Monday, July 02, 2007

What You Should (and Should Not) Be Watching This Summer

Worth staying inside for – give it a 'series record' on your DVR:

HBO's Flight of the Conchords – understated, but oh so hilarious

FX's Rescue Me – this show just socks you in the stomach with humor and tragedy and everything in between, but that sucker punch in the gut still feels really good

Guilty Summer Pleasure:

TBS' My Boys – I'm not saying it's Shakespeare, but it's still fun to watch. Season two starts in late July.

Lifetime's Army Wives – soapy, sexy, um, patriotic goodness. When's the last time you used those three words together?

USA's Burn Notice -- like The Bourne Identity only funny, breezy and sunny, even when our burned spy is shooting drug dealers in the knees.

Jury's Still Out:

HBO's Big Love – I know people who love this show but I'm still not one of them. I'm trying, though.

So Disappointing:

HBO's John From Cincinnati – I was a HUGE fan of David Milch's Deadwood but this show just makes no damn sense. In homage, I should say it makes no fucking sense.

Boring and Predictable:

TNT's Heartland

TBS' House of Payne

Horrible, But Expectedly So:

All reality shows on broadcast network television, which is pretty much what the Big Five are airing this summer. Oh, and repeats.

If nothing else is on, fire up the DVD player:

NBC's The Office – I'm slowly converting everyone I know into a fan of this show, which is my favorite thing on TV right now.

I still miss:

HBO's Sex and the City – so I stay up late to catch it in syndication and then watch uncut episodes I've already seen 95 times on HBO On Demand. Because Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha are my TV friends.

Shows coming soon that I haven't seen yet:

TNT's Saving Grace starring Holly Hunter
FX's Damages starring Glenn Close
Lifetime's Side Order of Life (July 15)
Lifetime's State of Mind
Showtime's Californication starring David Duchovony (August)
TNT's The Company starring Chris O'Donnell

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Look, I’m on Gawker

But I'm in disguise as the intrepid "New York Post reporter." It's pretty funny that this ended up here because I didn't feel like I was being particularly aggressive, but maybe it's an example of not really knowing how you are coming off. I also think it's a result of my doing so many interviews – I've learned to get to the heart of the matter without thinking much about it. I also think Lauer and NBC also were more sensitive on this subject than I realized, so my basic questions got better answers than I expected. Finally, there was a Palm Beach Post reporter on the line that asked even more direct, more aggressive questions -- "what do you think about rumors that NBC offered to pay for an interview with Paris Hilton?" "what do you think of criticism by Phil Mushnick (also of the NY Post, but a sports writer so I'm not sure why he's talking about this) that the Today Show is so cross-promotional he can no longer watch it?" -- but he didn't get on the queue first so I ended up setting him up.

The really funny thing is that I was writing the story for the weekly TV guide section of the Post, but the daily section had no clue, so when they read this on Gawker they were like, um, who was the reporter on this call? The sad part was that I had to go teach aerobics so I didn't end up getting the daily byline for this.

I would also like to note that ruddy, garrulous Harry has really come into his own. He's like the JFK Jr. of England. If only I was 22 ... and smokin' hot ... and English ... oh, nevermind.

Matt Lauer: "No Quid Pro Quo" For Princes Harry & William

harryandwilliamToday NBC's Matt Lauer participated in a conference call with journalists about the Dateline interview he did recently with Prince William and Prince Harry, and about the Concert for Diana that NBC is broadcasting on Sunday. But some journalists didn't want to play along—they kept asking him pesky questions about whether he'd gotten the interview with the princes because the network had ponied up $2.5 million for the rights to air the concert. Not surprisingly, Lauer denied it.

"NBC had been interested in the concert for a very long time," he said in response to a question from a New York Post reporter about how the network got involved with the interview and the concert. "Months ago, they told me they were pursuing the concert and asked me what my interest level was.... But we had been talking to the palace about interviewing the boys for a long time, long before the idea of the concert came up. Once NBC decided to do the concert, it seemed like a great time for them to speak if they were going to speak. Perhaps on this occasion the boys would speak out—then it was just a question of whether the boys would do it with me, or me over some other people at NBC."

Lauer claims he was forced to jump through hoops before the palace would approve the network's request to interview William and Harry, including having to send over tapes of his previous interviews. "I was very excited when I got the interview," Lauer said.

