Category Archives: Popular culture

That’s not a real Beatles album, you morons

Every once in awhile, I click on one of those quizzes that social media is always offering as clickbait, and occasionally I find them rewarding — such as when it was scientifically confirmed that I am, of course, Leo

But boy, was this one stupid.

I clicked on this Beatles quiz (“How big a Beatles fan are you?“) because I figured I’d get 100 percent and have a small ego boost from it on my birthday, and the first question was so ridiculously easy that I almost didn’t go on. It said something like, “The Beatles were started in…” And at first, thinking they wanted a date, I was worried. Are they counting the Silver Beatles, or the Quarrymen, and didn’t John have a skiffle group that I can’t remember the name of, and when was that?

But the options were: “Liverpool,” “London,” and so forth. I snorted in contempt. Is there anyone on the planet who could not answer that?

But then, the third question was this:

stupid question

Oh, come on! That’s completely illegitimate to any self-respecting fan! That’s not a Beatles album! That’s some stupid repackaging of old songs concocted LONG after the Beatles ceased to be, aimed at people who didn’t already own all those songs on the real albums. Why not offer compilations from K-Tel while you’re at it?

So I stopped right there. Stupid, stupid quiz…

Planned Parenthood chief is already wearing her Halloween costume: Claire Underwood


One of the frustrating things about these danged Interwebs is that it’s now impossible to fool yourself into thinking you’re having an original insight. Especially insights of the more superficial kind.Claire

For instance, lately I’ve been on a roll with seeing people on TV and realizing that they look just like some other person, and thinking I want to do a blog post to share this recognition, and when I check I find that everybody else has noticed the same thing.

For instance… I recently saw Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” and for most of the movie I tried to think who it was that Michael Redgrave looked exactly like. I knew it was another actor, but not a marquee idol by any means. Yet it was someone I had seen a lot of recently. I refused to let myself Google, “Michael Redgrave looks like…,” forcing my brain to work a little, if only on a silly pop culture problem.

Finally, I came up with it: It’s that guy who plays “Littlefinger” on “Game of Thrones,” and Councilman Tommy Carcetti on “The Wire!” That is to say, Irish actor Aiden Gillen. Congratulating myself, I went ahead and did the internet search, and… every other sentient being on the planet had already noticed it.


So it was that when I saw a picture of Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood on my Washington Post app this morning, and thought, “Claire Underwood!,” I thought I was just being perceptive as all get-out. Of course, the vast majority of people, who saw her on TV yesterday, had beaten me all hollow.

Dang yet again. I was all ready to say it looks like somebody already has her Halloween costume on, and other facile manifestations of a feeble wit, and I was too late.


Michael Redgrave

Michael Redgrave

Aiden Gillen

Aiden Gillen


‘Blue Bloods,’ a show that stands up for traditional values, such as… respecting each other


The Reagans, having another civil debate over Sunday dinner.

For years, my parents would ask me if I’d ever seen the cop drama “Blue Bloods,” and when I said I hadn’t, they urged me to check it out. They love it.

Eventually, in casting about this year for a new series to get hooked on after running out of “The West Wing,” I tried it. And I loved it, too, probably for a lot of the same reasons they do. And I’m kind of sad that this morning during my workout, I ran out, watching the last episode that is available so far on Netflix.

Maybe I had to get to be old enough to become a fan. At least back in 2010, “Blue Bloods” had the oldest audience on traditional broadcast television. And when you consider that traditional broadcast TV skews older anyway, that’s really saying something.

Part of it is probably that it bucks the trend, set by shows as varied as “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” — all of which lack so much as a single admirable character to root for. While every recurring character on “Blue Bloods” is human and fallible, each of them has enough to like and respect and even admire that you just want to spend more time with them. I mean, I loved “Breaking Bad,” but sometimes you want to see some people who might inspire you to break good for a change.

Another likely reason for the older audience is that everything about the show, from the central characters to the plots to the dialogue, fosters and celebrates traditional values such as family, loyalty, honor and duty. To some extent, these are the kinds of things I was talking about in 2008 in a column headlined “Give me that old-time conservatism” (as opposed to the kind that people like Mark Sanford and Rand Paul promote).

Oh, and there’s another traditional value the show celebrates: Respect for others, including those who don’t necessarily look at things the way you do.

That observation may be jarring to a lot of the people whose teeth are set on edge when you say “traditional values,” people who would define that as meaning some throwback to the bad old days (many seem to regard old days as bad by definition) when people who didn’t adhere to some norm were despised and put down.

But I don’t see it that way. I see a political environment today that has almost zero tolerance for varying opinions. Today, if you don’t agree with me, you are beyond the pale, a person without value, or worse, a person with negative value, one to be despised and condemned and reviled.

And I can remember when our politics weren’t quite that bad, when Democrats and Republicans were committed opponents, but more in the way fans of different football teams are, rather than as participants in a morality play in which there are only Good People and Bad People.

(Those earlier times had their own problems, of course. As I said on a previous post today, I don’t believe any previous generation was any better, or worse, than this one. People are always people, and each individual has his or her capacities for good and evil. We don’t have a moral advantage based on the time in which we are born.)

One of the ways “Blue Bloods” promotes this value is through the trope of the Sunday family dinner, as traditional an institution as one might find.

To back off and explain briefly — the show centers around the Reagan family. Not Ronald’s, but Frank’s. Frank Reagan, played by Tom Selleck, is the New York city police commissioner. His father, who lives with him (both of their wives are deceased), is the former police commissioner. Frank’s two sons are both cops — Danny a veteran detective, younger Jamie a graduate of Harvard Law School who gave it up to become a beat cop. Another brother was also a cop, but was killed in the line of duty before the show began. Sister Erin is an assistant district attorney.

