Tuesday, March 31, 2009

One Man's Car Shows Why Aid to the Automakers Must Include a Commitment to Fuel Efficiency

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

When I read that President Obama was taking a hard line with General Motors and Chrysler, I immediately thought of Daniel Glass.

A professional drummer and drum historian (and, in the interest of full disclosure, a fellow resident of Scheffres Hall at Brandeis University during our sophomore year of college), Daniel lives in car-crazy Los Angeles, where having an automobile is right up there with food, water and oxygen on the list of necessities. And yet, for the last two years, Daniel has hardly set foot in a gas station, but he nevertheless manages to get around town with no difficulties. How does he do it? His 1987 Mercedes station wagon's diesel engine has been adapted to run on vegetable oil.

What is so interesting about Daniel's driving habits is how uninteresting they are. His experience as a vehicle owner and driver is much the same as yours and mine, only while we go to gas stations to fill up our tanks with fossil fuel, Daniel goes to a supplier to fill up his five-gallon jugs with environmentally friendly vegetable oil. (To those who are concerned that using vegetable oil as fuel leads to higher food prices, lower food supplies in developing countries, and pollution from processing, relax. Daniel's supplier recycles used cooking oil from area restaurants.)

And while Daniel uses a mechanic familiar with his adapted fuel tank, any repair shop that can work on a Mercedes can fix any other problem with his vehicle. What if he goes on a long trip? He simply tosses some of the vegetable oil jugs into his trunk. What if he runs out of vegetable oil when he's on the road? Easy. If he can't get to a supermarket (yes, regular old vegetable oil works fine, it's just a bit expensive), then he can use conventional diesel fuel in the same tank.

If you think Daniel is some kind of bizarre one-off, he is actually one of thousands of Los Angeles drivers making use of diesel engines that burn vegetable oil. After all, his oil supplier isn't an environmental organization or hobbyist working out of his garage. Rather, he gets his fuel from a thriving business that supplies recycled cooking oil to drivers like Daniel.

In short, Daniel's car experience is just like ours, only he doesn't contribute to the fossil fuel economy.

Opponents of fuel-efficiency standards (and, of course, proponents of fossil fuels, who like to chant, "Drill, baby! Drill!") want you to think that powering vehicles with anything other than gasoline in engines that get low gas mileage is something for a distant future, completely unrelated to any modern experience. But Daniel proves that line of criticism to be total nonsense.

What does this all have to do with the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler? Simple. With all the talk of whether or not the government has the right to demand the resignation of a company's CEO, or whether the right wing is trying to bust the unions, or whether or not the administration should let the American automobile industry die out, there was precious little discussion of how a reorganized General Motors and Chrysler will fit into a more responsible national energy policy. Supporting the automakers without insisting that they fundamentally change their approach to making vehicles, namely that they commit to making fuel-efficient cars, is more than just a missed opportunity, it's flat-out wrong. And Daniel's experience shows that adjusting to this new reality can be a lot easier than people think.

The U.S. is being severely threatened on three fronts because of its addiction to oil: the environment, the economy and national security. Without reducing CO2 emissions, global warming threatens the habitability of the planet. We all remember how skyrocketing gas prices last summer severely impacted the budgets of American families, both at the pump and in the increased price of food and other necessities. (As President Obama has said, we can't keep going "from shock to trance" when gas prices go up and down.) And our dependence on oil from the Middle East has forced us to engage in the region in ways that have not served our national interests.

So if General Motors and Chrysler want billions of dollars from the American people, the money should come with a guarantee that the new General Motors and the new Chrysler will make fuel-efficient vehicles that help the country end its dependence on foreign oil.

Some have argued that Americans won't buy fuel-efficient vehicles when gas prices are low, and that forcing the automakers into such a business plan would be dooming them to failure. Even putting aside the success of the Toyota Prius (and the anticipation for Honda's 2010 Insight, which will offer a Prius-like vehicle at a lower cost, starting at just under $20,000), the government has the power to create a market for these cars by requiring that new vehicles meet stringent emissions standards. The government already prevents Americans from having unfettered access to dangerous substances, from heroin to dynamite. Acting to ensure that new cars don't add to the dangers of oil dependence would fall comfortably into the same vein (no pun intended).

If the Obama administration was to insist on General Motors and Chrysler adopting plans that would put them at the forefront of fuel-efficiency, and then was able to convince Congress to enact strict fuel-efficiency standards, the American automakers would be set up to be leaders in the new marketplace. But if General Motors and Chrysler want to continue on as they had been, with only minor adjustments, waiting for the recession to end and oil prices to stay low so that consumers will come back and buy their gas guzzlers, the U.S. government should not be enabling that plan. If that is the only choice, the better option might be to let the industry fall.

I understand the frustration of many Americans who think the government is being tougher on the auto industry than it was on the banks. I sincerely feel for the Midwest states, especially Michigan, that have seen massive job losses related to the failing auto industry, and who would be devastated by the industry's collapse. But the bottom line is that the automakers have failed to make decisions over the last 30 years that have allowed them to stay relevant in the marketplace. And now the companies are coming to the American people for a handout. As President Obama said back in November, shortly after he was elected, assistance to the automakers has to be a "bridge loan to somewhere as opposed to a bridge loan to nowhere." And that somewhere is for the companies to be leaders of a new era of green vehicles.

By forcing General Motors and Chrysler to shift focus to a future of fuel-efficient vehicles, all of the concerns can be addressed. The automakers can be saved. They can be profitable, acting as leaders rather than followers in their industry. And a thriving industry means jobs will come back.

The answer to saving the automakers is fuel-efficiency. Think I'm being overly ambitious? Well, tell me that the next time Daniel Glass speeds by you in his vegetable-oil powered Mercedes wagon. The future is now. At least for some forward-thinking Angelenos with diesel engines that run on recycled vegetable oil. It's time for the rest of us to catch up.

