Friday, October 31, 2008

It's Hard to Believe "30 Rock" and "Kath and Kim" Are Part of the Same Comedy Block

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

It wasn't that long ago that Thursday nights on NBC really were "Must See TV." With "Friends" and "Seinfeld" anchoring the 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. slots, the network used the 8:30 p.m and 9:30 p.m. perches to launch successful sitcoms like "Mad About You" and "Frasier" (as well as a bunch of less memorable ones).

Now, NBC still provides some of the best comedies on television on Thursday nights, even if none of them get monster ratings. "My Name Is Earl" at 8:00 p.m. and "The Office" at 9:00 p.m. are the relatively successful anchors, but the network is only batting .500 with its choices this year for the launching pad half-past slots. "30 Rock," which debuted its third season Thursday night, is a natural fit to follow "The Office" at 9:30 p.m., but the only place "Kath & Kim," the new American adaptation of the Australian comedy that airs after "Earl" at 8:30 p.m., belongs is in the cancellation pile.

"Kath & Kim" didn't make my August list of the five shows I was most looking forward to seeing, mainly because I'm not a fan of Molly Shannon and the snippets aired by NBC were insipid. But as a single-camera sitcom on NBC's Thursday night lineup, I figured "Kath & Kim" had to at least be watchable, so I also didn't place it on my list of the five shows that looked the most ridiculous.

Man, was I wrong. There is no way to sugarcoat it: "Kath & Kim" is a train wreck.

Shannon and Selma Blair star as the eponymous mother-daughter team. In the series premiere (which aired on October 9), Blair's Kim leaves her simpleton husband Craig (Mikey Day) and moves in with Shannon's Kath, her mother, who after many romantic travails has met the man of her dreams, food court fast food restaurateur Phil (the always excellent John Michael Higgins; I feel bad for him every moment he's on screen). Phil's last name is Knight, and Kath's last name is Day. "Kath & Kim" is the kind of show in which this fact is played up like it's the funniest thing in world. Trust me, it's not.

I guess it's supposed to be cute and funny that Kim is always sniping at her mother and that she's not very smart. But that's not how it reads on screen. Instead, Kim is one of the least likable characters on television. She is bitter, mean, lazy, judgmental, materialistic, dumb and shallow, and she lacks any kind of compassion or core that makes her the least bit relatable or inspiring of any compassion. You just don't give a crap about her, and within seconds, you just don't want to be around her anymore. Kim is like Paris Hilton, only with no money. Who would want to spend time with that?

At least if Kim was funny, there would be a reason to watch. As written, she is not. Unless you find yourself cackling at lines like, "Doing your own nails is poor," or "When did you start caring if gross dogs have fleas?" Or when she gets angry at her husband for not being wealthy, even though he keeps trying to woo her back despite the fact she left him for no good reason and treats him like garbage, and says, "Why didn't you come up with Craig's List?" It's unclear why Craig would want Kim back; she seems to have no redeeming qualities (other than looking like a trashy version of Blair, but that certainly doesn't come close to making up for her putrid personality).

Shannon's Kath isn't a horrible person like her daughter, but she is an exceedingly boring one. We have seen Shannon do this same character a thousand times before: the cluelessly lame optimist who thinks she is a winner, but clearly isn't. Kath is left with plots like her quest to rent a garish pumpkin-shaped carriage for her wedding, even though she can't afford it, and she's afraid to ask good guy Phil to help, since he doesn't want a big wedding. Again, we've seen this shtick before from Shannon, and it's grown tired.

Of course, in the end, Phil comes through as a real prince charming. At that point, I was just happy that the episode was over.

I'm not saying I expected NBC to replace "Scrubs" in its Thursday night lineup with something of equal quality. "Scrubs" was a groundbreaking sitcom that, from a quality point of view, would be hard to replace. But I didn't think the network would come up with something that was on par with "The Bill Engvall Show." Considering that the night's programs have survived based on buzz and critical praise more than actual viewership, I will be shocked if "Kath & Kim" is on the air much longer.

When we last left the staff and cast of the fictional "TGS" on the very real "30 Rock," as I wrote last May, things had gotten a bit weird. Network honcho Jack Donaghy (a pitch-perfect Alec Baldwin) was about to be made the new chairman of the company by his boss, Don Geiss (Rip Torn), only for Geiss to slip into a coma, leaving the devious barely-in-the-closet Devon Banks (Will Arnett) in charge, as he had romanced Geiss's child-like daughter, the new chairman of the company. Jack, distraught, had taken a job in a hilariously lame duck Bush administration. I complained that separating Jack from "TGS" head writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) was a mistake, as the the show really is built around their odd-but-great chemistry.

The season premiere on Thursday demonstrated that "30 Rock" has shaken off it's slight misstep of last season and is back in fine form. Jack has returned to New York, and he takes a job in the NBC mailroom as a way of getting his position back in the company (he explains that it took him 19 years to reach the top the first time, but now that he has learned so much, this time he thinks it will only take him nine years). Liz, meanwhile, wants to adopt a baby, so she has to impress the cranky agency investigator sent to evaluate her (a very funny Megan Mullally).

The episode was classic "30 Rock": a blend of smart, laugh-out-loud lines; silly physical comedy; and bizarre, wacky (and funny) story lines, but all of it done with enough heart to make you care. And with Jack and Liz back in the same building, the whole thing snapped into place beautifully. Their relationship, an odd mix of liking each other but also feeling like the other is insane, is like no other one on television. Jack can toss off a line about how being the victim of unwanted advances by a boss is bad ("It's not fun, like when men do it to women."), and then follow it up with a shot at Liz ("Have you ever been sexually harassed? No, of course not."). And their inability to even fake a kiss in front of Geiss's daughter was a moment of great awkward comedy.

But at the end, you see some emotion. With Jack back in power, Liz steps into his office again after leaving it. Jack asks her if she needs something else, and she simply smiles and says, "I just like seeing you in there." They may be my favorite couple on television, and they're not even a couple.

The sheer lunacy and volume of silliness is great. When Liz asks the staff to make their offices safe for the investigator, producer Pete (Scott Adsit) can be seen in the background with an inflatable sex doll. Liz, upon seeing baby dolls from the fake nursery she had Pete create for the investigator, says, "Is it wrong I just want to have one of these to grow up and resent me?" Jack tells Liz how he worked his way through school doing "the day shift in a graveyard and the graveyard shift in a Days Inn." And the investigator's short-term memory loss after accidentally getting hit in the head with writer Frank's (Juda Friedlander) gold nunchucks (a gift from Tracy Morgan's Tracy Jordan as payment for working on his porn video game) leads first to Liz's joy (a "do-over" after the investigator forgets all the disastrous things she's seen) and then pain (when the investigator then forgets the second interview in which Liz impresses her). And the little threads of the show always lead to unexpected payoffs, like when Liz and Jack act like they're in a soap opera to get the soap-loving Geiss's daughter to leave him alone.

The amazing thing about "30 Rock" is that it is one of my favorite programs on television, even though I'm not a huge fan of the supporting cast. Tracy Morgan's persona is off-putting, Friedlander's trucker hats are a joke that has gone on way too long, and Jane Krakowski's insecure actress has her moments, but often feels like she's repeating the same joke over and over again. Even page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), who is very funny, is running the risk of his one-note character (the eternally upbeat hick oddball) becoming tiresome.

And yet the show remains smart and fabulously entertaining, mainly due to the top-notch writing and the brilliant performances by Fey and Baldwin. I've been waiting for the ratings to catch up with the critics on "30 Rock." Watching it doesn't feel like homework. There are more than a few laugh-out-loud moments each half hour.

"30 Rock" is as good as any comedy on television, and it is a perfect fit for NBC's Thursday-night lineup of smart, single-camera sitcoms. "Kath & Kim," on the other hand, isn't a good fit for any network on any night.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Obama Is Dominating in the Polls, but Four Things Keep Me Awake at Night

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

We are one week from election day. Barack Obama leads John McCain in every poll. Nate Silver of gives Obama a 96.7 percent chance of winning. And some McCain supporters with a nose for survival are jumping off of the Republican bandwagon faster than Sarah Palin running to an Alaska consignment shop (yes, I'm talking to you Joe Lieberman).

And yet I can't bring myself to believe Obama will win next Tuesday.

You have to forgive me. As a 41-year-old Democrat, I've seen too much to ever be confident. I watched the nation choose a bumbling Bush (the first one) over a smart, successful governor, all because the governor was a bit of a nerd. Okay, a lot more than a bit, but still. (I often think about the Saturday Night Live sketch in which Jon Lovitz, as Michael Dukakis, in a debate with Dana Carvey's George H.W. Bush, responds to a nonsensical response by looking into the camera and saying, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy!") I've seen Americans twice put into office a language-bungling, shallow-thinking, political legacy who, as was brilliantly said once, was born on third base but acted like he hit a triple (one of the elections coming after it was clear he had led America into a dangerous, damaging, unnecessary war that was completely mismanaged by his administration).

So you can at least understand why I won't believe that the U.S. has elected Obama until/if I see McCain giving a concession speech.

I know what you're thinking right about now: "But Mitchell, it's over. Just look at the polls." I get it. I'm not pretending that there is necessarily a rational underpinning for my paranoia. I wouldn't begin to set out an electoral path to victory like Silver gamely tried to do for the New York Post (give the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid credit for asking a smart Obama supporter how the paper's guy could pull an upset).

But I can tell you the four things that keep me up at night and make me wonder if there ever really will be an Obama inauguration in January.

