Saturday, June 27, 2009

This Is Not Your Parents' "The Superstars" on ABC, But It's Not Bad, Either

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

The logos on the participants' shirts are the same. As is the name of the show. And there are athletic competitions. After that, I'm pretty much out of similarities between the new version of "The Superstars" (ABC, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern) and the original. I'm not saying the new one is bad. It's just not the same.

I guess a little history lesson is in order for readers under the age of 35. In its first (and classic) incarnation, "The Superstars" ran on weekend afternoons on ABC from 1973 to 1984. The show took athletes and pit them against each other in different competitions (there were 10 events, and each participant had to enter seven of them), like swimming, weightlifting, biking, bowling, running and the big finale, the obstacle course. (You can see the 1973 swimming competition here, which included boxing champion Joe Frazier hardly able to make it across the pool.) The top performers in each episode would come back to compete to determine that year's winner. The "Superstars" title went to athletes like soccer player Kyle Rote Jr., track and field competitors Bob Seagren and Tom Petranoff, and football players Greg Pruitt, Charles White and a pre-life-of-crime O.J. Simpson. Hosted by Jim McKay (and other legitimate sports announcers), ABC approached the show as a real sports competition, but with a lighter touch.

As I watched the reboot of "The Superstars," it occurred to me that this wasn't really a remake, but more of a new program combining elements of "The Superstars," "Battle of the Network Stars" and "The Amazing Race." In the new "Superstars," eight male-female teams, made up of one celebrity and one athlete, compete against each other, with one team being eliminated each week. Unlike the original show, which featured ten events, the teams engage in only two competitions (in the first episode, a combination bicycle/running race and a kayak race). The bottom four teams are forced to race in the obstacle course, with the losing team sent home.

In the intro to the first episode, host Jon Saunders, a respected ESPN anchor who hosts "The Sports Reporters" on the network, sets the tone for the program, promising "challenging" and "mind-bending" events (not so much) featuring celebrities trying to "take down the greatest athletes of our time" (not really). Since athletes make far more money today than they did in the 1970s, most contracts preclude them from engaging in rigorous activities in the off-season (the Yankees were famously able to trade for Alex Rodriguez when they voided Aaron Boone's contract after he got hurt playing basketball). So it's not surprising that many of the athletes in "The Superstars" are retired or near retirement (tennis pro Jennifer Capriati, basketball players Lisa Leslie and Robert "Big Shot Bob" Horry, baseball infielder Jeff Kent, and soccer gold medalist Brandi Chastain). The remaining three professional athletes include an at-the-time free agent (football player Terrell "T.O." Owens) and two fringe sport competitors (alpine skier Bode Miller and freeskier Kristi Leskinen). So thanks to the changing realities of the sports world, the caliber of athlete in the new "Superstars" pales in comparison to that of the old one.

And the celebrities are not exactly of the A-list variety, either: model Joanna Krupa (paired with Owens), actress Ali Landry (Kent), actress Estelle Warren (Horry), "Extreme Home Makeover" designer Paige Hemmis (Miller), dancer Maksim Chmerkovskiy (Leskinen), actor Dan Cortese (Leslie), actor and reality show participant David Charvet (Capriati), and singer Julio Igleisas Jr. (Chastain). The word "celebrity" is obviously used very loosely here.

That's not to say the competitions weren't difficult. I liked how the first race, in which both teams had to travel a long distance to and over a steep bridge and into the Atlantis Hotel compound (in Paradise Island, the Bahamas, where the show is filmed) but had only one bicycle to use, was not only a true athletic test (Miller was so wiped at the end he vomited, thankfully off-camera), but also a real brain teaser (half the battle was figuring out when each racer should run, and when he or she should bike). The second competition, a kayak race on the hotel's simulated white-river course, was less difficult (the waves weren't very rough), but it was no easy walk in the park, either, with competitors being accidentally struck with oars and more than a few ending up in the drink.

The final obstacle course was built up by Saunders and the competitors to be some epic test of strength and endurance, run at night with "American Gladiator"-style lighting for maximum effect. But it is essentially the same course used in the original show, with the added bonus that the wall to be scaled had wood slats for the racers to use to get over it (Rote and the other original competitors had no such help back in the day). The cargo nets provided problems for some of the competitors, with Leslie and Owens both getting stuck in the ropes (Leslie became so disoriented, she accidentally climbed the wrong way out and headed for a moment towards the start line), but the course didn't live up to the hype. Probably a good thing, though, since it would have been awful to try and turn the "Superstars" finale into "Wipeout."

Okay, so the new "Superstars" isn't the old "Superstars." That's clear. But is it entertaining? Somewhat. It definitely had its moments. By limiting the competition to two races (before the obstacle course elimination), we get to see the whole thing unfold, which is an improvement over the selected highlights approach used on the old version (for example, you almost never got to see more than a one-minute recap of the bowling).

There were also moments of insight by the competitors, the two best coming from Leskinen. After the running/bike race, she astutely pointed out that she trains for strength, not cardio, so the race was a grind for her ("my lungs are on fire"). Later, after her team's heat of the kayak race, she pointed out to a slightly down Chmerkovskiy that he did a great job because while she got to race against celebrities, he had to go against "pros."

And there were entertaining moments, too. After the running/bike race, a gassed Owens was asked how he would tackle the course differently if given another chance. "I would ride in a car," he deadpanned.

The much-talked-about highlight of the first episode was the mind-bogglingly poor behavior demonstrated by Owens's teammate, Krupa. She became incensed at Owens when he didn't do well in the kayak race, and when his foot became caught in the cargo net in the first heat of the obstacle course, she became downright apoplectic, dropping "F" bombs all over the place and questioning why Owens gets paid "a million dollars" (look, I know English isn't her first language, but she should be able to figure out that if Owens is on the show, he earns a lot more than "a" million dollars). She refused to slap hands with him as she came across the finish line, and generally demonstrated the behavior of the worst teammate in the history of team competitions.

Krupa didn't even soften up when she was the one responsible for losing the final elimination heat in the obstacle course, still railing against Owens after the race was over. There were hints that Krupa was reacting to Owens's stand-offish behavior over the course of the day (nobody will ever mistake Owens for a teddy bear), but here is a little hint for Krupa: If you behave so badly that you make Terrell Owens a sympathetic figure, you really are doing something wrong with your life. Owens spoke for all viewers during the team's "walk of shame" after elimination, saying in a matter-of-fact way, "I feel sorry for your boyfriend." How often does someone make that comment about a model and have everyone who hears it agree with him?

I'm a big fan of Saunders as a sports reporter, but it was hard to watch him try and be a hypemaster on this hybrid of athletics and celebrity reality. His co-host, retired football star Warren Sapp, is a better fit. His always-trying-to-have-fun, shoot-from-the-hip personality is a good fit for the show. (And it was very impressive to watch him move his huge, approximately 300-pound frame gracefully through a demonstration of the obstacle course, reminding viewers of what a great athlete he is.) Interviewer Jenn Brown is also a good fit for the program. She is energetic and looked like she was ready to jump in and compete with the athletes and celebrities (even dressing like she was racing in each event, like wearing a bathing suit to do interviews before and after the kayak heats).

