Category Archives: Television

The End of the World (as we know it)

My wife and I have just finished watching two TNT summer TV series we were pretty hooked on, both on the premise of huge national and international catastrophes. One was Falling Skies, the other The Last Ship. The series finale for Falling Skies aired a week before the season finale of The Last Ship, which will continue next summer. In Falling Skies, evil space aliens, called the Espheni, have invaded the earth, killed a bunch of people, are kidnapping children (so they can turn them into Espheni), and taking over the planet. A ragtag band of American guerillas, led by a former history professor named Tom Mason (Noah Wylie), fight back. They call themselves the Second Mass (after Massachusetts), and are loosely tied to a larger paramilitary structure. On The Last Ship, a global pandemic has swept across the world. A single US Destroyer, the Nathan James, has been tasked with finding a cure, the key to which, apparently, is found in the Arctic. So a heroic doctor, Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra), and the ship’s heroic captain, Tom Chandler (Eric Dane), have to save what’s left of, you know, the human race.

The similarities between the shows are almost as interesting as the differences between them. For some reason, both shows seem to think that ‘Tom’ is a particularly heroic first name. Both Toms are played by actors primarily known for playing doctors. Noah Wylie was the hapless Dr. Carter on ER, while Eric Dane was mostly known as Dr. McSteamy on Grey’s Anatomy. Both have scruffy actors playing rogueish-but-heroic secondary characters–Will Patton’s Captain Weaver on FS is just a somewhat older version of John Pyper-Ferguson’s Tex on TLS. On both shows, the main character’s love interest is a doctor; Tom Mason marries Anne (Moon Bloodgood), while Tom Chandler is clearly majorly into Dr. Scott, though of course, that series is only in its second season. There’s time for that relationship to develop. If she survives–the season cliff-hanger involved her getting shot, by a weasel-y little creep who declared ‘sic semper tyrannis’ as he pulled the trigger.

Both shows were entertaining and exciting, and while the final episode of FS was pretty disappointing, the show did deliver lots of predictable-but-agreeable entertainment over its run. And the scrubbed and eager sailors are a little easier to make fun of than the unshowered masses of the Second Mass, so I think I like TLS a little better. But that ‘sic semper tyrannis’ line pointed to the larger problem of both series. Essentially it comes to this: on both shows, the biggest threat to mankind is posited as being essentially really bad guys. Not the virus, not the space aliens–both of which are bad enough–but villains.

On Falling Skies, the Espheni were plenty scary. They included big six-legged spidery things called ‘skitters’, plus big super-robot fighting machines called mechs, plus big hornet flying things, all under the control of really tall skinny aliens called ‘overlords’, which were eventually revealed to be under the control of a ruling spider queen. But we got alien help too, from two rival alien races, the Volm and the Dornia. Problem was, the Volm saw earth as a tiny unimportant skirmish point in their larger war against the Espheni, and didn’t really see fit to give humans many resources in our fight, and the Dornia are mostly extinct, and mostly communicate via dreams Tom has about his deceased wife. But the CGI was well executed, the acting was mostly passable, and we liked following the twists and turns of the plot. But, in addition to fighting off skitters and being bombarded by hornet-things, Tom Mason also had to worry about a angry human jerkface, Pope (Colin Cunningham). And at times, Pope was a bigger, or at least more immediate threat than the Espheni.

It’s even worse in TLS. In the first season, the intrepid crew of the Nathan James discovers an evil conspiracy to use human bodies to power cities. In the second season, Dr. Scott having found a cure for the disease, we learn that that small percentage of the small percentage of the population who are immune to it don’t want the cure distributed. They sort of like the power trip of being the Superior Race. And they have a nuclear submarine. ‘Sic Semper’ dude belongs to that loathesome crowd.

And I don’t doubt that a global pandemic/alien invasion would bring out the worst in a lot of people, just as it would bring out the best in others. It just seems to me that the biggest threat the human race would face, after we got the disease/aliens under control, would be something a lot more basic. Feeding ourselves. Not to mention basic stuff like drinking water and sanitation.

The fact is, the basic problem of any species on this planet is one we homo sapiens have basically solved; the problem of food. We have, over the years, developed an elaborate infrastructure devoted to the production, refinement and delivery of food. We don’t think about it, but grocery stores don’t really carry all that much food at any given time. A constant stream of food goes from farms to processing facilities to transportation hubs. Someone has to load it on a truck, someone else has to drive that truck, someone else has to unload it. Someone else shelves it, someone else sells it to you. Every. Single. Day. And any disruption of any part of that chain could be catastrophic. And those space aliens skittering towards you, or that infected neighbor stopping by to chat make for pretty serious food-supply-disruptions.

On both shows, there are scenes where the characters are, as they put it, ‘low on supplies,’ and have to stop in some city grocery store to restock. In reality, uh, good luck with that.

There was this one moment in FS when Tom Mason, having been zipped off sky-ward by a hornet alien thing, finds himself under the care of the daughter of an elderly farmer at his idyllic rural farm. And Tom is inspired, and thinks ‘this is the America we need to rebuild.’ It was a nice moment, this history prof basking in a Jeffersonian fantasy. He’d also know, though, that our history didn’t unfold that way; that we’re in fact way more Hamiltonian as we’ve evolved. And it got me to thinking; who would in fact survive? If our lives were disrupted by ETs or nasty microbes; who would actually thrive?

Well, small rural farmers. I mean, cities are complex triumphs of infrastructure and organization, and thus easy to disrupt. A pandemic killing 98% of everyone? Wouldn’t that just devastate cities? But in the wide-open places of the flyover states, pockets of folks would probably survive. And with the skills to continue to survive. Skills which, frankly, I lack. Along with most everyone i know. Ain’t that a pleasant thought?

TV requires photogenic, easily identified bad guys. To give our even more preposterously attractive heroes someone to battle. I liked both these shows, and will keep watching TLS, probably. But a show about reestablishing infrastructure and food distribution nets? That would be awesome! Actually, probably not. But it would make for a nifty board/video game, I think.


Sharknado, the first three: review

I think the success of the first Sharknado movie took the programmers at the Syfy network sort of by surprise. Of course it was a preposterously bad movie, based on a ridiculous premise. One of the enchanting pleasures of Syfy is their glorious revival of the tradition of the B-movie. No, not just of B-movies, of entertainingly terrible movies, the whole grindhouse/drive-in/American International/Roger Corman movie tradition. When I was a teenager, my friends and I loved to go to the Starlight Drive-in and watch abysmal (but fun) movies. Or, on nights when my parents weren’t home, we’d watch Sammy Terry’s Nightmare Theater on WTTV, the Indianapolis station that also showed IU and Indiana Pacers’ basketball games. I grew up watching awful sci-fi/horror movies. I think they’re awesome. Sharknado proudly partakes of, and contributes to, that tradition. Which is why my wife and daughter and I recently watched the last two.

But really, was Sharknado that much more ridiculous than other Syfy offerings? Was it worse than Scream of the Banshee, say, or Dinocroc? Or Dinocroc vs. Supergator? Or Dinoshark? Or Frankenfish, Pteracuda, Piranhaconda, Lavalantula, or The Man with the Screaming Brain? Yep, they’re all for real, and have all been broadcast in the last five years on Syfy network. So once you’ve committed to a movie on the premise of an anaconda/piranha crossbreeding, why not follow it up with one about tarantulas made of lava? Or, for that matter, a movie about a tornado that sucks sharks out of the sea and drops them on big cities?

