Category Archives: Television

NO, I’m not watching TV all day. Are YOU?

live tv

I’ve never been fond of “man-on-the-street” interviews. I prefer “people-who-know-what-they’re-talking-about” interviews. Guess that makes me an elitist. That, and… other stuff.

Anyway, this morning on NPR — I think it was on “The Takeaway” — there was this long string of short clips of Real People answering the question of whether they’d be watching the impeachment hearings on TV today. As usual, I could only take so much of it before switching it off.

If I remember correctly, most of the Real People were not planning to watch the hearings. (Actually, I just went back to check, and all of the ones I heard said that. There was a string of people who said “yes” after that, but I had turned off the radio before they came on.)

Presumably, I was supposed to be interested in their reasons for watching or not watching, as though there would be something edifying in these reasons, as though I would be somehow wiser for having heard the usual comments like “I’ve made up my mind,” “It’s all a partisan farce,” “I have a life,” etc.

And I’m thinking, Who can sit and listen to TV all day — TV about ANYTHING? And moreover, who on Earth would WANT to?

Or NEED to in order to be an informed citizen? I take in news and analysis from quite a few competent professional services every day. I’ll get all the information I need from those sources. (Unlike the president, I trust professionals to do their job — and I know if one slips up in doing it, the next one will fill in that gap.) If — and this seems doubtful — I feel the need to watch a portion of the testimony, to get intonation or whatever, I can go back and find and watch it with little trouble. In fact, I most likely won’t even have to look for it, because so many sources will be throwing the clip at me.

So in other words, the Real Person who sounded most like me was the one who said he would not be watching, but “I will pay close attention to the media recaps.”

Which will give you more than anyone needs to know. In fact, you’ll have to scan the whole mess with skill, discernment and alacrity if you’re going to get anything else done that day.

So who’s watching? And why?

the room

Shakespeare without the Shakespeare? Why?

Promotional image from "The King."

Promotional image from “The King.”

So I clicked on this new movie on Netflix called “The King,” curious to know which king. The promo blurb gave me a clue:

Yesterday, he was a drunken fool. Today, he’s king…

Sounds like Henry V, right? Well, it is.

And here’s the weird thing about it… I watched a few minutes, and rather than being some historical Henry V freshly drawn from independent sources — or fantastical one drawn from the writer’s imagination — it’s basically (so far) the Hal from the plays (I say “plays,” plural, because I can’t recall which bits are in the Henry IV plays, and which in “Henry V.” I’m especially mixed up for having watched “The Hollow Crown” straight through.). It even has Falstaff in it, a fictional character invented by Shakespeare. I haven’t watched long enough to see whether Doll Tearsheet is mentioned.

So, it’s “Henry V,” only with no iambic pentameter. In other words, a wonderful play, without the thing that makes it wonderful.

You know, sometimes I feel like I get popular culture, and I really get into it, but other times I don’t. This is one of the other times…

Anyway, here’s a dose of the real thing:

Remembering my fave ‘Downton Abbey’ trailer

Recently, it has seemed as though I can’t watch a vid on YouTube without first having to see at least part of a trailer for the “Downton Abbey” movie.

At least, it was that way for awhile.

Anyway, today something made me remember my favorite “Downton Abbey” trailer of all time — the one SNL did imagining how the show would be promoted if it appeared on the now-defunct Spike TV. A sample from the voiceover:

It’s about a bunch of honkeys who live in a church — or maybe a museum — either way, they don’t got WiFi…. There’s a MILF and a dad, and they’ve got three daughters named ‘Hot,’ ‘Way Hot’ and…’The Other One.’ And they all hang out with this old lady that looks like a chicken.”

Yeah, it’s lowbrow humor, and not overly respectful of the best character of all, the Dowager Countess. But it cracked me up at the time. And back then, I actually watched “Downton”… (I stopped doing so when they killed off a main character in a way that I thought was particularly emotionally manipulative.)

OK, Ken Burns, what about The Band?

The_Band_(1969)

First, I may have just missed it. I may have left the room for a minute during one of the episodes of Ken Burns’ series on country music, and maybe my guys were mentioned then. So if that happens, I’ll back away while quoting Emily Litella: “Never mind…”

But all through this series, night after night, I keep hoping that The Band, possibly my favorite musical act of all time, will make an appearance.country rock

You may say, “But The Band isn’t a country group!” And you could have a point, although Wikipedia lists “country rock” as one of its genres (see screenshot at right). And if you click on “country rock,” you get Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt — all of whom show up in one way or another in the series thus far.

In fact, one of the great things about the series is the way it explores multiple ways that country overlaps and interacts with other genres. But The Band gets ignored. I mean, come on — there’s a long, lingering, detailed examination of the recording of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s epic album, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which is fine — but couldn’t they have spared a minute or two of that for my guys?

One of the reasons this bugs me is that, loving The Band as I do, I’ve always wanted to understand its musical roots (and yes, “roots rock” is another way it’s described) better. I mean, what sort of song is “The Weight?” It feels… western… but in some mystical, dreamlike, maybe even surreal way. I see the “Nazareth” in which the action takes place as a dusty, tumbleweed-littered place that’s on its way to becoming a ghost town. And the characters — Fanny, ol’ Luke, Miss Moses, young Annalee, and of course Crazy Chester — sound like Western characters. Or country characters. Or country-western characters.

And if “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Rockin’ Chair,” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” don’t explore country themes, what does? (And that’s all from one album.) Of course, they also explore… some other stuff that I can’t put my finger on, but which makes The Band unique.

Yeah, I know, you can’t mention everything, but I thing The Band deserves at least a nod or two.

Oh, and another thing: Where’s Creedence?

I thought Ken Burns was going to explain Trump to me…

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I’m basing this on the narration from the very beginning of the first episode of his new series about country music.

You hear Peter Coyote say:

Most of all, its roots sprang from the need of Americans, especially those who felt left out and looked-down-upon, to tell their stories…

Which sounds to me like the very words used over and over to explain Trump voters.

