Friday, February 27, 2009

New Shows for the Spring Season: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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

Spring is here, and that means that it's time for warmer weather, baseball and a whole bunch of new (and returning) television programs. Maybe we should call it the "Grey's Anatomy" season, since ABC aired the first episode of the hit hospital-based drama on March 27, 2005, and surely the networks will be hoping for similar success as they roll out a bunch of new offerings between now and the middle of April.

So, as I have been known to do, it's time for the lists of the new programs I am most and least looking forward to watching. When I last previewed new shows, in January, the pickings were so slim that I couldn't find a third entry I was looking forward to (I had no trouble filling my roster of programs that looked like bad bets, though). I am happy to report that this time around, I had the exact opposite problem. With a bunch of new sitcoms and some other interesting programs set to hit the air, it was tough narrowing my good list to three. And, shockingly (for me), I had trouble finding three new shows that I felt deserved to be taken to task.

Without further ado, on to the lists:

The good:

3. "The Unusuals" (ABC, debuts Wednesday, April 10 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern)
Anyone who regularly reads this space knows that I'm not big on police procedurals, or really cop shows of any kind. But when I went through the sitcoms that are debuting this spring, I realized that I had reservations about all of them (see item 2, below, for more). So rather than make a half-hearted pitch for a comedy just because I'm such a fan of sitcoms, I decided that there was a more deserving show for this slot, despite it being a cop show.

From Noah Hawley, the creator of "Bones," "The Unusuals" is, as the ABC Web site puts it, "a modern-day 'M*A*S*H'" that "explores both the grounded drama and comic insanity of the world of New York City police detectives." That description would have struck me as being highly unlikely had I not seen the preview on TV. But I liked the snappy dialogue and the tone of the trailer, and I am a big fan of Adam Goldberg, whose character, a detective that wants to kill himself in the line of duty, seems perfectly suited to his dark-comic persona.

If "The Unusuals" was being offered by CBS, I would have no interest in another by-the-numbers cop show. But this take on the police world looks to have found a fresh angle on the topic. At the very least, it has gotten my attention, and I will certainly check it out.

2. "Parks and Recreation" (NBC, debuts Thursday, April 9, at least that's what a press release said a few weeks ago, but there is no date on NBC's Web site now)
This was the hardest one to figure out. I'm always in favor of networks launching new sitcoms, but I am always worried that if they aren't good, they will only further injure a less-than-healthy genre. And as I mentioned earlier, none of the new comedies screamed "can't miss" to me. ABC has three offerings, all of which look okay, and all of which I'll check out, but all of which also have red flags, and none of which earned the right to a spot on the list. "Better Off Ted" (debuts Wednesday, March 18 at 8:30), set in a wacky office, is created by Victor Fresco, who cut his teeth on "My Name Is Earl" and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" (a favorite of mine), and one of the stars is Andrea Anders (from "The Class" and "Joey"), who I like a lot. But I'm not a fan of Portia de Rossi, nor do I like Jay Harrington (the smarmy doctor who kissed Addison on "Private Practice"), the guy who plays the eponymous Ted, and, most of all, nothing in the commercials for the show made me laugh. (Besides, I object to there being another sitcom Ted besides Josh Radnor's character on "How I Met Your Mother"!) I like that "Surviving Suburbia" (debuts Monday, April 6, at 9:30 Eastern) is an old-school family sitcom, starring Bob Saget and Cynthia Stevenson and produced by veterans of "Grace Under Fire," "Roseanne" and "Reba." But the show looks like it could be a bit too old school, and I never liked "Grace Under Fire," "Roseanne" and "Reba." Finally, "In the Motherhood" (debuting Thursday, March 26 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern), starring Megan Mullally (Karen on "Will & Grace") and Cheryl Hines (Larry's wife on "Curb Your Enthusiasm") as harried mothers, came closest to clawing its way into the top three. I'm a big fan of Hines, and Mullally can be very funny (like her cameo in the season premiere of "30 Rock"), but the premise seems a little tired (all the moms are "types"), and the tabloid tales of trouble on the set are not a good sign for a program that hasn't even aired yet.

I just couldn't bring myself to elevate "Sit Down, Shut Up" (debuts Sunday, April 19 at 8:30 p.m. Eastern) because even though the animated comedy is from Mitchell Hurwitz of "Arrested Development," it's also from two producers from the complete crap fest that is "Two and a Half Men," it is set in a Florida bumpkin town (I'm not a big fan of the "King of the Hill" vein of Southern humor), and I have trouble becoming attached to animated series.

So that leaves "Parks and Recreation," created by Greg Daniels, the brain behind the American version of "The Office," and starring Amy Poehler, in her first post-"Saturday Night Live" prime-time effort, as a parks department worker. Just like with the other new comedies, there are certainly red flags with "Parks." The show has had a bit of a turbulent history, with Daniels originally planning an "Office" spin-off, and then changing it to a new concept. There has also been changing information coming from the network. The show didn't have a name until recently, and, as I noted above, I'm not even positive when it's debuting. And for every Tina Fey transitioning seamlessly from "Saturday Night Live" to the sitcom world, there are several Molly Shannons marooned in lesser shows (in the case of Shannon's "Kath and Kim," an out-and-out debacle).

