Friday, July 31, 2009

When "Yes We Can!" Meets "No We Won't!"

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

I am very concerned about the future of this country.

No, not just because health care reform is being so watered down in Congress that it now completely fails to address the underlying dire (and spiraling) problems of the health care system. (As I've written previously, there is no defensible position to opposing a public option.) Rather, it's watching how the health care debate has unfolded (and other attempts at legislation this year, too), and how Congress has handled the relevant legislation. And also how the American people have reacted.

At the risk of oversimplifying something that is far more complicated, in their most basic form, I see two trends that are disturbing:

1) Congress (not just the Republicans, either) have not supported President Obama's attempts at delivering the change on which he campaigned (and the change for which Americans overwhelmingly voted).

2) The American people have not been savvy about the dynamic in Washington, mainly because, it seems to me, they are in total denial as to the severity of the problems facing the country.

As I removed my New York Times from its three (!?!?!?) protective bags yesterday morning and glanced over the front page, I noticed that four of the six articles directly or indirectly revealed how neither Congress nor the American people are really confronting the problems facing the country. On health care, there is a piece that details how the millions of dollars in campaign donations raised for Democrats by a Texas hospital are affecting how Democrats in Congress are approaching health care. With insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies having poured $81 million and $134 million, respectively, into Congressional coffers, it's not surprising that more senators and members of Congress seemed to be concerned with the profit margins of these companies than with the health and wallets of the American people. I expect Republicans to out-and-out lie to protect their health insurance company benefactors (like Sen. Tom Coburn saying that people will die if health care reform is passed). But when you have a Blue Dog Democrat like Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas proudly saying Wednesday, "We have successfully pushed a floor vote to September," you really start to wonder if there is any pretense left as to who those who oppose the president's health care reform are working for. What is he so proud of? Delaying relief to the American people?

Another article addresses how despite the Obama administration's aggressive plan to cut down on home foreclosures, mortgage servicers are subverting the process, because they make so much in fees from foreclosing on delinquent homeowners. This was just another reminder that the banks, despite nearly bringing down the economy last year, still rule on Capitol Hill, which is directly related to the massive amount of money the industry funnels to campaigns. (For example, according to OpenSecrets.org, in the 2010 cycle, the finance/insurance/real estate industry has contributed more than $14 million to 422 members of the House and more than $6 million to 89 senators, and one subset of that group, the securities and investment sector, has given more than $2.8 million to 300 members of the House and more than $1.9 million to 58 senators. )

On the bottom of the front page, there is an item about how the popularity of installing white roofs is increasing in an effort to cut energy costs, which only reminded me of how little this year's energy bill does to actually address the country's dependence on foreign oil (impacting national security, the economy, and the environment, including the threat of global warming).

The articles were a reminder of what I've been thinking since it became clear that Congress had no intention of passing anything resembling Obama's ambitious health care reform plan that addressed the underlying systematic problems, rather than just handing out more money to the industries that are responsible for the current broken model: While voters enthusiastically embraced Obama's calls for change, too many senators and U.S. representatives have no interest in signing on to a new agenda. In fact, beginning with the stimulus bill and moving through energy, financial regulation and now health care, Congress has gutted Obama's proposals. Instead of embracing necessary systematic change, Republicans have concentrated on opposing anything Obama proposed to win political points, moderate and conservative Democrats have looked to ensure that Obama's proposals were defanged, and even the mainstream wing of the Democratic party seems more intent on winning old battles than furthering the president's ambitious proposals, the very ones that carried him (and, to some extent, Democrats in Congress) to power last November.

To me, the battle has shaped up as a forward-looking president (the "Yes We Can!" of my title) trying to deliver the change he promised against an inward-looking Congress more interested in self-preservation (which has different meanings to mainstream Democrats, Blue Dog Democrats and Republicans, but all adds up to the "No We Won't!").

You would think that this breakdown would be clear to Americans observing the process unfold. As is often the case when trying to figure out the U.S. electorate, you would be wrong.

The fourth article that caught my attention on the front page of the Times was about poll results that show not only that the country is growing uneasy about Obama's health care reform plan (even though Obama is still more trusted on the issue than Republicans are), but that, according to the piece, "Americans are concerned that revamping the health care system would reduce the quality of their care, increase their out-of-pocket health costs and tax bills, and limit their options in choosing doctors and, treatments and tests."

Clearly, the Republican misinformation campaign, equating a public option with a single-payer Canadian system (and we all know we can't do anything the Canadians would do ...), has found traction, which is depressing, considering the judgments are being made based on lies. It's Harry and Louise all over again. (I re-read the transcript of Obama's July 22 press conference today, and I think anyone who thinks that the president's plan will hurt them should really give the speech transcript a look.)

And there was something even more disturbing in the article. According to the Times, "The percentage who describe health care costs as a serious threat to the American economy ... has dropped over the past month." Wow. Fantastic. Denial has set in. (As I pointed out last week, the nonpartisan/bipartisan National Coalition on Health Care has detailed the exponentially growing health care burden on the country, and how despite the high cost, we still receive comparatively lousy care.)

How can we address our serious problems if, as a nation, we aren't prepared to admit they exist? I feel like the country is an ocean liner heading for an iceberg, but the captain can't convince the crew to change course because doing so would affect the suntanning opportunities of the passengers (who would then vote the crew out of jobs).

