Sunday, July 3, 2022

Sunday Reading

You Can’t Bring Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Down – Adrienne Westenfeld in Esquire.

During the Golden Age of Streaming, most science fiction television has had one thing in common: it’s all about serious, stone-cold, high stakes drama. Take Westworld, for example—has anyone ever cracked a smile on that blasted show, or were they all too busy worrying about the fate of sentient life? Meanwhile, over in the thick of Disney+’s sci-fi renaissance,Obi-Wan Kenobiand The Mandalorian have cute kiddos up their sleeves, but somehow the little ones are always in mortal danger. Black Mirror occasionally edges into black comedy, but for every single chuckle it induces, viewers get two dystopian nightmares in exchange. Over on Apple TV+, Foundation is constantly at fever pitch, with the future of the human race hanging in the balance week in and week out. Sure, the genre has some punchy outliers (like Avenue 5 and Lower Decks), but most of today’s televised science fiction suffers from what I call Marvelitis: the sky is always falling, the fate of the galaxy is always at stake, the space-time continuum is always in danger of splintering apart.

It’s into this grimdark landscape that Star Trek: Strange New Worlds arrives like rescue from an away mission gone wrong. Paramount’s years-long campaign to breathe new life into the storied Star Trek franchise has brought sleeper hits like Lower Decks and divisive misses like Discovery, but Strange New Worlds is hands-down Star Trek‘s best outing in decades.

Set during the captaincy of Christopher Pike, who preceded Captain Kirk aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, this prequel to Star Trek: The Original Series is an episodic, character-driven thrill ride where each hour pairs a top notch sociological story with some good, clean, swashbuckling fun. So much about the series just works, from its stellar cast to its nostalgic but breathable grip on Trek lore, but what elevates Strange New Worlds from other streaming sci-fi is its insistence on sweetness and silliness. Keep your multiverses, your convoluted tragic backstories, your hyper-serialized storytelling about the end of the universe as we know it—I’ll take my sci-fi with a heaping side of hijinks.

It’s important to note that hijinks are an integral part of Star Trek’s DNA. For all its visionary ideas about collectivism, justice, and inclusivity, Star Trek has always been a deeply silly sandbox where Starfleet officers tumble into campy misadventures in between all the phaser fire. Who could forget the iconic Original Series episode when the Enterprise is overrun with furry, fast-procreating tribbles, or the Voyager banger where aliens mistake a virtual reality show for real life? These aren’t mere throwaway episodes—they’re earnest, empathetic, slice-of-life stories that air out the drafty starships with some much-needed sunlight. The franchise’s signature spirit of optimism would be diminished without them.

Strange New Worlds dives headfirst into this tradition—and even goes so far as to make a winky, meta-textual gesture at them. In one standout episode, legendary science officer Spock is ensnared in a Freaky Friday caper when a soul-sharing ritual gone wrong leads him to swap bodies with his fiancée. “I do not like hijinks,” she warns, to which Spock frostily replies, “In that we are in agreement, but it appears that hijinks are the most logical course of action.” Meanwhile, following the previous episode’s nail-biting battle, the rest of the crew heads out on shore leave while the ship undergoes repairs. Two all-work, no-play officers remain behind to complete Enterprise Bingo (a hazing ritual popular among newbies) in an attempt to prove that they aren’t “where fun goes to die,” as they’ve been nicknamed. Walking the tightrope of goofy, earnest, big-hearted fun without verging into camp or cringe is a mean feat—one that Strange New Worlds pulls off handily.

Another memorable lark nods at a classic episode of The Next Generation in which Captain Picard and his crew are transported to medieval England and forced to live out the legend of Robin Hood, tights and all. In Strange New Worlds, that formula gets a glow-up when the Enterprise, while trapped in a mysterious nebula, is somehow transformed into the setting of a fairy tale that the chief medical officer often reads to his terminally ill daughter. Only Dr. M’Benga knows that something strange is afoot—and only he can put a stop to it. Bedecked in Renaissance Faire garb, the cast members have a delightful chance to play against type, with noble Captain Pike transformed into an obsequious flunky and goody two-shoes Spock rounding out the story as an evil wizard. It’s ridiculous, over-the-top, lighthearted fun—and the last thing you’d expect from prestige sci-fi.