Friday, March 27, 2009

ABC Nurtures Another Solid Comedy With "In the Motherhood"

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

I often complain about the slow death of network sitcoms. But ABC seems to be drifting, ever so slowly, into the comedy abyss. First it brought "Scrubs" over from NBC and paired it with the quirky "Better Off Ted." And now it has come up with a companion to its fairly successful sophomore sitcom "Samantha Who?" with "In the Motherhood" (ABC, Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern).

Based on a Web series that starred Chelsea Handler and Leah Remini (of "The King of Queens"), "Motherhood" is a good fit with "Samantha," even though the two comedies are focused on two different worlds: Samantha is a single woman trying to refigure out her life after suffering amnesia, while "Motherhood" tracks the lives of three very different moms. Both are female-driven, single-camera comedies that aim for smart humor and hit the mark.

"Motherhood" stars Cheryl Hines (Larry's wife in "Curb Your Enthusiasm") as Jane, a harried single working mother who is trying to keep it all together. When we first meet her, she steps into her house, where bedlam reigns. Jane's baby daughter is screaming, while her preteen daughter walks obliviously by, all while her "manny," Horatio ("Saturday Night Live" alum Horatio Sanz, sporting a full beard and half his former body weight), desperately tries to keep things in check. Jane slowly exits the scene, undetected, and heads for refuge with her younger sister Emily (Jessica St. Clair), the seemingly perfect mother of a young son and daughter, and her irreverent friend Rosemary (Megan Mullally, Karen on "Will & Grace"), who is the least "mom-like" of the three. Although we don't meet Rosemary's teen son in the pilot, the ABC Web page for the show notes that he is the most responsible of all the gang's offspring.

Hines is funny and relatable as the harried Jane, and, most importantly, she refuses to let her become a neurotic cliche. While Jane might panic about her upcoming date with a co-worker (guest Ken Marino, writer of "Role Models" and memorable to some as sleazy private investigator Vinnie Van Lowe on "Veronica Mars," but more recently Tony on "Reaper"), including the prospect of her first sexual encounter in more than a year (she notes that nobody has seen an area she circles with her finger naked for quite some time), she is also smart enough to know that Emily's Miss Perfect veneer is all-too-easy to pierce. When Emily rebukes Jane for lying to her daughter, Jane points out that Emily lied to her kids about the existence of Santa Claus. Painted into a corner, Emily is forced to tell her children that Santa isn't real, leading to a hilarious later scene in which Emily is called to her son's classroom, only to find the teacher on the floor, in the fetal position, as the class runs amok. It seems that he informed his fellow students that their whole world is a series of lies (no Santa, no tooth fairy, no American princesses). The teacher, overwhelmed and in shock, tells Emily, "Your son's a monster." So much for perfection.

The idea that there is no Santa Claus is a great metaphor for the tone of the show. Jane and Rosemary are far from perfect mothers, but the so-called perfect mother among them is, in her own way, no better. When Emily decides to tell her children that there is a Santa Claus, with Horatio playing the part, both Rosemary and Jane take her thunder away by telling the kids first. And, fittingly, it all goes for naught when Horatio crashes to the ground from the roof, with Emily's son saying in horror, "So much blood."

Mullally does a great job with Rosemary, playing her as a middle-class, suburban, toned-down and nicer version of her Karen from "Will & Grace." While Hines gets much of the more subtle comedy moments, Mullally gets the bigger laugh lines, and she knocks them out of the park. In telling Jane that she'll remember how to have sex, she says, "It’s like riding a bicycle, without the seat.” Or when Rosemary confirms that Jane is correct about the rules of a third date, she says, "Even when I was living in the Andes with the Zen masters, third date meant sex. Plus, you got a goat."

Rosemary's story line in the debut was actually quite insightful and a bit edgy, as she is first annoyed and later excited by the way, as she puts it, "The pregnant woman in this society has been elevated to the level of a goddess." It starts when an expectant mother cuts the coffee line (prompting her to say, "No cuts, fatty"), which leads to Rosemary claiming to be pregnant, too, so that she can also get ahead. She decides that "I really want to get a piece of it," so pretty soon she is wearing a stuffed bedbug under her shirt, hanging out with other pregnant women, and reaping all the benefits, like a man buying her coffee.

When Horatio spots Rosemary with the pregnant crowd and finds out what she is doing, he decides he "wants in" and pretends to be a stay-at-home dad (rather than the nanny of Jane's baby). It comes out that Rosemary and Horatio have slept together, and based on the chemistry Sanz and Mullally have together, it's totally believable. They make a great comic team. When they fight over a gift at a shower thrown for Rosemary by the pregnant women, causing the stuffed animal to slip out of Rosemary's shirt and blow their cover, their reactions are priceless. Horatio takes off, pushing the carriage with Jane's daughter like he was in the Indy 500, leaving Rosemary to try and talk her way out of trouble.

Sanz's "Saturday Night Live" training is put to good use in turning his character's sharp comedy lines. When Jane asks him what he is doing the upcoming Friday (she wants him to baby sit), Horatio tells her, "I know you have this whole Angela-Tony 'Who's the Boss?' thing going." She doesn't, of course, but Horatio's character comes off as funny and not creepy, which is a direction it could have easily gone in the wrong hands.

"In the Motherhood" is one of the best new sitcoms to come along in a while, even stronger than "Better Off Ted," which I praised last week. While "Motherhood" is not anywhere near as bizarre as "Ted," the program fits in nicely with ABC's roster of shows that take traditional genres and give them some kind of twist. "In the Motherhood" plays like an answer to the line of perfect-mother sitcoms, from June Cleaver through Carol Brady and Shirley Partridge to Elyse Keaton, showing how motherhood can be as messy as it is rewarding. Rosemary's story line alone, challenging the societal worship of pregnant women, would be enough to send poor June Cleaver running from the room.