And since I’ve never understood that phenomenon, and never fully appreciated country music, either, I was thinking this would be a doubly educational experience for me. Lessons I needed to learn.

I’ve often felt kind of bad about the fact that I’m often on the opposite side of issues from everyday, working-class, less-educated folk, and I’ve always worried about the extent to which my strong objections to the things they like is based in some sort of class snobbishness. I always conclude that no, that’s not it — I have very good reasons to reject, say, flying the Confederate flag at the State House, or video poker, or the state lottery.

Or Donald Trump. But as much as I explain my revulsion objectively and analytically, there’s also that voice in my head that keeps saying, But can’t they see how TACKY he is!?!

And that makes me feel a bit guilty.

But just a bit.

Anyway, this series isn’t over yet, and I still hope for a revelation that helps me understand both country music and populism.

I’m ever hopeful…

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If you don’t like ‘The West Wing,’ who cares what you think?

If you don't like 'The West Wing,' you don't like America.

If you don’t like ‘The West Wing,’ you don’t like America.

Saw this in the Post this morning. The headline grabbed me: “A modest defense of ‘The West Wing’.”

First, it grabbed me because I’ll read anything about “The West Wing.” Ask Google; it knows this, based on the items it keeps showing me. Second, it grabbed me because someone thought it necessary to defend “The West Wing.” Finally, my mind was boggled by the idea that someone who thought it needed defending would would do so only modestly.

As I said on Twitter:

So anyway, I read the piece, and was not mollified. You can tell why from the subhed: “The show was not perfect, but it’s way better than 2019 Democrats remember it.”

Not perfect? Say, whaaaat?

First, my scorn was engaged because the people who criticize the show are apparently the kids who think AOC is cool, and conventional postwar liberalism sucks. They’re the ones who have no tolerance of anyone who disagrees with them about anything. They look forward to getting 50 percent plus 1 so they can cram their policy proposals down the world’s throat, and they blame their elders for having thus far failed to do that. They’re the ones who, laughably, think they discovered social justice and are qualified to lecture people who were alive in the ’60s about it.

They’re the ones who…

… minor digression here…

I’ve been watching the new Ken Burns series about country music, and thinking about writing about it, pondering what I like and don’t like about it (for instance, it concerns me that it only seems interested in Country as an economic phenomenon, starting with the first practitioners to have success with radio and recording, largely ignoring the centuries of folkways that went before). But before writing about it, I was curious what others were thinking. So when I saw there was a review on Slate, I eagerly read it.

The reviewer also has a problem with it. The problem is that it’s made by Ken Burns, “and his compulsion to transform conflict and difficulty into visions of reconciliation and unity is vintage white baby boomer liberalism.”

Oh, give it a rest, kids. That constitutes an argument?

Anyway, it’s people like that with whom the writer in the Post is remonstrating, oh, so gently.

And again, it needs no defense. The only question is, is “West Wing” the greatest TV show ever, or does something else edge it out?

I come down on the side of “greatest ever.” Or at least, greatest drama. Or at least, greatest drama ever in the last 20 years, this Golden Age.

As I said before, the Top Five are:

  1. “The West Wing”
  2. “Band of Brothers”
  3. “The Sopranos”
  4. “The Wire”
  5. “Breaking Bad”

At least, those were the Top Five, back in June. Since then, Bryan got me to start watching “Friday Night Lights,” and I’m really enjoying it (in spite of the, you know, football theme) during my morning workouts on the elliptical. In fact, I’m now in the middle of the 5th season, and sorry that it will be ending soon.

When it does, I’ll report back on whether it makes the Top Five. But I’ll tell you, “Breaking Bad” may be in trouble…

But will it make the Top Five?

It’s great, and I’m really digging it, but will it make the Top Five?

Top Five TV Dramas of this Golden Age

'Long as I got a job, you got a job; you understand?'

‘Long as I got a job, you got a job; you understand?’

I don’t know why I just ran across this a week or two ago. The piece ran in the NYT back in January. But for some reason I saw a Tweet about the list just days after the end of “Game of Thrones.” And to me, that made now a better time for pondering such a list than several months ago. Since everyone speaks of GoT as such a landmark and all…

Anyway, the headline was “The 20 Best TV Dramas Since ‘The Sopranos’.” It represents the consensus of three TV writers. (Consensus. I like that about it. That’s how we made decisions on the editorial board. Not enough decisions are made that way. It’s a great process.)

It’s a pretty good list. Of course, it contains a number of shows I’ve never seen, so I can’t judge whether they deserve to be on the list: “The Shield,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Veronica Mars,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Adventure Time,” “Enlightened”… hang on…. I just realized that I’ve never seen well over half the list.

That’s all right. Some of us are not paid to watch TV and write about it. Some of us are just people living our lives in a certain time and place and looking around us and occasionally trying to make some sense out of the tiny slices of existence we have time to experience.

Anyway, I have a snobbish disdain for Top Twenty lists. They lack discipline. They are promiscuous and indiscriminate. I continue to believe that Nick Hornby’s Top Five system represents perfection. You have to work at it. You have to choose. You have to be ruthless, and let the also-rans fall by the wayside, gnashing their teeth. You have to have standards, and stick with them.

