Wednesday, September 30, 2009

With "FlashForward," ABC Offers a Successor to "Lost" ... Kind of

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

There has been a lot of talk that "FlashForward" (ABC, Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern) is meant to be the network's successor to "Lost," what with the trippy sci-fi premise and Dominic Monaghan soon joining the cast. After watching the debut episode, which aired last week, I can't say I see the fit. But "FlashForward" has a lot going for it.

You've probably heard the premise by now: Every person in the world (well, nearly every person) blacks out at the same time for 2 minutes and 17 seconds, during which they see a vision of themselves in April 2010. As you can imagine, such an event can wreak havoc: planes fall out of the sky (including Air Force Two, carrying the vice president), cars crash, patients die on operating tables, and even someone walking up a staircase can fall to his death. And that's just the passing out element of the event. Seeing the future can be equally horrifying, whether it's a recovering alcoholic witnessing himself back on the bottle (like FBI agent Mark Benford, played by Joseph Fiennes), a wife seeing herself in the company of another man (like Mark's wife, Olivia, played by Sonya Walger, of "Tell Me You Love Me"), or a groom-to-be not having any vision at all (like Mark's partner, Demetri Noh, played by John Cho of "Star Trek" and the "Harold and Kumar" films), which leads him to believe he is going to die.

So "FlashForward" has a doozy of a premise. But does it turn that striking idea into good television? Mostly. You can see the sensibilities of executive producers Brannon Braga (who got his start working on the "Star Trek" series, beginning with "Next Generation," before moving on to "24") and David S. Goyer (the writer of several "Batman" films) all over "FlashForward," and it makes for an often compelling but sometimes odd fit. Goyer's sensibilities would appear to be several shades darker than Braga's, whose shows have been more direct.

Let's start with the positives. Fiennes, who has spent his post-"Shakespeare in Love" years going back and forth between doing theater and playing B-movie baddies for the paycheck (think Heather Graham's seducer and tormentor in the nudity-fest "Killing Me Softly"), puts both skills to good use as the classic troubled hero, an obviously devoted husband and father who, just as obviously, struggles with his demons, including his alcoholism. (One of my pet peeves is when an actor agrees to do a part even though he can't pull off the accent, so I am happy to report that Fiennes makes for a completely plausible American.) Cho is great as his partner, and Walger, while not the most convincing trauma doctor in the world, does a good job conveying how Olivia's vision has upended her stable world. And Courtney B. Vance was seemingly born to play tough-but-beloved authority figures, like his FBI commander Stanford Wedeck, who, in a light-hearted moment, says he was "in a meeting" in his flash-forward, before we see that he was reading the newspaper while on the toilet.

The story was engaging once it moved past the awkward character introductions necessary in pilots. The writers do a great job of keeping you focused not just on the global event, but on the lives of its main characters. Yes, they definitely go for the easy schmaltz a bit too often (Mark and Olivia's TV-approved adorable daughter; Olivia saving an injured 8-year-old boy; the event happening just as Olivia's colleague, Bryce Varley, played by Zachary Knighton, was about to commit suicide on the Venice pier; Mark and Olivia's model-gorgeous babysitter, who is in flagrante delicto with her boyfriend at the time of the event), but the story kept you on the edge of your seat, leading to two chilling moments at the end (one, which should have been predictable, having to do with a gift Mark is given by his daughter, still was effective).

But on the negative side, the schmaltz left "FlashForward" feeling far less weighty than "Lost." That can be a good thing, in that the underlying myth and sci-fi elements will seemingly be more accessible than the dense, hard-to-follow, fanatic-following-friendly plot twists of "Lost," so "FlashForward" should be less intimidating for potential viewers. But it can also be a bad thing, when it is just too much. Nearly every scene is jammed with a less-than-subtle, emotion-directing score, which I found exceptionally distracting. And the show is directed in a way to play up the soapy elements of the story, a great example being the long, multiple-pullback shots of Mark and his daughter when she gives him the gift. It not only felt like the last shot of an episode (there was still more to go), but it bordered on a parody of the emotional pre-commercial-break revelation we've seen on lesser programs. Throw in some stilted dialogue, and the whole thing feels kind of manipulative, going for a heavy-handed assault on the audience's emotions rather than letting the actors and the stories take viewers along on their own.

Considering only one episode has aired, though, it's only fair to acknowledge that "FlashForward" will have every chance to find its footing and settle on a tone that is more in keeping with its dynamite premise. The debut nabbed nearly 13 million viewers, so the show is off to a good start. Leading into ratings juggernaut "Grey's Anatomy" probably helped, so the pressure will be on for "FlashForward" to keep the viewers it was able to attract. If I had a flash-forward to April, I have a feeling it would reveal "FlashForward" to be one of the most successful new programs of the season.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Cougar Town" and "Accidentally on Purpose": More than Just Women with Younger Guys

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

Sitcom veterans Courteney Cox and Jenna Elfman are back on prime time network television, and based on how their characters are conducting their love lives, Chandler and Greg would be shocked. Beyond the older woman-younger guy themes, though, "Cougar Town" (ABC, Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. Eastern) and "Accidentally on Purpose" (CBS, Mondays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern) don't have a whole lot in common, reflecting the sensibilities of their networks more than their central plot device.

"Cougar Town," the new sitcom created by Bill Lawrence (the mastermind behind "Scrubs"; he co-wrote and directed the "Cougar Town" pilot), fits perfectly into ABC's wheelhouse. A single-camera comedy (like "Scrubs") that tries to take serious subject matter and combine it with wacky comedy (like "Scrubs"), but which also challenges the audience with its quick-cut, circuitous storytelling (like "Scrubs"). That formula often adds up to critical gushing (like I have done regularly about "Scrubs") and low ratings (like "Scrubs"). ABC has been the network most likely to take chances like this, seemingly reveling in programs, both in comedy and drama, that are high-quality but tough sells (like "Scrubs").

But "Cougar Town" has a secret weapon: A genuine sitcom star, one who spent 10 seasons on one of the most successful comedy series of all time (definitely not like "Scrubs"). If Cox can bring any kind of audience along with her, Lawrence and ABC might have a well-earned -- if surprising -- hit on their hands. Or, at least what passes for a hit nowadays with sitcoms, which really just entails bringing in a respectable audience that is strong in the advertiser-coveted demographic.

Despite the fun I had with the "Scrubs" comparisons, "Cougar Town" is really quite different in tone and feel, largely, I suspect, due to the presence of Cox, who is more than capable of taking the lead in a sitcom (after 10 years of sharing time with her five co-stars on "Friends"). Here, she plays real estate agent Jules, recently divorced from her ne'er (e'er, e'er, e'er) do well aspiring golf pro husband, Bobby (Brian Van Holt). Jules is trying to figure out how to navigate the dating scene as a 40-year-old woman, preferably without totally mortifying her high school-aged son, Travis ("Aliens in America"'s Dan Byrd, hopefully not finding himself in another well-received, low-rated, canceled-after-one-season sitcom).