But Sharknado took off. One main reason is Twitter. The actual viewing audience for the initial broadcast was actually not all that impressive. But enough people live-tweeted it, and those who did were sufficiently snarky, Syfy decided to re-broadcast the next night, but include the more amusing tweets. Let’s not pretend for a second that Syfy isn’t in on the joke.

But what about the actors? And there you have it, the secret to the success of these movies. Let’s not kid ourselves, acting in Sharknado requires a certain skill set that’s not quite, but is related to, acting. Ian Ziering has starred in all three Sharknados, and, you know, he does just fine. He treats the character Fin (yes, the character is named Fin) seriously, and commits physically to all the action requirements, most of which would seem to require a chain saw. You don’t ever not believe him. In the third movie, when he announces that he plans to name his infant son Gill, the joke landed precisely because he committed to it. After Beverly Hills 90210, his career pretty much flat-lined, which makes him just the right kind of star for a Sharknado-type movie. Famous enough to carry the picture, desperate enough to accept the role. (John Heard was in the first one, a better known, and probably even more desperate actor–he slept-walked through the first third of the movie, then became shark bait without anyone missing him).

The first movie also featured two main actresses: Tara Reid and Cassie Scerbo.  Tara Reid, you probably know. It’s not like she doesn’t have some impressive film credits: The Big Lebowski, American Pie. But she never could act, and after some forays into reality TV (and a famously botched boob job), she needed a hit. But she’s dreadful in all three Sharknados. Part of it’s the writing. Thunder Levin, the writer, has yet to give April, her character, anything to do except stand on the periphery of scenes and bite her lip in anxiety. Plus, Fin and April, for some reason, use a shark attack crisis as a perfect opportunity to work out their relationship issues. But whatever the challenges of the character, Reid conspicuously fails to meet them. In the perfect marriage of actress and character, April and the actress who plays her both manage to do nothing but annoy. (Bo Derek (!) plays her Mom in the third movie, and manages to out-bad-act even her.)

Cassie Scerbo, though, is something else again. Again, it may be the writing; her character, Nova, is a badass. She isn’t given much to do; shoot a semi-automatic weapon, throw hand grenades, look good in a bikini. But she more than meets all three challenges. More to the point, she has some energy. She’s forceful; she’s fun to watch. She’s only in the first and third movies, and the second movie is poorer for it. She’s the one actor in this thing that I think could have a subsequent actual career. Fin is a bit torn between the two great loves of his life, April and Nova, and Syfy obligingly sent a piece of debris hurtling towards April at the end of the third movie. Now we all get to vote on-line on whether April dies or not, in the fourth movie. Guess how I voted.

I appreciate watching a good actor meet an acting challenge, though. And in the third movie, they bring in the perfect Sharknado actor, for a far-too-brief appearance near the end. David Hasselhoff. And, I’m sorry to say this, but he’s brilliant. Genuinely good. Just tongue-in-cheek enough to play up the ridiculousness of the movie’s premise, but also charismatic. I mean, Hasselhoff’s career was built on joke-TV–Baywatch. His job was to be the one actual dramatic character in a show that was otherwise all about the bikinis. Well, this one’s about sharks. He knows how to handle this kind of material. (Frankie Muniz was also pretty great).

I mean, watching Sharknado movies does require a good deal more suspension-of-disbelief than is usually the case. If, in fact, tornados could suck sharks out of the ocean, they’d just die. If, miraculously, sharks didn’t die up in the air, they’d die when they hit the earth. Even if, somehow, they survived the fall, they’d die anyway, because they’re fish; they can’t live out of water. Even when (in all three movies) they land in commercial swimming pools, they’d die; fresh water with chlorine? Lethal to salt water sharks. Certainly, sharks wouldn’t be biting people much. But the silliness of the premise is most of the fun.

But in addition to the, you know, actual actors in these things, there are also many many cameos. In the third movie, Mark Cuban plays POTUS, and is impressive; at least, he looked like he was having fun. Ann Coulter plays VPOTUS. (Never have I so rooted for sharks to eat someone. But alas).  Matt Lauer and Al Roker play themselves in the last two movies, until they both become shark lunch. We get to see Lou Ferrigno, Bill Engvall, Jackie Collins, Lorenzo Lamas. Will Wheaton was in the second one. Of course, they all get shark-chomped pretty quickly, but that’s the gig; you get ten seconds of screen time, and then the actual stars of the movie–the sharks–take over.

And the sharks are, well, dreadful. Bad CGI is half the charm. The action isn’t really ever terribly convincing, and the effects are, well, low budget. And quite apart from the general absurdity of a sharknado, the movie’s plots are preposterous. But that’s why and how Syfy makes them. They don’t cost much, and they deliver. Movies are supposed to be fun. It’s nice when they’re also not poo. But when the movie is called Sharknado, I’ll settle for fun.


Ten greatest TV shows of all time

So, I’m sitting at lunch, enjoying a sushi burrito, with two actor friends. And we get to talking about what we’ve seen and what we’ve enjoyed, and Parks and Rec came up, and one of us said, ‘hey, what would you say were the Ten greatest television shows of all time?’

Coming up with lists like that are fun precisely because they’re nonsensical, and therefore lead to absurd arguments and preposterous controversies, all the more vehemently disputed precisely because of the extreme subjectivity of any and all artistic tastes. I’m putting my apples against your oranges, and against Barry’s bananas, with all of us sure that Alice, if she’d been there, would tossed in the trashheap. Besides the greatest television show I ever saw in my life was Game Seven of the 2014 World Series, which those other two bozos didn’t even watch. (Losers). Still, we came up with a list. Join the free-for-all, mock our choices. Just be prepared for us to mock back.

First, we had to make some rules. We’re only talking scripted feature television; shows that tell a sustained story. That lets out Sixty Minutes, excludes Johnny Carson, leaves out Letterman, bids Jon Stewart sayonara, counted out Colbert and omits Sid Caesar and That Show of Shows. No variety, no news, no fake news.

With considerable reluctance, we also decided to keep it to American shows only. Our game, our rules, though it meant leaving out Ab Fab and Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, and the British Office, which also led to the exclusion of the American Office, because the British one is better.

But we did decide to include both comedies and dramas, in part because we know, as professionals in the field, how hard funny can be, and also in part because that’s how people watch TV. We just watch. Nobody says ‘I can’t see Walking Dead; I only like sit-coms.’ Or, rather, you could say that, but you’d be wrong. Ecclesiastes-via-The Byrds: ‘to everything, there is a season and a time.’ We decided that applies to TV as well as life.

So here’s what we came up. And understand, we did not work historically or anything like that. We mixed-and-matched; modern shows and older ones thrown willy-nilly together, with no rhyme or reason to our choices.

Top Ten Television shows of all time, in no particular order:

Mad Men. Critical darling, plus it starred a friend of ours. We love its bitter condemnation of the past, and the open sexism and racism of a period historically within my lifetime. Plus, for an essentially realist period piece, it kept tossing in these astonishing moments of surrealism; a guy losing his leg to a riding lawnmower in the office, dead men dancing, Don Draper’s long affair with women who may or may not have actually existed.

