Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I'm Fine With Santana Signing With the Mets, But the Twins Got Fleeced

Everyone who knows I'm a lifelong, die-hard Yankee fan has checked in with me to make sure I'm not suicidal. After all, the dreaded New York Mets, one of my two most-hated sports franchises (the New York Rangers is the other), landed Johan Santana, the best starter in baseball. But the widespread outpouring of compassion is unnecessary. I'm fine. Shouldn't I be angry? Well, sure, but not why you think. I'm fine with the Mets landing Santana.

By the end of the winter meetings, it was pretty clear that only three teams had an interest in swapping top prospects for the right to give Santana a contract roughly equal in value to the gross national product of several third-world countries: The Yankees, Mets and Boston Red Sox. I realized at that point that of the three options, the Mets landing Santana was the best scenario for the Yankees. After all, I didn't want the Red Sox adding the powerful lefty to a stellar rotation that already includes Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling and Disuke Matsuzaka. And I certainly did not want the Yankees to give up Phil Hughes, who showed in the cauldron of a New York post-season against the Indians in the playoffs last year that he had the makings to be a star who can perform in the clutch (unlike, say, the league's most valuable player, who happens to play third base for the Bombers), along with the starting center fielder (Melky Cabrera), a top prospect (Jeff Marquez) and another mid-level prospect to be named. While I wasn't excited about Santana dominating overmatched batters in Queens, I liked the idea of the lefty plying his trade in the other league. The Mets were the least odious option of the three.

But, truth be told, I am pissed about the deal, but not because of where Santana wound up. What kills me is that the Mets got Santana for next to nothing. Where the Yanks were offering a potential number one starter with major league experience, a major league center fielder, a solid prospect, and a mid-level prospect, and the Red Sox had made available either a budding superstar pitcher (Jon Lester) or a budding superstar center fielder (Jacoby Ellsbury), both of whom performed well in the post-season last year, along with another top pitching prospect and a minor league shortstop who was Major League ready, the Mets offered two mid-level pitching prospects, an 18-year-old pitcher with a high ceiling and no guarantees, and a center fielder that, at best, will be an above average starter. At best. We're not talking four potential All-Stars here. The Twins' haul consisted of three possibly functional Major Leaguers and one young kid who could be great, or who could never make it past AA.

I don't care so much that the Mets got Santana, it's that they landed him without it hurting. The Mets held on to their best minor league prospect, outfielder Fernando Martinez, as well as their only young starting pitcher with some major league games under his belt, Mike Pelfrey (even if he was less than successful with the big club last season). Word is that the Red Sox didn't really want Santana, they only wanted to make sure the Yankees paid as much as possible for him if they landed him. Too bad there wasn't a fourth team involved to run up the price for the Mets.

Another thing that bugs me about the trade is the media's reaction to it (or lack thereof). The Twins have a rookie general manager, Bill Smith, and he was clearly fleeced, like a rookie base runner being picked off by a wily starting pitcher. At the time of the winter meetings in December, Smith had on the table the Yankee package centered around Hughes and Cabrera and the Red Sox packages revolving around Lester or Ellsbury. In those heady days for the Twins, word was that they didn't think much of the Mets' prospects, a thought echoed by baseball officials around the league. But Smith decided to wait, gambling that the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, and the unpredictable nature of the Steinbrenners, would ignite a bidding war that would land him either Ellsbury and Lester, or Ian Kennedy along with Hughes and Cabrera.

It was a colossal error in judgment. Sure, in 2002, 2003 or 2004, you could see George Steinbrenner going mental and offering half the farm system for Santana. Or, you could see the Sox panicking and giving away the store to get the two-time Cy Young Award winner. Unfortunately for Smith, there doesn't appear to be a calendar in the Twins' executive offices. You see, in 2004, and again in 2007, the Red Sox won the World Series. As you might imagine, this kind of takes the edge off of making rash moves when you've proven you can win it all, especially as you glance over at your depth chart and see Beckett, Schilling, Matsuzaka and Lester penciled in. Meanwhile, over in the Bronx, after the 2005 and 2006 off-seasons, general manager Brian Cashman flexed the authority he contractually wrangled from George Steinbrenner and put an end to the rash moves of the earlier part of the decade. Cashman concentrated on building up the farm system and avoided overpaying free agents, limiting his acquisitions to the low risk in years and dollars for Johnny Damon before the 2006 season and bringing back former Yankee Andy Pettitte for two years before the 2007 season. (Of course, the Yankees brought in Clemens in 2007 for a ton of money, but it was only for one year and only after a string of injuries to the pitching staff.)

Even with Hank Steinbrenner taking over after the 2007 season and showing a love of shooting off his mouth, the Yankees did not deviate from their new philosophy. The team splashed out big money contracts, but only for their own players (Abreu, Posada and Rivera, and after a soap opera, Alex Rodriguez). I don't think any serious baseball man thought the Yankees would give up Kennedy, Hughes and Cabrera for Santana.

But Bill Smith did. And what happened? The Yanks pulled Hughes off the table, the Red Sox pulled back, as well, and Smith was left with one crappy suitor for his all-world lefthander, who everyone in North and South America knew he had to move. Pick your analogy. If Smith was a poker player, he folded with a pair of aces and went all-in on an off-suit six-seven. If he was a stock trader, he let the market run to 150 before selling at 25. However you want to look at it, Smith botched the most important decision the Twins had for this year, and maybe for their foreseeable future. Instead of having Phil Hughes or Jon Lester at the front of their rotation, or Jacoby Elllsbury or Melky Cabrera patrolling center field, they'll have a lot of hopes and prayers that a bunch of mediocre prospects surprise some people and have decent Major League careers. Smith was as bad for the Twins as George W. Bush has been for the United States.

But the Twins are beloved by the media, the small-market, low-revenue, low-budget team that has been able to make consistent trips to the post-season despite their financial limitations. It would be blasphemy to say something bad about these lovable overachievers, right? But the Twins' success was built on the smart talent evaluations and market savvy of longtime general manager Terry Ryan. Ryan retired to a life as a super scout towards the end of last season, leaving Smith in the big chair to make the big decisions. Why couldn't the media just say, "The kid blew it." Instead there was a lot of silence, and a lot of excuses.

As a lowly blogger, I'll say what the sports writers for the newspapers and major websites apparently don't have the guts to say: Smith made a colossal miscalculation that, if not worthy of his immediate dismissal, at least should have him lose his authority in the front office until he better learns his craft. If I owned the club, Smith's possessions would be in a box by the curb right now. This was nothing short of a debacle for the Twins, and nobody is talking about it.

So I'm fine with the Mets getting Santana. I just wish it hurt more, and I wish sportswriters took Smith to task for blowing the deal. After all, if the Twins fans can't see Santana pitch anymore, at least they should have the catharsis of joining in a national recognition of how badly the club got screwed. I'm here for you Twins fans. I'll be the first to say it. Smith should be fired! If he does get canned (never happen, but go with me), I hope for his sake, he finds someone else to negotiate his exit package. If he does it himself, he'll probably end up owing the Twins money.

CNN: The Beauty Network?

This morning, my first day back in the U.S. after spending five nights in Mexico, I turned on CNN's "American Morning" and saw a disturbing image. Violence in Kenya? John McCain winning in Florida? Nope. It was anchor John Roberts's hair.

It seems that between the time I left for my vacation and the time I got back, Roberts decided to dye his steel grey hair. Either that, or he was attacked by an angry shoemaker armed with a bottle of low-grade shoe polish. I'm betting on a trip to a trendy salon. If you want to see a before and after for yourself, here is a photo of Roberts pre-beauty binge (and here is another), and here is a video of him interviewing Mitt Romney this morning. Did Roberts think we wouldn't notice?

Now, right about now you may be saying, "Who cares what a CNN morning anchor does with his hair?" And, normally, you would be right. But Roberts is a blowhard, empty-shirted, looks-over-substance, brainless television personality, and his not-so-extreme makeover is symbolic of everything that's wrong with television news nowadays, especially at CNN. Sure, I know anchors from Murrow to Jennings probably used performance-enhancing hair products, whether it was dye or a toupee (I think the Hair Club for Men preceded Murrow's generation, but maybe not the Jennings-Brokaw-Rather era), but with on-air personalities like Roberts, his appearance is all he has. There is no substance below the perfectly-coiffed veneer.

And, as I've said often, CNN is supposed to be the premier, 24-hour news network. With the station's "American Morning" show finally addressing an actual news issue (the presidential election) instead of concentrating on the latest abducted attractive white woman or celebrity scandal, Roberts is playing the role of an actual newsman, interviewing presidential candidates and pundits on a regular basis. And to prepare for this meaty role, instead of hitting a library or the Internet, he went to a beauty salon.

