Democrats are nice. Minnesota nice. North Carolina polite and Tupelo honey sweet. Nice like children who’ve been browbeaten and bullied by their parents are nice. With the slightest upturn of an eyebrow and downturn of a mouth they apologize for being born and everything they’ve done since.
So of course Hillary Clinton apologized for her remarks about half of Donald Trump’s supporters being a “basket of despicables.” When she said it, she was the cheerful upbeat Hillary that we love to see. Speaking in front of a group of unequivocal supporters, she enumerated some of the qualities that Trump and his followers share – “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.”
Of course Hillary was criticized. And of course Hillary apologized. She said, “Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that’s never a good idea. I regret saying ‘half’ — that was wrong.” You can read the Republican nonsense about her comments for yourself. One interesting “rebuttal” is the statement by Republican VP candidate Mike Pence at the Values Voters Forum: “The men and women who support Donald Trump’s campaign are hardworking Americans — farmers, coal miners, teachers, veterans, members of our law enforcement community — members of every class of this country, who know that we can make America great again. This is essentially what Hillary Clinton said about the other half of Trump’s supporters: “That other basket of people feel that the government has let them down — the economy has let them down … those are people we have to understand and empathize with, as well.”
In my opinion, Hillary had nothing to apologize for. She should have chided the media for not giving as much coverage to the second half of her comment as to the first. And there should have been an outpouring of support from Democrats for her statement. But in their role of scared children most Democrats were silent.
One voice that responded to Hillary’s critics was that of Charles Blow, writing in the New York Times. I’ve got the link here. You should read it. Blow cites reputable polls of Trump supporters that prove them to be anti-Black, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant, Obama birthers. In Trump’s value system these are upstanding Americans. In my value system, they’re pretty despicable.
I can find no words of rebuttal that equal the closing words of Blow’s OpEd:
“ I understand that people recoil at the notion that they are part of a pejorative basket. I understand the reflexive resistance to having your negative beliefs disrobed and your sense of self dressed down.
When I taught the Introduction to Religion and Philosophy of Religion, I often referred to TV shows (and also movies) that illustrated key concepts that we were studying. There are not many shows that intelligently engage the big questions that religions represent. But there are, from time to time, a few shows that offer the viewer an invitation to explore these questions. Two of these shows recently ended. And an excellent new one debuted.
After three seasons, Penny Dreadful, Showtime’s outstanding series, came to a conclusion. The show was steeped in Victorian mystery, drawing upon sources that included Frankenstein, La Dame aux Camelias, Dracula, and “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Amidst the witches, demons, monsters, werewolves, death, and destruction, a story of spiritual struggle unfolded. At the core of the story was the spiritual struggle waged by a woman who lost and regained her faith in God as she fought to escape the claim that Satan had made on her.
Ultimately, the story revolved around an eternal cosmic struggle between those who serve (the Christian) God and those who serve his adversary. References to ancient texts, rituals, and myths freely intermingle with characters from Victorian literature, early 20th century horror films, as well as Anglo-Saxon, African, and American Indian legends. The series captured the gothic gloom of Victorian England and the dark, guilt-ridden world of English Catholicism. Its conclusion was a fitting end to the story: tragic and beautiful.
Also ending this summer was Person of Interest. The show ran for five seasons and went through several incarnations and constantly mingled genres. At first it was part science fiction – an artificial intelligence (“The Machine”) that sees everything and finds people who need protection – and part crime story – an ex-CIA operative and a police detective fight criminals and corrupt police officials while saving potential crime victims.
As the plot lines changed and new characters were added, and as the “Machine” evolved, the show shifted into the superhero genre. Armed with unique abilities, the team struggled against crime gangs and, ultimately, a plot to take over the world using a ruthless rival artificial intelligence.
Central to the series is the question of the character of God and human nature. It is ultimately the problem of evil: can God be omniscient and humans still have free will? Must we choose between the two claims? Is it necessary to tolerate human wickedness in order to affirm human freedom? These questions have been argued for centuries. On Person of Interest, the battle of supercomputers became the Manichaean struggle of divine forces. The “Machine” is clearly identified as “God.” She speaks to and through a woman endowed with special skills. And ultimately the climax of the story is the sacrificial death and rebirth of God.