So, when this clan gathers for Sunday dinner at Frank’s house, with Erin’s daughter and Danny’s wife and two sons, there’s a lot of shop talk, and it tends to center around some ripped-from-the-headlines issues such as police use of force and the like. And there is always a fairly wide array of perspectives, from the cops and Erin, and from Erin’s daughter and Danny’s wife. Danny is the hard case; Jamie is more the bleeding heart and rights-of-the-accused guy and so forth.

And while it gets contentious — in fact, there are dinners when one or another member of the family is giving one or all the cold shoulder over some current issue (say, Erin is at odds with the cops on whether a certain suspect should be prosecuted) — ultimately everyone loves and respects everybody else, and at least gives them the benefit of the doubt enough to listen. Even Danny, the hothead — usually.

But the respect-other-views thing runs through the whole show. Paterfamilias Frank, the commissioner who models himself on predecessor Teddy Roosevelt (right down to the mustache) might have one firm opinion, but the views of others are fairly represented.

I’m far from the only person to notice this. I like the way Mark Blankenship, a blogger at HuffPost, wrote about it when the series was young in 2010. I found this by searching on “Blue Bloods conservative,” to see how others reacted to the series’ traditionalism:

And although it’s never been stated, I’d wager that Danny would identify himself as a political and social conservative. Almost every episode of the show features a dinner table debate among the extended Reagan clan, and Danny always comes down on the ostensibly Republican side. He gets heated when someone suggests that drugs should be legal or that criminals should have inclusive rights, and he often chastises his brother Jamie, who left Harvard Law School to become a beat cop, for being an elite, Ivy League softie who doesn’t know how the real world works. In moments like this, I almost expect Danny to quote Sarah Palin.

But here’s the thing: Unlike the people who bloviate on cable news about their so-called conservative values, I’m actually willing to listen to Danny. His character is written and played with nuance, with flaws, and with admirable traits… so even though I might disagree with some of the things he says or does, I can’t dismiss him as a jerk, a lunatic, or a man who would like to see my rights as a gay man obliterated in the name of what’s good for America.

Meanwhile, that’s almost always how I see conservative candidates and pundits. They play to their base by underlining their most radical views, and their opponents play to me by underlining them, too. I’m left inside a system that boils everyone down, asking me to make quick decisions about right, wrong, good, evil.

And the truth is, it works. I try my damndest to live a thoughtful life, but after years of exposure to Tea Party vitriol, Red State vitriol, and Evangelist vitriol, I almost always assume that Tea Partiers, Red Staters, and Evangelicals wish me harm.

I know this is unfair. I also know that other people jump the same unfair conclusions about me. But I’m a person, you know? I can be influenced.

That’s why I find it almost spiritually refreshing to be presented with a character like Danny Regan, who is so different from me, but who still seems human. I see Danny sit at dinner with his family — some of whom are his political opposites — and I see him, I see all of them, talk to each other and listen to each other. Thus far, no one has changed anyone’s mind, but no one has been shamed away from the table, either.

Blue Bloods, then, has created a world where different points of view can coexist in the same family. How nice to imagine that metaphor spun outward, to imagine different Americans allowing each other space at the table. How nice to imagine people with wildly different views still finding ways to care for each other….

Yes, it is a nice thing to imagine, and I thank “Blue Bloods” for helping us imagine it. I’m sorry I’m out of episodes, and look forward to the most recent season being posted on Netflix as well…

Traditional values: The Reagans, in keeping with the cop stereotype, are Irish Catholic. Interestingly, in early episodes they got the words to the Catholic grace wrong. It was corrected in later episodes.

Traditional values: The Reagans, in keeping with the cop stereotype, are Irish Catholic. Oddly, in early episodes they got the words to the Catholic grace slightly wrong. It was corrected in later episodes.

Tweets from the debate (Kathryn, look away)

debate stage

I know Kathryn hates it when I do this, and most of the rest of y’all just ignore it. But I’m going to post it anyway, because this is how I commented on the debate, and I’m not going to type all this stuff all over again (copying the embed codes over is tedious enough).

Some people liked my comments — I got 13 replies, 17 reTweets, two new follows and 37 favorites. (A little disappointed on the follows — usually I get closer to 10 during such an event with so much interaction.) I didn’t bother to count the Facebook responses (my Tweets automatically post there as well), but it was at least a couple of score.

If running these prompts no discussion, so be it. But at least I made it available to those who don’t indulge in Twitter:

In defense of “The Great Escape”

About a decade or so ago, I persuaded one of my daughters to sit and watch “The Great Escape” with me. My motivation was that I wanted to share something that had been, without a doubt, my favorite movie when I was a kid.

Early on — I think it might have been the scene in which Steve McQueen’s character, Hilts, and his new Scottish friend Ives, are sent to the “cooler” for the first time — my daughter raised an objection: What’s with the light, sprightly music in the background? This is about men at war being held prisoner of the Nazis and risking their lives to escape. They’re being put in solitary confinement, a harsh punishment that can cause lasting psychological damage (and as we soon find out, has pushed Ives to the edge of cracking up). Why the cute music? Why does it seem the actors are playing it for laughs?

She knew that her grandfather had spent the rest of the war in such a camp after being captured in the Ardennes, and it was a sufficiently horrible experience that he never, ever wanted to visit Europe again.

I had never noticed that incongruity, because, well, I had first seen the film at the age of 10, and I thought it was awesome in every way, and had never questioned the out-of-place comical touches that, after all, made watching the film all that much more fun.

I tried to explain that films were different in the ’50s and ’60s — Hollywood tended to sugarcoat everything — and war films especially. The country had this hugely positive feeling about the Second World War, and over the past couple of decades had sanitized it to the point that, to kids of my generation, it looked at times like one great lark. I knew at least in theory of the cost of war — I used to look at those pictures of American bodies in the surf at Normandy and Saipan in the big Time-Life picture books about the war. Still, the fact that the war was something we all felt good about was something I didn’t question. For instance, I watched the film starring Audie Murphy in which he re-enacted the deeds that made him a hero, and nothing that I saw in the film prepared me for what I learned years later — that Murphy had a terrible time with PTSD after the war.