I did enjoy "The Superstars," but it had too many wince-inducing moments. Landry repeatedly talked about what a great teammate Kent was, something that probably never happened to the notoriously surly ballplayer during his 17-year playing career. She tried to foster a rapport, constantly putting her arms around him, while he looked like he was using every ounce of strength to maintain a painted-on smile. The guys on the old show had fun, but they were also pretty serious about the competition. I liked that. That same trait comes off differently when it comes from the celebs. It sometimes felt false.

But most of all, the remake of "The Superstars," just like last year's reboot of "Password," demonstrates how television executives no longer trust in the concepts of the shows, seemingly believing that they need to amp everything up, both in execution (adding an elimination element to "The Superstars," making the prize a million dollars in "Password") and in tone (having Saunders over-hype the competition and difficulty of events, featuring a lot of women in bikinis in the preview of future episodes at the end of the show).

Part of me wishes ABC just let my memories of the old "Superstars" rest in peace. But without my baggage, the new "Superstars" is a perfectly pleasant summer reality diversion. Too bad Owens and Krupa are gone, though. She put on one hell of a show, even if she didn't know she was doing it.

Monday, June 22, 2009

When It Comes to Health Care, Why Do Republicans (and Some Centrist Democrats) Hate Americans?

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

A couple of weeks ago, in discussing torture, I asked why so many Republicans hate America. Now that the debate over how to fix the heath-care system has moved forward, listening to the Republican position (which is, unfortunately, shared by some centrist Democrats), I can't help but wonder why these individuals hate Americans?

Okay, again, I am being cheeky, invoking the Republican claims during the Iraq war that Democrats hated America because they didn't support the administration's draconian approach to fighting terror. And I'm doing it again here, because, at heart, the Republicans (and, again, some centrist Democrats) who are opposing a public option in the new plan are doing so to protect profitable health insurance companies at the expense of the average American citizen. The arguments used by the Republicans (and centrist Democrats) against a public option are absolutely disingenuous.

When asked about a public option, Republicans tend to lapse into the same red-herring argument Sen. Lindsay Graham made on This Week yesterday:

"The last thing in the world I think Democrats and Republicans are going to do at the end of the day is create a government run health care system where you've got a bureaucrat standing in between the patient and the doctor. We've tried this model -- people have tried this model in other countries. The first thing that happens -- you have to wait for your care. And in socialized health care models, people have to wait longer to get care and the government begins to cut back on what's available because of the cost explosion."

I was half expecting Graham to move close to the camera and yell "Boo!" in an effort to further scare Americans.

Except, nobody is proposing the U.K.-style plan he is railing against. So why is he doing it? Simple. Because the Republicans (and centrist Democrats) are supporting the big insurance companies at the expense of the people, but they can't very well say that out loud, so they have resorted to changing the subject and trying to scare Americans into not noticing where they have tossed their allegiances.

You see, the Republicans are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They are quick to tell you, as Graham did, how terrible government-run health care would be, with long waits for inferior service. But when you argue for a public option, with people being given the chance to keep what they have (with private insurers) or opt for a new public option (especially for those who don't currently have any insurance) that would compete with the private companies, then the Republicans say that the private insurers would be driven out of business because they can't compete with the public plan. But if the government-run plan would be so bad, why would the private insurers lose to it? Shouldn't Americans, terrified at the big bad government trying to run their health-care decisions, run screaming away from the new public plan and into the arms of the wonderful private insurers they adore? What is the risk? And if the government-run plan is so good it would be an improvement over the private insurers, why are the Republicans against it (if they can't admit that they are protecting the business interests over the health of Americans)? Isn't the goal better care at lower costs?

It is a truly odious game the Republicans (and centrist Democrats) are playing now, which is even more despicable because of the stakes involved. The bottom line is that the American health-care system is not working, and it's only getting worse. Medical costs are skyrocketing, tens of millions have no insurance at all, and those that do are facing higher fees and dwindling service. According to a recent report, 17 percent of American households put off health care in the last year due to cost. And 40 percent of respondents said they would need to to postpone care in the next three months, including 15 percent who said they had to put off routine doctor visits. The way health-care works in the U.S. now, for-profit companies make decisions on Americans' health care based not on what is good for the patient, but on what will add to the company's profits. That's no way to care for our citizens.

And it's not like Americans are afraid of the government providing a public option for health care. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that 72 percent of respondents (including 50 percent of Republicans) favored a government-sponsored health-care plan to compete with private insurers, and 57 percent said they were willing to pay higher taxes so that all Americans could be covered. In fact, 64 percent of those polled said that the government should guarantee health insurance for all Americans.

So if the people want a public option, and the Republican arguments are, on their face, hypocritical (if the government-run plan is as terrible as they say, it would not be a threat to private insurers), why are so many Republican and centrist Democratic senators opposing a public plan?

After all, anyone happy with his/her current coverage would be free to keep it as it is. Only those with lousy coverage (or no coverage at all) would be exploring the public option.

Health care is one of the thorniest and most important issues the government has to face, and there needs to be a full and thorough debate in Congress. Concerns about cost, taxes, and systems are absolutely valid, and there are no easy solutions to the hole we've dug for ourselves. But the scare tactics and diversions being offered by the Republicans on the public option are more than just dishonest, they are dangerous, because they could derail necessary change to the current failed system. If Republicans oppose a public option because they want to support the insurance companies, they should say that, rather than making up stories about socialized medicine plans that nobody is proposing. The debate needs to be on honest terms.

The bottom line is that in the U.S. right now, millions of people have no health insurance, others are getting bumped from their coverage, and many people are fighting increased costs (in premiums, co-payments, and uncovered care), and the result is less care for more money. That simply is not acceptable, and the increased costs to the country of medical care are unsustainable. Something has to be done. If Republicans (and centrist Democrats) have a better suggestion than a public option, something that will effectively provide quality coverage to more Americans and bring down costs, then let's hear it. But if the best they can do is come up with scary language like Graham offered on This Week, while proposing only alternatives that will, in effect, perpetuate the broken status quo, that's unacceptable.

It's time for the Republicans and, especially, the centrist Democrats to listen to the will of the people. The discussion has to be on the level, and the solution has to be a system in which for-profit insurance monoliths no longer control the country's health care. If a public option will lead to increased coverage and lower health-care costs, then that's where we need to head. The Republicans and Centrist Democrats are currently protecting the insurance companies. I say it's time they start protecting the American people instead.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Nurse Jackie" and "HawthoRNe" Bring Nurses to the Forefront in Prime Time

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

After years of taking a back seat to doctors on medical dramas from "St. Elsewhere" to "Grey's Anatomy," nurses are finally having their moment in the sun, with the debut of "HawthoRNe" (TNT, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern) and "Nurse Jackie" (Showtime, Mondays at 10:30 Eastern).