In my opinion, not since Battlestar Galactica have there been TV shows that so clearly explore the philosophical issues of related to religion as these two. Religious ideas are interwoven into the plots of each of these shows, not as statements of dogma or sectarian belief, but as invitations to examine the big questions.
Now a new show has taken over the role of confronting us with the questions that the philosophy of religion was designed to answer. Preacher is a tricky proposition. It’s derived from the world of illustrated novels. It is part speculative fiction, part southern gothic melodrama, part western, and part psychological exploration. The show ironically treats as literal the existence of God, angels, vampires, Heaven, Hell, salvation, and – possibly – redemption, all from the perspective of a tortured preacher and his church in small-town Texas.
The eponymous preacher has been invaded by a divine force that escaped from Heaven and gives him powers he doesn’t understand. Befriended by an Irish vampire, joined by a revenge-seeking girlfriend, and pursued by a pair of angels who are AWOL from Heaven, the preacher tries to fulfill his pastoral duties while trying to outrun his outlaw past. The show is full of blood and gore and vivid violence, both comic and terrifying. The characters are complex and surprising. Their small town is filled villains and dolts, all of them eccentric. The show is unabashedly surreal. But like all good surreal art, it forces us to look again, closer, and discover something transcendent.
Preacher just finished its first season. The next to last episode is a masterpiece and a good place to start if you’ve never seen the show. The scene has been set for the next season and it promises to take us in a new, and probably fascinating, direction.
The Republican National Convention formally nominated Donald Trump and Mike Pence in an orgy of hatred and fear mongering. This week the Democratic National Convention will confirm Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine as its presidential and vice-presidential candidates.
Rational people will rally behind the Democratic candidates and reject the Trump rhetoric of racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia. They will reject the litany of lies and the evocation of failed ideas and programs that constitute the Republican Platform. But people – even generally rational people – are not always rational. Often they let their emotions and desires govern their political and economic choices.
So, while Clinton and Kaine should achieve a solid victory over their opponents, we cannot simply assume that this victor is inevitable. We must consider the fact that, given our electoral system, enough of the American people could be seduced by the snake oil sales pitch of Donald Trump to give the Republicans the White House.
Radical film-maker Michael Moore has predicted a Trump victory. He believes that the frustrations of alienated white men in the “rust belt” states will lead them to respond to Trump’s message of restoring US manufacturing and rejecting injurious trade agreements. This, coupled with the sense of diminished status and power in an increasingly non-white America, will be enough to bring about a Republican victory.
He reiterated this view on the Bill Maher show last week. He was challenged by fellow panelist Joy Reid, who argued that Blacks, a crucial Democratic voting bloc, will turn out in great numbers for the presidential election, even though they tend to sit out so called “midterm” elections – actually enormously important congressional and state elections.
Reid’s comment highlighted the issue of turnout, the key factor in Democratic electoral victories. We are currently living with the consequences of the low turnout of important Democratic constituencies in 2010 and 2014. And while we can hope with some confidence for a large turnout among Black, Hispanic, Jewish, Asian, LGBT, and other Democratic groups, the one group about which we need to be seriously concerned are young voters.
The “Millennial Generation,” those aged 19-29, have been shown to vote in lower percentages in elections at all levels. The United States Elections Project tracked the voting trends of various demographic groups from 1984 to 2016. Millenials trail all other age groups in the percent voting in elections. They do consistently vote at higher levels in presidential elections than in congressional elections. And they significantly increased their participation in the elections of 2008. But their voting numbers declined in the elections of 2012.
The recent trend in declining participation by 19-29 year olds bodes badly for Democrats if it continues into this year’s presidential election. And the current trend, indicated by participation in 2016 primary elections, indicates that it will. A Harvard University Study, reported in US News and World Report, found that young voters are no longer a reliable constituency of the Democratic Party. Millenials demonstrate a distrust of the political system and the political parties. They have not attached themselves to one of the other parties, but have disengaged from the system as a whole. While the campaign of Bernie Sanders may have generated enthusiasm among young potential voters, it did not significantly increase their turnout in the primaries. Although millenials voted for Sanders over Clinton by wide margins in key state primaries, the percentages of young voters who turned out was far below the percentage of older voters, who overwhelmingly favored Clinton.