And I knew, by the time my daughter pointed out that problem, that the true story of The Great Escape had definitely received the Hollywood treatment. To begin with, Hilts was complete fiction, and although there were some Americans in the camp, their roles in this escape were fairly marginal. (I think. I’m finding some contradictory info about American David M. Jones.)

Still, even though I know all that, and even though the film doesn’t hold the exalted position that it did in my personal list of favorites, I got a little defensive this morning when I read about the death at 101 of the next-to-last survivor of the escape, Australian Paul Royle. This was the part that got me:

Paul Royle revealed last year on the 70th anniversary of the tunnel escape in March 1944 that he was no fan of the Hollywood interpretation of the story.

“The movie I disliked intensely because there were no motorbikes … and the Americans weren’t there,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp., referring to McQueen’s dramatic bid to outrun the Germans on a motorbike.

Gordon Royle said his father was angry that Hollywood would create an adventure out of soldiers doing their often tedious and dangerous duty of attempting to escape.

“He felt the movie was a glamorization of the tedium and the drabness of the actuality,” Gordon Royle said.

“The idea that they got on a motorbike and soared over a barbed wire fence is far from the reality, which was darkness and cold and terror,” he said….

First, Mr. Royle had a million times greater entitlement to an opinion on the film than I ever will have. That said, allow me to raise some objections to his criticism:

  • True, no Americans were involved in the escape, as they were moved to another part of the camp before the tunnel was ready. However, one author who wrote about the escape notes that earlier, “US airmen watched out for patrolling Germans during the tunnel’s construction.” Marginal, but participation nonetheless.
  • I accept service completely on the fact that Hilts was entirely a fabrication, from his cowboy insouciance to his baseball and glove. But I should point out that if you paid close attention to the film, you’d see that the three Americans depicted as being in the camp were not central to the escape effort, except for Hendley — and he had the fig leaf of technically being in the Canadian air force and therefore not officially an “American.” The fictional Hilts was a complete outsider, playing no part in the X organization. The essentially true story of the escape planned and executed by British officers with a few allied pilots thrown in was clearly told.
  • While the entire story was fictionalized, there was at least some verisimilitude between the central character, Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, and his real-life counterpart, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. Their stories are a fairly close match. Bushell had been captured and tortured by the Gestapo after a previous escape, and had developed an intense hatred of the Nazis by the time he became Big X in Stalag Luft III.
  • The central facts of the plan — the simultaneous digging of three tunnels, named Tom, Dick and Harry, and the discovery of Tom by the Germans — are accurately depicted.
  • The grimness of the experience was there, despite the veneer of jazzed-up adventure. There was Danny’s terror in the tunnel, Ives’ eventually suicidal despair, and the central fact of the murder of the 50 — the men to whom the film is dedicated — by the Gestapo. No reasonable person watching this would conclude that being a POW was fun.

    Ashley-Pitt demonstrates how they'll get rid of the dirt.

    Ashley-Pitt demonstrates how they’ll get rid of the dirt.

  • The film showed only three men making it all the way to freedom, and that’s how many did — even though in the film one of them was Australian, like Mr. Royle, and that was not accurate. (Two were Norwegian and one was Dutch, although all three had flown for the RAF.)
  • The role that Mr. Royle played — distributing dirt from the tunnels by releasing it from bags within his trousers and mixing it into the compound dirt with his feet — was clearly depicted. Although in the film that is most closely associated with naval officer Ashley-Pitt, played by David McCallum (whom our generation would later know as Illya Kuryakin), you see that a large number of men participated in that part of the operation. (And frankly, that’s always been one of the most amazing aspects of the escape to me. It’s astounding that they got away with it. How did the guards not notice something on that scale?)
As a kid, I had this poster on the wall in my room.

As a kid, I had this poster on the wall in my room.

In the end, it’s hard to defend the role Steve McQueen played in the film — except in this convoluted way: His jump over that fence at the Swiss border on that German motorcycle was the most exciting thing I had ever seen in a film to that point in my life, and the one thing that solidified it as my favorite. Yes, it was a complete lie. But it engaged my lifelong interest in the escape, and caused me to read books about the true story later in life.

So in that regard it served a purpose. Although I can easily see how a man who suffered through the actual experience would find it irritating in the extreme, and I’m sorry for that. He certainly has the facts, and all the moral weight, on his side. I just thought I’d speak up for something that meant a lot to me as a kid.

Governor, you should have hired ME to be your chief of staff. I am, after all, Leo McGarry

No, really, I am. I’ve been tested and everything.

I could have been the perfect chief of staff for our governor — the gruff, avuncular, no-nonsense guy who could look at the big picture and speak truth to power.

I suppose this Patel woman will do a fine job and all, but if only the governor had thought of me and known of my impeccable credentials, surely she’d have asked me to do it.

Don’t you think?


All the President’s Songs

Obama playlist

Another pop culture post to get us through the Dog Days…

At first, when I heard President Obama had a personal Summer Playlist on Spotify, I was concerned: Surely they don’t mean this summer — because even if you apply no standards at all, it would seem impossible to glean from current releases enough songs for a playlist that a grown man could stand to listen to. (Unless that grown man is Doug, who claims to have the tastes of a teenage girl — not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

But 2015? I mean, if the summer were 1965, or 1969, or 1971, or 1985, maybe, but not a European swallow (oops, got my pop culture wires crossed there).

That would constitute a painfully obvious, and unconvincing, stab at pandering to the youth vote. And hey, young people today listen to old stuff in a way that would have been inconceivable when I was young. So it would be doubly stupid.

But as it turns out, it’s more of an All Time list (which to us chauvinistic moderns means “last few decades), like the Top Five lists in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Now that’s more like

Here’s the playlist.

It starts strong, with The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” but I’m going to have to take off points for its unfortunate associations with “The Big Chill.” Sorry.