To me, it looks like Obama is trying to honestly take on the mammoth problem of health care, advocating for reform that would reduce costs, increase coverage, improve quality, and protect people from the whims of the insurance companies, but he is being opposed by Congress, even though his party has 60 seats in the Senate and a huge majority in the House (thanks to the Blue Dogs who are siding with the Republicans and mainstream Democrats who lack the constitution and compass to stand firm for systematic change). And, what's worse, Obama is taking the blame.

Yesterday, in a response to a Facebook friend's status bashing Obama, someone commented that he was sick of the president making "empty promises" and that he should start fixing the problems facing the country. I felt like I was reading a Facebook page through the looking glass. An "empty promise" is one where the person making the promise has no intention of carrying it out. You can make that charge about Democrats in Congress, but I don't see how you can put such an accusation at the feet of the president.

I can argue the facts all I want, but in this guy's mind (and based on the Times poll, he's not alone), it's all Obama's fault, even though, despite George W. Bush's belief to the contrary, a president is not a dictator who can act alone. To pass legislation, Congress has to do its part. And right now, a majority of members of Congress are not helping Obama face our very real problems.

I'm not sure I have an answer to all of this. Sometimes it feels like our current corrupt system of status quo government is unbreakable. But I do know that if the Democrats in Congress don't find a way to become co-advocates with the president on these important issues, their future political problems (and there will be losses if things don't turn around, especially considering that the president's party traditionally loses Congressional seats in mid-term elections) will be the least of it. The real result will be that we will fail, as a society, to make the truly make-or-break decisions that need to be made to address serious problems that threaten our stability and prosperity. Health care is one of these challenges, and it's as good a time as any to turn the tide.

And if Americans don't acknowledge the depth of the health care problem and the role Congress is playing in choosing the interests of health insurance and pharmaceutical companies over their constituents (as well as the other challenges facing the country), the problem won't be addressed, and the results could be catastrophic.

Actually, Americans have an even bigger job right now. They have to stand up and take responsibility for their country. Even though health care will benefit nearly everybody, we still have to look past self-interest to address the looming threats that escalating health care costs pose to our personal bottom lines, and the economy of the country. The time for placing our heads ostrich-like in the ground and thinking only for today has to end. As the president said in his speech, when you look at the current health care system as a proposal, it's one no sane person (outside of an insurance or pharmaceutical company) would support.

Am I optimistic? Not really. But it's important for everyone to speak out now, before it's too late.

Friday, July 24, 2009

"Dating in the Dark" Is Not Your Average Dating Show

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

It all started out so ordinary. As I watched the opening seconds of ABC's new summer reality program "Dating in the Dark" (Mondays at 10 p.m. Eastern), with it's sweeping shots of a mansion surrounded by palm trees, and with the drama-inducing synth music playing in the background, it felt like the network was tossing out another "Bachelor" knock-off. After all, while ABC has a track record of programming innovative dramas and comedies (like, for example, "Better Off Ted") over the last season or two, it is also responsible for the patient zero of dating programs ("The Bachelor"), as well as reality fare both light ("Dancing with the Stars") and ridiculous ("Wipeout").

So it would not have surprised me at all if "Dating in the Dark" was just another piece of summer fluff, and my hope was that it wouldn't be toxic (like, say, NBC's "Momma's Boys"). But from the very beginning, "Dating in the Dark" announces that it is trying to do more, telling us in a voice-over that there are no cash prizes and no eliminations. Rather, the show is an "experiment" to see what happens when people are forced to put aside some basic ideas -- namely, judging people based on looks -- when meeting members of the opposite sex.

The premise of "Dating in the Dark" is pretty simple: Each week three guys and three girls move into opposite wings of a mansion. They only interact in a room kept so dark that they cannot see anything. Luckily, due to the wonders of infra-red technology, television viewers can see everything that happens in the dark room.

The premiere episode brought us two sets of daters that fit neatly into types. Stephen is a 31-year-old self-described genius, an SAT tutor whose brain seems to be running a million miles per hour at all times. Melanie, also 31, is a brainy hippie chick who "never learned to flirt," mainly, she says, because she was raised by a single dad. On the opposite side of the spectrum are Leni and Allister. Leni, a 27-year-old nanny from Melbourne, Australia, is outgoing and pretty, and you get the sense she has no trouble attracting guys. Similarly, Allister, a 29-year-old DJ from Manchester, England, is handsome and charismatic, but he has commitment and intimacy issues stemming from a rough upbringing, including his mother abandoning his family when he was a child. Finally, Seth, a 31-year-old audio-visual designer, and Christina, a 28-year-old marketing manager, are more a kind of average Joe and Josephine, both attractive enough to find dates, but neither the type that stands out from the pack.

After a group date in the dark, a series of one-on-one get-togethers followed. Interestingly, after the group date, each person was allowed to ask one person out, and the only person not to get an invitation was Allister. Already, we see the difference that being in the dark makes.

In fact, during the dates (group and individual), the house guests reached some interesting conclusions. Leni immediately realized that she didn't have to worry about how her hair or clothes looked in the dark, noting, "I love that. They're not looking at your boobs. They have to listen to you." Christina unintentionally reveals her true colors early on, saying that it is "weird" making judgments about people from only their voices. After connecting with Seth during a one-on-one date, they kiss, and Christina says afterwards, "I have no idea what I kissed in there." She hopes that when she sees him, he doesn't "turn out to be Shrek." Melanie, meanwhile, immediately nails Allister, explaining that he uses his sense of humor to deflect people so he doesn't have to open up to them. That realization went a long way toward building a bond between them.