I Love Lucy. It changed everything. It changed the way television was shot and transmitted. It was the first great star vehicle. Plus, we love this irony. Every episode of the show had the same plot; Lucy wants to do something, Ricky tells her she can’t do it. She does it anyway, and makes a frightful (but hilarious) hash of it. Ricky condescendingly forgives her. The message: those silly dames, thinking they can actually do things, even compete with men. But the show deconstructed itself at every turn. In fact, the show was a vehicle for Lucille Ball. It was about her comic genius. She made all the business decisions too. It was a show about a brilliant woman, playing a goofball brilliantly.

M.A.S.H. It lasted a good deal longer than the actual Korean War lasted, and it surely got gooey and preachy at times. But it was still an astonishing show, a dark comedy about America’s nightmare adventure in Vietnam Korea. And because it was about war, characters died, people we cared about. And every time an old character left the show, the character that replaced them was even better.

The West Wing. I know, it exhibited every Aaron Sorkin fault and flaw; his preachiness, his obsession with failed romances, its knee-jerk liberalism. And to some extent, it’s true; during the Bush years, The West Wing created, in Bartlett, the President we wished we had, as opposed to the actual President we were stuck with. But the characterizations were rich, the writing powerful, and the actors were up to the challenge.

Breaking Bad. Such an extraordinary depiction of a man gradually, day after day, choice after choice, descending into criminality, murder, and evil. With Aaron Paul’s and Bryan Cranston’s superb performances, we had two of the most compelling characters in the history of television, with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. And the amazing Anna Gunn, as Walter’s wife, Skyler.

Friday Night Lights. Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose. And yes, I know some of the teenagers were played by 29 year-olds. I don’t care. It was a show about football that my wife, who hates football, loved. Kyle Chandler was terrific as high school coach Eric Taylor, but my favorite character, always and forever, was Connie Britton’s amazing Tami Taylor. The most thankless possible role, the coach’s wife, and she made her the most dynamic woman in the town.

It’s interesting to me, BTW, how many actors were in multiple great shows. Connie Britton starred in Friday Night Lights, but also had a crucial smaller role on The West Wing, which also featured Alan Alda, Hawkeye Pierce on M.A.S.H. And Christina Hendrix not only held the company together in Mad Men, she was one of the most memorable characters ever in Firefly.

All in the Family. It’s the show that changed everything. It’s the show that demonstrated that serious discussions of the most important issues facing the United States could take place in a situation comedy, and also, that those discussions could be more than thought-provoking, they could be riotously funny. Not just historically important; it was brilliant, night after night, for 9 years.

Firefly. I know. It failed. Fourteen episodes only. We only got part of one season to fall in love with Captain Mal and Wash and Zoe and Inara and, OMG, the wonderful Kaylee. But fall in love, we did. So inventive, so wonderfully creative. I will never, ever, forgive Fox for cancelling the show just as it was finding its audience. And now it’s probably the most popular show on Comic-con.

Parks and Recreation. It passes the first and most important test of a sit-com. It was never, ever, not-funny. But it did something even more difficult. It managed, for seven seasons, to create leading characters who, though flawed, were all essentially good-hearted. That’s a magnificent achievement, and incredibly difficult. Plus, just watching the apotheosis of Chris Pratt as an actor is worth the price of admission.

E. R. I hesitated to include it. It went on much too long, got self-indulgent and grew ever soapier as time went on. But my gosh, those opening episodes were incredible. The fast dialogue, the incredibly realistic wounds and surgeries and illnesses. I’m not sure it ever survived George Clooney leaving, but for awhile there, it was appointment television.

So what shows did I leave out? What shows should I have left off? Because, here’s what’s fun; we’re all right. And we’re all hopelessly wrong.


Missing Jon Stewart

For the past few years, my weekday morning routine was the same; I would get my breakfast, sit in The Beast (my massive and beloved recliner), and watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart recorded from the previous evening’s broadcast. I wouldn’t say that it’s been anything close to my main source of news or information. I watched it for one excellent reason; it’s been consistently, marvelously funny. It’s really kind of a miracle. Stand-up comedians hone their acts for months, then repeat them endlessly, like a politician does with his/her stump speech. But four nights a week, 22 minutes a night, Jon Stewart brought the funny. What an extraordinary achievement.

There has been, of course, a lot of ink spilled of late about the Meaning of Jon Stewart, or his Impact, or his Importance. What people haven’t done as successfully is describe exactly what he did. David Letterman ended his long late night reign recently, without anyone really noticing what his show was about; the nightly deconstruction of the cult of celebrity. By the same token, Jon Stewart’s show was about the deconstruction of television news. He wasn’t Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw; he parodied them. He paid attention. He was on to their tricks. Like every great satirist, he loved deflating pretention and self-importance. Above all, he had a finely tuned eye for BS. In fact, in a lot of ways, BS was his subject. His final monologue on the show was a short treatise, in fact, on BS, on the three types of BS he’d noticed, and how they functioned, every night, on the news.

I suppose it’s fair to admit that he was and is a liberal, and that Fox News was a favorite target of his humor. It would not be fair, or accurate, to say that his show was an all-out assault on conservatism, however. He took on CNN with every bit as much enthusiasm, and if he didn’t make fun of old-media dinosaurs like the evening news broadcasts on CBS or NBC or ABC, it’s only because they’re not on as much. The 24-hour news cycle has provided a fertile pasture for BS to proliferate.

No, what Jon found offensive about conservatism doesn’t seem to be serious policy recommendations, but the selling of policy, the marketing of politicians. That’s where the richest troves of BS were buried; both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have described themselves as ‘turd miners,’ and I think that’s crude but accurate. Bloviating windbags, of either party, were rich material for a comedian as astute as Jon Stewart, and he was as willing to make fun of Democrats as he was Republicans. His political agenda, if he had one, was for government to work, for policies that helped people who needed it. His two greatest campaigns were for extra funds to help 9/11 first responders, and for VA reform, for more money to help our wounded and hurting veterans.

Stewart’s Daily Show had two other features. First were his ever-changing cadre of correspondents, gifted comedians in their own right, who he would send out to ‘cover stories.’ Often this meant giving people with truly amazing views enough rope to hang themselves. The DS staff would find some local controversy and cover it; interview the participants. Sometimes, they’d pretend to take one side or another (usually the crazier side), in order to elicit a response. My wife and I would watch these pieces, and shake our heads in amazement that anyone would agree to be interviewed by anyone from the Daily Show. But often other news organizations would interview DS subjects after the shows in which they were featured had aired, and generally the folks would say they’d been treated fairly. They had been given an opportunity to explain themselves to a national audience, and they’d been quoted accurately.

You might say that those interview sequences were mean-spirited. After all, the point was to provide what seemed to be insane people a platform for them to air views. But, real news organizations do that too. Again, the point was to deconstruct mainstream news programs. On a news show, it isn’t particularly unusual to highlight some controversial issue by focusing on nuttiest fringe views imaginable. That’s what’s called ‘balance.’ So if a major network is doing a show about the US/Mexico border, they’ll interview some armed civilian vigilante type, out there with his shotgun and flashlight looking for ‘illegals.’ Controversy sells. (I also love how the various correspondents were given fancy titles: ‘senior foreign correspondent’).