No. 3, “Memories Live” by Reflection Eternal is a fine, non-obvious, more recent track that helps restore some of the cred lost to the Big Chill faux pas.

Then we are rewarded by Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues.” Can’t beat that. Perhaps the clincher for POTUS was this passage:

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a barbell he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken”…

… which of course is a thinly veiled reference to the president’s drone program, exactly 50 years ahead of time. Dylan, the prophet…

That’s followed by some Marley, for those of you who like that sort of thing — and the president, who used to regularly get more than one toke over the line, does — followed by Coldplay, which means little to me beyond its association with a politically incorrect joke in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

Some of the songs are too obvious, such as the Temptations tune. But POTUS redeems himself by choosing “Another Star” to represent Stevie Wonder, instead of, you know, something like “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Although I would have preferred “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” (admittedly, because of its association with the film version of “High Fidelity.”

The Stones are represented, and not, say, The Beatles. Which is cool. But “Gimme Shelter?” No (although I confess that as I hear the guitar intro I feel elevated far above what has preceded it on the list). Completely off-base for a summer playlist. That was on the “Let it Bleed” album, which was released in December 1969, which is why everybody was listening to it that Christmas. Duh. The proper Stones song for a summer list is “Honky-Tonk Women,” which was released in July of the same year, and which I distinctly remember listening to while driving on Hwy 17 between Myrtle Beach and Surfside that summer and thinking, “This is the perfect driving song.” (Since I wasn’t yet 16 and just learning to drive, anything that could be associated with operating a motor vehicle was cool.)

But overall, not a bad effort. If there’s a flaw, it may be that there is too little from recent summers. He could have thrown in a “Call Me Maybe” or “Rolling in the Deep” or “Party Rock Anthem.” But he may have stayed away from them because of their prominent inclusion in another well-promoted summer playlist.

I don’t know. But it’s worth a listen, if only as an alternative way to get into the president’s head. Or, if you want to be cynical, the head of whoever put this together for him…

Nostalgia interrupta: A brief Boomer rant about sampling

I really have nothing to add beyond what I said on Twitter, reflecting a Boomer’s disappointment at almost, but not quite, hearing and seeing things that bring back fond memories — repeatedly:

Here is the first sampling abomination I spoke of, and here is the second.

OK, I will add one thing: To keep my contemporaries from also experiencing nostalgia interrupta, here are the far-more-satisfying originals, including the theme from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E”…

Explaining Donald Trump by looking at Donald Draper — and other fictional ‘mad men’

On this slow news day, The Guardian is giving big play to a fun piece that attempts to explain the appeal of Donald Trump by way of various popular fictional antiheroes:

Last week millions of Americans tuned into a cable program featuring a wealthy white male narcissist with anger management issues, a history of viciousness towards women, and a pervading sense that there’s something amiss in his homeland. But this time the character in question wasn’t Walter White, Don Draper, Tyrion Lannister or Tony Soprano, but instead a real – if strangely orange – human man named Donald Trump. The program Americans so eagerly watched him plow through wasn’t an acclaimed drama, but a presidential debate….

Think about all they have in common – Tyrion’s cynicism and cunning, Don’s scorn for weakness, Tony’s rage, Walter White’s limitless ego. They’re all scoundrels who move through the world with an inordinate amount of swagger, and Americans, going back to 1773, love scoundrels with swagger. We love people who challenge authority and convention and get away with it. Thursday night, when Chris Wallace asked Trump if he thought a man who has declared bankruptcy multiple times was well suited to running the economy of an entire country, Trump’s response was to basically blow a raspberry and brag that he simply exploited the law….

No, I didn’t understand the 1773 reference, either (why not ’75, or ’76?). But never mind.

Interesting. And fun, since I have really, really enjoyed most of those shows.

But here’s the flaw in the idea… I respect all of those fictional characters more than I do Donald Trump. Unlike him, they all have appealing characteristics (WARNING! MULTIPLE-SPOILER ALERT):

"Say my name. And no, it's not Trump!"

“Trump is not the One Who Knocks.”

Walter White at least started out wanting to take care of his family after he was diagnosed with cancer. And he truly, honestly grieved when Hank was killed. So he had some actual human qualities. And he was, you know, smart — his ego was based in something.


I have NO idea why people like Trump.

I have NO idea why people like the guy.

Don Draper has that characteristic that Trump seems to value, although it completely eludes him: class. At least, class as style if not as a moral quality. And occasionally, he is moved to do the right thing, if it doesn’t inconvenience him. He can be virtuous — not all over, but in spots.


Trump on the Iron Throne? Not even I would drink to that.

Trump on the Iron Throne? I need a drink.

Tyrion may be the most virtuous, admirable continuing character on “Game of Thrones,” with the possible exception of Lady Brienne. Admittedly, that’s not a high bar, but he was born into a singularly seamy fictional universe. He is even capable of wit, which distinguishes him rather dramatically from The Donald.


You're comparing me to WHO?

You’re comparing me to WHO?

Tony Soprano, being a brutal, blustering bully, comes closest to Trump. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he demanded that Trump cough up some tribute money for running gambling operations in New Jersey. But Tony is a family man, who cares about his kids and sometimes his wife. He has a human, likable quality — think about it: Would you want to sit and watch Trump’s visits with his shrink (even if she was Dr. Melfi)? I hope not.

No, if you want to find a fictional character who is as thoroughly off-putting as Donald Trump, you have to think Frank Underwood. No, wait: Frank at least is clever, and occasionally borders on being amusing.

I’m afraid the theory doesn’t hold up…

My second favorite moment on ‘The Wire’

I loved the look on Terry D'Agostino's face as McNulty explains that he couldn't be bothered to vote in the presidential election between Bush and what's-his-name. ("Kerry," she says helpfully.)

I love the look on Terry D’Agostino’s face as McNulty explains that he couldn’t be bothered to vote in the presidential election between Bush and what’s-his-name. (“Kerry,” she says helpfully.)

Sorry, but I couldn’t find video to embed of this one.