Don’t get me wrong: Strange New Worlds can get serious. As Captain Kirk famously said in The Original Series, “Risk is our business.” Strange New Worlds doesn’t take that maxim lightly; at times, it’s a deeply moving study of duty, sacrifice, identity, and trauma. We live in serious times, so to borrow Spock’s verbiage, it’s only logical that science fiction should be serious, too. But serious stories with serious thematic messages needn’t always be relentlessly grim. Unlike most of the sci-fi available on today’s streamers, Strange New Worlds knows when to stop pummeling viewers with relentless interstellar battles and let the story breathe. Its sillier episodes work so well because none of the levity comes at a cost to characterization; rather, they build and advance character. Spock’s body swap caper is ultimately a parable about radical empathy, while Dr. M’Benga’s storybook adventure comes to a gut-wrenching conclusion when he must make a choice: let his daughter go to live free of disease, or keep her close at potentially mortal peril. One minute, the Enterprise’s no-nonsense security chief has been transformed into a histrionic princess, and the next, we’re blinking through tears to find the tissues.

In the streaming era, it’s assumed that for science fiction to qualify as “prestige television,” it must be serious. But Strange New Worlds is having its cake and eating it too, rifling through a variety pack of blended tones and batting a thousand each time. For all its episodic “alien rendezvous of the week” goodness, the characters each have a consistent emotional through line, whether it’s M’Benga’s quest to cure his daughter or Spock’s insecurities about his half-human, half-Vulcan identity. The show understands that galaxy-ending danger isn’t the only way to develop character. Sometimes it takes a body swap to prove that your betrothed can love you for who you are, no matter what your identity may be.

Not every television show can be everything to everyone. I’m not looking for the robots on Westworld to yuk it up anytime soon—if they did, it wouldn’t be Westworld. But I am looking for more sci-fi creators to take their lead feet off the gas and lighten up. Haven’t we all had enough of murderous robots, labored multiverses, and authoritarian aliens vying for galactic domination? Part of the unique joy television provides is the opportunity to hang out for hours on end with characters we love, but I’ve got to be honest—I wouldn’t hang out with anyone on Westworld. Star Trek viewers live and die by this franchise because we love spending time with its sweet, silly, ferociously smart characters and seeing how they change amid every new danger and wonder, from interstellar conflict to Robin Hood tights. Their starships are our happy places—and that’s all because sometimes, they’re truly a happy place to be.

And who can’t love a show where the captain of the Enterprise compares an away mission to packing the family into a station wagon?  To which Spock replies, “Station. Wagon?”

Doonesbury — We’re moving at a faster pace…

Saturday, May 21, 2022

A Little Night Music

Forty years ago today — May 20, 1982 — I was driving from Ohio to Colorado for my summer at Cheley in Estes Park. I stopped for the night in Seward, Nebraska, and checked into a motel. I ordered in a pizza and watched the final episode of “Barney Miller” on ABC. It was, and remains, one of the best TV shows: perfect casting, great writing, and one of the best theme songs ever.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Happy Friday

Hey, you made it to the end of the work-week, the Olympics are almost over — not that I watched one minute of them — and next Thursday the original “Law & Order” returns with Sam Waterston as the District Attorney.  DUN-DUN!

Meanwhile, the buzzards are circling Mar-a-Lago as we noted this week, and in New York the real Law & Order team is going to get their chance to interrogate the minions that ran the Trump mob operation.  To quote the immortal John Cole: spill, bitches.

The New York attorney general can question Donald J. Trump and two of his adult children under oath as part of a civil inquiry into his business practices, a judge ruled on Thursday, rejecting the former president’s effort to block the interviews.

The inquiry by the attorney general, Letitia James, and a parallel criminal investigation led by the Manhattan district attorney are examining whether Mr. Trump improperly inflated the value of his assets to receive favorable loans.

Lawyers for the Trump family had sought to prohibit Ms. James, a Democrat, from interviewing Mr. Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump. They had argued that she was politically biased against Mr. Trump and was inappropriately using her civil inquiry to aid the district attorney’s criminal investigation, which she is also participating in.

But the judge, Arthur F. Engoron, wrote that “this argument completely misses the mark.”

He ruled in favor of Ms. James’s lawyers, who had asked that the former president and the two adult children be interviewed in the next three weeks. The order also requires that the former president provide the attorney general with documents she sought in her subpoena.

“Today, justice prevailed,” Ms. James said in a statement, adding, “No one is above the law.” The Trump Organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Have a great weekend.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Sunday Reading

The Low-Key Carter-Era Pleasure of “The Muppet Show” — Naomi Fry in The New Yorker.

To watch TV these days is to feel that the line separating a clever concept from a dystopian hallucination is growing worryingly thin. On a recent episode of “The Masked Singer”—the Fox reality-competition show in which a panel of judges tries to figure out the identity of a crooning celebrity who is dressed, mascot-style, in a head-to-toe costume—an enormous, spangled snail gave a plodding rendition of Hall & Oates’s “You Make My Dreams.” For me, the performance raised many questions. Why would a snail need to wear a velvet top hat on its shell? What was the deal with the roses gyrating in the background? Would I ever be able to forget the assessment “snailed it!,” uttered by the judge and former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger? For the members of the panel, however, only one thing mattered: Who was doing the singing? They threw out some guesses. Seth MacFarlane? Jay Leno? Perhaps, even, Senator Ted Cruz? (This was not as outlandish a possibility as one might think: a couple of seasons ago, a pastel-colored bear had turned out to be the former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.) Finally, to the audience’s rhythmic, strip-club-esque chants of “take it off,” the snail’s hat was removed, and out popped Kermit the Frog, his felted mouth open in a show of glee. The judges gasped, the crowd roared: the masked celebrity was not a man but a Muppet.