CNN no longer believes that Americans are up for serious reporting, and, believe it or not, the network agrees with me. How do I know? Because while in Mexico, my English-language television choices were quite limited, so I found myself watching a lot of CNN International, which, not coincidentally, takes very little of its content from the American CNN. We got Wolf Blitzer and his election coverage, but Roberts and his "American Morning" sidekick, the beautiful-but-slight Kiran Chetry, were nowhere to be found. Instead, the CNN International morning featured a straight-up, old-fashioned, content-driven news presentation, anchored by a woman who looked like a drag queen. I'm serious. My wife, who always thinks I'm too harsh, looked at her and said, "Oh, she does look like a drag queen." In fact, she looked remarkably like Carmelita on "Dirty Sexy Money."

Okay, I know I've veered a bit off course, but my point is that when broadcasting to the world, CNN offers a content-heavy news show featuring anchors chosen for their intellect. But for American audiences, the network opts for a beauty queen and Ted Baxter.

With so much riding on the 2008 presidential election after two damaging terms of George W. Bush, it is maddening to me that the few Americans that actually try and inform themselves by watching CNN in the morning are given very little substance to work with.

With John Edwards dropping out of the race, and John McCain taking a frontrunner role on the GOP side, something that seemed impossible six months ago, you can be sure that if you turn on CNN tomorrow morning, you won't have to look at all that grey hair on John Roberts's head. We will be in excellent hands ... if Vidal Sassoon decides to run for president.

Friday, January 25, 2008

"Breaking Bad" May Not Be "Weeds," But It Breaks Pretty Good

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

No matter what you think about "Breaking Bad" (AMC, with new episodes airing for the first time on Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern), you have to hand it to executive producer Vince Gilligan. He really knows how to get your attention.

The show's pilot begins with Walter White (Bryan Cranston, unrecognizable from his days as the dad on "Malcolm in the Middle"), dressed only in a pair of tighty-whities and a gas mask strapped to his face, wildly driving a Winnebago filled with three lifeless bodies through a barren New Mexico desert. After crashing the vehicle, Walter hears sirens, so he puts on his shirt, points his pistol at the open road, and waits.

Is Gilligan, a former executive producer of "The X Files," who wrote and directed the pilot, trying too hard, or do the first few minutes of "Breaking Bad" suck you in? Well, a little of both. While the opening smacks of "Wouldn't it be cool if?" bravado, I dare anyone to watch Cranston's gonzo performance and not want to see what happens next.

Of course, Gilligan is no fool. You don't see what happens next, but instead are transported to three weeks earlier, where we meet a Walter that can't possibly be the same guy we've just watched. He's a meek, broke chemistry teacher, forced to work a second job at a car wash, and an easy target for his alpha male, Neanderthal brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent who seems to enjoy humiliating Walter for sport. When Hank gets Walter to hold his gun, the timidity Walter displays makes you wonder how he ever gets to be the guy nearly naked and armed in the New Mexico desert.

We soon find out that Walter and his loyal-but-put-upon wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), are parents to a smart-tongued teenage son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), who suffers from cerebral palsy, leaving him with slurred speech, a need for crutches, and daily challenges, such as an inability to dress himself in the fitting room during a family shopping trip. (Mitte actually has a mild case of the condition.)

Just when you think Walter's life can't get any worse, he passes out at the car wash and is subsequently informed that he has inoperable lung cancer. Rather than freak out, he is more concerned with the mustard stain on the doctor's lab coat. It's as if Walter is freed by his diagnosis, allowing him to assert his masculinity (he later physically confronts a tough guy who is making fun of his son's disability in the clothing store) and, ultimately, to "break bad" and enter a life of crime.

Walter, with his renewed vigor for life, goes for a ride-along on one of Hank's meth lab busts, where he witnesses Jesse (Aaron Paul), an old student of his (that he failed), escaping from a neighbor's window (he was sleeping with her). Walter decides that rather than turn the kid in, to make money for his family, he should use his expertise in chemistry to go into business with the now partnerless Jesse. Eventually, using Walter's last $7000, they buy a Winnebago and drive to the middle of nowhere to cook up their product. Walter strips to his underwear so as not to come home smelling like meth, and we start to see how he found himself in the situation that opens the episode.

While Jesse fancies himself an artist and master meth cooker (calling himself "Capt. Cook," complete with matching vanity license plates), Walter soon proves himself to be even better, developing a batch of the drug that amazes a previously skeptical Jesse.

Every plot point of "Breaking Bad" feels like it has been scripted according to the schematic of a Robert McKee-like formula, with Walter's misfortunes arriving in perfect intervals to compound the desperation of his life. Gilligan even employs the most tired of foreshadowing tactics, having Walter break into coughing spells to portend his imminent diagnosis of a fatal disease.

But the show also rings true in a way that few other television programs would have the guts to be. When Walter tells Jesse that he can't sample the meth, saying, "we sell, we don't use," Jesse is completely unaffected, telling Walter that he has watched too many drug movies. It was a point in most shows where the previously battling odd couple partners would have found "the moment" of bonding, but Gilligan never lets you (or Walter) off the hook for what Walter is doing and who he is doing it with. Jesse may see himself as an artist, but he's a meth manufacturer and user, not exactly a resume that would predict stability and reliability. The point is successfully hammered home when Jesse's miscalculation allows his former partner and the partner's cousin (a dealer with the requisite fighting pit bull) to pounce and threaten Jesse and Walter's lives, leading to Walter's near-naked drive through the desert.

Even though "Breaking Bad" is plotted to within an inch of its life, Gilligan's tough-minded approach to Walter gives the show integrity. He doesn't vilify Walter for his choices, but he doesn't absolve or glorify him, either. It is no coincidence that the pilot ends with Walter coming home from his near-miss with the two thugs, getting into his bed, and forcefully taking a shocked (but, seemingly, very aroused) Skyler from behind.

I'm not sure why so many writers have referred to "Breaking Bad" as a dark comedy. The "dark" part is dead-on. Cranston must be in heaven playing a guy like Michael Douglas's character in "Falling Down" who is busting out after years of keeping all his rage inside. Cranston, after all, has spent years playing lovable buffoons. His commitment is evident, no more so than when he parades around in his underwear, unabashedly exhibiting the flab of a 50-year-old high school teacher. There are moments here and there where you may laugh a bit, usually from shear discomfort (as in the dorkiness and lack of coordination Walter shows when he tries to trash his car wash boss's merchandise upon quitting), but anyone coming to "Breaking Bad" looking for comedy will be sorely disappointed. That's okay, though. As a dark drama about one man's descent into the drug world in a misguided (or maybe not, depending how you look at it) attempt to take care of his family, the show certainly works.

It's hard to believe I've written this much about "Breaking Bad" without addressing the 800-pound gorilla in the room: The Showtime series "Weeds" (currently between seasons). After three years of Nancy Botwin (a radiant and pitch-perfect Mary Louise Parker) dealing marijuana to keep her two kids and flaky brother-in-law living in their Southern California McMansion after the untimely death of her husband, "Breaking Bad" sounds like a knock-off of "Weeds." While, admittedly, the pitches share some basic elements, the shows feel completely different.

"Weeds" is truly a dark comedy, driven mostly by its array of interesting, quirky and original characters. From Kevin Nealon's pot-smoking, crucifix-stealing accountant (yes, he steals a giant cross off of the top of a church and stows it in a marijuana grow house), to Elizabeth Perkins's angry, maternally challenged PTA mom gone bad, to Tonye Patano's pot-growing, tough-as-nails grandmother, when you visit Agrestic and Majestic, the McCommunities featured in the show, you're never too far from a moment of comic brilliance.

And yet, "Weeds," like "Breaking Bad," is situated firmly on the dark side. Sure, Nancy is intelligent and resilient, which makes you root for, at least a little, but she has paid the price for her willingness to deal drugs to keep up her family's lifestyle. She's watched her older son enter the business, her younger son go mad, her second husband die at the hands of drug lords, and herself essentially be sold into slavery to pay off a debt to a ruthless kingpin, blackmailed by a sleazy private investigator, and close to apprehension by the law, leading up to the final moment of last season, when she ignites her McMansion as wild fires burn Agrestic and Majestic to the ground. It's an act of catharsis as much as an effort to destroy evidence.

That "Weeds" can combine first-rate comedy with gut-wrenching, consequence-laden drama, not to mention a large, multidimensional, multicultural, and well-developed ensemble of characters you want to see more of, led by the prodigious talents of Parker, who manages to keep you invested in a character that is, after all, a drug dealer neglecting her kids, is an epic television achievement that sets the bar pretty high for "Breaking Bad." While "Breaking Bad" isn't up to the level of "Weeds," it's fine, because "Breaking Bad" is pretty damn good on its own. Gilligan has said in media interviews that he was developing his show long before "Weeds" hit the air, and it shows, since it's not trying to be anything other than itself. Cranston is the real revelation here. He is a pretty compelling lead, showing a range that, frankly, I didn't think he had in him.

