Thursday, July 31, 2008

“Mad Men” Returns and Lives Up to Its Hype

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

The new season of “Mad Men” (AMC, new episodes premiere Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern) bowed on Thursday by striking the exact right notes. Literally. The debut opens with Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again,” signifying that it was time to revisit the advertising execs of the Sterling Cooper agency, “like we did last summer.” The jaunty, fun-loving pop song may have matched my happiness at the return of this exceptionally well-crafted show, but it stood in stark contrast to the angst being felt by nearly everyone on the program.

At the end of the critically acclaimed first season, things for the main characters were decidedly up in the air. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) was distraught, having come home to an empty house, after imagining on the train ride home that he would sweep his wife Betty (January Jones) into his arms and accompany her and their two kids to the Jersey Shore to see her family. His secretary, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), shortly after being promoted to junior copywriter, went into labor, which is only odd because she didn’t know she was pregnant. The last we saw of her, her newborn baby was lying in her arms, but all she could do was turn her head away.

The season premiere answers virtually none of the cliffhanger questions from last season, instead jumping viewers ahead to Valentine’s Day 1962 (from 1960), with only clues as to what happened in-between.

Don, who was already complicated and introspective, is even more so now, struggling with the reality of getting older. He goes for an insurance physical, lies about how much he drinks and smokes, but is still told by the doctor that he cannot keep up his current pace. He experiences pre-Viagra-era erectile dysfunction with Betty. His boss, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), all but forces him to interview two kids in their mid-20s for creative jobs, and one of them shows up for the meeting in a turtleneck rather than a jacket and tie, a capital crime in the world of “Mad Men.” After blowing off a meeting to sit in a bar and eat lunch alone, Don becomes interested in a book of Frank O’Hara poetry, “Meditations in an Emergency,” being read by someone at the bar. He ends up with a copy of his own, which he reads and then mysteriously mails to someone in the episode’s final scene. Who is the recipient? With none of Don’s mistresses from last season appearing in the second season debut, we have no idea.

Peggy, meanwhile, is trying to keep up with the boys, finding that being the only woman on the agency team isn’t easy. The men send her to ask Don’s new secretary about his whereabouts, and they meet later without telling her (and ignore her questions as to why). Peggy finds an outlet for her anger when she reduces Don’s secretary to tears, all for handling her question incorrectly. And what of Peggy’s baby? We don’t know. The only reference to the event is the conjecture of the guys (in Peggy’s absence, of course) as to how she lost so much weight so fast. One theory is that Don got her pregnant, but the prevailing opinion is that she attended a “fat farm.”

Nobody else is much happier. Betty has become colder and harder in the intervening years, possibly realizing that the stone wall that Don maintains around his feelings will most likely never be breached. Don and Betty have a housekeeper now, allowing Betty to disconnect from her kids and engage in horse riding. She seems to be lying regularly (she tells her friend that she didn’t watch a White House tour conducted by Jackie Kennedy on television, even though she did, and she also claims to have known immediately that her old roommate was a call girl when she and Don ran into her at the Savoy Hotel, even though Don had to tell her after she was gone). It’s as if she is choosing to be dishonest with others rather than with herself. Betty becomes so obsessed with the her old roommate’s profession that she stands at the brink of offering sex to a tow truck mechanic that rescues her on a dark road, in exchange for a new fan belt.

Meanwhile, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), who bounced back from last year’s promotion snub to bring in the Clearasil account, is taking heat from his wife about her not being pregnant yet. Roger can’t stem his obsession with his former fling, office manger and resident bombshell Joan (Christina Hendricks), who is now dating a doctor, but was more interested in the Jackie Kennedy telecast than his amorous advances. Closeted Salvatore (Bryan Batt) is uncomfortably playing house with a woman, and none of the Sterling Cooper staff members are happy about the threat posed by the younger generation of ad men, all, presumably, waiting to take their jobs.

I understand that the cold description of these events can seem dry, even downright boring, but the show is anything but. Presented with a single sponsor and only one commercial break, the extended season debut flew by, jumping from one memorable scene to another. “Mad Men” can be complicated dark, quiet, ponderous and nuanced, but it also manages to consistently entertain, with the ability to be exceptionally funny and thriller-tense at times. The show is driven by subtle character moments, not large plot points, and yet manages to keep its audience riveted. It relies on stellar writing and powerful performances to get the job done.

The season premiere offered more than a few classic “Mad Men” moments. Joan’s obsession with finding the right place for the office’s first copy machine was a constant source of laughs, ending with its placement in Peggy’s already cramped office. Sharp lines abound, like when Paul (Michael Gladis), upon seeing the copier, tells a group of secretaries, “Happy Valentine’s, girls.” Don’s encounter with two foul-mouthed, loud men, acting boorish in the presence of a woman in an elevator, had me on the edge of my seat.

And the show’s legendary attention to period detail, from the clothing to the décor of the homes and offices, continues to amaze. If there is a better looking program on television, I haven’t seen it.

The centerpiece scene of the debut episode was the Jackie Kennedy television tour, which artfully bound together the story lines into one arc. When Betty says about the First Lady, “It looks like they’re playing house,” you can’t help but think that she could be talking about herself. With everything changing for the “Mad Men” characters, it has to be especially threatening to have such a young president, especially considering that Sterling Cooper worked for Nixon. No wonder Don was so resistant to interviewing the young creatives. After all, as he notes, young people don’t know anything.

“Mad Men” slipped onto the air barely noticed last summer. But after mass critical acclaim, abundant media exposure (including an Entertainment Weekly cover in June), and 16 Emmy nominations, the show’s return to the air was a hotly anticipated event, drawing double the audience from last season. With increased expectations comes increased pressure. But if the season premiere of “Mad Men” is any indication, the creative team behind the show is ready, willing and able to meet the challenge and live up to the program’s notices.

It’s common for critical darlings that get major coverage from the entertainment media to have to cope with a subsequent backlash. At the rate “Mad Men” is going, that negative reaction will be postponed indefinitely. It will be hard for anyone to say anything bad about this entertaining and exceptionally well-crafted hour of television.

Friday, July 25, 2008

New Comedy Central Shows Goof on Reality Programs, But Make for Strange Bedfellows

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

Comedy Central has dedicated its Thursday nights this summer to spoofing reality shows. But the network’s two offerings, “The Gong Show With Dave Attell” (new episodes air at 10:00 p.m. Eastern) and “Reality Bites Back” (10:30 Eastern), couldn’t be more different in their tones and intents.

The original “Gong Show” was very much a product of its time (1976-1980), from host/producer Chuck Barris’s disco tuxedos to the every-night’s-a-party attitude on the stage. Barris, with his compulsive hand-clapping and seemingly inebriated persona, presided over a parade of surreally weird and bad talent acts, who were then graded by three judges, generally minor celebrities. The judges also had the option of striking a gong, cutting the act short. The winner of the day’s competition won the oddly specific sum of $516.32.

How do you remake something that is such a product of its time? Comedy Central smartly figured that rather than try and update the concept, the best route would be to stay faithful to the original. And they’ve done a really good job in that regard. The rules are the same, the acts are dutifully odd and dopey, and the judges are party-loving, D-list celebrities, just like in the original. Even the prize for the winner is the equally insubstantial $600 (with a championship boxing-style belt thrown in for good measure).

Attell, best known for his former Comedy Central program “Insomniac With Dave Attell,” in which he essentially got drunk and hung out with people late at night, is the perfect match for the boozy, good-time-loving Barris. At one point in last week’s episode, while things kind of spun out of control, Attell took a seat and lit up a cigarette. The move captured the Barris spirit perfectly. And it’s not something you’d expect to see Ryan Seacrest do.

Interestingly, after the monster success of “American Idol” spawned a cavalcade of talent shows (I’m waiting for “So You Think You Can Tie Your Own Shoelaces,” which I’m sure is in development at one of the networks), “The Gong Show” is suddenly looking ahead of its time (even predating “Star Search,” the first successful serious television talent show). By simply keeping to the 1970s formula, the new “Gong Show” manages to parody the current plethora of talent shows on the airwaves. It’s a neat little trick.

The original “Gong Show” was risqué for it’s time, often with judge Jaye P. Morgan in the center of the naughty storm, and the new version is happy to follow in those footsteps. On last week’s show, judge Andy Dick, looking at a performer covered in green makeup, observed, “Cut to me and the Jolly Green Giant (bleep)ing in my dressing room.” Later, Dick tells an effeminate guy with an 1980s Howard Jones hairstyle who played music by rubbing water glasses that, “You can’t teach that kind of talent. A gay wizard has to (bleep) it into you.” Morgan was known for occasionally baring her breasts during tapings, but Dick went her one better, whipping out his penis as part of a joke (this being basic cable, all exposed key body parts are blacked out in post-production). And the nudity in that episode wasn’t limited to the judges. One act was essentially a burlesque Cirque du Soleil, as a scantily clad woman and a man in a bottom-revealing monkey costume performed fairly impressive feats of acrobatics and strength, before the woman stripped down to her bikini bottoms.