Jules is not off to a great post-divorce start. As the premiere episode unfolds, we see that her young co-worker Laurie ("Freaks & Geeks" alumnae Busy Philipps) has made advertisement lawn signs for Jules using a sexy photo taken when they were drunk, and the placards soon become objects of theft for a besotted junior high school student. And it only goes downhill from there, as Jules causes a neighborhood kid to crash his bike when she flashes her bathrobe at him (she's wearing a bra and panties underneath), all to make a point to her newly divorced neighbor, Grayson (Josh Hopkins of "Swingtown"), who beds a succession of willing twentysomethings (he tells one as he leads her to her morning taxi, "It's not a walk of shame if I do it with you").

Meanwhile, Jules's long-time best friend (and next-door neighbor), Ellie (Lawrence's wife, Christa Miller, "Scrubs"), feels like she's losing Jules to Laurie, because Ellie is stuck at home with her baby boy (named Stan, prompting Laurie to ask her, "Stan? What is he, 60?") and her annoying husband, Andy (Ian Gomez of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding").

"Cougar Town" is funny, and in more ways than one. Cox has plenty of opportunities to exhibit her gift for physical comedy, whether it involves hunting and chasing her junior high school admirer or, as she does in the opening of the pilot, exploring every possible flabby portion of her body, from her elbows to her belly (the first of three times in the pilot that Cox strips down to next to nothing). She also does a great job with Lawrence's patented clever dialogue. (Her speech to Laurie, who wants her to go out more: "I have to act my age. I mean, one night out on the prowl, and the next thing you know, I'm at a Jonas Brothers concert wearing a mini skirt, sporting some giant collagen hot dog lips.")

And Cox's interactions with her co-stars work, especially with Byrd. The two have a very funny, very touching rapport, as you know Travis is absolutely humiliated by his mother's antics (he walks in on her while she is going down on a twentysomething boy toy; the next morning he takes the banana she is eating out of her hands and says, "You're not allowed to eat these anymore"), but at the same time, they connect. (An early exchange before Travis goes out with his friend Ryan: Jules, "Home by midnight. And if I ever catch you two drinking and driving I'm going to show everyone that baby picture of you two holding each other's penises. So small." Travis, "You know, Ryan's mom just says goodbye.")

But as funny as "Cougar Town" is, what sets it apart as a program is how Lawrence and Cox have built a character who subverts your expectations based on how films and television have handled newly divorced women in their 40s. Rather than be useless and needy, Jules is more nuanced, generally confused, determined not to be intimidated, but vulnerable just the same. She's not embarrassed to be single or sexual, and she's not ashamed to be caught in an embarrassing situation. When an older potential home buyer with a young trophy wife overhears Jules make a joke about the bedroom being where they'll find the "thousand-year-old husband" dead on his wife, the man calls down to her, "I'm sixty-four," to which an unbowed Jules snaps back, "Great acoustics," turning her faux pas into a selling point. Later, when the geezer overhears her making another crack about his age and tells her he is right above her, Jules calmly responds, "Yes you are," before adding, "Please buy the house."

While from the beginning Jules expresses her confusion of her new role to Laurie (who is always trying to get her to go out and look for men), really, it isn't until her behavior affects Travis that she becomes genuinely more conflicted about it. I think a telling moment occurs at the end of the premiere, after she promises Travis that she'll try not to embarrass him anymore. The second he is out the door, Jules's young lover emerges and they are off to the bedroom to go at it again. Jules loves her son, but it doesn't mean she is not going to try and live her new single life, too. And since she's a genuinely kind person (as we see in the way she takes care of her boorish ex-husband, to whom she pays alimony, as well as Travis, Laurie and Ellie) who in many moments seems comfortable with who she is, we root for her, especially after her speech to Grayson about how scary it is to be 40 and alone, knowing that her looks will fade and she will likely never get remarried (coming, of course, after a very funny moment when she yells across the street to Grayson, while he is with his latest very young conquest, "Stop having sex with babies!").

I hope that Cox's notoriety brings an audience to this quirky comedy. It deserves to be seen.

The very different "Accidentally on Purpose" is more in keeping with CBS's approach to sitcoms, a multi-camera comedy that is far broader than the more realistic situations and sets presented in "Cougar Town." Less like its Monday night cohorts "How I Met Your Mother" and "Big Bang Theory" and more in line with the approach of its other neighbor "Two and a Half Men" (not that it's awful like that show, but that it is broader in its comedy and conventionally filmed and presented, with only a few key locations and exceptionally stagy -- nice word for "fake" -- sets), "Accidentally on Purpose" puts Elfman (of "Dharma and Greg") into the role of Billie, a San Francisco film critic (in the poshest news room in the history of television) who has recently broken up with her wealthy boss (there are wealthy people in the dying newspaper business?), James (Grant Show, another "Swingtown" alum finding a spot on a new sitcom), because he won't propose to her.

Like Jules, Billie's best friend, Olivia (Ashley Jensen, Ricky Gervais's pal on "Extras"), pushes her to go out, and with her sister Abby (Lennon Parham) in tow, they end up at a bar at which a twentysomething "second assistant to a semi-important sous chef" ("Basically, I boil things"), Zack (Jon Foster "Life as We Know It"), and his doofus friends hit on Billie. Billie goes home with Zack, and the two continue on for five weeks, when Billie finds herself pregnant. After about three seconds of thinking about it, she decides to have the baby, since she thinks it may be her last chance. She tells Zack, who says he wants to be a part of the baby's life, and when he loses his room after his friend's brother gets out of prison (he tells Billie, "not violent, drug-related"), she asks him to move into her posh apartment (on a film critic's salary?), but just as friends. No sex involved.

The rest of the pilot of "Accidentally on Purpose" is predictable. James tells Billie he's ready to take their relationship to the next level (he says they can live together, which in his mind means spending some nights at his place, some nights at hers), and before Billie can say anything, Zack shows up and James finds out Billie is pregnant by him. The two nearly come to blows, age jokes are tossed around, and you can't decide if you're more amused or bored by something you've seen a million times before. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

"Accidentally on Purpose" has its comic moments. (Cute lines like, Billie: "What was I supposed to do? Let the father of my child live in a van so he can be hacked up by some crazy drifter?" Olivia: "He lives in a van. He is the crazy drifter.") Elfman is a talented comedian. I liked Parham's funny deadpan delivery. (Billie: "Holy crap, you didn't tell mom." Abby, with a panicked look: "Okay.").

I'm sure I'll continue to watch "Accidentally on Purpose." But it's not at the level of "Cougar Town." Billie (like the rest of the characters on the show) lives up to every cliche that Jules explodes. Not to overthink a silly sitcom (Who am I kidding? That's what I do), but it's almost like Billie is punished for having a sexually-driven relationship with a younger man by getting pregnant, and it's only through making the relationship about more than sex that the bond is validated. In contrast, at the end of "Cougar Town," Jules is about to have an encore with her fling, seemingly guilt- (and punishment-) free.