In fact, if you told me six months ago that I could turn on my television and see Cranston driving a meth-lab Winnebago in his underwear through the New Mexico desert, I would have figured that you were making use of Nancy Botwin's services a bit too much. But now that I've seen it, I have to admit it: I am interested in seeing where Cranston's character is going next.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

“Cashmere Mafia” and “10 Items or Less” Are Entertaining But Disposable

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

Say what you want about “Grey’s Anatomy.” It has plenty of things to criticize, but when the writers do one of their epic episodes (even if they’re coming too often, thus blunting the effect), when they’re over, you’re drained. You’ve been through the wringer, and you know that you’ve just watched an hour of television. And you will certainly remember what you’ve seen, for better or worse.

I thought of “Grey’s” when watching the much-hyped new show “Cashmere Mafia” (ABC, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern) and the second-season debut of the under-the-radar comedy “10 Items or Less” (TBS, Tuesdays at 11 p.m. Eastern). Both were so light and disposable, it was a good thing I took notes, or it would be hard to tell you too much about them.

“Cashmere Mafia” made its long awaited premiere with a special post-“Desperate Housewives” airing of its pilot earlier in the month, before moving to its regular Wednesday time slot. “Cashmere” is the first of two half-siblings from the “Sex and the City” family to make its debut this winter, with “Lipstick Jungle” hitting the airwaves on February 7 on NBC. The “Lipstick” connection to the brood is direct: like “Sex,” it is based on a book by Candace Bushnell. But “Cashmere” is just as tied to the “Sex” legacy, featuring the same executive producer, Darren Star, and a similar set up, four upscale women wearing designer clothing while haunting various New York locations.

As you sit down to watch “Cashmere,” it is virtually impossible to judge the program on its own merits. Rather, you can’t help but compare it to “Sex and the City.” For “Cashmere,” that turns out not to be a bad thing. At least for me. Although I’ve seen every episode of “Sex,” I didn’t like most of them, and I think they have not held up well over time. I fully understand that the problems and ambitions of the four lead characters captured a cultural moment and spoke loudly and clearly to women across different demographic and economic groups (for some it was a sociological look at elements of their lives, for others it was a fantasy land to dream about). But, in the end, to me, “Sex” featured four very self-involved, unlikable women who, in general, didn’t treat other people (except sometimes each other) very well. Plus, I thought the writing and acting was broad and obvious. Carrie’s columns, as presented in Sarah Jessica Parker’s voiceovers, while straining to be insightful, generally relied heavily on cliches and the obvious.

“Cashmere Mafia” also suffers from many of the same problems as “Sex and the City,” but it’s a better show. “Cashmere” follows four women in their 30s who have been friends since they were in business school together. Mia Mason (Lucy Liu) is a hard-driving magazine ad saleswoman who, in the pilot, wins a sales showdown with her fiance to secure a promotion to publisher, only to have him dump her afterwards for not wanting to be a stay-at-home housewife. Zoe Burden (Frances O'Connor) is an investment banker balancing her busy work schedule with her responsibilities to her husband and two kids. Hotel executive Juliet Draper (Miranda Otto) is also trying to balance career and family, only her husband is stepping out on her with her social rival. Caitlin Dowd (Bonnie Somerville), a marketing executive for a cosmetics company, is the self-described “old maid” of the group, who, after seeing another relationship with a man fizzle, starts a liaison with a woman (Alicia, played by Lourdes Benedicto).

Like its forerunner, virtually every man in the “Cashmere” universe is two-dimensional and seriously flawed. From Mia’s caveman fiance, to Juliet’s philandering husband, to Zoe’s boss, who promotes the twentysomething junior executive with whom he’s cheating on his wife, to the freeloading oaf who dumps Caitlin over breakfast, most of the men are portrayed as libidinous, insecure, selfish louts. Which, of course, begs the question of what these successful, beautiful women are doing with these guys. After Juliet admits she’s known for years that her husband has been cheating on her, she explains that while she hates it, she looks the other way because she doesn’t want to be a single mother, and she likes having someone to come home to at night. If Juliet was an unattractive diner waitress, her willingness to settle might have been heartbreaking. But since she is a beautiful, successful and wealthy woman with men throwing themselves at her, her monologue leaves a viewer puzzled. Why doesn’t she just dump the jerk and find a husband who is happy to be with her?

Even the “good” guys in the “Cashmere” world are two-dimensional, vacant and generally overmatched (as they were in “Sex and the City”). The guy Juliet has chosen for a revenge affair flies in from London just to be with her, but never complains even as she repeatedly breaks plans with him, then tells him nothing can happen between them, then invades his hotel room and attacks him, only to stop in the middle, say she cannot cheat on her husband, and leave with barely even an apology. Through it all, he sits there looking clueless and emasculated, as if he should be happy and grateful to be allowed into Juliet’s orbit.

Like “Sex and the City,” the way “Cashmere” stretches reality strains the viewer’s ability to stay focused. Caitlin’s brother may be the least believable Catholic priest ever portrayed on television. He looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch model, has the sunny disposition of a cruise director, and, most incredibly, says he doesn’t care about what his religion dictates and thinks that Caitlin should go for it with her girl crush. But Caitlin’s brother is a believable Bishop compared to the trumped up, ridiculous ultimatum contest set up by Mia’s boss. He explains that since Mia and her fiance are equally qualified and both top sellers, the biggest seller that week will get the promotion to publisher, while the loser will be fired. If magazines were really run this way, the shelves at newsstands would be empty.

For such broad situations and characters to work, “Cashmere” would need nuanced, smart acting. But outside of two of the four leads, everyone seems to be hamming it up, as if there was a prize for the least believable moment on screen. From Mia’s boss’s bravado to Juliet’s affair-target’s wide-eyed wonder, to Zoe’s demanding nanny and slutty assistant, everyone seems to be performing to the back row of a 1,500-seat theater. Liu and Sommerville follow this lead. When Mia leads an editorial meeting, urging the staff to be edgy, it looked as if Liu had borrowed her tone from Marcia in “The Brady Bunch.” And Sommerville rolls through the episodes like a bowling ball, emoting and gesticulating as if she was afraid of not being noticed otherwise.

On the positive side, Otto brings a kind of quiet strength to Juliet, which is saying something since the character’s treatment of her proposed conquest makes it hard to like her. O’Connor is the best thing about the show, showing real comic timing, while managing to bring energy to Zoe’s exasperation without letting it spill into slapstick. There is a great moment when she simultaneously begs, threatens and bribes her kids to behave so she can continue a teleconference, and she makes a predictable piece of farcical comedy work when she sneaks into her daughter’s dance recital through the wings of the stage. O'Connor also gets to utter the best line I’ve seen on the program yet, telling her husband that twentysomethings have gone “from Generation Y to Generation ID,” explaining to him that “ID” stands for “I deserve.”

And don’t think that the absence of Carrie’s voiceovers means you’re clear of stilted, faux-deep dialogue. When the four members of the “Cashmere Mafia” get together to eat, drink or solve problems, you can’t go too long without one of the women uttering a groaner of a line that is supposed to be insightful but, usually, isn’t. When Juliet asks why she can’t have a fling without it meaning something like her husband did, Zoe tells her, “Because you’re a woman,” as if we’re all supposed to nod our heads in recognition of a revelation that is, in fact, a well-chronicled point.

What elevates “Cashmere” above “Sex and the City” is the main characters themselves. As I said, if you go back and watch an episode of “Sex,” especially from the earlier years, you will be struck by how cruel and selfish Samantha and Miranda really were, how materialistic and petty Charlotte was, and even how distant and selfish Carrie could be. Mia, Zoe, Juliet and Caitlin are a far more likable lot. Juliet’s toying with her intended conquest aside, there is a warmth to these characters that makes the show work a little. When Caitlin tells Alicia that she needs her to stick with her as she freaks out a little, you feel for her and hope that Alicia will, too. When Zoe discovers her boss’s affair and tries to advise the young executive that she’s on a bad road (while also advising her boss as to how they can avoid a lawsuit), you can’t help but think to yourself that she’s handling things in a more mature way than you would have. And while the reactions of Mia and Juliet to their problems with men may not be ideal, you know they got a bad rap and feel for them.

“Cashmere” may be a trifle, but compared to “10 Items or Less,” it packs the impact of “24.” “10 Items” is a very, very silly comedy about the staff of a supermarket, led by dimwitted owner Leslie (John Lehr). The crew includes the dimwitted stock boy, Carl (Bob Clendenin); Carl’s sometimes girlfriend and baby momma, the dimwitted produce vixen, Yolanda (Roberta Valderrama); the dimwitted (see a trend here?) and prissy check-out guy, Richard (Christopher Liam Moore); the dimwitted and quiet customer service representative, Ingrid (Kirsten Gronfield); and the not-so-dimwitted ambitious bagger, Buck (Greg Davis Jr.). They are often visited by their arch nemesis, Amy (Jennifer Elise Cox), the out-of-control and dimwitted (you knew it was coming) former beauty queen, who runs the rival market across the street.