While the two programs vary wildly in tone and approach, they do agree on a two basic principals: In the four walls of the hospital, (1) nurses are the true heroes, and (2) doctors are pompous and ineffectual. Being admitted to a hospital after watching either of these shows would be like going for an ocean swim after watching "Jaws."

The one-hour drama "HawthoRNe" stars Jada Pinkett Smith (she also is an executive producer) as Christina Hawthorne, the chief nursing officer of a hospital in Richmond, Va. In the pilot, it is the one-year anniversary of the death of her husband, and through dribs and drabs we can kind of piece together that he was suffering from cancer (early in the episode, a friend of his, also a cancer patient, calls Christina into the hospital in the middle of the night so that he can say goodbye before throwing himself off the roof; he survives the fall, though), and that Christina was somehow complicit in his death (her cold mother-in-law, Amanda, played by Joanna Cassidy of "Six Feet Under," implies this fact, and Christina's high-school-age daughter, Camille, played by Hannah Hodson, is even more blunt about it).

We are supposed to accept Christina as a rebel who will gladly fight the power structure to do what is right (something Camille has learned, since the first time we see her, she has chained herself to a vending machine at school to protest its removal, even though she doesn't eat any of the junk food it contains). In an early scene, Christina bypasses a new security guard that doesn't recognize her so she can get to the roof to try and prevent her husband's friend's suicide. (She is later arrested for it.)

As Christina walks around the hospital, it's as if she should have a halo around her head. All of the working people seem to look to her to solve their problems. Her beneficence extends from her nurses down to the maintenance guy who complains that he has to use cheap disinfectant (of course, Christina tells him she'll do what she can to get him better/safer products).

There is one plot point in "HawthoRNe" that reveals exactly what kind of program it is: A nurse, Ray Stein (David Julian Hirsh), figures out that the course of treatment prescribed by the disengaged, self-involved and pompous Dr. Marshall (Anne Ramsey of "Mad About You") for a soldier with diabetes is incorrect. Ray pages the doctor, who is on a golf course, to express his concerns, but Dr. Marshall scolds him for bothering her and not following her instructions. Ray then follows her instructions. I wonder if there was a single viewer who didn't know what would happen next: The patient goes into a seizure, and Dr. Marshall blames Ray, with Christina having to come to his defense. I'm all for highlighting the achievements and sacrifices of nurses, but doing so in such a cartoonishly simple and telegraphed way doesn't accomplish the goal.

Christina is an understanding best friend to fellow nurse Bobbie (Suleka Mathew), who says she's "damaged goods" when asked out by a paramedic, but we later find out she is hiding a secret from him: She has a prosthetic leg, something we comically find out when a crazed man accidentally stabs her in the leg, eliciting no reaction from Bobbie since there is only the prosthesis under her scrubs. Christina makes her feel beautiful and eventually gives her the courage to accept a date with her suitor (even wearing a dress that reveals her metal prosthesis, presumably because the more leg-like one is being repaired after the attack). Christina is also the only person who gives the time of day to Isabel (Aisha Hinds), a homeless woman who hangs out by the hospital, which comes in handy when Isabel shows Christina she has a newborn baby, which eventually turns out to be Isabel's (Christina chides herself for not noticing that under her layers of clothing, Isabel was pregnant).

In a nutshell, this is Christina: When she is asked in a moment of crisis, "Whose side are you on?", she declares, "Right now, the patient's."

Would we want Christina to be the chief nursing officer at any hospital in which we found ourselves? Hell, yeah. But that doesn't mean watching her walk around the hospital like the second coming of Gandhi is all that interesting in a scripted television program.

TNT has already launched two edgy one-hour dramas featuring flawed female leads (played by actresses with film careers), with Holly Hunter's alcoholic, sexually active cop in "Saving Grace," and Kyra Sedgwick's bristly sugar-addicted detective in "The Closer," and I have no doubt that "HawthoRNe" was designed to slide comfortably into this mold. Christina is portrayed as a rebel, she curses (I didn't know you could say "bull shit" on TNT in the 9:00 p.m. block), she fights with her daughter, and she may have killed her husband.

But, in execution, "HawthoRNe" is not the least bit edgy, with all of its rough surfaces dutifully sanded down to a smooth finish. Christina may fight hospital battles, but in administrator Dr. Thomas Wakefield (Michael Vartan, who must be wondering why he has so little to do), she has an understanding and admiring ear. She may fight with her daughter, but that doesn't stop Camille from saying she loves Christina before leaving for her father's memorial dinner. If Christina did help her husband die, it was only because he was, as she hints, in a lot of pain. Even her killing is merciful. And Pinkett Smith, while a fine actress, isn't going to add any edge to "HawthoRNe." There is something inherently polished about her at this point in her career, so much so that it prevents her from entering the lower-depths territory Sedgwick and Hunter reach on their shows.

"HawthoRNe" isn't a bad show. It is competently written and acted. But it's just kind of dull, predictable and rehashed.

Even though the 30-minute "Nurse Jackie" is more edgy than "HawthoRNe," it suffers from some of the same ills, namely predictability and painting the doctor-nurse relationship in broad strokes.

The pilot begins with Jackie (Edie Falco, Carmela on "The Sopranos") in a drug-induced stupor, lying on a table in an all-white room, and in all-white clothing, with a literal haze in the air in her psychedelic vision. She explains in a voice over how she needs a precise amount of Oxycontin to start the day (she has a back problem), and she quotes one of the sisters who taught her in school to precisely enunciate her vision of herself:

"The people with the greatest capacity for good are the ones with the greatest capacity for evil."

And to reveal the tone of the show, Jackie adds, "Smart fuckin' nun."

Like Christina in "HawthoRNe," Jackie is the go-to savior at the hospital, so much so that new nurse Zoe (Merritt Wever of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip") tells her in the pilot, "I think you're a saint." And in the hospital, Jackie is a saint, if, of course, you believe that the ends justify the means. She forges a donor card so that a dead bike messenger's organs can be used to help others. She steals money from a Libyan diplomat who badly slashed a prostitute in his limo (he can't be prosecuted for his attack due to diplomatic immunity) and gives it to the pregnant girlfriend of the dead bike messenger (she said he left her with nothing and asked Jackie if she can have one of his donated organs to sell on the black market). And she flushes the diplomat's detached ear down the toilet before it can be reattached after he expresses no regret for his actions (he says the woman liked being cut).