If all this sounds infantile, it clearly is. But so was the original. There is certainly a kind of anarchic charm to Attell’s “Gong Show” that is reminiscent of the Barris version, but there is no doubt that the appeal will only extend to a specific audience. Dick exposing his genitals alone is enough to put off a huge chunk of potential viewers, and the decidedly un-PC humor will send many more people packing. One of the acts last week featured two “midget” wrestlers, first battling each other, before taking on Dick and fellow judge J.B. Smoove (Larry’s house guest in the most recent season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”). After gonging the comically suggestive heavy metal band Trash, who featured two women in tiny schoolgirl outfits sucking on giant lollipops while the musicians played, Smoove said he couldn’t concentrate on the girls sucking because the band was sucking so much. Another act last week consisted of a guy pretending to pull a rabbit out of his own abdomen, complete with fake blood and guts. If that isn’t gross enough for you, Dick then proceeded to taste some of the faux innards and share one stringy piece, “Lady and the Tramp” style, with fellow judge Dave Navarro. The winners of that show were two buff, shirtless African-American guys with 1980s cornrow Mohawks slapping their bodies along with music.

If the last paragraph has made you vow to turn off your television when “The Gong Show With Dave Attell” is on, just to make sure you don’t accidentally stumble onto Comedy Central and see this nonsense, I understand. But if you have a bit of nostalgia for the Chuck Barris edition of the program, and you can marvel at the silliness of it all without taking any of it seriously, you might enjoy this insane half hour.

It’s odd that Comedy Central has decided to follow up “The Gong Show” with “Reality Bites Back,” which will appeal to a very, very different audience. “Reality Bites Back” features 10 comics competing in a different reality show parody each week. The target of last week’s episode was “Big Brother,” and last night’s edition was a send-up of “Rock of Love.” “Reality Bites Back” veers to the quirky, requiring a kind of ability to go with the flow that stands in stark contrast to the in-your-face debauchery of “The Gong Show.”

The tone of “Reality Bites Back” comes straight from its host, Michael Ian Black, who, depending on how lucky you are, you know from either the CBS show “Ed,” the Comedy Central sketch program “Stella,” or all those grating VH1 disasters where snarky comics make fun of stuff (“Best Week Ever,” “I Love the 80s,” etc.). On screen, Black has perfected a signature character, the pompous idiot who thinks he is more important and smarter than he really is. So it’s not surprising that in playing the host of “Reality Bites Back,” Black’s character is a pompous idiot who thinks he is more important and smarter than he really is.

There is no doubt that “Reality Bites Back” is a one joke endeavor, sending up the clichés and conceits of the genre. And while the program does a good job of nailing these now-familiar moments (the manufactured, misdirection drama employed by the host before someone is kicked off; the perp walk and subsequent exit interview of the loser; etc.), the whole thing wears thin. It’s hard to parody something as ridiculous and silly as reality programs, which tread dangerously close to parody themselves. So five minutes in to “Reality Bites Back,” I had kind of seen enough.

The same can be said for Black. As a supporting character on a well-written, well-acted ensemble program like “Ed,” he is a solid addition to the mix. But having to watch his overly exposed persona throughout a show is a bit much. A little Black goes a long way.

Then again, in some circles, Black is a genuine star. “Stella” and Black’s first show, “The State,” have a dedicated cult following, and I’m sure Black’s fans will enjoy “Reality Bites Back,” since it is so infused with his approach to comedy. At the same time, I can’t picture these fans enjoying the brainless fun of “The Gong Show,” making the two shows an odd pair to share a night of television.

Odds are you will like “The Gong Show” or “Reality Bites Back,” but certainly not both.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

McCain's New Commercial Should Drive Voters to Obama

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

Have you seen John McCain’s latest commercial? I’ll describe it to you:

Over an image of a gas pump in the middle of a lake, a narrator says: “Gas prices four dollars, five dollars. No end in sight. Because some in Washington are still saying ‘no’ to drilling in America. No to independence from foreign oil. Who can you thank for rising prices at the pump?”

A photo of Barack Obama is shown side-by-side with a gas pump, while, in the background, we here a crowd chanting, “Obama.” We then see footage of McCain talking to an audience while the narrator continues: “One man knows we must now drill more in America and rescue our family budgets. Don’t hope for more energy. Vote for it. McCain.”

(You can watch it on McCain’s Web site.)

In campaign ads, it is normal for politicians to massage the facts to portray a candidate in the most flattering light possible. But McCain’s latest commercial is such a work of fiction--and a clumsy one at that--that any undecided voter who watches should immediately decide to vote for another candidate.

In an nutshell, McCain’s commercial blames high gas prices on Obama. The spot says that because Obama won’t agree to “drilling in America” and isn’t in favor of “independence from foreign oil,” gas prices are high.

By “drilling in America,” McCain must be talking about Obama’s opposition to lifting the ban on off-shore oil exploration, but to correlate that position with higher gas prices is absolutely absurd. It is well-established that it would take years for any oil to be pumped from drilling off-shore, and even when oil did begin to flow, the effect on pricing would be minimal. The Bush administration’s own report estimates that if drilling were allowed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, oil production would not begin until 2018, and the effect on pricing would be a reduction of 75 cents a barrel (less than one percent of the current price) in 2025.

In other words, not only is McCain’s claim patently false, it’s ludicrous, beyond anyone’s definition of the truth. He is knowingly being dishonest to the American people (so much for “straight talk”), using a hot-button issue to scare citizens into voting for him based on inaccurate information.

It is also quite clear that Obama is not opposed to “independence from foreign oil.” One of the chapter headings in his energy plan is: “Set America on Path to Oil Independence.” Obama wants to achieve true energy independence that addresses the larger financial, environmental and national security issues involved, not simply engage in gimmicks or quick-fixes that ignore the real dangers and concentrate on squeezing every last drop of oil out of the ground.

What makes the commercial especially outrageous is that it is completely hypocritical. Most analysts blame speculating, made possible by the deregulation of the oil markets, along with increased worldwide consumption, for the spike in oil prices. (Keith Olbermann did an in-depth and detailed report on this issue, which you can watch here.) And who was a leading figure behind the deregulation of the oil markets? Former Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, who, until a few days ago, was McCain’s chief economic advisor, and was the architect of his economic plan. In his New York Times column on Sunday that assailed McCain's ignorance on economic policy, Frank Rich said that McCain’s “bond” with Gramm “is more scandalous” than Obama’s relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

So not only is the commercial completely fabricated, but, in fact, it blames Obama for something for which a key member of McCain’s team was far more culpable.

It would be easy to write a short essay on all the reasons why Obama’s position on the drilling issue is far smarter than McCain’s, who is essentially supporting the proposal as a way of courting votes. (After all, McCain supports the gas tax holiday that most economists say would not significantly lower the actual price of gas for consumers.) But anyone watching McCain’s commercial should not even need to engage in that discussion. Rather, the artlessness and bluntness with which the ad states things that are ridiculously false should alert any voter to the lack of intelligence and vision, as well as the desperation, of the McCain campaign. And the ease with which McCain is willing to pander and use dishonesty to pick up votes should also send up red flags for anyone still on the fence.

What is McCain’s next commercial going to be? That Obama is responsible for global warming? The recent outbreak of salmonella? The inability of the Chicago Cubs to win a World Series (after all, Obama IS from Illinois)?

The new McCain ad marks a new low in the campaign. I hope that enough people watching it understand how inaccurate and off-the-wall the claims are.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Press Talks About an Obama Bias, All While Giving McCain Special Treatment

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

I am so sick of hearing about how the media are biased toward Barack Obama. It's bad enough that John McCain's campaign is making this completely bogus claim, but now the mainstream media are reporting it as if the slant towards Obama is a given. (Today, a Yahoo! news headline blared, "McCain vs. Obama: Is the media playing fair with coverage?.")

Once again, the McCain camp is taking a page from the playbook Hillary Clinton employed against Obama. And while Clinton's claim was dubious enough, for McCain to try and argue that he is not being treated fairly by the media is downright outrageous. Why? Because nobody in the history of modern politics has been a bigger media sweetheart than John McCain. And in this campaign, he is allowed to virtually say or do anything without being called on it.

The ridiculousness of McCain claiming that he is getting the short end of the stick with the mainstream media is so silly, since the idea that he gets coddled by the press is hardly a new idea. MediaMatters keeps a running list of instances in which the media have failed to challenge or present an accurate portrait of McCain's views. And it's a substantial list.