After a five-episode first season airing in November and December of 2006, “10 Items” returned for a second trip down the aisle (supermarket, not wedding) on Tuesday with an episode revolving around an armed robbery of the store. This is no police procedural, though. Everyone’s reaction, from Leslie explaining over and over that they will all be killed if the assailants’ stockings come off of their faces to Ingrid suffering from the fastest onset of Stockholm Syndrome in psychological history, was off the wall. The robbers turn out to be Amy’s employees and, of course, dimwitted; the media comes to cover the whole thing; and Leslie ends up getting shot in the butt by Ingrid.

Oh, and the whole thing has to do with Leslie finding $5,000 in silver dollars in the wall of the office (he inherited the store from his father), which he decides to give away as a grab-all-you-can promotional stunt. Only, it never occurs to him or Carl that the blowers in the machine are made for dollar bills, not coins. It doesn’t help matters that the door keeps getting stuck and trapping people inside (first Amy, later one of the robbers).

“10 Items or Less” tries really hard to be a smart stupid comedy (yes, I wrote that on purpose), and the writers walk a very, very tight line. There are undoubtedly funny moments (Amy freaking out in the money machine and jumping on television when it is revealed that the robbers are her employees, to name two), and some really smart, low-key lines. (Leslie explaining that two small bags do, in fact, hold $5,000 in coins because the coins pack deceptively well, for example). But there is a lot of silliness going on, and, sometimes, it’s just too silly. I guess a lot will depend on your silliness capacity. I’m pretty tolerant of silliness, and “10 Items” was a bit much for me. On the TBS scale of comedy, you can comfortably slot “10 Items or Less” above “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” and “The Bill Engvall Show” but below “My Boys.”

Like “Cashmere Mafia,” “10 Items or Less” provides a bit of scripted entertainment in a post-strike wasteland of reality shows. Just don’t expect to remember or care about what you’ve just seen once these two trifles are over.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Race Flap Demonstrates Democrats' Skill for Self-Destructing

A friend of mine frequently anguishes that the goalie of his favorite hockey team, the San Jose Sharks, has a penchant for blowing leads late in games. I can relate. No, I'm not a Sharks fan. My team, the New York Islanders, is one of the few squads left in the league with a perfect record when leading after two periods. I feel my friend's pain because I am a Democrat who wants to see a member of my party elected to the White House in November.

How are the Sharks and the Democrats linked? Easy. Like the Sharks, the Democrats went into the third period of the presidential campaign with a big lead, thanks to the incompetency of the Bush presidency. On the July 29, 2007 edition of "Meet the Press," Tim Russert showed two polls, both of which demonstrated that Americans preferred a generic Democrat to a generic Republican by overwhelming margins (51% to 27% in one, 49% to 38% in the other). And yet, much like the Sharks, the Democrats have not done what they needed to do to hold their lead.

The result of yesterday's Michigan Democratic primary was just the latest low moment for the party. Barack Obama and John Edwards were not on the ballot, having withdrawn because Michigan moved up the date of the vote in violation of the rules of the Democratic National Committee. So, Clinton ran unopposed (unless you consider Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, and the out-of-the race Chris Dodd opponents), and yet she only managed to secure 55 percent of the vote.

Yes, Clinton was barely able to get more than a simple majority in a Soviet-style contest with no opposition. If she cant' get more than 55 percent in a Democrats-only vote while running against herself, how can she be expected to win a general election that includes an actual human being as an opponent?

Rather than casting a ballot for the former first lady or staying home because their candidate was not in the race, 40 percent of Michigan Democrats voted for "uncommitted." What prompted so many of the party faithful to turn out for an election to, in effect, say "none of the above"? Well, here's a clue: According to CNN, polls showed that 70 percent of African-American voters chose to vote for nobody over Clinton.

Hillary Clinton, the wife of the man routinely called "the first black president," and a woman despised by conservatives for being the living, breathing embodiment of 1960s-era liberalism, was rejected by black voters. The reason, of course, was the recent brouhaha over her comment that Martin Luther King Jr. could not have passed the Civil Rights Act without Lyndon Johnson (apparent to anyone who took a seventh grade American government class), and Bill Clinton's characterization of Obama's portrayal of his opposition to the Iraq War as being stronger than Hillary Clinton's as a "fairy tale" in light of Obama's voting record (the quote was taken out of context and applied to Obama's whole campaign, rather than the one point). Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), a high-ranking African-American member of Congress and supporter of Clinton's campaign, had to step in and defend her.

Finally, the two candidates kissed and made up at the Democratic debate last night, pointing out the obvious that Clinton has supported civil rights her whole life, and, even more importantly, that such a stand is part of the fabric of the Democratic party. But the damage was done. Obama's decision to play the race card may be paying short-term benefits, as demonstrated by Clinton's embarrassing showing in Michigan and a Reuters/Zogby poll showing that Obama has cut Clinton's large national lead to virtually zero.

But, in the long run, who wins this battle of the Democratic titans over race? Clearly, the Republicans. I'm sure they were smiling like lottery winners watching Obama weaken Clinton, while also taking hits himself for introducing race into the debate (not exactly a move consistent with the "bringing everyone together" theme at the heart of his appeal to independents). I wouldn't be surprised if the campaign managers of the leading GOP contenders met in a secret basement location to split a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black to celebrate.

Much like the Sharks' goalie, the Democrats have turned a chance for victory into a potential disheartening defeat. How did it all happen?

I think you have to go back to the emergence of Clinton and Obama as the frontrunners. While the Democrats obviously don't do their homework, the Republicans seem to have a firmer grasp of the country's recent electoral history. As I've pointed out in several earlier articles, the American people have not sent a sitting U.S. senator or a blue state Democrat to the White House since 1960. So, it's not surprising that the party, with its self-destruction gene fully intact, elevated two blue state U.S. senators to the head of the field, while the GOP limited its choices to two governors and a mayor (of a city big enough to be a state), along with two U.S. senators (one sitting, the other out of the game for a couple of years), both of whom hail from red states and have special circumstances that allow them challenge the insider nature usually associated with their jobs by the electorate (John McCain is viewed as an independent maverick, and Fred Thompson starred in a hit television show).

You would think the Democrats would learn. After all, no southern Democrat has lost a presidential election since 1924 (John Davis of West Virginia), with the lone exception of Al Gore, who, it should be noted, came within a couple thousand hapless Palm Beach County senior citizens of winning, despite running one of the worst presidential campaigns ever. (Yes, I know, many of you will say Gore did win, in which case the point is even stronger.)

Meanwhile, since Barry Goldwater got trounced by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the GOP has not nominated a U.S. senator for the presidency, with the lone exception of Bob Dole's 1996 suicide mission against Bill Clinton, when even a reincarnated Abraham Lincoln would have had trouble unseating the popular incumbent (although it's doubtful Abe would have been able to secure the Republican nomination; after all, he was the commander in chief of Union forces during the Civil War, and the South wields a lot of power in the party). Democrats, meanwhile, think nothing of throwing out historically unelectable sitting senators (like John Kerry and George McGovern), blue staters (like Kerry, Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale), and terrible campaigners (all of the above).

Throw in Hillary Clinton's high negative ratings, and just in choosing its two frontrunners, the Democrats gave back most of the lead the party had over the GOP. That same July poll that showed voters overwhelmingly leaning towards Democrats bears that out. As I wrote in my July 31, 2007 article on Hillary Clinton's electability problems:

[A] generic Democrat defeated a generic Republican 51% to 27% and 49% to 38% in the two polls. However, when Clinton was matched up against Giuliani, he won in both polls, 49% to 46% and 49% to 44%. Obama did a bit better against Giuliani (winning in one poll 52% to 42% while losing in the other by a 49% to 45% margin), but still not well enough to make a Democratic voter confident.

While the generic Democrat buried the generic Republican, Clinton struggled in hypothetical head-to-head matchups with Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. And while Obama did better, his numbers still paled when compared to the domination shown by a generic Democrat. (John McCain was not yet a factor in July, although the Reuters/Zogby poll now has him in front of the field nationally.)

And what's the only thing worse than having two blue state U.S. senators fighting for the nomination? How about two blue state U.S. senators tossing around allegations of racial insensitivity. Especially when the battle is so silly. Even putting aside Clinton's record on civil rights and her husband's status of being called by many "the first black president," the debate obscures that the Bush administration has been as hostile to African-American interests as any presidency since the advent of the civil rights moment, and the black community knows it. To many black Americans, Bush's complete lack of action after Hurricane Katrina was first and foremost about the administration not caring about African-Americans. It was common to hear claims that if the storm had struck a white neighborhood, the response would have been far more swift and decisive.