On a couple of points, I’m right there with the NYT writers. On others, I have to wonder where they’ve been, or at least what they’re thinking. Anyway, here’s my list:

  1. The West Wing” — No surprise there, right? It topped the NYT list, too. And in describing why, Margaret Lyons admits that yeah, it’s a fantasy, “a fantasy about caring… because you’re my guys, and I’m yours, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” Or as Leo said, long as I got a job, you got a job. It’s about much more than that — the people care not only about each other, but about Things That Matter — but that’s an important part of it. When I went to work for the campaign, I told James I wanted to be a part of something again with a bunch of people who cared about things. Like on “The West Wing.” Go ahead and mock me. I was perfectly serious, and I’m glad I got that chance. Not everyone does.
  2. Band of Brothers” — This didn’t fit into the parameters of the NYT list, because they defined a series as something meant to go more than one season. But before I saw “The West Wing,” this was unquestionably the best thing I’d ever seen on television. I knew it would be that back before it existed, when I was toying with the idea of writing a letter to Spielberg and Hanks to suggest it (but I didn’t have to; I guess after they connected with Steven Ambrose it was just that obvious). And of course, aside from being wonderfully acted and directed and crafted, it was a story that mattered.
  3. The Sopranos” — This is a guilty pleasure, probably the ultimate example of that phenomenon in the annals of TV. It represents sort of the opposite of the first two, which are about good and decent and admirable people who care about the right things and are willing to work and sacrifice for them. The Sopranos is more typical of the serious Golden Age dramas, in that it lacks a moral center or characters to admire or regard as heroes. But it was supremely engaging, and again we’re talking craftsmanship. I have debates with my wife about this, which she always wins. She asks why time should be spent on stories and characters completely lacking in redeeming qualities, and I reply that it’s so well done! Which is a vapid answer, I know, but I’m a sucker for things that are done well…
  4. The Wire” — Best thing about the NYT feature is that the bit about The Wire is in the words of actor Michael K. Williams. You know: “Omar coming!” This series had a lot of contemptible characters in it, too, but you cared about so many of them, from soulful snitch Bubbles to the infuriatingly self-destructive McNulty to the Greek-tragedy labor leader Frank Sobotka. This was a work of fiction with hugely ambitious journalistic aspirations: This season is about drugs in the projects; this one is about the dead-end life on the docks; this one is about Baltimore public schools; this one is about city politics; this one is about the newspaper. And it really worked.
  5. Breaking Bad” — This was the hardest to watch, but I had to keep watching. It gave me something of a complex. I’d watch it at night after my wife had gone to bed — again, not her thing and I love her for that — and after another hour of Walter White’s traumatic slide into evil, I’d slip into the dark bedroom feeling guilty, as though I were the one building a drug empire and lying to my family about it. I think I half expected my wife to wake up and say, “Why do you have two cell phones?” or “Who’s Jesse Pinkman?” That’s how deeply the show implicated me in Walter’s evil madness. Which was not fun, and probably the main reason I haven’t rewatched the whole thing since it ended. I mean, I “lived through it” once, and that was enough…

So that’s it. Two that are about honor and courage and decency, two that are sordid as all get-out, and one — “The Wire” — that hovers between the two, although leaning toward the sordid.

The NYT writers allowed themselves a “Toughest Omissions” list, so I will, too:

  • Firefly” — Was it a drama? Was it comedy? Was it fantasy? I don’t know, but it was awesome, and I can’t believe those gorram network people cancelled it before the first season was even over. The only funny, heartwarming, witty, inventive show about space cowboys in the history of the medium. But even if there were a hundred such, this would have been the best one.
  • The Walking Dead” — I was determined I was never going to watch this, but one of my kids talked me into trying it and I was hooked. For awhile. I finally got to the point that it was no longer watchable for me. That happened in that hopeless episode in which Rick and the rest were captured by the Saviors, at the end of the sixth season. I don’t know what happened after that.
  • Barry” — I’m just trying to be topical, since this is newer than anything else on the list. As long as I still had HBO NOW for watching “Game of Thrones” (which you’ll notice does not make my list), I went ahead and finished the second season of this show about a hit man who wants to be an actor. I may sign back up when the third season comes out. This is worth watching for NoHo Hank if for nothing else. There’s also Stephen Root. And Bill Hader’s always great.
What, no Honey-Nut?

What, no Honey-Nut?

An Open Thread on the end of Game of Thrones

Burning the Iron Throne: An unusually subtle move, coming from a dragon.

Burning the Iron Throne: An unusually subtle move, for an angry, bereaved dragon.

Over the last couple of weeks, as we waited for the finale, I read a bunch of stuff written by people with serious perspective issues. So it is that my favorite thing written so far about the last episode is this:

It’s likely you’re already aware of the dissatisfaction with the conclusion tweeted hither and yon — six weeks of nitpicking complaints, first-class nerd whining and an ungodly amount of postgame analyses. Consider all those hastily posted diatribes or that pointless online petition with a million deluded signatures on it, demanding (demanding!) to have Season 8 scrubbed and remade. In some ways, “Game of Thrones” had grown so popular that it made its viewers look embarrassingly out of touch with life itself.

This can only happen when we love our popular culture a little too hard, crossing some line of personal investment, forgetting when a TV show is only just that. It was our fault for coming to regard the show as the apogee of the medium itself. It’s also why I’m glad some unnamed, unwitting hero left a coffee cup in the camera shot in the episode that aired May 5. That one coffee cup humanized the whole endeavor. It reminded us that a TV show, no matter how absorbing, is a folly, a fake, a job that someone is hired to do, so that an HBO subscription can be sold to you. The coffee cup will be scrubbed away with a quick flick of magic technology; but before it’s entirely gone, I hope they give it an Emmy….

Absolutely. And the plastic water bottle should at least get a nomination.

I hereby go on record as being one of the few who are satisfied with the ending, and happy to move on. About the only criticism I agree with was the rushed nature of the last two seasons. I guess it was just really hard making episodes that went beyond the original books, and this was all the show runners had in them. But it did make the tying up of loose plot threads seem a bit too hurried. Maybe if it had taken more time — say, the usual 10 episodes per season — there’d be less dissatisfaction out there.