What raised this sitcom above the others? Well, mainly these four things: First, I love "The Office," and "Parks" also will employ the mockumentary style. If anyone can pull it off, Daniels can. Second, "Office" alum Rashida Jones, who is very funny and deserving of a better vehicle than her short-lived unfunny comedy "Unhitched," co-stars. Third, if "Parks and Recreation" is going to replace "Kath and Kim," it deserves support for that fact alone. And finally, in light of the beat down I'm about to give NBC, I figured karma required me to toss the formerly Must See network a bone. So "Parks and Recreation" gets the number two slot, but you have been warned.

1. "Cupid" (ABC, debuts Tuesday, March 31 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern)
Remakes are the norm in Hollywood, but it is something completely different to reboot a 10-year-old critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged one-hour dramedy that didn't last a season before being cancelled. So give ABC credit for having the guts to try. The original, which, I am sad to say, I have never seen, was an early showcase for Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall (as well as Paul Adelstein of "Private Practice"), and was Rob Thomas's first chance to steer a ship of his own after writing for "Dawson's Creek."

Thomas went on to run the smart and innovative "Veronica Mars," and he is back to oversee the remake of "Cupid," bringing along much of his "Veronica" crew to write and produce, including Diane Ruggiero ("The Ex-List"). Bobby Canavale (Will's cop boyfriend on "Will & Grace") steps into Piven's wings as the maybe-crazy, maybe-sincere guy who claims he is the real Cupid, sent by Zeus to bring 100 couples together, and Sarah Paulson (of my beloved, but few others', "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip") takes over Marshall's role as the psychiatrist charged with keeping an eye on him.

For me, a remake of a prematurely cancelled critic's darling, run by Thomas and starring Canavale and Paulson, is something I definitely want to see. In fact, it's the show I most want to see, so it earns the number one position on the list.

The bad:

3. "Kings" (NBC, debuts Sunday, March 15 at 8:00 p.m.)
Maybe it's the pretentiously cryptic ads running on NBC. Or maybe it's the pretentiously cryptic posters on the New York trains. Or maybe it's the fact that the NBC Web site pretentiously describes "Kings" as "a riveting new drama about a modern day monarchy" that "is a contemporary re-telling of the timeless tale of David and Goliath" which is "an epic story of greed and power, war and romance, forbidden loves and secret alliances -- and a young hero who rises to power in a modern-day kingdom."

But maybe it's just that the whole thing looks more like an over-the-top made-for-television movie than a series, and, worst of all, just looks, well, pretentious. Yeah, everything about it is not my cup of tea. But I watched "Heroes" for a couple of seasons (Michael Green, the executive producer of "Kings," comes from "Heroes"), so I'm willing to give a sprawling epic that looks interesting and entertaining a try. "Kings" looks neither.

2. "Chopping Block" (NBC, debuts Wednesday, March 11 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern)
I know I pick on NBC a lot, but they really do ask for it. I mean, if you put a horribly written disaster of a sitcom on between "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office," I'm going to call you on it. And if you have a habit of taking already tired reality show premises and making the umpteenth knock-off of them, I'm really going to call you on it. So when NBC aired the 1,674th knock-off of "The Bachelor," and added as the twist a racist mother describing in disturbing detail how sexy her son is, I had to write about how awful it is. And when you are third in on the dance show craze, airing something that is a knock-off of a knock-off of "American Idol," you are going to end up in the top spot of one of my lists of shows I'm not looking forward to.

Oh, NBC, when will you learn? I know you're in last place, you haven't developed a successful new scripted show in a long time, and you've proven to be so desperate, you've quit the 10 p.m. slot and handed it over to a daily talk show. But, seriously, are you banking on saving the network with a "Hell's Kitchen" knock-off? Four years after the original debuted? And after Bravo already launched it's version of a cooking competition show, "Top Chef," three years ago? It's a cooking competition with a British chef (Marco Pierre White), just like "Hell's Kitchen." Are you even making an effort? According to the NBC Web site, "Chopping Block" is a "a new original cooking competition series." Yes, I know it will feature couples rather than individuals, but, come on ... original? About as original as "Superstars of Dance" and "Momma's Boys" were. And how did that work out for you?

Let's face it, NBC. You really gave me no choice.

The ugly:

Since I could not find a third obviously crappy new program for the bad list (how cool is that?), I decided to reserve the final (and top) slot for an especially odious returning series, one that, shockingly, is being brought back by ... NBC:

1. "The Celebrity Apprentice" (NBC, debuts Sunday, March 1 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern)
Here is a list of things I truly detest:
- Donald Trump
- Reality shows that focus on the worst aspects of human nature and enforce negative stereotypes
- Donald Trump
- Joan Rivers (while I respect her early work as a pioneering female comic, her development into a plastic-surgery-addicted, mean-spirited, soul-selling, fashion-obsessed shrew was sad)
- Donald Trump
- Melissa Rivers
- Donald Trump
- People famous for being famous, but who possess no actual skill or talent (like Khloe Kardashian)
- Donald Trump

So you can imagine that the return of "Celebrity Apprentice" is about as low as television can get, by my estimation. I don't know why anyone would want to be in the same room as Donald Trump, let alone work for him (or watch him or watch people that want to impress him). To me, he stands for greed, ego, arrogance and materialism, the very qualities that have destroyed our economy. This is entertainment? It would be more fun to watch foreclosure proceedings.