There are many reasons why young adults are not engaged in the political process. Many attended high school in an era when Civics was not a required part of the curriculum. Many are struggling to get through college while working to pay tuition, and graduates are burdened with substantial student loans. Many encounter difficulty in making social connections and forming significant relationships.
The stresses on young people are often tremendous. And coping with these stresses seldom takes the form of tackling their alienation at its source and fighting to change the political and economic system. Often the path taken is that of escapism, shutting down the stress by withdrawing from it, in effect, self-medicating. For some, it’s the continuation of the “Joe College” and “Jane Coed” culture of weekly overconsumption of alcohol. For some it’s engaging with technology. The ubiquity of digital diversion provides a ready escape from the anxiety of everyday life. Video games and binge watching television shows has become an accepted retreat from day-to-day reality.
In this context I have noted two major sources of escape that happen to loom large on the scene just as Americans should be turning our attention toward the most important election in a generation. These are The Game of Thrones and Pokémon Go. These two products have in common that they fairly successfully substitute virtual universes for the real world we live in.
I’ll discuss this more in Part II of this article.
When I saw the promos for Maya and Marty on NBC, I was skeptical. Maya Rudolph and Martin Short are good actors, especially in the field of comedy. But what kind of show was this going to be? The show has a strong pedigree: it’s produced by Lorne Michaels and thus has strong connections to SNL and a string of late night shows and films with a virtual repertoire company of comic actors. The guest stars have included big names: Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Miley Cyrus, Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, Savion Glover, Larry David, Jimmy Fallon, Drake, and Kate McKinnen. The supporting cast includes SNL alumni with a string of writing and acting credentials: Mikey Day and Kenan Thompson.
I watched the first show with low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised. The skits were funny, the satire was clever and I also discovered that Miley Cyrus can sing (!). I looked forward to the second show. It was hilarious. In the course of the two shows Maya Rudolph sent up Oprah Winfrey, Melania Trump, and UK/New York fashionista Anna Wintour. Martin Short revived Jiminy Glick and portrayed Karl Lagerfeld. Kenan Thompson did a perfect Steve Harvey hosting Little Big Shots, interviewing Short and Jimmy Fallon playing annoying, out-of-control twins with no particular talent. The musical numbers were entertaining and good natured without overwhelming the rest of the show. The makeup artistry was excellent, transforming the actors into easily recognizable imitations of well known celebrities.
At this point I should acknowledge that the critical reviews of the show have been uniformly negative. The current crop of TV reviewers has dismissed this show as anachronistic and bland. This is your grandparents’ TV variety show. However, it’s not the Ed Sullivan style of variety show that evolved from Vaudeville and burlesque – a collection “acts,” whose appeal was, indeed, their variety: comics, impressionists, ventriloquists, circus acts, singers, dancers, and the occasional big film or popular music star.
Maya and Marty actually harkens back to The Carol Burnett Show: a talented cast of regulars augmented by guest stars taking obvious pleasure in performing absurdist comedy skits and musical numbers. Like Carol Burnett, Maya and Marty features a talented ensemble, clever satire, cheery musical numbers, and, especially, skits we look forward to seeing because they are unpredictable and downright funny.
The problem I find with the bad reviews is that Maya and Marty is no less vacuous and boring than the cookie cutter late night shows where a host conducts behind-a-desk interviews with actors promoting their latest films, musicians flogging their latest albums, writers (including celebrity “authors”) selling their books, and politicians promoting their latest selves. These shows are, somehow, highly popular and seem to go on forever.
I have to admit that I never watch the late night talk shows. But I did watch two episodes of Maya and Marty and I found them pleasant and charming. When I wasn’t laughing my ass off.