It’s also worth noting, BTW, the subsequent careers of Daily Show correspondents. Steve Carell is a major movie star. Ed Helms and Rob Corddry are in-demand character actors. Stephen Colbert will replace Letterman at NBC, and Larry Wilmore and John Oliver have their own spin-off shows. If the Daily Show was a parody of CBS News, The Colbert Report was a parody of Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox. Larry Wilmore’s show hasn’t quite found its voice yet, but looks a lot like those Sunday news shows, like This Week on ABC, expecially with Wilmore’s panel discussion feature. John Oliver’s show on HBO is the best of them all; a parody of 60 Minutes, really, but substantive enough to straddle that fine line between doing the news and making fun of it.

The final part of any Daily Show episode was the interviews, and to some extent, it’s late night formulaic, the place where the show drops its news focus and asks movie stars about their latest projects. But Jon Stewart transformed that part of the show as well. He did remarkably incisive interviews with major political figures, regularly sparring with Mike Huckaby and John McCain. President Obama was on at least three times that I can remember. Best of all, Jon loved authors. He often found interesting books, usually about either history or public policy, and interview their authors. I can’t tell you how many books I bought or checked out from the library and read after seeing their authors on the Daily Show.  At least thirty; probably more. He loved engaging with smart people who had interesting things to say.

In fact, if Fox News eventually wore him down (he said watching that network was the hardest part of his job, and led to his retirement), then the authors and books he featured invigorated him. By the same token, that’s my final takeaway from the end of this 16 year era. Jon Stewart represented incisive wit and fury and even optimism in a time when our politics seems irretrievably broken. Television news is drowning in BS, as is public life generally. But the world is also a place where smart, passionate, informed people can come and tell you about the great book they just wrote.  I wish Jon well, and I’m going to miss him terribly. And hope the new guy, Trevor Noah, does well. Those are huge shoes to fill.

Bill Cosby, serial rapist

We think we know celebrities. We don’t. What we know is a carefully crafted persona, an image, meticulously buffed and refurbished. And sometimes those personae are edgy and tough and sometimes they’re pleasant and kind and family-friendly. And then we hear something about a celebrity that seems at odds with what we’ve imagined we know about them. And it takes awhile to process.

On Saturday, a 2005 deposition given by actor and comedian Bill Cosby surfaced. Forty-eight women had, in recent years, come forward and accused Cosby of various degrees of sexual misconduct, including many who said that he had drugged and raped them. Those accusations had been greeted with varying degrees of incredulity. This was, after all, Bill Cosby, one of the most beloved entertainers in America, winner of a 2002 Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And, of course, our perceptions of Cosby were largely shaped by The Cosby Show, which ran on NBC from 1984 to 1992. Bill Cosby was, for most of us, Dr. Cliff Huxtable, the genial, kind-hearted and wise patriarch of that sit-com family.

It wasn’t just that Bill Cosby played a beloved TV Dad. He was black, and he was a pioneer. From 1965-1968, he played Alexander Scott on the comedy-spy TV series, I Spy. He was therefore the first black actor to play a leading role in an American TV drama. The premise of the show was that of two putative tennis bums who actually are working for the CIA. It was a buddy-cop-comedy, with Robert Culp as tennis star Kelly Robinson, who partners with Scott/Cosby. It was the kind of show that commented on race without ever commenting on race; Scott was just a character on a show, smarter and more sophisticated than Robinson, but not as intuitive. It was a fun show, witty and clever. During the time of that show, and for years thereafter, Cosby’s comedy albums were massive best-sellers; I remember memorizing entire bits. “It’s The Lord, Noah.” “Right.” “I want you to build an ark.” “Right. What’s an ark?” Listen to those old routines today, and they’re just remarkable; exquisite comic timing, beautifully shaped comedic narratives.

Also this: he wasn’t ‘a Hollywood type.’ Or so we thought; he was a good guy. Happily married, a college graduate, a happy family man, with four daughters. And–more sympathy– a son who was the victim of a terrible tragedy; murdered, senselessly while changing his car tire. Later on, Cosby became the spokesperson for black self-empowerment. He came out against rap music, against hip hop culture. A pull-your-pants-up, go-to-school, get-a-job cultural warrior. (But even this was expressed genially). That was also the point of The Cosby Show; the Huxtable home was beautiful; they were well-off people. He represented black aspiration, black achievement. African American gentrification. The Huxtables were an American ideal.

So this was the point: nobody wanted Bill Cosby, of all people, to be revealed as anything less than what he seemed to be, a good and decent man, an extraordinary talent, and a spokesperson for middle-class values. A sexual predator? No way!

Except there were always those accusations, all those women, saying they had been assaulted by him. Initially, when we thought about Cosby, those allegations were an annoying buzz we tried to swat away. It couldn’t be true. Bill Cosby, of all people. Get real.

But yes. On the deposition, Bill Cosby, under oath, admits to drugging young women with the intention of having sexual relations with them. He admits to paying women off with money from his personal account, so that his wife wouldn’t learn of it. These activities all took place years ago, and so his crimes are past the statute of limitations. He will, in all likelihood, never be criminally prosecuted. But he is, by his own admission, someone who used drugs on women, so that he could engage in what he called ‘romantic, sexual things, whatever you call them.’ As it happens, our society has a word for ‘romantic, sexual things’ that are non-consensual. That word is ‘rape.’ Bill Cosby is a serial rapist.

After defendant testified that he obtained seven prescriptions for Quaaludes, the following testimony was elicited:

Q. You gave them to other people?

A. Yes.

Q. When you got the Quaaludes, was it in your mind that you were going to use these Quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?

A. Yes.

So how do we process this? Lots of commentators have expressed amazement over the cognitive dissonance of combining the persona of ‘genial paterfamilias Bill Cosby’ and ‘serial rapist.’ But I think there’s a valuable lesson here, if we can disassociate the word ‘rapist’ from our usual understanding of it, a depraved and vicious lunatic leaping out from behind a tree and holding a knife to a woman’s throat. That kind of stranger-rape can happen, of course, but it’s also misleading. The ‘Cosby persona’ who was also a rapist was Cliff Huxtable. Daddy Huxtable is the rapist here.

Read the transcripts. Time and time again, Cosby would talk to young women, kindly and sympathetically, asking about their education, their families, their hopes and dreams. One young woman told him, tearfully, about coping with the death of her father. That’s the basic premise of most episodes of The Cosby Show.  One of the Huxtable kids would be struggling with a personal problem of some kind. Daddy Huxtable would listen, with great kindness and sympathy. And then he’d propose a solution, and off they’d go, problem solved. That’s what Cosby did with the various women who have accused him of attacking them. He would go into full Huxtable mode. He would listen, and he would sympathize. And then he would slip them a roofie and have non-consensual sex with them. And when they approached him later, he would cut them a check. From his personal account, so his wife wouldn’t know about it.