"Usually those types of interviews involve lots of chasing," the Post reporter prodded. "Because of the concert, was it NBC's guarantee that you would get the interview?"

"When the concert deal was signed, they hadn't decided they were going to do anything. There's no quid pro quo here," Lauer said. "But the concert gave us an enormous advantage, absolutely. It's a no-brainer."

Now, let's parse that. Lauer claims there was no quid pro quo, and if by quid pro quo he means, literally, that the network said to the princes, "Here's $2.5 million for the rights to the concert and now you have to give us an interview," then sure, there was no quid pro quo. But the second part of his response—"the concert gave us an enormous advantage"—seems to be what people are getting their boxers in a bunch about these days. Sure, there's no official deal. There's nothing that anyone can point to as concrete evidence that there was a quid pro quo.

"I was not in on the business dealings of this," Lauer said in response to another question. "If there had been a quid pro quo I wouldn't have had to go through the hoops I had to go through. There was nothing set on paper before we started making those calls."

Well, sure! But it also seems that Lauer—and the rest of the NBC News division—are almost willfully ignorant about the way that their Entertainment division works. After all, if Lauer keeps himself in the dark, he can reassure himself that it was his wonderful audition tapes that landed him the interview with the princes, not the $2.5 million that the entertainment division of the network paid the princes for the rights to the concert.

But Lauer will be hosting the concert for the network as well. So is he working there as a member of the NBC News team? Or as a representative of the Entertainment side? The latter seems more likely.

Here's the link to the item on Gawker

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sicko will make you sick

I watched Michael Moore's latest documentary – Sicko – over the weekend, and I was surprised to find how angry, depressed and desirous of moving to France, home of the world's number-one health care system, it made me feel.

The movie starts with a simple premise that we all pretty much know: the American health care system sucks, lots of people don't have coverage, and everything you need should you fall ill might not be covered. But Americans are so used to this system that we tend to blame individuals for their stupidity if they don't have the kind of job that gets them covered. "I have a friends who are 45 and still don't have health insurance," said one friend to me. "I just can't deal with their kind of craziness anymore."

What Americans don't really know – because this would require actually knowing that there are other countries in the world besides our own – is that in many other countries, health care is free and universal. If you are having a baby in Great Britain, you just go to the hospital and have it. There is no stop at the cashier on the way out the door.

I think most people have a general idea of this, but they don't understand the implications. And we sort of toss it aside, anyway: "well, they don't have a military," we say, or "they pay 80% of their income in taxes." I myself have said these things verbatim.

And they may be largely true. Still, Sicko got me thinking that this was a pretty shallow way to look at the issue. Yes, many countries spend far more money on their universal health care than they do their military protection. Well, that's because we, or our government and its military, protects them. (Sort of.) One upper-crust Brit in the movie says this (not verbatim): "it's just a matter of what your country's values are: do you want to spend your money killing people or saving them?"

That got me thinking. I know it is necessary to have a system of national defense in place, but do we need to be spending billions of dollars each year fighting an impossible and unclear war in Iraq? Since 2001, we've spent more than $500 billion in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to (not the world's most bipartisan organization in the world, I realize). Meanwhile, 45-50 million Americans lack health insurance and 18,000 people die each year due to that lack, according to the U.S. Census and the Center for American Progress.

Moore takes these numbers and makes them personal: A two-year-old girl dies in a hospital, and a wife loses her soul-mate husband because the hospital board won't approve the experimental treatment that could save his life. That's saying: sorry, your ability to pay your medical bills far trumps your life – your life! – so please go home and die.

Does that really represent our country's values? Does it represent my values? Does the fact that I am personally doing nothing about this make me culpable too? In some ways, yes, I'm afraid it does. People say "the only way to change things is to vote," but I don't agree. Voting might get some new guys in power, but does it catalyze institutional change? Unlikely, considering the way our government works. The only way to bring about the massive change something like this would require is overwhelming, unrelenting grassroots demand for it, and at this moment, that kind of universal political will does not exist in apathetic, comfortable America.

People argue that Michael Moore's films are propagandistic and don't tell the whole story. I thought that myself watching Fahrenheit 9/11. But Sicko tells stories of personal tragedies that could have been avoided if we as a nation cared more about each other. Propaganda has no affect on that truth.

LA Times' interview with Moore

Time's interview with Moore

New York Times' review

Of course, the Post hates it
But it still gets a Tomatometer of 92% -- that means 'go see it!'