Back in the late nineteen-seventies, when Jim Henson’s “The Muppet Show” ran, in syndication, on CBS, Kermit was the mild-mannered leader of his own troupe of performers, a ragtag gang of puppet characters who sang, danced, and told jokes in a quaint old playhouse. Now the frog had found himself in a vulgar reality jumble, his no-frills costume wedged inside one that was far flashier and more grotesque. Whither childhood? Granted, others might not experience this shift so keenly: I realize that I am just about the exact right age to feel an acute nostalgia for the low-key pleasures of the Carter Administration, before the malevolent, seductive gleam of the Reagan years came into view. (“The Muppet Movie,” the franchise’s first theatrical release, with its wistful hit song, “Rainbow Connection,” was my first moviegoing experience, at age three, in the summer of 1979.) But now younger generations will be able to get their own taste of Henson’s brainchild. Earlier this year, “The Muppet Show” began streaming, for the first time ever, on a digital platform; all five seasons are available on Disney+. (The Walt Disney Company purchased the “Muppets” property from the Henson family in 2004.) For all I knew, Kermit’s appearance on “The Masked Singer” was an instance of clever product placement by Disney (which also owns Fox), to remind people that the Muppets exist, and, if this was indeed the case, it made the segment even more chilling. And yet I was willing to forgive. There are some things that can be justified if the trade-off is being able to binge-watch a favorite childhood program.

The format of “The Muppet Show,” which ran from 1976 to 1981, remained constant during the time that the show was on the air. Kermit and his fellow-puppets put on a variety show featuring a different human guest star each week, and which consisted of a loose string of performances—songs, skits, interviews—à la popular shows of the era, such as “Laugh-In,” “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” Unlike Henson’s other hit puppet-based series, “Sesame Street,” which began airing on PBS, in 1969, “The Muppet Show” was meant not only for children but for adults, as well. The show, not educational but, rather, gently satirical and often wildly zany, featured the long-suffering, quietly exasperated Kermit, as our m.c.; Miss Piggy, the volatile, sensuous diva; Fozzie Bear, the sweaty comedian; Gonzo the Great, the excitable fuckup; Scooter, the eager young gopher; Statler and Waldorf, the mean-spirited hecklers; Sam the Eagle, the moralistic prig. There was a hippie throwback house band; and then, of course, the human guests, who included, in the course of the show’s run, genuine superstars of the time, like Elton John, Liza Minnelli, and Diana Ross, as well as more niche luminaries, Liberace and Phyllis Diller among them. Similar to other comedy series that came in its wake—“The Larry Sanders Show,” “30 Rock”—the show poked fun at the minor backstage dramas that beset desperate and self-important show-business types, but it also celebrated these characters’ excitement and their inchoate artistic ambitions.

Today’s family-friendly shows often pick a mode and stick with it: “The Masked Singer” is rowdy; Michelle Obama’s Netflix puppet show, “Waffles + Mochi,” is warmly educational. But “The Muppet Show” was comfortable with a wide range of feelings and tones. The Muppets lived on the spectrum between quiet and loud, serene and clamorous, and the switches from one end to the other were some of the defining marks of the show’s humor. Upon rewatching the episodes on Disney+, I was reminded of the program’s subversive, near-sadistic vaudeville. In a Season 2 episode hosted by the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, a performance of “Swine Lake,” which Nureyev performs with a pig Muppet, escalates into chaos, as Nureyev honks his partner’s nose before tossing her aside like a pile of rags. In another episode, in Season 4, hosted by the folk singer Arlo Guthrie, an initially sedate Muppet square dance devolves into cheerful brutality, with the participants punching and kicking one another. In a Season 3 episode hosted by the actress Marisa Berenson, Kermit is literally pulled off the stage with a hook, and Miss Piggy, after asking Berenson for help tightening her corset, crashes into a dressing-room wall after Berenson lets the laces go. In these scenes, and many like them, there is a dependable comic rhythm of jollity paired with sudden violence, and the inherent docility of the Muppets’ bodies allows viewers to observe this theatre of aggressive impulses from an amused distance.