With sitcoms becoming a dying art, I am always happy to see new half-hour comedies on the air that are actually funny. "Accidentally on Purpose," largely based on the charms of its star, could very well provide some laughs on Mondays after "How I Met Your Mother." But "Cougar Town," thanks to the combination of Cox and Lawrence, and the funny and compelling world they've created, has a chance to be more than that, a worthy successor to Lawrence's "Scrubs," but maybe this time with a larger audience. I would be very happy to see that happen.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

NBC Makes History with "The Tonight ...", er, I Mean "The Jay Leno Show" in Prime Time

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

If you tuned into the premiere episode of "The Jay Leno Show" on Monday (NBC, Mondays through Fridays, 10:00 p.m. Eastern), you might not have realized that you were witnessing a seminal moment in television history.

No, I don't mean the show itself. Despite a lot of claims to the contrary, "The Jay Leno Show" is essentially the "The Tonight Show," with some cosmetic changes thrown in to let the audience know it's nominally a new program: Leno and his guest sit in Tom Snyder-like easy chairs rather than the host taking the power position behind a desk. The stage is adjacent to the audience now, allowing crowd members to swarm Leno when he emerges to do his monologue. The set is a bit glitzier, as if it had to get gussied up for prime time. And the order of things is slightly mixed up (on Monday, "Headlines" was last, after the musical performance).

But, in substance, nothing has really changed from May when Leno bade farewell to "The Tonight Show." There is a monologue, regular comedy features (like "Headlines" and "Jaywalking"), celebrity guests and musical performances (Monday's music segment was really good, featuring Jay Z, Rihanna and Kanye West), and Kevin Eubanks continues to lead the band.

It seems unlikely to me that anyone who didn't like Leno as the host of "The Tonight Show" will suddenly embrace his new prime time venture, nor do I think any of the comic's fans will like the 10:00 p.m. version of the program any less. It's not like the jokes are any different. If you thought Leno's "Tonight Show" monologues leaned too heavily on predictable shots at easy targets (as I did), then you will likely feel the same way about the opening of "The Jay Leno Show." If you found features like "Headlines" banal (as I did), nothing has changed just by moving the bit to the 10:00 p.m. hour. And if you weren't a fan of Leno's approach to interviews (as I wasn't), putting the guest in more comfortable seating likely won't change your mind.

That said, if you were a fan of "The Tonight Show," there is no reason you should be any less pleased with "The Jay Leno Show." "The Tonight Show" booked the most prestigious guests of any talk show on television (thanks to its L.A. location and solid ratings), and while CBS and ABC have banned their prime time stars from appearing on "The Jay Leno Show," the rule doesn't apply to A-list movie stars (like Tom Cruise and Halle Berry) and A-list comedians (like Jerry Seinfeld, all of whom appeared this week), so Leno will likely continue ruling the guest-booking roost. And if "The Jay Leno Show" is at all successful, we'll have to see if CBS and ABC stick to their guns, since they will be hard-pressed to turn down a chance to plug their programming on a prime time network platform, an opportunity that is not so easy to come by.

Really, the least interesting thing about the launch of "The Jay Leno Show" this week was the program itself. As I said, really, a review can be summed up in two sentences: If you liked "The Tonight Show" when Leno hosted it, you'll like "The Jay Leno Show." If you didn't like "The Tonight Show" when Leno hosted it, then you won't like "The Jay Leno Show."

No, the real story is that with the 2009-2010 season bowing this week, we are experiencing what I think is the biggest single change in the structure of prime time network television since Fox cemented its status as a legitimate fourth network in 1993 by acquiring the rights to broadcast NFL football (and, as a result, adding to its affiliate roster nationally). Just as the ascension of Fox increased prime time network television real estate by nearly a third, NBC, by launching the nightly "Jay Leno Show," decreased its programming by nearly a quarter (abdicating five of the 22 hours a week it provides prime time coverage).

(You could argue that "Survivor" becoming a huge hit in 2000, ushering in the current era of reality programming, represented a seismic shift, but at the time "Survivor" hit the air, I don't think anyone knew it would mean the networks would flood their schedules with non-fiction programming, at the expense of dramas and comedies. And the FCC's 1995 repeal of its rule banning networks from owning shows led to a wholesale change in how programs are produced, but the rule change primarily affected the business side of the industry and was fairly transparent to the average TV viewer.)

Last year, when NBC announced that it had retained Leno by handing over the 10:00 p.m. weeknight block to him, it was shocking, and we knew it was a once-in-a-generation kind of change in television (I wrote about it here). But now it's not theoretical anymore. The moment has arrived. A talk show will now run five days a week in prime time. When you turn on NBC at 10:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, instead of a new drama (even though, according to Entertainment Weekly, 72 percent of new dramas launched between 2004 and 2008 did not make it to a second season anyway), or even a new reality show, it will be Leno, always Leno. Edgy one-hour dramas like "Southland" (which I reviewed positively in the spring) will have to try and make a go of it in a 9:00 p.m. slot -- and in the case of "Southland," on Fridays, rather than at 10:00 p.m. on Thursdays, where it aired last season, following NBC's demographically successful comedy block.

Sure, the move could be extremely profitable for NBC. Talk shows are dirt cheap to produce (even with a big star like Leno) compared to one-hour dramas, so "Leno" could make a ton of money at a ratings number that would get a program like "Southland" canceled instantly. And maybe there is more to it than the more-profit-for-less-viewers swap. Maybe NBC envisions a post-fiction television landscape in which the current trend toward fixating on celebrities (whether that means A-list stars or reality show creations) will only become more intense. Leno was always a go-to place for someone in the public eye to confront a scandal or problem (think Hugh Grant after getting busted for soliciting a hooker), and maybe, in prime time, this function will become even more prominent. Maybe NBC sees Leno as the prime time centerpiece of a new television era.

After all, on Leno's very first show, Kanye West talked about his "jackass" moment at the MTV Video Music Awards, a prime time platform for the rehabilitation of his public image. (I know some people thought Leno was too hard on West, but I didn't think he was at all. Although, I did think it was cheesy that Leno acted so sincerely with West on Monday and then made lame jokes at his expense in the next night's monologue.)

But the facts are the facts. With this move, NBC has essentially turned itself into a two-hour-a-night network (like Fox). And there is no way to get past the fact that NBC, which was a ratings juggernaut in the 1990s, but which fell to the bottom of the viewership battle in recent years, has essentially quit the race, leaving ABC, CBS and Fox to battle it out for eyeballs (at least when looking at the 10:00 p.m. block and, probably, the overall ratings, too). Such a decision not only radically changes the television landscape, but it will have a lasting imprint on NBC, especially as it tries to develop new programming (if you were a producer, would you want to work with NBC, knowing that there are five fewer hours a week available for your show compared to ABC and CBS?). NBC's decision to install Leno at 10:00 p.m. is huge, and the fallout -- expected and unexpected, positive and negative -- will no doubt shake out over the months and years to come.