Rethinking Elizabeth Warren as Hillary’s Running Mate: Is This the Sacrifice that Democracy Demands?Posted: May 31, 2016
In a recent Facebook post, I stated my belief that Elizabeth Warren should not seek the Democratic Vice Presidential nomination. I illustrated my case with the 17th century French poet Jean La Fontaine’s version of Aesop’s fable of the Wolf and the Dog. The moral of the fable is that the dog, while enjoying the comforts and security of life among humans, has traded his freedom – which the wolf cherishes – for the chain by which his human master restrains him every night. Learning this, “So ran Sir Wolf, and runneth yet.”
My argument is that Sen. Warren enjoys the freedom to take a firmly progressive stand on public policy issues. She already occupies a leadership position among liberals/progressives – in the Congress and among Democratic voters. I can envision her becoming Senate Majority Leader at some time when the Democrats regain the majority in the Senate. As Hillary Clinton’s Vice-President, however, like the dog in the fable, she is bound to the policies and priorities of the President.
She would, of course, have some area designated by the President over which she would have special responsibility. She would have some say over that assignment. But ultimately she would be the President’s second-in-command for things in general with no authority in particular. She would have to delicately maneuver to have her voice heard over those of influential cabinet secretaries and advisors with responsibility for foreign policy, intelligence, military affairs, economics, and other important functions of government.
Why then have I become more open to a Warren Vice Presidency? There are only two reasons: to stop Donald Trump and to get Hillary Clinton elected President. For whatever reasons, and despite her commanding lead over both Sen. Sanders and Mr. Trump in the popular vote, the dominant meme is that Ms. Clinton is “uninspiring” and that she seems “inauthentic.” She and Trump share the misfortune of high “unfavorables” among potential voters. In her political rallies, Ms. Clinton has turned her attention from Sen. Sanders to Donald Trump. Still she gets less media coverage than Trump gets for anything he says.
On the other hand, Sen. Warren’s attacks on Trump have lit up the internet. After a recent speech by Warren, Slate writer Jim Newell wrote a telling critique of Clinton and her team. The headline of the article reads “Elizabeth Warren Knows How to Attack Trump. Why Doesn’t Hillary?” He states that, among other problems,
“It could be that the Clintonistas’ inability to settle on an overarching story about Trump is a reflection of their inability to settle on an overarching story about themselves.”
He insightfully states,
“Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton are very different politicians. Warren specializes in financial reform and corporate abuse, while Clinton, by nature of the job she seeks, has to represent the various constituencies that make up the Democratic coalition, and thus doesn’t have the luxury of being narrow in her attacks. Or something like that. What’s motivating Clinton to run for president beyond her belief that she has the appropriate skillset and experience to manage the federal government? If there is something else, it really hasn’t been communicated well.”
Meanwhile, Trump has sown up the Republican nomination and the corporate media continue to cater to him and promote the idea that he is on his way to the presidency. Comics joke about the Trump presidency in a tone that suggests a kind of graveyard humor. Progressives are understandably worried. Democrats are used to being outsmarted by the Republicans and their ability to distort facts and mislead the public. But Trump has run his con on the whole of the Republican Party and has the sycophant media treating him like he is already President. Stiff-upper-lipped Democrats are secretly quaking in their wingtips and Doc Martens.
What Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party, and progressives/liberals in general need is a boost. A boost in morale, a boost in energy, and a boost in public perception. Enough of a boost to gain quality time in the mediasphere. Enough of a boost to reclaim the electoral landscape from Donald Trump. Perhaps that boost can be propelled by the announcement of Elizabeth Warren’s nomination as Hillary Clinton’s running mate.
Accepting the nomination would be a great sacrifice for Sen. Warren. But it may be the sacrifice we need in order to save our democracy.
In a recent post I stated that, in my opinion, The Family was the best new TV series. Was is the operative term; true to form, ABC has cancelled this program. But we shouldn’t worry. The network has renewed some good programs, including Black-ish, How to Get Away with Murder, and American Crime. It’s also renewed fan favorites The Bachelor, Dancing with the Stars, Grey’s Anatomy, Quantico, and Once Upon a Time.
