The Rally
October 31, 2010

As a piece of entertainment, it wasn’t quite as funny as your average episode of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Nor do I think it could have been. Stewart and Colbert were working in an unfamiliar format for a crowd of unprecedented size under the watchful eye of a commentary class hungry to jump on anything they could paint as inflammatory. The result was a program that was silly and lighthearted but also scrupulously inoffensive. I think the presence of Sheryl Crow and John Legend, two people who have made a career out of being competent and inoffensive, says it all.

Plus there’s the fact that 99.9% of the crowd could have gotten a better view of the proceedings from their living room. I was about halfway through the crowd, and even at that distance my arms were pinned to my sides by the people around me. The stage wasn’t visible, and the nearest jumbotrons just barely. Behind me, every once in a while, I could hear a crowd roughly the size of two packed football stadiums chant, “Louder! Louder!”

That was more striking than the show itself: the size. Estimates put it at around 200,000, or roughly 2.5 times the size of Glenn Beck’s “Restore Honor” rally. I think most people who showed up were there mostly to see each other all massed in one location. It was certainly something. Unsurprisingly, the assembled masses weren’t all, or even mostly, stoned hipsters or shrieking Code Pink members. For the most part they seemed to be polite, reasonable, middle class people with generally leftish political leanings and similar taste in late-night comedy. I wouldn’t call them the silent majority, but they’re certainly the silent statistically significant demographic. When the rally disbanded, there wasn’t a single restaurant in downtown DC without a line leading out the door. I’ve never seen a crowd of comparable size anywhere in my life, and it seems possible that I never will.

But why? Was there a point? Yes, and I was a little too glib yesterday in suggesting that this was just a piece of entertainment upon which others had impressed their own views. Jon Stewart made the point in his earnest closing remarks, which turned out to be the least showman-like and most worthwhile part of the entire program. Here’s the video:

And here’s the transcript.

I’m not so sure that this will one day, as Charli Carpenter suggests, ”be considered among the greatest political speeches of our country’s history,” but I was certainly impressed. “Jon Stewart gets serious for a moment” could easily have been a grievous miscalculation, an unfunny piece of pseudo-messianic sermonizing from an ex-funny funnyman who let the high ratings get to his head. But Stewart didn’t lose his sense of humor, least of all about himself, and that saved the entire speech.

Good thing, too, because he’s absolutely right. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m more wholly in the tank for Jon Stewart than for virtually any pundit or political figure, but this speech, I think, vindicated my unreserved admiration. Beyond that, I’m unsure what else it did. One event like this certainly won’t restore sanity, if we ever had it in the first place. But the message was impossible to ignore. The audience who turned up to hear it was too big. Maybe, for that reason, we can look forward to just a sliver of contrition and self-examination from some of the people Stewart, directly or indirectly, called out.

Honestly, though? I sort of doubt it. Instead, I’m just going to keep my fingers crossed that their reaction is so misguided and indignant that it finally persuades a chunk of their audience that Stewart was right all along. If we can’t convert them, maybe we can hit them in the ratings.

Some Sort of Live Comedy Show
October 30, 2010

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 29:  The stage for the 'R...
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By the time this goes to print I’ll be down on the Washington Mall checking out some sort of live comedy event I heard was happening there this weekend. Two comedians, both of whom I like a lot, are putting it on. And despite everyone’s best efforts to either divine some kind of grand message or explain the finer points of comedy to two very talented professional comedians, I think this will actually be pretty fun.

What the hell is Don Draper’s problem?
October 18, 2010

Screenwriter Matthew Weiner
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(Lots of spoilers.)

I think that’s the big question a lot of viewers came away from tonight’s Mad Men finale with. Halfway through the episode: the bleeding at SCDP had been staunched, Don’s drinking was still (temporarily) under control, his friendship with Peggy was patched up, he was actually being a good father, and he was in the first stable, healthy, adult relationship we’ve ever seen him in. And then he made a terrible, terrible decision.

Matthew Weiner (pictured) has been pretty explicit about the fact that this season has spent a lot of time concerned with the very first line of the very first episode: “Who is Don Draper?” Unmoored from the office, house, and marriage that he called home, he became more desperate and frightened than we had ever seen him. All of a sudden, even he didn’t know the answer to the question, and that scared the shit out of him. So he tried to drown that slow-boiling panic with work, sex, and alcohol, but the more he anesthetized himself, the more things got out of control. It wasn’t until he hit rock bottom—and the final anchor to his old identity snapped free, when the original Mrs. Draper died—that he realized he needed to pull himself together and figure out a new identity. How appropriate that one of the key figures who was helping him do this—who may very well have, along with Peggy, saved his life—was a psychologist.