Of course, while I am satisfied, I do have a few questions, objections and observations remaining. Here are some of them, in no particular order (SPOILER ALERT):

  1. So how many troops did Dany have? Raise your hand if, like me, you thought the Dothraki were wiped out in that ill-advised charge (the Red Woman lit up their sickles, and they just went bananas — they were excitable boys — and charged off to their deaths) at the start of the Battle of Winterfell. And yet, at the end, she seems to have more of them than ever. Not to mention all of the Unsullied, apparently. Enough for a Nuremburg-style rally that put the icing on Dany’s Mad Queen cake. As of that moment, it seems that the troops she brought over in a few small ships outnumbers anything in Westeros. Which sort of defies expectations.
  2. Dragons got higher-order thinking skills! So, in the final, climactic moment, when Jon is sure the dragon (no, I don’t know its name; I’m not going to waste gray cells learning something like that) is going to light him up, that being the one thing dragons know how to do, the dragon apparently goes, Wait! His death would be meaningless. I should instead burn a symbol, because they mean so much to me. Ah! The Iron Throne — the cause of all the trouble! If I melt that, it will truly achieve my mistress’ (I’m not going to say “my mother’s;” that was always kind of ridiculous) goal of Breaking the Wheel! That’s what I’ll do, even though most humans in Westeros are probably too dim to come up with such an idea… Did you know big lizards were way philosophical? Neither did I.
  3. I thought Arya, not Jon, was going to kill Dany. The penultimate episode had set that up nicely. She was the one survivor who had seen the horror of the incineration of King’s Landing up close and personally. She was horrified, traumatized and ticked off. The Hound had talked her out of the vengeance that had been her Purpose since the first season. All that training had to be for something. (Taking out the Night King doesn’t seem enough.) And only Arya would be able to get to her no matter how many murderous mindslaves surrounded her.
  4. Why did the Unsullied go so easy on Jon? In one scene, they’re slitting the throats of captives just because they served in Cersei’s army. The next, they deal with Jon’s murder of the woman they view as more or less divine by — locking him up. Oh, and how did they know he did it? There wasn’t even a body. We are left to assume he told them. (“Guys, you notice how the Khaleesi isn’t around? That’s because I killed her. I actually feel kind of conflicted about it, if that helps…”) Which brings us to…
  5. Right to the end, Jon Snow knew nothing. When he told Dany she was his queen, now and forever — even as he stabbed her to death — I think he really meant it. It just never sank in for this boy. Ygritte was right about him all along, and it’s easier than ever to understand why she shot him. Up to this point, everything had been pointing toward Jon being the one to sit on the Iron Throne: He was pure of heart, the people loved him, and it turned out the bastard actually had exactly the right pedigree for it. But what kind of king would he have been with so little between his ears? I’m trying (and failing) to find a link to something I read this morning about Jon standing there with a confused “This doesn’t seem right” look on his face during the Nuremberg scene. It pretty well summed him up.
  6. How does someone get to be a Sansa fan? She just never made that great an impression on me. I guess I never got over judging her for the stupid stuff she did early on, which led to, among other things, the death of her father (I think. It’s been awhile, and I don’t commit all this stuff to memory). I mean, she had the good sense to get rid of Littlefinger, but I’ll never get to like her the way, say, Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post does: “After all this time, seeing Sansa crowned should have been an absolute triumph… Jon’s admission, at long last, that Sansa… is capable, strong and brilliant…” Where does that come from? I suspect that it’s an Identity Politics thing — there were a lot of folks out there who thought it was really important that a woman end up on top. (Alyssa was also really bugged that the last we saw of Brienne, she was writing a mash note about Jaime. Me, I thought it was kind of touching.) But Sansa? Brienne and Arya were women who excelled on the macho terms of their swashbuckling culture. Sansa just sort of stood or sat like a statue most of the time.
  7. Finally… winter actually came, right? I mean, we’d been hearing about it for all these years, and when it came, it was… unimpressive. Seriously, in what way was anyone’s life changed by it. Things went on fairly normally — the usual slaughter and associated mayhem. And near as I can tell, the southern reaches of Westeros were untouched by even a flake of snow. Reminds me of when we get this big buildup in Columbia about the possibility of snow, and… all that happens is that a couple of inches fall in Greenville.

OK, that’s enough. Back to real life…

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Unlike earlier princes, Baby Archie will always know his place

Shakespeare's earlier version of Game of Thrones.

Shakespeare’s earlier version of Game of Thrones.

I’ve lost track of how many of my ancestors were beheaded, or killed in battles fighting on the wrong side in the real-life Game of Thrones that was medieval Britain. One led a failed rebellion against Bloody Mary. Another, whose name I forget, fell alongside Richard III at Bosworth Field.

I’d search and tell you, but there’s a huge inadequacy in the Ancestry tree database: You can search by people’s names, but if there’s a way to search by cause or place of death, I haven’t found it.

I bore you yet again with my genealogy fetish because the birth of Prince Harry’s baby boy has got me to thinking about royal succession.

The morning Baby Sussex came into the world, I had started the day watching the tail end of the most recent episode of GoT on my Roku while working out on the elliptical. That wasn’t long enough, so I started watching something I recorded awhile back from PBS — Part 1 of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, the version that kicks off the second Hollow Crown series.

I saw the scene in which a group of lords display their allegiances by plucking either a white or red rose from the bushes in a garden in which they’re standing, then go off in a huff to start fighting the Wars of the Roses.

Henry V’s uninspiring offspring sits on the throne, but the Yorkists — also being Plantagenets — have a pretty strong claim to the crown, seeing as how Prince Hal’s Dad had taken it away from their line by force (see Richard II.

But you can make an argument either way, and they did. A lot of people died in the process, including some of my ancestors and almost certainly yours, too.

Today, it’s so simple. We know where Harry’s new son stands in the line of succession — he’s seventh. Nobody disputes this. It’s all so definite, so certain. You can look it up on Wikipedia.

On the one hand, it seems hugely ironic that it’s all so cut-and-dried, now that it doesn’t matter at all who the monarch is. There’s no power in the throne at all.

Of course, on the other hand, I suppose that’s why there’s no controversy about it. Who cares? Why fight about it?