But ABC's twist with "In the Motherhood" is subtle, and there is, I think, an opportunity for a larger audience here. I hope the viewers come. Both the network and the show deserve it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why I Have No Sympathy for Jake DeSantis

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

On Tuesday the New York Times ran on its op-ed page the resignation letter written by Jake DeSantis, a vice president of A.I.G.'s infamous financial products division. DeSantis essentially argues that he had nothing to do with the credit default swaps that nearly brought down the company (and the world economy), and that since he agreed to work for a $1 salary plus his bonus, A.I.G. CEO Edward Liddy should have stood up for him and "innocent" executives like him.

The lawyer in me (I should really say "recovering lawyer," since I haven't practiced in 15 years) understands his point. He contracted to work with his salary essentially being his bonus, and after fulfilling his obligations (he argues that it was a form of public service, but let's just stick to the idea that he served the company), the CEO is asking him to forgo his pay. It's an argument, in strictly letter-of-the-law terms, I could comfortably make to a judge or jury.

But as a person, I am not the least bit moved by DeSantis's point of view, because over the last several years, he has tremendously profited from a larger financial culture that is completely out of whack. Those working in the financial industry made untold sums of money from a bubble that was bound to burst, and they did so in an environment that rewarded risk with no consequences for failure.

In other words, DeSantis has become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, with no worries about money for the rest of his life, at the expense of most Americans and the financial system as a whole, all by taking advantage of a set of rules that skewed in his favor. He profited from an industry that rejected decades of regulations and took crazy risks that a bubble could be sustained against all logic to the contrary, and that firm's could leverage themselves at unhealthy levels with no consequences. And now that some semblance of order is trying to be applied to the financial industry, with the bill being footed in billions of dollars by the American people, he has the audacity to complain that he is being treated unfairly? It's like someone finding a hole in the side of a bank vault and stopping by once a year to take millions of dollars from the structure, only to complain on the 15th trip when the hole has been sealed up.

DeSantis writes in his resignation letter that his bonus amounted to $742,006.40 after taxes. In the letter, he acknowledges that he and Liddy "have never met or spoken to each other," so it's clear that DeSantis was not at the most senior levels of management, which would lead one to believe that there are several (even many) other A.I.G. employees at DeSantis's level, making this kind of money. All for a company that has required hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. government to survive.

My point in listing DeSantis's bloated salary isn't, as my friends on the right will probably immediately accuse me of doing, an effort to attack wealth or wealth creation. Rather, my quarrel with DeSantis's letter is that it represents an unwillingness to confront the culture that not only caused the current financial collapse, but that will prevent true recovery if it's not addressed.

It seems that those in the upper reaches of the financial industry would prefer to completely ignore the fact that a combination of greed, a system that encouraged risk for short-term profits without consequences, and a total absence of regulation has created a global financial meltdown. From unemployment, to a lack of available credit, to the plummeting of the stock market, the recklessness of financial institutions has created massive damage. The current administration has had to contend with the fallout from this damage, and there is no easy answer in sight.

You would think that those who created this mess would have some humility. But you would be wrong. DeSantis's letter is just one example. In a front-page New York Times article on Monday discussing the administration's attempts to get private equity firms and hedge funds to buy into Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner's new plan to purchase toxic assets from banks, the chief executive of a "major investment firm" is quoted as saying, "The deal is good, but it’s not worth it if I’m buying myself into a retroactive tax or a Congressional hearing." The article notes that "some executives at private equity firms and hedge funds, who were briefed on the plan Sunday afternoon, are anxious about the recent uproar over millions of dollars in bonus payments made to executives of (A.I.G.)." When I read observations like these, I just cannot believe that these people are so blind as to what has happened to the financial industry in the last six months. I know these individuals profited from a bubble, but apparently they are also living in one. And it makes me feel like solving the current difficult problems will be even harder, because we are not learning the lessons of how we got here in the first place.

A plan to rescue the banks without addressing and changing the compensation culture on Wall Street is like treating a cancer patient's symptoms without eradicating the tumors. The relief will be only temporary.

As President Obama noted in his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday:

"You know, you look at how finance used to operate just 20 years ago, or 25 years ago. People, if you went into-- investment banking, you were making 20 times what a teacher made. You weren't making 200 times what a teacher made."

When the American public was outraged over the A.I.G. bonuses last week, there was incredulity in some quarters. But while the bonuses are a drop in the bucket relative to the overall billions given to the company by the government, the distress and anger voiced by the American people was about more than just A.I.G. The rage comes from the fact that a small group of people in the financial industry (relative to the population as a whole) brought down the economy with their greed, and, more importantly, have failed to take any responsibility for their industry's role in the debacle. That was what the A.I.G. bonuses stood for to a lot of people. There was outrage that the executives in this industry had not learned their lesson, that they wanted the gravy train to keep rolling, despite the calamity that had occurred.

Even if Geithner's plan rehabilitates the banks and restores a functioning financial system, it will be for naught if the same compensation-frenzied culture exists in the industry, since it will mean that it's only a matter of time before the system is threatened again. And based on the statements of the anonymous investment firm CEO quoted in the Times and DeSantis, it doesn't look like financial executives are ready to adjust their expectations, despite the damage caused by greed run amok.

That is why DeSantis's resignation letter failed to stir any sympathy in me. President's Obama's comment about the escalation of financial executive compensation is far more compelling. If DeSantis doesn't want to be a part of the solution, if he wants to hold onto a system in which it is reasonable to pay him (and, presumably, many others) $742,006.40 after taxes, by a company accepting hundreds of billions from the federal government, I can only come to the conclusion that he doesn't understand where we need to go. He is part of the problem, not the solution. Good riddance to him, and let the door hit him on the butt on the way out. DeSantis may have a valid contract, but it's a product of a corrupt system. And it's time for the system to change, if we truly want to rebuild the nation's financial institutions and economy.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"Better Off Ted" Is Out There ... Far Out There ... But Worth the Journey

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

You have to hand it to ABC executives: They clearly want to push the envelope with their programs. Not only did the network pick up the beloved but perpetually ratings-challenged "Scrubs," but it is now following it with a new single-camera comedy, "Better Off Ted" (Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern), that might be the most bizarre sitcom I've ever seen.

