Entries Tagged as 'television'

TLC Reveals the Lives of `All-American Muslims’

November 11th, 2011 at 12:00 am 6 Comments

A new and very different kind of reality show that will be premiering this Sunday night at 10pm (ET/PT) on TLC–one that is perhaps the flip-side of Sarah Palin’s recent reality show–called All-American Muslim. (We’ll be giving the show a full review the week after next, Nov 18th, after we look at the new Clint Eastwood-directed J. Edgar.)

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Looking Back at `America in Primetime’

October 28th, 2011 at 6:41 pm 1 Comment

For the next month, starting this Sunday, PBS takes a most interesting four-week look back at America in Primetime, a production of the late Peter Jennings’ Documentary Group, in association with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

The series appropriately coincides not only with many PBS station fundraisers, but more portentously with the infamous November “sweeps” period, which will decide what new shows get a January renewal, and which shows will fade to black for good, in the commercial TV sphere.

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Advice From The Younger Generation

August 19th, 2011 at 6:08 pm 30 Comments

Are you one of those people who goes on their laptops or T.V. all the time?

Then this is for you!

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“Gettysburg” Slips on the Small Screen

June 3rd, 2011 at 6:36 pm 5 Comments

Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the opening hostilities of the Civil War, sales the History Channel is offering up a bevy of programming which kicked off Sunday with the two-hour documentary Gettysburg.  Executive produced by brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, it offers a very personal account of the war taken from the perspective of the ‘boots on the ground’ so to speak who fought (and died) during those terrible first three days in July 1863.  As an unapologetic Civil War “buff” I was looking forward to this episode.  I was especially psyched as the Gettysburg campaign is my focus of study and I’ve walked the battlefield many times.  I wasn’t completely disappointed with the Scotts’ program… and yet there was much that was off.

First of all, about the show itself:  Gettysburg takes us through the three-day battle starting at around 9:00am on July 1, 1863 and then focuses on several key moments in the see-saw fighting that would ravage the town and the surrounding countryside, leaving 50,000 casualties in its wake.  It follows several men on the front lines, from foot soldiers to generals.  Some live, some die.  Each has a story to tell and we see the raw terror mixed with unimaginable bravery that such battles summoned.  It also shows the ghastly wounds that were a horrible consequence of modern weapons meeting the outdated line tactics of the day. The show is very good at showing this to be a savage affair indeed (including a graphic depiction of a Union soldier splitting a rebel’s skull with his rifle butt that had me cringing.)  If Gettysburg’s purpose was, as the History Channel’s website announces, to “strip away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War to present the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in a new light—a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience” then it does the job.

There were, however, disappointments that I really didn’t expect.  First is the heavy reliance on re-enactors despite the liberating aspect of modern CGI. (Perhaps budgetary constraints were in play here).  Re-enactors are great for replaying tiny segments of the battle, and the consultants must have paid particular attention to the grime and filth, even the tattered uniforms, so prevalent among un-bathed Civil War soldiers in the field.  But like the Turner feature film of the same name almost two decades earlier, the numerical limits of available play-actors means that these depictions are hopelessly under-populated.  According to the June 30 rolls, a combined 185,000 soldiers (105,000 Union, 80,000 Confederate) were in the area.  This means that massive infantry formations and rows of artillery lined hub to hub were engaged.  For example, the Confederate line of battle that assaulted the Union position on Herr’s Ridge at the very beginning of the still-developing fight was almost a mile wide.  (And that was just two brigades.  Three to five brigades made up a Confederate division, three divisions a corps, three corps made up the Army of Northern Virginia).  Indeed, Gettysburg was one of the few open field battles where entire mass formations were in plain view at once creating what one Alabama soldier described as “a grand panorama with the sounds of conflict added.”

Considering the Scotts’ involvement I was hoping for more CGI employed where we could actually see, for instance, what the rebel force of 12,000 men arrayed for battle in their doomed July 3rd assault must have looked like from the Union lines a mile away. Union Lieutenant Frank Haskel stood in awe on Cemetery Ridge as the rebel line approached, describing it as “an overwhelming, resistless tide of an ocean of armed men sweeping upon us!”  The personal angle of the documentary does create intense drama and poignant emotion, but it fails to impress upon the viewer the sheer enormity of this titanic battle that was the greatest ever fought in the Western Hemisphere.

I also tried to imagine watching Gettysburg from the perspective of one unfamiliar with the battle and I think I would have found it confusing.  For instance, there was little back-story explaining why Lee invaded the North in the first place, what the stakes were (other than that they were “high”), or why they ended up fighting at Gettysburg despite the fact that neither Lee nor Meade chose the field (other than a brief allusion to the roads coming together there).  Why were Lee’s plans upset?  Why had Meade only been in command for four days?  What caused the Union retreat on day one when it starts off depicting the victorious charge to the railroad cut by William Dawes’ 6th Wisconsin?  Also why focus just on Mississippi brigadier William Barksdale on the southern flank on July 2 (the bloodiest of the three days) without better explaining his part in the plan of attack?  Brave as he was, Barksdale was one brigade commander in an assault that employed twelve brigades. Honestly, if I didn’t know the battle, I would have been at a loss as to the big picture. It‘s almost as if the producers and historians, so caught up in enthusiasm for the project, forgot that most people don’t know the story of the battle in depth and could have used a general tutorial to go along with the individual experiences.  (They might have taken a page from the 1970s British WWII television series The World At War which perfectly balances strategic/tactical overviews with personal narratives).