I suppose if the king or queen suddenly had virtually absolute power again, the succession would suddenly become all fuzzy, or at least disputed.

In that alternative universe, 30 years from now young Archie — yes, that’s what his parents have decided to name the new royal — might be drawing his sword against King George, claiming that the crown should have passed to Harry’s line after the untimely death of King William.

I expect that Lord Jughead and Sir Moose would back his claim. But he could not rely on Sir Reggie, Earl of Mantle, who would likely play both sides.

And whether he ended up with Lady Betty or Countess Veronica would depend entirely on which could cement the more important diplomatic alliance…

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I’m a Sorkin originalist

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Since I did all that typing over on Twitter, I thought I’d share this exchange I had with Bryan.

Ainsley, look all modest as she kicks Sam's butt...

Ainsley, look all demure as she kicks Sam’s butt…

The Chuck and Nancy thing was an added weirdness bonus!

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We knew all along that it would be extremely weird to see the strangest president in our nation’s history by far using his first live address from the Oval Office to try to convince us there’s a crisis on our border, and that it’s worth shutting down the government in order to implement his own preferred remedy for said nonexistent crisis.

Especially since we’d been conditioned all our lives to expect such addresses to be about something, you know, important. Like escalating the war in Vietnam, or killing bin Laden.

But there was an added weirdness bonus to the evening — Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi doing a Siamese twins impersonation standing behind one small podium at the same time.

It was predicted that we’ll definitely see this odd visual on SNL this week, and there were some good shots on social media as well:

You know, we took a lot of criticism during the campaign for not separating James and Mandy more, but sheesh — at least they took turns at the microphone on their joint appearances….

Will we as a country ever do great things again?

Will McAvoy loses it after hearing the pat answers of the 'liberal' and 'conservative' on the panel.

Will McAvoy loses it after hearing more than enough of the pat answers of the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ on the panel.

I really should have had more faith in Aaron Sorkin.

After all, there’s never been anything on television I like more than “The West Wing” (although I’ll note that “Band of Brothers” ties it).

But until this week, I had refused to watch “The Newsroom.” Long ago, when HBO first launched it, I read things about it that made me not want to see it, on the grounds that I thought it would just irritate me no end. But what I read was either a misrepresentation, or I misread it.

When my wife suggested, as I was clicking around in Amazon Prime, that we check it out, I trotted out the objections as I recalled them: First, it was about a TV news anchorman — and you know, I’m a print guy. I don’t even WATCH that TV stuff, network or cable. Next, he was an anchorman who one day loses it and launches into a rant that supposedly “tells the truth” for a change, and nothing is ever again the same for him or his network. That, of course, sounded an awful lot like “Network,” which I’ve always thought was overrated. (You probably have to have been around in 1976 to recall how “brilliant” it allegedly was.) I’ve never yet understood what Peter Finch’s character was “mad as hell” about, or why that supposedly connected with a wide audience. It was gibberish to me — sensationalistic gibberish. Unfocused emotionalism, signifying nothing.

Then there was my memory of the content of the rant on “The Newsroom” — which, as it turned out, was mistaken. As I told my wife, the “truth” he was sharing was paranoid nonsense like what we hear from Bernie Sanders and in slightly different form from Donald Trump, about how everything is fixed and the little guy stands no chance. My memory was clearly wrong. His “truth” was something else that tends to evoke a similarly dismissive reaction in me: a rant about how this is not the greatest country in the world, essentially a rejection of American exceptionalism. (There are a lot of things that prompt similar reactions in me, and sometimes I confuse them.)

Actually, when I relented and watched the show, I saw that even that wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. Here’s what Jeff Daniels’ character Will McAvoy says after being badgered into reacting while sitting on a panel in front of a college audience:

And yeah, you… sorority girl. Just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there’s some things you should know. One of them is: there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are, without a doubt, a member of the worst period generation period ever period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about! Yosemite?!

Here’s the video. In the context, and in light of his irritation at the pat answers given by the stereotypical “liberal” and “conservative” on the panel with him (irritation with which I fully identified; he could have been me sitting there, losing patience with their stupid game — so by the time he erupts, I’m in his corner), it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. I was willing to keep listening to him. And I was rewarded for that, because what followed redeemed what he’d said before, if it needed redeeming:

It sure used to be… We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reason. We passed laws, struck down laws, for moral reason. We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest. We built great, big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn’t scare so easy. We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed… by great men, men who were revered. First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

Right. Absolutely. That’s what I mean by American exceptionalism, and it describes the country I was born into and grew up in. And it evokes the sense of loss I have as I look around me today. (And the outrage I feel at the Trumpistas saying they would “make America great again,” when everything they want to do would accomplish the precise opposite.)

Anyway, I was hooked on the show right there. I’ve still only seen the first episode, but I look forward to watching more.

As I said above, I should have more faith in the creator of “The West Wing.” By the way, when I first heard about “The Newsroom,” I had not yet watched “The West Wing,” and in fact had avoided it for similar reasons. I had heard it was a liberal fantasy of what a presidency should be, and I don’t like that kind of stuff from either left or right. But again, I had been misled. And I’m beginning to think the reason why I keep getting misled about Sorkin is that he writes with an intelligence that other media have trouble describing, because their limited “left vs. right” vocabulary lacks the necessary words.

Having had them inadequately described to me, I simply wasn’t ready for shows that spoke so clearly to me, striking a chord that I’d not been told was there.

I may never like it as much as “West Wing,” but I’m pleased so far.

(Oh, and a brief digression that will only be of interest to fellow Sorkin fans: I think in this one, he managed to avoid a mistake he made in “West Wing.” Remember the pilot? Remember how Josh feels blindsided and gets upset because the White House is about to hire back a woman he used to be involved with? Well, the first episode of “The Newsroom” has the exact same plot point: the network boss has hired a woman with whom McAvoy has a past, and he is at first all bent out of shape about it. But this time, I think its going to work out. On “West Wing,” the woman in question, “Mandy,” was the one and only truly grating, irritating character on the show — and Sorkin wisely “ghosted” her before the season was over. She just disappeared, without explanation. This time, I think the character is going to work — I’ve even gotten to where I no longer expect her to mention “avian bird syndrome.” No need to send her to Mandyville — yet. Apparently, Sorkin learns from his mistakes.)