Close Races
When the polls are viewed through the prism of how many of the close states McCain has to win, they certainly look daunting for the Republicans. But consider that Obama holds fairly small leads in nearly all of the toss-up states, according to Rasmussen, which is ranked as the most reliable of all the major polling organizations by (only Seltzer and SurveyUSA have a better record, and Rasmussen is the top daily tracking poll).

According to Rasmussen:

- Virginia: Obama up 51 percent to 47 percent.
- Colorado: Obama up 50 percent to 46 percent.
- Missouri: McCain up 48 percent to 47 percent.
- Ohio: Obama up 49 percent to 45 percent.
- North Carolina: McCain up 49 percent to 48 percent.
- Florida: Obama up 51 percent to 47 percent.
- New Hampshire: Obama up 50 percent to 46 percent.
- National Daily Tracking Poll: Obama up 51 percent to 46 percent.

Considering that, depending on the scenario, McCain has to win most (if not all) of these states, the numbers I have laid out above look very good for Obama. It's hard to imagine McCain sweeping so many close races.

But here is where the dread creeps in: The biggest lead Obama has in any state is five points. So if there is one big event, or one big factor, that can put a jolt into the election nationally, it can change the look of the map in a hurry. As you consider the next three nightmare scenarios, remember how relatively little effect they have to have on the electorate to shift the outlook of the race.

Voter Fraud
Make no mistake: If the Republicans cannot generate more votes for their candidate, they are happy to win by decreasing the number of votes of their opponent. Shortly after the 2004 election, Robert Kennedy wrote about voter fraud in Ohio, and there have been a number of films to cover the story, as well.

And it's not like the GOP is going to suddenly play fair in 2008. On Friday, Bush asked the Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, to investigate 200,000 voter registrations for minor discrepancies in data. Bush is quick to look into non-issues like this one and the minor voter registration (note, voter registration, not voter fraud) allegations at ACORN, but he can't be bothered to enforce congressional subpoenas or investigate actual voter fraud allegations. (Hendrik Hertzberg wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker explaining how the ACORN issue has been completely distorted and misused by the Republicans.) It's fair to say that McCain has the might of the federal government on his side in any election fraud-related issue.

The Ohio problems are not unique. Early voters in West Virginia had their computer monitors flip their Obama votes to McCain, and a confusing North Carolina ballot, which excludes the presidential race when someone chooses to vote a party line, may cost Obama, by one estimate, tens of thousands of votes. Today brought news of a flyer in Virginia telling Democrats to vote on November 5 (the day after the election), and a man in Florida posing as a worker for a Democratic candidate for Congress (but whose information was traced back to a consultant of the Republican incumbent) taking ballots from Democrats and promising to deliver them. And that doesn't even include the widespread purges of voters in Democratic neighborhoods conducted by Republican state officials. An excellent article on voter fraud, also co-authored by Kennedy, can be found here.

Remember, it only takes a few points in the key swing states to make a difference.

So even if the polls are correct and most Americans support Obama, I would not be the least bit surprised to wake up next Wednesday to a "miraculous" McCain comeback victory (with the miracle provided courtesy of election irregularities). Of course, this year, the Democrats are better prepared for such an eventuality, and any fraud will be more vigorously challenged. But that only does so much to assuage my fears.

October or November Surprise
It's not too late for the president to engineer an event to put national security on the front burner of the election. After all, security is the one issue on which McCain outperforms Obama in polls. If we've learned one thing from watching McCain run a disgusting smear campaign, it's that Republicans, who seem to see the White House as a birthright, are not below doing anything to secure victory.

I fear that Bush's move to have Mukasey investigate voter registration in Ohio is not the end of his involvement, but only the beginning. It's not like any Republicans right about now are looking for Bush's endorsement or want him to campaign for them. But this is a way the president could actually affect the race.

More Than Just the Bradley Effect
There has been a lot of debate about whether or not there is a Bradley Effect; that is, if there are white voters who tell pollsters they will vote for a black candidate, but when they get into the voting booth, they can't bring themselves to actually do it and cast a ballot for the white opponent.

But there is nothing to which one can compare this election. An African American has never been a Republican or Democratic nominee for the presidency before. There is just no way to judge what will happen on election day.

Even if the Bradley Effect does not exist (and there certainly is a strong argument to be made in that regard), I am concerned that there are white voters who won't vote for an African-American candidate, and that many of them are contained in the "undecided" category of the polls. (Despite an interesting science-based defense of undecided voters in today's New York Times, I still can't imagine how anyone at this stage of the race can't decide between two candidates who are different in virtually every way.)

There are things to look at if you want to scare yourself into thinking that race may be a deciding factor in this election. For example, in the race for governor in Missouri, a state that leans red (Bush carried it in 2000 and 2004), Attorney General Jay Nixon leads Republican Congressman Kenny Hulshof by nearly 20 points (57 percent to 38 percent) in the latest Rasmussen poll (October 17), and yet in the presidential race in the state, Obama trails McCain by one point in Rasmussen's latest survey (October 27). On CNN this morning, a radio host from Missouri didn't shy away from explaining the difference in the numbers: He attributed it to Obama's race.

Maybe race is the reason, and maybe it's not. We don't know for sure, but I'm certainly afraid it is. The Missouri factor is not unique. Based on Rasmussen results, the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate seats in Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina and New Hampshire are all outperforming Obama in their states.

Both the New York Times (Pennsylvania) and the New Yorker (Ohio) have recently done features on rust-belt white voters, and in each case, it's clear that Obama has to overcome some pretty strong race-based biases. The Times piece features one voter saying, "I’m no racist, but I’m not crazy about him either. I don’t know, maybe ’cause he’s black" (the person claimed to be voting for Obama anyway), while another remarks, "He scares me. The coloreds are excited, but my friends and I plan to write in Hillary’s name." When I read the last line, chills of fear and disgust literally shot up my spine. I don't know what bothered me the most: that someone would care so much about a candidate's race (the positions of Clinton and Obama are so similar), that the person would admit it to a New York Times reporter, or that the person would use the term "colored." It's 2008. How often do you, in your day-to-day life, hear that word? I can remember someone using it to me once in the last 20 years (and, oddly, it happened a few weeks ago, but it had nothing to do with Obama).

Look, I get it. Despite yahoos like the people quoted in the article, the polls look good for Obama right now. But with this kind of race-based nonsense floating in the ether, especially when the McCain campaign is all too happy to fan these flames whenever possible (like when a McCain staffer pushed the phony attack story of Ashley Todd to reporters), I can't feel entirely comfortable.

McCain and Palin have spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania, despite every poll showing Obama with a more-than-10-point lead. Why? Is it a suicide mission? It just may be. It may be that McCain has run out of viable options, so he is going for one of his now-patented Hail Mary plays and hoping it is more successful than the last two (choosing Palin and "suspending" his campaign to work on the financial crisis), which both backfired on him. But since we're talking about what keeps me up at night, what if race is the wild card that McCain is counting on in Pennsylvania? I'm not saying he's right (in fact, I don't think he is), but since I'm admittedly looking for doomsday scenarios, I can't help but think of this one.

And again, with the numbers fairly close on a state-to-state basis, it's easy to be afraid of one false inflammatory rumor taking hold in this final week and tipping the scales to McCain in too many states. It's not like there is any shortage of McCain robocalls or flyers trying to scare voters out of supporting Obama.

To be perfectly clear, it's not that I am predicting McCain will win the election. The logical side of my brain realizes that McCain's scare tactics have seemingly failed, and it is really hard to make a mathematical case right now that he has a real shot of winning. But as a lifelong Democrat who has seen my party lose winnable races, I can't help thinking about how things can go wrong this year. And these four factors are what keep me up at night. Let's hope I'm worrying for nothing.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

"Brothers & Sisters" and "Dirty Sexy Money": Family Soaps, But Very Different

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

I was never much for nighttime soaps. Back in the day, I wasn't a fan of "Dynasty" or "Dallas"; despite watching "Beverly Hills 90210" for a couple of years, I never even saw one episode of "Melrose Place"; and I gave up on "Desperate Housewives" after two seasons. I just generally don't enjoy the over-the-top, far-from-real, always-something-going-on story lines, and I have trouble with over-acting (also known as Dylan McKay-Edie Britt Syndrome). So a glance at my TiVo Season Pass list will reveal two surprises: "Brothers & Sisters" (ABC, Sundays at 10:00 p.m. Eastern) and "Dirty Sexy Money" (ABC, Wednesdays at 10:00 p.m. Eastern).

I'm not entirely sure why I consider these shows to be different. I wholly admit that my decision to stay with these soaps may very well be arbitrary. Now that we've had a few episodes to see where each of their seasons are going, I figured it was a good time to take a closer look at them. And since I'm way more likely to drop a soap than, say, a sitcom (it was easy enough for me to say sayonara to "Desperate Housewives" and "Beverly Hills 90210," but I watched every episode of "Caroline in the City"), it's fair to ask if "Brothers & Sisters" and "Dirty Sexy Money" will stay on my Season Pass list.

Both shows follow the personal and business lives of families with five kids and a family-run business, and both, at one time or another, were run by Greg Berlanti. But the similarities mostly end there, since the tones of the two shows are so radically different.

The approach of "Brothers & Sisters" is a cerebral take on the soap formula. Created by playwright Jon Robin Baitz ("The Substance of Fire") and executive produced by, among others, Ken Olin of "thirtysomething," "Brothers & Sisters" is like an experiment to see what happens when serious writers and quality actors tackle soapy dramatic material. And the show made a splash in its premiere (literally and figuratively) when the family's patriarch, William, played by Tom Skerritt, died suddenly, collapsing into the swimming pool while sitting with his granddaughter.