We need to learn from this; in fact, we need to internalize it. This is how rapists behave. Not all rapists, of course, but often enough. Most rape victims were attacked by someone they knew and trusted. Kindly old Dr. Huxtable was the rapist here. That was the persona Bill Cosby adopted when he wanted to have a ‘romantic, sexual thing’ with a young woman he met somewhere. It was a role he was good at playing.

Often enough, the place where he met them was the Playboy mansion. That’s another notion we need to get our heads around: Cosby was a welcome and frequent guest of Hugh Hefner. The women who have accused Cosby of rape included former Playmates Victoria Valentino, Sarita Butterfield, Charlotte Laws and Michelle Hurd. Another woman, Judy Huth, has said she was also attacked at the Playboy mansion. Hugh Hefner and Bill Cosby; Hef and Cos? Yes, indeed. Old friends, and quite literally, apparently, partners in crime. It now appears likely that Hef learned about the affective properties of Quaaludes, and that he instructed old pal Cosby in their use. Kindly old Hugh Hefner.

So there’s something else that we need to process. Playmates are women who have posed nude in Playboy magazine. That is to say that they are attractive young women whose images have appeared, neatly airbrushed and photoshopped (one presumes), naked, in the pages of a particularly famous men’s magazine. They are also guests at the mansion, welcome anytime, to enjoy the world’s longest running party, hosted by a really old guy in his pajamas.

And here’s the point; the fact that these women consented to have their photos in that magazine does not suggest sexual availability, and should not imply consent to subsequent sexual activity. It is absolutely possible to rape a Bunny. Consent is consent, and a woman who has been drugged is not capable of consent.

Somehow, Hugh Hefner has managed to sell the image of the Playboy mansion as somehow, I don’t know, innocent. A fun place for young women hoping to advance modeling/acting/show biz careers. Sort of a partying job fair. I’m not going to link to it, but check out Weezer’s Beverly Hills video. It does an effective job of selling this notion: ‘ain’t nothin’ goin’ on here but good clean fun.’ We now know that that is not the case. The Playboy mansion is a hunting ground for sexual predators. Elderly sexual predators, apparently. Like Hef, and Cos.

Bill Cosby’s career is over. His reputation is destroyed. Civil suits could wipe out his fortune–I certainly hope so. It’s not likely that he will ever go to jail, more’s the pity, but his actions may result in a bill, currently before Congress, to extend the statute of limitations for rapists. The best we can do now, is learn from his case. Two lessons: rapists can look like and act like Dr. Huxtable, and also, posing for a men’s magazine does not imply consent to sexual intercourse. That will have to be enough.

The West Wing, and politics today

Surfing the internet this morning, I happened upon this article in the Huffington Post. It’s a provocative piece, by Robert Kuttner, arguing that liberals need to become much more radical in their proposals going forward. He identifies several major economic issues that have become part of the political conversation in the Democratic party–the cost of college and student debt, income inequality, low wage jobs, and the loss of career paths; the emergence of part-time ‘gig jobs.’ Kuttner then examines the various proposals that people have been suggesting. He takes a careful look at Hillary Clinton’s recent speech on the economy, which he quite likes, and thinks represents a step forward in our understanding of the economic difficulties faced by American workers. And then he says this:

The budget deadlock and the sequester mechanism, in which both major parties have conspired, makes it impossible to invest the kind of money needed both to modernize outmoded public infrastructure (with a shortfall now estimated at $3.4 trillion) or to finance a green transition.

To remedy the problem of income inequality would require radical reform both of the rules of finance and of our tax code, as well as drastic changes in labor market regulation.

Politicians would have to reform the debt-for-diploma system, not only going forward, as leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposed, but also to give a great deal of debt relief to those saddled with existing loans.

Unions would need to regain the effective right to organize and bargain collectively.

This is all as radical as, well… Dwight Eisenhower.

And none of the changes Kuttner proposals even begin to address the biggest issue of them all; the potential spectre of global climate change, and the economic changes that would be necessary effectively to cope with it.

Here’s the thing: I agree with Kuttner right down the line. I think he’s right on every particular. Unfortunately, he’s also right in suggesting that how difficult passing any of this would be. As he says, “the reforms needed to restore (Eisenhower era levels of shared prosperity) are somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders.” And Sanders is already being dismissed by the Beltway, by the mainstream media commentators, by Democratic strategists and pollsters, as a wild-eyed radical. Frankly, he’s seen as kind of a crazy person. And he’s actually probably quite a bit too conservative.

Lately, my wife and I have been watching re-runs of The West Wing. It was dismissed in its time as a fantasy show for liberals. Stuck with George W. Bush in the actual White House, we got to spend an hour once a week imagining a better President. Jedediah Bartlett was a Nobel Prize winning economist, unapologetically liberal, though, of course, flawed as all humans are flawed; in his case, by MS, and also by a bit of a temper, and a kind of pompous windbaggery that drove his staffers nuts. I liked the show; I’m not blind to its flaws.

But this time through, binge-watching all those great episodes with my wife, I’ve been struck by the actual issues that the show dealt with. After all, the heart of the show were all these impassioned conversations about public policy by smart, policy and political wonks, Josh and Toby and Donna and CJ, as they walked around the halls of the West Wing. The show’s been off the air for ten years; I would expect that it would deal with a lot of issues that aren’t actually issues anymore. What’s fascinating is how many of the issues the show deals with are still with us today.

They spend a lot of time, for example, talking about the Iran problem; Bartlett’s always trying to curb Iran’s attempts to build nuclear weapons. One whole episode was about an effort by Leo, acting as Bartlett’s emissary, to normalize relations with Cuba. Climate change gets mentioned, but only a couple of times, in passing. Republicans are forever talking about tax cuts, which Bartlett has to consistently bat back. Economics in the show are sort of weird; Bartlett is never a particularly popular President, but we’re told that the economy is humming along, with five and a half (or seven, or nine, depending) million new high paying private sector jobs. Plus a balanced budget, plus low inflation? And an approval rating in the 40s? It’s like they had to have him be good at economics (he’s a Nobel laureate), but unpopular (conflict!), and sort of hoped we wouldn’t notice; Presidents with humming economies are really really popular.

Gay marriage gets mentioned a lot, but always as a kind of pie-in-the-sky thing that only the most wildly liberal politicians ever even mention. Barlett’s (quietly) in favor, but can’t say so publicly. Too preposterous a pipe-dream to ever become reality. But raising the minimum wage is not actually a big deal; Barlett negotiates a minimum wage hike with Arnie Vinick (the Republican Presidential candidate, played superbly by Alan Alda) and it passes without fuss.

Now, I’m not saying that The West Wing was a particularly prescient show, and oh, if we’d only listened! or anything like that. I think that Aaron Sorkin and (later) John Wells reflected the big political issues of their day, and the mainstream thinking on those issues. They tried to position Bartlett in perhaps surprising and provocative ways in relation to those issues, but those were the issues. And I look at Obama’s second term, ten years after Bartlett ‘left office,’ and it’s interesting. We have an Iran deal. We have normalized relations with Cuba. We don’t have a balanced budget, but the world-wide financial crisis of 2007-8 came after the show left the air. (It would have been interesting to see what Bartlett would have done about it. I assume he was a Keynesian (he was a macroeconomist; they’re all Keynesians); probably he would have rejected austerity). But John Wells was show-running for seasons 5-7, the last three seasons, and Wells was clearly less interested in economics than Sorkin was. The whole last season was about the campaign to replace Bartlett, Matt Santos v. Arnie Vinick, and it would have been nice if Santos had ever attacked Vinick’s tax cuts on substance, not because Vinick’s a Republican and we’re rooting for the Democrat to win, but because Vinick’s tax cuts are bad economics.