Jackie is also having an affair with one of the doctors, one minute sharing a frantic quickie with him in the lab, but later tenderly telling him she loves him (after he gave her soda, a Moon Pie, and, finally, what she really wants, drugs, for her ailing back). Only, you don't know it's an extramarital affair until the last scene of the pilot, when she returns home to her two daughters and her husband, who has made her a pancake dinner (which is especially poignant, when you consider that the bike messenger's girlfriend told Jackie earlier that he had made her pancakes for breakfast on the morning of his death). Jackie even gives her kids the Moon Pie to share, and the casual way she does it struck me as pretty powerful. It would have been even more affecting if not for the fact that seconds earlier, in a voice over, Jackie talks about St. Augustin and the mix of good and evil in a person. It was a bit on the nose, and the embrace of an "I'm not ready to be good yet" attitude made her less relatable (which, in this case, is more important than being likable).

Despite possessing an edge lacking in "HawthoRNe," "Nurse Jackie" was a bit too simplistic and predictable for my tastes. Like in "HawthoRNe," the doctors are portrayed as idiots who get in Jackie's way when trying to take care of her patients. In a scene nearly identical to the one I described in "HawthoRNe," when the bike messenger is brought in, Jackie examines him, but when Dr. Cooper (Peter Facinelli) arrives (talking into his Bluetooth about how great St. Barts is), he condescendingly brushes aside Jackie's concern that the patient has internal bleeding. So it's no surprise in the next scene when we find out that the bike messenger has died.

Even Jackie's doctor friend Elenor (Eve Best) is self-involved, arguing that Jackie became a nurse because she cares about people, while she became a doctor because she likes to know how stuff works (talking about how she cut open a dead rabbit as a kid). When, at lunch at a restaurant, a diner starts to choke, the two debate which of them should help, with, of course, Jackie finally doing so.

"Nurse Jackie" does a good job of presenting a conflicted, multi-dimensional protagonist. It's pretty daring to offer up a caring nurse who also happens to be a drug addict cheating on her husband. You only wish the show did so in the context of a world (the hospital, mainly) that was as multi-faceted and interesting as the main character is.

"Nurse Jackie" and "HawthoRNe" are giving nurses their moment in the TV sun, but you can't help wishing the programs were better.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

One Lesson from the 1930s: Financial Regulation Has to Be Bold

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

Three weeks ago I asked why so many Republicans seem to hate America. Well, today, one reason has become clear: Because some of them love banks and big corporations more than they love the American people or the American economy.

President Obama revealed his plans to regulate the financial industry today, and I thought House Minority Leader John Boehner's response was telling. He said: "I think it's just going to be too big of a foot on an industry that already is having financial problems."

I completely understand that differing views and philosophies on government is actually a positive thing, and I certainly don't think the Democrats have a monopoly on good ideas. But the Republicans have abdicated their position as a contributor to the national conversation, having become a negative force on political discourse in that they no longer even pretend to advance ideas that are good for the country. Instead, they use deception, fear and intimidation to try and trick and scare people into supporting policies that will benefit the party's narrow constituency, including corporations and financial institutions.

Boehner's quote shows that he isn't even trying to pretend. He is there to protect the banks. Last year, the financial system nearly came crashing down, in large part because the regulatory system set up after the Great Depression had been systematically dismantled in the previous 28 years. As much as the financial industry likes to advance the myth that last year's financial crisis was a once-in-a-lifetime, who-could-have-seen-it-coming event, most economists agree that the crash was the result of human error, with finance professionals taking too many chances thanks to a compensation system that rewarded deals regardless of future consequences. (The New York Times reviewed two books yesterday, Daniel Gross's "Dumb Money" and Gillian Tett's "Fools Gold," which demonstrate this idea from different perspectives.)

Certainly, the destruction of the post-Depression regulatory structure created an environment that allowed the events of last year to come to a head (especially the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed the provision of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 that essentially prevented banks from taking on so much risk by separating commercial banks and investment banks).

After the financial system nearly collapsed and slipped into crisis, and after the banks needed billions of dollars in bailouts, Boehner has the nerve to tell the American people that he is worried about too much regulation? Not to mention his line about "an industry that already is having financial problems." How the hell does he think the financial sector got into its current mess? It was self-inflicted, and largely a result of a lack of regulation. Seriously, Boehner's argument seems to be that due to a lack of regulation, the banks made horrendous decisions that put them in bad financial shape, so to help them, we should not regulate them. This is the current state of Republican thinking: circular logic that makes no sense.

A lot of writers draw parallels between how both Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama won the presidency and had to deal with a financial crisis left to them by historically bad Republican incumbents (Paul Krugman used 1930s examples in his latest column to make his argument that the Obama administration has to continue its current economic policies and not worry about inflation). While I'm sure from a policy standpoint, a lot can be learned from what Roosevelt did and didn't do, the situations are not identical, so I understand that everything that worked (and didn't work) then may not have the same results now.

But one thing that can be learned and applied directly from the 1930s is the politics behind the crisis. The stock market crashed in 1929, but Hoover took no effective action to stop the ensuing economic and financial collapses. Roosevelt was sworn in in March 1933, and by the end of the year, both the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 and the Securities Act of 1933 were passed to address the crash and the depression. The Securities Exchange Act of 1934 followed, and, along with the Investment Company Act of 1940 and the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, the laws created a regulatory framework that successfully held off abuses and boom-and-bust financial cycles until the savings and loan crisis popped up in the 1980s (after deregulation had begun).

I'm sure the Boehner equivalent of the mid-1930s was aghast at the new regulations, but that didn't stop the bold legislation from being passed and signed in a matter of months. There was a crisis, and everyone knew where it had come from, so solutions were proposed and enacted to try to ensure that a similar crash could not occur in the future.

We find ourselves in a similar situation in 2009, but the reaction isn't quite the same. We know that the dismantling of the regulatory infrastructure enabled last year's financial crisis, and yet from listening to the Republicans, it's almost like it never happened. Now, the president releases proposed regulations that are heavily watered down when compared to what was adopted in 1933 and 1934, and what many were proposing for 2009, and even the compromise proposal is batted away by Boehner.

President Obama even admitted that his proposal is not as strong as he would like. A New York Times article today describes the the plan as "the product of weeks of meetings among government officials, financial experts, lawmakers, industry executives and lobbyists, many of whom were invited to help the White House draft the proposal." And the president is quoted as saying: "We want to get this thing passed, and, you know, we think that speed is important. We want to do it right. We want to do it carefully. But we don’t want to tilt at windmills." The article notes that on certain issues, mutual funds, hedge funds and dealers in derivatives were able to score partial or total victories.

Normally I am a strong supporter of politicians who deal in the real world, and I know that Obama is correct that if his plan doesn't pass muster with members of Congress, nothing will get done. So I realize that the blame lies more at the foot of Congress (especially centrist Democrats afraid of being branded as over-regulating liberals) than with the president. But putting blame aside, I am frustrated that the response to the crisis seems to indicate that we have forgotten the lessons of the 1930s. Everyone in Washington should be bolder, taking the same kind of decisive action that their predecessors did during the Great Depression. After all, the regulatory framework they constructed did an outstanding job, holding off crises until after it was torn down.