"Brothers & Sisters" follows the trials and tribulations of the Southern California-based Walker clan and the family's business, Ojai Foods, in the wake of William's death, including the revelation that he had a second life with a long-term affair. The cast is a mix of well-known stars with respected resumes (like Sally Field, Calista Flockhart and Rachel Griffiths), theater actors (Ron Rifkin and Matthew Rhys, for example), and unknown performers with solid backgrounds (Dave Annable, Sarah Jane Morris and Emily VanCamp of "Everwood" are good examples). The cherry on the casting sundae is a pair of TV veterans (Rob Lowe of "The West Wing" and Patricia Wettig, who is Olin's wife and former "thirtysomething" cohort), bringing with them the gravitas of their former programs.

The story lines of "Brothers & Sisters" mainly consist of the kind of things you are used to seeing in a nighttime soap, with lots of drama involving the romantic relationships of the family members, the intrigue at the family business, and "big" issues like drug addiction and the loss of a child. To enter the world of the program thinking that it is too high-brow to take on more tabloidy turns would be a mistake. After all, we've had the discovery of a long-lost half sister who turns out not to really be a half sister after all, but who then enters into a romantic relationship with one of the guys she thought was her brother. That's the kind of thing you could see on a daytime soap, but it happened on "Brothers & Sisters."

So to enjoy the program, you kind of have to go along with the soapy story lines. And what do you get in return? Well, for one, the writing is very good. There is a lot of sharp humor, and there are genuinely affecting moments that go beyond melodrama. When youngest son Justin (Annable), a recovering junkie and veteran of the Iraq war, breaks down and admits to his girlfriend/former sister Rebecca (VanCamp) his inability to accept praise for saving one man's life because on the same day, he watched his good friend die a few yards away from him, it's a genuinely heart-tugging moment. As the scene unfolds, the soapiness of Rebecca and Justin going from siblings to lovers is not something you are even thinking about.

And a lot of the credit has to go to the performers. Annable is exceptional as the conflicted Justin, and VanCamp brings warmth and openness to the uncertain Rebecca. Field is her excellent self as the family matriarch, equally adept at reveling in campy dramatic moments (like telling her dead husband's long-time mistress about the existence of another lover with whom he had a son) as genuinely emotional ones (her breakdown after a garage sale in which she disposed of all of her husband's things featured a first-rate performance).

Flockhart plays Republican pundit-turned-political-staffer Kitty like a grown-up, settled down version of her Ally McBeal. Griffiths brings her usual intensity to oldest sister Sarah, who nearly ruined Ojai with a bad deal and is now forced to work under her brother Tommy (Balthazer Getty) and her father's former mistress (Wettig) at the company. And Rhys does a great job of keeping middle brother Kevin, a corporate lawyer, from descending into a gay stereotype.

In fact the willingness of "Brothers & Sisters" to matter-of-factly handle topics other shows are often afraid to go near is one of the things that sets it apart. Kevin's relationship with his husband Scotty (Luke Macfarlane) is treated the same as the romantic entanglements of his straight siblings. And Justin's Iraq war veteran is neither a recruiting poster nor a cautionary tale, but one of the more interesting and nuanced characters on nighttime television.

My only complaint about "Brothers & Sisters" is that it's sometimes too wide-eyed and naive for its own good. Lowe plays a Republican U.S. Senator from California (in and of itself odd, since California hasn't sent a Republican to the senate in 16 years) who is a liberal fantasy of the ideal Republican: He is young and good looking, pro-choice, has a great relationship with his gay brother, and has impeccable ethics and morals, so much so that he refuses to smear his opponent in the Republican presidential primary and later rejects an offer to be his running mate. It's such an unrealistic characterization that it takes me out of the show. And it's not the only time "Brothers & Sisters" descends into if-only-it-was-really-like-that territory.

But if you're going to eat candy, it might as well be good candy. So on that theory, "Brothers & Sisters" provides some old-fashioned dramatic entertainment, even if is soapier than a car wash. And it features some of the best acting and writing on TV. So I'm happy to leave it on my TiVo Season Pass.

The Walkers have little in common with the Darlings, the family at the center of "Dirty Sexy Money." While "Brothers & Sisters" tries to be the Merchant-Ivory of nighttime soaps, "Dirty Sexy Money" burst onto the scene last year as an over-the-top, near parody of the genre.

Like "Brothers & Sisters," "Dirty Sexy Money" boasts cast members that some might say are slumming on this job. Peter Krause, who starred in the high-end, dark HBO drama "Six Feet Under," is at the center of "Dirty Sexy Money" as Nick, a crusading attorney who accepts an offer to become the family attorney to the Darlings, a Kennedy-esque (but way trashier) New York City wealthy clan. Nick's father had served in the same role, until he was killed in a mysterious private plane crash in the debut episode. Nick, who was on the outs with his father at the time of his death, had always resented the Darlings for dominating his father's time. But he has a serious love-hate relationship with the family, realizing he is an odd part of their lives even as some of their actions appall him.

Donald Sutherland plays Tripp, the head of the Darling clan, and Jill Clayburgh is his unstable wife, Letitia. The two film veterans don't shy away from the soapy nature of their parts. Sutherland is quiet and mysterious, and, as the story lines demand, you're not quite sure when he is being played and when he is just pretending to be played to play others (more often this is the case). Clayburgh, meanwhile, dives into being the wealthy, quasi-insubstantial dutiful wife, looking after the needs of her grown kids.

And what a group of kids they are: all over the top, and all out of control. Brian (Glenn Fitzgerald) spent last year as the meanest, surliest minister ever to appear on television, but as of last season's finale, he left the church to work for the family business. Patrick (William Baldwin) is the state's attorney general and a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Despite having two kids with his wife Ellen (the always solid Bellamy Young), Patrick's heart really belongs to transvestite Carmelita (Candis Cayne). Karen, who was Nick's childhood sweetheart, has grown into a multiple-marrying socialite, who also, paradoxically, has an MBA from Columbia and is now having a spy-vs.-spy affair with the Darlings' arch enemy, mogul Simon Elder (Blair Underwood). And Jeremy is the baby of the family, the party boy romantic who is good-natured but completely allergic to responsibility. His twin sister and fellow partier, Juliet (Samaire Armstrong), has disappeared this season (producers deny it's because of Armstrong's personal problems).

The Darlings' battles and trials and tribulations are as soapy as those faced by the Walkers, but much grander. Consider: Letitia is arrested for killing Nick's father, Tripp insists on Nick defending Letitia (even though he is the son of the victim), and Jeremy is dating (on the sly) the barracuda prosecuting the case, Nola (Lucy Liu, as a more joyful and upbeat version of her Ling Woo from "Ally McBeal").

Last year, it seemed like everyone at "Dirty Sexy Money" was in on the joke. It was like they knew how silly soaps were, and they played it up for all it was worth, committing to the lunacy and making fun of it, all at the same time. There were over-arching mysteries more reminiscent of "Heroes" than a nighttime soap, and the intrigue was so convoluted, plausibility wasn't even a concern. But after months of inactivity (the show didn't return after the writer's strike, leaving nine months between the end of the program's abbreviated first season and the launch of its second campaign), "Dirty Sexy Money" seems to have lost its sense of humor.

This season has played like a more conventional soap, with plots that aren't so different than those found on "Brothers & Sisters." All the intricate strands relating to the mystery of who killed Nick's father have been tossed aside, replaced with the more simple charge that Letitia is responsible. The focus is on who is sleeping with whom, and who is out-maneuvering whom for control of the Darling empire. And Letitia's trial is straight out of "Dynasty" or "Dallas," completely devoid of both reality and sly in-on-the-joke excessiveness.

Sadly, "Dirty Sexy Money" now too often feels like it is just missing the mark. The show is set in New York but lacks any feel of the city, mostly because it is shot in Los Angeles. Nola, the assistant district attorney, lives in a luxury Manhattan apartment building, drives a luxury convertible (in New York), and has an office that most big-firm partners would envy, all horribly unrealistic for someone living on the salary of a city employee. (Her character violates my Perry Mason Rule, which says that television shows and movies don't have to be 100 percent accurate on legal issues, but they cannot present something that the average person would know is false from watching legal entertainment like "Perry Mason.")

Worse, the central story conflicts seem to go around in circles, until they've worn out their welcome. I'm so over the constant "you're choosing the Darlings over me" whines of Nick's wife Lisa (Zoe McLellan). It's the same argument over and over again. You just want to scream at her, "We've been over this 100 times. Either dump him or leave him alone!" And the family dynamics -- Karen's crush on Nick, Brian's hatred of Nick, Patrick's battle to get out from under Tripp's control -- are getting stale.

I don't mean to be too negative about "Dirty Sexy Money." The cast does a good job with the scripts they're given, and the writing can be very funny and clever at times. It's not that I think the show is bad at what it does, but rather that last season's approach seems superior to this year's plan. I liked the program better when it was trying to send up the soap genre, rather than just being another entry in the field. I liked it better when it was smarter than its competitors, not emulating them. But I'll stick around for a while longer, but I make no promises for the future.