Anyway, to get to my point, more than 1,200 words in…

Let’s go back to that bit about how “We built great, big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior….”

Good stuff.

And why don’t we do stuff like that any more? Why did we lose our confidence? Was it just Vietnam, or what? In any case, I’m ready for us to get it back.

As 2019 dawned, The New York Times ran a piece about 1919. An excerpt:

To promote the idea of interstate travel, a military convoy left Washington for California in July 1919. The New York Times called it “the largest aggregation of motor vehicles ever started on a trip of such length.”

But the convoy broke down repeatedly, and took 62 days to reach its destination. It averaged just six miles an hour, and almost didn’t make it out of Utah. As it turned out, there were almost no paved roads between Illinois and Nevada. Decades later, the officer who led the convoy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, would push for a national highway system as president. Even with a well-publicized divide between red and blue states, we can generally reach each other when we need to, and that is another unexpected result of a pivotal year….

No roads? No problem, to the man who whipped Hitler. We’ll build an interstate highway system. It may have taken him awhile, but he got to it eventually.

The first episode of “The Newsroom” is titled, “We Just Decided To.” I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but it takes us back to something Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell says in “Apollo 13” (one of the best movies ever about what’s special about this country):

From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. And it’s not a miracle, we just decided to go.

We just decided to go. And we went.

This week, the Chinese landed a robot on the other side of the moon. They might as well. We lost interest in the place after 1972 — 46 years ago. Yeah, I know, we have those pictures of Ultima Thule, and that’s cool and worth celebrating, truly. But such accomplishments are too few and far between these days.

We live in a time when the most ambitious proposal to “do something big” is to build a gigantic wall on our southern border. It’s big, all right — you’d be able to see it from space. But as a monument to xenophobia, it diminishes the country. It makes us less than we are. It’s about closing, not opening. It is a big, fat NAY to the universe. It is in fact a profoundly depressing thing to contemplate, seeing what we’ve descended to.

Yeah, Ultima Thule. That’s great and all. But I want more. I’ll close with the words with which Hanks closed “Apollo 13:”

I sometimes catch myself looking up at the Moon, remembering the changes of fortune in our long voyage, thinking of the thousands of people who worked to bring the three of us home. I look up at the Moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?

'We just decided to go: Tom Hanks, as Jim Lovell, ponders the moon.

‘We just decided to go: Tom Hanks, as Jim Lovell, ponders the moon.

Top Five Movies (or TV Shows) for the Fourth of July

  1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — Frank Capra really gets America. Or at least, he got the America of his day, and that means he got it the way I get it. (It feels like I was right there, in a previous life.)
  2. Young Mr. Lincoln” — If you don’t do anything else today, watch the clip above. You only have to watch the first minute and 18 seconds. It’s amazing, the best thing Henry Fonda ever did. I thought about Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which is magnificent and of course has superior, modern production values. But I had another Spielberg flick below, and besides, this one’s awesome.
  3. John Adams” — Yeah, this one’s a TV show, which is why I added the parenthetical in the headline. I can’t think of anything better on how America became America. And as I keep saying, Adams is my fave Founder. He’s the one who rammed independence through the Congress. Jefferson just wrote it out — because Adams picked him to do it.
  4. Saving Private Ryan” — Yeah, I know — Bud and maybe others will say, “This isn’t Veteran’s Day, nor yet Memorial Day!” Yeah, well, freedom isn’t free. And this is the best film evocation of that ever made. I get chills, and misty eyes, during the cemetery scenes at the start and end. July Fourth message to us all: Earn this!
  5. Yankee Doodle Dandy” — Because there had to be a musical, and have you ever seen anything better than James Cagney dancing down those stairs? Particularly amazing if you only thought of him as a gangster type.

Honorable mention:

All the President’s Men” — Because America. Because First Amendment. Because scrappy newspapermen taking down a corrupt administration. Best part — the scenes in which Woodward and Bernstein interview people who do not want to talk to them. They are wonderfully ragged and awkward, which is what it’s like in real life. I really appreciate the director leaving them that way and not trying to slick them up, Hollywood-style.

"Yankee Doodle Dandy"

“Yankee Doodle Dandy”

JFK and RFK worried, a little, about poll drop to 70 percent

This was the image on the screen as we heard Bobby say, "God... the poll..."

This was the image on the screen as we heard Bobby say, “God… the poll…”

The last couple of mornings during my workouts, I’ve been watching the Netflix documentary series, “Bobby Kennedy for President.”

I’m motivated to do so by the enervating despair that today’s politics instills. I was young then and not following politics very closely, but it’s always been my understanding that RFK’s campaign had an inspirational effect on voters, and I’d like to see a candidate that I might be able to feel good about — because it’s been awhile.

I’m through the second of four parts, and I’ll give you a full report when I’m done later in the week.

But I’d like to share one tidbit from the first episode, which I watched on Monday.

A recording of a phone conversation between President Kennedy and Bobby was played. RFK, ever his brother’s campaign manager, informed JFK that he had dropped in the Gallup poll — from 76 percent to 70 percent. Jack says he had read the papers, but had missed that (that’s how people learned things back then, children — they read newspapers).

They didn’t act like it was the end of the world, but it was still a cause for concern — mainly because they’d dropped six points in a month. Bobby started the conversation by saying, “God… the poll…”

I thought maybe I had heard it wrong. A president with an approval rating of 70 percent? A number that high seemed impossible. Especially since, a moment before, we had seen footage of a Kennedy detractor reminding us that “He got elected by just a gnat’s eyebrow.”