That is why I am so dismissive of Boehner's logic-challenged, ideology-driven, useless comment on regulation. And why I hope he is absolutely ignored. If the new plan is too tepid and doesn't impose real changes to the regulatory system, we will still be vulnerable to another financial collapse fueled by greed, and we will be faced with more bailouts of too-big-to-fail institutions.

It's time for everyone in Washington -- Democrats and Republicans -- to look at the example of the quick action on legislation in 1933 and move on a real regulatory overhaul in the coming months. Nobody should be handing the banks that caused last year's meltdown what they want. Contrary to what Boehner says, a big foot needs to be placed on the financial industry, to make sure that last year's near collapse can never happen again.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

E! Spins "Kendra" Off of "The Girls Next Door," But I Have No Idea Why

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

When E! announced that Kendra Wilkinson of the network's "The Girls Next Door" would be given her own spinoff, "Kendra" (new episodes air Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern), my reaction was: Why? Believe it or not, I did watch "The Girls Next Door." I didn't TiVo it, and I certainly missed more than a few episodes, but if it was on when I was flipping around, I'd watch. The idea of getting a peek behind the walls of the Playboy mansion, and the chance to see how Hugh Hefner interacted with his three, much-younger, blonde girlfriends, was more than my guy instincts could resist.

The thing about "The Girls Next Door" is that it was kind of interesting. With Hef in the background as an eccentric father figure/playboy (small "p"), the series focused on the three women that shared him: "Main" girlfriend Holly Madison, the combination party girl/mother hen who had a knack for keeping things running; Bridget Marquardt, the 30something free spirit with a masters degree; and Wilkinson, the super young (barely 20 when the show began) silicon-aided bimbo. What made "The Girls Next Door" worth watching was that Madison and Marquardt were not the two-dimensional airheads that Playboy detractors would imagine them to be. With their relationship with each other (they were close), their relationships with Hef (Madison seemed like his true mate, while Marquardt seemed more like a very close friend of the family), and their life interests (Madison wanted to have a baby with Hef and took an interest in directing photo spreads in the magazine, while Marquardt pursued a career as a television personality), they were fairly real (for reality television, anyway) people who viewers could understand, and maybe even to whom they could relate at times. The fact that Madison and Marquardt weren't just airheaded bimbos is what made "The Girls Next Door" more than just a one-joke train wreck. You actually could see a bit how the relationships could all work.

At the end of last season, Wilkinson decided to move out of the mansion after five years (and reveal that she had fallen in love with NFL player Hank Baskett), and Marquardt also took her leave, having secured hosting duties on the Travel Channel's "Bridget's Sexiest Beaches," leaving Madison alone in the house with Hef. News soon broke that Madison and Hef had broken up, and Hef had taken on a trio of new girlfriends (including 19-year-old twin sisters). Rather than focus on Hef's new companions (and keep shooting in the mansion with its familiar staff, especially the stalwart secretary/house mother Mary), or to track Madison's post-Hef existence (since she is the one of the three who truly experienced the breakup of a romantic relationship), E! decided instead to hand a show to the least interesting and least likable person in the house: Wilkinson.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. With her dyed hair, fake breasts and heavy makeup, Wilkinson is the stereotypical "hot" girl, even if she is, if you look at her closely, not at all pretty. (As an aside, I fully admit that most guys, especially those younger than me, will think that Wilkinson was the babe of the house, but I'm sure I'm not alone in finding her far less attractive than Marquardt and Madison.) But once you get beyond the surface-level sex appeal, Wilkinson is more than the cypher the vacant look in her eyes would indicate, but, actually, is an exceptionally unintelligent and unappetizing personality. In fact, at one point in the first episode of "Kendra," her friend Brittany remarks that Wilkinson looks like Barbie (she means it as a compliment). It's an easy jump to make, since she's blonde, buxom and thin. But I thought to myself that the Barbie character could actually do stuff (since she had so many career outfits), whereas Wilkinson is more like the actual doll -- useless.

"Kendra" will concentrate on Wilkinson's new life outside of the mansion, and her engagement to Baskett, who seems like a decent enough guy. The first episode revolves around two events: Wilkinson's house-warming party and her visit with Baskett to the mansion so he can meet Hef. The first half (the move-in and party) is every bit as undramatic as it sounds. Bridget gets drunk, acts really glad to see her guests (like once-semi-famous rapper Too $hort, because, she says, it will make the party "more pimp"), plays around on her stripper pole (she had one installed before she even had furniture, because she thought it was more important), and is grossed out when one of her two little dogs poops on the floor. Or, put another way, the program had none of the qualities that made "The Girls Next Door" worth watching. It was pure trash with no substance, and nobody that you actually gave a crap about (you feel bad for Hef and Marquardt, who both looked unhappy at the party, and seem to have stayed for only a little while, possibly not even crossing paths with each other).

When Wilkinson and Baskett visited Hef, the episode got a bit more interesting, but only to the extent of watching how Hef reacted. It is interesting (and creepy) how he is, at once, a father figure and former sexual partner to Wilkinson, with Baskett clearly trying to take the mature high road and concentrate on the paternal aspect of the relationship. The visit was awkward and revealing, with Hef both moved and a bit addled. Watching Hef and Baskett trying to bond made you feel bad for both of them, but at the same time, Baskett seemed genuinely happy to be in Hef's presence. But more than anything, the trip back to the mansion showed that "Kendra" will be painful viewing when Wilkinson is out of Hef's orbit.

Boring television isn't a sin (in NBC's case, it's a staple ... sorry, I couldn't help myself). But "Kendra" felt more than uninteresting to me. Rather, I got the feeling that I was stuck in an elevator with one of the least likable people I've ever met. From the very beginning, she is off-putting, as she talks about how she is on her own, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she has done nothing other than jump from being a ward of Hef to being the fiance of an NFL player.

Throughout the first episode, time and time again, Wilkinson tells us all the things she can't do. Early on, she says, "I have never done anything, like cook, clean, going shopping, or any of that stuff." When she and Brittany go to the food store, Wilkinson has the wide-eyed innocence of a child walking into a new place for the first time. She rides around in a scooter (which, I'm quite sure, is meant for people who due to age or condition can't walk the aisles) and generally makes a mess of things. When she finds Rice-A-Roni in the aisle with a sign that includes, among many other items, "Hispanic Food," she wonders aloud, "I love Rice-A-Roni. I didn't know it was Mexican food." I'm not sure if this was a genuine moment of ignorance or a line fed to her by a writer who wanted to invoke Jessica Simpson's confusion over whether Chicken of the Sea was poultry or fish, but either way, it was painful to watch. Wilkinson later marvels at how expensive groceries are, which only magnifies how she has lived a kept life, especially at a time when so many viewers are struggling to pay their bills.