An interesting twist came part-way through, when host Rossi Moreale, a veteran MC of low-level reality shows like "Can You Duet?" (and, according to the ABC Web site, a former starting wide receiver on the University of Arkansas football team), reveals to the guys and women that experts analyzed questionnaires they filled out and determined who their ideal matches in the house were. Not surprisingly, the experts placed Seth and Christina together, but in a switcheroo, Leni and Stephen and Melanie and Allister, seemingly opposites, were judged to be best-suited together. As the house guests had more dates and began pairing up, the experts turned out to be correct, as the three "ideal" couples were formed.

At this point, a sketch artist was brought in so that the participants could describe what they thought their dates looked like. Leni's description resulted in a sketch of bookish Stephen that, as one of the guys later pointed out, resembled Dolph Lundgren. Seth had Christina as a blonde, but, as she spits out, she is very much a brunette. Allister correctly ascertains that Melanie has curly hair and glasses, but he doesn't associate those attributes with her plain look, resulting in a picture of a woman more glamorous than Melanie.

The whole episode leads to what is, essentially, two moments of truth. First is the reveal, in which each couple goes into the dark room, and then, one at a time, one person is revealed, then the other. The idea is that each person can't see how his or her selected date reacts upon seeing him or her for the first time. Not surprisingly, the interviews after the reveals were interesting. Leni is shocked that Stephen is not Dolph Lundgren, describing him as the kind of man her mother would call "a lovely boy." And she doesn't mean it as a compliment. Christina looks like she's swallowed a bug (an army of bugs, really), clearly appalled at Seth's looks, which I have to say, shocked me. Seth may not be mistaken for Brad Pitt, but I can't imagine most women would have been as disappointed as Christina was. (Interestingly, Seth was a bit too excited about Christina's appearance, waxing rhapsodic about different parts of her body.) Finally, Allister was clearly unhappy with Melanie's plain-Jane looks, as much as he tried to cover it, while Melanie seemed mildly surprised at how handsome Allister was, later explaining that in the real world, she would never be able to approach someone who looked like him.

In the second key moment, each person had to decide whether or not to meet his or her date. If a meeting was desired, the person proceeded to the balcony overlooking the driveway. If not, the person went out the front door. Stephen was up first, and, obviously, he chose to meet Leni. Leni, on the other hand, tells the camera that while she and Stephen got along great, she goes for the bad-boy type, not a guy like Stephen. Nevertheless, after a sufficient reality-television-approved amount of time to build dramatic tension, Leni appears, and she and Stephen embrace, later leaving together in a show-provided car.

Next up was Seth and Christina. Again, Seth headed for the balcony, while Christina talked to the camera, admitting that she and Seth connected, but also complaining that she wasn't attracted to his physical looks. In the end, she walks out of the house without even looking up to say goodbye to Seth, leaving him staring on in disbelief as she left. Seth was shocked and angry, and his reactions seemed real, way more legitimate than what you expect to see on reality television. In a tearful interview, Christina confronts her shallowness, admitting that looks are important to her and saying, "I wish that aspect didn't matter so much to me." But what is stopping her? I can't imagine she will have garnered a lot of sympathy with viewers, and, more importantly, I can't imagine her ending up in a healthy relationship with such an unhealthy approach to men.

The Melanie-Allister finale was a bit of an anti-climax after Christina's cold-blooded ditching of Seth. Much like it was assumed the guys would show up in the first two instances, Melanie heads straight to the balcony while Allister dithers, giving the guy version of Leni's speech (she gets him, but he dates a different type of girl, which was really code for the fact that he dates better looking women). And much like Leni, Allister shows up anyway, and the two of them leave in a car together.

I have to say, I didn't believe for a second that Allister and Leni, the "hot ones," had discarded their biases to date the "nerdy ones," Melanie and Stephen. Rather, I think each had decided to be nice, nothing more. It's not like they were agreeing to a wedding. From what I can tell, all they were consenting to was, at most, a date. Showing up and spending some time with someone they liked but had discovered was not as attractive as they had hoped hardly asks for much, and it seems to be a small price to pay for (depending how cynical you are) either protecting their dates from the humiliation of a television rejection or protecting themselves from having to admit in front of millions of viewers that they were rejecting people they liked because they weren't good looking enough. I'm not sure if that makes Christina a hero or an even bigger selfish brat. Should we applaud her for her honesty (which revealed her to be shallow)? Or slam her for needlessly embarrassing someone she thought she really liked? I guess that's up for each viewer to decide. I went with the second option.

I was kind of fascinated by "Dating in the Dark." On a network reality dating show, you don't expect to see people act kind of real, at least at key moments, and you certainly don't expect the result to be so complicated and challenging. I found it interesting how amazingly shallow Christina revealed herself to be. She wasn't the most likable person throughout, but when she leaves Seth hanging because he wasn't up to her lofty standards for the perfect guy, she lost what little good will she had fostered. It was also interesting to me how little effect the experience seemed to have on Leni and Allister. Sure, they connected with people very different from their normal types. And sure, unlike Christina, they had the decency to show up at the end. But I didn't feel for one second like either of them would approach relationships differently the next day.

But I guess that's the one missing piece of "Dating in the Dark": the future. We don't know how this experience will really affect the participants down the line. Leni and Allister were asked to do so little in the end (show up), so as much as was revealed about the six house guests throughout the episode, we don't really know what the payoff was. A segment looking at everyone six months later would have told us far more about what was really learned (if anything) by everyone involved. (At the end of the premiere episode, there was a notice that you could learn more about what happened with the three couples by going to ABC.com, but as of this writing, there is no information about them on the site.)