And when I say it's odd, I don't mean it as a good thing or a bad thing. It's just an objective judgment. There are things that go on in "Ted" that we have never really seen in a broadcast network comedy before. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at one of the development meetings. I kind of picture it going like this:

ABC Creative Executive 1: What did you think of that pilot by Victor Fresco, the guy who wrote for "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" and "My Name Is Earl"?

ABC Creative Executive 2: "Better Off Ted"? Um, it's really smart. But does Victor really want us to shoot and air that pilot script?

ABC CE1: I guess so.

ABC CE2: Victor realizes that the central story line involves the protagonist being asked by his barracuda of a boss to convince one of his scientist employees to agree to be frozen for a year, right?

ABC CE1: He wrote it, so I'm guessing he does.

ABC CE2: It's kind of out there.

ABC CE1: Especially since the scientist guy agrees to it!

ABC CE2: Yeah. The marketing people want to know what successful show we can compare it to, so they can figure out how to sell it.

ABC CE1: Uh, well, it takes place in an office. So ...

ABC CE2: Yeah, but it's nothing like "The Office" in tone, writing and shooting style. "Ted" is completely over the top and more stylized.

ABC CE1: True. The hell with it. We'll just run a bunch of ads and stick it on Tuesday nights after "Scrubs." There are no major hits on then ("Lie to Me" on Fox, "Gary Unmarried" on CBS, and a big pile of steaming dog poo, also known as "Chopping Block," on NBC). Maybe more than the die-hard "Scrubs" audience will check it out.

ABC CE2: I guess it's worth a shot.

I have nothing but admiration for Fresco, who has put together a truly out-there comedy, and ABC, which agreed to program it. But it's hard to believe it's on the air.

The show is set in the research and development department of a huge corporation named Veridian. The opening of the debut episode introduces us to the company via a branding television commercial, like the one BASF used to run that talked about how the company didn't make certain items, but made them better. The Veridian promo stays pretty realistic, with only subtle (and funny) diversions into parody ("Power. We make that. Technology. We make that. Cows. Well, no, we don't make cows. Although, we have made a sheep."). (You can watch some more over-the-top Veridian videos here.)

The Ted of "Better Off Ted" runs a research and development team at Veridian. Played by Jay Harrington, who was last seen this season as a smarmy doctor and potential love interest for Addison on "Private Practice," Ted is a slick but ultimately well-meaning leader, one who inspires loyalty in his employees. "Loyalty" is a word so foreign to his boss, Veronica (Portia de Rossi of "Ally McBeal" and "Arrested Development"), that she can't even think of it when she tries to explain to Ted why he is the right person to get one of the employees to agree to be frozen for a year. Veronica, completely devoid of empathy or manners, isn't malicious, per se. She is just all about getting the job done. She tries to act nervous and vulnerable at one point, but Ted points out that she can't pull off either, which she readily admits. Veronica regularly pops into Ted's office and gives him crazy assignments for his team. (Veronica: "We need a mouse that can withstand temperatures up to 195 degrees." Ted: "Uh, computer mouse or live mouse?" Veronica: "I'll get back to you.")

Ted's office exploits are seen through the stories he tells his young daughter, Rose (Isabella Acres), of whom he has sole custody. Why Ted is telling a little kid about the sordid dealings of his workplace is never addressed, but Rose is given the kind of mature-for-her-years dialogue that can sometimes fall flat, but works in "Ted." (Sample exchange: Ted, trying to escape Rose's judgment on his work actions: "Did you brush your teeth yet?" Rose's reply: "Don't change the subject.")

Ted's main two employees are the scientist team of Phil (Jonathan Slavin of, not surprisingly, "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" and "My Name Is Earl") and Lem (Malcolm Barrett). Less anti-social and out there than Sheldon on "Big Bang Theory," the two are still awkward and nebbishy. Slavin and Barrett have great chemistry together, and both actors give three-dimensionality and life to their potentially underwritten characters. Phil and Lem's introductory scene, in separate bathroom stalls, showing their different reactions to the toilet paper holder being moved farther from the toilet, was very entertaining.

Ted has a crush on product tester Linda (Andrea Anders, of "The Class" and "Joey"). Anders is in danger of becoming the Paula Marshall of the current decade, doing great work on quickly canceled sitcoms. Anders excels at playing the slightly flummoxed, smart, girl-next-door-pretty love interest, and her tried-and-true character is a good fit for "Ted" and Ted. Linda, who has reservations about working for Veridian, feels the need to rebel by doing things like hording nondairy creamer (something Veronica says is "not Katrina" but a problem), likes Ted, but he has to shut down any chance of them getting together because he's already "used up" his "office affair" earlier with, of all people, Veronica (in a very funny flashback, de Rossi believably plays Veronica as, at once, turned on and distant).

As we learned from our (probably) fictional network meeting transcript, Veronica wants to freeze Phil for a year, and Ted agrees to convince him, which he does, but later regrets. The way the whole thing plays out is, again, truly bizarre for network television:

Phil goes into the freezer. The door is closed on him before he can finish his exit speech (just as he says, "All I ask is for your respect"). The freezing is accompanied by cha-cha music. Everyone stands around to see if, as might happen, Phil's eyes explode when the temperature reaches 20 degrees below zero (they don't). After three days, Veronica has two maintenance workers move Phil (in the freezer) out of the lab (she says it's "creepy"), but when one of the movers takes a cell phone call, he drops the freezer, spilling Phil out of it. Phil is fine, except for his sudden odd screams in the middle of sentences, which makes Veronica want to fire him. Ted stands up to her and saves Phil's job.

Again, hard as it may be to believe, this is the plot of a half-hour comedy on broadcast network television.