Back in March, Glenn Greenwald wrote a piece on that expertly described the special treatment the press accords McCain, and how liberal pundits are just as likely to drink the McCain Kool-Aid. Greenwald concentrates on the idea that it is taken as a given that McCain is a foreign policy expert, so his gaffes are ignored. He writes:

"Reporters have already decided that John McCain is a Serious, Knowledgeable Foreign Policy Expert -- and an honorable, truth-telling gentleman -- and therefore there is no reason to tell voters about evidence that demonstrates that he's anything but that. Evidence that reflects poorly on McCain's foreign policy seriousness or character is actually suppressed or concealed because they think it can't be newsworthy, because such evidence just can't be true, by definition."

Greenwald goes on to note that "reporters who have long covered McCain themselves constantly admit that they accord McCain special, favorable treatment and don't even realize the deep corruption they're acknowledging." He cites Ann Marie Cox of Time saying on CNN:

"I think what happens is that you -- if you've been covering him for a long time, there's a sense that, well, he does that all the time, it's not worth reporting, because he does -- he's a cranky old man. I mean, to be quite frank. . . . And also, we wrote it off to, like, you know, he hadn't had his fifth cup of Starbucks today."

The issue of the moment when Greenwald wrote his article was McCain's repeated gaffe of saying that Iran was linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq. But it's not like McCain has stopped there. In the last couple of weeks, he has repeatedly talked about "Czechoslovakia," a country that hasn't existed for 15 years, and, just this morning, he described "the situation on the Iraq/Pakistan border" on ABC's Good Morning America. Only, Iraq and Pakistan do not share a border

I am not arguing that McCain's geographical aphasia is quid pro quo proof of his foreign policy incompetence. But I am arguing that McCain never gets called on his errors by the mainstream media (Diane Sawyer was silent after his Iraq-Pakistan statement on Good Morning America), where Obama would absolutely be taken to task (and probably called inexperienced) if he made the same errors.

More importantly, the mainstream media's genuflection at the feet of McCain keeps the facts of McCain's lack of foreign policy acumen from reaching voters. Tom Brokaw cited an ABC News/Washington Post poll on Meet the Press yesterday that said that respondents overwhelmingly believe that McCain would make a better commander in chief than Obama. Given the media coverage, it's easy to see why Americans currently feel that way. But that doesn't mean the evidence backs up that belief.

As Greenwald noted in his March article:

"The reality is that John McCain's understanding of foreign policy and his approach to national security has proven to be simplistic, destructive and idiotic. Nobody spewed more pre-invasion falsehoods and confused and misleading claims about Iraq than John McCain did. And he's been the Prime Cheerleader for one of the most destructive wars in U.S. history. The notion that he has expertise in foreign policy or sound judgment is a total myth, yet it's one that his press fans accept and enforce as orthodoxy.

"McCain's simple-minded militarism, his ignorance about national security, and his moronic view that the U.S. should run the world through endless wars ought to be one of the most intensely debated issues in the campaign. But it won't be because -- as Marcus said -- the media has already decided that McCain is a Serious Expert in these matters and that national security is his strength, and evidence to the contrary won't be reported."

I share Greenwald's frustration over how the mainstream media takes McCain's experience and expertise in foreign policy as a given. I made the same argument in this space on July 1 and pointed out how prescient Obama's judgments have been on the same issues.

It is frustrating that the media repeatedly refer to McCain as being a "maverick" (a Yahoo! news search of "McCain maverick" returned 520 hits in just the last three weeks) and as someone who frequently goes against the leadership of his party, even though he voted 98 percent of the time with his fellow Republicans (43 of 44) in 2007, and 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).

It is also frustrating that the mainstream media is quick to call Obama a flip-flopper for changing his view on FISA (and allegedly changing his views on Iraq and gun control, even though the evidence shows that his message has been consistent on these issues), while failing to mention McCain's reversals of his positions on virtually every issue of substance, from taxes to Iraq to torture to the economy. (I wrote at length about McCain's flip-flops on July 6.)

It may well be true that Obama's trip to Afghanistan, Iraq and Europe is getting a lot of press coverage, and much of that coverage is positive. But given how the mainstream media have glossed over McCain's inadequacies, treating his foreign policy gaffes the way the press ignored John F. Kennedy's affairs, for McCain to make the claim that he is getting screwed by the mainstream media is truly laughable.

But it is effective. A Rasmussen poll released today revealed that 49 percent of those asked thought that reporters were trying to help Obama win. Give McCain's campaign credit. They've done a good job of shoveling this manure into the public consciousness.

Maybe I am making a strategic mistake here. Maybe I should be urging the media to grant McCain more coverage. Because shining a light on McCain's views, conduct, record and speaking style can only help Obama's candidacy.

Friday, July 18, 2008

In the Dog Days of Summer, the Best I Could Do This Week Was “Run’s House” and “Rock the Reception”

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

How can you tell that I’m ready for the new season to begin? Well, for starters, when I looked at this week’s premieres to see what I could write about, the best I could come up with was two reality programs: the new season of “Run’s House” (MTV, new episodes air Wednesdays at 10:00 p.m. Eastern) and the debut of the new series “Rock the Reception” (TLC, Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern). See what I mean?

“Run’s House” follows Joseph “Run” Simmons, formerly of the seminal rap group Run DMC, now a solo artist and reverend. Run lives in a big house in New Jersey with his wife, Justine, and his six children. Every episode of “Run’s House” ends with Run in bed with Justine, discussing the events of the day, followed by Run in the tub the next morning, writing about his beliefs on his BlackBerry (and narrating in a voice over), each mini-sermon finishing with his mantra, “God is love.”

I fully understand that the previous paragraph probably turned off 80 percent of the readers from ever watching “Run’s House.” And I can’t fully tell you that everything you’re thinking of about the show is wrong. But the show isn’t bad. In general, reality programs about the day-to-day life of stars, especially those who are past their salad days, tend to, to use the scientific term, “suck.” But “Run’s House” is better than the average celebrity reality fiasco.

For starters, unlike the Ali Lohans and Britneys of the world, Run is a genuine artist, the leader of arguably the most important rap act of all time. The fifth season kicked off last night with Run on stage in Nashville with Kid Rock, commanding the stage and kicking the air like he was back in the 1980s. Run is not a one-hit wonder or passing fad, but an important piece of the history of U.S. popular music. As someone of substance, looking at his life takes on a bit more value than watching the shallow pursuits of the faux celebrity of the moment.

It is also interesting to watch a reality program built around a celebrity family that is actually functional. “Run’s House” is the anti-Osbournes, as Run’s brood consists of basically well-adjusted kids, and the family members seem to interact in generally healthy ways. This season’s premiere was built around the family adjusting to all the changes they had experienced in the previous weeks. In addition to Run finishing a tour, his two daughters, Vanessa and Angela, had moved to Los Angeles, on the same day that Run and Justine brought home their new adopted baby daughter, Miley. Meanwhile, Russy, the youngest boy in the house, became overprotective of Miley, leading to Justine having to ask Run to have a talk with him. College student JoJo, the oldest boy, is lonely, missing his sisters, even though he tortures them when they’re home. So Run sends JoJo to Los Angeles to set up video conferencing equipment for the girls since their New York-based business partner has had trouble keeping up with them while they’re across the country.

Or, put another way, the family has to handle the fact that there young son is too happy about the arrival of a baby sister, the oldest son is sad to be separated from his sisters, and everyone is sad that Run is out on tour.

Is a family that gets along interesting? Yes, mostly thanks to Run.

Run has raised some basically decent kids. Sure, they suffer from some of the traits many rich kids seem to exhibit, like apathy and a lack of perspective. When Run offers to send JoJo to Los Angeles, rather than leap for joy that he’s getting a free vacation, he wants to get paid, like a tech worker would, and he wants to fly first class. Once he gets to Los Angeles, he just wants to have fun, waiting until the absolute last second to hook up the video system, causing stress to his sisters.

But it’s nice to see Run hold the line. He won’t let his daughters fritter away their time in Los Angeles, keeping them on track in their business ventures. (The girls had been avoiding their partner’s calls while on the West Coast.) He doesn’t let JoJo push him too far, holding the line on a coach ticket and giving him far less money than JoJo had hoped for. Gossip magazines, Web sites and magazines are filled to capacity with clebutantes running wild (think Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie), so if procrastination and a cavalier attitude toward work is the worst Run’s kids can be accused of, I think he’s done a pretty good job raising them.

And Run himself is an engaging personality. Other than his “God is love” sign-off and off-hand references to things happening because of God’s will, religion is largely absent from “Run’s House.” Rather than come off as a judgmental preacher, Run just seems like a really good guy. He’s funny with his family, does great voice characterizations, and even pulls off an impressive human beat box loop to make a point to Justine.