And yet the show also offers something gentler and more touching, psychological at its core, highlighted by the Muppets’ raggedy vulnerability. One of my favorite characters is Beaker, a test-tube-shaped lab assistant, who is prelingual, and communicates predominantly in high-pitched “mee” sounds. In an episode in Season 4, he timidly performs a rendition of Morris Albert’s “Feelings,” and gets booed off the stage by the audience. As I watched the scene, I suddenly flashed back to viewing it as a child and shedding tears over Beaker’s dejection. And though my sadness didn’t express itself in tears on this rewatch—my heart must have hardened some in the last forty years—it did occur to me that Beaker’s quandary exemplifies a very adult lesson that “The Muppet Show” teaches: sometimes life is painful, and there’s not much one can do about it. But coming to terms with this doesn’t have to be entirely distressing—there is something a little bit funny, too, about Beaker’s shape, about his tuft of orange hair and potato-ish orange nose, about the odd sounds he emits, about his ambitious but misguided attempt to perform a song. In this way, “The Muppet Show” feels like a predecessor to a genre later perfected by Pixar: tragicomic commercial art made for both kids and grownups, in which shabby objects can be comedic implements as well as carriers of heartrending inner lives. On “The Muppet Show,” bits of fabric and glue and yarn, animated into life, become complexly real.

One of the most common emotions experienced by the Muppets is frustration. Beaker has feelings but will never be able to fully communicate them; Fozzie Bear wants to tell jokes but will never be funny; Miss Piggy wants to seduce Kermit and will never fully succeed. (The only happy customers in the house are, perhaps, Statler and Waldorf, since their satisfaction depends on constantly being disappointed.) It is all this frustration that gives “The Muppet Show” its energy; the show goes on, and the fuzzy, shabby, google-eyed, low-tech Muppets keep trudging. In one episode, Fozzie begs Kermit to let him perform a reading of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” After Kermit relents, Fozzie goes onstage and begins reciting, only to be hindered by Gonzo, who has insisted on performing his “tango number” at the same time, alongside a troupe of chickens. As the number wears on, both Muppets continue their spiels stubbornly, each offended by the other’s pushy interruptions, until, in the end, Fozzie begins singing the words of Frost’s poem to the tune of the song. “And miles to go before I sleep, olé!,” both Muppets cry together, to the sound of the audience’s applause. It’s all here: hurt feelings, foiled ambitions, near-violent skirmishes, but, also, a show-must-go-on mentality, and joy. To look at the Muppets is to look at life itself.

Doonesbury — The Carrier Chronicles.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Sunday Reading

Bartlet for America — Sarah Lyall in The New York Times with an appreciation of “The West Wing.”

Election night, 2017. Alarmed and unnerved by the state of politics in America, Josh Reinitz, a lawyer and Democrat in Fair Lawn, N.J., is running for borough council. But it is a stressful time.

As his campaign waits for the results at a local senior center, Mr. Reinitz slips away to a dark room to the side and powers up his iPhone. For the next 45 minutes, he sits by himself watching television — “Two Cathedrals,” to be specific, his favorite “West Wing” episode.

“Fortunately,” Mr. Reinitz recalled recently, “I was able to immerse myself in the episode to the point that I didn’t hear another sound until the room erupted in cheers as our victory was assured.”

“The West Wing,” a workplace drama set in the White House and dedicated to the notion that Washington is run by good people who are doing their best, was broadcast on NBC for seven seasons, from 1999 to 2006. Though its ratings declined over the years, at its peak it regularly drew more than 17 million viewers.

It is now streaming on Netflix. And to its many liberal and independent-leaning fans, in particular, it has become something more than just a nostalgic drama from a time when men’s suits with pleated pants is fashionable and Twitter does not yet exist. For many in the Trump era, the show is an idealistic alternative reality, an escape from the vitriol and ill-will that they see coursing like poison through contemporary politics.

Much as people may return to the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” to remind themselves that feeling worthless does not mean you have no worth, or to the children’s book “Goodnight Moon” to remember that bedtime once meant being enveloped in a cocoon of love, fans revisit “The West Wing” to recall an era — even a fictional one — when it seemed possible for the three branches of government to be populated by public servants of integrity, intellect and wit.

“When I feel the need for comfort from the circus in the White House, I watch the pilot,” said Terry Callanan Kempf of Glens Falls, N.Y., who belongs to the Facebook group “Fans of West Wing Weekly Podcast,” whose members share a passion for revisiting the show. “Seriously, almost every night before I go to sleep.”

“The West Wing” premiered two years into President Bill Clinton’s second term in office, but the bulk of it was broadcast during President George W. Bush’s administration. The partisan divide was bad then, but it was not nearly so awful — so personal, so vicious, so apocalyptic, so apparently beyond redemption — as it appears to many people now.