Previously, I shared my delight at the scene from the first season in which Rawls tries to comfort McNulty, whom he hates, while cussing him out. Wonderful device for deepening the viewer’s sense of these characters. (Later, there is further cause to be sympathetic to Rawls’ dislike of McNulty, as the latter repeatedly shows his disregard for the opinions and prerogatives of other bosses and colleagues.)

I’m in the third season now, and my fave so far is the one in which McNulty and Terry D’Agostino are for once having dinner together before jumping into the sack, and she learns how apathetic he is about politics — which means there will be no jumping into sacks tonight.

As the scene was summarized by HBO:

McNulty, slightly intimidated, has dinner with Theresa D’Agostino in a fancy D.C. restaurant. The more she learns about him — that he only has a year of college under his belt, that he is essentially an apolitical being who doesn’t know the difference between a red state and a blue state and who didn’t even bother to vote in the presidential election — the less interested she is in him. When McNulty takes her home, she doesn’t invite him in…

Yeah, there was some class stuff going on there. But I think she liked his rough edges. The deal-killer, the anti-aphrodisiac for her seemed to be the moment he said he couldn’t be bothered to vote.

I was watching her face, and that was when he lost her. Up to that point, he thought he had a really hot borderline nymphomaniac eating from his hand. As from that instant, I knew Jimmy was out of luck.

I’ve heard SO many people say the dismissive things McNulty was saying about politics. It was refreshing and fun to see such a person pay for his apathy, in terms he could appreciate…


What in the world got into Ben Affleck?

As we wrestle with our own demons and angels here in South Carolina, let’s pause a moment to look away, look away, look away toward Tinsel Town and ponder this puzzling situation:

When Ben Affleck volunteered to be featured on the PBS genealogy program “Finding Your Roots” last year, he was hoping to find “the roots of his family’s interest in social justice.”

Researchers did turn up plenty for the actor-cum-activist to be pleased about: a mother who was a member of the Freedom Riders, an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War.

But they also found Benjamin Cole, a great-great-great grandparent on his mother’s side. Cole was a sheriff in Chatham County, Ga., in the 1850s and ’60s, according to historical documents uncovered by Family History Insider. And he was the “trustee” of seven slaves.

An attempt to cover up that unwanted detail has led PBS to suspend the show, citing Affleck’s “improper influence” on programming…

OK, it looks like the Ben Affleck we all respected for making “Argo” has disappeared, and been replaced by the old Ben Affleck whom everyone made fun of. To paraphrase “Good Will Hunting,” judging by this, our boy is wicked dumb.

This is Hollywood narcissism carried out to the Nth power, the ultimate example of movie star shallowness: He actually expected to be able to congratulate himself with a family tree full of people who held only 21st-century-approved ideas, and led perfect, ideologically correct lives.

Where does this kind of thinking come from? If he volunteered for this self-stroking show (I’ve seen a few minutes of it a couple of times, and come away wondering why anyone but the celebrity himself would care about some celebrity’s great-grandparents), why would he not want his actual ancestry to be revealed? What would be the point?

Folks, I had at least five great-great grandfathers who fought for the Confederacy. One of them owned slaves — possibly others as well, but I only know about this one. Whatever he was like as an individual — and I have no way of really knowing — there is no question that he was of the class that brought us the Civil War. He was a member of the South Carolina General Assembly both before and after the war.

Over the years, I’ve heard all these SCV types, in the midst of their making excuses for the flag, say that their ancestors didn’t own slaves, so don’t blame them. Sometimes I want to say to them, Well, my ancestors did, so why don’t you just hush up and let those of us with standing in this matter try to address the problem?

But I don’t, of course, for fear that that would sound, you know, kinda like I’m looking down on these folks for being from the slaveless classes. Which is more than a little uncool on a number of levels… It’s bad enough that I catch myself looking down on them for being so WRONG. As the Pope says, Who am I to judge?

Here’s the thing: I am in no way complicit in anything that people I never even knew did. You have to be pretty confused to think otherwise. But let’s just say that knowing my ancestry makes the horrendous sin of starting the bloodiest war in our history and committing treason against the nation I love just a bit more real to me.

Are we not put on this Earth to recognize and correct the sins and mistakes of our forebears? Aren’t we supposed to learn from the past, not just bow down to it?

Apparently not, if you’re Ben Affleck.

Why does his silliness bother me? Because he’s doing exactly what these people who defend the flag say that those of us who want it down are doing: Trying to erase the past, to deny it. When applied to those of us who’ve been working to get the flag down all these years, that’s absurd.

But then, some movie star has to go and act exactly the way the neo-Confederates claim the rest of us are acting.

So needless to say, I’m more than a little disgusted…

I know nothing, Jon Snow, about why people think this show is so awesome

I was directed to the above fun video by The New York Times‘ recap of the “Game of Thrones” season finale, which I watched almost in real time, having binge-watched, off and on, all the way from the first season, starting when HBO NOW came available in April.

Here’s that recap, and here’s the one from The Washington Post. Between the two, the NYT one is better, if “better” is defined as “more obsessive and exhaustive.” Although you may be interested that the Post also provides a second recap by someone who has actually read the books. (Must be nice to work at a paper that can afford to pay two writers to watch a TV show and go on and on about it. For that matter, it must be nice to still work at a paper.)

Now, SPOILER ALERT, in case any of y’all still haven’t gotten to that episode.