In a genre that usually features celebrities because of their foibles, “Run’s House” features the Simmons clan because of how normal they are. How is that for a nice change of pace?

“Rock the Reception” is less interesting, but totally harmless. In fact, it’s so fluffy, it flies by quickly, barely scratching the surfaces of its guests. The 30-minute offering follows two couples as they learn a special dance routine for their wedding receptions. The program has a laser-focus, barely straying from its core topic. We see each couple four times: an introductory segment about who they are; the first meetings with the show’s choreography team, Tabitha and Napoleon; the first (maybe only) rehearsal with the choreographers; and the performance at the reception. There is no relationship drama, no problems with relatives and friends, and no mishaps with the catering. With two couples and only 30 minutes to work with, we’re whisked through the four scenes at breakneck speed.

The premiere episode featured one couple that was chosen to tug at your heartstrings: Michael, an Iraq war veteran, and Trycia, who is battling breast cancer. They do a nice job on a funky dance to Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” The couple wanted to do something fun to give their friends and relatives a bit of a break from the sadness of Trycia’s diagnosis. Or, as Tabitha puts it, “The dance lets everyone know they’re survivors.” If you like that kind of mushy, go-for-the-tear-ducts programming, you would enjoy this story line. Especially when both Trycia, who had been a professional dancer, and Michael turn out to be good dancers.

The second couple was less likable, firmly entrenched in the land of “annoying.” Steven, who is 49, is marrying his business partner, Julie, who is 17 years his junior. Steven fancies himself a great dancer, but he looked like Elaine in “Seinfeld” doing her “full body dry heave set to music.” This Palms Springs-based couple, possibly the least funky people ever to step on a dance floor, chose to attack Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” All you have to know about Steven is that before his ceremony, he tells the camera, “I’m more nervous about the dance” than his actual wedding. And as for Julie, who is so clearly trying too hard to be interesting, her sister says to her upon hearing about the dance idea, “You can’t just have a normal wedding, can you?” Other than some sadistic fun at making fun of these idiots, there wasn’t much entertainment to be had in Steven and Julia’s story line.

And as I watched Steven and Julia dance at the end of the episode, all I could think to myself is, “How am I going to make it to the new season?”

Monday, July 14, 2008

Remember Global Warming? That's Okay, Most People Apparently Don't, Either

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

An inconvenient truth? More like a forgotten one.

Sure, Al Gore won a Nobel Prize and an Oscar (the latter being the bigger achievement in the minds of too many Americans), but what has been the result? Not much, if you follow what's going on in the United States right now.

On Friday, the Bush administration decided not to do anything about greenhouse gas emissions for the rest of the Bush presidency. Despite an earlier report by the Environmental Protection Agency that found that the Clean Air Act could be used to regulate these emissions, the White House intervened and rejected the proposal, sending the issue back to Congress to deal with. Considering Bush had been critical of the Supreme Court's decision last year allowing greenhouse gases to be regulated by the Act, the administration's latest action is not surprising, especially since Bush knows that just last month, only 48 senators signed on to a bill regulating greenhouse gases.

What has the public reaction to the Bush administration's decision to pass the buck on global warming for a year (a year we may not be able to spare) been? Vast silence. And the media barely covered the announcement. There was a bit more media coverage of the G8 agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050, but there was very little criticism of the voluntary and speculative nature of the agreement (as Michael McCarthy pointed out in The Independent, the language was intentionally vague). Nor was there wide coverage of the fact that the goal adopted by the G8 is well below the standard most scientists believe is necessary to really combat climate change.

Similarly, last week, the media barely talked about Jason K. Burnett, a former EPA official, who said that the office of Vice President Dick Cheney pushed for the deletion of references to the effects of climate change on public health in congressional testimony for fear it might make it more difficult to avoid regulating greenhouse gas emissions. It's one thing for the Bush administration to have been a disaster on the global warming issue, denying the existence of the problem for years, and then subsequently obstructing efforts to address it. It's another thing entirely to intentionally pollute (no pun intended) the record. This is not the first time the administration has sought to gag its own agencies from addressing the global warming crisis, and it's certainly not the first time the White House has shown such disrespect for Congress and the American people. But it is striking evidence that Bush and Cheney knew that global warming was a problem, even if they didn't want to admit it or address it publicly.

And where was the outrage? Where was the massive media coverage of Cheney's alleged tampering with witness testimony? I'd love to know.

It's not like there weren't more scientific findings in the last week that the global warming phenomenon is causing dire problems with the environment.

Buried in the news was the discovery that the ice bridge connecting the Wilkins Ice Shelf to Charcot Island near Antarctica was "hanging by its last thread," weakened by global warming-related meltage. Prof. David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey said: "Wilkins Ice Shelf is the most recent in a long, and growing, list of ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula that are responding to the rapid warming that has occurred in this area over the last fifty years." If the ice bridge goes, the stability of the whole ice shelf will be threatened.

Today, scientists weighed in on something that has been assumed for years: Hurricane seasons are getting longer and more deadly. The change has been "pretty striking," Jay Gulledge, a senior scientist with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said in the article, especially since 1995. And the culprit? You guessed it: global warming.

Despite all the dire warnings, the media coverage of the issue, both as part of and outside of the presidential race, has been minor, at best. When it comes to substantive issues, the media have concentrated almost solely on the economy and national security. For example, Carly Fiorina, as a surrogate for John McCain's campaign, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., speaking for Barack Obama, appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday, and host Tom Brokaw did not ask either of them a single question about the candidates' plans regarding global warming.

Then again, it's hard to blame Brokaw or any other reporter for ignoring the issue. Al Gore often says that until U.S. citizens make global warming a priority, the government won't make the major changes necessary to regulate the problem. And as of now, global warming doesn't even seem to be on the nation's radar.

Global warming didn't even make the list in a January Rasmussen poll asking voters what issue was most important to them. The economy led at 40 percent, Health care was second at 14 percent, and the war in Iraq and national security ranked third and fourth, with 13 percent and 12 percent, respectively. Immigration, government ethics and social security rounded out the list. Global warming and/or the environment were nowhere to be found. A recent RealClear Politics article referenced a July poll that similarly found the economy, Iraq and health care to be the top three issues voters care about. Again, no mention of global warming and/or the environment.

Even younger people, who are supposed to be more in tune with the global warming crisis, prioritize it as lowly as older folks do. A CBS/MTV poll in April asked people between 18 and 29 years old to rank the top issue facing their generation. The economy and jobs ranked first with 22 percent, and the war in Iraq placed second with 13 percent. The environment was fourth with only 5 percent, and that was a drop from 8 percent in 2007.

So if Americans don't care about global warming, why should the media and the presidential candidates feel a need to address the issue?

Well, maybe because we rely on leaders to lead. Maybe it's time for leaders, whether they be journalists or politicians or concerned citizens, to step up and say, "Now is the time to do something, before it's too late." And maybe that's why the issue needs to be aired. Because if we don't address the global warming issue, the threat from climate change can dwarf any danger posed by the economy, Iraq or terrorists.

And, of course, addressing global warming can actually help with issues voters care about most. Van Jones has talked of a "Green New Deal," which would, among other things, put dying American manufacturing industries to work on green products, such as wind turbines and solar panels. And breaking U.S. dependence on foreign oil would go a long way to addressing the threats the U.S. faces now from Islamic terrorists.

It's time to make global warming a central part of the American discussion and, certainly, an important part of the presidential campaign. As a country, we can only stick our heads in the sand for so long before it will be too late to address this looming catastrophe. And the sand is getting hotter by the day.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Game Shows, Old and New, Dominate Summer Programming

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

I happened to glance at the television ratings for the week ending June 29, and I noticed that four of the top ten programs were game shows (and that doesn’t even include talent competitions like “So You Think You Can Dance” or “America’s Got Talent”): “Wipeout” (ABC, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern) was in second place, “Celebrity Family Feud” (NBC, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern) was fifth, “Million Dollar Password” (CBS, Sundays at 8 p.m. Eastern) was seventh, and “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” (ABC, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern) slipped into tenth.

It made me go back and check out the pilots of each of the three programs I had yet to watch (I reviewed “Million Dollar Password” on June 5). After all, I was raised on “Password,” “Match Game” and “Jeopardy” (and tons of lesser known entries like “Split Second” and “Gambit”); I bought whole-hog into the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” phenomenon, and I still regularly check out new offerings like “Duel.” So if game shows were owning the summer, I had to see why.

But I quickly learned that “Wipeout” and “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” bear less resemblance to the classic gamers of my youth than they do to the fictional "Ow, My Balls!" on the equally fictional (at least for now) The Violence Channel (as featured in Mike Judge’s flawed but prescient film “Idiocracy”).