In the end, the Walkers and the Darlings live lives that are nothing like ours, but we can tune in and, at the same time, feel better about ourselves that we don't have to deal with the messes they have to deal with and live vicariously through the glamor of the lives they lead. "Brothers & Sisters" and "Dirty Sexy Money" are both solid nighttime soaps, fully worth watching if you're looking for something in that genre. And "Brothers & Sisters" takes an interesting, more cerebral approach to its material. I just wish "Dirty Sexy Money" was as in on the joke as it was last year.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

McCain's Smear Campaign Will Have an Impact Long After the Election

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

Talk about the "fierce urgency of now." While that phrase might have been been adopted by Barack Obama, it is equally suited -- albeit differently applied -- to describe the destructive campaign being undertaken by John McCain. Because McCain seems to be gunning to win the election, all future consequences be damned.

In the last few weeks, with McCain's poor handling of the financial crisis, poor debate performances, and cynical pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate torpedoing his chances of winning the presidency, McCain unleashed himself and his minions on a dirty and reckless path of attacking Obama with lies, distortions and smears. McCain and Palin both repeatedly invoke socialism when describing Obama's economic policies, even though you would be hard-pressed to find a reputable economist who would agree with that assertion, at least without lumping every president since Franklin Roosevelt into the socialism club. (And that doesn't even take into account the most socialism-reminiscent thing to happen in recent history, the bank and corporate bailouts that were supported by George W. Bush and the Republican leaders of Congress. Are they socialists too?)

Palin has raised the issue of patriotism, making references to "real Americans" and "pro-America areas of this great nation," as if disagreeing with her politics makes you less of an American. She also accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists" (we know the bogus Bill Ayers claim is one terrorist, but who are others?) and declared that Obama was "not a man who sees America as you and I do," a blatant attempt to make an African American candidate seem scary and "other."

Picking up the baton from Palin, one Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, said on Hardball last Friday: "I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out are they pro-America or Anti-America." (You can watch it for yourself here.) Yes, Bachmann actually played the socialism card, not seen in the United States in more than 55 years, since the witch hunt conducted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. And Robin Hayes, a Republican congressman from North Carolina, said on Saturday that "liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God." I have a question for Mr. Hayes: Barack Obama is a devout Christian who has worked his butt off to rise from a working-class, single-parent upbringing to graduate from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, and then to forge a successful career as a community organizer, attorney, instructor at a top-ten law school, state senator and U.S. senator. And he is a liberal. Does that mean Obama hates himself?

Interestingly, both members of Congress later lied about making the remarks. Bachmann tried to rewrite history on Tuesday, and Hayes, according to Keith Olbermann on Tuesday, denied making the comment, but an audio recording subsequently emerged demonstrating that the quote was accurate. It was heartening to see Americans react with disdain to these instances of McCarthy-esque fear mongering. Both representatives have placed their re-elections in play, and people of both parties donated almost $1 million to Bachmann's opponent in the 72 hours that followed her call for a witch hunt in Congress.

I understand that the sleaze tactics of the McCain-Palin campaign and their disciples look like it will do nothing but harm to those involved. Most polls point to an Obama victory in November (, as of today, puts the chances of a McCain-Palin defeat at 93.5 percent). And the Rasmussen daily tracking poll (the most reliable daily tracking poll, according to has shown movement to Obama in the last two days, bucking a slight trend in the other direction. The poll has been very stable for the last month, with Obama's numbers hovering between 50 percent and 52 percent and McCain's support remaining between 44 percent and 46 percent. In the last week or so, the numbers have crept a bit toward McCain, with Obama at the low end of his spectrum (50 percent) and McCain at the high-end of his range (46 percent). But in yesterday's poll, the first day that would fully account for Bachmann's and Hayes's statements and Colin Powell's endorsement, Obama's lead grew to 51 percent to 45 percent, and today it was up to 52 percent to 45 percent.

So, yes, maybe the smears won't work to win McCain and Palin the election. But with all of the media's focus on election day, what is getting lost in the process is that the country has to go on after the decision is rendered on November 4. Whichever candidate wins will have to address some of the biggest challenges our nation has ever faced: a failing economy, two troublesome wars, an energy crisis, and the potential ravages of global warming.

And that is why McCain's descent into the gutter is so dangerous. Because now that he has gone "all in" with a strategy focusing exclusively on smearing and lying about Obama, win or lose, he has created a dangerous situation for November 5, the day after the election, and the four years to follow.

There is a scene in Oliver Stone's W. in which the Bush family sits around watching the 1992 election returns, and Barbara Bush is incensed that America has elected Bill Clinton over her husband, since, to her, Clinton was clearly an inferior man. And that attitude was reflected in the way the Republicans gunned for Clinton's head for the next eight years, spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on bogus investigations that turned up virtually nothing of importance.

I am not asking for sympathy for Clinton. But the constant GOP attacks did limit his ability to address the needs of the country, as his every move was viewed through the prism of the investigations. It's amazing that Clinton was as effective as he was, and his presidency was as successful as it was, given the circumstances he was forced into by congressional Republicans. But it's hard to make an argument that the Henry Hydes of the world were practicing "country first." No, they were all about "Republicans first, country second."

Which takes us to 2008. And thanks to McCain's venomous campaign, the Republicans could be even more hostile to an Obama presidency. There is nothing about McCain's conduct that has been "country first."

Is McCain's mind so clouded with ambition for the presidency that he doesn't see that the dam of hate and potential violence he has opened will not suddenly stop on November 4? If Obama does win, does he believe that the Bachmanns and Hayeses of the world will suddenly say, "Oh well, we lost, let's get to work on a health care bill that helps Americans"? Or that the extreme hate-mongers in his party who come to his events and scream "kill him!" and "terrorist!" will, on November 5, suddenly say, "Oh well, Obama is our president now. I admit he's not a socialist terrorist who takes his marching orders from Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright and the Iranian government"?

Of course not.

And it's not like McCain can put the hate genie back in the bottle after November 4 if he is able to stage an epic comeback and win. (It's not as unlikely as you might think, especially if you factor in the voter fraud that the GOP has already unleashed. Just ask, for example, the West Virginia early voters who had their computer monitors flip their Obama votes to McCain.) Only now, these hate-mongers would be validated, and McCain will step into office having divided the nation at a time when it needs to be unified to address severe problems.

It's all too late now. Not even the eloquent, stinging words of Powell on Meet the Press condemning the descent into the gutter of the McCain campaign can undo the damage that has already been done. McCain, in his tunnel-like view of the race, with its damn-the-future-win-today approach, has already released the poison of smear into the American atmosphere. It's out there, forcing us to revisit McCarthy-like lies about socialism and Civil War- and Civil Rights-era notions of "real" Americans and being "not like us."

Congratulations, Sen. McCain. Your "fierce urgency of now" has polluted our future. Try and live with that, no matter what Washington building you are working in come January.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"I'm Not President Bush": Uh, Senator, Sorry, But Your Voting Record Says You Are

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

After the third presidential debate was finished, the pundits immediately swarmed to the moment that John McCain told Barack Obama, "I'm not President Bush." Many said it was the best line of the night. But, sadly for McCain, he was pleading to change his history, not stating a fact. And as he lost yet another debate (I'll discuss the post-debate polls later) mainly because of his anger and tone, I couldn't help thinking that what made McCain so bitter was his knowledge that he was, in fact, President Bush, at least in his policies and voting record. And that the American people know it.

Stating fiction as fact has been standard operating procedure for McCain during this campaign. So McCain's lies about the dirty campaign he has run (to say he has defended Obama is both laughable and offensive), or his mischaracterization of the ACORN and Ayers issues, were just par for the course.

But when McCain said, "I'm not President Bush," I couldn't help but think that he was wrestling with the inescapable fact that his Faustian bargain -- moving to the right and backing Bush for most of the last eight years so he could win the GOP nomination for the presidency -- was now exacting its toll, making him unpalatable to too many voters in the general election.

McCain can't change history now. It's too late. The numbers are there, mocking his claim of separation from Bush. In 2007, McCain voted with Bush 95 percent of the time, and since Bush took office, McCain voted with him 89 percent of the time (according to a Congressional Quarterly voting study). McCain has been even more loyal to his fellow Republicans in the Senate, voting with them 98 percent of the time in 2007 (43 of 44 times).

When McCain said "I'm not President Bush," it was like he was realizing that he had miscalculated, that siding with Bush for eight years might have gotten him in the race, but it also left him unable to win it. Now, in the last three weeks of the campaign, he wants to make the argument that he is the person to change the policies of the failed Bush administration. But with McCain's history, these assertions of change ring false. And deep down, he must know it. That's why he seemed so anxious and like he was begging the American people to believe that he was a reformer.

In the first two debates, the pundits directly afterwards gave mixed judgments on who had won, but when the people weighed in, they gave the decision to Obama. Why? Mostly because of McCain's demeanor and tone. He was angry and mean in the first debate, and then he wandered the stage like an agitated grandfather looking for the TV remote in the second one. And McCain's anger cost him again last night.

Obama certainly wasn't going to do anything to actively win this debate. He acted like the quarterback of a football team up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. There were going to be no passes into the end zone. Hell, there were going to be few passes, period. Obama did the equivalent of handing off to his running back again and again. That is, he had no interest in affirmatively scoring points. Rather, he wanted to avoid any costly, game-changing mistakes, sticking to the safest plays. He parried McCain's charges, but he hardly ever punched back.

Considering that Obama's strategy of appearing cool, calm and presidential worked brilliantly in the first two debates, it seems silly to criticize him for being so laid back in the third one. I have to admit, though, I would like to have seen him fight back at least a little. It would have been nice if he had responded to McCain's Ayers charges by pointing out McCain's far more direct associations, including: i) his service on the board of the ultra-conservative U.S. Council for World Freedom, which was denounced by the Anti-Defamation League for its ties to anti-Semitic and racists organization and included a well-known anti-Semite as a fellow board member; ii) saying he was proud of convicted Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy and his values; and his hiring of someone who lobbied for Saddam Hussein to run his transition team. I was hoping Obama would explain how absurd the whole ACORN accusations are in light of the myriad problems with Republican-perpetuated voter fraud.