Finally, the music really annoyed me after a while.  It was the same sort of soundtrack one hears in those cable channel ghost story documentaries.  Really.

Yeah, yeah maybe I’m nit-picking.  And who I am to second-guess such noted historian contributors as James McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom) and others?  But I call ‘em like I see ‘em.  Gettysburg certainly does a remarkable job giving us a front row seat at this hemisphere’s biggest clash of arms and kudos on that score.  But if I didn’t already know the details of the battle, I would have come away thoroughly entertained but not necessarily educated.

How Oprah Became the Queen of Television

May 27th, 2011 at 9:58 pm 10 Comments

When Chris Rock joked, “Look at the most powerful person in the world – and President Obama is sitting next to her!” at the December 2010 Kennedy Center Honors, there was as much truth as there was humor.  But on Wednesday, May 25th, after 25 years as the platinum standard of afternoon talk, Oprah Winfrey said a fond farewell, as she transitions all of her considerable energies on her OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) cable service, and her adventures in feature films and Broadway.

Few if any performers in history had the kind of impact that the Queen of Daytime has had on society, politics, and culture both high and low. Walter Cronkite may have once been “the most trusted man in America”, but Oprah was perhaps the most trusted woman and so much more.  Her appeal came not from sitting at the top of the proscenium, high-handedly telling people “the way it is”.  To her multi-millions of fans across America and Canada, she was a best girlfriend, a soul sister, the mother or next-door neighbor we wish we had.  Despite her almost inconceivable wealth and power, she remains someone we can wave and call out at on the street and know she’ll cheer us back.

Oprah took TV talk beyond the superficial and often insulting “girl talk” and gossip of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the often B-list celebrities’ grazing ground of the ‘70s.  After Phil Donahue and then Oprah walked out into their studio audiences with a portable mike, they turned the camera and the all-seeing eye of the audience in on itself.  But while Phil Donahue provoked controversy and often told his audience what to think, Oprah took the big-sister approach, “hugging it out” with her heroes and heroines, sternly lecturing her villains like a strict but loving mom or teacher, feeling their pain, sharing their sorrow, and celebrating their triumphs.

With a few notable (and high-quality) exceptions, like Rosie O’Donnell in the late ‘90s and Ellen today, what one notable reference book once dismissed as the “couchbound showbiz prattle” of previous daytime talk pioneers like Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore, became a thing of the polyester past.  Before, people might have wanted to know about a special struggle or secret here and a heartwarming triumph there from our favorite TV and recording and once-great movie faces, in between the jokes and recipes and trying out the double-entendres they’d use next week on Match Game and Hollywood Squares.  Afterwards, we wanted to see ourselves reflected back at us, instead of the fantasies and escapism.  And we demanded to go deeper with our celebrities, to crack the greasepaint phoniness of showbiz code (“Back again today, that popular favorite and my very dear personal friend, a great humanitarian and entertainer, I want a warm welcome for Miss Lola Heatherton!!!”)

When business buzzwords like “branding” and “multi-media platforms” were barely in the lexicon, Oprah was already pioneering the concept.  Already she was a legitimate feature film star (an Oscar nod for The Color Purple), a credentialed journalist and news reporter in Chicago.  Soon she branched out to movie and Broadway producing, and made herself the biggest “national librarian” in the book biz, with Oprah’s Book Club.  After Bill Clinton rebooted political campaigning with his multi-media exercise in media hipness, hanging out with Arsenio, MTV, and SNL, Oprah became the queen of political kingmaking. Both Clintons, George W. Bush, Al Gore, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and all the rest dropped by Harpo Studios.

Though this approach was arguably more interesting and instructive than before, it also cemented what our own David Frum called the “Let’s talk about ME” culture of insta-catharsis, where airing one’s dirty laundry became a point of pride rather than a shameful secret.  In many ways, Oprah was the Internet before the internet, doing more to democratize our discourse than anyone before Mark Zuckerberg and YouTube.

Oprah also rebooted the biography and memoir and the celebrity interview into self-help and empowerment life coaching by another name.  It is hardly an insult or racist to point out that this technique came specifically from the black church, and from Oprah’s own roots as a pioneering black feminist and career woman.  Forget dry ice novels about rich people suffering existential crises or glitzy, pseudo-royal biographies of life in the cloistered halls of political power.  We want (as one legendary singer actually put in her recent memoirs) bullet-points with useful life lessons we can adapt for ourselves.  Oprah would be the first to admit that someone with a last name like Kennedy or Rockefeller was important – and she’d be first in line behind Barbara Walters to “get” them for The Interview.  But she was the one who also insisted that perhaps their Latina housekeeper or black butler had just as, if not even more, “important” a life and story.

In this case, imitation proved to be the insincere-est form of flattery.  By the tabloidy 1990s, Geraldo, Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake, and Jenny Jones were the worst offenders, taking Oprah’s format and brand and crassly downsizing it into white (and all other colors) trash’s ill-est meltdowns and moments.  But Oprah’s worst TV trauma, and the biggest potential damage to her carefully crafted “brand”, was yet to come.