But introspection and self-improvement are both really, really daunting projects. Especially when you’ve spent much of your life scrupulously hiding your true nature from everyone around you. And especially when you realize that there’s no actual end point to the process. Don and Faye are good together. Don and Faye aren’t perfect. Perfect is eternally out of his reach. And Don being Don, and something of a coward, he doesn’t want to face that. He’d rather “move somewhere else,” as he said to Betty, and hope that place is perfect.

First he starts to slip back into old habits. The drinking gradually resumes its normal pace. He cheats on his blonde significant other with a brunette. When his old web of lies is threatened—when it seems like he might have to become Dick Whitman again for good, and face imprisonment for desertion—we see him more terrified than ever before. That’s the moment when we see just how deeply wedded Don Draper is to the “Don Draper” myth, and the enormous lengths he’ll go to maintain that fiction.

And then a crisis happens, and for Don, it must have felt like his prayers had been answered. He gets to tear all of that fuzzy, semi-articulate self-reflective crap out of his notebook and get back to being what he wants to be: a cipher. A ruthless survivor.

This whole regression is what causes him to ultimately settle on Megan instead of Faye. Faye’s been guiding him up that terrible, insurmountable hill, and he doesn’t want to climb anymore. He doesn’t want to go through the hard work of being, in her words, a person. Megan, he can deal with. Plus, she’s good with kids, and he still wants to project that picture-perfect Leave it to Beaver existence.

Short version:

Q: What the hell is Don Draper’s problem?

A: He wants, more than anything, to be an advertisement for the American dream. Because doing his own work to find answer the big question of season four—“Who is Don Draper?”—is too damn hard, and too damn scary.

(Kudos to Matt Weiner and the rest of the Mad Men cast and crew: season four was a season for the ages. And while the finale didn’t rank in the 50% percentile of season four episodes, it was still a richly conceived resolution to S4’s major threads. Plus, the stuff happening around the margins—most notably Peggy and Joan’s stellar bonding scene—was pure gold.)

October 15, 2010

It’s probably a little bit late for me to urge everyone to start watching AMC’s Rubicon, given that the season finale is this Sunday. But then again, this is the Netflix On Demand era, and maybe a modest boost in online sales will encourage AMC to give it a second season.

TV shows don’t get a lot of time these days to find their footing, and if this week’s episode is Rubicon’s last, that will be why. The pilot had the languid, meandering pacing of a mid-afternoon nap, which would have been fine if any of the characters had come into any sort of focus at all. But there was potential there in the way the lead performers were able to deliver dry exposition with some level of conviction, and in the creeping sense of dread. It was hard to find the show’s pulse, but at least it seemed to have one.

Turns out a lot of that was due to a major personnel switch-up: the lead show-runner (and creator) got swapped out mid-stream, and a conceptual rejiggering ensued. The first three episodes ended up being throat clearing, but the fourth, well. What was originally a fairly generic, if still intriguing, conspiracy thriller turned into a workplace drama-cum-morally ambiguous meditation on the War on Terror. The conspiracy mytharc was still there, but no longer suffocating, and the conspiracy itself started to seem less like an all-powerful Illuminati then a group of very rich, very unscrupulous men who had found that they could get even richer by toying with the lives of millions. That, to me, was a far more plausible and far more unsettling proposition. The banality of evil is always going to be scarier and more interesting than the Dark Side of the Force.

As for the workplace drama side: the supporting cast got fleshed out enormously, and the show finally started to take full advantage of its national security think tank setting. Much is made of the personal sacrifices these characters make, but the big draw for me—and probably for a significant chunk of my readers as well—is how much of the show is kind of porn for national security wonks. Most of our heroes have never fired a gun, but they spend a lot of time debating the relevance of classified documents and fighting the sprawling bureaucracy of the DoD and CIA. Somehow all of this is rendered in a way that’s engaging, suspenseful, even stylish.

Timely, as well. Most episodes remind me of the Washington Post’s Top Secret America at least once. Both draw the same conclusion: national security is a confused, murky business, now more than ever. What makes Rubicon so chilling is how it suggests how easily someone inside the enormous massive security complex to manipulate it to their own advantage and against the interests of the United States. It’s hard to imagine that sort of thing not happening on a micro scale with some regularity; Rubicon imagines it in the macro.