So at a time when the Democrats should be rallying African-Americans against the GOP, Obama chose to try and turn the community against a fellow Democrat. You could argue that, after all, it's only January, and by the time November rolls around, it will all be forgotten, regardless of who gets the nomination. But voters, regardless of race, will remember. To think that Clinton could win a general election without massive turnout from the black community is a fantasy. With her high disapproval ratings, she needs her base to come out in force. And Obama's decision to play the race card will hurt him dearly if he secures the nomination. His appeal is based on a platform of rising above the old political battles and bringing together all Americans to solve the country's problems. The strategy has been at the heart of his success with independents. How do you think his role in the race flap will play to those who embraced his theme of unity?

To go back to the hockey analogy, just by pushing Clinton and Obama to the front of the field, the Democrats gave back most of their third-period lead to the Republicans. And I'm afraid that Obama's decision to allow the race issue to take over the last few days has served to erase any advantage that was left.

The predicament of the Democrats is especially outrageous when you consider the current state of affairs thanks to the Bush administration: There is talk we may be in a recession, a report today showed inflation at its worst rate in 17 years, oil is nearly $100 a barrel, and stock prices are tumbling, not to mention the mess in Iraq, the ascension of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the recent bombing of an American target in Beirut.

An unpopular war, a failure to catch the original terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and a sagging economy. Not exactly the time you want to be running as the nominee of the incumbent party. And yet, it looks like the Democrats are doing everything they can to gift the election to the Republicans. I mean, instead of all this fighting, wouldn't it just be easier to hand the presidency to John McCain right now?

I understand my Sharks fan friend's aggravation when his team blows a late lead, but he should take solace in the fact that there is always another game a day or two away. My team won't get to play again until 2012, when they'll have another chance to self-destruct. Every Democrat should be required to read this list of the nominees and results from every U.S. presidential election. Maybe we'll learn from our errors and finally choose a winning candidate. If not, history will be ignored again, and we will end up with something like a Sen. Charles Schumer-Sen. Diane Feinstein ticket. I shouldn't joke. The party will probably read that pairing and say: "That's a great idea!"

Thursday, January 10, 2008

“Chelsea Lately” Joins “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” Back on the Air

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

While New Year’s week marked the return of Letterman (with his writers) and Leno (without them) to the airwaves, this week was basic cable’s time to shine. Most of the attention went to the first new episodes of “The Daily Show” and the “The Colbert Report” in nine weeks, but little has been written about another basic cable talk show that made its return: “Chelsea Lately” (E!, new episodes air 11:30 p.m. Eastern nightly). (Unlike the Comedy Central shows, the return of “Chelsea Lately” had nothing to do with the writers strike, as E! is not a signatory to the WGA agreement. It was just time for the next set of episodes to air.)

I fully understand that many of you are now saying to yourself, “What the hell is ‘Chelsea Lately’? Something about the current exploits of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s daughter?” Not quite. The Chelsea of the title is Chelsea Handler, a blonde, brassy stand-up comic who had a short-lived sketch show, “The Chelsea Handler Show,” on E! in 2006. With “Chelsea Lately,” Handler has moved to a talk show format, and the focus is of-the-moment celebrity news.

Handler makes for an interesting television presence, and it is easy to see how viewers could love or hate her -- sometimes all in the same episode. She is statuesque and striking looking, and you get the sense that had she decided to, she could have had a very different career playing off her looks in sexy sidekick roles. But her appearance contrasts with her personality, which is tough and sharp. Handler makes use of her shrill voice to emphasize her barbs, almost like a pre-plastic surgery Joan Rivers. As a host, she maintains an edgy, almost awkward demeanor that could bother some people, but I like it, because it immediately distinguishes her from the overly polished talking heads who dominate reality and talk television.

But what probably makes Handler’s persona most watchable, for me, is that she is as quick to put herself down as she is one of her celebrity targets. The result is that she doesn’t come off sounding like she thinks she’s better than the rich and famous, but, more accurately, just that they are no better than she is (or, by extension, we are).

“Chelsea Lately” begins with a panel discussion featuring celebrity journalists and comics (a recent group consisted of an E! producer, writer/actor Scott Thompson of “Kids in the Hall” and comedian Russell Peters), with Chelsea presiding. The gang runs through a list of au currant topics, cracking sarcastic, bruising jibes at their targets (which often include each other). If you are a celebrity with problems, “Chelsea Lately” is not the place to go for an understanding shoulder to cry on. The remarks can be quite cutting. Handler introduced a discussion of Jamie Lynn Spears by showing a clip from her show “Zoey 101,” with voices dubbed in to make it look like the episode was about the tween star’s pregnancy, including the passing of notes with a classmate that entailed making plans to perform sex acts on each other. It was an easy shot, sure, but it worked. The panel also poked fun at the rather prominent jaw of Rumer Willis (Bruce and Demi’s daughter), who was supposed to be a hostess at the canceled Golden Globe Awards ceremony. Again, it was definitely mean, but you quickly realize that it’s not like Willis was hiding in a bunker somewhere. She (with the help of her parents) put herself front and center by taking the Golden Globes gig.

The second segment of “Chelsea Lately” is filled with an interview, usually with a C-list star (think 80s pop singer Taylor Dayne). This week will feature sit-downs with, on different nights, Bret Michaels and Scott Baio, pretty much ensuring that all of VH1’s Sunday night reality shows are covered. Handler does a good job of walking a fine line with her subjects, managing not to out-and-out make fun of them, but also not taking them too seriously, either. For example, she genuinely pointed out how beautiful she thought Eva La Rue of “CSI: Miami” was in person, but she also delighted in making fun of her for being married twice to older men, including to John O'Hurley (J. Peterman on “Seinfeld”).

Oddly, considering her history with “The Chelsea Handler Show,” the portion of “Chelsea Lately” that works the least is her stand-alone comedy sketches. The Eva La Rue episode featured Handler conducting an ambush interview with a silhouetted Starbucks barista, asking her mock-serious questions about the time she waited on Madonna. It was one-note, repetitive and painful to watch, as was a quick-hit, pre-commercial bit in which, following the Spears discussion, Handler pretended to be pregnant with a co-worker’s child.

My biggest fear about “Chelsea Lately” is that while Handler and her guests delight in making fun of the talentless and clueless celebrities who find themselves on the wrong side of tabloid stories, by dedicating an entire daily half-hour show to the topic, she is, in fact, only pushing this worthless subject further into the pop culture. Maybe that’s too much analysis for a show that just wants to poke fun at a group of people who deserve it.

“Chelsea Lately” isn’t as funny as Chelsea Handler, but it is diverting entertainment.

Of course, “Chelsea Lately” is nowhere near as smart, funny or relevant as “The Daily Show” and the “The Colbert Report” (Comedy Central, new episodes air at Monday through Friday at 11:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Eastern, respectively). Both faux news shows returned Monday from their strike-induced hiatuses with writer-free offerings that concentrated heavily on the strike itself. It seemed only fitting that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert would turn their usual formulas loose on something that was affecting them so personally.

Stewart sported a unibrow, spoofing the beard grown by David Letterman and Conan O’Brian during their breaks from the air. He went on to get some of the presidential campaign jokes that he had not been able to use out of his system (noting that the Iowa caucus told us who “cold white people” would like to be president, while New Hampshire’s primary revealed the thoughts of “colder, whiter people”), before turning his attention to the strike.

In much the same way that Stewart barbecues both the Democrats and Republicans when they do stupid things, while making it clear that, generally, he is more likely to side with the Democrats, Stewart had plenty to say about both the writers and movie and television producers, even though it was clear that his sympathies were with his fellow scribes. He had a lot of fun with the overly earnest videos the WGA has posted to support its cause, and he portrayed the writers as video-game playing goofballs. But Stewart saved his heavy artillery for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, who he said were better known as NAMBLA (if you don’t know what NAMBLA is, Google it, but not while you are at work ...). He also demonstrated the hypocrisy of the producers’ distinction between writing used on television and the Internet, showing a computer animation highlighting the differing distances from the screen between television watchers and computer users.

By Wednesday’s episode, he was back to full-on political satire mode, running a very funny collage of clips from the Democratic debate last Saturday in which candidates used the word “change.” Which only served to show how well “The Daily Show” has been able to soldier on even in the absence of the writers. Despite Stewart’s dedication to his staff (he said on Monday that until the writers return, the show should be called “A Daily Show” rather than “The Daily Show”), the half hour doesn’t feel all that different from usual. The two major losses seem to be the lack of the ambush interview conducted in the field by a correspondent that usually makes up the second segment, which is my least favorite part of “The Daily Show” anyway, and Screen Actors Guild guests for the final third of the program. The missing performers aren’t much of a loss, though, when you consider that Stewart was always as likely to interview a politician or professor (as he did on Monday’s episode) as a Hollywood star.