For now, Leno fans will enjoy seeing him 90 minutes earlier, and those who don't find Leno funny will have to to look to NBC and CBS for network entertainment at 10:00 p.m. But all of us have witnessed a major change in how network television functions. And for anyone who enjoys scripted dramas and comedies (or even reality programs), it's certainly not a change for the better.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Baucus Health Care Bill Debacle Reminds Us that Democrats Have to Forget About Trying to Woo Republican Lawmakers

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

When it comes to policy positions, I certainly agree with the Democrats far more than the Republicans. (Do the Republicans still have policy positions? Does really, really hating the president, making decisions based primarily on hurting the president politically instead of what is good for the American people, and lying about the president's programs in an attempt to scare people qualify as a policy position? I'd say not. But I digress ...)

But when it comes to how to wield power in Washington once you've won an election, give me the Republicans over the Democrats any day of the week. I was reminded of the Democrats' seeming inability to govern when I read about the health care bill that finally emerged from Max Baucus's Senate Finance Committee, after months of negotiations with three Republicans on the committee.

(To be absolutely clear here, so there are no misunderstandings: When I say that Republicans govern better than Democrats do, I am strictly speaking about how effectively they turn their policy positions into law. I am not saying I want the Republicans to retake the House and Senate, and I do not support the Republican positions on issues, which generally look to protect corporations and the wealthiest Americans at the expense of everyone else, and seek to instill an extreme, religion-based morals agenda on the country. What I'm saying is that I wish the Democrats would act like Republicans once they find themselves in power.)

For most of George W. Bush's two terms in office, especially during the key period from 2002 to 2006, he had a solidly Republican Congress with which to work. So, despite a razor-thin win in 2000 (losing the popular vote and, in the minds of many, only winning the electoral vote thanks to a flawed, partisan Supreme Court decision), and another narrow victory in 2004, as president, Bush made no effort to moderate his agenda and pursue bipartisan legislation. His party allies in Congress loyally backed nearly all of his proposals, and Bush gleefully rammed through his far-right conservative agenda (massive tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, etc.), which was well to the right of his campaign rhetoric (remember, he was a "compassionate conservative"), without thinking twice about what Democrats thought of what he was doing. His razor-thin margin of victory (and even the fact that fewer people voted for him than his opponent in 2000) didn't stop him (or his allies in Congress) from moving full-speed ahead with legislation he supported.

Flash forward to 2008. The American people, via their votes, absolutely and unquestionably repudiated the Republican policies of the previous eight years. After giving Democrats narrow advantages in the House and Senate in 2006, voters really "threw the bums out" in 2008, leaving Democrats with a 60-40 majority in the Senate (once Al Franken was seated) and an even more commanding 256-178 lead in the House. The American people also overwhelmingly elected a Democrat to the presidency, handing Barack Obama 365 electoral votes (to 173 for John McCain), with 53 percent of the popular vote going to Obama and only 46 percent to McCain. In two elections, Bush never came close to these kinds of numbers. And Obama managed to win red states like North Carolina and Indiana that few commentators thought the Democrats could even have a chance of taking just a couple of years earlier.

In short, the American people said to the Democrats: We want you to do your thing.

And yet, that isn't what has happened. Instead, the Democrats in Congress have been timid, looking for Republican support (and making concessions to get it) even though they didn't need it. At first, it was an admirable pursuit, an effort to leave partisan bickering behind and concentrate on solving the massive problems the current administration and Congress inherited from the disastrous presidency that preceded them. And it was something the president not only supported, but actively pursued. But in the first big legislative test of the bipartisan approach, the stimulus bill, not a single House member voted for the legislation, and only a pair of Republicans in the Senate signed on (it was three, but Arlen Specter later became a Democrat, leaving just Maine's two senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, as current Republicans who voted for the bill).

The result was weaker stimulus legislation (to try and lure Republicans), but no Republican support. That is a lose-lose for the Democrats (and those suffering from the recession), and a win-win for the Republicans.

The stimulus bill should have been a wake-up call for Democrats in Congress. The way the Republicans stood united in opposition despite Democratic efforts at bipartisanship should have announced loud and clear that the Republicans had no intention of acting reasonably. They had successfully closed ranks, ensuring that not one single Republican in the House voted for the bill and that they didn't help the president succeed on something that might be viewed as a "win" for him. It should have been a "fool me once" moment from which the Democrats emerged wiser, going forward with the knowledge that the Republicans were only out to obstruct (it was the moment of birth for the Party of No). It should have emboldened Democrats to say, "We won 256 House seats, 60 Senate seats and the presidency. We get to make the rules now. Your guy pushed through his agenda after losing the popular vote. We tried to be nice, and you kicked crap in our faces. We're done. Have fun on the sidelines watching us enact our agenda."

But that's not what happened.

Yes, I understand that you need 60 votes in the Senate to invoke cloture, and yes I know that there is a good size contingent of Blue Dog Democrats in the House and more conservative Democrats in the Senate who would be reluctant to sign off on some of the president's initiatives. Certainly, compromises would have to be made to ensure that enough Democrats supported a given piece of legislation. But those negotiations should have been handled internally. After the stimulus fiasco, the Democrats should have ensured that when they emerged from a caucus meeting on an issue, they had enough votes to pass it without Republican help, just as Bush and his Republican followers did when they were in power.

And yet, instead, the Democrats keep playing the fool.

Which brings us back to the Baucus debacle. He spent months -- months! -- negotiating with three Republicans (Olympia Snowe, Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi) to try and get a bipartisan health care reform bill through his finance committee. Anybody with an IQ above 75 and access to a major daily newspaper knew that there was no meaningful health care reform bill that Enzi and Grassley were going to get behind. Did Baucus listen to and/or read the kinds of things Grassley was saying in interviews and on talk shows? (Two words: death panels.) The Republicans weren't going to give the president a win (remember Jim DeMint's famous health care will be Obama's "Waterloo" remark), and they were too beholden to their corporate interests to support anything that would have any real impact on the status quo. The Republicans were obviously stalling, trying to do anything they could to keep the health care reform process from moving forward. Again, this was all obvious to everyone watching ... except Baucus.

So what ended up happening? Baucus announced today that he was going forward with a bill and ... surprise! ... no Republicans are backing it (not even Snowe). But, thanks to Baucus bending over backwards to try and lure Republicans, the Finance Committee bill is weaker than any of the other versions to get through committees in the House and Senate. Enzi, Grassley and Snowe managed to stall the process for months and ensure a weaker bill emerged from the Finance Committee, and they did so without having to actually do anything or give up anything (or support the legislation). Who won that battle, Baucus or the Republicans? If it was a boxing match, Baucus would be bloody and unconscious, and Enzi, Grassley and Snowe would be dancing around the ring, triumphantly holding their hands up in victory.