That quibble aside, I have to give ABC full credit for, once again, going against the grain and taking a chance on a smart and unique approach to a familiar genre. While I'm not arguing that "Dating in the Dark" is science on television, it is more thought-provoking, thoughtful and, really, good-natured than any dating show I've seen. The program tests the participants, it doesn't set out to humiliate them. It's not Michael Apted's "Up" films, but at the same time, the heart of "Dating in the Dark" is closer to those classic documentaries than it is to "Momma's Boys."

I don't mean to suggest that the program is work, though. I found it genuinely entertaining. The participants were clever at times, and because the aim was more than just hooking up, there was actual drama in waiting to see how things turned out, way more than in the contrived ceremonies on other dating shows. (Does anyone really care who wants to stay in a house or on a bus with Bret Michaels, Tila Tequila, Flavor Flav or the Ikki Twins?)

Even the production was more interesting than the average dating show. When Moreale would explain to the house guests what would be happening next, the boring exposition was spiced up a bit by clever editing, with Moreale beginning to speak to one group, and then seamlessly continuing to speak with the other. The use of light in the reveals in the dark room were interestingly done, too. Everything was low-key, but given the less exploitative bent of the show, it worked.

When I decided to watch "Dating in the Dark" so I could write about it, I never thought I'd watch another episode. But the premiere was so well done, and raised so many interesting questions, I think I'll have to check it out again to see if the premise wears well over time.

Don't let the shots of the mansion and familiar musical cues fool you. The program may be on the same network as "The Bachelor," but ABC has broken new ground with "Dating in the Dark."

Monday, July 20, 2009

Congress Is Behaving as if the Health Care System Isn't in Tatters

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

When it comes to health care reform, I feel like the house is on fire, but nobody in Washington (except maybe President Obama) seems to see it. Or worse, they see it, and they don't care.

Here are some statistics, via the nonpartisan/bipartisan National Coalition on Health Care (NCHC), to demonstrate just how dire the current health care situation is:

- 46 million Americans under the age of 65 (which represents 18 percent of the population) had no health insurance in 2007. And given the spike in the unemployment rate and downturn in the economy since then, that figure has to be even higher now.

- $2.4 trillion was spent on health care in 2008, representing 17 percent of the U.S.'s gross domestic product. That's more than four times what we spend on defense.

- Costs are trending in the wrong direction. Projections have costs reaching $3.1 trillion in 2012 and $4.3 trillion by 2016, if the same health care system remains in place.

- The NCHC has compiled projections on the negative impact of spiralling health care costs on the economy, state and federal budgets and employers, large and small, and the effects are stifling. Health care costs are a major threat to our future.

- We are also very inefficient. We spend more money per person on health care than nations that provide universal coverage to their citizens. The NCHC, citing the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, points out that health care spending was only 10.9 percent of the gross domestic product in Switzerland, 10.7 percent in Germany, 9.7 percent in Canada and 9.5 percent in France, all countries that provide single-payer health care.

- And what about the small businesses Republicans are always pretending to defend? They are getting killed by health insurance payments. Employer-based premiums rose 5 percent in 2008. In 2007, rates for small employers went up 5.5 percent, and companies with less than 24 employees saw an even bigger increase, 6.8 percent. The Republicans call any health care reform measure from the Democrats a job-killer, but nothing is killing the ability of small businesses to hire Americans more than the rising cost of health insurance.

- Not that Republicans care about American workers, but I thought Democrats were supposed to be looking out for them? They are getting hammered, too, according to the NCHC. In 2008, employees had to pay a whopping 12 percent more in health insurance premiums than they did in 2007, so that the average worker is now paying $1,600 more a year for premiums than he/she did in 1999. In fact, since 1999, premiums for employment-based health insurance have increased 120 percent. (NCHC notes that during that same period, wages grew only 29 percent.) That means that health insurance costs are increasing four times faster for American workers than their wages are, on average.

- Republicans love to talk about how bad health care will be if the government gets involved, and President Obama has taken great pains to assure Americans that, under his plan, if they like the coverage they have, they can keep it. But the evidence points to the fact that care in the United States isn't as good as it could or should be, and is not the best in the world. The NCHC notes that we are not in the top three in infant death mortality rate; ours is 7 percent, while the leaders are at 2.7 percent. The U.S. rate of mortality from treatable conditions is a third lower than the world's leader. A drop more than half of adult Americans get the care recommended for them, and less than half of those suffering from diabetes and less than a third with coronary heart disease receive proper care. There are also growing problems with medical errors and infections in hospitals.

There really isn't a question of if there needs to be a complete overhaul of the health care system. Rather, the only question should be, How much can we change it? But if you listen to the debate in Congress right now, it sounds like a race to see who can do the least. And you would certainly never get the idea that the status quo is as broken and dangerous as it actually is.

The last time I wrote about health care, last month, my central concern was that Republicans were intentionally stoking fears of "socialized medicine" to kill a public option, all in defense of the insurance companies at the expense of the American people. A month later, my concern seems almost quaint by comparison.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released over the weekend showed that support for President Obama's handling of health care dipped below 50 percent for the first time. (It should be noted that more respondents still supported him than not, 49 percent to 44 percent, and Republicans continue not to be thought well of on health care, with only 34 percent trusting the GOP on the issue.)

While I wish President Obama's rating was higher, I can't say I am surprised. Yes, part of the blame goes to Congressional Republicans who are on an all-out blitz to kill health care reform, and their motives for doing so -- the protection of the big corporations who control the industry, including the health insurers and drug companies -- are in no way involved with helping the American people.