So I looked it up. And not only was that probably right, but 70 percent was Kennedy’s average during his time in office, according to Gallup. It was the highest average in history (that is, since Gallup starting measuring when Truman was president), easily topping Eisenhower in second place at 65 percent.

For comparison, Barack Obama’s average was 47.9 percent. The last president we had with an average over 50 percent was Bill Clinton at 55.

Wow. Imagine that. Seventy percent. And Bobby was concerned about it, at least a little…

Galup averages

Her Majesty got stiffed

Yeah, you'd BETTER look away, making more money than the queen...

Yeah, you’d BETTER look away, making more money than the queen…

This may not have engendered outrage at your house, but it did at mine:

If there is a lesson to take away from the first two seasons of “The Crown,” it is that no sane person would dare cross Queen Elizabeth II. Netflix seems to have learned this too late, however, as it was revealed on Tuesday that lead actress Claire Foy made less than co-star Matt Smith for her work on the show.

Variety reported that producers Suzanne Mackie and Andy Harries were asked during a discussion at the INTV Conference in Jerusalem whether the actors playing Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, were paid the same amount. The pair said Smith made more because of his “Doctor Who” fame, saying that the inequity would be amended in the future.

“Going forward, no one gets paid more than the queen,” Mackie said…

I would certainly think not.

All through those two seasons, my wife said over and over that this Matt Smith guy was a case of appalling casting — such a strange-looking dude playing such a handsome — or at least normal-looking prince. And it wasn’t just an attractiveness thing. She thought the actor’s manner and overall oddness was distracting.

So she really, really thought it wrong that he should be paid more than Ms. Foy, who did an excellent job of embodying my 16th cousin once removed — that is to say, the queen. (I’d have been outraged, too, if only she’d invite us over to the palace more. Or even once.)

It’s weird the way these things work. I’m not a fan of Doctor Who — I tried watching the very first episode with the first Doctor once, and gave up after a few minutes, failing to see the appeal — but even if I were, I doubt I’d be overly impressed by an actor for having played the role. I mean, at this point, who hasn’t?

It’s the strangest salary decision I’ve seen since Rob Lowe was initially paid more than the actors who played Leo McGarry, C.J. Cregg, Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler on “The West Wing.” (When they caught up to him in pay, he quit because he didn’t get a raise to stay ahead of them — which showed he really had an exaggerated sense of Sam Seaborn’s role in the great scheme of things.)

But despite the insult to Ms. Foy, we can take comfort from the fact that the next actress to play Her Majesty (they’ll change every couple of years in order to be age-appropriate) will not get stiffed. And that’s good, because the next actress is Olivia Colman, who is wonderful.

Did any of you see her in “The Night Manager?” The producers of that le Carre adaptation did something I normally hate — they significantly changed an important character, in this case by turning him into a woman. Leonard Burr, the recruiter and case officer for the title character, became Angela Burr, who was — just in case you didn’t quite notice the change — pregnant.

She totally made it work, imbuing the usual care that a case officer has for his (or her) agent with a maternal aspect that intensified the relationship. The parallel between a mother harboring vulnerable life in her womb and agent runner trying to keep a “joe” alive in the field was powerful.

And I doubt a lesser actress could have pulled it off and made this obsessive le Carre fan applaud. The miniseries was just much better than had Burr been a man.

I expect her to bring similar depth to the portrayal of Elizabeth Windsor. And it’s good to know she’ll be fairly paid for doing so…

Olivia Colman as Angela Burr in "The Night Manager"

Olivia Colman as Angela Burr in “The Night Manager”

Arnie Vinick on what the presidency was about

This morning during my workout on the elliptical, I was watching “The West Wing” on the Roku, and saw the end of the penultimate episode in the penultimate season. It’s the one in which Arnie Vinick accepts the GOP nomination for president.

And even more than usual, I was made wistful by the evocation of what we once expected from the presidency — that the one who held it would at least do so with a modicum of honor and respect for the office. It was a great speech, especially when he was talking about the president he hoped to replace. He drew some boos from the partisan convention floor when he first mentioned the Democrat, but pushed past that to say:

It is with great humility that I accept your nomination for president of the United States.
Before I share with you my vision for America I want to say a few words about the man who I hope is my predecessor: President Josiah Bartlet.
He has graced and honored his office.
The highest in the land.
The most powerful in the world, some would say. Myself included.
He has served this country steadfastly and laudably and I say this despite our political and philosophical differences.
For in the end, a presidency is more than a simple catalogue of policies pursued, crises weathered, battles lost or won.
It’s a stewardship, a sacred trust, a commitment to sacrifice every fiber of your being — every thought, every moment, every — Every everything in service to your nation.
President Bartlet has done this well and ably and he deserves nothing less than our humble appreciation and heartfelt gratitude.
… my commitment to strive to be worthy of the example of the great men who have gone before.
Presidents walk in giant footsteps.
They have magnificent legacies to uphold.
I stand here on this day and put my name forth as one who aspires to their example, who will daily make that sacrifice.
Who will honor not just the office, but the people that office serves.
Their president of these United States of America…..

Imagine that. A president, or presidential nominee, who could say such words with conviction and not a trace of irony: “a stewardship, a sacred trust, a commitment to sacrifice… (a) commitment to strive to be worthy of the example of the great men who have gone before” — to honor the office and the trust invested by the people. To care about them, and about those things, more than about himself and his fragile ego.

Some of my friends understand this, but others don’t: The thing we have lost in the past year is the dignity of the office. That’s shattered, gone with the wind. And now I can only find it in TV fiction. Good TV fiction, but still make-believe.

Anyway, at this point, as I make my way through the series yet again each morning in the coming days, Vinick has my vote. Matt Santos is going to have to work to change my mind…

westwing_vinick1

Another special moment in the decline of America

blow-drying

Yeah, so this was on TV this morning.