And, most of all, I would have loved for Obama to cite McCain's voting record with Bush to combat McCain's active fleeing from his record supporting the president (rather than just blandly stating that McCain's policies on key issues were the same as Bush's).

But, as I wrote after the vice-presidential debate, I want people better than me to serve as president, and clearly the Obama campaign knew better. By staying positive, keeping the focus on the economy, and remaining, again, calm, cool and presidential, Obama was able to win over voters. A CBS poll released minutes after the debate showed that the debate was a rout win for Obama, with 53 percent of the uncommitted voters giving him the victory, and only 22 percent thinking McCain was the winner (24 percent had it as a draw). CNN's focus group panel had it as a 15-10 victory for Obama, the network's snap poll of independents was 58 percent to 31 percent in favor of the Democrat, and even Fox's panel gave the advantage to Obama.

So if it was McCain's anger that tipped yet another debate to Obama, it begs the question, Why is McCain so angry? Maybe he's uncomfortable with the race-baiting and smears he agreed to undertake in this campaign, and maybe it's because he wishes he was winning in the polls. Maybe he was jealous of Obama's flawlessly-run campaign (compared to his own chaotic organization), or the adulation Obama has enjoyed, with people flooding his events and sending money to him in unprecedented amounts.

But, in the end, I think nothing made McCain madder than the realization that his support of Bush for eight years will ultimately cost him his chance to win the general election. McCain might have been angry at Obama, but, really, at least to some extent, he has to be angry at himself.

"I'm not President Bush." Arguably, there was some truth to that statement in 2000. But after eight years of supporting a disastrous administration, and after adopting a Rovian campaign approach (like the one that smeared him in 2000), in 2008, Senator McCain is, for all intents and purposes, President Bush. And McCain knows it. No wonder he's so angry.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The American Version of "Life on Mars" Is Goovy, Man

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

The last year or so has represented a virtual gilded age for period television programs. First "Mad Men," then "Swingtown," immersed themselves in what can only be described as era fetishism. The sumptuous and fanatically period-accurate sets and wardrobes on both shows, and their obsession with period anachronisms, threatened to overshadow what were both exceptionally well-written and well-acted dramas. And now, ABC has jumped into the period-piece sweepstakes with an American adaptation of the British show "Life on Mars" (Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern).

In my article on the five new shows I was most looking forward to seeing, I described "Life on Mars" as a combination of "Swingtown" and "Law and Order." Having now seen the debut episode, I don't think I was far off, except that as a cop show, "Life on Mars" is more "Law" than "Order." And given how good both "Swingtown" and "Law and Order" are at what they do, the comparison is meant as praise.

In the series debut, detective Sam (Irish actor Jason O'Mara, whose strong performance is only sullied by his fleeting connection with a plausible American accent, and his inability to even approximate a New York one), shortly after having a commitment-phobic moment with his girlfriend Maya (welcome back, Lisa Bonet), a fellow detective, finds that a serial killer who they've captured has tricked his way out of custody and seemingly abducted Maya. Sam, in pursuit, is struck by a car, and when he comes to, it's 1973.

Bewildered by the strange world, he finds he is the new guy at his precinct, working with a bitter detective who wanted his job (Ray, played by Michael Imperioli) and under a lieutenant, Gene (Harvey Keitel), who is so old school, he would probably wonder what all the fuss was about with the Rodney King beating. In fact, Gene greets Sam, who he perceives as asserting unearned authority, by punching him in the gut. Out of sorts, the guys send Sam to see Annie (Gretchen Mol), or as her colleagues refer to her, "No Nuts," a before-her-time Bureau of Police Women member (where she handles "lost kitties" and "hysterical girlfriends"), who has aspirations to become a police officer and has a psychology degree to back it up. Young detective Chris (Jonathan Murphy, the younger brother in "October Road," the show from which the "Life on Mars" production team comes) doesn't know what to make of Sam, either, but he seems the least angry about it.

Once Sam starts to settle in 1973, he discovers that a serial killer is using the same patterns as the 2008 murderer that may have captured Maya. Only the 2008 villain would be a kid in 1973, so there has to be more going on. Sam gets flashes from the future, hearing the voice of doctors and colleagues, sometimes through electronics, and we glean that in 2008, Sam is fading in and out of a vegetative state. Just when Sam thinks he knows what his 1973 job is, to stop the killer in that time from growing up to hurt Maya, in the final scene, Maya's voice through his car radio tells him she's fine. So Sam's purpose and mission in 1973 is a mystery left to play out in future episodes.

"Life on Mars" has a lot in common with "Mad Men" and "Swingtown." It's debut episode is an orgy of look-how-different-things-were-then moments. Upon landing in 1973, Sam, still dazed, tells a cop he needs his cell, to which the officer replies, "what do you need to sell?" When Sam says he was driving his Jeep, the cop asks him, "You were driving a military vehicle?" At the precinct, when Sam asks where his computer is, his colleagues make fun of him, saying he thinks he's in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Ray remarks that it will take a couple of weeks to get fingerprint results back from the lab, and when Sam is shocked, Chris says he knows that it's amazing they can get the results so quickly now. Men talk crassly to women in an un-P.C. manner that seems unimaginable to 2008 ears. Ray smokes in the morgue while they inspect the body of a victim. Gene routinely beats suspects in a way that makes you understand why federal civil rights laws were needed. The streets are filled with hippies, flower children and guys with afros, and the men all sport groovy mod clothes and cool sideburns (and some guys have mustaches), explaining what we now mean when we say someone looks like a 1970s porn star. There is the famous "plop plop, fizz, fizz" Alka-Seltzer commercial, and the soundtrack is packed with music from the era, from well-known standards like The Who's "Baba O'Riley" to curiosities like "Little Willie" by Sweet and David Bowie's song that gives the show its title.

Like "Mad Men" and "Swingtown," "Life on Mars" has more to it than just the shock value of comparing eras. But rather than dig into the hypocrisies of staid suburban life, the show is a first-rate police procedural with the sci-fi element of time travel. Sam's central problem -- Why is he in 1973 and how can can he get back home? -- is compelling. We've all felt like fish out of water at times. And the poignancy of Sam experiencing this displacement as his girlfriend may be in mortal danger, and after he didn't step up to the plate like he should have for her in their relationship, is strong.

Sam's 1973 world also offers potentially interesting stories and problems. Sam and Annie have clear chemistry, more, it would seem, than he even has with Maya. But the timing, literally, is not very good for them. Sam's efforts to help Annie backfire, as his 2008 sensibilities are all wrong for a 1973 world.

But Sam's 2008 police techniques do give some inside help to his fellow detectives, something that is central to his relationship with Gene. Sam is disgusted by Gene's baseness, and Gene doesn't understand -- or want to understand -- Sam's sensitive side. But Gene sees that Sam's ability to break cases can help him get bad guys, and Sam knows he has to co-exist with Gene, so the two seem to come to an uneasy -- real uneasy -- detente. Their relationship is far more interesting than you'll find in the average cop show.

Since the team from "October Road" is in charge of "Life on Mars," it is not surprising that the program goes deeper into the relationships of its characters than most modern police procedurals tend to do. The writing and performances are top-notch, more what you would expect to see in an HBO drama than in a network cop show.

The strength of "Life on Mars" is visible in the climactic scene of the debut, in which Sam talks to an eight-year-old that he knows grows up to be a serial killer that may have harmed his girlfriend. The situation is rich and complicated. On the one hand, cradling a gun in his hand, he knows he can end the time line with one shot. But at the same time, he also learns exactly how and why the guy became the monster he turned out to be, and how the kid, at this point, is far more scared and hurt than evil. The real conflict Sam is experiencing is apparent. It's the kind of scene you would see in a quality feature film: tense, heartfelt and smart, all at once.

Forget how "Life on Mars" ranks among new shows; it is quite simply one of the best programs on television today. It features the intrigue of a cop show, the character arcs of a drama, and flashes of cutting humor, all with the attention to detail of the best period pieces, top-notch acting and smart, inventive writing.

While "Mad Men" and "Swingtown" garnered critical acclaim, they also failed to attract large audiences. At least in this one way, I hope that "Life on Mars" doesn't follow in their footsteps.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"The Ex-List" and "Privileged": Girls Just Want to Have (More Than Just) Fun

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

There is an old adage that you are more apt to find love when you're not looking for it. Two new series, "The Ex-List" (CBS, Fridays at 9 p.m. Eastern) and "Privileged" (CW, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern), follow women confronted with this situation, only from opposite sides.

In "The Ex-List," Bella (Elizabeth Reaser, the amnesiac-turned-nut-job Ava/Rebecca on "Grey's Anatomy"), wants to get married, but in the opening moments, she says that she's not one of those women who wants to get married at all costs. She wants to find the right person. But she makes her declaration seconds before her whole life is about to change. Leading a bachelorette party for her sister Daphne (Rachel Boston), Bella takes the gang to a psychic, who tells Bella that if she is to marry, it will be in the next year, and it will be to someone she's already met. If she doesn't find him, she's screwed and will spend the rest of her life alone. When one of the psychic's other predictions comes true (it involves vomit on her dog ... yes, you read that correctly), Bella becomes convinced that she has to re-visit her past men to find her soulmate.