But if the Republicans were the only problem, I wouldn't be too concerned. Reforming the country's broken health care system is such an obvious need, I am sure that the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate would be able to shepherd through meaningful legislation, if that's what they wanted to do.

The problem, as I see it, is that none of the bills working their way through the House and Senate committees now really address making fundamental changes to the broken-down health care system I described above. Instead, the proposed pieces of legislation would seek to find ways to pay for more Americans to be covered under the old, broken, insurer-dominated status quo.

I thought Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius did a pretty good job battling David Gregory on Meet the Press yesterday. She made a good case that no consensus bill has emerged yet, so it's unfair to claim that any eventual legislation would include the failings that any of the proposals currently contained. And she did an excellent job pointing out that we have a long way to go, from the current broken system to one that eventually achieves the president's three goals of improving quality, lowering costs and expanding coverage.

But the one fact that Sebelius could not get around, and one that Gregory pressed her on repeatedly, is that the current pieces of health care legislation in Congress, according to the Congressional Budget Office, will not significantly lower costs.

I wasn't surprised by this problem, since as the debate has unfolded, it seems as though the policies that might actually reduce costs by addressing the domination of profit-motivated health insurers are the ones that have been the most contentious, especially the introduction of a government-run public health insurance option to compete with the private insurers. As I pointed out last month, there is an inherent contradiction to right-wing criticisms of the public option. They say that such a policy would create poor care for Americans while wiping out private insurers. The problem, of course, is that if the care would be so bad, why would people choose it at the expense of their current private insurers? And, if the private insurers would be ruined because the public option would create less-expensive, superior care, why wouldn't we want to adopt a system that raises quality and lowers costs? The Republican argument is completely disingenuous.

And yet, there are plenty of Democratic senators who have come out against a public option or failed to openly support it.

The Republicans are seizing on the obstacles President Obama is facing with health care reform, sensing an opportunity to dent his popularity. A banner headline on the Huffington Post today trumpets that Republicans from Michael Steele to William Kristol are predicting, as Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina did over the weekend, that health care will be "Obama's Waterloo." Hell, things are looking so good to the Republicans that Kenneth the Page impersonator/governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, has reappeared to chime in that he has "seen enough."

But blaming the Republicans for risking the health and economy of the American people to kneel in supplication at the altar of their big-business patrons is like blaming the scorpion of the famous proverb for stinging the frog. It's in their nature. Few of the GOP's policy positions actually benefit the majority of Americans, and even fewer are adopted for that purpose.

No, the blame gets spread across the entirety of Capitol Hill for the current state of health care reform, since not even all of the Democrats seem to realize the enormity of the problem. Rather than pushing for systematic change, they are dancing around the edges, trying to find ways to cover uninsured individuals without changing the way in which Americans receive (and pay for) health care.

I sincerely believe that President Obama sees the need for a massive overhaul of the health care system to lower costs, cover most Americans, and provide quality care. It's time for the Democrats in Congress to become as committed to these principals as the president seems to be. In light of the attacks by Republicans, which paint the president is some kind of take-over-crazed socialist trying to turn the U.S. into some amalgam of the Soviet Union, Sweden and hell, it seems like Democrats from pink and red states are running scared, afraid of being painted as too liberal in their next elections. And I'm sure that these same moderate Democrats are also feeding from the same insurance-company-supplied troughs as their Republican brothers and sisters.

Frankly, I'm less concerned about the "why" than the "how," as in, How do we move forward from here? So far, the concerns in Congress have led to tepid legislation that, if you believe the CBO, may cover more people, but won't address the underlying problems in the system. A government option should, if done correctly, help lower costs by forcing the private insurers to be more competitive in pricing and service. But even if a public option can find its way into a final bill, will it be strong enough to accomplish what it is designed to do?

In the end, we need a massive overhaul of the health care system that increases costs, increases quality, and covers most Americans. And it seems that right now, President Obama is one of the few players in Washington who seems to realize this fact. I was glad to read today that he is going to take a more aggressive approach to the health care debate, because I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that health care is shaping up to be the biggest leadership challenge of his presidency thus far.

The way things are going now, we are either going to get no health care reform (if the Republicans win) or watered-down health care legislation that acts as a bandage, helping some people but ignoring the larger problem creating the pain. Neither of those options are acceptable if we want to prevent a looming health care disaster that will not only risk our well-being, but also our economy, both individually and nationally.

We need fundamental change to the health care system, and President Obama has to find a way to convince his fellow Democrats on the hill that it's in their best interest politically to get on board. Because if the Democrats can come up with a solution that truly provides quality health care to more Americans for less money, their constituents will reward them in the voting booths. And if no health care legislation emerges, or if the bill that is produced is easily assaulted for threatening to balloon the deficit without addressing rising costs, voters will hold the Democratic lawmakers accountable.

The fire is burning, and it's time for real action to extinguish the flames. President Obama needs some help to do it. Let's hope he can convince enough of his colleagues in Congress to join him.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"Drop Dead Diva" and "Battle of the Bods": Is This Any Way to Treat a Lady?

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

Here is the worst-kept secret about television: The networks lure viewers using attractive women. They want actresses men can ogle and women can aspire to look like (how many "Rachel" haircuts popped up in the mid-1990s?). It's like an unspoken deal: The networks promise to cast attractive women in their shows but won't really acknowledge consciously doing so, and the public won't take them to task for creating a world that doesn't look much like real life. (You could fill a half-hour TV slot just reading the names of pretty actresses cast as the wife of heavy and/or less-than-handsome men.)