Whatever. Here’s my larger point: there are issues that were raised on The West Wing that have since been resolved, mostly, of course, because that show was ten years ago and the world moves forward. Liberals favor change; conservatives oppose it; that’s the difference between the two philosophies. Both are necessary. But right now, voters are angry, because they can see how our country’s current economic successes aren’t benefitting ordinary Americans. Economic inequality should be the key issue in this campaign, and it’s starting to happen on the left. (The Right’s all obsessed with nonsense issues, like border security and cutting rich guys’ taxes).

But. But. If we don’t talk about issues, even far-out, will-never-happen-in-my-lifetime issues (like marriage equality), then people won’t think about them, and they’ll never come to pass. The only way to affect change is to start talking about affecting change. That’s why Bernie Sanders is so valuable in this race. He’s not going to win, and there are issues where I think he’s dead wrong. But he’s talking about economic issues that need to be talked about. He’s willing to position himself as a radical, even though actually he’s not radical enough.

Jed Bartlett, of course, never existed. But that TV show was part of the political conversation. If what’s replaced it is another TV show (Veep, say, or House of Cards), well, those are both terrific shows, but not much interested in policy. But there remain fora where conversations about policy can happen. And we need to speak up.


Late Night, with David Letterman debuted on Feb. 1, 1982. His first guest, famously, was Bill Murray. I never watched it. It was on too late for me, and besides, I was in graduate school, working two jobs; I didn’t have time for television. In 1992, after considerable controversy over whether Letterman or Jay Leno would replace Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, Leno got the gig. CBS then created the Late Show with David Letterman to compete for the late night audience. My wife and I had just moved to Utah, and we decided to give the show a try. Dave became our frequent late night companion. He could be a cranky, weird, unpredictable late night friend. He was also consistently and brilliantly entertaining. You have to be likeable to succeed on television. You had to be someone people wouldn’t mind inviting into their home night after night. Dave was a prickly houseguest. But from the outset, I loved his show.

One of the first things Dave did on the Late Show was called ‘meet the neighbors.’ He went around with a camera crew and visited the small businesses surrounding the Ed Sullivan Theater. Eventually, some of those local businessmen became minor celebrities, frequent guests on the show. And one day, I had an epiphany about Dave. His job revolved around celebrities. He was there to promote their newest projects, to interview them and make them seem charming and fun and cool, to laugh with them and joke around with them.  That was his job; the care and feeding of famous entertainers. That was what Carson was brilliant at doing, what Leno was also becoming very good at. And Dave thought the whole thing was a crock.

And that became the central dynamic of Dave Letterman’s show, the key to his entire appeal. Night after night, Dave Letterman deconstructed celebrity. Instead of worshipping at the shrine of celebrity–Leno’s raisson d’etre–Dave undercut it, revealed its essential emptiness, showed the inherent instability of how it structured its sign system. Celebrity just means ‘someone who is celebrated’–it’s entirely circular. So Dave set out to prove that ‘celebrity’ meant nothing. He could turn anyone into a celebrity.

So Rupert Jee, owner of the Hello Deli, on West 53rd street, became a celebrity. (Jee appeared on Late Night over 200 times). So did the two Bangladeshi businessmen, Sirajul Islam and Mujibur Rahman, who ran a gift shop nearby. Never mind that Sirajul and Mujibur weren’t particularly charismatic or amusing. Nor was Jee, who mostly just came across as nervous. That was the point; neither were most ‘celebrities.’ That’s why Letterman got so much mileage out of the Stupid Pet Tricks and Stupid Human Tricks that became show specialities. Or the frequent appearances of spectacularly unfunny characters like Larry “Bud” Melman. Again, there was Dave turning essentially anyone to a celebrity. That’s why he’d do weird things like drop bowling balls off the roof of the theater, or water balloons, or whatever. Aren’t you amused? You think ‘celebrities’ are talented? Watch this guy launch ping pong balls from his mouth, and then catch them. Watch this guy carry a bicycle around balanced on his chin. Watch this dog walk around with a paper bag on its head.  Think George Clooney can do that?

Sometimes, it took an ugly turn, as can happen with deconstruction–a tool that can certainly turn on you. He made ‘Vickie’, a young intern, a celebrity. (She was actually an intern named Stephanie Birkitt). He’d call her up, and eventually put her on camera; she had more than 250 appearances on the show. (That story took an ugly turn in 2009, when Birkitt’s boyfriend threatened to blackmail Letterman for his alleged sexual affair with Birkitt).  So, there was a dark and sordid underside to the Letterman project. But in a weird sort of way, didn’t the blackmail and the revelations of his affairs confirm the validity of the show’s position? Dave got away with it, didn’t he? And why wouldn’t he? He’s a celebrity, after all. And don’t celebrities always get away with everything?

The deconstruction of celebrity helps explain the consistent popularity of certain guests–Bill Murray, Teri Garr, Tina Fey, Jim Carrey. Talented people, that is, who were basically in on the joke. And that’s why the most disastrous guest of all time was the one celebrity who most thoroughly embraced that role and life–Madonna. Or, more recently, why he seemed to delight in ripping Bill O’Reilly to shreds. Self-righteousness never did play on Letterman. 

And that’s also why Letterman’s occasional moments of authenticity were so tremendous. His first show after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was one of the greatest cultural moments I can remember. He was the one guy who got it absolutely right. Under pose and artifice can be, you know, actual truth.

Last night, Dave’s last show aired; he’s decided to retire, and will be replaced with Stephen Colbert. Ever since Dave’s departure was announced, I’ve felt petulant, out of sorts. I rarely watched his show the last few years; I’ve become a Jon Stewart man. But it’s not right, darn it, for Dave to not be on anymore. I’ve felt this more and more lately, an uncharacteristic conservatism, a feeling that things are changing far too fast, and that I want it to stop. Late night is not supposed to be dominated by people named Jimmy. I’m getting old, and let me tell you, aging is not for sissies.

I do know this: Letterman was great because what he did was righteous and needed to happen. He took a show that was about nurturing the cultivating the cult of celebrity, and used it to reveal, like Dorothy with Oz, the fakery and delusion at the heart of that cult. He did some good in this world. He’d also be the first remind us, he was basically just a talk show host, not the Dalai Lama. He was a deeply flawed human being, capable of terrible abuses of his own power, but a man with a core of decency underneath. He was a friend I kind of stopped seeing, but that I now find I will miss. Don’t be a stranger, old pal, and stop by again sometime.

Another attack on standardized testing, and a history

I know, I know, I’ve written enough about standardized testing. It’s May, Spring, time for the thoughts of young people to turn to love and who they’re going to take to prom. And also time for every kid in America to take a whole bunch of government mandated multiple guess tests. Which means time for yet another rant from me.