Where "The Office" takes aim at the mundanities of office life, "Ted" is an even more cutting satire on corporate culture. And while "Ted" isn't as funny as "The Office," it's pretty good. The acting is strong all around, and Harrington makes for a far better comic lead than I expected based on his turn on "Private Practice." The debut script is filled with sharp one-liners, some of which hit harder than others. I don't mean to say that "Ted" is consistently laugh-out-loud funny. You are more likely to smile and admire than you are to bust a gut. But it is entertaining and certainly worth watching. I would even say "Ted" is worthy of following "Scrubs" (high praise from me).

I am concerned, though, that "Ted" may not be around for long. The show's off-beat humor and quirky (to say the least) stories hardly scream "mass audience." And the debut episode not only managed only a little more than half of the viewers of "Lie to Me," it also lost out to the more traditional sitcom "Gary Unmarried." At least "Ted" did handily outdraw "Chopping Block," and it held all of the small-but-loyal "Scrubs" viewership.

So catch "Ted" while it's still around, if for no other reason than to support ABC's guts in programming shows that are off the beaten path. Because if nothing else, "Ted" is different from any other sitcom on television. And, luckily, it's funny too.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Why Obama Was Smart to Come Out Strongly Against the A.I.G. Bonuses

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

Earlier this month, New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman took some heat for writing that he feared the Obama presidency would be "eaten" by the problem of dealing with the banking system.

Less than two weeks later, the White House has had to move quickly to keep Friedman's prophecy from coming true. And the president was smart to do it.

When news broke over the weekend that A.I.G. was getting ready to pay out approximately $165 million in bonuses, it immediately dominated the news, even spilling over into today's coverage. While we can all agree that it is distasteful to pay millions of dollars to these people, in the bigger picture, with all the problems facing the country, there are bigger fish to fry. Unfortunately, for political reasons, it was vitally important for the president to get out in front on the bonus issue.

On This Week yesterday, Lawrence Summers, the director of the National Economic Council, was asked about the A.I.G. bonuses, and he played down the possibility of the Obama administration moving to stop them (even while expressing how "outrageous" A.I.G.'s conduct was). He said: "The government cannot just abrogate contracts."

But a day later, President Obama came out strongly against the A.I.G. bonuses, declaring: "It's hard to understand how derivative traders at AIG warranted any bonuses, much less $165 million in extra pay, ... How do they justify this outrage to the taxpayers who are keeping the company afloat."

As a result, Obama said he has asked Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to "pursue every legal avenue to block these bonuses and make the American taxpayers whole."

I was very happy to see the president forcefully step in and oppose the bonuses, and not just because of how disgusting the idea is that the company that nearly brought down the financial system was rewarding those responsible for causing the near collapse. The political angle was even more important.

There was a danger that the Republicans were going to grab onto the populist anti-bank feelings in the country to position themselves as the party of the people, with the Democrats being cast as the party of the bankers. Factually, of course, we know that this notion is not true. Over the last eight years, a Republican administration and the Republican Congress (for the first six years) treated "regulation" like it was a curse word, allowing the greedy to run amok and bring down the economy in a heap of risky derivatives. Now in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the Democrats are left to clean up the mess. And it is a mess that has to be cleaned up for the economy to rebound.

But cleaning up the mess will inevitably lead to money being spent to shore up the financial system, and therein lies the danger. Republicans, who are fighting Obama more than they're trying to solve any problems, would certainly point to such aid as proof that the Democrats were looking out for the bankers at the expense of the American people. After all, as the minority party, Republicans can express outrage, but with no obligation to clean up the mess the party left on the president's doorstep.

This is a point Ben Bernanke alluded to in his interview on 60 Minutes yesterday. The Fed chairman said:

"The lesson of history is that you do not get a sustained economic recovery as long as the financial system is in crisis."

He goes on to note that:

"I think the biggest risk is that, you know, we don't have the political will. We don't have the commitment to solve this problem, and that we let it just continue. In which case, you know, we can't count on recovery."

The "political will" he is talking about is the ability of the U.S. government to sign off on spending millions to rescue the financial system at a time when people are outraged over the conduct of the banks (as they should be).

The point, though, as Bernanke explained in the interview, is that the banks' problems are our problems. He made this analogy:

"If you have a neighbor, who smokes in bed. And he's a risk to everybody. If suppose he sets fire to his house, and you might say to yourself, you know, 'I'm not gonna call the fire department. Let his house burn down. It's fine with me.' But then, of course, but what if your house is made of wood? And it's right next door to his house? What if the whole town is made of wood? Well, I think we'd all agree that the right thing to do is put out that fire first, and then say, 'What punishment is appropriate? How should we change the fire code? What needs to be done to make sure this doesn't happen in the future? How can we fire proof our houses?' That's where we are now. We have a fire going on."

The idea that Obama has been hamstrung by a lack of political will to fix the financial system if it means helping the banks that caused the debacle in the first place is not new. In his first seven-plus weeks in office, the president has boldly laid out an ambitious and impressive agenda, trying to address major problems facing the nation, including the economy, energy policy, health care, global warming and education. But when it comes to the rescue of the financial system, the administration's proposals have seemed uncharacteristically more timid. Obama and Geithner have avoided coming out with bolder actions, like temporary nationalization of failing banks or mortgage principal reductions, seemingly due to fears of how those actions would play politically.

But with Obama's strong statements on the A.I.G. bonuses today, he is showing that he understands the politics of the issue, that Americans are livid at what the bankers did to the economy. And he is showing that he is siding with the public, not the bankers.

The question remains how Obama can do what he needs to do to clean up the financial system while not losing the support of the average American. Where Bernanke's "political will" will come from. But today was a good first step in that direction. Polls show that Obama enjoys great trust with the electorate, and if he acts boldly to fix the system, I think Americans will support him, even if it requires money, so long as they feel like he's on their side (and his solution works, of course).

In a profile of the groundbreaking comedian Dick Gregory in the New York Times on Saturday, Gregory is quoted as saying:

"This economy can’t be fixed in two years. And the last guy with the gun gets blamed for the crime."