One can almost feel the panic attack, one that not even the most powerful woman in the world” had the power to overcome, when James Frey was outed in early 2006 after having been featured and billboarded on her show.  Little wonder that of all the AAA-list celebrities and greatest “gets”, it is perhaps his episode that is the most (in)famous in the show’s history.  Like the notorious quiz show scandals of the 1950s, would this revelation of a fake, a breach of trust on this level – even though Oprah herself had been innocent of the deception – cast a pall over all of the legitimate heroes and survivors and their stories that she’d featured?  Would their real-life stories be reduced to eye-rolling camp, with viewers watching say, some single-mother break down in tears, and instead of identifying with her plight or feeling sorry for her, just roll their eyes a la Mrs. Krabappel from The Simpsons, cynically thinking, “She’s faking it.”

Oprah was prepared for the sleaze merchants and tabloids doing their dreary thing.  But what not even she was ready for was the Network- or The Player-level uber-cynicism of our modern media-industrial complex.  This was when the curtain parted, when we saw where the roads led when “anyone” could be a star, provided their Queen-for-a-Day sob story was sizzly enough, when leading lights like Kim Kardashian, Nicole Richie, Bristol Palin, and Snooki all have blingy deals for “booki-s” simply because they have sexy secrets and brand names that will “pre-sell and move units” (as we say in the book biz.)  This was when Oprah was placed in the same kind of dilemma she’d featured with other people in the hot seat for the past 20 years.  Would she give up and give in, or would she battle back to re-emerge triumphant?

Of course, in true Oprah fashion, we all know which road she chose.  (She even ‘made up’ with Frey, and featured him on her last week of shows.)  From buzz-machine moments like Tom Cruise’s sofa-jumping antics to helping pick the next President of the United States, the “Queen of Daytime” never let anyone else take away her crown.

And that is why, in this year when more daytime TV institutions are failing than banks in September of 2008 – Regis, Mary Hart, and Larry King joining Oprah in semi-retirement, All My Children and One Life to Live reaching the end of their lives – the end of The Oprah Winfrey Show as we know it cannot be ignored.  The fact that anyone, let alone an African-American woman of her time and place, could overcome the obstacles Oprah did to quite literally conquer the world, is the most remarkable story of all presented on her show.  And this week, in Oprah’s own uplifting-ending style, she bid farewell with the love of her fans still undiminished, and her head held high.

HBO Takes on Wall Street

May 20th, 2011 at 5:56 pm 33 Comments

In the spring of 2008, just as the wheels were starting to come off of Wall Street, HBO presented a movie about how the Bush era began, with a star-studded film of the 2000 election Recount. This Monday, May 23rd at 9:00pm (ET/PT), we relive its unhappy ending, with an equally celebrity-packed adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s controversial bestseller, Too Big To Fail, directed by feature veteran Curtis Hanson.  William Hurt, Paul Giamatti, and Billy Crudup head an A-list as the power threesome of then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geithner, then chief of the New York Fed.

While not as operatic or entertaining as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street follow-up, Money Never Sleeps, the film more than passes the All the President’s Men litmus test of making nail-biting, suspenseful entertainment out of real events where we already more-or-less know “who dun it” and how it all mostly turned out.  Hurt plays Paulson with military soft-spoken precision, dictatorial in the office but racked with doubts when by himself or with his wife (Kathy Baker, top-drawer as usual).  Crudup is appropriately weaselly as Geithner, and Giamatti and his hound-dog eyes do a good impersonation of the shy academic suddenly trying to keep himself (and the economy) afloat in the deep end.

Yet aside from a cheap Law & Order “ripped from the headlines” ploy for publicity, though, is there any other reason why HBO is making this movie now, when we’re still trying to crawl out from under the blowback?  While the Great Recession, and the 2008 economic meltdown that precipitated it, as bad as it is, isn’t the moral equivalent of slavery, Vietnam, or the Holocaust, it is their equivalent in one particular way.  As was said of that trio of terrors, the meltdown is like “a monster that sits down in the middle of our history and refuses to go away.”  And like a monster sitting down in the living room of a Truman Capote or Eudora Welty novel, its tragic and comic dramatic value comes from watching everyone else’s determination to politely ignore it, to pretend that it just isn’t there.  The 2008 meltdown has become a mythological pool that reflects more of the image of each person looking at it than it reveals anything about itself.

Behind Curtain Number One, today we have the Republican party of Paul Ryan and John Boehner, now pushing austerity measures and survival-of-the-fittest “free market” solutions.  The same Paul Ryan and John Boehner who took to the floor of the Congress in fall 2008, openly crying and shuddering, literally begging for bailouts and make-ups and interventions, dispensing totally with what I remember one commenter on this forum calling ”free-market BS.”  The same Ryan and Boehner who had supported Dick Cheney and Karl Rove’s activist “big government conservatism” totally, and raised barely a peep about deficit spending until after Obama took office.  They may have reverted to Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand today, but back then, their philosophy more resembled that of Randal Graves from the definitive slacker movie Clerks: “I’m a firm believer in the ruling class — because I rule!”