It's a cutesy premise, but it has its advantages. Much in the way each episode of "My Name Is Earl" is built around scratching an item off of Earl's list, thus opening up the show to guest stars and new and recurring characters, "The Ex-List" appears to be destined for an ex-boyfriend of the week format, with the same advantages. Up first in the pilot is the terminally creepy Eric Balfour (who played one of Claire's nutso boyfriends on "Six Feet Under") as a sappy folk singer (as we see in a flashback) turned goth-rocker who Bella dumped (on his birthday, also seen in the flashback) for being too clingy. Balfour's final revenge break-up by rock song was entertaining. You didn't want to see him win, but you wanted to see Bella with him even less, so it worked out. Plus, the song was lousy, fitting the loser character. The opportunity is definitely there for some interesting exes in future episodes.

Bella's crew is entertaining enough. When she's not in her flower shop, she lives with her two guy friends, Augie (Adam Rothenberg) and Cyrus (Amir Talai of "Harold and Kumar Go to Guantanamo Bay"), in a small beach cottage in what appears to be Venice Beach or Santa Monica in California. Along with Augie's girlfriend, Vivian (Alexandra Breckenridge), they do a lot of hanging out (including taking turns in a little kiddie pool) wearing not much of anything (75 percent of the wardrobe expenditures must go to bathing suits, tank tops and shorts). They make for a fun group. I rather enjoyed a subplot having to do with Vivian getting a Brazilian wax as a surprise for Augie, but he is repulsed rather than turned on, leading to Vivian buying a merkin (if you don't know what that is, Google it) that gets stuck, requiring Bella to get rather intimate with Vivian to remove it. It was fun, but I couldn't help feeling that Augie's reaction was more of a female fantasy of what a guy would say rather than what a guy would actually say.

The only member of the gang I was not excited about was Bella's most recent ex, the bland commitment-phobe veterinarian Elliott (Mark Deklin), with whom shares joint custody of a dog. Elliott wants to be a part of Bella's life, but is too earthy, go-with-the-flow California dude to commit. Elliott doesn't look like a plausible vet (he looks more like a Calvin Klein model who's dabbled in a few too many designer steroids), and he just isn't interesting enough to make for a compelling foil for Bella. Let's hope it's established early on that he's not the guy Bella is looking for.

But, ultimately, "The Ex-List" will only rise as high as Reaser can take it. Based on the pilot, she makes for an engaging lead. Smart, funny and flawed enough to be interesting, and attractive (the producers have my official permission to continue to dress her in bikinis), but not so out-there gorgeous that her search for love seems unsympathetic. You wouldn't necessarily be able to tell from her turn on "Grey's," but Reaser is more than capable of carrying her own light-hearted show.

I liked the "Ex-List." It made me proud that I included it on my top-five-most-anticipated-show list from August. But there is one off-show element of the program that threatens its continued success. "The Ex-List" was adapted from an Israeli show by Diane Ruggiero, best known as a writer and producer of the critical and cult favorite "Veronica Mars." Ruggiero's wit and quirky storytelling technique is all over the "The Ex-List," and it is one of the things that makes it such a promising program. But news came in mid-September that Ruggiero had left the show, unable to work with CBS's efforts to more closely follow the lead of the Israeli original (which only ran for 11 30-minute installments). Based on some of Ruggiero's statements (you can read a good article about her exit here), I am concerned that the new direction of the show will focus too much on Bella's weekly quests, at the expense of developing her character. Only time will tell, but for now, "The Ex-List" is off to a great start.

Meanwhile, over at the CW, on "Privileged," Megan (Joanna Garcia of "Reba" and the short-lived "Welcome to the Captain") is experiencing the flipside of Bella's quest. Laser-focused on her work, the Yale graduate is toiling for a New York City tabloid when her boss (Debi Mazar in a pitch-perfect guest turn), realizing Megan is in the wrong place, fires her, but recommends her for a job in Palm Beach, Florida. Megan heads south and finds out that the position is to tutor the 15-year-old fraternal twin granddaughters of a makeup magnate, Laurel (Anne Archer, looking exceptionally nipped and tucked). The money and the potential connections that could help make her writing career lead Megan to take the job.

What we soon find out is that Megan is no stranger to Florida. She grew up in Fort Lauderdale, so her estranged father (who we haven't seen yet) and sister Lily (Kristina Apgar) are close by. In Lily's case, this means she is around to disrupt the new, high-society-infused life Megan is trying to build.

Since Megan is not looking for love (and admits she has not had sex in some time), of course, love comes looking for her in a flood. First we meet her best friend, Charlie (Michael Cassidy), who obviously is in love with her, something he admits to several episodes into the run. ("Privileged" premiered in early September, and as of last night, five installments have aired.) Next we meet Laurel's next-door neighbor, Will (Brian Hallisay), the good-looking, model-dating trust-fund playboy who sets his sights on Megan. The two have a flare for witty banter. And finally, Megan falls for the twins' youthful substitute school headmaster, Jacob (David Giuntoli), who she likens to the kind of guys that she thought she'd date at Yale but never did.

So Megan, who had professed to swearing off dating (and to not having done much of it in her life), is overrun with three suitors, all of whom are attractive enough to have Megan's new gay best friend/confidant, the talented house chef Marco (Allan Louis), urge her to pursue each of them. In a funny moment, while Will and Megan are getting acquainted, Marco stands behind Will and mouths to Megan, "Have babies with him," while running his hand over his belly as if he was expecting.

Despite Megan's ambition to write, and as she tries to figure out her love life, she can't help but dive headfirst into trying to help the twins she's been hired to tutor. Left with Laurel when their parents died in an accident, the seemingly naive and sweet Rose (Lucy Hale, who I remember as Robin's bent-on-having-sex sister in a funny episode of "How I Met Your Mother") and the domineering and manipulative Sage (Ashley Newbrough) pose different but difficult challenges for Megan. Sage resents Megan's attempts to guide Rose, unhappy that she is, in Sage's mind, trying to take her place as the nurturing sister. And while Rose is interested in Megan's help, she is torn by the demands of the socialite life and fearful of upsetting Sage. While Sage effortlessly gets good grades, Rose has a lot of work to do to achieve academically.

Like "The Ex-List," ultimately, "Privileged" will rise or fall based on its lead actress. And Garcia has the makings to be a film star, specifically as a romantic comedy lead. On "Privileged," she's funny, displaying the comic timing of an old pro. She has a self-effacing way about herself and an ease in her skin that allows her to be relatable despite being beautiful. And there is something innately likable about her, which helps you to care about her character's dilemmas.

"Privileged," while not exactly soapy, has a tendency to get caught up in the plots of who is doing what with whom, whether it is Lily on a date with Will or Sage concocting one of her many schemes to mess with Megan. I generally prefer more character-driven dramedies, but "Privileged" works. Executive producer Rina Mimoun, who has written for the interesting "Pushing Daisies" and the last season of "Gilmore Girls," has constructed a group of engaging characters, enough so that the show keeps my interest.

Full credit to Mimoun for the quick and entertaining way she sets up the show's circumstances in the pilot. It can often be hard to construct a new world in one episode and still manage to make it entertaining, but Mimoun manages to get Megan to Palm Beach in two funny scenes (a post-shower video chat with Charlie from her New York apartment, followed by her meeting with Mazar's editor at the tabloid office). A lot of programs could learn from Mimoun's example.

While Bella in "The Ex-List" is running towards the men in her life, and Megan of "Privileged" is running in the other direction, both of their quests are entertaining and worth a look. For me, I prefer the tone of "The Ex-List," but I find Garcia to be the more interesting actress. But both shows will happily stay on my TiVo Season Pass.

The Second Debate Revealed a Fatal Flaw in McCain's Candidacy

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

If an extraterrestrial beamed down to Earth at 8:59 p.m. Eastern time last night and watched the second presidential debate, I'm sure he would have thought John McCain had some good ideas. Sure, he would have thought that McCain was cranky. Definitely condescending (referring to Barack Obama as "that one" and assuming a questioner had never heard of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). And I'm sure he would have wondered why the organizers filled the audience with McCain associates, since he kept referring to everyone in the crowd as "my friends." But even the most ardent Obama supporter would have to admit that our ET acquaintance would think McCain had some good ideas to addresses the problems the country is now fighting, such as the need for energy independence, global warming, and reforming government and Wall Street. And our visitor from another solar system would have to be impressed with McCain's adamant assertions of the great judgement he has shown on foreign policy issues and his ability to work with Democrats.

But without the benefit of knowing the records of the two candidates, the ET wouldn't know that the John McCain he saw at the debate bore no resemblance to how John McCain, the senator from Arizona, has behaved. And based on the polls over the last two-plus weeks, it seems like the American people know the difference, at least enough of them to put McCain's hopes for the presidency in real trouble.

McCain said repeatedly during the debate that voters should check his record. One can only believe that he made that challenge hoping that nobody would actually do it.

McCain talked over and over again last night about how he had regularly opposed his party, but as Joe Biden pointed out in the vice presidential debate, McCain rarely went against George W. Bush on any issue of importance to Americans. In fact, McCain 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 for making his fellow Republicans mad, McCain's words were pure fiction. He voted 98 percent of the time with his fellow Republicans (43 of 44) in 2007.