He's right. But I'm more concerned that Obama will be viewed as the last guy with the gun on the banks. That is why he has to move boldly to fix the problem. If he does, the American people will support him. And the Republicans, who are already rudderless and solely the Party of No, will be pushed even further into irrelevance.

And going after the A.I.G. bonuses will help him build some of the political will he needs.

Friday, March 13, 2009

"Castle" Won't Challenge for Any TV Thrones

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

It's not hard to see what ABC is trying to do with its new show "Castle" (Mondays at 10 p.m. Eastern). From "Remington Steele" to "Moonlighting" to "The X Files" to "Bones," the idea of a mismatched guy-gal team solving crimes has been a go-to concept for the networks. So the pairing of crime novelist Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion of "Firefly") and tough-but-pretty detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic in her first lead TV role) in "Castle," a procedural with a huge helping of comic one-liners thrown in, must have looked awfully good on paper to ABC. Unfortunately, on paper is probably where this series should have stayed.

So much of "Castle" seems borrowed from other programs. In the debut, Castle is about to release a new crime novel that kills off his long-running hero, something everyone thinks is a big mistake, especially his ex-wife, who is also his publisher. Outwardly, Castle is confident he has done the right thing, but we find out he is in the midst of writer's block, unable to deliver his next novel. Watching Castle struggle to write, booze it up, hit on women (including signing a fan's breast, followed by the groaner of a line, "Call me when you’re ready to wash that off"), act self-destructively, care for his wise-beyond-her-years daughter (Alexis, played by Molly Quinn), and use his rakish charm to try and get what he wants, I couldn't help but wonder if "Californication" executive producer Tom Kapinos had already contacted his attorney about a possible lawsuit. Castle, to me, seems like a less interesting rip-off of Hank Moody (David Duchovny's character in "Californication"). At least Hank is supposed to be a serious novelist, as opposed to Castle writing crime fiction for the masses.

Even worse, Castle lives with his mother, Martha (Susan Sullivan of "Dharma & Greg"), who is a boozing actress, past her prime, with a checkered history with men. Not only is the character a dead ringer for the grandmother played by Jessica Walter in "90210" (which is already a take on Walter's mother from hell in "Arrested Development"), but Sullivan even looks disturbingly like Walter in "Castle" (and seems to be channeling Walter's performance, too).

I can only guess that ABC was hoping that witty banter would carry the program above the sea of police procedurals currently on the networks' schedules. But creator/writer Andrew Marlowe (in one of his first stabs at television after writing films like "Air Force One" and "Hollow Man") just doesn't deliver the kind of smart, funny dialogue that is needed to make up for the plot and character problems. Instead, I found myself rolling my eyes at forced exchanges, like a cop, upon seeing a female murder victim covered in flowers, saying, "Who says romance is dead?", with Kate replying, "I do, every Saturday night." Not only does the line not work, but the idea that someone who looks like Kate would be alone on Saturday night for any reason other than her own choice is kind of preposterous (and certainly not inducing any sympathy in the viewers).

Nothing quite feels right in the world that Marlowe has constructed. Castle and Kate are brought together when a murderer kills two victims in the manner described in two of Castle's books. Kate, a fan, recognizes the correlation and seeks out Castle for more information. Eventually, he wants to be involved (for the thrill and to help his writer's block) more than she wants him around (she thinks he's a "bad boy" who jeopardizes her investigation). They end up trying to one-up each other, with Castle trying to show that he knows as much as Kate does, and Kate trying to make it clear that she is the professional who knows better how to do the job.

I found myself asking, Is there such a thing as rock star crime novelists? I doubt a glance at TMZ would reveal many writers amongst the paparazzi photos. And is it me, or is there no humor left to be mined out of a horny older woman? "Castle" wants you to howl in laughter at Martha being on the make, but it just felt a bit degrading and exceptionally silly and done-to-death to me. It doesn't help when Martha is given dead-on-arrival zingers to spit out, like "I just got a hit on my greydar" when she sees an attractive older man she wants to try and pick up.

I also didn't buy the degree to which Castle, and to a lesser extent Kate, can figure things out based on subtle clues. It's not that skilled professionals can't put pieces of a puzzle together like that, but the problem is that the two of them, especially Castle, gain too much from too little. In one scene, Castle comes up with a critical piece of information to solve the case, that the father of one of the victims is suffering from cancer, from the slightest of clues (he's heavier in a photo and he is wearing makeup and a toupee). I just didn't buy it. And then when Castle dictates to Kate that he has figured out her backstory, it was both unbelievable and cliche all at the same time (a loved one was a crime victim, and the perpetrator was never caught, so Kate became a cop).

But I think the biggest problem with the world of "Castle" is that I don't buy the extent of Castle's fearlessness. In one of his first meetings with Kate, he asks her suggestively to spank him. He continually disregards her instructions to stay out of the action, and when she finally handcuffs him to a car, he pulls a key out of his wallet and frees himself so he can chase after an armed murder suspect, even as he is unarmed and missing a shoe. When Castle asks Kate for copies of crime scene photos to impress his writer friends (James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell do an acceptable job playing themselves), it goes beyond "Californication"-level self-obsession to Castle just being a thoughtless ass.

The funny thing is, I wanted to like "Castle." I am a writing geek. I love great banter. In fact, it can carry an otherwise problematic show for me (Exhibit A: My love of the little-loved "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"). And the program certainly had its moments that sucked me in. When Castle hangs out with Patterson and Cannell, the scene worked. Watching them talk about plot points (actually, they think they're talking about a novel, but Castle is really trying to figure out the copycat murder case) was entertaining. And Fillion and Katic do have chemistry. The dialogue between them may not work, but you are pulled into their interactions anyway, thanks to the personalities of the actors. A great example of this dichotomy came when Castle tells Kate that if they had gotten together, it would have been great, and Kate whispers into his ear, "You have no idea." There was nothing special about the words. We've seen that exchange between couples a million times on the big and small screen. But Katic and Fillion play the scene in a way that makes you want to see more of these characters together.