Which is why I found it so interesting that two programs premiered this week (one is a new show, the other a launch of a new season) that, in completely opposite ways, thumb their noses at the unspoken deal.

Lifetime's new series "Drop Dead Diva" (Sundays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern) opens with a blonde model, Deb (Brooke D'Orsay), looking into a full-length mirror, asking her boyfriend, "Do my knees look fat?" Soon, we meet brilliant lawyer Jane (Brooke Elliott), who is the anti-Deb. She is heavy, doesn't put thought into her looks, and surrounds herself with self-help books, a workaholic trying to find happiness. While Jane tries to get ahead through her ability, she often finds herself losing ground to scheming barracuda Kim (Kate Levering), who isn't afraid to use her good looks to move up the firm ladder.

After Deb's car runs into a truck (apparently, talking on the phone and putting on your makeup while driving is a bad thing; Who knew?), she finds herself in an after-life way station that looks a lot like a shopping mall. Her gatekeeper, Fred (Ben Feldman), informs her that she is a rare "zero-zero": someone who has committed no bad acts while on earth, but who also has done no good deeds. Not wanting to accept that she's dead, Deb hits the return button on Fred's computer (a sign admonishes workers not to do so without permission), and the result is Deb being whisked into Jane's body. Jane had been accidentally shot by the husband of a client who was angry because Jane's boss slept with his wife. Doctors thought they were losing her, but when Deb arrives in Jane's body, she immediately recovers.

Fred arrives at Jane/Deb's hospital bedside to provide the exposition of the show: Deb is now in Jane's body; Deb does not retain any of Jane's memories, but she does have Jane's genius-level intelligence; and Jane/Deb (for simplicity, from here on out, I'm just going to call her Jane) can't tell anyone about the body-swapping situation, or Fred, who has been demoted to guardian angel, will report her and she'll go to H-E-Double Toothpicks.

Jane steers clear of her home (which she shared with her boyfriend, Grayson, played by Jackson Hurst), and with nowhere else to go, she convinces her shallow-to-the-max best friend Stacy (April Bowlby), that she is Deb trapped in Jane's body. Stacy responds to Jane's plight by saying, "Fat things should not happen to good people." When Fred finds out that Jane spilled the beans, Jane, using her newfound intelligence, explains to Fred that he will get in trouble if she does, so he won't turn her in to protect his job. She's right. But he gets a job at the law firm to keep an eye on her.

Early on, the battle lines of the program seem to be drawn: Shallow, good looking women are bad, while less attractive smart women are good. But, in many ways, that's not how the first episode (which aired with only a handful of commercial breaks) played out.

On the one hand, Jane definitely learns a lesson in her new body. She realizes that she doesn't want to be shallow (a zero-zero), and she finds satisfaction in helping her law clients. There is a great moment where Jane tries to convince a man to do something, and she starts to get flirty and touch the man's chest, but she stops at the last minute, realizing that her strategy won't work with her new appearance.

But there is also a Hollywood romantic comedy aspect to Jane's transformation, in the idea that her knowledge of how to look good can be a cure-all. In a story line that reminded me of "Legally Blonde," Jane advises a client, a wife who caught her husband cheating but is embarrassed to testify about it in court (which would be needed to bust their prenuptial agreement), to be more confident and improve her looks. Stacy helps her give the woman a makeover (new dress, new sexy walk), and, eventually, her new sense of self-worth gives her the guts to stand up to her husband, who agrees to give her half of everything.

I'm not sure how the makeover-as-problem-solver idea co-exists with the idea of Jane learning to be less shallow. I guess that's really the problem with "Drop Dead Diva": an uncertain approach to what it wants to be. There is no doubt that there are moments that buck television's glorification of women's looks, but there are other times that feel like the show is part of the problem.

I had trouble getting a handle on how to judge the show. From a science fiction standpoint, the reincarnation aspect wouldn't pass muster with fans of that genre. Somehow, even though the new Jane doesn't retain any memories, she is loaded with know-how on how the law works. If Jane retained intelligence but not memories (she only remembers Deb's life), how would she know what she learned in law school? It seems her newfound IQ would allow her to learn how to be lawyer, but not to actually know the nuts and bolts of the law. I also didn't buy why Deb is allowed to live on in Jane's body. In "Heaven Can Wait" (and the original, "Here Comes Mr. Jordan"), the main character is wrongly plucked from earth too early, thus requiring that their souls be deposited into new bodies. It wasn't their time. But in "Drop Dead Diva," it was Deb's time.

But this is Lifetime, after all, so I'm clearly being unfair in overanalyzing the mechanics of the supernatural aspect of the plot. And similarly, I would be missing the point to criticize the lousy representations of lawyers and the law (everything Jane does resolves issues way too quickly and simply). I guess "Drop Dead Diva" should be judged as light entertainment that focuses on character and relationships, especially Jane adjusting to her new body. We watch as Deb goes from saying, "Being a prize model on the 'Price Is Right' isn't an audition, it's a career," and, "I've never been more than a size 2, and that's only because of the freshman 15, which is why I quit community college," to her, as Jane, giving an impassioned and inspired closing argument on behalf of her client, whose wife jumped out of a window during a hallucination caused by a faulty sleeping pill.

"Drop Dead Diva" is also about Jane's grief, since not only is Grayson no longer available to her, but, thanks to a positive endorsement from Jane (the original Jane, who, coincidentally, interviewed Grayson before she died), he will be working at the firm. He is being targeted by the evil Kim, who brings him a plant and touches his chest while they talk.