McCain's claims of working for energy independence were especially silly in light of his record. McCain took millions of dollars from oil companies, all while advocating for massive tax breaks for them and offshore drilling, their two pet issues. McCain also supported the actions of his key economic advisor, former senator Phil Gramm, when he forced through language in the Commodity Futures Modernization Act that allowed for the deregulation of oil speculating, which was directly responsible for much of the recent rise in gas prices. And, as Obama has pointed out throughout the campaign, as a senator, McCain voted against bills supporting renewable energy sources multiple times. McCain has been a senator and a candidate in the hip pocket of the oil companies. How would he ever go against them to advocate for green energies that would de-emphasize the oil companies' central product?

McCain's obsession with offshore drilling also demonstrates that he has no real interest in supporting alternative energy policies. There simply isn't enough oil in the U.S. to feed our oil addiction. Even if we did drill offshore, the Bush administration's Energy Information Administration has found that it would have little effect on the price of oil and would at best result in production in 2017. Offshore drilling is a boondoggle meant to divert people's attention from the larger energy issue that has to be addressed, all while giving oil companies what they want.

In light of McCain's love affair with big oil, it should come as no surprise that his claims of being a champion of global warming measures don't match up with his history in the senate. The League of Conservation Voters gave McCain a score of zero for 2007, and in his senate career, he voted against environmental measures three-quarters of the time. McCain cited his support of a global warming bill with Joe Lieberman, but that legislation lacked the teeth to really address the problem. When Lieberman and other Democrats proposed a tougher bill earlier this year, McCain opposed it. Yet again, McCain's debate rhetoric was not supported by his record.

What about McCain's strong claims that he was a reformer who would clean up the excesses on Wall Street? McCain condemned Obama for taking money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but McCain's hands are hardly clean. Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, accepted $2 million in fees from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, with payments reportedly made to his company as recently as August. As Obama said in the debate, he never lobbied for the lenders, but Davis did. McCain talks about adding oversight to the financial industry, but he has a long record supporting the very deregulation that allowed the current subprime mortgage debacle to occur in the first place. Even as the crisis was in full swing, McCain professed recently, "I'm always for less regulation ... I'm fundamentally a deregulator." Aside from the one bill McCain talked about in the debate, he has no record as a senator of trying to clean up the financial industry. Quite the opposite.

As for foreign policy, McCain accused Obama of being wrong on key decisions, but a check of the record shows that it was McCain who has gotten every important judgment of the last decade wrong. McCain, in supporting the war in Iraq, told us that victory would be easy and we would be greeted as liberators. (You can watch him say it here and here.) He also claimed that money from Iraqi oil would pay for the war. Well, five-and-a-half years, more than 4,000 lives, $700 billion, and a broken military later, we know how fatally wrong McCain was. Once the quagmire in Iraq had set in, McCain accused Obama of trying to "legislate" defeat by advocating that funding for the war in Iraq had to come with timetables for American troop withdrawals. Again, Obama turned out to be right, and McCain turned out to be wrong. Everyone seems to have come around to Obama's position, except McCain. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said that timetables are necessary, and even the Bush administration has agreed to make them part of a security agreement with Iraq.

Even on McCain's pet issue, the surge, McCain got it wrong and continues to get it wrong. He can't go 30 seconds in a debate on foreign policy without insisting that the surge has worked and Obama was wrong to oppose it. But if the surge was successful, why are we still there? In Bush's January 10, 2007 address to the American people announcing the surge, he made it clear that the purpose of the increase in troops was not to provide a long-term force to suppress violence, but to temporarily quiet things down so the Iraqis could come together to solve their problems. Our military did its job (along with other unrelated factors cited for the improvement of the security situation), but coming up on two years later, most of the important benchmarks of success set out by Bush have not been met by the Iraqis. This point was noted in a report released by the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), which I examined in a June 24 article.

McCain talks as if the drop in violence was the end goal of the surge, not a means to the end of political reconciliation and Iraqi independence. By the terms of Bush's original announcement, the surge has certainly not been a success.

And McCain's bad judgment has not been limited to Iraq. McCain called Obama naive and premature in July in response to Obama's point that the real war on terror is based in Afghanistan, and that more troops were needed there to secure the country. McCain also said that the war in Iraq was not affecting the ability of the U.S. to send a sufficient amount of troops to Afghanistan. But in early July, shortly after McCain mocked Obama, Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, directly contradicted McCain, saying: "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." Once again, McCain was wrong, and Obama was right.

McCain said that in these difficult times, America needs "a steady hand at the tiller." But "steady" is the one word that you cannot apply to John McCain. His campaign has careened from strategy to strategy, first touting experience, then going after Obama's celebrity, and then just outright lying about Obama's record. McCain was widely noted for not handling the financial crisis well, changing his assessments, sometimes within a single day (like when did performed a 180-degree turn on the bailout of AIG). He dubiously "suspended his campaign" (without actually changing any of his conduct), went to Washington (where he might have scuttled a deal that was in place), claimed he wasn't going to the first debate if the bailout wasn't passed, but then did so anyway. He has also flip-flopped on virtually every major issue (I collected some of the biggest ones here). McCain may be a lot of things, but if the last few months is any indication, "steady" certainly isn't one of them.

So if we take on McCain's challenge from the debate and check his record against his policy statements, we find that his positions on reform, regulation, energy, foreign policy, and a number of other key issues are at odds with what he has actually done while in the senate. It would seem that his newfound positions on these issues have come about only now that he wants to be president, with some of his proposals coming in the last week or two, as he has watched his prospects for election dim.

It's easy to take a position in a campaign. But the promises are empty if the candidate has a record opposing those very positions. As I've said before, McCain now claiming that he is the man to lead us through a period of reform and energy independence is like Wile E. Coyote asking to become the legal guardian of the Roadrunner while feathers spill from his mouth.

Our extraterrestrial debate visitor might think that McCain made sense, but it looks like the American people, who have watched McCain in action for the last 26 years, are starting to understand that McCain's history renders his current plans and promises empty. McCain might get the intergalactic vote, but he will need more than that to win the White House.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

McCain's Desperate Smears Signal His Failure as a Leader Under Pressure

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

John McCain has failed yet another leadership test. This time, it was on how he responds under the pressure of a crisis.

A little more than two weeks ago, Barack Obama took a commanding lead in the Rasmussen daily tracking poll, an advantage he has steadily built on ever since. (Obama's 52 percent to 44 percent lead as of today is larger than any advantage held by George W. Bush or John Kerry at any point in the 2004 general election campaign.) This turn of events came after months of the race being steadily tight, with neither candidate taking a lead of more than a handful of percentage points. McCain's campaign was staggered by a two-punch combination of the candidate's unsteady handling of the financial crisis (There is no problem! There is a problem! I'm suspending my campaign! I'm going to Washington! I scuttled the deal! I'm not debating! Okay, I'll debate!) and the public perception of his ticket's defeat in both the first presidential debate (in which McCain looked angrier than Lou Piniella after the Dodgers sweep) and the vice presidential debate (in which Sarah Palin did a pitch-perfect impression of a female version of Ron Burgundy).

So with McCain's campaign in a freefall, with polls in swing states moving in Obama's direction, and with the electoral college map steadily collapsing in on McCain, and with the election less than a month away, McCain had time for one last major move, one last gesture to stop the bleeding and try and turn around the runaway train leading his campaign off of a cliff. This was a time for McCain to show his mettle, to demonstrate how he reacts in a time of crisis. And what did McCain choose to do? He opted to viciously attack Obama's character with recycled lies and distortions, all in an effort to get Obama and the media to stop talking about important issues like the economic crisis.

In other words, McCain failed the grace-under-pressure test.

In fact, he failed it in two regards. Obviously, on the surface, it is disgraceful that someone who was viciously and disgustingly smeared in 2000 by Bush, and who obviously was deeply wounded by the attacks, would then turn around eight short years later and do the exact same thing to another candidate. Aside from the hypocrisy of the whole thing, the electorate should reject the attempt of a candidate to engage in personal and false attacks on the character of his opponent, all while important issues, including an economic crisis and two wars, demand attention. This tactic, in and of itself, should provoke a negative reaction from voters.

But there is really an even bigger tactical blunder in McCain's latest desperation heave (the third or fourth since 2007, depending on what you include on the list). The effort is, in a word, lame. Bush proved in 2000 and again in 2004 that lies and smears can be effective. But the caveat to that rule is that the smut-tossing has to be done in a smart, calculated manner. McCain's attacks this week have been awkward, clumsy and ill-conceived, more likely to blow up in his campaign's face rather than in his opponent's camp.

McCain and his talking-points-reading running mate have decided to smear Obama with false charges that he was friends with Bill Ayers, who, when Obama was eight years old, was a member of the Weather Underground. They are also once again bringing up the incendiary remarks of the retired pastor of Obama's former church, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

These attacks are recycled, having played out at length during the Democratic primary. So Obama not only successfully came up with solutions back then, explaining that he condemned Ayers's actions and never had any relationship with him, and eventually leaving Wright's church and condemning Wright's words, after giving an eloquent and insightful speech on the roll of race in modern society, but he now has the benefit of time and trial-and-error to craft an equally effective response to McCain's warmed-over sleazy attacks.

But an even more dramatic tactical error by McCain was his failure to realize that he and his running mate have skeletons in their closets that are far larger than the ones trumped up against Obama. And in many cases, the charges against the Republican ticket are newer and fresher to this campaign.

For McCain himself, by dredging up these old distortions of Obama's record, he has opened the door for Obama to introduce a whole new generation to McCain's involvement in the savings and loan scandal of the late 1980s that necessitated a bailout by the government that eventually cost more than $500 billion. McCain, as a member of the so-called Keating Five, was criticized by the Senate for his role in the fall of one of the biggest thrifts, Lincoln Savings and Loan. (In fact, the Obama campaign just released a video detailing McCain's involvement in the scandal.) At a time when voters are fleeing from McCain because of his poor handling of the current financial crisis precipitated by financial industry failures, the last thing he needed was a reminder that he played a leading role in a large, similar debacle 20 years ago.