She seemingly can't furnish her new house, leaving her clothes all over the floor like an 8th grader with a Jonas Brothers poster on the wall (of course, all of her wall-hangings seem to be of semi-clad women). When she can't even open the box of her new flat-screen television, she says, "Setting up a TV is a man's job." Later, she declares, "I have no idea how to start planning a wedding." And while in a bridal shop with Brittany and her roommate Amber, she asks them to be bridesmaids, telling the camera that she did so because: "I thought they'll bring some sex to my wedding." Later, at the bridal shop, she ruins a finished wedding cake by taking a chunk out of it with her finger, explaining through giggles that she thought it was fake. You'd think that having to look at herself in the mirror everyday, she would be an expert in sussing out what is fake.

She can't do what she sees as men's work, she can't do what she describes as housewives' work, and she doesn't seem to have any other skills, so what can she do? I go back to the Barbie doll analogy. Her propensity to show off her surgically enhanced breasts and her stripper-pole fixation reveal that even Wilkinson herself seems to think she has nothing to offer but her looks. And, to me, that's not near enough to sustain a television show, especially when she's as unlikable as she is.

From Wilkinson's unbelievable shallowness, to her absolute ignorance, to her inability to do anything, to her child-like obliviousness to everything, I don't understand why anyone would want to spend any time with her, even if it's just watching her on television. You have to feel for poor Brittany who says, "I look up to Kendra a lot. If I need advice, she gives it to me." Talk about a recipe for destroying your life.

I am not ashamed to say that I watched "The Girls Next Door," but I am a bit embarrassed to have watched even one episode of "Kendra." I can only hope that the 2.6 million people who tuned in for the premiere (decent numbers for a network like E!) did so out of curiosity, and that the audience will drop as low as Wilkinson's IQ as the season moves forward. If you are a fan of "The Girls Next Door" who can't let go, stick to Marquardt's travel show. It's more entertaining, and you don't feel like you need a shower when the program is over.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Bush Hangover: Guantanamo Undercuts Our Protests of North Korea

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

George W. Bush has been out of office for more than four months now, but I fear that the damage done during the Bush years has inflicted serious injury to the American psyche and reputation, and it will take years, if not decades, to recover.

Why am I bringing this up now?

I woke up this morning to the chilling news that two American journalists had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor by a North Korean court for the "crimes" of illegally entering the country and committing "hostile acts." We can only hope that the reclusive, bizarre and barbaric leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il (or those working for him), is putting on a show to get the attention of the rest of the world, and the two Current TV reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, will be allowed to return home soon.

The two journalists have clearly committed no crimes (as such a term would be understood in any rational section of the world), and the international community has to stand against the heinous actions of the North Korean government. Clearly, the United States should be at the head of such international action.

But today, I also read about Lakhdar Boumediene, and the truly disturbing story of what happened to him after the 9/11 attacks. An Algerian man living with his wife and two children in Sarajevo, Bosnia, he was working for the Red Crescent in October 2001 when he was arrested and charged with conspiring to blow up the American and British embassies in the city. An investigation revealed no evidence of his involvement in any plot, so a Bosnian judge ordered him released, but the Bush administration intervened, and in January 2002 he was shackled and flown to Guantanamo Bay.

He was the name plaintiff in the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case that, in a rebuke to the Bush policy, found that detainees had a right to challenge their detention in court, and a federal judge (a Republican appointed by Bush) later found that the evidence against him was a "thin reed" and ordered his release. France agreed to accept him, and he is now living as a free man in that country, reunited with his family.

In the end, Boumediene was held for 7 1/2 years in Guantanamo, during which time, he says, he was tortured. He says he was kept up for 16 days straight, beaten, "stretched" (pulled up from under his arms while his feet were shackled to a chair) and forced to run while chained to guards, and if he could not keep up, he was dragged until he was bloody and bruised. After he began a hunger strike, he had food tubes put up his nose and, he claims, soldiers would purposely poke IV needles into the wrong parts of his arm, just to induce pain. But the one thing that was not done to him? Nobody asked if he was involved in a plot to blow up the U.S. and British embassies in Sarajevo. Rather, all he was repeatedly asked was about his connections to al-Qaeda and Osama bin-Laden (he insists he had no connection at all to the terrorist group).

But there was one thing in the article that not only amazed me but brilliantly illuminated why the U.S. should never torture, and why it is so important that we repudiate what happened during the Bush years and chart a clear and unequivocal new path forward, one that reflects the country's traditional values. Boumediene said:

"I thought America, the big country, they have CIA, FBI. Maybe one week, two weeks, they know I am innocent. I can go back to my home."

In other words, Boumediene had faith that a country like the United States could not possibly keep an innocent man prisoner with no way to contest his guilt. His view of America is one that many in the world shared before the Bush years (as I discussed two weeks ago, an America that believes in democracy, freedom and due process, and an America that does not torture).

That is supposed to be the difference between a country like North Korea and a country like the United States. North Korea can seize two innocent journalists, put them through a bogus, private, star-chamber trial, and then sentence them to 12 years of hard labor, all without any justification. The United States I grew up in, the United States that fought wars from World War I to the Cold War defending democracy and freedom against repression, could never engage in such conduct like the North Koreans did.

And yet, there it is, for all to read, that we took a man like Boumediene and locked him up without a trial for 7 1/2 years, torturing him while in our custody, even though two courts, one in the U.S. and one in Bosnia (one before his detention and one after), found insufficient evidence to charge him with any crime. While we clearly have a more open and democratic society than North Korea does, for Boumediene, his experience with us was no better than what the two American journalists are now going through in North Korea.

That is why it is essential the we, as a country, do not try and brush the abuses of the eight years of the Bush administration under the carpet like they never happened. We have to recognize that Bush, Cheney and the rest of the gang did real damage to core American ideals, and that this damage is still being felt, both at home and abroad.

Simply put, we have to stand up and reclaim our country as a place where we will not be ruled by fear, and where our values of due process, freedom and respect for the rule of law are sacrosanct, not easily sacrificed at the first whiff of danger.

It really is possible. After all, the idea of the U.S. as a beacon of freedom for many in the world is still a powerful one. Boumediene, even after all he went through, said he doesn't blame the American people, but rather just the "stupid" people in command that caused his plight:

"Myself, I try to forget Guantanamo, I can't forget the four or five people, they are stupid, they are very, very stupid. I can't forget them."

He even recognized the fear of the American people and the possibility of making mistakes after a tragedy:

"The first month, okay, no problem, the building, the 11 of September, the people, they are scared, but not 7 years. They can know who's innocent, who's not innocent, who's terrorist, who's not terrorist. ... I give you 2 years, no problem, but not 7 years."

Boumediene's ordeal is also a prime example of the failures of ruling based on fear. He noted about his captivity:

"If I tell my interrogator, I am from Al Qaeda, I saw Osama bin Laden, he was my boss, I help him, they will tell me, 'Oh you are a good man. But if I refuse? I tell them I'm innocent, never was I terrorist, never never, they tell me. 'You are, you are not cooperating, I have to punch you.'"

Think the Bush administration wasn't using fear to change what we as a country would accept and not accept from our government? Two weeks after Boudemiene's arrest, Bush, in his State of the Union address, said:

"Our soldiers, working with the Bosnian government, seized terrorists who were plotting to bomb our embassy."