But, for me anyway (and I know, I'm not in Lifetime's target audience), "Drop Dead Diva" doesn't work as escapist fare. The humor too often falls flat (I didn't find it funny when the newly large Jane tries to put on one of Deb's skirts, splitting it in half in the process; it felt more mean than funny, and I didn't believe for a second Jane would think the tiny thing would fit on her new frame). The drama is clunky and overly choreographed. And the characters are all so two-dimensional. I know that Margaret Cho is getting positive notices for her turn as Jane's tough and protective assistant, but I thought she, too, wasn't very developed.

Which got me thinking: How am I supposed to feel about a show that is supposed to decry the pressure put on women to be thin and attractive, but, at the same time, portrays every woman as some kind of cliched type? The vacuous models, the whimpering cheated-on wife, the tough assistant, and the fat girl who is smart and neurotic but lacks friends. Is the show helping or hurting? I've read reviews of Sasha Baron Cohen's new movie, "Bruno," that say it's offensive on one level, but so entertaining that it may be worth it. With "Drop Dead Diva," I feel the reverse is in play. The show made me uncomfortable, and it wasn't funny or dramatic enough to allow me to get past it. I think the tipping point was when I realized that the two main commercials during the first commercial break featured a beautiful model hawking skin cream and Stacy London (of "What Not to Wear") shilling for shampoo, with, of course, perfect hair. Deep Throat told Bob Woodward to "follow the money." That might be good advice with "Drop Dead Diva."

While "Drop Dead Diva" gives off mixed signals, there is no doubt what "Battle of the Bods" (Fox Reality, Saturdays at 10:00 p.m. Eastern) is trying to do. The program is the id run wild, taking five attractive women, undressing them, and then trying to get them to argue with each other.

The premise of the show is staggeringly simple. Five women have to guess how three guys (each show has a theme relating to the guys, like they are lifeguards or weightlifters; this year's premiere featured twin brothers and their best friend) will rate them on two body parts and their overall look. First, the women have to arrange themselves by face. And when I say arrange themselves, I mean it literally; they stand on circles in order, one through five. The team gets $500 per correct guess. The second round is "lady's choice," where the women choose a body part (in the premiere, it is their behinds). Finally, they have to guess how the men will rank them over all. While being ranked, they generally wear lingerie.

Of course, it's not enough that the contestants might argue through the process on their own (usually, one woman is a de facto villain, pissing off the other four with her judgments), but they also have host Olivia Lee skillfully trying to foment conflict. Lee sounds like a younger, sexier Anne Robinson (host of "The Weakest Link"), tossing out bad puns like calling the contestants "hot honeys" or "dazzling damsels," and asking, "Will they work as a team, or will their egos get in the way?" Or, "Will our ladies be able to work together to walk away with the moola, or will their cattiness land them in the doghouse?"

In this year's premiere, predictably, things went downhill quickly. One of the women, who was rated fourth in the first two rounds, got into a battle with two bleach-blonde sisters, arguing over which of them was ugly (and threatening each other, with the sisters saying they were black belts and their nemesis claiming to take boxing classes). In a shocking turn of events (yes, I'm being sarcastic), the episode's villain actually placed second in the final ranking, much to the dismay of the sisters who insisted she occupy the fourth place again.

The thing about "Battle of the Bods" is that it is completely and utterly guileless. It is the kind of show in which Lee will say, "Bring those sexy seats center stage," after which the camera will focus lovingly on each of the contestants' butts. That about sums it up. The only concession to any kind of political correctness is the final scene, in which the women can double their money if they can guess how the three guys, stripped to their boxer briefs, will rate themselves. Other than that almost tacked-on moment (in the season premiere, it occurred at the 26-minute mark), the show is nothing short of an excuse to get women nearly naked, and to pit them against each other. (I guess I'm a typical guy in that I like the nearly naked part, but I am, possibly, less typical in that I get no joy from the cat fights.)

The prize at stake is comparatively small by TV standards (the women shared $6,000 after correctly guessing how the guys would rank themselves). Humiliation is going cheap, I guess, but then again, if you go on a television program called "Battle of the Bods," knowing it airs on Fox Reality, the self-respect bar has to be set pretty low. I found it telling that in the season premiere, the woman who was ranked first in all three contests was on the show to raise money for breast implants. Apparently, even being ranked the prettiest woman of the day isn't enough.

"Battle of the Bods" may take delight in objectifying women, but it makes no bones about what it is setting out to do. "Drop Dead Diva" left me more conflicted. And most of all, it just isn't as entertaining as it could have been.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

"10 Things I Hate About You" Is One of the Few New Comedy Options This Summer

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

Summer has become synonymous with reality television. An alien landing on earth last week who watched television to learn more about American culture would probably come away thinking we were obsessed with rich teens, people getting hit with padded objects and overweight people dancing. At this point, I am desperate to watch a new scripted show, and especially a comedy. So I ventured to teen-friendly ABC Family to catch the series premiere of "10 Things I Hate About You" (Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Eastern ).

Adapted from the 1999 feature film of the same name that launched the career of Heath Ledger, the single-camera sitcom follows two sisters as they start a new year of school. Cat (Lindsey Shaw, the much-missed "Aliens in America") is an NPR-listening, universal-health-care supporting rebel who couldn't care less what the kids at school think of her. Her younger sister, Bianca (Meaghan Jette Martin, "Camp Rock"), on the other hand, just wants to be popular, telling Cat to "speak English" when she makes references to Kim Jong Il and burkas.