But when you consider that most of this year's contestants are well past their primes in their careers, I guess desperation is a powerful force. For the record, this year's pathetic chasers of 15 more minutes of fame are: poker player Annie Duke, has-been comic Andrew Dice Clay, singer Brian McKnight, "Baywatch" and Playboy alum Brande Roderick, country singer Clint Black, "Deal or No Deal" suitcase model Claudia Jordan (I predict she'll be secretly pining for Howie Mandel 14 seconds after arriving on the set), former basketball player/tabloid staple Dennis Rodman, retired football player Herschel Walker (odd choice for him, since the the last time he was in the news was because he claimed he suffered from multiple personality disorder), motorcycle dude Jesse James, plastic surgery casualty Joan Rivers, talentless fame monger Khloe Kardashian, nepotism personified Melissa Rivers, golfer Natalie Gulbis, figure skater and announcer Scott Hamilton, comedian and member of the witness protection program (or maybe it only seems that way) Tom Green and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins of TLC.

(I should note that I didn't purposely set out to put three NBC shows on my "no interest" list. It just worked out that way. Seriously.)

Other New Shows of Note
Nathan Fillion takes another shot at prime time in the writer-cop buddy show "Castle" (ABC, debuts Monday, March 9 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern); Lisa Kudrow helps celebrities discover their family histories on "Who Do You Think You Are?" (NBC, debuts Monday, April 20 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern); John Wells fills his "E.R." time slot with the L.A.-based cop show "Southland" (NBC, Thursday, April 9 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern), at least until Jay Leno claims it in a few months (Benjamin McKenzie of "The O.C." stars); I really wanted to put "Harper's Island" (CBS, debuts Thursday, April 9 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern), which sounds like a bad teen horror film brought to the small screen (people travel to an island for a wedding and start getting killed one by one; dig this laugh-out-loud description on the CBS Web site: "Although they've come to laugh and love, what they don't know is they've also come ... to die."), on my bad list, but I have to give it props for its innovative approach (they are going to kill a character each week until the mystery is solved at the end of the 13-episode season); and remember that Jimmy Fallon replaces Conan O'Brien starting on Monday, March 2 (NBC, 12:35 a.m. Eastern), and Conan slides into Leno's chair on Monday, June 1 (NBC, 11:35 p.m. Eastern).

Monday, February 23, 2009

Are GOP Governors Who Turn Down Stimulus Money Unpatriotic?

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

If someone questioned the patriotism of the Republican governors who have said that they will turn down portions of the federal stimulus money intended for their states, I would have a hard time arguing with them.

Hey, if the Republicans can accuse the Democrats of being unpatriotic when they were in the minority, isn't turnabout fair play? But, actually, the Democrats would have far more basis to make their charge than the Republicans ever did. During the second term of the Bush administration, Republicans often questioned the patriotism of Democrats who sought to have a timetable for troop withdrawals included in Iraq-funding legislation. The White House called the party "Defeatocrats" and accused Democrats of advocating "surrender dates." Such charges were quite disgusting, since, clearly, the Democrats in Congress were laying out a vision of what they thought was best for the United States, not trying to do harm to their own country. Providing a competing vision for the nation's best course of action is not unpatriotic, especially given that it was the disastrous policies and execution of the Bush administration in Iraq that cost the U.S. dearly, in lives lost, lives ruined, money wasted, and respect in the world squandered. Advocating a change was a patriotic thing to do.

The same logic does not apply to the Republican governors passing up money from the stimulus package. In doing so, they are affirmatively taking action that is not in the best interests of their constituents, all for political gain. For example, on Meet the Press yesterday, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana told David Gregory that he would turn down $100 million from the federal government to extend lapsed unemployment benefits for out-of-work Louisiana citizens. (A transcript of the show is available here.) Jindal claimed that to accept the money would require the state to raise taxes on businesses to fund the program after it expires in three years. Which is, of course, completely untrue, as Gregory pointed out, quoting the Democratic U.S. Senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu. Jindal responded that the word "permanent" was in the legislation, which meant he had to turn down the money.

This exchange demonstrated how dishonest and baldly calculating the Republican governors are in turning down federal stimulus money. With the economy in crisis (in January alone, nearly 600,000 jobs were lost, leaving the unemployment rate at 7.6 percent), Jindal's job isn't to play politics, it is to aid those in his state who are in trouble. He has an obligation to help his unemployed constituents who would have been saved, maybe from homelessness, maybe from hunger, by the extended benefits. States open and close programs all the time. Even if Jindal was right (which I doubt), that a "permanent" change was needed, what would stop the state from repealing the "permanent" change in three years through state legislative action? Is he really suggesting there is no way to undo the program, ever? And that it is good policy to allow his citizens to suffer needlessly?