Bradley Whitford, the actor who played Josh Lyman, the deputy White House chief of staff, has called the show “liberal porn,” and that is true, in a way. Its president, Josiah Bartlet, is a progressive Democrat whose policies run firmly to the left. Erudite, articulate, empathetic, able to speak Latin and quote the Bible, inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, he seems almost painfully distant from many American presidents (some perhaps more than others).

But “The West Wing” also presents the opposition Republicans, for the most part, as equally honorable — as much as they may disagree with President Bartlet’s politics. For much of his administration, he battles a Congress led by Republicans, losing as often as he wins.

“The bulk of the mail we’d get would be from people who identified themselves as Republicans or said, ‘I don’t agree with the politics’ but nonetheless liked the way they felt when they watched the show,” Aaron Sorkin, who created the show and wrote nearly all of the episodes in the first four seasons, said in an email. “That continues today.”

Katherine Bell Butler, 43, a lifelong conservative from Sharpsburg, Ga., who describes herself as “not crazy over Trump,” said that she had the boxed set, and had watched every episode of “The West Wing” “multiple times.”

“I love the show,” she said in a Facebook message. “Even when I disagreed with something said, I honestly didn’t care.”

For Allison Picard, 61, a retired local government official from Martinez, Calif., the best episodes are those that show healthy bipartisan cooperation, as in Season 4 when President Bartlet, played by the actor Martin Sheen, steps aside after his daughter is kidnapped by terrorists, briefly ceding control of the country to the conservative Republican speaker of the house, played by the actor John Goodman. (The vice president has unfortunately resigned over a sex scandal, leaving a gap in the order of succession.)

Ms. Picard also loves the president’s decision to hire Ainsley Hayes, a fast-talking, fast-thinking Republican lawyer who vehemently disagrees with him. “It’s such a patriotic moment, that the president would want someone who was smart and who would challenge his perspective,” Ms. Picard said, sounding a little teary over the phone.

Netflix does not release viewing figures, so it is impossible to know how popular “The West Wing” reruns are. But for something that ended 13 years ago, the show continues to have a peculiar relevance to public life.

While a student at Harvard, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, ran for president of the Institute of Politics in part by proposing that students meet for “West Wing” viewing parties.

He has appeared on “The West Wing Weekly” podcast and seems to see himself as a “West Wing”-style politician. When he opened his presidential campaign office, Mr. Buttigieg posted a video of himself walking down the hall while interacting with his aides, one of the classic shots from the show. “Finally an office with room for a walk and talk,” he wrote on Twitter.

There is also a “What would Bartlet Do?” Facebook page, with nearly 4,200 members. At American University in Washington, students compare the show to real life in Gautham Rao’s “The West Wing as History” course. And on “The West Wing Weekly” podcast, the actor Joshua Malina, who played Will Bailey in the show, and Hrishikesh Hirway, a musician and superfan, have been hosting an episode-by-episode discussion of the program since March 2016.

They are currently up to the final season, which only has a few more episodes scheduled. Some 3,500 fans showed up in London for a live broadcast recently. (The podcast has its own Facebook page, with more than 56,000 followers. The fans’ Facebook group has 6,800 members.)

“It’s a particularly painful time to be watching the show,” Mr. Malina said. “We have an administration and a chief executive who ought to watch it for basic civics lessons about the Constitution and checks and balances and all the stuff the rest of us learned in fifth grade.”

Not everyone is into it, of course. People who don’t like “The West Wing” say, as they have all along, that the program presents an unrealistically idealistic view of government, that it moralizes, that it preaches, that it incorrectly suggests that minds can be swayed by grand gestures and eloquent speeches.

“I sense there are two kinds of people: people who like ‘The West Wing’ and people who find that shows like ‘Veep’ and ‘House of Cards’ are much more realistic portrayals of how politics happen in the real world,” said Christy Quirk, an American-born consultant who lives in Nice, France, and is also a member of the podcast fans’ page on Facebook.

She would put herself in the latter group.

“I watched the first season or so, but I found the speechifying, the high-minded earnestness — it was like fingernails on a blackboard,” she said. “The stakes are really high right now, and we have to have a very realistic view of what can happen if we don’t understand the real dynamics and motivations of people, that not everyone is in this for the right reasons.”

But it can be hard, sometimes, to follow politics in Washington and not indulge in wishful thinking, even when what you are wishing for comes from a television show.

After observing the impeachment proceedings unfold, Al Sibilo of Alberta, Canada, had a question: Why can’t the politicians in 2019 behave more like the politicians on “The West Wing”?

He is thinking of a particular time in Season 3 when the hostile Congress investigates President Bartlet after he fails to disclose his multiple sclerosis while running for office. But instead of impeaching him, the Republicans censure him.

“Censure may have been a great option for the Democrats and perhaps a more proportional response to many of the president’s wrongdoings and indiscretions,” Mr. Sibilo, 53, said of President Trump.