In fact, before stepping foot in high school for the first time, Bianca has done extensive Facebook research to learn everything she can about queen bee Chastity (Dana Davis, "Heroes"), plotting their first encounter so she can ass-kiss her way into the popular clique. Bianca is seemingly oblivious to the fact that sophomore dork Cameron (Nicholas Braun) has a major crush on her, so smitten he takes the idea of his fellow nerd buddy Mikey (Kyle Kaplan) -- although he wants to be called Michael now, part of his plans to escape the lower rung of the social ladder -- to throw a party at his house.

While Bianca is on a mission to be popular, Cat keeps running across bad boy Patrick (Ethan Peck, in the part Ledger tackled in the film). Everyone is terrified of the motorcycle-riding Patrick, except Cat, that is, who, in a cute scene, outstares him, fixing her glare until he finally turns and leaves. Cat also has a run-in with Chastity, purposely taking off the bumper of her Mini Cooper after she tries to commandeer Cat's parking spot (when Cat sneers at Chastity that she didn't know the spaces were assigned, Chastity replies, "They were assigned. By Charles Darwin."). Cat and Chastity's running battle threatens Bianca's plan to hitch her wagon to Chastity.

Cat and Bianca live with their slightly overprotective doctor dad Walter (comic Larry Miller, reprising his role from the film), a single-father who has raised his two girls since their mother passed away.

With a soundtrack filled with female-fronted pop-punk anthems (Letters to Cleo's cover of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me," which appeared on the movie's soundtrack, plays over the last scene of the first episode of the program), a peppy and zinger-filled pace, and a swoon-inducing alleged bad boy to obsess over, "10 Things" is clearly targeted at ABC Family's main demographic: teenage girls. Which has to be why no effort is made to deviate from the plots and themes of seemingly every other Hollywood high school movie and television show ever offered to the American public. Everything we've come to expect is present and accounted for: geeks and jocks, cheerleaders and quarterbacks, outcasts and artists, and struggles of the heart. Chastity is dating a quarterback, but she threatens to leave him if he isn't named the starter. Mikey is carried off to be stuffed in a locker, Cameron pines for the girl out of his league who doesn't know he's interested, and there are cheerleader tryouts and a big party.

So if adults come to "10 Things" expecting anything out of the ordinary, they will be disappointed.

That's not to say that there aren't good things about the show. The writing is way sharper than a teen-targeted comedy has a right to be. When the two sisters are about to start their first day of school, Bianca asks Cat, "How do I look?" When Cat replies, "Shallow," Bianca, without missing a beat, shoots back, "Thank you!" When Cat is hauled into the principal's office after purposely hitting Chastity's car, Chastity claims her neck is sore, leading Cat to snap back, "That's probably from flipping your hair too much." Cameron and Mikey get their moments, too. When Bianca talks to Chastity before Cameron gets a chance to approach her, he tells Mikey, "Too late. Voldemort's got her." And when Mikey suggests Cameron throw a party to get Bianca's attention, Cameron argues, "The last party we went to was a bar mitzvah. Yours."

I also liked the acting of the main family. Martin is steady as the vain Bianca, resisting the urge to take her too close to cliche-land and giving her some heart below the ambition. Miller is restrained (that's a compliment) as the gruff-but-lovable father who keeps the peace between his two very different daughters. And Shaw does a good job carrying the bulk of the action, adeptly handling the witty banter written for her character. If you were an "Aliens in America" fan, you will be impressed by how different Shaw is in "10 Things."

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast members sometimes feel like they're appearing in a different program, playing their characters to the extremes. Braun is especially broad as the geeky Cameron, acting as if he was in a stage musical, rather than a single-camera sitcom. (I thought it was funny that Chastity chooses Justin Timberlake over Zach Ephron in response to a query from Bianca, but Braun and Davis's performances feel like something out of "High School Musical.")

And while I'm happy to go with the simple, tried-and-true plotting, I can't buy Peck's Patrick as a dangerous guy, as he looks far more "Zoolander" than "Rebel Without a Cause." When outcast aspiring artist Mandella (Jolene Purdy of the short-lived "Do Not Disturb") tells Cat that Patrick is so dangerous that he is rumored to have "tasted human flesh," I laughed, thinking that it looks far more likely that he's modeled in Armani runway shows. Cat asks Patrick why everyone is afraid of him, but I can't imagine Patrick striking fear in anyone (excpet maybe a girl afraid he was going to steal her eye liner). I'm sure that teenage girls will find Peck to be crush-worthy, but as the Cat-Patrick potential relationship is supposed to be the center of the show, it's problematic that the character falls flat (and is badly miscast). It's a lot to ask Peck to live up to Ledger's legacy, but that doesn't mean that the performance (and, to be fair to Peck, the way the character is written and directed) gets the job done.

When I reviewed "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" last summer (another ABC Family program), I noted that I couldn't begin to say I knew if teenagers would like the show, but I could assess if adults would be entertained. The same can be said for "10 Things I Hate About You." Maybe teens will like the snappy dialogue, or maybe even they're sick of the done-to-death themes of high school comedies (with nothing new to add). I can't tell you. But for adults, I would say that the plot may not keep your attention, and some of the acting is hard to watch, but some fun can be had from the witty dialogue and strong performances of three of the stars. Which may be enough to draw attention in a summer filled with lousy reality programs. After all, the bar hasn't been set all that high when the schedule is filled with entires like "Wipeout," "NYC Prep" and "Dance Your Ass Off."