But let’s start with the latest edition of the “Feud.” Al Roker steps into the host shoes previously filled by, in order, Richard Dawson, Ray Combs, Louie Anderson, Richard Karn and John O’Hurley. Where “Million Dollar Password” disposed of nearly everything from its earlier incarnations (save the idea of giving one-word clues to get your partner to say the password), “Celebrity Family Feud” is pretty much the same game it’s always been. Two teams compete to amass the most points based on guessing how survey participants answered certain questions.

The only little twist to the newest edition of the program is that instead of average American families playing against each other, the families are led by celebrities. I’m not sure if it’s a comment on the nature of stardom or just a coincidence, but of the four teams featured on the pilot, three were stocked with some non-family members (Joan Rivers included her assistant, Ice T recruited his best friend, and, most tellingly, Ravyn-Symone’s squad featured the two actors who played her parents on “That’s So Raven”).

The celebrity aspect kind of works. Let’s just say that I’m sure Richard Dawson rarely had to deal with the first answer of an episode having to be bleeped (Ice T’s suggestion that something that is slippery and hard to hold is the male sex organ, but Ice T used a less scientific word for it). I was never a huge fan of the original “Feud,” so having the train-wreck aspect of watching Joan Rivers and Wayne Newton pimp out their families for a few minutes of television time provided some zip to the proceedings.

Not that it really affects things that much, but Roker isn’t great as the host. While his bland, phony-congenial personality might be a good fit as the weatherman for a morning talk show like “Today,” it just isn’t enough to lead a prime-time network program. He just seemed to be trying too hard, exaggerating his vocal patterns in an effort (it seemed to me) to make everything seem more exciting. It’s not like Anderson and Karn were paragons of American comedy, but their versions of the show were syndicated and the bar was lower.

“I Survived a Japanese Game Show” is all about sensory overload, and in that way, it is the quintessential modern reality program. A hyperkinetic mix of “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” “Double Dare” and, well, a Japanese game show, “Game Show” can be accused of being many things, but boring isn’t one of them. Upon arriving at Los Angeles International Airport, 12 contestants think they are going to appear on a “conventional reality show” (as host Tony Sano tells us in a voice-over), only, their bus takes them to the next terminal, where they are sent off to Japan. Still unaware of the purpose of the trip, the crew of conventional reality show stereotypes (the mouthy New Yawk chick, the feisty African-American woman, the twangy Southern goofball, the energetic African-American guy, the wiseass pudgy dude, etc.), none of whom have ever left the United States before, find themselves on the stage of an over-the-top Japanese game show.

The 12 (sometimes Ugly) Americans share an apartment (the “Big Brother” aspect), with a dash of the expected drama (“Why is she always late? It’s not fair to the rest of us!”), and compete against each other (in two teams) in messy stunts (in the premiere, team members had to climb and then maintain themselves on a conveyor belt while a teammate ate a Japanese rice delicacy (described as being “gummy”) out of bowls strapped to their heads, before dropping down and letting the belt drop them into a giant box of flour), with the winners getting a reward (a tour of Tokyo, including a helicopter trip), and the losers getting punished (a two-hour shift as rickshaw runners). And, in the “Survivor” element, the losing team has to nominate two of its members to compete in an elimination game, with the loser going home. In the premiere, the competition involved the players wearing fly suits with green goo on their stomachs, and then jumping on a trampoline and trying to smash themselves onto a drawing of a windshield as close as possible to the target.

The last remaining contestant at the end of the season wins $250,000.

Let’s get this straight right now: The show is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous to watch a bunch of naive Americans willing to engage in such a competition (after the contestants follow the directions of the host of the Japanese show on several occasions, the host wryly notes to the Japanese audience in Japanese how the Americans will do anything he tells them to). It’s ridiculous to watch the petty arguments and politics. It’s ridiculous (and depressing) to watch how ignorant these Americans are in the face of another culture.

But having said all of that, “Game Show” is undeniably entertaining. For starters, it’s a fascinating look at a small slice of Japanese culture. That country’s television networks feature many of these kind of competition game shows (with adaptations of a bunch of them in the pipeline at U.S. networks), and it’s interesting to learn a bit about them. And the stunts are entertaining in a voyeuristic, slapstick kind of way. I especially liked the production touches added by “Game Show,” including cute sound effects and clever and entertaining computer animations of how the competitions will work.

I don’t think I’ll become fully invested in which competitor wins and how the competition unfurls, but I do know that if I do tune in again, it will be to just enjoy the dumb fun of the whole spectacle.

I can assure you, though, that I will never again tune into the pure idiocy of “Wipeout” (which is an American adaptation of a Japanese game show). It is as close to “Ow, My Balls!” as American television has ever ventured. At one point during the premiere, host John Henson says “Wipeout” is “the show where people risk bodily harm so you can laugh.” It was supposed to be a joke, but, really, it nails this moronic program on the head. It’s like “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” only the program provides the forum for the accidents. Like “Home Video,” the show features people crashing into water, the ground or large objects, with incredibly lame jokes provided in voice-over narration by Henson and his co-host, John Anderson. Think I’m exaggerating? After an English contestant says that something was “daft,” Henson and Anderson engage in this exchange: “What does daft mean?” “I don’t know. I failed British in high school.”

“Wipeout” involves a group of people trying to win that day’s competition, with a $50,000 prize at stake. Yes, that’s not a lot of money by game show standards, which makes you even less sympathetic to the fame-whores who have agreed to humiliate themselves on national network television. (The bonus for winning one of the competitions was $1,000. Uh, note to the producers of “Wipeout”: It’s 2008, not 1972.)

All the contestants compete in a water obstacle course from hell that is designed not to find the best athlete, but to provide the most falls and crashes that can be endlessly replayed in slow motion. The course includes a wall with boxing gloves randomly lashing out to punch the contestants. Yes, it’s “Ow, My Balls!” coming true. The competitors are whittled down through subsequent competitions that all involve water and objects to crash into (with multiple slow-motion replays, of course), until the final four compete in a land-based obstacle course to find a winner.

As much as I didn’t really care about the 12 contestants in “Game Show,” you at least get to know them before they engage in the silly stunts, and you know you will be staying with them for the whole season. In “Wipeout,” the competitors are nearly anonymous, with only a profession and an occasional one-minute interview to give you any insight into who they are. And where the stunts in “Game Show” are messy, inventive and fun (the whole fly thing rose to a sort of surreal elegance, as weird as that may be to read, and when it went into overtime to break a tie, it was genuinely exciting), the “Wipeout” contests are just sadistic and not very inventive, generally just variations on knocking people into water with padded objects.

Game shows may be dominating the summer, but, for the most part, these programs represent a whole new breed of programming. In the case of “Wipeout,” it’s “Ow, My Balls!” coming to life. “Idiocracy” might have been a commercial failure as a movie, but I’m afraid it will end up being viewed as an insightful take on where we’re going as a society. Scary thought. If that bums you out, go watch the “Game Show” contestants fall in a pile of flour. It’s funny.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Hey Bush and McCain: Is al-Maliki a Defeato-Shiite?

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

I have two questions for George W. Bush and John McCain: Is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki supporting a surrender date? And does this make him a Defeato-Shiite?

You see, yesterday, al-Maliki said that his government wants a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops to be a part of the military agreement now being discussed between Iraq and the United States. "The goal is to end the presence (of foreign troops)," al-Maliki said.

Since taking control of the Congress after the 2006 elections, the Democrats have repeatedly tried to add timetables for withdrawal to Iraq funding bills, only to be rebuffed by Republicans and the administration at every turn. It has become a standard GOP talking point to accuse Democrats of surrendering, or giving a surrender date to the enemy, or some other nonsense like that, if they don't just lay down and let Bush continue with his seemingly endless war propping up an Iraqi government that has shown more interest in preserving its power and lining its pockets than working for political reconciliation and self-governing (As Arianna Huffington's blog today discusses). (For example, in 2007, Dana Perino, in a White House press briefing, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is "in denial that a surrender date he thinks is a good idea. (sic) It is not a good idea. It is defeat.") The White House even started calling Democrats "Defeatocrats."

So if setting timetables was wrong the last two years, what can the administration say now that the head of the Iraqi government is insisting on knowing when American troops are leaving his country? Well, not much apparently, since, so far, the White House has not responded to al-Maliki's declaration.

This turn of events just goes to show how far down the rabbit hole the Bush administration and McCain are on Iraq. They keep telling us that the troops need to stay there until we "win." (Whatever that means ... I thought we "won" when we defeated the Iraqi Republican Guard and ousted Saddam Hussein? Isn't that what the "Mission Accomplished" banner was all about?) McCain is fine with the American military being in Iraq for 100 years (video here), and he thinks that it is "not too important" when U.S. troops leave Iraq.