Jon Oliver did a funny bit on testing last night, pointing out the ridiculous lengths to which the education establishment is going to sell testing, including videos based on popular songs. I’ll link to his show later. Meanwhile, larger and larger numbers of parents are opting their kids out of testing. Good for them! Opt out! Or, kids, there’s no law that says you have to test honestly. Flunk ’em on purpose! Anything to invalidate already invalid results.

Educational mandated testing is to me the rarest of government policies. It’s a bi-partisan failure–President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative is as poorly conceived and foolish as President Bush’s No Child Left Behind. It’s also a policy that does nothing but fail. It has no positives; there’s nothing, absolutely nothing positive that can be said about it. It generates wholly bogus data, which is then used to implement entirely punitive and ineffective responses. It doesn’t work, and never has. And never will. You want to improve education in America? Step one: get rid of all standardized tests administered to children. Federal, state or local; get rid of all of them. Step two: fire anyone who works in education who favors test-based reform. Start there, and then let’s talk about what might work. Doubling teacher salaries would be a nice start.

So, no, I’m not a fan of testing. But the reason I hate testing, the reason I have such a bone-deep, utter detestation of it, is far more personal. You see, I was a SCAP kid. I was a six-year SCAPPIE.

1969. The summer of love. The year of the moon landing. The Beatles put out Abbey Road, and John and Yoko were married, Led Zeppelin put our their first album, Charlie Manson was arrested, and Rupert Murdoch bought his first London newspaper. And I started 7th grade. I entered Binford Jr. High School, in Bloomington Indiana. And the first thing we did, was take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, required for all new students that year, and most especially for those enrolled in SCAP.

The official name of the program was Secondary Continuous Advancement Program. SCAP. The idea was that learning should be fluid and continuous, cross-disciplinary and tailored to the advancement of each individual student. I remember, in Geometry, for example, we learned formulas and equations, but we were also told to create works of art; we were supposed to create really pretty geometric forms, and graded on our aesthetic achievements in that regard. I remember making this really awesome looking flattened oval thing. I thought it was great. It failed, because, said the teacher, it wasn’t complicated enough. His aesthetic was baroque; mine, neo-classical. For that, I got an F?

The key was testing. Lots and lots of testing. And we weren’t graded according to how well we mastered the material; we were graded according to how well we did as compared to how well we were supposed to do, based on the tests we’d taken.

When I was in college, I took a basketball class. I had played basketball for hours every day of my life, growing up. I figured ‘easy A’. On the first day of class, we had a shooting test; we had to take 30 shots from different spots on the floor. I got red hot, and hit 28. Then I learned that we’d have to take the same test at the end of the semester, and that our grade depended on how well we improved. Which is how I flunked basketball my freshman year of college.

So it was with SCAP. I was a voracious reader as a kid. Read most of Dickens in fifth grade. And I’ve always been good at taking standardized tests, a completely useless skill, not widely shared, except my kids have it too. They all test really well. Anyway, I remember taking a spelling test. There were 40 words on the test; I spelled 38 of them correctly. And I got a D.

A D. On a spelling test. And I happened to look over at the test sheet for the kid in the desk next to mine. He’d gotten 29 words right on the exact same spelling test. And he’d gotten an A. A for him, D for me, on the same test. Even though I’d only missed 2 words, and he’d missed 11.

And I stared at his paper. And I thought, ‘it’s true. I’m not making it up; it’s really true. They really are out to get me. The teachers at this school, they genuinely don’t like me, they actually do have it in for me. I’m not being paranoid. Here’s proof. It’s real, and it’s personal. And there’s nothing I can do about it.’

I was a weird kid anyway. I was tall and skinny and awkward. I had a nerdy vocabulary, and I tripped and fell down a lot. I got beat up all the time; I was just used to it. But I’d always gotten along pretty well with teachers. But that spelling test, that was a turning point. Suddenly I knew, with absolutely incontrovertible evidence, that teachers hated me too. That everyone, literally everyone, was out to get me. 2 wrong: D, for me. 11 wrong: A, for him. You can’t make it clearer.

Of course, now I know that it was just SCAP. That’s how SCAP worked. I’d gotten a D on that spelling quiz, because my test scores indicated that I should have been better at spelling than the other kid. I was a reader; I shouldn’t have missed those 2 words. My teachers didn’t hate me; they were trying to challenge me. But no one explained any of that to me, and if they had tried, I wouldn’t have listened. What I did was just quit. I just didn’t bother with school work, at all, ever, in any class, from that day on. I withdrew. Instead, I wrote stories. I day dreamed. I snuck books in and read on my own. And at lunch, I’d play 4-square, unless Jeff Tate and Eddie Deckard caught me; then I just got beat up again. Did I ever turn them in? Of course not. Tell a teacher? Why should I tell a teacher anything, ever? They hated me too. And I could prove it.

Google SCAP nowadays, and you get the Security Content Automation Protocol. Or a French car manufacturer. But the basic idea of SCAP lives on. Test kids, use the data to create curricula. Challenge kids, again based on data derived from testing. Okay, I don’t think anyone nowadays teaches geometry using aesthetic criteria. But I look at modern education reform, and I think: it’s SCAP. It’s all just more SCAP. And we’re making modern kids SCAPgoats. (Okay, sorry).

And it makes me sick. It’s damaging. It’s bad teaching. It doesn’t work, and will never work. Teaching is an art form, not a science. It’s humanism writ large. Modern education reform wants ‘good teaching,’ but with all actual human interactions removed. But teaching is, above all else, love. Get rid of every test ever created, and figure out how to love. And maybe then we’ll get somewhere.

Here’s John Oliver. (Language warnings.)



Like, I suspect, many of you, I’ve been riveted by the horrifyingly familiar scenes from Baltimore that have been dominating news coverage of late. For one thing, the rioting and protests have been taking place in Baltimore, a town we all think we know from the HBO TV show The Wire. It makes sense; The Wire depicted Baltimore as a failing city, ripped apart by racial conflict, with a brutal (and ineffective) police force and unresponsive bureaucracy and hopelessly underfunded education system. And David Simon, the show’s creator, has emerged as a voice of reason urging non-violent protest as potentially transformative. I watched Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, George Stephanopolous on ABC, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and Larry Willmore’s show, all this morning, and every one of them referenced The Wire. So we feel like we know what’s going on. We think we know Baltimore.  I love–we all love–The Wire. But it’s fiction. Jimmy McNulty isn’t a cop in the real city; Carcetti’s not the Mayor. I don’t find the familiarity of Wire references in any sense comforting.

What I’m left with are questions. Way more questions than answers, but questions to which I think we all, as Americans, are entitled to answers. Here are a few that have occurred to me. You undoubtedly have more of your own, and better ones than mine.

1) Why wasn’t the homicide of Freddie Gray treated as any other homicide? Why is this not a murder investigation? I understand the difficulty of getting cops to investigate cops, or getting prosecutors to prosecute the people they work with every day. But an unarmed man, without ever being accused of any crime, was chased down and placed in police custody. And his spinal cord was severed. That’s a homicide, and it might well have been a murder. Six cops have been suspended. That’s a start, but it appears that we might need some kind of Justice Department involvement. How about this: place all shootings of civilians by police under the jurisdiction of the FBI? Federally prosecute all such cases. Because this has to stop.