On the other hand, he said in an email, Mr. Trump is unique in his zest for flouting the norms of presidential behavior.

“As a concurrent resolution, they’d need President Trump to admit he was even just a little bit wrong — it will never happen,” Mr. Sibilo said.

Kim Elliott, 50, a teacher in Nashua, N.H., is a devoted viewer who spent much of Inauguration Day — Jan. 20, 2017 — watching not the inauguration, but “The West Wing.”

During her lunch hour, she sat alone in her classroom and watched the pilot episode. When she got home, she watched three more of her favorite episodes — two about the Supreme Court and the third a special episode in Season 3 featuring real-life presidents and staff members from both parties.

“I watched these episodes not to wallow, but to gear up,” Ms. Elliott said in an email. “Yes, I was avoiding the news coverage. But I wanted to remind myself of what ideas to keep front and center.”

Kill But Keep — Poll Results from The Onion.

HAMDEN, CT—According to a new poll out Wednesday from Quinnipiac University, 54% of Americans approve of President Trump receiving the death penalty, but believe his transgressions have not risen to a level that warrants removal from office. “While nearly all survey participants agreed the president should be executed in a highly public setting, only a minority thinks he should receive a proper burial, with more than half stating that the deceased commander-in-chief should be allowed to complete his four-year term,” said polling analyst Rebecca Glenski, explaining that the results indicate an unwillingness among Americans to effectively overturn the outcome of a presidential election. “Of that 54%, approximately two-thirds said that after he is put to death—preferably by hanging, beheading, or crucifixion—Trump should not only remain in the Oval Office but also be permitted to appear at public events, attend official White House functions, and have a seat at global summits like the G7. In addition, most respondents strongly indicated the president’s corpse should stand for re-election next year so the people can decide whether to remove his earthly remains from office.” Polling suggests in 2020 the bloated, lifeless body of Trump would continue to enjoy a strong, built-in advantage in the Electoral College.

Doonesbury — Planning Ahead.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Live Feed

The sources for watching the impeachment inquiry hearings are legion: cable, networks, even through newspaper websites; on Wednesday, I watched it via the Washington Post.  So, if you’re so inclined, tune in. Or you can binge on “That ’70’s Show” on Comedy Central or “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” on WE TV.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Random Youtubery

A look back.  I hear there is a motion picture in the works.  It might even be a talkie.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Monday, May 20, 2019

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Monday, April 15, 2019

Cultural Connection

I have seen perhaps two episodes of Game of Thrones. I’m not going to be a snob about it; after all, there are those who didn’t get The Lord of the Rings or Star Trek or Downton Abbey or The West Wing.  It just didn’t click with me, but I’m open to hearing from those who are into it to tell me about it.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Better Things To Do

You would think that with all of the things going on in the world today, including natural disasters such as flooding the Iowa and Nebraska, an entire fleet of aircraft grounded, North Korea rattling their sabre (again), white supremacists shooting up mosques in New Zealand, an American president would have more important things to worry about than a late-night comedy program on TV putting up a re-run that made fun of him.

But no.

Other U.S. presidents have decried horror abroad as an affront to values shared among liberal democratic allies, but Trump has made no major address to mourn those gunned down last week as they worshiped at mosques in New Zealand. He has not condemned the professed white-supremacist motives of the accused killer.

Instead, Trump has spent the past few days, including the hours before and after the church service, rallying his most loyal supporters around his nationalist agenda against illegal immigration, attacking a familiar list of perceived enemies and adding new ones, all while casting himself as a victim of unfair attacks.

It was a weekend of nonstop grievances from the leader of the free world.

“It’s truly incredible that shows like Saturday Night Live, not funny/no talent, can spend all of their time knocking the same person (me), over & over, without so much of a mention of ‘the other side,’ ” Trump tweeted just before 8 a.m. Sunday. “Like an advertisement without consequences. Same with Late Night Shows.”

SNL had rerun an episode Saturday that opened with a sketch lampooning Trump as a bitter and bewildered George Bailey from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The president suggested the federal government should target the show. “Should Federal Election Commission and/or FCC look into this? There must be Collusion with the Democrats and, of course, Russia! Such one sided media coverage, most of it Fake News. Hard to believe I won and am winning. Approval Rating 52 percent, 93% with Republicans. Sorry! #MAGA.”

Okay, stop right there.  The federal government can’t target the show; the FCC has no control over the networks.  And it sounds like he’s calling for the return of the Fairness Doctrine, which was abolished during the Reagan administration because gas bags like Rush Limbaugh complained that they were under the mistaken impression that they had to give equal time to opposite points of view.  You really want that back?  (Actually, it wouldn’t make any difference.  Most, if not all, of the news, fake or otherwise, comes via cable, and that’s not regulated by the FCC either.)