Despite all the negative things I've written, I'm half-inclined to give "Castle" a few more weeks to see if it finds its footing. But I'm not sure how long it will survive. The debut episode lost more than half of the audience of its lead-in, "Dancing with the Stars," and fell more than three million viewers short of its competition on CBS, "CSI: Miami." ("Castle" did trounce NBC's "Medium," for what it's worth.)

As I watched the premiere of "Castle," it occurred to me that, in some ways, the show is a Hollywood writer's fantasy come to life. Castle, who is "only" a writer, knows nearly as much as Kate about being a detective. After all, television scribes get paid to put their characters in situations that they themselves often have never experienced first-hand. It's almost like a TV writer can live vicariously through Castle as he sticks it to the so-called professionals. But maybe that's why "Castle" feels so false. Because, really, writers don't know as much about police work as real officers do. The best scripters find a way to translate the experiences of actual law enforcement professionals to the screen in a way that is both authentic and entertaining. Unfortunately, it's not something that Marlowe has done well in "Castle."

Friday, March 6, 2009

Jimmy Fallon Takes Over for Conan O'Brien

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

As Jimmy Fallon wraps up his first week taking over Conan O'Brien's post-Jay Leno 12:35 a.m. spot on NBC, people will no doubt chime in on how he did and what his chances are for future success. Personally, while I certainly have some first impressions, I think any fair analysis of Fallon is extremely premature. After all, it took O'Brien a long time to adapt to the role (NBC execs supposedly fired him in 1995 after a year on the air, only to change their minds a few hours later). And I'm sure that Fallon is engaged in major trial and error right now, trying to figure out what works and what kind of show he wants to do. Ask me next March and I'll tell you what I think of Fallon.

I'm more interested in giving a pop quiz:

Which late-night talk show host made this joke on Wednesday night during his opening monologue:

"Especially with the economy slowing down. Everybody's cutting back. Everybody. Madonna's down to one teenage boyfriend."

A) David Letterman
B) Jay Leno
C) Craig Ferguson
D) Jimmy Fallon

The correct response isn't really important (it was Fallon). More to the point is this question: If you didn't know the answer and found out it was Leno, Letterman or Ferguson, would you have said, "No way, he would never make that joke"? Nope. There is nothing radical going on with the move from O'Brien to Fallon on "Late Night." The talk show genre never seems to change, at least on the networks.

And that's really the take-away on Fallon's first week on NBC. His version of "Late Night" is cut from the same cloth as O'Brien's (and Letterman's before that). He does a monologue. He's got a band. He's got a desk. He talks to guests. He does comedy bits, sometimes with his guests, sometimes on his own. And he has a musical guest in the last segment. Fallon's show is closer to Jack Paar than "The Daily Show."

If there is any minor adjustment Fallon is trying to make to the genre, it's an effort to attract a younger audience. The band is the hip hop outfit the Roots. Instead of more traditional tomfoolery like Letterman's Will It Float or O'Brien's In the Year 2000, one of Fallon's comedy segments introduced an Internet clip (Tuesday's installment was dancing Germans showing off soccer jerseys in the 1970s). But, really, we are talking about the most minor of adjustments. Thursday's guests were Donald Trump and Serena Williams, a pairing you could easily see on Leno or Letterman. And as my pop quiz demonstrated, his monologue jokes are no edgier than those of his older colleagues.

Don't get me wrong, I don't mean all this as a put-down. There is nothing wrong with "Late Night" being a classic-style talk show. In fact, in our ever-changing, always-churning, MTV-attention-span culture, there is something comforting about the continuity. Think of it this way: Since 1982, Fallon is only the third host in his time slot. That's kind of cool. (Of course, when O'Brien takes over the "Tonight Show," he will be the third person to hold the job since 1962!) The endurance of the genre, and the way it has hardly changed, is really amazing, especially when you consider how much the prime-time schedule has evolved over the last ten years (reality shows in, sitcoms out, and NBC turning 10 p.m. over to Leno).

So the bottom line is that Jimmy Fallon's "Late Night" is a familiar talk show, and we'll know in a year if he's any good at it. Okay? Are we good? Can I go now? In light of all I've written, you don't want to hear what I thought of Fallon's first week, do you? Because it doesn't matter, right?

Fine. Have it your way. Here is the conventional review:

I thought Fallon was fine. When he was on "Saturday Night Live," he was a bit of a divisive performer. He took a lot of heat for breaking up during sketches, and some people found his hipster persona (and super hipster messed-up hair) to be off-putting. But I never had a problem with him. I thought Fallon and Tina Fey made for a pretty good Weekend Update team, and he had more than a few recurring characters that I enjoyed (like the Nomar Garciaparra-loving New Englander Sully, the smug computer guy Nick Burns, and Barry Gibb as a talk show host).

So I went into Fallon's late nighttime foray with an open mind. And I think he's off to a fine start. The nerves that were all too evident on Monday (causing him to be a bit of a manic and jumpy presence in his interviews of Robert DeNiro and Justin Timberlake) were mostly gone by Wednesday, when he was relaxed and funny with Cameron Diaz (including a funny dance-off between the two) and Billy Crudup.

Surprisingly, I think in these early days Fallon is doing a better job with the interviews than he is with the monologue. His boyish persona isn't a great fit for the run-of-the-mill late night jokes. He lacks Letterman's irony and Ferguson's goofiness. But, clearly, he and the writers will have every chance to find the right tone and approach over time.

In the interviews, though, Fallon has already demonstrated an ability to convey a kind of fun vibe with his guests. It's like he is so happy to be in that seat, and you're happy to watch him be happy. Not surprisingly, Fallon and Fey had great chemistry, but he also managed to connect with Diaz, Crudup and Jon Bon Jovi. Fallon is not a great interviewer yet, and he doesn't always listen closely enough to his guests, sometimes too intent on getting to his next question or joke. But I'm sure he'll get better, and it's not like O'Brien, who grew into a adept comic, ever really learned to be a great inquisitor.