What Baucus (and the rest of the Democrats in Congress) have to realize is some exceptionally simple math: 60 seats in the Senate + 256 seats in the House + 365 electoral votes = They get to do what they said they would do during the campaign. It really is that simple. Make the Republicans vote against the bills. Make them filibuster what they oppose. Expose them for what they are: the Party of No that puts political games and corporate interests ahead of what is best for the American people.

But no, to Baucus, 60 + 256 + 365 = He has to get on his knees and kiss Republican butt. Sorry, Senator, you get an F in math.

The Democrats won overwhelmingly last November. Now they have to govern. Especially after the way Republicans played them for fools on the stimulus legislation, Democrats don't have to kowtow to Republicans. They need to get in a room and come up with health care legislation that the 59 Democratic senators (after Ted Kennedy's passing) -- or 51 of them if they go the reconciliation route --and 218 House members can get behind (and that the president will sign) and get it done. If Republicans want to filibuster, vote no, complain, spew lies, hold rallies, go on talk shows, call Obama a socialist, and throw temper tantrums, let them. I am not saying the Democrats shouldn't fight the public relations battle and shoot down the lies slopped to the public by health care reform opponents, I'm just saying they should do it while passing legislation on their own.

To the Democrats I say: Forget Baucus's bill. Don't give the Republicans another victory (one which represents a defeat for the American people). Pass meaningful health care reform, even if not a single Republican votes for it.

60 + 256 + 365. The math is so easy. If only the Democrats could figure it out. I'm happy to email them a link to the election returns every day if it will help.

Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer taught the Democrats how to win elections, which is great. I just wish someone would teach Democrats in Congress how to govern.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I See No Reason to Visit the New "Melrose Place" Again

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

After the CW found some success with "90210" last season, was there ever a doubt that a reboot of "Melrose Place" was soon to follow? Sure enough, a new version of the 1990s nighttime soap made its debut on Tuesday night (9:00 p.m. Eastern).

For me, there are two competing thoughts behind reviving "Melrose Place." On the one hand, with the movies dominated by sequels and remakes, part of me winces at the idea of a television network following suit. After all, TV is the go-to medium now for creative outside-of-the-box stories. At the same time, we're not talking about disturbing the memory of "Seinfeld" or "Hill Street Blues" here. It's "Melrose" freakin' "Place." It was a crappy sudsfest when it first aired. Even its fans knew it was a silly piece of fluff. What is there to lose?

After having watched the first couple of seasons of the original "Beverly Hills, 90210," I didn't go along when Fox spun off the first incarnation of "Melrose Place." "Beverly Hills" was already getting on my nerves, and "Melrose" looked just too silly for me. So in tuning in on Tuesday, I admit that any thrill (and I use that word very, very loosely) of seeing cast members from the old show on the new one was going to be lost on me. The new "Melrose" was going to have to earn my affection on its merits. It never happened.

As I recall of the original "Melrose" (I did end up watching an episode here and there), it started as a super-corny soap opera, and as time went on, it found a niche, developing outlandish characters and over-the-top story lines. So I figured that a 21st century "Melrose" would double down on the crazy. I'm not sure if executive producers Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer (both from "Smallville") decided to go another way, or they just misjudged what would make a splash, but the adjective I would use to best describe the premiere episode of the new "Melrose" would not be "wild" or "edgy." I'd lean more to "dull" or "calculated."

The new "Melrose" begins with a super-slick ("90210"-like) burst of quick cuts of Los Angeles at night, before moving inside to the television version of a hot Hollywood club, in which a guy we later learn is David (Shaun Sipos) feverishly makes out with a woman. Despite her warning not to, David checks his phone and finds that he's gotten an S.O.S. text message. So David springs into action, seemingly re-enacting the scene in "St. Elmo's Fire" when Demi Moore tries to kill herself (by, uh, sitting in front of an open window?), trying to gather the gang to save her. David starts calling the rest of his fellow apartment dwellers to alert them to the emergency. Chef Augie (Colin Egglesfield of "Ally My Children") can't get away from the restaurant, and medical student Lauren (Stephanie Jacobsen) can't get away from the hospital, so unlike the "St. Elmo's" crew, who all respond to the call to arms, David arrives at the familiar Melrose Place apartment complex alone. He finds -- wait for the twist! -- Sydney (Laura Leighton, looking not much different from her first go-round on the Place) calmly sitting and waiting for him. The old-new cast crossover isn't done, as we find out that David's estranged father is Michael (Thomas Calabro), the evil doctor from "Melrose" the first, and both father and son have been intimate with Sydney.

The real problem with the new "Melrose" is that, at least so far, there aren't any characters who are interesting enough to make us care as much as (some of) us did about the first "Melrose" crew. Bad boy David is like Dylan (from "Beverly Hills, 90210") light. Egglesfield's Augie is as stiff and boring as you'd expect from a daytime soap himbo. Lauren's story line, which is kicked off when her father calls her at work to tell her he can't pay her medical school bills (likely one of the 10 most cliched and poorly written scenes in television history), failed to move me.

The other residents are no better. Ella (Katie Cassidy), the new queen of Melrose, plays like a Heather Locklear wannabe, bitchy but, ultimately, not especially scary. We're supposed to be shocked when she locks lips with a woman near the end of the hour (she's bi ... gasp!), but in 2009, it didn't have the impact that the show runners clearly intended. Ella helps get a gig for Jonah (Michael Rady of the far better "Swingtown"), who is saddled with the well-worn TV character of the talented aspiring filmmaker looking for a break. Ella has a thinly veiled crush on Jonah, but he is ga ga for his live-in girlfriend Riley (Jennifer Lucas), proposing to her via a slick no-way-it-could-exist-in-real-life video retrospective of their relationship. Riley, a school teacher, can't decide whether or not to say yes, worried that Jonah is too much of a kid (seriously, these are the plots they came up with).

Last, and certainly least, innocent Violet hangs around the apartment complex, doing ... well, not much of anything. Lip-syncher/celebrity sister Ashlee Simpson-Wentz (oh Pete, Fall Out Boy is a good band, what were you thinking marrying this poster child for plastic surgery and nepotism?) plays Violet, and she is hard to watch. Not only has Simpson-Wentz had so much work done that she is virtually unrecognizable from the woman who embarrassed herself on "Saturday Night Live," but she is so stiff and mannered, it's amazing she is allowed to act on a network television drama. Every time she was on screen, I was distracted by how awful she was.

The writing isn't any better than the weak cast and characters. After a murder in the apartment complex (I won't reveal who the victim is to preserve the twist), Augie says: "I should have come back with David. Maybe I could have saved (the victim)," to which Riley responds: "You can't blame yourself, Augie." There are lame fantasy/flashback scenes, and David and Michael have an argument in Michael's swanky luxury car that followed the same tired "You weren't there for me" track we've seen a million times. By the time a seemingly nice son of a patient offers Lauren $5,000 to sleep with him (in the second least believable and poorly written scene in the episode, after Lauren's conversation with her father about the tuition), and after Lauren's ridiculous conversation with Violet (who convinces her there is really nothing wrong with doing it, since she probably would have slept with him anyway), Lauren shows up at the guy's room, and we're supposed to be dying in suspense to see what happens next. Only, I wasn't.