The point is that with all the shit going down in the world, we have an obsessed narcissist and coward in the White House who seems to think the only thing that matters is what other people think of him.  That’s not how you run a democracy.  It is, however, how you run a dictatorship.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Broadcast Nutsery

Via NBC:

Trump’s planned prime-time address on immigration Tuesday night put the broadcast networks in a difficult — and familiar — position as they debated whether to carry the address live. But in the end, they agreed to the White House request and will air the speech.

The White House asked the broadcast networks to set aside at least eight minutes at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday for an Oval Office address in which Trump may declare a state of national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border.

As of early Monday evening, CBS, ABC, Fox and NBC had decided to air Trump’s address, according to sources familiar with the decisions who were not authorized to speak publicly. Late Monday, PBS and Telemundo confirmed plans to broadcast Trump’s remarks. The major cable news channels — MSNBC, CNN and Fox News — were also planning to air the speech.

Even if I didn’t have a meeting to go to, I’d skip this live broadcast of id-blather for TV that’s really important: Season 6, Episode 4 of “Downton Abbey,” which I had to stop watching when the cable went out.

Besides, the only thing I want to hear from Trump is a quote from another president: “Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Monday, May 21, 2018

She’ll Be Back

CBS is bringing back Murphy Brown.

Someone got their brow all furrowed because this looks like a direct slap back at “Roseanne” and her Trump-loving reboot and there will be hell to pay from all the right-wing backlash.

Well, duh!  Backlash means ratings, baby, and that’s all CBS cares about.  So bring it on, bitches.

By the way, they’re also rebooting “Magnum P.I.” to add to the other stables of reboots already out there: “Hawaii Five-O,” “Will & Grace,” “One Day at a Time,” and “MacGyver.”  What’s next? “My Mother the Car,” this time as a 1979 Volvo?

Don’t knock the classics, kid.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

R.I.P. Harry Anderson

I was sad to the point of cursing last night when I heard of the death of Harry Anderson.  He became best known as the star of the comedy “Night Court,” which, to my mind, ranks up there with truly good TV sitcoms alongside “M*A*S*H” and “Barney Miller.”

Like those shows, “Night Court” was an ensemble that reminded me more of a play than TV show.  With a supporting cast that included John Larroquette, Markie Post, Richard Moll, Charles S. Robinson, and, early on, the incomparable Selma Diamond, whose career in TV comedy is legendary, having been part of the writing crew for Sid Caesar along with Woody Allen and Neil Simon, and Florence Halop, whose own career dates back to the Bowery Boys.  Marsha Warfield, who replaced Ms. Halop upon her death, was no slouch, either.  But the bond that held them together was Mr. Anderson’s wry sense of humor, his genial touch, and his love of Mel Torme music.

He had another series after “Night Court,” “Dave’s World,” based on the writings of Miami Herald writer Dave Barry, but he’ll be remembered most fondly — at least by me — as Judge Harry.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Escape From The Ministry Of Propaganda

Last month I posted about Sinclair Broadcasting and their “must read” commentary sent out to all their stations.  Basically it’s Trump-tilted railings about, ironically, “fake news” that the corporate office requires be put on the air by their local news anchors.

Recently Deadspin did a compilation of all the Sinclair local anchors reading a promo for their corporate message, and it comes across as a version of either a North Korean filler or a hostage video.

So what’s it like to work at a Sinclair station?  Aaron Weiss worked at a Sinclair station and fills us in on the soul-crushing details via Huffinton Post.

I was a Sinclair news director. For a few months, at least.

In 2013, I was a young news director at a struggling small station in the Midwest, having worked my way up the ranks as a producer in larger markets. I’d uprooted my family the year before and moved from the West Coast to “earn my stripes” running a newsroom. I had a small team with a handful of veterans and eager new reporters I enjoyed mentoring.

That fall, Sinclair Broadcast Group bought the station. Sinclair was not a household name at the time, but it did have a reputation in the business for being heavy-handed in station operations and for having a conservative editorial lean. The company first made national headlines when it forced all its stations to run an anti-John Kerry documentary just before the Democratic nominee lost the 2004 presidential election.

Still, I went in with an open mind. As Sinclair prepared to purchase my station, I emailed a colleague to say, “From everything I’ve seen so far, it’s not the evil empire some people think.”

It took just a few months to realize how wrong I was.

It began with the “must run” stories arriving in my inbox every morning. “Must-run” stories were exactly what the name suggests: They were a combination of pre-produced packages that would come down from corporate, along with scripts for local anchors to read. We had to air them whether we wanted to or not.

On the way to a meeting of company news directors, someone whose station had been acquired a few months earlier explained that the arrangement wasn’t that bad — you just had to bury the “must-run” corporate stories and commentary in early-morning newscasts where few viewers would see them. Shortly after that, an executive made it clear to us that the “must-run” stories were not optional and that corporate would be watching to make sure they weren’t getting buried at 5 a.m.