“The Colbert Report” followed the same basic playbook as “The Daily Show,” with Colbert taking aim at the strike in the manner he conducts all his shows, mainly by making himself look like an idiot. He even took the hand-off from Stewart with a biblical beard, which was completely “shaved” off when it got stuck in the shredder he was using to dispose of his script. Moving right in on the strike, Colbert started his show with the usual multi-camera-angle quick hits, only now, they were limited to introductory words (e.g. “And ...” or “Also ...”) because the writers had not written the substance of the items. Similarly, later, the “Word” segment was a blank screen. Colbert also wondered aloud why the teleprompter had no words, and when a producer informed him that it was because the writers were gone, he responded in confusion that writers weren’t responsible for the words. Instead, he said, the machine had the ability to read his mind and place his thoughts on the screen. I liked Colbert’s montage of clips from past episodes in which he had bashed unions. It was the perfect application of his satirical style to such a personal issue. Colbert’s one-note, over-the-top character can grate on me sometimes, and I certainly am a bigger fan of Stewart, but it was good to see Colbert back in fine form.

I was delighted to hear that Letterman was returning with his writers, and I thought that his first post-strike episode was pitch-perfect, from the dancing picketers to his jokes about the impasse (including a faux clip from the producers in which they argue that they can’t give two-and-a-half cents per download to the writers because they have no way of cutting a penny in half). I didn’t care about Leno’s return, because I don’t find him or his show funny at all. Even when he has his writers at his disposal, his humor panders, with the most obvious punch lines offered about the most obvious stories of the week (or, considering how long he milks jokes, the year).

But upon hearing that Stewart and Colbert were going back on the air without their creative staffs, I was afraid that the programs would be mockeries of themselves, far below the standards the two hosts had set. While the return of the writers is necessary and eagerly awaited, I was pleasantly surprised about how good the opening night shows were. It’s nice to have Stewart and Colbert back, even if not at full strength.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Hampshire Hurts the Democrats Yet Again

Why does the State of New Hampshire hate Democrats?

Yes, I know the state has a Democratic governor, both of its U.S. House of Representatives districts sent Democrats to Congress in 2006, and John Kerry carried the state in 2004.

But New Hampshire is like the guy you will hang out with sometimes, but you know that if the chips are down, he will be on the first bus to Not-My-Problemsville. It all began in 2000, when New Hampshire was the only Northeast state to vote for George W. Bush. Yes, it was only four electoral votes, but had those four votes gone to Vice President Al Gore, the whole Florida scandal would have been irrelevant, since Gore would have won by a 270-267 margin.

There would have been no Iraq war, no John Roberts and Samuel Alito on the U.S. Supreme Court, and no Alberto "I Do Not Recall" Gonzalez in the Justice Department. New Orleans may have been properly taken care of in the critical days after Hurricane Katrina and the U.S. may very well have kept the pressure on Al-Qeada and the Taliban in Afghanistan. We may have even gotten Osama bin Laden when he was pinned down at Tora Bora. We also wouldn't have had secret energy policy summits with Enron, unauthorized warrantless wiretaps, and human rights abuses in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. And, most importantly, the U.S. wouldn't be a country that tortures people. But I digress.

No, New Hampshire gave its four measly votes to Bush, and the 2000s took a very dark turn.

Again, you might say, "New Hampshire has changed! Look at 2004! Look at 2006!" But again, it's easy to be a friend when there isn't much at stake. Yesterday, in the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, nothing short of the future of the U.S. was on the line. And where was New Hampshire? Where it always is, running as far away as possible from helping the Democrats.

Okay, admittedly, I have taken this whole "New Hampshire hates the Democrats" game way too far, but it seems quite likely that the results in yesterday's primaries in New Hampshire (victories for Hillary Clinton and John McCain) were a crushing blow to anyone that would like to see a Democrat sworn into office in January 2009.

There were two things Democrats should have been rooting for in yesterday's election: Losses for Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Why? Because in my humble opinion (backed up by poll numbers and history), of the eight candidates with a somewhat realistic chance of getting their parties' nominations going into the New Hampshire primary (Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards on the Democratic side, and McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson on the GOP side), McCain is the most electable, and Clinton is the second least electable (ahead of only Huckabee).

To be clear, I am not addressing the merits of any of the candidates, and I have written twice, on July 31, 2007 and November 27, 2007, about my belief that while I admire Hillary Clinton, I think she is not electable.

As I wrote in both articles, Clinton has two major problems winning in the general election. First, she is a divisive candidate with high disapproval ratings and painfully few voters who are undecided about her. Simply put, there is a huge pool of independents and Republicans who will never, ever, ever vote for Hillary Clinton. I'm not saying it's fair, I'm only saying it's true. Second, since 1964, no U.S. senator has been elected president, and no Democrat from a blue state has won, either. Clinton is both. (If McCain gets the nomination, it eliminates the senator issue, since both candidates would hold that office, but McCain is from a red state.)

The conventional thinking before New Hampshire was that if Obama won as polls indicated he would, it would be very difficult for the African-American voters in South Carolina (who make up about half of the Democrats in that state) to support Clinton, for fear of standing in the way of the historic rise of the first black major party candidate (and, possibly, the first black president). A win for Obama in South Carolina would have put Clinton's campaign on life support.

On the McCain side, of all of the Republicans, he seems to be the most dangerous opponent in the general election. He is perceived to be both moderate and a straight-talker, which makes him popular with independents. McCain's problem has been getting conservatives to vote for him, which led to his demise in 2000 in South Carolina and beyond after his big win in New Hampshire. This year, though, there is no George W. Bush waiting to pick off McCain. Huckabee and Thompson, the two candidates who can run on a conservative record, have baggage of their own.

The universal thinking in the political world, and one nearly admitted to by McCain himself, was that if he lost in New Hampshire, a place tailor-made for his independent nature, he was done. He would have lacked any momentum in the moderate (Michigan) and bible-thumping (South Carolina) states to come.

But armed with momentum from New Hampshire, McCain could find himself on the way to the nomination. And if he gets into a general election, his one weakness, conservative voters, becomes far less of a burden, since he is, for most of them, the lesser of two evils when paired with the Democratic nominee, especially if the opponent is Clinton. Clearly, McCain's failure to get religious conservatives excited pales in comparison to the electability problems of a position-shifting Romney or a to-the-right-of-everyone Huckabee. And Giuliani (his personal life, his mixed record, etc.) and Thompson (his perceived indifference and insider D.C. record) bring their own problems to the table, making them less formidable challengers than McCain.

So, if Clinton is unelectable and McCain is the most dangerous GOP candidate in November, New Hampshire provided the Democrats with a nightmare result yesterday.

Polls are so unreliable (if they were, Obama would still be shaking victory confetti out of his clothes today) and so dry, I've saved the poll data to the end. I believe the numbers, while not absolute, make a compelling argument that a Clinton-McCain match-up is the worst possible scenario for the Democrats.

In November, when McCain's campaign had emerged from the depths but had not yet caught fire, the Arizona senator still had the best numbers in head-to-head match-ups with the Democrats. As I cited in my November 27 article, a November 26 Zogby poll had McCain ahead of Clinton 42% to 38%, while trailing Obama 45% to 38%.

Those numbers have only gotten worse for the Clinton. In December, Rasmussen has McCain ahead of Clinton 49% to 43% (December 19-20), Fox News has McCain up 47% to 42% (December 18-19), Zogby has McCain winning 49% to 42% (December 12-14) and CNN has Clinton trailing 50% to 48% (December 6-9). If you like troubling trends, consider that Clinton's best result was in the oldest poll, and her second best result was from a survey done by, of all entities, Fox News.

Meanwhile, Obama does markedly better against McCain, beating him in the Zogby poll (47% to 43%) and tying him in CNN's survey (48% to 48%), with only Fox News having McCain on top (44% to 40%).

(The December polls involving head-to-head match-ups between all the top Democrats and Republicans are compiled in a handy RealClear Politics chart here.)

In general, Obama does better than Clinton against all of the GOP candidates, winning all the polls cited by RealClear against Rudy Giuliani (six by an average of 7.3%), Huckabee (five by an average of 10.4%), Romney (five by an average of 12.2%) and Thompson (three by an average of 12%). In fact, other than the Fox News poll against McCain, Obama wins every poll cited against every Republican candidate (with one tie against McCain).

Meanwhile, Clinton loses in at least one poll against every candidate except for Thompson (who she beats four times with an average margin of 7.2%, lower than Obama's 12% average). In addition to losing in all four surveys to McCain, she falls to Giuliani in two of the six polls, and drops one poll each to Romney and Huckabee. By comparison, where Obama beats Romney and Huckabee by an average of 12.2% and 10.4%, respectively, Clinton can only manage average victories of 4.8% against both of those weaker candidates.