Some observations based on the latest, and for that matter the whole series:

  • As the NYT observes, no more awkward dinner parties for Jon Snow. Which brings me to the key point about all this to me: From Ned Stark to his bastard son, this is not a series that I can ever love, because it will capriciously and sadistically kill anyone I am capable of having any admiration for at all. Although Brienne is still around. I think.
  • And speaking of Brienne, why didn’t we get to see her kill Stannis, who so richly deserves it? This series now ranks in my mind as the most obscene in history. The very fact that anyone could even conceive of what happened to Stannis’ precious daughter, and then go ahead and depict it, sends my mind careening off into the darkness. Why, when we are “treated” to all kinds of graphic violence committed against far more admirable characters, are we cheated of the satisfaction of knowing for sure that this pretentious monster is dead?
  • And speaking of pretension: Where are we supposed to grab ahold of this series politically (seeing as how what it is about is people maneuvering for political power)? Where are we supposed to stand? We know that, under the monarchical rules of succession, Stannis was indeed the rightful heir — but who ever rooted for him for even a moment in the course of this series? So who are we supposed to want to win the game?
  • This season was at least a tad less adolescent than others, with fewer shots of gorgeous young female nudity. As though to make up for that, in the final episode Cersei is stripped naked and made to walk through the streets of King’s Landing for about a week and a half of screen time — although it’s fake, because they used a body double. And sorry, Beavis and Butthead, but there’s really nothing sexual about the scene. You remember when Jerry Seinfeld explained the difference between “good naked” and “bad naked”? Well, this was bad naked.
  • Whatever happened to Bran Stark? You know, the kid we thought we were supposed to care so much about ever since the Kingslayer tossed him from the battlements in the very first episode of the series? I mean, he reached the end of his quest, had a mind-expanding experience (I think, but it’s been awhile), and then, nothing. He was last seen north of the Wall, where a good bit of this season’s action takes place, but no Bran. I looked it up and got an explanation, but it’s still weird.
  • When, pray tell, does winter get here? For five seasons, we’ve been told it’s coming; it’s coming. Characters in the vicinity of The Wall always make like their running just half a step ahead of it. And we’re also led to believe that in this alternative universe, when it comes it will last for years. Well, it’s been five years since we were told to bundle up; where is it?
  • How long does it take a Khaleesi to gather up her dragons, cross over to Westeros and start sorting these clowns out? Hasn’t that been the plan since the first season? She seemed to be doing well there for awhile, gathering up resources and gaining power on her way to the sea, but then she takes yet another city, and stops there and gets all bogged down in local politics. Here she had this awesome fighting force, advancing with Tarquin’s ravishing strides, and then… she takes up residence in a pyramid and lets the Unsullied wear themselves out rumbling with the local hoodlums. What’s the plan here, Mother of Dragons? What does policing Meereen have to do with taking back the Seven Kingdoms? Talk about mission creep…

That’s enough for now; I’m sure y’all have plenty of other stuff to say.

Bottom line: I watched this to find out what everybody was on about, and it was intriguing enough to keep me going to the present point. But it’s not as compelling as many people seem to think it is, and in many ways is quite flawed. It’s no “Breaking Bad,” or even a “Mad Men” or “Walking Dead.” It doesn’t come close to “The Wire,” and no way does it measure up to “The Sopranos,” HBO’s proudest achievement in fictional drama to date.

That’s my verdict, anyway.

The Golden Age of Television Overload

Good riddance to you both! Now can I have my life back for awhile? And could somebody turn up the lights?

Good riddance to you both! Now can I have my life back for awhile? And could somebody turn up the lights?

Pope Francis recently disclosed that he hasn’t watched television since 1990. Which means he’s like way behind on “Game of Thrones.” Among other things.

I’m beginning to think His Holiness is onto something. I’m feeling… a bit out of control with my own binge-watching lately. Wouldn’t I be a better person — more productive, more attuned to the needs of those around me — if I stopped watching Netflix, HBO NOW, the downstairs TV, the upstairs TV, the Roku, the Apple TV, the iPad and on very rare occasions, actual broadcast television?

The Pope has enough on his plate keeping up with matters relating to this world and the next, much less Westeros and all those other fictional universes out there.

Today, the front of the Arena section of The Wall Street Journal raises the question, “How Many TV Series Can Your Brain Take?” An excerpt:

“Game of Thrones,” which will leave multiple story lines dangling for a year with Sunday’s season finale, is notorious for befuddling even ardent fans with its many clans, lands and simmering subplots. But it’s just one of many shows taxing the memories of audiences who have been flooded with complex story lines and crowded character ensembles.

“Orange Is the New Black,” which returns Friday for a third season on Netflix, uses more than 20 characters to populate a fictional women’s prison with inmates and staff. On “Orphan Black,” finishing its third season on BBC America this month, lead actress Tatiana Maslany plays six different characters, all clones, in a sci-fi conspiracy story. New viewers have to absorb dense mythologies if they hope to jump aboard returning shows such as CBS’s summer series “Under the Dome,” which, in its coming third season, might finally explain why a bubble is encasing the town of Chester’s Mill.

The deluge of compelling shows means fans have to be good at time management to keep up with the best offerings. But they also are grappling with the limits of memory. How many shows (and knotty plots and twisting character arcs within) can we keep track of at once? In a binge-watching world, where we aren’t limited to weekly installments of network TV shows, is there a limit to the number of narratives we can keep straight?

Actually, I don’t think that frames the question correctly. Binge-watching doesn’t cause the problem of having trouble keeping up. What I find is that failing to binge-watch makes it harder to know what’s going on.

Dramatic series are written for binge-watchers, not for people who watch an episode, walk away and lead real lives, then come back in a week or more to try to pick up the thread again. That is part of what makes the new breed of shows so absorbing — they pull you into a complicated world, and if you can’t stay there until the season (at least) is over, you’re likely to be disoriented when you return.

For instance — when the third season of “House of Cards” came out several months back, I did what I had with the first two seasons. I started watching to see what everybody was talking about, then got fed up with it and quit, and then, when curiosity built up enough, came back and pushed through the rest of it.

SPOILER ALERT! Consequently, when I saw the season finale the other night, I was somewhat at a loss: Why was Claire leaving Frank? Yeah, they had been slightly weirder together the last few episodes — which means five percent more than their usual standard, which is creepy as all get-out. But what precipitated this blow-up? Surely nothing that had happened recently had showed her anything she didn’t know about her husband. Not to mention that she’s no bargain herself on the decent-person scale.