Sinclair knows its strongest asset is the credibility of its local anchors. They’re trusted voices in their communities, and they have often been on the air for decades before Sinclair purchased their stations.

The must-run stories, however, barely passed as journalism. More than one script came down that, had it come from one of my fresh-out-of-college reporters, I would have sent back for a complete rewrite. But Sinclair executives made it clear that the must-run scripts were not to be touched by producers or anchors.

I didn’t last long after that. I soon realized I would have trouble looking myself in the mirror if I put stories and commentary like that on the air. I couldn’t in good conscience ask young reporters and anchors to sign multi-year contracts knowing what they’d be forced to say on the air and face severe financial penalties if they left early.

So I quit, and once again uprooted my family in search of a company with ethical and news standards I could be proud of. I was fortunate enough to find a new position with another station group that, unlike Sinclair, had a true commitment to local journalism.

Over the course of my 14-year career in broadcasting, I worked for multiple corporate owners, large and small. I have good friends who are anchors, reporters and executives at other station groups across the country. Only Sinclair forces those trusted local journalists to lend their credibility to shoddy reporting and commentary that, if it ran in other countries, we would rightly dismiss as state propaganda.

In the four years since I left, Sinclair has doubled down on its “must-run” strategy. Segments like the Islamophobic “Terrorism Alert Desk” and commentary from Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn have started running in markets from Seattle to Washington, D.C. If the Federal Communications Commission approves Sinclair’s purchase of Tribune Broadcasting, it will get a foothold in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Denver and other major markets. I know several journalists who preemptively left Tribune stations after the sale was announced. They’re the lucky and principled ones.

When Deadspin’s genius supercut of Sinclair’s latest promo went viral last weekend, my heart broke for the anchors who were used to make the equivalent of a proof-of-life hostage video. They know what they’re being conscripted to do, but most of them have no choice in the matter. They’re trapped by contracts, by family obligations and by an industry that is struggling to stay relevant in an era of changing media habits.

The anchors who were forced to decry “fake news” put their own credibility on the line, accusing “some members of the media” of pushing “their own personal bias and agenda,” when nothing could be further from the truth. The only ones pushing a personal bias in local broadcasting today are the corporate executives at Sinclair, who leverage the trust that those anchors have developed in their communities over years and often decades of hard work.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with journalism that wears its bias on its sleeve. At some point, local news may transform into something more like the cable news landscape, with hosts who are paid to share their perspective and commentary. But that requires honesty on the part of station owners, and it requires embracing a diversity of viewpoints on the air. That’s the exact opposite of what Sinclair is doing to local broadcasting today.

During my time with Sinclair, while on a conference call with other news directors, someone asked if we could ever run local commentary during newscasts. The answer was a firm “no.” The only opinions Sinclair allows on air are the opinions that come out of headquarters, because the company will not risk giving local audiences a dissenting view.

That “no” was telling. Being afraid of a variety of viewpoints is, in the words of Sinclair’s now-infamous “must-run,” extremely dangerous to a democracy.

I had a short — nine months — career in doing radio news for a small-town station in northern Michigan in the late 1970’s.  It was owned by a group of local businessmen, all of them conservative Republicans, but to a man they all made it clear that the news was the news and that there would be no “corporate” interference in how I did my job and they never imposed any “must read” commentary or point of view.

Those were the days.

HT to CLW.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Ministry Of Propaganda

Sinclair Broadcasting wants you to know that everything is wonderful under the Trump regime and any news that doesn’t reinforce that line is fake, left-wing, and not nice.

Sinclair, one of the biggest owners of local TV stations in the U.S., with 193 outlets in 89 markets, sent scripts of the promos to news directors, instructing that they be produced “exactly as they are written,” according to CNN.

“I’m [we are] concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country,” the spot begins. “The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, national media outlets are publishing these same fake stories without checking facts first. Unfortunately, some members of the national media are using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’ … This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

It concludes that reporting facts ― which are neither “left nor right” ― is their duty as journalists. All Sinclair stations had to run an almost identical segment last year as well, The New York Times reported.

“I felt like a POW recording a message,” one anchor at a Sinclair-owned station told CNN.

Sinclair has a history of advancing a conservative agenda. Another recent iteration of right-wing bias came in the form of a requirement that its stations air pro-Trump segments featuring Boris Epshteyn (a former Trump White House official) nine times per week.

The media giant is trying to expand its reach in major cities with a proposed deal to acquire 42 stations currently owned by Tribune Media.

Here’s a list of stations owned by Sinclair.  If one of them is in your area, you should know it.  As Charlie Pierce suggests, there’s always a Law & Order rerun on somewhere.