There is possibly some logic to this cancellation decision. Let’s consider what was cancelled and what was renewed. Sitcoms are the most successful category of show. They have a good chance of going on forever (The Middle and Modern Family are entering their eighth seasons.) Soap operas (Gray’s Anatomy, Scandal) are a staple; they have a loyal audience and attract sponsors. Crime shows are also quite popular. And shows that combine elements of both soap opera and crime story (How to Get Away with Murder) have a lot going for them . “Reality” shows and quiz shows are also long lived: The Bachelor has run for 20 seasons, Shark Tank for 7, and Dancing with the Stars for 22. But shows in each category were also cancelled, apparently due to low ratings. And new shows in each category are scheduled for the coming fall season.
The most interesting (and, in fact, encouraging) thing about the ABC schedule is the fact that American Crime has been renewed. This leads me to an observation about what can succeed on network TV. The Family was a dark series, steeped in angst. Its events unfolded in the present and the past, revealing the obsessions and lies that defined its characters, one episode at a time. The stories told on American Crime were similarly dark and tragic. Each episode uncovered secrets and drew us deeper into the lives of the characters.
The biggest difference is that each season of American Crime was a complete story. However ambiguous the conclusion (and they were ambiguous – by design) each season followed the standard structure of drama: it had a beginning, a middle, and an end – a central conflict, an exposition, development, and a climax, with the resolution left for the viewer to imagine.
The Family, on the other hand was conceived as an ongoing, multiseasonal , series. In a TVLine interview, showrunner Jenna Bans discussed her plans for the future of the series. The loose ends left in the season finale that became the series finale were to be explored in the next season. But it is not clear how the story would expand and develop over subsequent seasons. But that seems to be true for a lot of series.
TV series are developed in the hope that they will continue over many years. This is understandable: a TV show, like a feature film, is a massive undertaking. It is comparable to a major construction project, involving many different trades, a lot of physical material, and a lot of coordination. One need only look at the closing credits of an hour-long episode of a TV show to see the number of workers in various crafts (often mandated by union contracts) that are required to create the show. The budget per episode for the average show is over $3 million. That’s a lot of money and it’s expected to generate profits.
The concept and structure of the TV drama has changed a lot over time. In the early history of television, one successful format was the drama series structured as an anthology. Each week featured a different story, with a different cast, all produced by the same company. The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Kraft Television Theatre, Studio 57, Zane Grey Theater, Playhouse 90, Science Fiction Theatre, Danger, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Lights Out, Play of the Week, and Fireside Theatre are some of the anthology series that were mainstays of the 1950s and ‘60s.
The current TV scene has featured successful season-long anthology-like series. American Crime, True Detective, and American Horror Show are three shows that have revived the extended anthology format. They have been successful, critically acclaimed (notwithstanding the second season of True Detective), and popular.
Had The Family been one story in an extended anthology, it might have ended with greater finality, to be followed by another engaging exploration of the dark side of the human psyche struggling to find the light.
In my opinion really good shows are more likely to get cancelled while the bland, stupid, and vacuous ones are likely to get renewed. But, I cannot claim to be objective. I’m sure that my criteria are as subjective as the next person’s. But shows like The Family are rare enough to make me want more of them.
My favorite shows are back or on their way back. I’ve been watching few shows on a regular basis over the last month or so, but I’m really pleased about the return of some of my favorite shows, both the new and (relatively) long running.
Some deserve special note. But first, I have to begin with one of my omissions from last season.
Shades of Blue (NBC). This turned out to be a very good show. The plot concerns a squad of crooked NYC police detectives who are drawn into a plot that leads to grand larceny and murder. Jennifer Lopez plays a member of the squad who is turned informant by the FBI, and Ray Liotta plays the tragically flawed leader of the corrupt crew. Jennifer Lopez can act. The suspenseful series is likely to return.
Now, for the current season.
Black-ish (ABC). The show manages to address important social issues while taking cover behind the sitcom clichés of bumbling men and smart women. It works, and it’s funny more often than not. However, the addition of (the nearly ubiquitous) Wanda Sykes adds nothing to the show.
The Blacklist (NBC). This sturdy and engaging series is winding down to its finale, steeped in tragedy. The characters have changed as the show progressed and I’m curious to see how they end up and who will survive. There are some indications in the media that the show will generate a spinoff focusing on the characters of Tom Keen and the new villain Susan Hargrave (Famke Janssen, recently seen on How to Get Away with Murder).