(This post was prompted by a well-worth-reading interview the AV Club did with Henry Brommell, the replacement executive producer. Check it out, and then track down and check out the fourth episode.)

Sometimes I Write About Mad Men
August 2, 2010

My friend Daniel put together a group blog for us to write about the greatest drama on television right now, and I have a new post up—my first of the season—on last night’s episode. Here’s a teaser:

This has always been a show that puts considerable emphasis on internal struggles–as herr doctor puts it in this episode, the conflict between what you want and what’s expected of you–and this year, Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, Betty and the rest are learning the hard way that those are the struggles you can never run away from. Start a shiny new business and a shiny new marriage, but it won’t make a bit of difference; you’ll still have to live with who you are and what you’re like.

Take a look.

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Emoting Versus Insight Online
July 11, 2010

Sketch for Twitter. See also the author's desc...
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When I wrote about Kierkegaard and despair just under a week ago, it was intended to setup a longer discussion on the related concept of “idle chatter.” Circumstances—most notably CPNC—got in the way of an immediate followthrough, but now I’m glad I waited, since it gave my thoughts some time to gestate. Plus, in the mean time, my friend Cody Brown pointed me towards an excellent lecture delivered at West Point earlier this year. The name of it: Solitude and Leadership.

Today I want to write about the “Solitude” part of that equation, and how it relates to idle chatter. Here is how Clare Carlisle characterized idle chatter in a column for the Guardian:

He suggested that one symptom of this mass evasiveness is “idle chatter” – a phenomenon that he thought was institutionalised in the press. Whether frivolous or pretentious, tabloid or broadsheet, idle chatter is fuelled by “curiosity” and a nihilistic thirst for novelty. This superficial kind of interest can be contrasted with the existential passion that Kierkegaard identified with our spiritual life. One can only wonder what he would have made of the media in the 21st century, where “news”, “opinion” and “comment” proliferate more than ever before. Should we regard this as a sign of flourishing culture, or of spiritlessness?

 Now here is William Deresiewicz in “Solitude and Leadership”:

It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like dutyhonor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

This is idle chatter by another name. And whereas Deresiewicz frames the seeking of solitude and reflection as something necessary to be a good leader, I’m inclined to make the stronger argument: that by failing to do this, all of us can at times inflict great psychological deficits upon ourselves.

Anyone who has access to this post is capable of doing tremendous self-harm. And it’s not overt, immediately recognizable self-harm, but something more akin to abusing prescription medication. And while, as Deresiewicz himself is quick to point out, this hunger for distraction is nothing new, I do think some of the new social media tools he singles out—and any number of other ones, up to and including Tumblr—is that they have gotten remarkably good at offering the illusion of something deeper. Rather than simple diversion, they offer a form of identification that less interactive mediums were never capable of. There are staggering benefits to that, sure—but some of the philosophical implications are deeply unsettling.

Before I get into that, though, I’m going to bow to the medium’s demand for concision. So more on this later.

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How It’s Gonna End
April 21, 2010

If you aren’t a Lost nerd, you should probably skip this post. I’ve been holding off, but I had to do at least one.

It’s nice to see Lost is done with the obligatory wheel-spinning and set-up that characterizes the first two acts of most of its seasons. A lot of the preemptive criticism for the final season revolved around the question: “How are they gonna cram in all those answers?” But of course, the answers are sort of beside the point, and what’s been bothering me instead is what usually bothers me for the first few episodes of one of this show’s seasons: not a whole lot was happening, and there was a sense they were just pushing the pieces around until they finally had everything organized enough to kick-start the actual plot.

About the answers we’ve gotten: Despite some missteps (like in the Hurley episode, when Jack spilled his entire character motivation to Hurley in one neat paragraph and Michael explained explicitly what the whispers are exactly 30 seconds after anyone paying attention had already figured it out) they writers have been doing a pretty good job at dropping enough hints for us to figure out the answers for ourselves, and proceeding with the real business, which is the character stuff. Without it ever being spelled out to us, I think we’re starting to get a good sense of what the rules of the game are, and, ultimately, what the show’s about. It casts everything before in a new light, and renews my faith that, yeah, the writers actually had a plan all along.

This is a show about a group of characters who are each struggling to master some kind of inner darkness. Fake-Locke exploits that darkness to his own ends, and now that he’s done it with all of the characters to some degree or another, they are all stuck “on his side.” Jacob’s could try to pull them back, but it wouldn’t really count; he’s trying to demonstrate a point about how these people have the capacity for good, and for him to prove his point they have to demonstrate that capacity on their own. My guess is the remaining for episodes are going to be about how they pull together to do that.