But if American forces are in Iraq to support the Iraqi government, and the Iraqi government wants a plan for the departure of U.S. troops, then what?

I'll tell you what: It means it is game over. Once the U.N. mandate runs out at the end of the year, legal justification for leaving troops in Iraq has to come from al-Maliki. Without the support of the Iraqi government, no American -- not Bush, McCain or anyone else -- can justify U.S. forces in Iraq.

And al-Maliki's position is not as soft on this issue as the administration and McCain may argue. Bush has been trying to negotiate a formal status of forces agreement for a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq (one that would make it harder for Bush's successor to withdraw U.S. troops from the country), but al-Maliki told Arab diplomats that he is seeking a short-term interim memorandum instead. A short-term agreement does not provide the same roadblocks to a withdrawal that a more formal status of forces agreement would, something, presumably, Bush would not be happy about.

Today, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, made an even more definitive statement of his country's demand for timetables in any agreement: "Our stance in the negotiations underway with the American side will be strong ... We will not accept any memorandum of understanding that doesn't have specific dates to withdraw foreign forces from Iraq."

If nothing else, al-Maliki's remarks should serve as a wake-up call to Americans, especially during a presidential election year. Bush and McCain have been quick for the last eight years to tell us how things would go in Iraq, and they have been wrong at nearly every turn. They told us victory in Iraq would be easy and we would be greeted as liberators. (You can watch McCain say it here and here.) Things didn't work out that way. Now Bush and McCain tell us that there will be disaster if the U.S. removes its forces. Why should we believe them?

And now with al-Maliki making his intentions clear that a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals is important and the "goal is to end the presence" of foreign troops, where does it leave the Bush-McCain plans for Iraq? How can you rail against plans to bring home American personnel when the Iraqi government is in favor of making those same preparations?

This issue is not the only problem Bush and McCain face on Iraq, with several other factors pointing to the need of the U.S. military to decrease (or eliminate) its presence in the country. The war in Iraq has stretched the American military beyond its limits, leaving the United States vulnerable and making sustaining troop levels in Iraq impossible (according to Congressional testimony by generals, a press release by Republican Senator Richard Lugar and statements by former secretary of state Colin Powell). A June 23 report released by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) accused the administration of having no plan for a post-surge Iraq and laid out the lack of political reconciliation and other issues with the Iraqi government. And on July 2, Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Taliban has gained strength in Afghanistan, but that the U.S. does not have enough military personnel in the country to address the new threat because of the commitment of resources to the war in Iraq.

There is ample evidence that the United States has to do something about its troop commitment in Iraq. And al-Maliki's demand for a timetable for the exit of U.S. troops from his country is the nail in the coffin for the Bush-McCain policy.

Al-Maliki may be a surrender date supporter and a Defeato-Shiite (in the eyes of Bush and McCain), but it's his country, after all. The question is whether Bush and McCain are willing to listen. Or, more importantly, if the American voters are paying attention. If they are, it doesn't bode well for McCain in November.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Ignoring the 'Rocks in Glass Houses' Rule, McCain Supporters Are Now Calling Obama a Flip-Flopper

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

Sen. Joseph Lieberman's 15-minute appearance on ABC's This Week yesterday morning essentially boiled down to this message: Americans should vote for John McCain because his position on Iraq has been consistent and correct, whereas Barack Obama has flip-flopped on Iraq and other issues, so much so that the American people cannot trust him.

As I watched, I got increasingly angrier as neither host George Stephanopoulos, nor guest Sen. Jack Reed, a Democratic U.S. senator from Rhode Island who was, allegedly, there to be Obama's advocate, made the obvious point that McCain has flip-flopped on virtually every issue, including Iraq, exponentially more severely than Obama's recent position changes.

Considering McCain's record, how ballsy does the McCain camp have to be to accuse Obama of flip-flopping? Or, put another way, how apathetic does McCain think the voters are that the campaign can get away with accusing Obama of the very thing that has been McCain's biggest weakness?

The interview revealed two major points that Obama will have to consistently address if he is to win in November.

The first is that Obama opened himself up to these attacks, unnecessarily, I think. His cross-party appeal has been based on his argument that he is not a typical politician. That is, he has a set of principles, which all involve solving problems and putting aside any kind of divisions (party, race, region, etc. ... remember, Obama is the man who said: "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America"). No matter what land mines he and his advisers think await him on specific issues, I would urge Obama to consider that no greater threat exists for him than a blow to the idea that he is a man of principle. As he says on the campaign trail: "I can promise you this - I will always say what I mean and mean what I say." Well, changing positions on issues in a way that feels politically calculated isn't consistent with this statement.

Moderates and Republicans that have embraced Obama have done so due to his authenticity. These voters were willing to put aside differences on individual issues to embrace a candidate who stood for something bigger, specifically integrity and bipartisanship. So it would seem to follow that no one policy issue can damage Obama as much as a blow to the integrity of his positions. Voters seem willing to vote for Obama, even if they have different views on some issues, so long as they think he is different than most politicians. Anything that Obama does to make him seem just like every other person running for office strikes at the very heart of his appeal.

And that is why I am so troubled by Obama's tack to the center in the last week on FISA, handguns and Iraq. On FISA, Obama went from standing with Senators Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) in opposing retroactive immunity, to last week saying he would support the "compromise" bill that essentially gives President Bush everything he wants, including civil immunity for the telecommunications companies that engaged in the administration's illegal wiretapping program. (Keith Olbermann offered an insightful Special Comment on Obama's choices in the FISA issue, which you can watch here.) Obama then hedged on the Supreme Court's ruling overturning the ban on handguns in Washington, D.C. And most dangerously, Obama's statement that he would "refine" his position on troop withdrawals from Iraq resulted in headlines that Obama had adjusted his position on the issue. Obama claimed that the statement did not mark a change in his views, but why did he put himself in that position in the first place?

Republicans immediately jumped on all of these alleged shifts in Obama's positions to call him a flip-flopper and play into American fears that voters don't really know who Obama is and for what he stands. I am gutted that Obama is giving this opening to the GOP. I understand that he is afraid of being branded as soft on terrorism -- a fear that seems to be genetically encoded in the DNA of Democrats -- but nothing is as big a threat to Obama's candidacy as losing his image as the candidate of integrity. His policy shifts risk so much more than the alleged gains they may bring with independent voters.

Don't get me wrong: I have no problem with Obama organically making adjustments to his positions based on changes in underlying facts. There is a strong argument to be made that one of the primary character flaws that brought down the Bush presidency was his stubborn refusal to change his programs, even after it became clear that his original assumptions were incorrect. I would support Obama saying to the American people regarding an issue, "These factors have changed, so I believe that we now should be doing this."

But that's not the argument Obama is making to the electorate on FISA, guns or Iraq. Rather, what Obama seems to be doing is making the classic "move to the center" that presidential candidates often make after securing the nomination. But Obama's successful campaign has been built on the idea that he is not a typical Washington politician, and his is not a typical presidential campaign. His policy shifts are being portrayed by Republicans (and possibly are being received by voters) as pandering for votes. And that is exactly what Obama should not be doing. It's like he is helping the Republicans undermine his candidacy.

Which brings us to the second point, which is that Obama has to make clear to voters that McCain has managed to flip-flip on nearly every major policy position. If McCain's argument is that Obama cannot be trusted because he has shifted his positions over time, then by McCain's own logic, he himself should be trusted far less, since he has been a far, far larger offender on this count than Obama could ever be accused of being.

Obama can't control the media, who, for the most part, are giving McCain a free pass on the issue. But Obama can certainly send word to his surrogates who appear on news shows to strenuously make this point. It was indefensible for Reed to sit there silently on This Week while Lieberman hammered Obama over and over again for being a flip-flopper. Reed should have immediately listed the clear and lengthy record McCain has of changing positions on issues solely for political expediency. (If Reed is auditioning for the vice-presidential slot on the ticket, to me, he blew it yesterday.)

If the Republicans want to make the race for the White House a question of who has been more true to his positions over time, that is a battle the Democrats can win, given the records of Obama and McCain. But it's up to Obama and his campaign to make sure that McCain's record is out there, since, as the GOP has proven, the party doesn't need the facts on its side to convince the electorate of something. This is, after all, the party that swayed the American people to believe that John Kerry, who went to Vietnam and was wounded, was somehow less patriotic than Bush, who used the influence of his wealthy parents to get out of having to fight in the war. If Obama isn't careful, the GOP will paint him as a flip-flopper, facts be damned.