For those in the Edwards camp who still believe their man has a chance at the nomination, he wins two out of three polls with McCain, wins one out of three against Giuliani (with one tie), and wins every other poll against the other top Republicans.

Again, poll numbers are not the be-all, end-all of figuring out what will happen. But when you throw in Clinton's historical problem with high unfavorability ratings and Obama's demonstrated ability in Iowa and New Hampshire (not incidentally, two swing states Democrats would need to win in 2008) to attract independents, it sure does appear that Obama would be a stronger challenger to the GOP in November.

Of course, Clinton could beat any of the Republican contenders head-to-head, and, on the flip side, Obama could lose to any of them. Nobody can claim to be sure what will happen 10 months from now. Obama is, after all, a blue state U.S. senator, just like Clinton. But Obama has built his campaign on the notion of reaching out beyond the confines of the labels of red state and blue state, conservative and liberal, which, theoretically, gives him a better chance of bucking the traditional aversion to Democratic blue staters that the U.S. electorate has shown in presidential elections.

Most of all, Democrats, after crushing defeats in 2000 and 2004 (especially after choosing an eminently unelectable candidate in 2004), should be looking to put the odds in their favor as much as possible. 2008 is not an election for hoping or experimenting. It is a contest in which the party should be looking at all the evidence, all the history, and all the odds, and entrusting the party's nomination to the candidate with the best chance of winning. As we sit here on January 9, 2008, one day after the New Hampshire primaries, it is virtually impossible to make a compelling argument that Hillary Clinton stands a better chance than Barack Obama of beating a Republican in November, especially if it's John McCain. Making the Clinton argument requires a lot of hoping that polls and history can be overcome. Making the Obama argument requires far less speculation.

And this whole debate would be far less important if New Hampshire voters had helped out the Democrats. Life would look much sunnier in Democratic homes right now if Mitt Romney was celebrating a win that could propel him to the nomination, and Barack Obama was steamrolling his way to November, as well. A Romney-Obama match-up would seem to break the Democrats' way (a straight shooter against a flip-flopper ... how well did that match-up work out for John Kerry in 2004?).

Instead, New Hampshire citizens have presented Democrats with a potentially unwinnable race: A war hero Republican who is viewed as maverick, independent, moderate, and straight-shooting against an establishment Democrat with a history of near-50% disapproval ratings and a reputation for taking positions based on poll results.

New Hampshire, what have we Democrats done to make you hate us so much? Wait, by asking that question, I'm afraid Rudy Giuliani will scold me like he did Ron Paul. Never mind.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

“Law and Order” Survives Everything, Even a Writers Strike

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

A comic in the 1980s, I believe it was Bill Hicks, said that only two things would survive a nuclear holocaust, cockroaches and Keith Richards. (He went on to impersonate Keith describing his reaction to the mushroom cloud: “I saw a bright light. I thought we were on.”) I think the 21st Century version of that joke would substitute Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order” franchise for Keith Richards.

At the end of last season, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” was garnering solid ratings, but there was a question as to whether NBC would renew the other two members of the franchise, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and the granddaddy of them all, “Law & Order.” But in an 11th hour move, the network picked up both shows (although it shifted “CI” to its corporate sibling, USA Network, airing Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern). Not to mention that the three Wolf creations seem to be in an endless loop of reruns on basic cable stations. You would be hard-pressed to turn on your television at any time of the day and not find a “Law & Order” show on somewhere.

So it seems only fitting that nine weeks into the writers strike, with scripted shows being as rare as a Rudy Giuliani speech without a 9/11 reference, NBC rolled out three hours of new “Law & Order” programming with a new episode of “SVU” and the season premiere of “Law & Order.” Apparently, not even a work stoppage that has decimated the schedule can stop Wolf’s juggernaut.

“SVU” (NBC Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern) returned from its holiday break to continue its ninth season on Tuesday with an episode about the murder of a debutante that turns out to be the tip of a crime iceberg. Watching a first-run offering of a “Law & Order” program reminds you of why the reruns score consistently high ratings and people can’t seem to get enough of Wolf’s cops and lawyers. You know exactly what you’re getting. The shows follow a strict crime, apprehension, trial formula that is adhered to episode after episode. The focus is on the work, not the private lives of the characters. And you know there will be twists and turns until the truth is revealed. Oh, and of course, it’s good. There is something comforting about turning on a show and knowing what you will (and won’t) get.

And “SVU” continues to provide grist for the mill. Tuesday’s episode sucks you in with the discovery of a body (by a paintballer, a nice change from the overused walker/jogger), leads you down a road thinking that the show will be about which member of the debutante’s upper class world was responsible for her demise, only to take the story in a new direction when a homeless preteen is caught on security footage pawning the victim’s pricey earring. Next thing you know it, we’re following detectives Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) into the world of a homeless “family,” with a dictatorial father figure ruling with an iron fist over his teenage “wife” and brood of homeless teen “children,” who steal for him and do his dirty work. He’s like Fagin after doing a stretch in Oz with Schillinger and Said.

It seems like the only concession to the times “SVU” is willing to make is to amp up the action and violence a bit. For a show about sex crimes, the episodes are usually pretty clinical and talky. But on Tuesday, there was a fairly violent scrap between Stabler and the homeless “father,” and two guest characters are gruesomely murdered as the episode goes on. In the “SVU” world, the first victim is usually the only one.

But on the whole, “SVU” is what it has always been, a well-written, well-acted procedural with a smart edge to it. The cast especially plays smart and cynical well, with Richard Belzer’s Detective John Munch, Ice-T’s Detective Fin Tutola, Adam Beach’s Detective Chester Lake and Dann Florek’s Captain Donald Cragen keeping things moving.

I especially liked the interplay in Tuesday’s episode between Meloni and Hargitay as they make small talk while feasting on pizza and ice cream in an effort to coax a hungry, homeless teen into ratting out her compatriots. It’s the kind of moment that makes a Wolf show more than just a dramatized version of the transcript of a case covered on a Court TV real crime show.

While the cast of “SVU” has remained pretty stable over its run, the original “Law & Order” has been the ultimate example of form over personality. That’s not to say that beloved actors, especially the deliciously sarcastic Jerry Orbach, haven’t put their stamp on the series, but the show, as they say, goes on, no matter who stays and who goes. And when “Law & Order” (NBC Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern) launched its 18th season on Wednesday, the merry-go-round took a few more spins. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) has been promoted to fill the vacancy left by the departure of District Attorney Arthur Branch (Fred Thompson, who has traded the crime scenes of New York for the campaign stops of Iowa and New Hampshire), with Michael Cutter (Linus Roache) filling McCoy’s old spot as executive assistant district attorney and boss to the returning assistant district attorney Connie Rubirosa (Alana De La Garza). Also, Detective Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin) has a new partner, asked by his lieutenant, Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson), to work with Detective Cyrus Lupo (Jeremy Sisto), who has returned to New York after four years working abroad.

The episode centers around Lupo’s return to New York and his discovery that his brother has committed suicide, but as you would expect from a show whose format has always been more important than its cast, the other personnel changes are only mentioned in passing. We’re thrown into a meeting between Cutter and Rubirosa, with no explanation as to who Cutter is. Wolf knows we’ve been watching this show for 17 years, after all, so we can figure out that he is filling McCoy’s old role. Where many shows might take an entire episode to introduce a new character (think Jack and Janet getting a new roommate on “Three’s Company”), “Law & Order” can cover it in a line of dialogue.

Based on the season premiere, Sisto and Roache will fit nicely into the “Law & Order” universe. Sisto, who has made a career out of playing unhinged characters, both evil and stupid (the husband in “Waitress”) and smart and dangerous (the photographer in “Six Feet Under”), brings an intensity to Lupo that provides a nice contrast to good guy Green. And Roache’s Cutter has a prickly, steely facade that will offer a different vibe than McCoy’s elder statesman authority figure.

The season’s first episode showed why, after all these years, “Law & Order” can still attract an audience. From the investigation through the first trial (featuring a great turn by Michael McKean as a sleazy television journalist), the plot centers on the assisted suicide efforts of a Kevorkian-like doctor and his daughter, a nurse who has taken up his cause. Just when you are saying to yourself, “Seriously, assisted suicide in 2008? How outdated is this show?”, Wolf makes an unexpected and totally interesting turn into the issue of the pain suffered by prisoners executed by lethal injection. You never see it coming, but Wolf finds a way to use an old issue to make a point about a current one (the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a case as to whether the lethal injection cocktail used by most states is unconstitutionally cruel).

Wolf hasn’t been shy about the fact that he wants “Law & Order” to catch “Gunsmoke” as the longest running drama in television history. Considering that, after 17 years, “Law & Order” can replace two of its six lead cast members and still not miss a beat, I wouldn’t bet against him.