The comic bits are also finding their footing. I liked the idea of the fake "Space Train" movie that Fallon pretended to have done with DeNiro, but the material didn't live up to the concept. Ditto with the opening night gambit of having O'Brien packing in the dressing room as Fallon got ready for the show. I liked the video segment better, during which someone dressed like one of the retro German dancers appeared onstage, with Fallon claiming that he escaped from the television. And there was a very funny bit with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg coming out of the audience and posing for pictures with Fallon in front of a giant television screen that projected different backgrounds, from City Hall to the Eiffel Tower to Max Headroom. I even got a kick out of Fallon inviting a Bon Jovi fan to karaoke "Wanted Dead or Alive" for Bon Jovi, with the singer later joining the starstruck woman to belt the chorus with her. It was a cute moment. (You can watch episodes of the program on Hulu.)

The Roots are a great choice for the band. From a comic standpoint, Fallon hasn't used them much yet, but the opening night had a funny segment in which Fallon crooned jokes like a Barry White seducer, with Tariq, the lead singer, trading verses with him. As a band, they get the job done, even passing an early test that they can handle other genres by doing a spot-on backing job for the Bon Jovi song.

As I said at the beginning, we won't really know what Fallon is like as a host for some time. He's still figuring that out for himself. But so far, so good. That is, of course, if you like the traditional talk show format. Because while we may not know yet if Fallon will be a king of late night, we already know that his show's format is still reigning after all these years.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Congressional Democrats Made a Big Mistake Including Earmarks in the Spending Bill

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

Democrats in Congress could really use a lesson in the art of politics from President Obama.

Millions of Americans turned on their computers this morning and went to Yahoo!, only to find this headline:

Obama will sign spending bill despite earmarks

Instead of being a positive headline about President Obama's bold effort to try and address the myriad problems facing the nation, the news was about the Democrats in Congress doing something stupid. They have handed the Republicans a legitimate issue to complain about, and there isn't a single good reason for it.

On This Week yesterday, George Stephanopoulos's first question to Republican Whip Rep. Eric Cantor was a softball, asking him to comment on President Obama's refusal to veto the spending bill because of the presence of earmarks. The interview should have been a disaster for Cantor (and the rest of it was). Stephanopoulos showed him poll figures that demonstrated that Americans overwhelmingly supported President Obama and not the Republicans in Congress (Democrats in Congress got more support than Republicans, but far less than President Obama). And Cantor had nothing to add beyond the tired Republican lower-taxes-solve-all answer to the economic crisis. But instead of the interview being about the lack of solutions being offered by the Republicans, Cantor got to take the offensive on earmarks. The Democrats gave Cantor (and the rest of the Republicans in Congress) a lifeline, and there was no benefit to be gained in doing so. (You can watch the interview with Cantor here.)

Let's be clear here: When the Democrats stand up for something important, as President Obama is trying to do on the economy, health care, green energy, education and a more fair tax system, then combating the GOP talking point of "tax and spend Democrats" blowing up the debt is completely worth the fight. We know that the Republican policies of tax cuts for the wealthy, no regulation and corporate welfare led to the mess we are currently in, so standing for a change to these policies, and President Obama's hugely ambitious agenda of trying to tackle several major needs at once, is a worthwhile fight.

But why, why, why did the Democrats in Congress insist on including earmarks in the most recent spending bill? Especially since President Obama opposes them, and spoke out against them during the campaign? There is no political, moral or ideological basis for including them.

I have been a frequent critic of Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House speaker Nancy Pelosi since they came to power. I thought they were too weak in opposing the Republicans in Congress when the GOP was in the majority, and they were even weaker in opposing President Bush, especially on Iraq, after the American people handed both houses of Congress to the Democrats in 2006, largely because of Bush's mishandling of the war.

And now that President Obama is in the White House, it seems to me that Reid and Pelosi have made a large miscalculation: They seem to believe that the increased Democratic majorities in Congress were somehow an endorsement of their leadership and policies when, in fact, the Democratic surge was more a product of belief in the leadership of President Obama (and anger at the fecklessness of the Republicans that ran the country into the ground over the last eight years).

President Obama has demonstrated at every turn, from his campaign through the early days of his presidency, that he's pretty good at political strategy. Reid and Pelosi have demonstrated in the last four years that they are not. So why not take a page from the master?

There is no upside to being on the pro-earmarks side of the debate. In fact, including them paints the Democrats in Congress as being part of the same culture in Washington that the voters rejected in November. Again, like they were after the 2006 elections, Reid and Pelosi are demonstrating that they are tone deaf as to the demands of the electorate. They don't seem to understand why they were put into power. In 2006, it was to end the war in Iraq. And in 2008, it was to support President Obama's change agenda.

Now the president is forced to make a lose-lose decision: Does he veto the spending bill to show his displeasure on earmarks and risk not getting his ambitious agendas through Congress? Or does he swallow hard and accept the earmarks to keep his programs moving forward? He has apparently chosen the second option, and it's hard to argue with him, but it's easy to lament that his fellow Democrats in Congress have placed him in this no-win situation in the first place.

Here's the bottom line: I have always firmly believed in the principals that President Obama is trying to assert in the early days of his presidency. I am palpably relieved at the direction he is taking our nation after eight years of the Bush administration's embarrassing view of the U.S. and the world, and its total incompetence in operating the government. I know that the necessary reshaping of our national priorities that President Obama is attempting to undertake needs to move through Congress, so he needs Reid and Pelosi to wake up and get on board. Americans voted for Democrats in Congress to support President Obama, not to preserve earmarks, a piece of the broken political system the president railed against as a candidate.

President Obama's battle for change will be difficult enough, and the last thing he needs is for Reid and Pelosi to give ammunition to the enemy by advocating something as indefensible as earmarks. Obama has earned the right to lead, far more than Reid and Pelosi. They need to wake up and realize this fact, sooner rather than later.