Behind Curtain Number Two, we have the Democrats.  Was it Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush who deregulated financial instruments and media-monopoly laws, fully opened China and India, and started sacking US manufacturing in earnest?  Nope.  It was “new Democrat” Bill Clinton (who dismissed regulator Brooksley Born in 1999 as brutally as Cheney did Paul O’Neill, when she threatened to upset the Masters of the Universes’ apple carts.)  After the meltdown, President Obama blanket-reappointed virtually all of the Clinton and Dubya secret-handshakers who were ruling the roost before and during the crash — Geithner, Bernanke, and Larry Summers.  Democratic critics of Wall Street ”greed” and ”corruption” like Robert Reich and Russ Feingold were unceremoniously kicked to the curb.  And to frost the cake, when it came time for healthcare, “pro-business Democrats” like Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Max Baucus, and Joe Lieberman stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tea Party to defeat the liberal dream of a public option, switching it out for the much-hated individual mandate.

Yet today, less than two years later, the Democrats go banging on about how they “stand up for the little guy”, how they’re for “Main Street, not Wall Street”, how only they can protect us from the “greedy”, “racist”, “incompetent” Republicans.  Right.

But it’s Curtain Number Three that has the Big Deal of the Day.  As much disagreement as there might be between Barack Obama and Newt Gingrich, between Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, at least they all agree that the 2008 crash was a one-time meltdown, a tragic accident built of mistaken, not deliberate screwups.  Ask someone like Michael Moore, Barbara Ehrenreich, Noam Chomsky, Dennis Kucinich, or Bernie Sanders what it was all about, though, and they’ll tell you a different story.  To them, the meltdown was a deliberately planned and executed ”theft” of home-equity wealth from middle-class and minority homeowners to the ruling class, to bring the “shock doctrine” to America and put people in their place.

In this reality, the sweated-through suit jackets and teary eyes of Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke were all an act, a put-on as campy and cheesy as “I did not have sex with Miss Lewinsky” and “Bring it on!”   They were actually lovin’ every minute of the meltdown, gleefully shoveling taxpayer money into Uncle Scrooge’s hoarding vault. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) writes the narrative.  “It was all very carefully planned… to happen exactly when it did, and to involve the players that it did,” she schoolteacher-smirks in Capitalism: A Love Story.  “It was like an intelligence operation.”  When Michael Moore croons if the 2008 meltdown was an “economic coup d’etat”, as deliberate and on-purpose as anything Fidel Castro or Augusto Pinochet came up with, Congresswoman Kaptur replies, “Yes. That’s what it was!”

Perhaps the reason that so many commentators and elected leaders agree with Kaptur and Moore is how, after the bailouts and bonuses, instead of doing the “perp walk” to federal prison, many of the banking executives who survived the 2008 collapse are now enjoying record profits.  One gets the feeling that after the adventures of OJ, Robert Blake, Klaus von Bulow, Kenny-boy Lay, and country-club sentences for Michael Milken and Bernie Madoff, they knew that whether it was “on purpose” or an accident was beside the point.  One might say they were “too big to JAIL” — and they knew it.  (Can you imagine what a Gordon Gekko or JR Ewing would be thinking to themselves at the sight of some Representative Pothole trying to compare intellects with them?)   Tellingly, in this movie nobody plays Bush or Cheney (although Nancy Pelosi and a few other Congresspeople get the doppelganger treatment).  It’s as if at this level, even the Presidency is almost irrelevant – and all of the financial players have unmitigated contempt for the House and Senate — or more specifically, what they think are the unsophisticated rubes who populate them.

They say that the three things nobody is supposed to see from the inside are autopsies, processed meat, and politics.  What will keep September of 2008 living in infamy well after we’ve recovered from our current catastrophe is that it was when all the politics and platitudes died (temporarily), in the harsh sunshine of reality.  It was when we got a look at what happens to the doggies and kitties in the animal labs, instead of the miracle drugs and cosmetics at the pharmacy.  It was when we opened the wrong door at the hospital’s OB/GYN ward and saw an abortion, instead of the bunting babies in the nursery.  Forget “too big to fail.” The real problem is that it was too big to ignore.

Maybe Gore Vidal was right about our being “The United States of Amnesia.” We want to forget, to put it out of our minds, and our politicians are more than happy to try and help us to.  But we can’t – and we shouldn’t. So here’s to HBO for giving us all, of every party and persuasion, a plangent and much-needed (if liberty-taking) reminder of who, what, when, where, and why.  Of the day when politics-as-usual finally ended — and realpolitik ruled the world.

Goodbye, Michael Scott

May 6th, 2011 at 6:33 pm 4 Comments

In Michael Moore’s ultimate propaganda masterpiece, Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore rhetorically asked how someone who got as many things wrong as Timothy Geithner did (in his pre-and-during meltdown job at the New York Fed) could be rewarded with a kick upstairs to heading the Treasury Department.  ”It doesn’t make any sense,” Moore tells an interviewee, who swiftly corrects him.  ”It makes perfect sense,” the interviewee states.  In his opinion, Geithner got the big break precisely because he had proven he could make the most outrageous, impossible to believe statements with a straight face.  The contest between telling authority figures like the press, the President, and the ruling class what they wanted to hear — as opposed to what the facts actually were — was no contest for him.