To set the record straight, and to provide ammunition for seemingly blind journalists and Obama surrogates, here is a partial list of McCain's major flip-flops:

McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts, saying they disproportionately benefited the wealthiest Americans, and advocated for delaying the tax cuts to pay for the Iraq war and reconstruction. But then, as the 2008 election drew nearer, he voted to extend the Bush tax cuts and made making them permanent a central tenet in his economic plan. (Tim Russert on Meet the Press pointed out the change in position to McCain in 2007. You can view the exchange here.)

As for the estate tax, McCain, in a June 8, 2006 speech in the Senate, said, "most great civilized countries have an income tax and an inheritance tax," and “in my judgment both should be part of our system of federal taxation." But by June 2008, he was calling the estate tax "one of the most unfair tax laws on the books."

In the period leading up to the war in 2002, McCain was a vocal supporter of the invasion, agreeing with the administration's claims that victory would be fast and easy, and that the U.S. would be greeted by the Iraqis as liberators. By 2007, he was publicly complaining that "America was led to believe this would be some kind of day at a beach," and that he knew it would be a "long and tough" war all along. McCain essentially switched positions 180 degrees, first siding with the "this will be easy" propaganda of the administration before the war, and then bashing that same strategy when he wanted to defend "the surge" he supported (and, presumably, distance himself from remarks that ended up being proven tragically wrong).

A list of McCain's statements over time can be found here and here (in an Olbermann Special Comment, better video/audio can be found here).

Guantanamo Bay and Torture
McCain spoke out (as a former prisoner of war) against torture and the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, but while running for president in this cycle, he voted against the torture-ban bill in the senate and criticized the Supreme Court's decision last month allowing hearings for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Campaign Finance Reform
McCain has gotten great mileage from citing his sponsorship of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill as an example of his "maverick" nature and his willingness to anger his own party to do what he thinks is right. Certainly, in 2000, that argument might have been backed by the facts. But in 2006, McCain abandoned the bill that was named after him and did not support Feingold's campaign finance efforts, apparently with his quest for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination in mind.

GI Bill
After opposing Sen. Jim Webb's (D-Va.) bill to provide benefits to veterans -- one that had 54 sponsors in the Senate -- (including telling Obama that he did not have to defend his position to him because Obama did not serve in the military), McCain then embraced the passage of the GI Bill as part of the war funding legislation (and was thanked by Bush as being one of the senators responsible for its passage).

Jerry Falwell and the Religious Right
When running for president in 2000, McCain decried "agents of intolerance like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell." By the time his run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination came around, he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press that he did not believe Falwell was an agent of intolerance and gave the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University.

In 1999, McCain told the San Francisco Chronicle that while he was pro-life, he did not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade, because doing so would require women to undergo "illegal and dangerous operations." But in 2006, McCain told George Stephanopoulos that he supported the repeal of Roe v. Wade, as well as a constitutional amendment banning abortion (with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother being endangered).

Offshore Oil Drilling
When McCain ran for president in 2000, he opposed offshore oil drilling. Now, he is in favor of it, saying it is up to the states that control the shorelines to decide.

Privatizing Social Security
McCain supported Bush's efforts to privatize a portion of Social Security accounts in 2004, saying, "Without privatization, I don’t see how you can possibly, over time, make sure that young Americans are able to receive Social Security benefits." Bush's efforts never gained popular traction and failed, even with a Republican-controlled congress. McCain, apparently, learned his lesson. On June 12, 2008, McCain told a New Hampshire town hall meeting audience that "I’m not for, quote, privatizing Social Security. I never have been. I never will be." (Watch for yourself here.)

The Federal Budget
McCain can't seem to make up his mind over whether or not he will balance the budget in his first term as president. On February 15, McCain told a campaign audience he would balance the budget by the end of his first term. By April 15, he had changed that prediction to balancing the budget within eight years. (He blamed the souring economy for his change in plan, but that, to me, only makes matters worse, since it's not like high gas prices and the fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis weren't already problems in February.)

In 2006, McCain reached across the aisle to work with Sen. Edward Kennedy on an immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship for immigrants. By the time the 2008 race heated up and McCain had to participate in the Republican debates, surrounded by strong anti-immigrant candidates, he shifted his position, even saying at one point that he would not vote for the same bill he worked on if it came up for a vote at that point.

Attack Politics
McCain vocally decried the dirty attacks he endured from Bush during the 2000 primary season, and yet, by 2006, when McCain was assembling his team for his run for the 2008 nomination, he reached out to many of the same Bush supporters (that he had called "coyotes") who had supported attacks on him in 2000. Similarly, the McCain campaign used Bud Day, one of the notorious Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who attacked John Kerry in 2004, to rebut remarks made by retired general Wesley Clark. In 2004, McCain used the words “dishonest and dishonorable” to describe the Swift Boat attack advertisement, urging Bush to condemn it. He added, "It was the same kind of deal that was pulled on me."

So Much More
From his position on the Everglades, to Katrina (also here), to a host of environmental issues, to oil policy (Olbermann's Special Report on the Enron exception and McCain's connections to big oil does a good job of making this point), to lobbyists in his campaign, there are myriad issues on which McCain has changed his position.

See For Yourself
Here are some additional videos and sites that outline McCain's flip-flops:

McCain v. McCain by Robert Greenwald (video)

CNN's Jack Cafferty discusses McCain's change in positions (video)

A list of 10 McCain flip-flops

A huge list of McCain gaffes and flip-flops

A blog dedicated to McCain's flip-flops

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Is “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” Entertaining for Adults?

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

If you are over the age of 30, here is the first thing you need to know about the ABC Family show “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” (Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern): The ads trumpeting Molly Ringwald as the star of the program are nothing more than an old-fashioned bait-and-switch scam, meant, I’m guessing, to dupe adults into watching this teen drama. Yes, Ringwald graces the cast as Anne, mother of the series lead, 15-year-old Amy (Shailene Woodley of “The O.C.”), but she is very much “the mom,” with few lines, and even fewer meaningful moments (unless you find cooking dinner and saying things like “Are you feeling okay?” the height of drama).

“Teenager” is the story of a 15-year-old girl who gets pregnant, so certainly there is mileage to be gained in casting Ringwald as the mother, since she once played a pregnant teen herself, in the 1988 movie “For Keeps?” (her last successful film as a lead). But the show firmly belongs to the kids.

And there are lot of them. Amy, the “nice” girl who gets pregnant, has two best friends, the dramatic Madison (Renee Olstead of “Still Standing”) and the more even-keeled Lauren (Camille Winbush of “The Bernie Mac Show”). The father of her fetus is the troubled serial womanizer Ricky (newcomer Daren Kagasoff), who, despite being a kind of cool guy in high school, attended band camp with Amy. Ricky is dating and trying to bed the sharp-tongued temptress Adrian (Francia Raisa). Meanwhile, Ben (Kenny Baumann, who seems to have attended the Adam Brody School of Acting for Cool Nerds), who is upset about his lack of a love life, has taken a liking to Amy, initially at the prodding of his two best friends, Alice (Amy Rider of “24”), a brainiac girl who never smiles but has a rapier wit and is a treasure trove of information on sexual statistics, and the nondescript fellow nerd Henry (Allen Evangelista of “Zoey 101”).

Are you keeping up?

All the guys go ga-ga over cheerleader Grace (Megan Park), but she is a devout Christian (and virgin) and is dating football star Jack (Greg Finley), who while also a devout Christian, is having trouble reconciling his religious desire for abstinence with his male desire for sex. Before long, Adrian, recognizing Jack’s dilemma, senses an opportunity and turns her attention to trying to bed him. The one adult allowed to regularly interact with the kids is the new guidance counselor (the girl’s think he’s dreamy) Marc Molina (Jorge Pallo), who reluctantly helps Ben in his quest to win over Amy.

With the cavalcade of teenagers, it’s no wonder Hampton decided to throw in some former stars from earlier eras into the mix, even if they don’t have a whole lot to do, to try and lure in the adults. In addition to Ringwald playing Amy’s mom, John Schneider (“The Dukes of Hazzard”) and Josie Bissett (“Melrose Place”) portray Grace’s parents, and Ernie Hudson (“Ghost Busters”) plays Ricky’s hip shrink.

I’m sure that kids will love Hampton’s quippy dialogue, the recognizable high school types, and the edgy pregnant-teen subject matter. (In fact, Tuesday’s premiere of “Teenager” was the highest-rated original series telecast in ABC Family’s history, drawing more than 600,000 women in the 18-to-34 age bracket alone.) So I won’t pretend to assess if the show works for young people. But since ABC Family has aggressively marketed Ringwald and Bissett’s presence in the cast, I think it’s fair to ask if the show works for adults (that is, people who remember Ringwald in “Sixteen Candles” and the “Breakfast Club” and Bissett on “Melrose Place”).

