last detail, pointing out obvious lies? As Krugman pointed out on Countdown, for a change, the press has done a pretty good job of reporting the facts on offshore drilling. It's disgraceful that 56 percent of Americans would believe that gas prices would be reduced, when the Bush administration and the McCain campaign have admitted they wouldn't be. Sure, Bush and McCain are out there saying the opposite, but Americans shouldn't be buying the lies.

But, again, they are.

In the Rasmussen daily tracking poll, Obama leads today by 45 percent to 43 percent. The numbers have been incredibly steady for the last two months: Between June 5 and August 1, Obama has never been higher than 48 percent or lower than 42 percent, and McCain has remained between 39 percent and 43 percent. In fact, the current percentage represents McCain's highest standing in the poll during this period.

In light of the fact that McCain is running with the burden of sharing party affiliation with a historically unpopular sitting president, in a bad environment for Republicans (a Rasmussen poll has Democrats ahead of Republicans 47 percent to 34 percent in a generic party congressional matchup), and with the electorate rejecting McCain's policies on his signature issue of Iraq (another Rasmussen poll had 52 percent of Americans saying that it’s more important for the next president to bring the troops home from Iraq than to win the war there, and 63 percent of respondents want the American military out of Iraq within a year, regardless), the fact that the race is a virtual dead heat demonstrates how McCain's attack ads haven't hurt him.

That's why it is so important for the Obama campaign to take McCain's seemingly ridiculous attacks seriously, even though I think Americans need to take charge of their citizenship responsibilities and become more informed on the issues. Obama's team has to respond swiftly and powerfully to attacks, in a manner that voters will understand and relate to. Democrats need to make very clear, in simple terms, that McCain is working for big oil, not the American people. The campaign needs to get the facts out there, that McCain raised $1.1 million dollars from the oil industry in the last month, with three-quarters of it coming after his June 16 speech supporting offshore drilling. Obama has to loudly and forcefully relate that offshore drilling will not produce any immediate change in gas prices, and that the next president has an obligation to enact a broader energy policy to address the economic, national security and environmental ramifications of oil dependency. And it has to be made clear that offshore drilling will only serve to further enrich the oil companies, who, while Americans are suffering under the crushing heel of high gas prices, are raking in record profits off the backs of these citizens.

But no matter what Obama does between now and November 4, if the American people are going to allow themselves to be fooled, there is only so much progress he can make. The campaign can't simply assume that voters see how desperate, disgusting and inaccurate McCain's attack ads are, because the evidence seems to indicate that Americans are falling for McCain's lies. The United States is a democracy, and its citizens get the leaders they deserve. Let's hope they don't end up deserving John McCain.