Whether that’s true of Tim Geithner or not is subject for debate, but one thing is for certain: what better metaphor is there for our era of euphemism than the man who just signed off last week after five and a half years running The Office, the “World’s Best Boss” himself, Michael Scott?  Played to perfection by Steve Carell in his breakout role, Michael was the ultimate uber-nerd, trying desperately to be liked even as he always digs his own grave deeper.

Last week, that harmlessly destructive head of the Scranton branch of paper company Dunder-Mifflin finally left for a bittersweetly happy ending with his most appropriate love match, the delightfully inappropriate human resources chief Holly Flax (Amy Ryan).   But like a reality show (which The Office greatly and intentionally resembles in style, and indeed Michael himself was a Survivor fanatic), the final two episodes of this season will kick off a competition of sorts to take his place, including A-list names like Will Ferrell (who’s already been featured as Deangelo Vickers), Ray Romano, British Office boss (and Golden Globes scourge) Ricky Gervais, and some comedian or other named Jim Carrey.

They said that Seinfeld was a show about nothing.  When the American version of Gervais’ 2003-04 Brit hit The Office debuted on NBC in March 2005, it was a show about what the meaning of nothing is, about futility.  About people living lives of quiet desperation yet trying to keep their sunny sides up.  People who are trying to find some meaning from what they know deep down are redundant jobs, and perhaps even lives, ones that get more and more obsoleted by the day (a paper company in the era of email and iPads, an unproductive office in the era of downsizing and outsourcing and the Great Recession…)

Indeed, both versions of The Office were almost anti-sitcoms by American standards, at least when they first went on the air. They were filmed single-camera, with no studio audience or even a laugh track.  Instead of a central narrator, all creatures great and small got to talk to the camera.  Instead of hitting people over the head with comedy bits and routines, The Office got its comic staying power by its seeming blandness, it’s lack of affect.  Not to mention a downright politician-like ability to deliver those outrageous one-liners and intelligence-insulters, complete with a straight face and Daniel Day-Lewis-like conviction.  Along with its even loopier longtime playmate, 30 Rock, The Office was the definitive sitcom for the era when absurdist movies like the Charlie Kaufman canon competed with absurdist debut novels by buzzy authors like Jonathan Safran Foer, Benjamin Kunkel, and Joshua Ferris.  A show for real people who find themselves trapped in an ever-more unreal reality.

The other characters who populate the Dunder-Mifflin office range from resigned, longtime “lifers” like Phyllis, Stanley, Kevin, and Creed, to self-centered divas like Kelly and Angela, to striving go-getters like Ryan and Andy, and of course, Rainn Wilson’s diabolical Dwight. The latter are near-desperately trying to add some meaning to their lives and work, while one can practically hear the former just silently thinking to themselves, “They’ll learn soon enough, just you wait and see.”  Amidst this study in contrasts, even the voices of normalcy, America’s Sweethearts Jim Halpert and the former Pam Beesly, have plenty of quirky qualities to spare.  Everyone (most of all Michael) tries so comically hard to come across as ”appropriate” and totally professional, it makes their complete unprofessionalism and inappropriateness that much funnier.

As a society, we proudly throw around buzzwords and dog whistles like “diversity” and “celebrating the individual”.  Yet in many ways we’re more conformist and terrified of going apart from the crowd than we ever were.  On one hand, our humor is almost unimaginably coarse and vulgar compared to the past.  Yet on the other (especially in the workplace), we’re prisoners of political correctness.  No wonder so many of us switch over to The Mentalist at 10, a show that’s basically the bookend antidote to Michael Scott, controlled by a man who plays mind games on purpose, and who’ll tell you the score whether it hurts you – perhaps even especially if it hurts you — or not.

In the definitive Michael Scott scene, the perpetually childless (though not for lack of trying) Michael takes some of “Scott’s Tots” (on a take-your-child-to-work-day) to the conference room and proudly plays a videotape of himself in the mid ’70s, on a Romper Room or Wonderama type local kids’ show.  When one of the show’s muppets asks Michael what he wants to be when he grows up, 8-year-old Mikey says guilelessly that he wants to have 100 children, so that he’ll never be lonely and no one could ever say no to being his friend.

You’d have to go to South Park or John Waters movie territory to come up with a more campy-ghastly punchline in TV or film.  Yet it was grounded in truth.  Like all the show’s other best payoffs, it was delivered straight, no chaser.  We may never have known Michael Scott, but we’ve all known someone like him — sometimes, maybe even the person in the mirror (God forbid.)

So well played, Michael Scott (and the rest of the Dunder-Mifflin gang).  With your pointless jobs and unimportant lives, you managed to make yourselves the definitive symbols of the latter half of the last decade.  Of an era where disingenuousness has been raised to an art form, where the ability to think of oneself as a nice person is more important than actually being a nice person.  I’d say you were irreplaceable, but then, the whole point of The Office is just how replaceable we all are.

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Reality TV’s First Family

April 22nd, 2011 at 10:12 pm 1 Comment

Today, (supposedly) “reality” shows that cynically and purposefully manipulate very real people into pre-arranged situations for maximum “dramatic effect” are just another week at the office in network television.  But that wasn’t the case in 1973, when a well-off Santa Barbara family somewhat aptly named the Louds made their TV “series debut.”  And perhaps no TV show did more to fuzz the line between scripted fiction and “real life” than the groundbreaking PBS documentary, An American Family.