There I was, minding my own business having breakfast, when I glanced up at one of the TVs on the wall there in the club’s lounge, and saw what you see above.

I got up, walked across the room and took a picture of it, not minding if people stared at me. I’m not proud. How could I be, living in a country in which this is deemed a subject worthy of conversation at all, much less on daytime national television? While I’m eating breakfast.

Going by the logo in the corner of the screen, apparently that was an episode of this show, where you can see gross stuff like this, and dumb stuff like this.

What is it Bryan’s always saying? Oh, yeah: What a stupid time to be alive…

What words can describe or explain ‘Trumpy Bear’?

I don’t know. I’ve tried “stupid,” “embarrassing,” “pitiful,” “WTF” and a few others, but none really come close. When I saw this during an old movie on one of those weird alternative-universe channels that you only get with an HD antenna (like that alternative-WIS channel that seems to only show “Walker, Texas Ranger” reruns), my jaw dropped and stayed that way until it was over.

The most amazing thing is the people they got to hold one of these things and act as though they like it, and are unembarrassed by that.

I really, truly don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as dumb, or as tacky, as this in my life.

No, those words don’t quite describe it, either…

Please, you folks out there who voted for Trump — tell me this makes you cringe, just a bit. If so, there’s hope for the world…

trumpy

Would you vote for Oprah?

Liz Lemon hallucinating about Oprah.

Liz Lemon hallucinating about Oprah.

Sources say Oprah Winfrey is “actively thinking” about running for president. Of the United States.

Not long after that broke, former Nikki Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey tweeted this question:

Remind me to ask Rob sometime how you set up a tweet like that. Now, back to the topic…

I answered “wut idk,” because I really don’t know. It would depend on the office she was running for (since Rob said “any”), who was running against her, and on me learning a lot more about her.

Having never watched her show (beyond that clip of Tom Cruise going nuts, which I think all America has seen) or read her magazine, and having certainly never heard her political views, I just don’t know. The longest exposure I’ve ever had to her was that episode of “30 Rock” when Liz Lemon took a tranquilizer before flying and hallucinated that Oprah was in the seat next to her.

I do assume (unless I learn some really bad stuff about her) that I would vote for her over Donald Trump for pretty much anything. That’s because while I don’t know of any great positive qualifications she has for the presidency, I’m also ignorant of any negatives. Whereas I’ve never seen a person in high office with more negatives than Trump.

Last time I looked, one person had answered Rob in the affirmative, three of us had answered idk, and the rest were negative. I wonder what makes those five people so sure they would never vote for this woman, for any office? Maybe they know of huge negatives I don’t know about, but I sort of doubt that…

Worshiping in the ‘church’ of Fox News?

la-et-st-syfy-developing-brave-new-world-as-series-20150505

Molly Worthen can’t even spell her own name, but she writes a pretty fair think piece.

I read this one in the NYT last month, and kept forgetting to share it with you. Today, with Roy Moore possibly being elected to the U.S. Senate, seems a good day to rectify that.

The piece gets a little dry toward the end, but I want to share with you this good part at the beginning:

Over the course of the week, as Roy Moore, the Republican senatorial candidate in Alabama, faced more allegations of inappropriate sexual contact with young women and teenagers, many evangelicals leapt to his defense.

Molly Worthen

Molly Worthen

To Ms. Schiess, this is one more sign that a new ritual has superseded Sunday worship and weeknight Bible studies: a profane devotional practice, with immense power to shape evangelicals’ beliefs. This “liturgy” is the nightly consumption of conservative cable news. Liberals love to complain about conservatives’ steady diet of misinformation through partisan media, but Ms. Schiess’s complaint is more profound: Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson aren’t just purveyors of distorted news, but high priests of a false religion.

“The reason Fox News is so formative is that it’s this repetitive, almost ritualistic thing that people do every night,” Ms. Schiess told me. “It forms in them particular fears and desires, an idea of America. This is convincing on a less than logical level, and the church is not communicating to them in that same way.”

It’s no secret that humans — religious and secular alike — often act on “less than logical” impulses. Social scientists have documented our tendency to reject reliable evidence if it challenges our beliefs. Hours of tearful victims’ testimony will not deter evangelicals who see Roy Moore as the latest Christian martyr persecuted by the liberal establishment. “Their loyalties are much more strongly formed by conservative media than their churches,” Ms. Schiess said. “That’s the challenge for church leaders today, I think — rediscovering rather ancient ideas about how to form our ultimate loyalty to God and his kingdom.” …

I’ve never been much of one for badmouthing Fox News, mainly because I haven’t seen it or other cable TV news programs enough to be confident in making firm judgments.

But there is definitely something out there motivating “evangelicals” to vote for people who seem to have little to nothing to do with Christianity, and I can’t see it being church.

Something is taking the place of the gospel in these people’s thought processes. Or perhaps I should say in their guts, grabbing and holding them on a “less than logical level.”

And there’s something about that ritual of constantly watching TV, night after night, year after year, and getting hit with the same messages hundreds and thousands of times.

I’m reminded of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which people hear the same statements over and over in the night until they accept the truth of such statements without thinking. Indeed, they become incapable of considering the possibility that such statements might be untrue:

repetitions

(Never mind that “Idiots!” bit. Bernard had something of an inferiority complex, not being respected as much as an Alpha normally would be.)

These repetitions may be even more powerful in terms of engendering aversion, even revulsion. How else does one explain Republicans who knew better voting for Trump or a write-in, because they absolutely could not bring themselves to vote for the only person in a position to stop him?

Or how do you explain good people in Alabama who see the problem with Roy Moore, but — like Sen. Shelby — simply cannot bring themselves to vote for the Democrat (again, the only person who might stop Moore from disgracing Alabama, the Republican Party and the U.S. Senate)?

Anyway, I thought it was an intriguing line of thought: What good is an hour in church once a week compared to hours of indoctrination in another sort of faith, every night for years?