If Jindal's game-playing wasn't so damaging to the people of his state, it would be entertaining in its transparency. But Jindal revealed how he views things, even if it was inadvertent, when he said, "My job is to represent Louisiana's taxpayers." No, Gov. Jindal, your job is to help all of your citizens, not just the ones currently paying taxes. When you throw in that virtually every Jindal answer defaulted to the right-wing talking point of him believing that lowering taxes is the way to get through the severe recession, there is no doubt what Jindal was up to. He was playing politics, branding himself and his party in an effort to return to power, all at the expense of the people of his state.

Is that being patriotic?

Jindal and the Republicans think getting back to their "roots" of opposing taxes and spending is the ticket back to power. They believe that by opposing the stimulus package in Congress (not one Republican in the House and only three Republicans in the Senate supported the legislation), and now in the states, they will be able to turn the electoral tide back in their direction after two crushing defeats in 2006 and 2008.

The problem with this strategy is that the Republicans have chosen to rediscover their mythical thriftiness during the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression hit 80 years ago (and after overseeing the creation of a huge deficit after being left with a surplus). In Congress, the GOP members knew that they could put on a show, but that the legislation was going to go through anyway. No harm done. (Last Wednesday, Keith Olbermann on Countdown dubbed Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri the "Worst Person in the World" for putting out a press release and touring his state to tout the stimulus legislation that he voted against. Olbermann said that five Republicans have campaigned on the bill even though they opposed it.)

But the Republican governors don't have that same luxury. When they play political games, they are messing with the lives of their citizens. When Jindal takes unemployment checks out of the hands of a group of his out-of-work constituents, all so he can go on Meet the Press and posture for his political future, he is acting disgracefully. After all, many GOP governors, including Charlie Crist of Florida, who appeared on the show right after Jindal to defend his cooperation with the Obama administration, have demonstrated that helping their fellow Americans has to take precedence over partisan gamesmanship.

From a political point of view, I applaud the pigheaded opposition of GOP governors like Jindal and Mark Sanford of South Carolina. While they may govern safe red states, associating Republicans with doing nothing during a crisis is certainly political gold for the Democrats. But with things so tenuous now, and with people genuinely hurting, I cannot sit back and enjoy the political self-destruction, knowing that real people in real trouble will be damaged by the political game-playing of the Republicans.

When Republican governors put scoring political points over aiding their fellow Americans during a time of crisis, are they acting in a patriotic manner?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Is the Future Bleak for Scripted TV Programs?

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

Is scripted television dying?

You might think my question is pure hyperbole, but I'm not so sure. I'm not suggesting that non-reality TV is on its death bed, but I fear it has been given a terminal diagnosis and is just fading towards an eventual demise.

A number of things have made me pessimistic lately about the future of programs that are written by professional writers and performed by professional actors. For one thing, most of the successful ones have been around a while. Other than CBS (more on that later), none of the networks have been able to launch a new hit this season. And there have been precious few successful launches over the past several seasons. Yes, some scripted shows continue to bring in viewers, but as the programs grow older, if they are not replaced, what will happen then? We already know that the networks are very quick to replace middling scripted series with middling reality programs, because they cost so much less to produce (even if they have less value in the long run, which I discussed last February).

If you think I'm exaggerating, the first bullet in this war has already been fired. NBC, which hasn't established a highly rated new scripted series in years, essentially decided to stop even trying, at least for one hour a night. It has handed the weekday 10 p.m. slot over to Jay Leno. (In December, I wrote about the implications of the Leno move to prime time.)

NBC is the canary in the coal mine. In fact, when you look at the prime time Nielsen ratings for the broadcast networks last week, you can gain some interesting insights into where television currently stands. For starters, of the top 20 top entries (in total viewers), only one, "Dateline," was on NBC. Think about that for a second. The network that brought us ratings juggernauts like "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "ER" did not place a single scripted program in the top 20.

Then again, there were only 13 non-reality shows in the top 20. Three of the leaders were news magazines, and the other four consisted of the two days of "American Idol," "Survivor" and "The Bachelor." And it's not just reality shows that are clogging the top 20: Eight of the 13 slots were filled by CBS police procedurals. (Yes, fully 40 percent of the 20 top-rated programs were of one genre offered by one network.) That left only five places, which were filled by three ABC nighttime soaps ("Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Grey's" spin-off "Private Practice," which was boosted by a cross-over episode with "Grey's") and two CBS sitcoms ("Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory"). If you're keeping score at home, 12 of the 20 top-rated offerings (60 percent!) were from CBS.

And of the 20 top-rated shows last week, only two were introduced this season: the CBS crime dramas "The Mentalist" and "Eleventh Hour." Most of the rest were in -- or past -- their primes: "Without a Trace" is in its seventh season, "NCIS" and "Two and a Half Men" are in their sixth, "Grey's Anatomy" and "Desperate Housewives" are in their fifth, "Criminal Minds" is in its fourth, and "Big Bang" and "Private Practice" are in their second, while the "CSI" franchises are in their ninth (Vegas), seventh (Miami) and fifth (New York) campaigns. Even buzzy programs like "Lost" (season five) and "24" (season seven) are long in the tooth and nearing the end of their runs.