The ethical questions of moving a camera crew into an all-too-real family’s household, and following them around as the day to day dramas of life unfolded (and perhaps unfolded with a little help from the producers) are the substance of HBO’s new scripted movie Cinema Verite, premiering this Saturday (April 23) and starring Tim Robbins, James Gandolfini, and Diane Lane.  Meanwhile, in several select cities, some PBS stations will be re-running An American Family the following weekend (April 30), and the Paley Center(s) for Media in New York and Beverly Hills will be doing commemorative screenings of the series that same weekend.

Almost every encomium on An American Family goes on to say how it was the “first” TV show to show the fractured, liberated 1970s family for what it was, and get past the 1950s sitcom image.  Of course, that isn’t exactly true.  Family feuds and generational quarrels were actually at the height of their small-screen success at the time, thanks to groundbreaking sitcoms like All in the Family and Maude (the latter of whom’s family the Louds bore more than a passing resemblance to). In fiction, novels about sexy secrets in suburbia and upper-middle-class ennui had practically become a sub-genre by 1973, thanks to John Updike, John Cheever, Richard Yates, and Andre Dubus.

Still, they were fiction; the Louds were fact.  Yet make no mistake, the Louds weren’t the typical “American Family” any more than the family that Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland headed – with their country club mini-mansion, brand new luxury cars, Ivy League prep school, and neighbors ”keeping their fingers crossed about those mergers” – were really “Ordinary” People.  Today some might understandably consider the move (and the show) elitist, or a cynical, worthy-of-a-David-Brooks-satire attempt to reflect PBS’s target demographic of upper bourgeois culture-vultures.  On the other hand, if they had chosen a poor or minority family, the “narrative” would have been that it was by default a film about the effects of racism or poverty or single-parent households.  The point of An American Family was to see if a family that seemed to “have it all” really did.

But what family or marriage could ever withstand the scrutiny of 24-7 surveillance by a bunch of outsiders determined to use one’s own personal triumphs and horrors as mere fodder for their product?  (If I lost my best friend to a car crash, say, would the producers have thought that they hit the motherlode, that the worst thing that ever happened to me was “the good stuff” for them?  “Hey, he’s actually crying!  Zero in on the closeup and cue up the sound check!”)   As Princess Diana (who knew more than a little about invasion of privacy) once ruefully joked about Camilla, “There were three of us in this marriage, so it got a bit crowded.”   For as many critics who lauded the sociological value of the show, there were others who were shocked by and denounced the series’ keyhole-peeping “voyeurism.”

But the show did certainly make an impact that went far beyond that one “American Family.”  Not three years after An American Family, small-screen maven Aaron Spelling and film and stage legend Mike Nichols teamed up to bring their own fictional reworking to the air, stolidly titled Family. That show’s considerable success resurrected the “nighttime soap opera” thought to have died with Peyton Place, and led directly to two even bigger hits, as Family’s story editor David Jacobs moved on to create Dallas and Knots Landing for CBS before decade’s end.  On the big screen, after the era of Ross Hunter and Joan Crawford “women’s weepies” had run their course, movies had largely ignored family disintegration until the Louds let loose.  Afterwards, films from Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People to Far From Heaven, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, and American Beauty branched off the “Family” tree.

And while Roe vs. Wade and gay liberation were of course the prime movers (the most famous Family member was the late, openly gay artist Lance Loud), it’s worth it to note that before An American Family, “family values” hardly even made it into a campaign speech for Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, except when their assistants were thinking up this “big government” program or that to combat ghetto or barrio poverty.  Afterwards, it became the 800-pound gorilla of politics.  To this day, no President, from pro-choice and pro-gay Republican Gerald Ford, to Jimmy Carter and his railroaded “Conference on the American Family”, to today’s hopefuls like Sarah, Newt, and Huckabee, can (or will) avoid these thorny personal issues.

Today, both An American Family and Cinema Verite are best viewed as a time capsule, both of an era before “reality TV” became Reality TV, before we expected and perhaps even demanded fix-is-in manipulation of real people as if they were merely fictional constructs on a page as part of our fun.  And more importantly, as a real-time deconstruction of the where, when, and why the ”traditional American family” first became in danger of cancellation.

As for TV itself, while shows like Family and Knots Landing were class acts by the standards of their day, we could turn those shows off at 11 o’clock feeling variously reaffirmed, titillated, intrigued, or just plain satisfied.  An American Family may have been edited for television, perhaps even cynically so, but one thing it wasn’t was reassuring or easy to take.  It was messy and nasty and queasy and open-ended and so fascinating you couldn’t turn away – just like real life.   It wouldn’t be until shows like Six Feet Under, Queer as Folk, Swingtown, and Mad Men that hour dramas could or would dare to be that disjointedly disturbing and existentialist in their approach to interpersonal and family relationships.  And while those shows may be great TV, like An American Family itself, they exemplify a very different kind of “family values.”

Telly Davidson: Anchors Away!