And Paul Begala revealed on Meet the Press on Sunday that in the 1980s, McCain served on the board of the ultra-conservative U.S. Council for World Freedom, which was denounced by the Anti-Defamation League for its ties to anti-Semitic and racists organizations. Certainly, McCain's actual conduct trumps the fact that Obama occasionally found himself in situations with Ayers.

The past conduct of Palin and her husband offers a treasure trove of affiliations that far exceed in actuality any of the events of Obama's life that have been distorted by the McCain campaign. On the wacky religious front, Palin has credited a pastor who protected her from witchcraft (you can see him do it here) with helping her become governor. If that was the whole tale, it would just be one of those funny, wacky items to provide some amusement. But the story is much more dangerous than that. A longer clip of the preacher's sermon shows his belief that the church's teachings should infiltrate the country's culture, economics, politics, education, media and government, accusing the "Israelites" of doing so already. And this is the same church that on August 17 of this year welcomed Jews for Jesus leader David Brickner, who blamed terrorist attacks on Israel as being punishment from God for not believing in Christianity. Brickner said: "Judgment is very real and we see it played out on the pages of the newspapers and on the television. It's very real. When [Brickner's son] was in Jerusalem he was there to witness some of that judgment, some of that conflict, when a Palestinian from East Jerusalem took a bulldozer and went plowing through a score of cars, killing numbers of people. Judgment — you can't miss it." As much as the McCain campaign thinks Ayers and Wright will scare the Jewish grandmothers and grandfathers in Florida, I'm sure the goings on at Palin's church (which she has yet to denounce) will seem even scarier.

And the membership of Palin's husband in the Alaska Independence Party, which advocates for the secession of Alaska from the union, and Palin's recording, as governor, of a welcoming address for the party's convention, in which she praises its work, is far more damning than anything Obama has done, either in actuality or according to the McCain campaign's smears. Again, Obama barely knows Ayers, but the Republican candidate for the vice presidency has expressed support for a party, one in which her husband was a member for seven years, that no longer wants to be a part of the United States, and whose leader, Joe Vogler, has espoused anti-American sentiments that are every bit as incendiary as what Rev. Wright said. (A sample Vogler quote: "The fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred for the American government.")

In the end, when McCain faced the biggest crisis of his general election campaign, he was, in effect, being given a test of how he would respond under pressure to an adverse situation. And what did he do? He chose a morally indefensible strategy based on lies and distortions, and the strategy was poorly conceived and sure to be ineffective.

In other words, McCain failed the test miserably. No voter, not Democrats, independents or Republicans, should want McCain to apply these kind of knee-jerk, dishonorable, ineffective tactics to the problems facing the country.

If Americans want any hope of changing the culture of failed leadership that the United States has endured for the last eight years, they have to reject a candidate who has allowed himself to fall into the gutter, and who has displayed an acute lack of understanding of what is needed in a challenging time. McCain's decision to personally smear Obama with lies and distortions should go down in history as the final nail in his political coffin. Let's hope it does.

Friday, October 3, 2008

VP Debate: Apparently, Not Imploding Is Enough If You're "Just Like Us"

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

Sarah Palin didn't trip and fall on her way to or from the podium. She didn't go on a nonsensical, grammar-defying journey through the English language while talking about her state's proximity to Russia or the Wall Street bailout. And she didn't demonstrate a moment of shocking ignorance, like failing to know what the Bush Doctrine was or being unable to name a single Supreme Court decision.

And because Sarah Palin didn't implode on the stage last night in St. Louis, her performance was hailed as a success. The New York Daily News trumpeted, "Sarah Holds Her Own," and the New York Post announced, "Sarah Show: Pit Bull Hangs Tough in Clash With Biden," and even the New York Times and Washington Post portrayed her performance as generally positive.

Really? Because she didn't self-destruct on stage, she is a success?

If that was all there was to the reaction to Palin's performance, if it was only that the bar was set so low that she is being lauded simply for not majorly screwing up onstage, that would speak volumes about how we, as a country, have fallen so far in our expectations of who our leaders should be. But the reality of the reaction was far worse.

In fact, Palin's folksy, "gee whiz, I'm just a small town hockey mom and all of you Washington folk sure are full of it" approach reflected a clear strategy, the idea that people would be drawn to support her because she's "just like us."

Let me go on the record with something: I went to a pretty good undergraduate university, graduated in the top ten percent of my law school class (and was the editor of the school's entertainment and sports law review), and am a decent enough writer that the good folks at allow me to blog, and yet I don't want someone "just like me" to be president. I want someone better than me. And 99.9999 percent of us should, too.

Palin is not running to be the vice president of the PTA or the local country club (or even to be the governor of the 47th biggest state with a population roughly equal to that of Columbus, Ohio). She is running to be the vice president of the United States, and if statistics hold, that would mean that there is a decent chance she would one day be the president. That means she would, among many other things, hold in her hand the power to launch nuclear attacks, send our troops into combat, meet and negotiate with world leaders, set the strategy for fighting terrorism, direct the government's participation in the economy (and how to handle the current credit market shutdown that is threatening to send the country into a tailspin), determine how we will address the crises we are experiencing with energy and global warming, and provide leadership during good times and bad.

The power and responsibility of the president of the United States is awesome. It requires a leader with intelligence, knowledge, and the ability to process huge amounts of data in a variety of areas and then make sophisticated and complicated determinations, as well as a need to see things with a depth and clarity that most average people lack. We've seen over the last eight years what happens when someone obviously out of his depth was thrown into the position. Virtually every aspect of American life -- the economy, our foreign policy, our military, our energy policy, etc. -- is in crisis, in no small part due to the ineptitude of George W. Bush.

It is ludicrous to believe that Sarah Palin has anything even approaching the intelligence and knowledge necessary to do the job. And that was demonstrated in St. Louis last night.

At the debate, people were apparently charmed by her folksiness. They loved how she told moderator Gwen Ifill and her opponent Joe Biden that she wasn't going to answer their questions. But what she was really saying was that if she didn't know the answer to a question, rather than make a fool of herself like she did with Charles Gibson or Katie Couric, she would instead say something about which she could provide an answer. Shouldn't we be worried that a candidate for vice president is so limited in knowledge and expertise that there are whole areas she can't properly talk about? That she would, as Tina Fey so brilliantly said it on Saturday Night Live, need a lifeline?

Palin spent the debate spewing talking points. She sounded like a newscaster, reading copy provided by someone else. She didn't demonstrate any depth of insight, knowledge or understanding about the problems the U.S. faces. When confronted with arguments, she couldn't do any thinking on her own. She simply reverted back to a talking point, and sometimes not even the right one. Often, it seemed not like she was choosing to answer a different question, but as if she didn't understand the question she was supposed to answer. She hammered home outright lies and distortions, as if saying them again and again with conviction would make them true. I started to wonder if she even really knew that what she was saying wasn't true. I started to feel like she was Ron Burgundy in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, signing off with "Go f--- yourself, San Diego," just because it was on the teleprompter.

But really, in the end, all this isn't even about Palin. It's about us, as a country. Any society with its priorities straight would have watched Palin last night and, regardless of ideological beliefs, ruled her out as a candidate for the vice presidency. It's not about her lack of experience (although you could certainly make that argument), nor is it about her extreme right wing beliefs (which were nicely hidden last night), but it is all about her lack of ability. The fact that she is ordinary when the job calls for extraordinary.

The fact that the lead story this morning is that Palin "held her own" with Biden rather than that she was obviously completely out of her depth says a lot more about us than it does about her. It says that we haven't learned our lesson after choosing an intellectually inferior president for the last eight years, after rejecting Al Gore in 2000 for being "wooden" or a "policy wonk." I'm sorry, but when did being president require the office holder to be the life of the party? Shouldn't we want a smart person in the job? Wouldn't that be a good thing?

It should be, but what the response to last night's debate tells us is that it's not. At least not in the minds of too many Americans. Rather than reward knowledge and intellect in this country, we reject it, saying that it makes the candidate "arrogant" or "boring" or "elitist" (or, as two Southern Republicans referred to Barack Obama, "uppity," but that is a whole other discussion). No, the U.S. has become an anti-intellectual society that scorns intelligence and ability and wants leaders that are "just like them."

Well, as I often say, democracy works, just not always how you want it to. If you want someone "like us," you'll get someone "like us." And most of "us" would be way out of our depth if thrown into the White House. Again, we had someone "like us" the last eight years. How did that work out?

I thought that maybe, just maybe, the cavalcade of severe problems facing this country would refocus voters a bit and make them realize that we need someone better than us to find solutions. But the reaction to last night's debate shows that we really haven't changed at all.

The fact that Palin's performance last night was not roundly dismissed as that of an unexceptional, unqualified, unknowledgable, unintelligent joke is an embarrassment for this country. Now, apparently, not being a total train wreck is enough to garner accolades for a debate performance. Knowledge, insight and the ability to reason are, apparently, irrelevant. The key is just spitting out prewritten talking points and showing that, aw shucks, you're just another hockey mom from the heartland of America who is "just like us." I think that's great the next time we're looking for someone to lead the local hockey team supporter's club. But to be vice president and confront the crises facing the United States, I'd prefer someone not like me at all, but, rather, a lot better than me. And certainly a lot better than Sarah Palin.