The short answer is: not really. There is something inherently stiff about “Teenager.” All of the young actors are likable enough (especially Woodley), but none of them exhibit the kind of natural performances that are present in the best teenage dramas (think about Claire Danes’s Angela Chase and her friends in “My So-Called Life”). Everything feels “this much” off, whether it’s the football team only having about 15 guys, or the cliché moment when a frazzled mother hands a baby to Amy to hold (and she has no idea what to do), or the on-the-nose, “Good Will Hunting” light scene between Ricky and his shrink.

The sets and performances aren’t up to par for a network drama. And the plot arcs are not sophisticated enough. Everything in the premiere comes together way too quickly. The material in the first episode of “Teenager” was enough to fill the first four episodes of a network program with a more contemplative pace.

The most interesting thing about “Teenager,” though I can’t decide if it’s a good thing or not, is its portrayal of Grace and her religion. In most teen films and television shows, there would be only two ways to go with Grace: Either her faith would be used as a key character trait of a villain (think the evil blonde cheerleader type), or she would be portrayed as angelic, almost actively promoting Christianity to the viewer. Hampton doesn’t do either. While there are plenty of jokes surrounding Grace’s religious leanings (she perkily promotes a post-game dance at her church, her acceptance of a chastity promise ring from her father freaks out Jack, etc.), her faith itself is not played as a joke. But at the same time, Grace isn’t vilified, either. The show portrays her as a Christian in the same way that Ben is presented as a geek or Amy is presented as a nice girl. Just as yet another defining characteristic for a teen.

The film and television fan in me appreciated the fresh approach, but the secularist in me was uncomfortable with long scenes discussing Grace and Jack’s Christian faith. And even if it was truthful to how kids in this situation might react, Madison’s outright dismissal of abortion as an option for Amy’s predicament rubbed me the wrong way. Television has the power to reach a lot of people, and I don’t think the message to send to American teenagers is that terminating the pregnancy of a 15-year-old girl is not an option.

There are certainly elements of the show I admired. It was laudable that Hampton designed Amy’s world as racially and ethnically inclusive, with no discussion as to the fact of anyone’s race or heritage. A typically suburban high school would have African-American, Hispanic and Asian kids, but too infrequently, movies and television programs don’t include a diverse student population.

And I like the tentative courtship between Amy and Ben. It isn’t often that teen romance is portrayed as awkward (something "My So-Called Life" did expertly well), but such an approach feels infinitely more real. The heightened stakes help things along, too, as Amy is falling for Ben with the full knowledge that she is hiding a secret that has to come out eventually.

Most of all, I liked how the show isn’t afraid to address “adult” themes that teenagers regularly address today, including sexuality. Grace and Jack discuss whether oral sex qualifies as sex, and Grace’s approach to the discussion was not what you may expect (again, refusing to portray her as a cartoon religious nut or as a mindless angelic figure). And the source of Ricky’s womanizing is a daring choice by Hampton (I won’t spoil the twist).

But in the end, too much about “Teenager” doesn’t work for adults. While I’m sure the show is top-notch entertainment for teens, there isn’t enough there for the over-30 crowd. ABC Family certainly got some extra eyeballs by featuring Molly Ringwald and Josie Bissett in its commercials, but unless Hampton gives them something of substance to do in the show, the older set is not going to stick around. At least that’s how I feel. My affection for Ringwald was enough to get me in front of my set for the first episode, but I don’t think I’ll be catching next week’s show.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Clark Was Right on McCain, But Now We're Talking About the Wrong Issue

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

"Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president." Those are the words retired general Wesley Clark spoke about John McCain on CBS's Face the Nation that have caused an uproar in the latest instance of "gotcha" politics.

While I agree with Clark's premise, I wish the discussion was about McCain's alleged experience advantage over Barack Obama. The flap over Clark's statements could have provided a springboard for Obama to dispel some myths on this issue.

As for Clark's statement, which part of it is untrue? McCain's military service, his survival of his captivity, and his ability to bounce back from the horrors he faced to become a U.S. senator certainly inspires a lot of adjectives: brave, resilient, selfless, strong, principled, and patriotic, just to name a few. But go back and read Clark's statement. He simply said that McCain's fate in Vietnam was not a qualification to be president. Isn't that true? McCain's war experiences would not, in and of themselves, mean he is ready to practice law, do surgery, or even remove dangerous mold from a house. It's about skill sets, and the act of having your plane shot down is not relevant to the skills of being an executive.

If anyone had bothered to read the context of Clark's statement (I know, I know, I'm asking way too much now ...), prior to making the claim that rocked the punditry world (at least for a news cycle or two), the retired general said:

"In the matters of national security policy making, it's a matter of understanding risk. It's a matter of gauging your opponents and it's a matter of being held accountable. John McCain's never done any of that in his official positions. I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war. He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee and he has traveled all over the world, but he hasn't held executive responsibility."

Quite clearly, Clark wasn't impugning McCain's patriotism or war record. Quite the contrary. Instead, Clark was simply making the factual point that McCain's lifetime of service, while commendable, did not involve the specific skills and experiences that are involved in holding the highest executive office in the country.

Obama's response was to immediately defend McCain's patriotism (as well as his own), implicitly rejecting Clark's statements (he never used his name). In doing so, Obama missed a real opportunity to comment on an issue that stands as one of his largest impediments to winning the White House in November: The perceived advantage in "experience" that McCain holds over Obama.

On nearly every issue in which voters have expressed interest (the economy, health care, the environment, etc.), polls seem to indicate that Americans trust Obama more than McCain. The one area in which McCain holds an advantage is on national security. There is a perception, one the mainstream media is responsible for reinforcing, that when it comes to security, McCain has extensive experience, while Obama is a novice.

I believe this premise is fatally flawed.

First, experience isn't a good thing if it's bad experience. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had oodles of experience in 2002, but that didn't stop them from making awful decisions and being wrong on virtually every prediction on what would happen in Iraq. If experience means four more years of Bush administration policy, I would say experience is vastly overrated.

Second, I believe there is a strong case to be made that Obama has a superior record on key national defense issues ("good" experience, you might say).

My argument is that, as Clark points out, the judgment of a chief executive is paramount, with a "buck stops here" nature to these decisions and a real need to make sound judgments in the face of difficult facts. And when you look at the single most important national security decision of the last decade, history has shown Obama's judgment to have been vastly superior to McCain's.

I am, of course, talking about Iraq.

On October 2, 2002, nine days before the U.S. senate voted on a resolution authorizing the president to use military action in Iraq, the nation was marching steadily forward toward a war. The mainstream media was doing nothing to challenge the administration's claims about Iraq, and the political climate was one of fear, where politicians perceived a real career risk in opposing the president (only 21 senators had the nerve to vote against the resolution). But on that date, Obama, then a state senator in Illinois, gave a speech against military intervention in Iraq.

The speech's theme and refrain was: "I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars." Obama said early in the address: "What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne."

We may take this statement as a given now, but in 2002, it was not an accepted mainstream position.

Obama then went on to say: "Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda."

Remember, this is 2002, and Obama's predictions came true, as if he had a crystal ball in front of him. That is the type of judgment Obama showed, at a time when expressing this opinion was not only challenging what was being reported by the mainstream media, but was also viewed by many politicians (including more than 20 Democrats in the U.S. senate) as being politically dangerous.

And in October 2002, what did McCain do? He voted for the war resolution. He supported the president for the early years of the war. Sure, he enjoys boasting about his support for the surge and claims that it is the right strategy, but that doesn't change the fact that when American lives were on the line in October 2002, McCain made the wrong call. And, in light of the recently released report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), indicating that the surge is not going as well as McCain and Bush would have you believe, and the recent congressional testimony by generals, press release by Republican Senator Richard Lugar and statements by former secretary of state Colin Powell on the dire state of the military because of the debacle in Iraq, McCain's current stance on the war should lead many Americans to conclude that his judgment was wrong when it counted most.

Or, to put it in more campaign-friendly, sound-bite ready terms: The Iraq war has turned out to be the one of the worst foreign policy decisions made by the United States in the last 100 years, and McCain supported it from the beginning (and continues to support it now). Meanwhile, Obama has shown good judgment by consistently opposing the war in Iraq, regardless of political pressures.

So I would argue that on national security, based on the actual decisions made by the candidates, Obama has shown better judgment as a leader, regardless of any perceived gap in experience. And that should have been the theme of Obama's response to the uproar over Clark's remarks.

It's time to put the myth to rest, once and for all, that McCain's military duty or senate service has provided him with some kind of necessity to be commander-in-chief that Obama lacks. And the key to making that distinction is pointing to what the two men did in 2002. At a key moment in our history, Obama got it right, and McCain got it wrong. We are paying a dear price for McCain's mistake now. We can't afford to give him four years to make things even worse.