April 15th, 2011 at 5:09 pm 2 Comments

Breaking news! This just in!  Katie Couric is likely to leave the CBS Evening News after five years for a probable syndicated talk show (not unlike her CNN colleague, Anderson Cooper.) This follows reports that her 1990s co-pilot Matt Lauer might also be finished with the four-hour Today tour. And we have it from a reliable source that, with Who Wants to be a Millionaire still a huge hit in syndication, Meredith Viera is also rumored to be thinking about giving up Today in a not-so-very-far tomorrow.

Talk about a domino theory. And the casualties are just as grim on the cable news front. Within the last 100 days or so, Larry King left CNN, Glenn Beck bid farewell to Fox, and Keith Olbermann had his final Countdown. But the real story isn’t just that there’s a game of musical anchor-chairs going on. CBS chief Les Moonves gave it away when he bluntly said that whoever replaces Katie won’t be the beneficiary of a $15 million paycheck. The Cronkite-Rather-Brokaw days of “star” anchors are officially at one with Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. Whoever replaces Katie will have a salary so diminished in comparison to their immediate superstar forerunners, you’d think that Paul Ryan and Rand Paul had written the contract.

It’s not exactly breaking news anymore to point out that the old-timey network newscasts were designed in, and came from, an era of authorities and conformity. By the standards of the Twitter and Facebook era, even the most “elite” federal judge or Senator looks positively Gandhi-like when compared to a booming network anchorman, telling us the news, looking down from his temple of truth. The real miracle isn’t that the network news shows are in decline; the miracle is that they lasted this long to begin with. Their rotary phone formats can only last so long in an era of iPads and app stores.

According to the latest ratings figures, viewership of the three nightly network newscasts in the 25-54 year old age group is roughly between 2 and 3 million apiece. That’s roughly one-fifth of what they were regularly pulling under Nixon, Ford, and Carter, or even Reagan and Bush Sr. And as Lawrence Welk once self-deprecatingly joked, “every time a hearse drives by, I lose another loyal viewer.” The commercials say it all — adult diapers, Hoverounds, Wilford Brimley’s diabetes ads, full-size Lexuses and Cadillacs, and all the other impedimenta of Hallmark Channel’s last Matlock marathon.

As to cable, David Frum informs me that the median age of Glenn Beck and Bill-O is roughly 65 years old, and Chris Matthews said (with more truth than poetry) that if Medicare were to be sacked, it would kill “half the people who watch this program!” More young people probably DO get their “news” from Jon Stewart and Bill Maher than from Brian, Katie, and Diane (or Maddow and Hannity, for that matter). That’s not even to mention the ones who get informed through Twitter, and Google, and their iPhones, and the innumerable other outlets of the internet media (like FrumForum).

Ironically, it is that longtime journalistic standard of objectivity and one-news-for-all that may be at the heart of the old media’s Goldilocks dilemma. As John Gregory Dunne once memorably joked, “One man’s Kant is another man’s cant.” Liberals say the network news is hopelessly right-wing and corporate; conservatives accuse the “lamestream media” of being hopelessly slanted against God and country. But the real problem is that in such a polarized, Red State / Blue State divide as today, even the fairest reporting can come across as anything but.

If I were to report on something like, say, the genocide in Rwanda or the Matthew Shepard murder (let alone 9/11 or slavery or the Holocaust) in a morally neutral tone, that in itself would be vaguely immoral. In the same vein, if I’m a Palin or Gingrich voter, gaping with horror at nearly $15 trillion in debt and a trashy, “anti-Christian” pop culture – or if I’m a liberal shuddering at the paranoid hate speech of Fred Phelps and Orly Taitz – and someone deigns to report on such outrages in flat, “neutral” oh-so-objectivity, their very lack of position in itself seems to be taking a position, and an untenable and offensive one at that.

Bottom line: Why should I give a flying fig what some monopoly-media mouthpiece says as s/he smiles into the camera, reading off the day’s headlines in robotic rictus, when I could be watching Rachel Maddow – or Lou Dobbs? When I could be reading Michael Moore, Ezra Klein, and Barbara Ehrenreich – or Ann, Rush, and Dinesh? When I could be interacting and Tweeting online at Democratic Underground or FireDogLake or the Daily Kos — or at RedState and Drudge Report?  When I could personalize my news the same way that I do my RSS feeds? Heck, even President Obama and Sarah Palin have found Twitter and Facebook to be as effective (or more) a means of communication to their core constituencies than endless auditions for the usual media gatekeepers.

And that’s not the only way in which the network news, as we currently know it, has reached its sell-by date. At least (as of today) two of the Big Three anchors are women – but why is it that in 2011, there doesn’t even seem to be a Bernard Shaw or a Connie Chung fronting a major weeknight news show anymore? Even on supposedly ‘edgier’ cable, there’s Chris, Lawrence, Rachel, and Dylan; there’s Glenn, Neil, Megyn, Ann, and Bill-O; and then there’s Piers, Nancy, Joy, and Wolf. Guess who ISN’T coming to our dinner hour? Today’s TV news is in dire need of a “color adjustment”, and I don’t mean just the switch to HDTV, comprende amigo? Why aren’t there more ’wise Latinas’ or African-American or Asian star anchors in today’s supposedly diverse era?

But if one-size-fits-all, droning network newscasts are a relic of the past, then why is it that not long after the venerable Larry King announced his retirement, cable news’s two biggest brand names — Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann — were not-so-voluntarily retired by their masters?