This is the new "Melrose Place."

Not wacky enough to mimic its predecessor, and not interesting enough to entertain on its own, I'm not sure what the new "Melrose" is supposed to be. Maybe the crazy over-the-top plot lines are warming up in the bullpen. But as of now, there is nothing to recommend the new "Melrose."

For the second time in my lifetime, I'm going to pass on watching "Melrose Place."

Monday, September 7, 2009

On Wednesday, the President Has to Move the Health Care Debate from a Marketplace of Lies to a Marketplace of Ideas

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

- John Boehner has a fetish that only allows him to become aroused when he wears 1950s women's housecoats with curlers in his hair.

- Rush Limbaugh eats pudding made from the rats that infest his home.

- Charles Grassley calls in sick to the Senate once a week to stay home and watch a DVD of "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" over and over again.

Are these statements true? Of course not. (Or, to give the Republicans a taste of their own medicine relative to how they generally answer questions about the president's place of birth, I should say, to the best of my knowledge, those statements are not true.) But why shouldn't I write them anyway? After all, the Republican opposition to health care reform has been built on lies nearly as egregious as the ones I set out above.

As President Obama gets ready to lay out his vision of health care reform on Wednesday, it is important to note that the debate on the issue to this point has been, in reality, nonexistent. Yes, there has been a lot of talk about health care, but there has not been an honest exchange of ideas. Rather, Republicans (and some Democrats) opposed to health care reform have flooded the marketplace of ideas with outright lies, and defenders of health care reform have been forced to rebut those lies, distracting them from the simple job of laying out the case for reform, which, given the financial numbers involved, is stark (you can click here to see some of the figures I cited in July).

I am all for a debate on any important issue facing the country. Even though I consider myself a progressive and generally support progressive proposals, I don't think the left has a monopoly on good ideas, and I certainly don't have full faith in the Democrats in Congress to lead on any issue. I think that reasonable conservatives can make completely fair arguments opposing health care reform (even if I don't personally agree with them), ranging from an idea that the nation can't afford the expenditure to an honest admission that under the conservative point of view, the people who have earned (or inherited) money shouldn't be forced to subsidize health care for those who have not has been as successful or fortunate. I would especially respect any Republican (or Democratic, for that matter, since many, unfortunately, fall into this category) lawmaker who would stand up and say, "Look, I get millions in donations from the insurance and pharmaceutical companies and hospitals, so I have to support their positions, or I won't have any money and won't get re-elected." It would be the most honest enunciation yet of the real reasons for members of Congress to oppose health care reform, and it would allow us to move past the lies and misdirections employed by these legislators. (Well, for the Republicans, it's also about the political gamesmanship, since they would rather see the country suffer under the current health care environment than give the president a "win" on the issue. Remember Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina proudly saying that health care will be "Obama's Waterloo.")

But the elected Republicans (and Democrats) opposing health care reform are not standing up for their principles. Rather, they are using fear and lies to try and kill progress on health care reform. (Back in June, I wrote about the specific lies and leaps in logic employed by the right to oppose health care reform.) And seizing on the inattentiveness and/or selfishness of the American people, the opposition has had some success.

Rather than arguing finances or moral obligations, or copping to being captured by the health and pharmaceutical companies, Republicans (and some Democrats) are lying. They are stoking loony right-wing charges that the president is a socialist and that health care reform is a method by which he is trying to initiate a government takeover of American business. They talk of death panels and mandatory abortions. They accuse Obama of trying to institute a Canadian-style single-payer system and point to (largely incorrect) figures on how damaging such a system is to the health of individuals under such a regime. Hell, they even had a breakdown when the president decided to address American school children.

(As an aside, what do you think these Republicans would have said if parents protested George W. Bush addressing kids? You can be sure there would have been charges that these parents lacked respect for the president and, of course, were not suitably patriotic. But when the president is a Democrat -- and African American, to boot -- suddenly words like "indoctrination" and "socialism" are thrown out by the right. Conservatives' treatment of Barack Obama in this instance has been insanely hypocritical, and yet that issue is never addressed in the media's coverage of the opposition to the president's planned address.)

But here's the thing: Whatever you believe about socialism, Obama is not in any way, shape or form a socialist. Even with the government's forays into the financial, auto and, now, hopefully, the health care industries, it is only touching a slight fraction of American business. Calling Obama a socialist is a lie, every bit as ridiculous as my opening statements about Boehner, Limbaugh and Grassley. Same goes for death panels, mandatory abortions and the attempt to move the U.S. to a single-payer health care system.

If the media refuses to present the opposition to health care for what it is, instead pretending that an honest debate is going on, and if the American people seem unwilling or unable to recognize what the Republicans (and some Democrats) are doing to manipulate them with lies, then what is the president to do? After running a pitch-perfect campaign, we have become accustomed to Obama finding a way to counter any problem in perception, like his Philadelphia speech on race in March 2008, after the surfacing of incendiary comments of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Things may be much harder for the president to control now. But one thing he can do is take over leadership on the issue from the Democrats in Congress, who have less credibility with the American people and who, to date, have not shown the strength and leadership necessary to shepherd health care reform through the legislative process.

Instead, it's time for Obama to take the lead on the issue. His attempts in his first year in office to enunciate key principles but leave the nuts-and-bolts drafting of legislation to Congress were understandable, but such an approach hasn't worked with health care. On Wednesday, Obama needs to cut through the lies and lay out for the American people exactly where the country stands with regard to health care. He needs to explain that we are on financially untenable ground, with health care costs for the country exploding at alarming rates, and with tens of millions of Americans without health insurance coverage. He has to say exactly, in painstaking detail, what he wants to do. And, as importantly, he has to enunciate clearly what he is not asking that the government be allowed to do. He should even use graphs and illustrations if they'll help. Whatever it takes.

(In an ideal world, I would be in favor of a single-payer, Canadian-style system, but if such an approach is not realistic in the current U.S. political climate, and if opponents of health care reform are lying and calling the current proposal an attempt to move the country to a single-payer system, then Obama has to delineate how these charges are lies, and what exactly he is proposing the government do under a reformed health care system, which is short of a single-payer approach.)