2) Why are police shootings in Europe so rare as to be non-existent, while every week, it seems, some police somewhere in America are involved in a homicide? Is there a difference in the way police are trained over there? Because the common denominator in all these deaths seems to me to be situations in which the police insist on asserting their authority over a civilian. Eric Garner wouldn’t cooperate. Walter Scott ran away from a cop on a routine traffic stop. (I don’t count 12-year old Tamir Rice, killed in Detroit. That one was just flat out murder). I understand that police officers need to exert control over a situation. But are they effectively trained in how to de-escalate? I know that the police have incredibly difficult and dangerous jobs. I know cops. They’re good people. I honor their work. But there have been way way too many violent and lethal incidents. Calm people down. Acknowledge their humanity. Running from a police officer should not ever, ever be a death penalty offense.

3) Rioting is bad. Looting is bad. But let’s face facts: black people riot because an explosive incident brings long-standing oppression to the surface. (As Larry Willmore put it, ‘that’s the history of America: oppression leads to rioting, over and over again. Starting with the Boston Tea Party’). White people riot because their favorite sports’ team won a championship. And while I love calls for non-violence, like David Simon’s, I find Ta-Nahisi Coates’ perspective even more compassing. The homicide of Freddie Gray must be seen in a larger context of systemic police violence in Baltimore.

4) When Jon Stewart said, on his show yesterday, (I’m paraphrasing) ‘if we can spend a trillion dollars building schools in Afghanistan, why can’t we rebuild our inner cities and their schools and institutions’ the crowd cheered. And George Stephanopolous said ‘whenever politicians say what you just said, crowds always cheer. But then it never happens.’ So okay. We’re in an election. I’ll vote for anyone who says it: ‘let’s rebuild our schools and our cities and our infrastructure. Take half of our annual defense budget and use it at home.’ If that means that I’m voting for Bernie Sanders, so be it.

5) It’s not enough, anymore, to watch TV and feel bad about what we see. We need to fix this. We need action.



American Idol

My wife and I have been intermittent fans of American Idol for years now. I wouldn’t say we’re any kind of die-hards, but we do still watch, even now, when the show is clearly on its last legs. Back in the day, Idol was on two nights a week, often two hours a night. Remember the results show, where they stretched a simple, straightforward announcement–Contestant A has been eliminated!–to a full hour’s show full of tension and strife. That’s all gone. None of the original lineup of judges is around anymore, though actually, that’s kind of an improvement–Harry Connick is terrific, insightful and smart and helpful. He’s good enough, I’m willing to put up with Keith Urban and JLo. They have a new producer/mentor guy, the oleaginous Scott Borchetta, whose various ‘this week you have to really bring it!’ exhortations we generally just fast-forward past. Still, this week, something interesting happened, something kind of genuine and non-scripted and odd.

Okay, so the way they do it now, the contestants all sing, and we vote for them, and the next week, they all sit in these lighted chairs, and the highest vote-getter’s chair lights turn green, and that’s how they know they’ve advanced. So they then get up and sing, and we vote on their performance for next week. But the last two unlighted chairs are for the ‘bottom two,’ and at the end of the show, those two sing, and everyone in America votes on Twitter. And one poor schmuck is eliminated right there. Handed his/her choice of weapon and sent to a fiery pit to do battle with an Orc, to the death. (I may have made that last bit up).

Actually, no, they just get to go home and not be on American Idol anymore. Which is not to say they don’t get some subsequent success in the music biz. One of the fascinating things about Idol is that the exposure from being on the show is often more important than actually winning it. Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert, several of them have all done really well after not winning the contest, while Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks haven’t been as successful. Not all of them get Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson-type careers.

Anyway, so, on Idol last week, they were down to the top seven. Clark Beckham and Tyanna Jones were the top two. They’re both really good singers, and I suspect one of the two of them will win. Then came Jax–she just goes by one name–she’s been uneven throughout. Nick Fradiani (Adam Levine wannabe) went next. That left three contestants; Joey Cook, Sayvon Owen, and Quentin Alexander.

Sayvon has been near the bottom the entire show. He’s crawled out of more coffins than Bela Lugosi. He keeps almost getting eliminated, and keeps barely surviving. Good looking kid with a big smile and a gorgeous voice, but not much of a performer. Seems like the nicest kid.

Joey, though, Joey’s interesting. She is a weirdo. I mean that in a good way; she has a weird voice, a weird look; she’s quirky and does really imaginative arrangements of the songs she’s assigned. Like she did Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love as a bluegrass song, and it worked. She’s absolutely the most original contestant they’ve had, since Adam Lambert (who is still the greatest Idol ever).

Quentin Alexander is fascinating. He looks like he came straight to Idol from an off-Broadway revival of Hair. A whole 60’s Black Panther vibe, but with more piercings. He’s a tremendous performer, and seems like a serious and thoughtful and intense young man.

So: stage is set. Quentin, Joey and Sayvon, on the three unlighted chairs. Quentin’s chair lights up; we’re going to a Twitter vote between Joey and Sayvon to stay on the show. Quentin sings. Then he says, loudly, ‘this is wack.’ And Harry Connick called him out. Here’s what they said:

Quentin: This sucks. We have two of the best vocalists, my best friend is sitting over there. This whole thing is wack, but I’m going to shut up right now.

Harry: Quentin, if it’s that wack, then you can always go home because Idol is paying a lot of money to give you this experience and for you to say that to this hand that is feeding you right now, I think is highly disrespectful.

To his credit, Quentin came back on-stage, walked up to Harry, and explained. He didn’t mean that the whole competition was wack. He was reacting emotionally to two good friends having to duke it out to stay alive in the competition. Later, though, he doubled-down, saying that he felt Connick’s comments were ‘disrespectful.’

Quentin Alexander is 21 years old. He’s a highly emotional performer, and seems to be a very emotional young man. Over the course of the Idol experience, he apparently has grown very close to Joey Cook; not romantically (in fact, she just announced her engagement), but as friends. So maybe this is just a young man blowing off steam.

But isn’t he, at least in part, somewhat right? I mean, I know that Idol is a singing competition, with a very nice first prize; a recording contract. And it’s no more brutal a process than any audition would be, for any performing art. Still, it is a little bit wack. Interesting young artists competing to become, what? A music industry voice-for-hire?

Dave Grohl, of Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame, has been outspoken on this subject, saying recently, “imagine Bob Dylan standing there in front of those judges singing Blowin’ in the Wind, and them going ‘it’s a little nasally and flat. Sorry.” Grohl (who I think sometimes is on a campaign to save rock and roll in America, expanded on this:

When I think about kids watching TV shows like American Idol or The Voice, and they think, oh, okay, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight f-ing hours at a convention center with 800 other people, and you sing your heart out to someone and they tell you it’s not good enough? Can you imagine? It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old drum set and just get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in, and they’ll suck too. And then they’ll start playing, and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives, and maybe all the sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some s–ty instruments, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again!

Or, like Joey Cook, color her hair and wear weird outfits and sing with a wobbly odd sounding voice, and doing something remarkable every week, often not very good, but never once uninteresting. I hope she does well. And I hope we see Quentin again. American Idol is kind of wack, and I’m glad he pointed it out, though I probably will keep watching, for a little while at least.