The Wit and Wisdom of Malcolm Tucker
April 13, 2010

Tim Fernholz points TAPPED readers towards the Guardian’s series of columns “written” by Malcolm Tucker, one of the MVPs on Armando Iannucci’s masterful comedy The Thick Of It (and film adaptation In the Loop). I’m not sure who’s written them–Ferhnholz guesses Alistair Campbell, but my guess is either Iannucci or someone else from The Thick Of It‘s writer’s room–but whoever it is has nailed the voice perfectly. I can’t be the only person who reads these columns and hears it narrated in actor Peter Capaldi’s pitch-perfect belligerent-yet-deadpan Scottish brogue.

The fact that this is even possible is part of why I refer to Iannucci as a writer’s writer. Not only is he really skilled at wordplay, but he’s great at creating characters–believable, plausible ones who are much more than mere joke-delivery devices. They also all manage to all walk that tricky line of having unmistakeably distinct, strong voices that are also unmistakeably Iannucci creations. Of these, Tucker’s is the strongest.

This is something that’s important in all good fiction, but I think it takes on added importance in comedy, where the temptation to subvert character to punchlines can be overwhelming. That’s the sort of thing that works really well in short bursts–think 30 Rock–but has a limited shelf life. The best long-form comedy is frequently the stuff where the humor comes from characterization instead of just through it. And key to that is having a really strong comic voice. Plus, when that’s the case, it gives you an opportunity to create a comedy that’s greater than the sum of its laughs. It’s the reason why The Thick Of It and In the Loop work brilliantly as devastating social critiques and political dramas even when the jokes stop.

One of the best examples of this I can think of in literature is Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth’s genius comic novel of Jewish self-loathing and sexual frustration. I heard somewhere that Roth spent years writing several books’ worth of material just to nail down the first-person narrative voice of Alexander Portnoy, and it shows. The whole book is essentially one long monologue, and it’s never boring or unconvincing.

By the way: As long as we’re talking about Malcolm Tucker, I can’t resist embedding a clip of “Tucker’s Law.” Truly, NSFW words to live by.

Tonight’s Dollhouse Finale
January 29, 2010

I have a post on it up at NYU Local. Here’s a preview:

Has it really been only two seasons? Joss Whedon’s kooky little show-that-almost-could may be meeting a premature end, but it’s had enough plot development and radical shifts in overall quality for a program five times its length. As I’ve written elsewhere, what started out as a subpar mission-of-the-week thriller fronted by a limited actress who was in waaaay over her head turned into a grim, challenging ensemble piece that, in its best moments, could easily be compared to Battlestar Galactica. Of course, once the show started improving on its formulaic first few episodes, it was doomed.

The last few episodes were put together after the axe had already fallen and FOX had washed their hands of the whole fiasco, giving Whedon and co. the chance to go balls-out. And that they did, producing a series of episodes (starting with “The Public Eye”) that were, dare I say, face-meltingly good. The question is if they can keep that streak up through the finale; and while I hate to rain on the Whedonite parade, I have my doubts.

Happy Friday.

The Unbearable Bleakness of Good Comedy
January 12, 2010

So a friend of mine recently turned me on to this British sitcom called Peep Show late last week, and since then it’s been eating up a lot of my time. The premise is fairly standard sitcom fare: two roommates, one is the shlemiel, the other the shlimazel, you get the idea. But it has an interesting hook: each episode is shot almost entirely from first-person camera perspectives, and you can often hear the thoughts of the two major characters, meaning you get an insight into how they view the world that’s a lot more uncomfortably intimate than you get in most sitcoms.

But that gimmick, as well executed as it is, isn’t the real reason to watch. What’s truly amazing about the show–besides some excellent performances by the leads and supporting actors like the guy who plays Super Hans–is just how bleak it is. If you’ve become desensitized to the painful awkardness of The Office (the UK version) and Curb Your Enthusiasm, chances are this show will still be able to get you to wince. And it’s just relentless. If either of these guys catches a break, they never fail to screw it up somehow. And as the show progresses, they somehow manage to only get more pathetic (spoiler: one of them turns into a stalker). Maybe that would be easier to watch if these characters weren’t still somewhat sympathetic, and we weren’t forced to see the world through their eyes. But it would also be less hilarious.

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