In short, Obama has to use Wednesday's speech to move the health care debate from a marketplace of lies to a marketplace of ideas. It's a huge task, and it may be too late, but it's the best chance the president has to save true health care reform this year. The stakes are high. If outright lies end up killing health care reform, the Republicans will have won, but, more importantly, the American people will have lost.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

"Mad Men" Is Hitting Its Stride in Its Third Season

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

In my sixth column for WILDsound, back in 2007, I reviewed a new program called "Mad Men." I reread the article today, after watching the third episode of the show's third season (AMC, Sundays at 10:00 p.m. Eastern), and I was struck by how "Mad Men" has managed to grow into one of the very best shows on television, all while taking risks and evolving into completely new worlds. And how the show has done so in a subtle way that leaves the viewer feeling like not much has changed at all. That's no easy task.

In that early review I was overwhelmed by the flood of scenes meant to shock our 21st century sensibilities by showing how different things were in 1960 (for example, a gynecologist doing a vaginal exam with a cigarette hanging from his lips and warning his patient that she shouldn't become a "strumpet" because he has prescribed birth control pills for her), and while I noted how well-written and well-acted the episode was, I asked if the show would be able to get beyond the shock value and "wafer-thin plots" and sustain audience engagement over a longer period of time. After two seasons and three episodes, I think we can safely say the answer is a resounding "yes."

That's not to say that "Mad Men" still doesn't aim to unnerve its audience. Watching Betty Draper (January Jones) down whiskey while eight-plus months pregnant is hard to watch. And in what has to be one of the most shocking, daring and disturbing moments anyone will air on television this year, agency honcho Roger Sterling (John Slattery) sings "My Old Kentucky Home" to his new bride, Jane (Peyton List), at a party while in blackface (including crooning the line, "'Tis summer and the darkies are gay"). "Mad Men" constantly reminds us how different the world was in the early 1960s, but at the same time, how little has changed.

As interesting as the drama's bravery can be in revealing the darker side of recent American social history, show runner Matthew Weiner is equally brave in taking "Mad Men" on ever-new journeys. When the program started, the central plot element was watching Don use his life interactions (some seedier than others) to come up with his brilliant advertising ideas that, often, saved the day at the last possible moment. Now, in the third season, we rarely see Don generating ideas. In fact, in the third episode, which aired last Sunday, Don was off at Roger's party while secretary-turned-hotshot-copywriter Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) was forced to work on a last-minute assignment for Bacardi rum, with help from her fellow creatives Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) and Smitty (Patrick Cavanaugh), and her new secretary, the matronly Olive (Judy Kain). After Paul and Smitty decide to get stoned, and Peggy boldly insists on taking part, too, she is inspired on how to save the Bacardi campaign, something we would have seen Don do in the first season.

In fact, in many ways, this season has seen Peggy striving to become Don, in both good ways and bad, as she has become essentially a co-lead of the series. And we have followed Peggy's life adventures in the way we used to follow Don's (although we have seen Don stray from his marriage this season, with a flight attendant on a business trip to Baltimore). Peggy has picked up (and discarded) a one-night stand. As the third episode begins, we note (even though it is not explicitly mentioned) that she has canned her less-than-respectful secretary, Lola, in favor of Olive, and later, she firmly puts Olive in her place when she tries to scold Peggy for getting stoned with the guys. When Paul tells Peggy to get a blender they can use to make Bacardi drinks, Peggy immediately snaps back that he should get it himself (although she relents when he protests that he's eating, an orange half-peeled in his hand). Peggy's evolution has been one of the most satisfying story lines on the program. This season has picked up beautifully from last season's finale, when Peggy spurned Pete Campbell's (Vincent Kartheiser) declaration of love and told him about their child, a body blow considering how much trouble he and his wife were having conceiving a baby of their own.

Weiner has also been unafraid to uproot us after each season and jump the story forward in time, from 1960 to 1962 between the first two seasons, and then another year forward before this one. And as in-your-face as he can be with the early 1960s anachronisms, he is equally subtle in showing the passage of time. For example, in season two, Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) sought and received permission to head a new television department at Sterling Cooper. Roger grants his request almost as an afterthought, and it takes Harry several episodes to earn the right to even hire one man to help (a great plot line that included Joan temporarily taking the job and excelling, only to have Harry and Roger not even consider her for the full-time position). This season, with no discussion, Harry is now a player, even being invited to Roger's party with heavy hitters like Don and new co-accounts heads Pete and Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), all while Peggy, Paul and Smitty are left behind.

Even as the plot marches forward, "Mad Men" is more about its interactions than its overriding stories. In fact, in last Sunday's episode, on the surface, not much happened. Don, Pete, Harry and their wives (along with the stag Ken) go to Roger's party. Peggy, Smitty and Paul, with the help of Paul's old Princeton buddy Jeffrey (Miles Fisher), who is now a drug dealer, try and figure out what to do about Bacardi. At the Draper house, housekeeper Carla (Deborah Lacey) is stuck with Betty's Alzheimer's-stricken father, Gene (Ryan Cutrona), and the Draper kids, Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and Bobby (Jared Gilmore), with the major drama being Gene's search for the $5 that we know Sally has stolen from him. And office manager Joan (Christina Hendricks) hosts a dinner party for two of her husband's medical superiors and their wives.

But despite the lack of big show-changing events, the episode was a riveting hour of television, with smaller moments ruling the day. Don's disdain of Roger comes to a head, first when he walks out during Roger's racist musical number (even though none of the other guests seem to mind, including Betty, who beams while listening), and later when Roger confronts Don on his surliness. Don's conversation with a wedding guest at the club (each found a desolate bar to escape their events), in which the two successful men admit to their more modest roots and disdain of the country club existence, was special. (I can't help wonder if Don was telling a tall tale or a true story when he told the older gentleman that when he parked cars at an upscale night club as a 15-year-old, he urinated in the guests' trunks when he had to go because he wasn't allowed to use the establishment's bathroom.) Peggy's chance meeting with a smitten older bachelor who wants to feel her pregnant belly was the kind of offbeat, nearly surreal scene that nearly no other current program could even attempt to pull off. When the two are introduced later, guilt hangs in the air, the two having shared an innocent moment that nevertheless felt intimate and illicit. It recalled Peggy's one-night stand in the back room of a bar in last season's finale.

A stoned Peggy's speech to her new secretary, nailing that Olive was more scared to work for a woman than she was worried about Peggy's future, was brilliant, both in the writing and Moss's performance. When Peggy leans in and says to Olive, "Don't worry about me. I am going to get to do everything you want me to do. I'm going to be fine. I really am," it's a "wow" moment.

Joan gamely playing the accordion and cooing a French song for her guests, despite her lack of practice, all to turn the attention away from the almost off-hand revelation that her slimy husband had screwed up at work, showed the power of Joan as a character and Hendricks as an actor. Knowing that her husband, threatened by Roger's money and power, raped Joan in Roger's office last year hung over the whole dinner party like an approaching storm. It was subtle, but powerful nonetheless.