I’m not sure if the “Law & Order” franchise is Keith-like in its ability to survive a nuclear Armageddon, but it has proven its mettle in managing to sidestep the writers strike. With January scheduled to bring a cavalcade of new reality programming, that’s good enough for those of us with no interest in “The Biggest Loser,” “American Gladiators” and anything with Donald Trump (all NBC shows debuting new seasons between January 1 and January 6).

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

"Partisan" Is Not Necessarily a Dirty Word

1: a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially : one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance
- The first definition of "partisan" offered by Merriam-Webster

On the last day of 2007, the U.S. Senate held a 12-second session with exactly one member of the body present (Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed). No votes were taken, no speeches were made, and no lobbyist money was pressed into waiting palms (at least none that were visible to the media).

Considering that Congress's approval rating makes Barry Bonds look like Mr. Popular, I'm sure many Americans would think that nothing could be accomplished by the Senate in 12 seconds, since nothing much gets done when their representatives are there in full force. But those 12 seconds were vital, at least for anyone who thinks that the Bush administration has done a terrible job of appointing candidates to office (from "Brownie" botching the handling of Hurricane Katrina to Alberto Gonzalez disgracing the office of the Attorney General).

As we know, the one thing Bush hates most in the world (even more than anything that prevents prisons from executing people) is having anyone, even the U.S. Congress carrying out its constitutional duties, tell him what to do. He is the "decider," after all, and if people don't agree with him, well, they should keep it to themselves and stay out of his way. Otherwise, he'll paint them as not supporting the troops (if the issue is war-related) or partisan (on domestic questions) and try and power forward to get what he wants, no matter how few people in the country agree with him.

We can only guess how much Bush hates it that, with the Democrats controlling the Senate, he actually has to get someone's permission to appoint a candidate to office.

Of course, when Congress isn't in session, Bush has access to a loophole. During these breaks in the legislative calendar, he is constitutionally permitted to make "recess appointments" without getting approval from the Senate. It's a strategy he's used before, even when choosing a position as important as U.N. Ambassador.

Which leads us back to Reed's quickie Senate action, which is part of a series of such meetings designed to keep the Senate technically in session so Bush can't make any recess appointments. According to a article, the person the Democrats most want to keep from office is
Steven Bradbury, who Bush has nominated to be the permanent head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. Why are the Democrats so against Mr. Bradbury's appointment? Well, it seems that while working for the Justice Department, he wrote two memorandums defending the use of torture. Bradbury, a former law clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas, amusingly once testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that President Bush, when interpreting case law, is "always right." If you don't believe me, you can watch it here.

The tactic employed by the Senate Democrats to prevent the recess appointments will inevitably bring charges that they they are acting in a partisan way, with the implication being that such activity is a bad thing. Coincidentally, also on Monday, the New York Times ran a story claiming that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a man who has done time as a Democrat, Republican and independent, is closer to running for president. The article describes a meeting in Oklahoma this Sunday and Monday that will bring together "elder statesmen" Democrats and Republicans, such as former U.S. Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and David Boren (D-Okla.) and current Senator Chuck Hegel (R-Neb.), describing the agenda of the meeting as an effort "to renounce partisan gridlock." The speculation is that Bloomberg could team with Hegel or Nunn (or some other traditionally moderate politician) for a centrist, third-party run for the White House in November.

It seems to me there are two issues in play here that have somehow been intertwined together more than would be necessary or beneficial: centrism and partisanism.

On the one hand, there is the idea that a majority of Americans sit closer to the center of the political road than on either the left or right sides of the ideological spectrum. As such, some have argued (like the group gathering in Oklahoma) that it would make sense to promote a candidate that speaks to this group in the center, rather than forcing these moderates to cast their lots with liberals or conservatives with whom they don't always agree. I certainly have no problem with a centrist party. Many European countries have moderate parties that sit successfully between more traditionally liberal and conservative entities, and having a moderate party in the United States may not be a bad thing.

But I'm not sure how the idea of centrism got wrapped up with the idea of fighting against partisanship. At the risk of stating the obvious, isn't this group moving towards creating a third-party run for the White House, by definition, advocating that its ticket win the election? And in doing so, won't it have to distinguish itself from the Democrats and Republicans it is running against? It seems to me that the leaders of this campaign will be every bit "firm adherent(s) to a party, faction, cause, or person" (the first half of the Merriam-Webster definition of "partisan"), which, inevitably, will lead to the same "blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance" to the cause (the second half of the Merriam-Webster definition) in which they accuse the Democrats and Republicans of taking part; at least if the third party wants to win (if the Republicans "swift boated" John Kerry, I can only imagine and cringe at what they'd do to a divorced, wealthy, Jewish, New York Mayor with a history of going on vacations with his girlfriend).

And being a moderate doesn't mean that on individual issues, a candidate or voter takes a dispassionate, centrist position. Rather, to many Americans, being a moderate means holding some views that are traditionally seen as conservative and others that are historically more liberal. Bloomberg is a great example of this approach. He's pro-choice, but believes in fiscal conservatism. So if Bloomberg passionately defends the right to choose or the need for lower taxes, is he being partisan to his new party? After all, he's not taking a middle ground on those issues, right?

In fact, many issues are yes-or-no, black-or-white, with no real middle ground. What is a moderate position on abortion? If you believe the procedure is murder, nothing short of a ban will satisfy you. If you believe in a woman's right to control her own body, nothing short of full freedom to terminate a pregnancy will satisfy you. A position that tries to find ground in the middle will, in fact, just anger both sides.

Or, to look at a more pressing, immediate question, what is a moderate position on Bush's appointment of Bradbury to his Justice Department position? If you believe (as I do) that the Bush administration's embrace of torture has been one of the most horrifying, damaging and morally repugnant actions taken by an American president since the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, what middle ground can be found? And, more importantly, why would you want or need middle ground? My outrage over the U.S. employing torture techniques cannot be assuaged by some kind of middle position. In my heart, torture is wrong, and nothing short of a ban will satisfy me.

Which brings me back to my point on partisanship. In the world of sports, we have allegiances to teams that, beyond geography, are primarily irrational. I pull for the Yankees and despise the Mets, live and die with the Islanders and wish nothing but heartbreak for the Rangers, and support Arsenal and root for whoever is playing against Manchester United and Chelsea. But there is nothing inherent in the Yankees, the Islanders or Arsenal that I am supporting. You can certainly argue that, in these cases, I am demonstrating "blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance(s)."

But when it comes to politics and questions of who should govern and how they should govern, parties stand for ideologies. They are not just empty vessels like sports teams. A small section of the population, usually found to be in the mid-thirties, percentage-wise, still thinks Bush is doing a good job, while the rest of us do not. Is this a partisan question? A majority of Americans oppose torture, but Bush wants the U.S. Congress to officially endorse a torture advocate for an important position in the Justice Department. Is that partisan, too?

Standing up for a belief system is not "blind, prejudiced or unreasoning." It goes to fundamental questions about our society. When Republicans accuse Democrats of being "partisan" for supporting an issue, it's an empty charge. But if that's the way the Republicans want to play it, fine, I am happy to be partisan, because it means I'm standing up for my vision of what my country is and should be. By the Republicans' flawed logic, I would argue that Democrats need to be more partisan. The party needs to be stronger in standing up for traditionally Democratic ideals, not weaker.

When Republicans stand up for issues they care about, they aren't accused of being partisan. The Democrats accused of being partisan for keeping the Senate in session, but nobody says President Bush is partisan for appointing a candidate to a sensitive office who holds views contrary to a majority of the American people. When the Democrats pass a bill that Bush has promised to veto, like a war funding bill that contains timetables for troop withdrawals, Bush says they are being partisan, but nobody accuses Bush of being partisan for vetoing a bill that most Americans support. Clearly, the issue of the parties being too partisan is not a real one, but is just a tactic Republicans have used to advance their policies. I have no doubt any Republican reading the previous sentence will accuse me of being partisan, which is exactly the problem. It allows the question to be moved from the substance of the issues.

So nobody should be surprised to read that I thought the Democratic strategy of keeping the U.S. Senate in session over the holidays was brilliant. It prevented a president with a track record of making tragic and damaging decisions that have repeatedly weakened our country from making another one. That makes the Senate Democrats patriots, in my book, for finding some fortitude for a change and taking appropriate action to protect their country, no matter how they will be portrayed by the Republican propaganda machine.

The Democrats will be accused of being partisan. It may not be accurate, but it's fine with me. Better partisan than weak, and better partisan than allowing Bush to get what he wants at the expense of the reputation, security and health of the United States.

When introducing "Helter Skelter" on U2's "Rattle and Hum" album, Bono said, "Here's a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealing it back." If standing up for traditional Democratic principles makes Democrats partisan, I'm here to steal back the word for the party. If it means keeping people like Bradbury out of office, I'm happy to do it.