So why can't we just say that CBS is doing a better job than its rivals, and that the Tiffany Network will be providing us with the future of great scripted television programming? Well, in short, because most of CBS's viewers are eligible for AARP membership. Which is fine, except for two things: advertisers are more interested in viewers in the group aged 18 to 49, and if you want to be relevant going forward, roping in the grandmas and grandpas isn't the way to do it. Each of the eight CBS police procedurals that scored in the top 20 in total viewers had a lower ranking in the 18-49 demographic, usually by a wide margin. All but one of the eight didn't make it into the top 10 with the younger set. Consider, just as an example, that "NCIS" was the fourth-highest-rated show in total numbers last week, but only 19th in the 18-49 group.

I know I've been throwing a lot of numbers around, but I think the bottom line is that television, like any industry, needs to develop a new generation of products that its customers want to consume, or its business will decline, or even die. And based on what has gone on over the last few years, and how the networks are reacting to the trends, to me, it seems like if something doesn't change, and fairly drastically, television could become a niche medium for old-timers. Younger people are already indifferent to the highest rated programs. Not to mention that network television has already lost the special cultural relationship it used to have with American families. It used to be that people had little choice but to watch something on ABC, CBS or NBC. Now, viewers can choose from a vast array of entertainment options, including cable and the Internet.

Can the networks fix the problem? Here is where it gets dicey. As I wrote last February, television executives seem to have developed a short-term, this-quarter's-bottom-line view of doing business. Patience is nonexistent. But I think it's going to take a big-picture, long-term approach to save scripted television (assuming, that is, that the networks are even interested in preserving the format). I'm a little surprised that more attention hasn't been paid to the surge in ratings experienced this season by two CBS Monday night sitcoms, "The Big Bang Theory," which debuted last season, and "How I Met Your Mother," which is in its fourth year. The renewal of "Mother" was in question at the end of its first three seasons, and "Big Bang" was equally undistinguished in the ratings last term. But this season, both have seen audience increases. And they have brought a younger audience to geriatric-skewing CBS. ("Big Bang" not only finished 14th over all last week, but was ninth in the key 18-49 demographic.) I'm sure there are myriad factors that helped the recent success of the two comedies, but the network's decision to keep faith with the quirky, critically acclaimed, quality programs and let them develop an audience was essential to their ultimate success.

Unfortunately, when I look at the new shows that debuted this season that I liked, it feels to me like they never got the same love "Big Bang" and "Mother" benefited from. CBS drove executive producer Diane Ruggiero from her one-hour dramedy, "The Ex-List," before the first episode hit the air. As Ruggiero explained the network's behavior: "It's like someone comes to you with a little black dress and says, 'You can do anything you want with it, anything at all,' and you go, 'Oh, great,' and then they come back and say, 'But you need to wear this belt, and these shoes, and...'" Not surprisingly, "The Ex-List" didn't make it out of its first month.

Similarly, the CW launched "Privileged" as the Tuesday night companion to the new "90210." I was enthusiastic about "Privileged" when it launched, spending a big portion of the review talking about the writing ambitions of the lead character (Megan, played by Joanna Garcia) and her interest in helping the wealthy twins she was hired to tutor. Four months later, I almost don't recognize the "Privileged" I wrote about. Faced with less-than-stellar ratings, the program began focusing almost exclusively on the love lives of Megan and the twins, as well as on the melodrama of Megan's broken family, with Megan's ambitions virtually nonexistent (disappearing along with Megan's boss, Laurel, played by Anne Archer, who has been absent more than she's been present). Essentially, "Privileged" was made more conventional, with the qualities that made it unique pushed to the back.

Which is the same fate that seems to have befallen the U.S. adaptation of "Life on Mars." When it hit the air, I lauded the program for injecting life into the run-of-the-mill police procedural by adding a science fiction element, mysteriously sending it's lead detective back in time to 1973. But when the ratings for "Life on Mars" were less than ideal, the network seemed to put the squeeze on the sci-fi elements of the program, reducing it to more of a typical police procedural and dropping much of the "how did he get there and how does he get back?" material. It's still an entertaining program, but the life has been sucked out of it a little. ("Life on Mars" used to be must viewing for me, but I have the last three episodes sitting on my TiVo. I haven't felt the urgency to watch, although I'm sure I'll get to them eventually.)

I am not suggesting that the networks' treatment of "The Ex-List," "Privileged" and "Life on Mars" is the all-encompassing problem facing scripted programs. I see them more as case studies in how the networks are struggling to create hit shows, and how little patience they are display in doing so. And it all makes me worry that we will look back on the end of this decade as the period in which scripted programming on network television started to all but go away, remaining only as niche programming (like CBS and its older audience) that lacks cultural relevance.

Yeah, maybe I'm being exceedingly negative here. But whether you want to buy into my death simile (or is it a metaphor? I think it's a simile) or not, there is something going on with television right now, and if you like scripted programming (at least if you would like to see more than just police procedurals on the airwaves), that something is not a good thing.