Even in the lighter, more comedic scenes revolving around Peggy, Paul and Smitty getting high with Jeffrey, little factoids emerge. Jeffrey, jealous of Paul's set-up at Sterling Cooper (and, probably more importantly, impressed with Peggy), pokes a hole in Paul's hipster persona and accent, outing him as arriving at Princeton as a poor kid from Jersey in need of a scholarship. Similarly, as Don and Betty help the blitzed Jane to her seat, Jane drunkenly reveals that she knew of Don and Betty's separation (she was Don's secretary at the time), sending Betty into a bit of a tizzy, which may or may not have been resolved by the episode's final moment, Don and Betty's kiss in moonlight, with the camera at a respectful distance.

The way Weiner quietly and skillfully moves his characters around, and the moods he creates in doing so, is nothing short of masterful. The third episode didn't even overtly address the office drama of the first two episodes of the season, which largely revolved around the takeover of Sterling Cooper by a British agency. It didn't need to. As an audience, we were interested just the same.

Throw into the mix the show's almost fetishistic attention to period detail in its wardrobe and set-dressing, the uniformly pitch-perfect cast (including the guest turns), and the clever, dramatic writing, and "Mad Men" is nothing short of an American classic, in the same ballpark with some of the great plays and films of our time.

Now in its third season, the program is hitting its stride, even as its creator has deftly blown up so much of went before. The show cleaned up on Emmy nominations, and based on the steadily increasing ratings, more and more people are finding out what they've been missing with "Mad Men." All of the attention is well-deserved.

In my 2007 review, I spent a lot of time talking about Don as a potentially unsympathetic lead. But in 2009, I can't think of a group of characters with whom I'd rather spend an hour.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Hypocrisy Alert: Cheney Relies on the Objectivity of the Justice Department to Defend Torture

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

I am regularly amazed that public officials can say things in public without experiencing what should be obvious repercussions. The latest example? This doozy from former vice president Dick Cheney regarding his sanctioning of torture (we have prosecuted waterboarding as torture in the past, so Cheney was defending torture), reported on the front page of yesterday's New York Times:

"The fact of the matter is the Justice Department reviewed all those allegations several years ago."

Okay, on its face, it seems like the most innocuous of statements, but there are two aspects to Cheney's latest outburst of lunacy that I find particularly outrageous.

First, and more obvious, is his blase acceptance that the United States of America could endorse torture. As I have argued many times, if the U.S. accepts the use of torture, it is spitting in the face of the very values of justice and due process that have made the country a beacon of democracy. If we torture, how can we oppose the behavior of oppressive regimes that do not respect the basic rights of human beings? If we maintain facilities like Guantanamo Bay and subject suspects to rendition, knowing full well they will be tortured in other countries, how are we any better than, say, North Korea seizing two journalists for committing no real crime?

As I noted when discussing the case of Lakhdar Boumediene, who was held and tortured in Guantanamo Bay even though courts in both Bosnia and the U.S. (one before his detention, one during) found he had committed no crime, Boumediene's experience with the U.S. government was substantively no better than than what Laura Ling and Euna Lee faced in North Korea. (Actually, based on accounts of how Ling and Lee were treated, and on their early release, their interaction with North Korea was most likely better than what Boumediene lived through with the U.S.) Is that the country in which we want to live? Do we want to live in a country whose values are closer to North Korea than, well, the United States in the pre-George W. Bush era?

It is even more infuriating when the overwhelming evidence is that the torture committed by the Bush administration didn't even help much, creating more terrorists than securing important data. And when a guy like retired general (and current National Security Adviser) Jim Jones says that the Obama administration has been more effective in fighting terrorism than the Bush crowd had been, it really should give people pause as to why it's even a debate that the country made a grave mistake in sanctioning torture.

But the thing that really bugs me about Cheney's quote (again, he said, regarding torture, that: "The fact of the matter is the Justice Department reviewed all those allegations several years ago.") is that in using the Justice Department as justification, he brings to mind the old story used to define the Yiddish word chutzpah: Someone who kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan.

Let us review. The Bush administration, breaking with long-held policy and practice, politicized the Justice Department, moving it from an independent, apolitical defender of the laws of the country to a politicized arm of the Bush campaign. Candidates for positions that were supposed to be nonpolitical were judged to ensure they were conservative and Republican. Choosing ideology over merit, the administration hired 150 graduates of Regent University, Pat Robertson's school, which ranked in the lowest tier in the annual survey by U.S. News and World Report. Among the Regent alums in the Bush administration was Monica Goodling, the 33-year-old lawyer with no prosecutorial experience who was installed in the number-three position in the Justice Department, overseeing more than 90 U.S. Attorneys, who, in turn, managed thousands of lawyers under them.

And, of course, the Bush administration, in an unprecedented move, fired eight U.S. Attorneys, in the middle of Bush's second term for wholly political reasons (namely, failure to go after Democrats and voter fraud issues that the administration wanted pursued). (Three articles on the topic are here, here and here.)

By the time the dust had settled, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Justice Department Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson, and Goodling were among the group of top Justice officials who resigned in light of the scandal.

The reason Bush's politicization of the Justice Department angered so many observers was that our democratic system relies on the dispassionate execution of our laws by the government, which is carried out by the Justice Department. To corrupt Justice is to corrupt the nation, putting the members of the executive branch above the law. The idea that U.S. Attorneys would be fired for not carrying out politically expedient prosecutions, or that candidates for Justice positions would be tested for their party loyalty, impugns the role of Justice as an impartial guardian of the law.

And a politicized Justice Department meant that Bush was able to secure opinions from the department that justified the use of torture. (A good survey of the issue is available here.)

So let's circle back to Cheney. Essentially, Cheney was drawing on the decades-old idea of the Justice Department as an independent body enforcing the law when he said the department had approved the use of torture, thus making it okay. But the gall of Cheney's statement is that he was a key part of an administration that deconstructed the very objectivity on which he now relies. Like the parent-murderer who now wants sympathy for being an orphan, Cheney wants us to trust the objectivity of a Justice Department he helped politicize.

How is it that Cheney was allowed to make such a baldly hypocritical and self-serving statement without being challenged? It's outrageous.

I don't know why I'm surprised. We have a gubernatorial candidate in Virginia who argued in a thesis that women shouldn't work, the U.S. Supreme Court shouldn't have legalized contraception for unmarried people, and religion should be more prominent in schools, while decrying homosexuality and "fornicators." If Robert McDonnell was in the running for a position at Fox News, he would be an excellent candidate, but someone who espoused these extreme views shouldn't be aspiring to any office in a purple state like Virginia. And yet, according to the Washington Post, he his ahead in the polls.

Which reminds me of one of my favorite expressions: Democracy works, just not always like you want it to. If the people of Virginia elect this guy, they will get what they deserve. And if Americans take Dick Cheney seriously (or elect him president, as a bats*!%-crazy Wall Street Journal editorial called for), we, too, will have to live with the results.

We are currently dealing with the devastation that eight years of Bush rule did to the economy and our international standing. I can't imagine why anyone would take anything Cheney has to say seriously, especially when he engages in such hypocritical practice as relying on a Justice Department he tainted for justification of his actions. That is, simply put, chutzpah.