If I’d watched it all straight through, I think I might have a good feel for it. But as things stand, I don’t.

Not that it matters, right?

Last year, David Carr wrote in The New York Times about the problem of “Barely Keeping Up in TV’s New Golden Age.” I could really identify:

The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. I am not alone. Even as alternatives proliferate and people cut the cord, they are continuing to spend ever more time in front of the TV without a trace of embarrassment.

I was never one of those snobby people who would claim to not own a television when the subject came up, but I was generally more a reader than a watcher. That was before the explosion in quality television tipped me over into a viewing frenzy….

And what a feast. Right now, I am on the second episode of Season 2 of “House of Cards” (Netflix), have caught up on “Girls” (HBO) and am reveling in every episode of “Justified” (FX). I may be a little behind on “The Walking Dead” (AMC) and “Nashville” (ABC) and have just started “The Americans” (FX), but I am pretty much in step with comedies like “Modern Family” (ABC) and “Archer” (FX) and like everyone one else I know, dying to see how “True Detective” (HBO) ends. Oh, and the fourth season of “Game of Thrones” (HBO) starts next month.

Whew. Never mind being able to hold all these serials simultaneously in my head, how can there possibly be room for anything else? So far, the biggest losers in this fight for mind share are not my employer or loved ones, but other forms of media….

I think back to a time before all this. Say, the ’80s. In that whole decade, I can remember watching only one dramatic series on television that in any way compares to the shows I’m juggling now: “Hill Street Blues.” There was that, and maybe “Cheers” — both on the same network on the same night. I was very, very busy with a demanding job in the daytime and a family full of young children at night, and entertainment wasn’t high on my list — which made the lack of high-quality options a good match for my lifestyle. And “Hill Street” was written for people who only visited that world weekly. There were continuing story lines, but everything was episodic. One episode held you for a week.

Lately, I’m juggling, off and on:

  • Blue Bloods” — My only current show written in that old fashioned episodic form, and the only one coming from commercial broadcast television. But I’m watching it the new way. I had never seen it before a couple of months ago, when I started the first season on Netflix. It’s the perfect length for a workout on the elliptical. I’m not quite as obsessed with it as I was with “The West Wing” last year, but I do like it.
  • Foyle’s War” — Watching this on two temporal streams. We just finished the current season of new ones on PBS last night. Meanwhile, we’re almost done with the previous seasons on Netflix.
  • Game of Thrones” — ALMOST caught up. I’ve got one more episode to watch (last week’s) before this Sunday’s season finale. And I’ll be glad to be done with it for awhile. I wanted to be up on the cultural phenomenon, and now I almost am. I don’t find it very satisfying.
  • The Wire” — The best of the lot right now. I’m trying not to spend it all at once. I’m past the halfway mark in the second season.
  • Orange is the New Black” — We were really into this, but my wife and I sort of lost interest during the second season, and didn’t get more than a few episodes into it. With the new season out today, will we get back into it? I don’t know.
  • Daredevil” — Probably the best adaptation of a Marvel franchise ever to appear on television. I’ve only got one episode left in the Netflix season, still waiting to see him in the red superhero costume. The series is taking the origins thing at a stately pace.
  • True Detective” — Got started on this and got sidetracked. Want to finish the season before the new one comes out.
  • Mad Men” — Lost interest a couple of seasons back. There’s just so much moral vacancy one can take. But my wife and daughter say the last season was as good as the early ones, so I’m going to take it back up soon.
  • The Walking Dead” — Haven’t watched it in months, but I do want to get back to it and catch up. I just want to know one thing before I do: Daryl doesn’t die, does he?
  • Justified” — It’s as good as some of my friends here say, but since the only way I can see it is on DVDs from Netflix, I only get back to it periodically. I’m only up to the second or third episode in the second season.
  • Better Call Saul” — Since we don’t get AMC (the only station I miss from cutting back on cable), I bought the season on iTunes when it first came out. So since I paid for it, I really must get back to it and watch the rest of the season at some point. It’s good, but it’s not as compelling as “Breaking Bad.” I’ve just got this investment in it.

It’s over now, but for a few weeks there, we were really into “Wolf Hall” — which we’d watch on Apple TV the night after each episode’s release, because I didn’t want to stay up past 11 on Sunday night. (One good thing about this — it forced me to go ahead and finish reading Bring Up the Bodies in order to stay ahead of the show — which I shoved aside The Guns of August in order to push through.)

Meanwhile, it seems that Netflix releases a new series daily, and some of them are bound to be good. It’s just ridiculous.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to read The Guns of August, a really compelling history book, for months. But if I read a chapter in a sitting, it’s unusual. And it was interrupted first by the trip to Thailand, and then by Bring Up the Bodies. Mostly, it’s a couple of pages over dinner. And talk about losing track of characters and story lines — of course, books are supposed to be that absorbing and complex. TV never was before.

Yeah, it’s true, and it’s appalling: I’ve only finished on new book so far this year.

The Pope has the right idea. I just need to summon the self-discipline…

"Daredevil:" Matt Murdock still hasn't fully donned his superhero persona.

“Daredevil:” Matt Murdock still hasn’t fully donned his superhero persona.

Best scene from ‘The Wire’ (so far in my watching)

Rawls McNulty

Excuse me for writing about another show that’s been off the air for years (like “The West Wing”), but hey, we’re in a new TV world, in which when something was on the air is pretty much irrelevant. Today, you see a show for the first time when you see it.

And I just wanted to share the best scene I’ve encountered on “The Wire.” It was in episode 11 of the first season, titled “The Hunt.” (I’m now on the second episode of the second season.) YouTube won’t let me embed it, but you can see it here.

Even if you haven’t watched the show at all, you can sort of appreciate it with a little setup, if you can abide the intense, concentrated, rapid-fire use of cusswords — which is so over the top that it adds a slightly comic touch to this deadly serious scene. But you don’t want your kids hearing it. Or your parents.