So is scripted television dying? Maybe, maybe not, but I think we can agree that it's feeling under the weather and is in need of some medical attention.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Demetri Martin's New Program Is a Bit Disappointing, But It's Much Better than "The CollegeHumor Show"

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

With a bunch of new shows set to debut next month, I thought I'd dive into the world of basic cable to check out two new comedy offerings, "Important Things With Demetri Martin" (Comedy Central, first airings Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. Eastern) and "The CollegeHumor Show" (MTV, first airings Sundays at 9:30 p.m.).

Demetri Martin is, to my eyes and ears, one of the funniest stand-up comics working today. I have been lucky enough to see Martin perform around New York dating back to early in the decade, and it has been great to watch him develop his offbeat brand of observational humor. He's like a modern-day, downtown-hipster Steven Wright, with a killer deadpan delivery, but with Steve Martin's love of using music thrown in. (Two clips from Martin's last Comedy Central stand-up special, "Person," do a good job of demonstrating his very funny use of drawings and his use of music.) I'm not sure anyone mixes the silly and the smart any better than Martin does.

So it should not be surprising that I have been eagerly awaiting the debut of Martin's new series on Comedy Central. Alas, his talents don't seem to fit well into the format of the program, which mixes bits of stand-up with sketches and wacky interstitials, all built around a theme (in the premiere, "timing"). The stand-up segments, of course, were the strongest parts of the half-hour. Keeping close to his traditional modus operandi, Martin scored winners, including his comparison drawings (my favorites: a sunset or a bald guy behind a table, and how Christmas cookies can be eaten year-round, with an angel cookie becoming a "saggy hunchback" cookie), his charts (one tracked the ratio of age to urinating outside, with a big spike during the college years), and some nice wordplay around the subject of, of all things, Milli Vanilli.

Unfortunately, the sketches didn't live up to Martin's stand-up work. Amanda Peet was wasted in an extended riff on an actor who shows rage in-between takes, but can't muster the slightest bit of anger once the camera is rolling. A send-up of the shadowy De Beers diamond commercials started as a mild amuser, but then beat the concept into the ground until it was well past enough. Same for the footage of Martin, with wacky clothes and hair, dancing around New York City, with the on-screen super reading that he was a person way too early for a rave. In fact, running with a premise for far too long was the common thread of the non-stand-up material, ironic considering that onstage Martin's act consists almost entirely of short, clever one-liners.

Martin is an undeniably funny guy, and I will keep watching "Important Things With Demetri Martin." But I will be hoping the program's material starts to match the talent level of its star.

On the other hand, it is unlikely that I will ever watch "The CollegeHumor Show" again. In fact, the title of the show is an insult to universities and their students. I think the "JuniorHighScholHumor Show" would make for a far more accurate moniker. The premise of the program is that the actual staff of the real comedy Web site plays a fictionalized version of themselves. Think of it as a junior version of "The Office," only without the good writing and talented performers.

In tuning into a basic cable comedy show, I was not expecting "Thelma and Louise" level cinematography, set decoration on par with "The Dark Knight," and actors with the comic chops and chemistry of the cast of "30 Rock." But I was expecting minimal competence, and that expectation was not met. The show is so poorly shot and edited, it's hard to watch. It looks like a high school kid was given a $300 video camera and told to tape his buddies hanging out in an office.

The program just isn't funny. The debut episode was built around a rivalry between the site and a rival comedy Web outfit. One employee is lost to the opposing site, only to be hazed and mistreated. There is a subplot of one employee teaching two others to play beer pong that was lifted from the dodgeball training in "Dodgeball." Oh, and someone pees in a makeshift ball pit (don't ask) because, he says, it's just like being in a pool.

From time to time, a joke landed and had the chance of getting me to smile (laughter would be pushing it a bit), but since the cast had zero comic timing, even the decent jokes fell flat. The performers, every one of them, were downright amateurish. New York is filled with talented professional actors. The show should have hired some of them for this show.

The closest thing to a success was a faux rap music video (built around the concept of "awkward") that was mildly amusing. But like the rest of the program, the performances weren't up to par, and the whole concept was unoriginal. Andy Samberg and his crew at "Saturday Night Live" (and before that, Lonely Island) have been doing videos like this for years now, and they are superior in every way to what the "CollegeHumor" crowd put together.

"CollegeHumor" is just a mess, and it's not even a funny mess. Stick with Martin for your basic cable comedy. Where else can you see a guy operating a giant pad and playing a guitar, a keyboard, a tambourine and chimes all at the same time?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Republicans Say They'd Support the "Right" Stimulus Bill, But Stimulus for Them Is Only More Tax Cuts

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

There was an exchange on Meet the Press yesterday that illustrated why Republicans in Congress opposing the stimulus package are being less than forthright with the American people.

David Gregory: "But you cite Japan. Critics of what Japan did during that decade was that they often, with these stimulus plans, raised taxes at the same time, which sort of leveled out the impact of stimulus. So they're not directly comparable."

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.): "Well, well, David, David, taxes are going up in two years. Unless the Bush tax cuts are, are kept where they are today, taxes are going up. So you're going to see the same kind of effect in the United States."

(You can read the transcript of the show here.)

What's the big deal about this exchange? I'll explain in a minute.