At best, this shows how wrong it can be to base policies that violate our core values on fear of an attack based on faulty intelligence. At worst, it shows how people like Bush and Cheney can manipulate or invent threats to help push along their agenda. Either way, it can't be the way we, as a country, make policy. We can't rule out of fear. We must rule out of reason. Otherwise, what are we as a nation? We would be no better than the countries we (correctly) criticize and oppose.

So as we all hope for the safety of the two American journalists being held in North Korea, and as we support actions to help secure their release, let us not forget that what makes the United States the country we are all proud to live in is that we stand for the very freedoms not available in North Korea, and that we oppose the kind of abuses that nation is currently perpetuating on two of our innocent citizens.

The next time you see a Republican defend torture or Guantanamo, think of what is going on in North Korea now and what Lakhdar Boumediene went through at Guantanamo, and ask yourself, What kind of country do you want to live in?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Two New Summer Shows: "Royal Pains" and "The Listener"

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

It's nearly summer, which means beaches, barbecues and crappy television. In the past, it was the season for reruns. But now, the broadcast networks rely mostly on lightweight reality programs to fill out their schedules. Sensing a void, in recent years basic cable outlets began jumping in with one-hour scripted dramas, ranging from the light (USA's "Burn Notice") to the artsy (AMC's "Mad Men") to the intense (FX's "The Shield"), with lots of vehicles for older film actresses playing tough and flawed characters in between (TNT's "Saving Grace" and "The Closer," FX's "Damages"). And the networks will occasionally toss in a less expensive one-hour drama into the mix, like CBS did last summer, finding success with Canadian import "Flashpoint," and critical love for "Swingtown."

It should come as no surprise that two new one-hour scripted programs would arrive on the scene on the same day this week, both playing a bit of follow the leader. USA launched another entry that falls on the light side, "Royal Pains" (Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern), while NBC tried to find success by blindly copying a trend (really, two trends), with the Canadian drama "The Listener" (Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern).

In what stands as a clear sign that the industry has drastically changed in the last five-to-10 years, the budget for one episode of the basic cable entry, which features some recognizable names and faces, could probably fund an entire short season of the network program, which has a cast of unknowns.

Let's start with "The Listener," just because it's so easy to dismiss. I know I embarked on a karma-induced quest to stop picking on NBC, but "The Listener" stands for everything the network has consistently done wrong in recent years, namely blindly copying other successes without getting the essence of what made the other programs work. The formula for "The Listener" is quite simple:

CBS's success with an I-can-hear-thoughts protagonist (at least he claims to be able to), the hit new show "The Mentalist"


CBS's success taking on a cheap Canadian crime program last summer, "Flashpoint"


"The Listener"

But here's the thing: Since "The Mentalist" is a hit, "The Listener" is a knock-off lacking a new concept. And unlike "Flashpoint," "The Listener" is, well, bad.

Set in Toronto where it is shot (it's nice to see a new city for a change), "The Listener" follows Toby (Craig Olejnik), a newbie paramedic who can hear people's thoughts and, sometimes, see and hear their memories. The opening voice over explaining Toby's situation, with ominous music, the camera spinning around him, and Mickey Spillane-esque detective novel-style language, felt like a "Saturday Night Live" parody of a rip-off of a show like "The Mentalist." It was that over-the-top.

In the pilot, Toby struggles to handle his gift, as it increases in intensity, allowing him to sense that a woman in a car wreck had her son snatched from her before the crash. He seeks the help of his mentor, a professor (Ray, played by the only recognizable name in the cast, Colm Feore), who is introduced in a so-poorly-staged-it's-funny scene, as three college students worship him as they walk towards Toby on campus. Ray warns Toby not to reveal his gift to anyone, something that becomes difficult as he tries to reconcile with his on-again, off-again doctor girlfriend (Olivia, played by the wooden Mylene Dinh-Robic) and cover for his buffoonish partner (Oz, played by Ennis Esmer).

When Toby tries to get the woman in the accident to confide in him what he knows from reading her mind -- that a man with a gun took away her son -- she gets scared and runs away. Olivia warns him that she has a concussion and is in danger, which is a problem since in later scenes, she looks perfectly fine, runs, drives, and generally acts like a healthy person. Toby repeatedly crosses paths with a detective, Charlie, played by Lisa Marcos, whose barely competent line readings only serve to amplify the fact that Charlie may be the least believable cop on television. Toby discovers that the bad guy is a detective, and that the woman had witnessed him accidentally shooting his partner during an argument.

Toby consistently stays one step ahead of Charlie and the rest of the police force, managing to track down the woman and her son and save them as the bad guy has them literally trapped at the edge of a cliff.

With its basic plot, lacking enough suspense, intrusive and cheesy synth score, and uniformly lousy performances, "The Listener" is exceptionally amateurish. Canada has produced some great actors, and we know from all the television shows and films shot there that they have competent crew people north of the border, so I don't know how "The Listener" ended up looking and sounding so awful. "Flashpoint" was able to put together the writing and production quality to draw a U.S. audience (plus, it starred Enrico Colantoni, who was a lead on two well-known programs, "Just Shoot Me" and "Veronica Mars"). I'm not sure why "The Listener" is of such an inferior quality. It is a mystery as to why NBC thought airing this derivative mess was worth time on its schedule.

"Royal Pains" is much harder to nail down. There was so much I liked about the program, and so much I didn't, it's hard to figure out what to think, or how future episodes will play out.

Hank (Mark Feuerstein, "Good Morning Miami") is an up-and-coming trauma physician at a New York hospital with a pretty fiance who admits to her life-long ambition to marry a doctor. When Hank takes a stand and insists on treating a young guy he saved when he collapsed during their pick-up basketball game, rather than monitoring the more stable condition of an old hospital benefactor, and after the donor dies of an unforeseeable complication, Hank is fired and blackballed, leaving him unemployed and depressed (he gets emotional while watching the kiss in "Mask," the father-son catch in "Field of Dreams" and a fight on the "The Jerry Springer Show"). When Hank's fiance tells him that she "didn't sign on for this" and asks for a postponement of their wedding, he dumps her.

With his life totally in the toilet (a fast-motion sequence shows his possessions being repossessed while he continues to watch his big-screen television), Hank's CPA brother, Evan (Paulo Costanzo, "Road Trip," "Joey"), shows up, promising him a wild time in the Hamptons. After Evan cleverly and impressively talks them into an exclusive party at a jaw-dropping mansion (the owner, Boris, is played by Campbell Scott, employing a German accent, and no, that is not a typo), Hank saves the life of a woman having a seizure (the host's personal doctor assumes its drugs, but Hank, like a medical Columbo, figures out in 10 seconds that it's an allergic reaction to pesticides), and before he can say "Marcus Welby," Boris wants Hank to be his new "concierge doctor" for the summer (he pays Hank for his night's work with an actual bar of gold), and every mogul in the Hamptons wants Hank's services, too. Hank, though, has no interest at all, despite the urgings of Evan and Divya (newcomer Reshma Shetty), the uber-prepared physician's assistant who wants to work for him.