Anyway, the anguished guy in the muted red polo shirt with blood on his face is Jimmy McNulty, the protagonist — a singularly insubordinate, know-it-all cop who is extremely upset because a colleague and friend just got shot. This is the first time you’ve ever seen McNulty at a loss, doubting himself. The guy in the suit “consoling” him is his erstwhile boss, the head of homicide, who — as you may notice — hates McNulty’s guts. And not just in the usual, cliched, “I’m tired of defending your shenanigans to the commissioner” way that we’re accustomed to in ranking cops on TV.

And yet, in his own furious, about-to-blow-his-stack way, he’s trying to make McNulty feel better. And does so pretty effectively.

Interesting leadership style. Impressive, yet… do you really want this guy as your boss?

Capt. Furillo

Capt. Furillo

In the early 80s, when I was in my first management position, running the news coverage of a small daily in Tennessee, I used to watch Captain Frank Furillo on “Hill Street Blues” and aspire to be exactly that kind of firm-but-fair, graceful-under-fire boss that he was.

But Capt. Furillo was a Sunday-School teacher compared to this guy, who makes you re-evaluate the whole tough-but-fair thing.

Anyway, I love it when a scene tells you something new and unexpected about a character in a way that is completely believable (instead of the contrived way that is too common on most TV shows — see “24”).

Good writing, good direction, great acting.

Thoughts on the end of David Letterman’s 33-year run?

Just thought I’d put this up in case anyone had any observations about the close of David Letterman’s extraordinary 33-year run.

Personally, I didn’t see the last show, but I did read this blow-by-blow description of it.

And in fact, I didn’t see him all that much over the years, either. When he started out, I was already a dad with young kids and a pretty intense job that started at 7 a.m. every weekday.

But I’ve seen him enough to appreciate his brand of humor, which one of my favorite books of the 80s, “The Catalog of Cool,” described (I think; I don’t have my copy at hand) as “Perry Como on mescaline.” (Actually, according to a Google search, that description may have come from TIME magazine.)

The Top Ten List. Stupid Pet Tricks. Paul and the band. There’s a lot to remember. Share, if you’re inclined to…

Gender aside, who would YOU rather see on the $20 bill?

After reading this piece by the wonderfully named Feminista Jones, arguing that putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill would actually undermine her legacy, I got to thinking: Who would I rather see on the double sawbuck in place of Andrew Jackson?

I mean, you know, demographics aside. Me not being all that big on identity politics and all.

The simple answer is “just about anybody,” including Harriet Tubman and whoever the also-rans were behind her in the Women on 20s contest.

Jackson’s not my fave president. I’ve always sort of seen his electoral victory over the vastly more qualified John Quincy Adams as a moment, if not the moment, when American politics went off the rails. I mean, good one on the Battle of New Orleans (even though the war was over), but just not one of the greats, to my way of thinking. Also, Davy Crockett was my hero when I was a pre-schooler, and Davy (who split with Jackson over the Trail of Tears), if anything, thought less of him than I do.

So whom would I pick to replace him? This is an occasion for another Top Five List:

  1. John Adams — My favorite Founding Father. I have long believed that history gave him short shrift. Everybody remembers Jefferson for writing the Declaration of Independence. But there would have been no declaration without Adams. He’s the guy who tirelessly rammed it through the Continental Congress, while Jefferson sat there like a bump on a log. In fact, it’s likely that it was Adams’ decision to have Jefferson draft the actual document, because he knew the Virginian had a way with words. But Adams was far more the author of our liberty than Jefferson. You say Washington is the Father of our Country? Well, Adams was the one who set him up to become that, by pushing him as the guy to lead our army. For that matter, Adams was the one who proposed that there be a Continental Army to begin with. Then there were his significant contributions as a diplomat in Paris and London during and after the war, which did a lot to make our victory possible. Sure, his presidency wasn’t anything to brag on, but you don’t even have to have been a president to be on a bill. Ask Franklin and Hamilton.
  2. Franklin D. Roosevelt — Led us through the greatest crises in our history, outside of the Civil War — and Lincoln’s already on the five. And he did it with such elan. Who else in our history could have bucked us up and kept us going through the ’30s and early ’40s? No one. And yeah, he’s already on the dime, but he still comes in second — or even first, making Adams second — on my list.
  3. Martin Luther King — After you mention Lincoln and Roosevelt, whose spoken words stirred the American spirit with more power? He inspired us to be the kind of country we always meant to be. We’re still working on that, and he still inspires us.
  4. Harriet Tubman — For all the reasons she won the recent competition to come up with a woman to put on the list. And not just because she’s a twofer — y’all know I don’t go in for such things. Did I ever tell you that when my wife spent a year up in Pennsylvania with our youngest daughter, while the daughter was training at a ballet school, they lived in an antebellum house that had been part of the Underground Railroad? True story. So I must confess to that personal connection.
  5. John Glenn — I’ve always found the first American to orbit the Earth one of the more admirable people of my lifetime. Also, I wanted to have at least one surprise nominee in my five, and Bryan got me to thinking again today about how much I love “The Right Stuff.” And while he’s a nonpresidential nominee, he was my favorite candidate in 1984, even though he didn’t make it. Godspeed, John Glenn.

Whom would you choose?


A musical interlude, with Puddles Pity Party

Just a little change of pace. My younger son alerted me over the weekend to the oeuvre of Puddles Pity Party, the band fronted by Puddles, the 6-foot-8 clown with the powerful voice.

Don’t know what to say about it, exactly. I just… sort of enjoyed the weirdness. Even though I don’t like clowns…

I was particularly attracted to the selection of the song to cover. “Royals.” When my grandson was just over a year old, he was obsessed with this song. He kept asking to see the original video on one screen or another. He called it “ah-ooh,” which was how he interpreted the sound made by background singers. (I think they’re saying “I’ll rule; I’ll rule…”)

Here’s Puddles doing another fave, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”