With the exception of three Republican senators, no GOP members of Congress are supporting the economic stimulus package advocated by President Obama and most of the Democrats on Capitol Hill. Had the Republicans been honest and said what they really believe, namely that they are committed to continue supporting the "cut taxes, less regulation" mantra that ruled the Bush administration (and got us into this current mess), it would be hard to be too upset with them. After all, they would just be standing behind their positions, no matter how wrong they may be.

But that is not what the Republicans in Congress are doing. Rather, they are taking the disingenuous approach of claiming that they are willing to support a stimulus package, but not this stimulus package, because it is larded with wasteful spending. Their claims are, to use the technical term, a load of crap.

The Republicans are being dishonest in two direct ways: saying that the bill is wasteful, and saying that they are willing to support the "right" stimulus package.

As for waste, the House proposal contained money for some programs the GOP wasn't happy with (e.g., birth control, restoring the Mall in Washington, D.C.). But those expenditures represented a tiny fraction of the total package, and other supposedly wasteful programs were made up by the Republicans. The Republicans were using these proposals as wedge issues to impugn the rest of the legislation. The bill was aimed toward infrastructure projects, benefits (like food stamps and extension of unemployment benefits) and other programs that directly generate spending and jobs, as well as programs (like Pell grants and green energy) that would have long-term financial benefits (after all, Pell grants are automatically spent on education). Oh, and yes, hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts to try and appease Republicans, even though Moody's has written that tax cuts are the least efficient way to boost spending.

Is the House or Senate bill perfect? Of course not. But it is far from an earmark-laden, pork-filled piece of legislation, like the Republicans would have you believe. Considering the magnitude of the crisis facing the country (nearly 600,000 jobs lost last month, with unemployment up to 7.6 percent), and considering that economists across the political spectrum have come out in favor of a stimulus initiative, it is hardly outside of the mainstream to support such legislation. But if you listen to the GOP, it's as if the current bill is filled with bridges to nowhere. Their rhetoric is irresponsible. If they want to oppose the idea of a stimulus package? Fine. Roll the dice with the voters. But they know it would be political suicide to do so, so they've settled on being dishonest about the legislation the Democrats have come up with.

And the Republicans are not being truthful when they claim they would support the right stimulus bill. What makes me say that? Because when you listen to their arguments, their version of a stimulus package is a load of tax cuts, which, again according to Moody's, would not create the consumer spending needed to boost the economy. They don't really support stimulus. They support tax cuts that they call stimulus.

It's clear that Republicans have gotten their talking points. All over the media you hear the same terms over and over again come from their mouths: "tax credits," "small business" and "more government." On This Week, new Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele talked about "tax credits" to help "small business" as being the key to stimulus. He even made a laughable point that the Democrats' stimulus bill doesn't create jobs, but only "work." Steele explained that the government-supported projects would only be temporary (like 18 months), which is not a job. I'm sure unemployed workers will feel great relief that Mr. Steele is trying to save them from 18 months of wages, rather than the zero dollars they are making now.

On Meet the Press, Mike Pence, a Republican House member from Indiana, dutifully talked of the Democrats trying to solve problems with "more government," the need to help "small business," and how the best way to "jolt a free market economy" was through ... tax cuts. Pence said:

"With, with all due respect to the president of the United States, the ideas, the worn-out ideas that the American people are tired of is runaway federal spending. I believe the American people rejected that under Republican control, and I believe that's the reason why support for this stimulus bill is collapsing by the hour."

Is Pence delusional? The American people had an opportunity in November to say exactly what they were and were not tired of, and they chose Barack Obama and increased majorities for the Democrats in the House and Senate. In other words, they chose Obama's vision of stimulus spending to jolt the economy over the McCain vision of more tax cuts. With all due respect to Rep. Pence, what the American people are tired of is Republicans pushing the warn-out idea of more tax cuts.

Oh, and by the way, Pence is wrong about support for the package. A new Gallup poll shows that 67 percent of Americans approve of how President Obama has handled the efforts to pass a stimulus package, while only 31 percent approve of how the Republicans in Congress have handled the issue (with a whopping 58 percent of respondents disapproving of the GOP).

Which brings me back to Ensign's comment on letting the Bush tax cuts expire. Again, he said, "Unless the Bush tax cuts are, are kept where they are today, taxes are going up." As President Obama made clear in the campaign, the only group affected by the expiring Bush tax cuts would be those people making more than $250,000 per year. And House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who advocated ending the Bush tax cuts early, also only pointed to those people with annual earnings of more than $250,000. Since the stimulus isn't aimed at the higher earners, the sunsetting Bush tax cuts would have no effect on the stimulus plan, and Ensign's parallel to the Japanese example is, as David Gregory pointed out, not applicable.

But even more than Ensign being wrong on the facts, his statement revealed exactly who the Republicans are looking out for. It's not the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs in the last several months, nor the millions of others hit by the weakened economy. No, Ensign's concern is for those making more than $250,000 a year. When the Republicans say they would support the "right" stimulus plan, they are really saying they would support more tax cuts. But we have all learned from the debacle of the Bush years that simply cutting taxes, mostly for the wealthy, doesn't do the trick. Those tax cuts turned surpluses into deficits and, when combined with the rest of Bush's economic policies, ran the economy into its worst state since World War II.