Blindspot (NBC). In its second season, the show is an entertaining challenge to the suspension of disbelief. An amnesiac woman appears, her body covered in mysterious tattoos, each of which helps solve a significant crime. “Jane Doe” turns out to have Special Forces training, and in short order she becomes a team member of the FBI unit assigned to follow up on the clues revealed in the tattoos. The new season reveals secrets of “Jane Doe’s” past life and her secret mission inside the FBI. As I said, it challenges the suspension of disbelief.
Containment (The CW). This is the latest in the deadly virus-themed shows (The Walking Dead, Helix, The Last Ship, 12 Monkeys). In this case the outbreak is confined to the city of Atlanta, where an area has been sealed off to contain the virus. The central theme is not an impending global apocalypse. Instead, the show investigates political and social issues from the perspective of a Southern, largely Black, city. A mood of dread and despair is created in each episode, as the protagonist, a Black police commander, struggles to maintain his sense of duty as the government’s draconian plans appear increasingly sinister.
The Detour (TBS). This new show is painfully funny. Jason Jones stars in a show that he and his wife Samantha Bee wrote about a family driving from Syracuse to Ft. Lauderdale through a surreal landscape of absurd situations and even more absurd people. It helps that these parents and their two children are hilariously inappropriate whenever possible. Did I mention that this show is funny?
The Family (ABC). This is the best of the new shows. A boy who was kidnapped and declared dead returns to his family after 10 years. The family to which he returns consists of a mother obsessed with political power, an alienated father, and two damaged children. Everyone has deep secrets, which are slowly unveiled through flashbacks and the persistent inquiries of a journalist and a police detective.
House of Lies (Showtime). In its fifth season, this show continues to pack more into a half hour than any show I can think of. The characters are still trying to conquer the world of corporate consulting as they deal with parenthood, failed relationships, and getting older and remaining unfulfilled. The plots are brilliant and the comedy sneaks up and kicks you in the behind.
Orphan Black (BBC). This science fiction tour de force has returned with new characters and a continually thickening plot. Tatiana Maslany continues to amaze as she adds to the number of clones she portrays. The series hasn’t yet run out of plot twists and promises more surprises.
Penny Dreadful (Showtime). This is one of the really good shows. The first two episodes of the third season demonstrate that it has staying power. The show is a creative mashup of horror and Victorian noir. So far it has incorporated elements of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Paradise Lost, La Dame aux Camelias, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the goddess Hecate, as well as later updates The Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolfman. Everything in this series is beautiful, even the most gruesome and terrifying images. The acting is excellent and convincing, the photographic imagery is exquisite, and the musical score is equal to that of any van Trier film.
12 Monkeys (SyFy). The show based on Terry Gilliam’s classic movie is in its second season. It takes the framework of the film (a plot to destroy humanity with a virus) and expands it into a complex web of characters, groups, and time periods. There seem to be a lot of plot deviations, but the writers succeed in bringing them together and moving the story along in a intriguing way.
Veep (HBO). Entering its fifth season, the show crams an hour of comedy into each half-hour episode. It joyfully celebrates the craziness of presidential politics and the jockeying for power in the White House. It also skewers the press corps, the lobbyists, and the consultants who multiply the chaos inherent in a colossal collision of egos. The cast is still great and the writing is still brilliant.
I’m also looking forward to the return of some excellent shows from last year, among which are these:
Mr. Robot (USA). Led by newcomer Remi Melek and veteran Christian Slater, this series is part sci-fi, part cyberfiction, part psychological thriller. We watch a hacker collective bring down the world’s most powerful corporation as filtered through the often drug-addled mind of young computer genius with psychological problems.
Wayward Pines (FOX). M. Night Shyamalan directed and Matt Dillon starred in the first season of this story of a group of people who find themselves trapped in a small town in the grip of totalitarian rule with no way out. There are strange secrets and a strange world just outside the town’s impenetrable walls. The season one conclusion foreshadows a continuation of the tragedy that ended the first season. It’s grim and well done.
I’m sure I missed shows that I’ve forgotten about during their absence. I’ll keep you up to date. And in the mean while, I await the reboot of Twin Peaks.