When the first episode of "Pains" wrapped up, I felt more conflicted than I can remember any program making me feel. On the positive side, "Pains" is genuinely funny, with some razor-sharp lines and observations about the wealthy set. Upon entering the mansion, Evan says to Hank, "Bro, this is where God would party," to which Hank replies, "If he could get in." And in my favorite line of the night, Tucker (Ezra Miller, "Californication"), a 16-year-old rich kid who has cracked up his father's limited edition Ferrari, tells Hank, "Let's avoid the Billy Joel jokes. He lives in ear shot."

I also really liked Costanzo's manic, dorky antics. Evan is far more outgoing and confident than the awkward nerd he played on "Joey" or the intellectual he took on in "Road Trip." He is the best thing in "Pains."

I even liked the chemistry between Feuerstein and Jill Flint ("Six Degrees"), who plays Jill, the altruistic administrator of the local hospital (which is derided by the locals as strictly for the common folk, unfit to treat their billionaire bodies) who gives Hank a reason to stay.

And as much as I thought I wouldn't, other than Boris (and Scott's Colonel Klink accent), I really liked the jet-setters that Hank treats. Christine Ebersole is a scene-stealer as a demanding socialite addicted to plastic surgery (Hank helps her with her "flat tire" when one of her new, over-sized saline implants pops). And one of my new favorite TV couples is Tucker (the Ferrari wrecker) and his WebMD-addicted girlfriend Libby (Meredith Hagner, "As the World Turns"). Tucker calls Hank to help Libby after the accident (she has self-diagnosed herself with a laundry list of injuries), but in an unexpected twist (although I should have seen it coming, since it's a device used on "Grey's Anatomy" all the time), Tucker passes out with the real injuries. Turns out he's a hemophiliac, and Hank uses duct tape, a box cutter, vodka and a plastic bag to do gruesome ad hoc surgery to save him (causing Libby to ask if Hank is MacGyver, which is funny, but would a 16-year-old girl know who MacGyver is?). Tucker and Libby are like a wealthy/nutty Sid and Nancy, fighting but fiercely loyal to each other. And Miller gives Tucker heart, revealing him to be a lonely (but not TOO lonely, after all, he's loaded enough to buy a replacement Ferrari) teen below the money and swagger.

The show looks amazing. With the beach and mansion settings, after the earlier scenes in Hank's Brooklyn loft and on an outdoor Manhattan basketball court, and the film-quality cinematography, "Pains" is a pleasure to watch. And the producers have a great ear for music, with quirky selections like "Wishing Well" by the Airborne Toxic Event and "Be Home Soon" by the Blue Van providing the perfect accompaniment to the last two scenes of the pilot.

So this sounds like a positive review, right? Well, not so fast. There is another side to the story.

First of all, the pilot's plot made no sense. I didn't believe that Hank could be fired and blackballed that easily, I didn't believe he would be in debt so quickly, I didn't believe he didn't see that his fiance was a gold-digger before she revealed her true colors to him, I didn't believe his name would shoot around the Hamptons that quickly (although it made for a funny running joke), I didn't believe he would be so resistant to making some fast money for a summer to help pay his bills (especially since he believes he has no chance to get any medical job due to the blackball), I didn't believe he would change his mind so quickly based on one dinner with Jill, and I didn't believe Evan could have so little going on in his career that he could drop everything to work with Hank in the Hamptons. In short, I didn't believe nearly any of the key plot points. That's kind of a problem.

As played by Feuerstein, Hank is kind of a stiff zero. I didn't buy the overly stylized way Hank ran medical situations. And everyone seemed to be attracted to Hank, but nothing in Feuerstein's performance let me see why. I guess he was going for depressed and sullen, but it came off as self-important and dull. No matter how funny Costanzo, Ebersole, Miller and Hagner are, if the main guy doesn't cut it, the show won't either. I will be interested to see if Feuerstein gives Hank some life in future episodes now that he has accepted his fate to live in the Hamptons.

While so much of the comedy works well, too much of the more dramatic dialogue came off as cliched and not believable. Upon meeting his fiance for dinner, Hank says to her, "After a long day of life and death, there is nothing more appealing than the site of the world's most beautiful girl." She eats it up. Most actual women would burst into laughter. Later, in bed, the fiance says to Hank, "Don't you just think that every day for us is better than the one before?" Uh, not if you're going to talk like that, no.

And it's so hard to take Scott seriously with that German accent.

But my biggest problem with "Pains" wasn't about plot and dialogue, but about character, specifically the female characters. As the pilot wore on, I became more an more uncomfortable, as it started to seem as though the writer had a real problem with women. Essentially, every woman on the show falls into one of three categories: Evil women who want something, crazy women, or the one perfect woman with no flaws. There are literally no exceptions. Hank's fiance is a gold-digging, cold user. The hospital administrator in New York is a heartless, power-worshiping back-stabber. The women in the car next to Evan and Hank in traffic literally give them a test to see if they're worthy of conversation (Rent or own? North or south of the highway? Which Hampton? When Evan says Westhampton, or "Worst Hampton" as they call it, the women speed off in disgust). At the party, every woman Hank talks to immediately leaves him, with not so much as a goodbye, when he reveals that he isn't wealthy and his shirt is from Costco.

Then we move from evil to crazy. The woman Hank saves at the party develops Nightingale Syndrome, becomes convinced she is in love with him, and stalks him. Ebersole's plastic surgery junkie runs around like a Jack Russell terrier on speed. Libby is a hypochondriac (and Hank diagnoses her as such). Even Divya's ambition and attention to detail is portrayed as neurotic, something that is reinforced when we overhear a brief phone conversation with what is presumably her mother.

And finally, Jill is the one, perfect woman, idealistic, grounded (Hank finds out that she was only at Boris's party because he donates money to her clinic) and unconditionally supportive of Hank, even researching his case and telling him why he got screwed. Jill has no flaws, which is, in a way, as unfair to women as the sea of evil and crazy women who preceded her.

I don't mean to be a buzz kill, and I know that silly, fun television shows are not always flattering to women, but there was something almost aggressive about the way "Pains" seems to have a problem with its female characters. It made me uncomfortable, and I thought it would be dishonest not to address it.

We'll see how future episodes of "Royal Pains" play out, and whether the program's good qualities will take over the bad ones, or vice versa. No such patience is needed with "The Listener." It's awfulness is apparent. Does this mean I'm back to being hard on NBC? Well, let's see if I can get out of this and maintain my positive karma: Since "The Listener" is a low-profile summer show and not one of NBC's high-profile new offerings for the fall, it demonstrates that the network has learned its lesson and is trying to move forward, away from copy-cat disasters and on to better, more original programs. Does that work?