As President Obama and the Democrats in Congress move forward on passing the stimulus bill in the Senate, reconciling the Senate and House versions, and then passing the final bill, it is important that they not get sucked into the Republicans' deceptive rhetoric on the issue. It's hard to act in a bipartisan way when the other side is pretending to work with you while actually trying to bring down your legislation and insert their own failed policies instead. If you look closely at what the Republicans are saying, this isn't a debate on the merits of this stimulus legislation, but rather another round of policy battles fought during last year's campaign. The Democrats won that battle in 2008. They don't have to win it again now. They have a mandate from the voters to get a stimulus program done. I just hope they realize that.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Democrats in Congress Need to Learn How to Lead

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

Of the many reasons why Americans chose Barack Obama to be president in November, unquestionably one of the biggest was his ability to lead. His vision, and his ability to impart it to the electorate, drew support. It was about more than just policies and competency and ability.

Alas, since Obama has been elevated to the Oval Office, his leadership skills haven't seemed to rub off on the Democrats in Congress. While I agree with them on most policy points, I am losing patience with their innate instinct to capitulate, something that has been evident going back to when the party swept into power in the November 2006 mid-term elections, but then failed to do the very thing they were elected to do (challenge Bush on Iraq).

For example, I read today that if Obama selects New Hampshire Republican Senator Judd Gregg to be the Commerce secretary, the Democratic governor of New Hampshire, John Lynch, under pressure from Republicans, may appoint a Republican replacement for Gregg, even though New Hampshire just three months ago not only voted for Obama, but ousted the other GOP U.S. Senator, John Sununu, in favor of Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

How can the Democrats in the Senate allow this to happen? Could you imagine, for one second, Republicans in the senate allowing a Republican governor to appoint a Democratic senator without rioting? If, say, Joe Liebermann or Chris Dodd were to leave office, do you think Jodi Rell, the Republican governor of Connecticut, would appoint a Democrat to replace him? Or that Charlie Crist would appoint a Democrat to replace Bill Nelson in Florida? Or that Tim Pawlenty would choose a Democrat if Amy Klobuchar abandoned Minnesota's U.S. Senate seat? Or if any of them did, that Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl would not explode like it was halftime at the Super Bowl?

And yet, the Democrats have been silent, seemingly happy to cave and let the Republicans keep the seat in New Hampshire. What would be the point, then, of appointing Gregg in the first place?

If it was just the Senate seat, it wouldn't be a big deal. But the inability of the Democrats in Congress to lead is allowing the Republicans to exert an undue influence on policy after Obama's solid victory in November (not to mention the vastly increased Democratic majorities in the House and Senate). The American people have spoken. They want Obama's agenda enacted. But if you heard the talk in Congress, you would think the Republicans won the big races in November.

It all started with the stimulus bill in the House, where the Democrats caved to GOP demands and handed over a third of the legislation to tax cuts, even though economists of both parties agree that tax cuts are not as effective in stimulating consumer spending as government spending is. (Last week, I wrote in more detail about the Republicans pushing the failed Bush policies in their version of a stimulus bill.) And what did the Democrats get for their efforts? Not a single Republican vote.

So now the bill has moved to the Senate, and we have the Republicans talking tough again. John McCain was quoted in a Yahoo/AFP article as saying:

"We need to have in our view more tax cuts and less spending."

McCain knows he lost in November, right? He knows he presented the American people with a vision that included continuing the Bush administration's economic policies, including more tax cuts, while Obama offered a different plan, including stimulus spending to jump-start the economy, and America chose Obama's plan, right? Of course he does. But he obviously doesn't care. And why? Because he knows that the Democrats haven't shown the ability to lead.

Let's face it, the Republicans are talking one game, while playing another. They are pretending to be opposed to the stimulus bill only because of its makeup, as if there is a spending plan they would sign on to. And they're using this bogus argument as a way of trying to push through more tax cuts, the very failed policy that was rejected by voters in November. They are still trying to abide by the Bush administration rule of serving the wealthy at the expense of average Americans.

The question is: What are the Democrats in congress going to do about it? Are they going to roll over like they have for the past two years and give the Republicans what they want? (Just as McCain seems to think they will.) Or are they going to grow a pair and stand up not just for what they believe to be right, but, as importantly, what they were put in office by the electorate to do?

The Democrats let those voters that elected them down between 2007 and 2008 by not standing up to Bush on Iraq. Now the test is standing up to the failed policies being pushed by the Republicans in Congress. Maybe having Obama in the White House will help them find their footing. While Obama has tried to act in a bipartisan manner, I can't believe he will allow his first major piece of legislation to be hijacked and/or killed by the GOP.

This is the moment for congressional Democrats to decide what they want to be, if they want to be leaders like Obama, or if they want to be doormats, like they have been since taking control. Sure, the economic recovery depends on their ability to take charge, but the stakes are even larger than just that. This is just the first battle. If they fold here, the Republicans will know they can obstruct any initiative they want to block, and Obama's agenda will be doomed.

Sadly, the fate of Obama's policies lies in the hands of Democrats in Congress. Hopefully, he can help them do better than they've done in the last two years. His presidency just may depend on it.