Suffice it to say, no birther mystery or 9/11 Truth conspiracy is as delusional as any media personality or author who starts to really think that they really are “bigger” than the multinational media companies that support them and their lifestyles (paging Charlie Sheen). In the end, Beck and Olbermann’s fatal mistake was simply drinking their own Kool-Aid. They thought that it was MSNBC and FoxNews who couldn’t get along without them; that their networks worked for them, not the other way around. They thought they were still living in the world of Walter Cronkites and David Brinkleys, where anchors were big, even if the news itself was sometimes small. And they paid the all-too-predictable price.

And that’s the way it is! Goodnight, and good luck…

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Whose Story Does the Kennedy Biopic Really Tell?

April 2nd, 2011 at 1:05 pm 7 Comments

This Sunday, April 3 (at 8:00pm), after a protracted delay, the niche cable movie channel Reelz Network will rescue the controversial miniseries on America’s most famous ruling-class family that was commissioned and then rejected by The History Channel, The Kennedys. (It competes with the launch of another buzzworthy and far more critically acclaimed miniseries, AMC’s The Killing, which we’ll be autopsying here at the FrumForum soon.)

With The Kennedys, the fur was flying among critics and journalists from the very start.  Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter judged it a “dull, unwatchable, ham-fisted mess”.  John Griffiths, in this point/counterpoint, said that it was a Dynasty-style camp sudser no more appropriate for The History Channel than Grey’s Anatomy would be for Discovery Health.  In the film’s defense, writer-producers Joel Surnow and Stephen Kronish (both late of 24) stepped up in this New York Times feature Q&A.

To me as a critic and historian, the controversy around the miniseries – and what it says about ”what becomes our legends most” – is far more intriguing than anything that will be on the screen.  One need look back only a few months to the Oscar nominated big-screen “biopic” of sorts, The Social Network – more specifically, to Aaron Sorkin’s liberty-taking screenplay – for a perfect example.

When Sorkin adapted Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, he wasn’t really interested in writing a second biography of Mark Zuckerberg, Actual Human Being.  He was interested in using the most prominent human symbol of the Internet as a metaphor for the massive changes in society, human relationships, and even the economy (bye-bye Borders and Blockbuster) wrought by the Internet’s transformation into a tweeting, file-sharing Social Network.  And while turning real people’s lives into fiction may be vaguely immoral (although in our cynical times, James Frey and “J.T. LeRoy” even tried to do it for themselves), the point Sorkin was trying to get across was indeed far more meaningful and relevant to our lives than a straight-ahead biography would have been.

Likewise, when it comes to true, stood-the-test-of-time icons, there are actually two Ronald Reagans, two Franklin Roosevelts, two John F. Kennedys, and so on. There’s the people that they actually were, and the myths that they symbolize and represent.  (And the old joke among writers has always been, if it’s a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend.)

Of course, the comparisons to Showtime’s 2003 miniseries The Reagans have been inevitable.  In its most controversial scene, Reagan opines to himself and Nancy that AIDS was “God’s judgment” on gays.  In actuality, it’s likely Reagan’s indifference to AIDS was more out of fear of Religious Right voter backlash than it was out of his own personal convictions. (Remember all those pictures of the alleged homophobe-in-chief “palling around” with Rock Hudson, Merv Griffin, Liberace, Halston, and Bob Mackie?) But this truth is a little inconvenient for a time-compressed screenwriter, even if he were sympathetic to our Ronnie.  So they do what screenwriters and directors have done from the beginning of biopics – write it in metaphoric shorthand.

For an even more extreme example of the dangers of examining our icons too closely (or truthfully), there was another CBS miniseries a few years back that portrayed the early years of Adolf Hitler, and attracted almost as much controversy.  In all likelihood, the grotesque abuse little Adolf endured from his hateful father did lead directly to the crimes he ended up perpetrating later in life. But if we do explain him, does that mean what he did will inevitably be explained away? Made to seem somehow understandable – or even excusable?

And on the opposite side of the street, imagine someone trying to do a warts-and-all, straightforward biography of say, Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa. Such attempts have been made in books (most notably Christopher Hitchens’ look at the latter), and even those were controversial in the extreme.  Perhaps treating icons on that level like mere mortals, indeed, reducing them to mere regular folk, does something of a disservice to the singular and unique accomplishments of their lives.

Maybe that’s why, as a rule, the best screen bios of real people don’t bite off too much than they can chew in a two-hour movie, or even a four, six, or eight-hour miniseries.  Think of The King’s Speech, The Queen, Frost/Nixon, (or if you want to reach back, Anne of the Thousand Days or The Rose.) Instead of trying to show someone’s (or some family’s) whole life from cradle to grave, the writers and directors choose one seminal moment, one definitive and specific time frame, for our subjects, and use it as an orchestra-playing metaphor for the whole of what they thought and how they lived their lives. The best biographies that did span the decades –Ray, the BBC productions of Elizabeth R or The Six Wives of Henry VIII – moved swiftly and wasted few words.

So as I tune in to check out The Kennedys, I’m not expecting to see the truth, nor am I hoping to see the myth.  My real viewing fun will come from watching to see which side will win out in the end.