Once again, Seymour Hersh tells us about the lying liars of the Bush Administration

There are very few journalists left who frequently uncover news so important that it could change the country's current course. The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh is one of the most prominent on that very short list. (The Washington Post's Bob Woodward is another.)

A Hersh story comes out about every three to six months, and each one usually manages to take some false assumption, tell the absolute truth about it, and turn the original perception on its head as a result. His latest piece tells the detailed tale of how former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his henchmen absolutely knew what sorts of torture had gone on at the Iraqi prison camp of Abu Ghraib but lied outright to Congress (and thus us) about it. Here's a link to the (very long) story -- The General's Report – it's worth a read if you have any interest whatsoever in knowing what sort of lies this administration constantly perpetuates.

I find it amazing that every time you scratch beneath the surface with this administration – and it's really just a very light scratching – you find lie upon lie upon lie. The entire Scooter Libby debacle was all about lying and the covering of lies. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales – whose job it is to uncover lies -- lies every time he opens his mouth, and he still has a job. It's amazing, and appalling, that we as Americans stand for it. We spent two years impeaching Bill Clinton because he had inappropriate sexual encounters with an intern and lied about it. OK, that wasn't great. But Bush's lies are killing thousands of people in Iraq and we are just letting it happen.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Sopranos Comes to Abrupt but Fitting End

I am coming out of nine months of unintended blog retirement because I just can't stop thinking about the finale of David Chase's masterwork, The Sopranos.

And apparently, neither can anybody else because that's all I've been reading about for days. Was it genius? Was it a rip-off? What was it?

I must admit I felt bored during much of the episode, and that's not an unfamiliar experience for me while watching the show. After September 11, 2001, I lost any desire to suspend disbelief and empathize with Tony and his gang of thugs. I know Gandolfini's nuanced portrayal of a sympathetic sociopath was part of the show's genius, but after he personally shot cousin Tony Blundetto's (Steve Buscemi) head off and bludgeoned the completely unlikeable Ralph Cifaretto (masterfully played by Joe Pantaliano in the role of his lifetime) to death, it just got hard to feel concerned about Tony's fate. Would Carmela finally leave him? Would he go to jail? Would he get popped himself? Would he consolidate power and become the mafia lord of the East Coast? At some point it became clear that no matter what happened in the series, Tony's end, like his life in general, wasn't going to be that great.

Still, we all kept watching.

For me, that was mostly because The Sopranos is so critically acclaimed, so beloved, that I couldn't ignore it. I make my living writing about TV and pop culture and The Sopranos has firmly secured itself a place atop both those heaps.

Having said all that, I found the show's finale fascinating and fitting. I don't know about perfect or genius or even satisfying, but appropriate and true to Chase's vision.

In my view, the show's final scene – which has members of Tony's family gathering at a diner for dinner – was Chase giving us insight into Tony's inner life. Every heightened moment in that diner was infused with tension, even though Tony was doing nothing more than sitting in a booth, ordering onion rings and greeting his wife and son. Was the mysterious guy at the counter finally going to whack Tony? Would Tony's entire family go down with him? Was something going to happen to Meadow as she had trouble parallel parking her Lexus? A regular Joe wouldn't even notice that these things were happening. For Tony Soprano, head of the New Jersey mob, any moment could be his last. While that's true for all of us, most of us aren't marked, and didn't just leave our mafia safe house where we were hiding out with an automatic for a few days waiting to die. No wonder the guy had panic attacks.

The show's final moment – when Meadow finally walked in the door and a quick shot of Tony's face abruptly cut to black and silence – was clearly left open to interpretation. Part of me believes that Tony met his maker (and that guy could not have been that happy with Tony) right then, and that was the end of his perspective and the end of him. That would jive with what seems to be Chase's view of death – final and empty when it comes. The series never gave us much warning when someone was going to meet his untimely end – Tony's hot-tempered nephew Christopher Motisanti (Michael Imperioli, who also wrote five of the show's episodes) didn't die in an exciting and bloody shoot-out, but quietly, at his uncle's hand. Bobby Bacala (Steven Schirripa) was taken down quickly in a toy store, a fitting location for the man-child he was, while Tony's adversary, Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), was shot point-blank in the head in front of his wife and grand-babies while he was just gassing up his car. Tony Soprano's life was constantly full of deaths like those – he knew his own death wouldn't be much different. In the meantime, he just lived to survive and enjoy his family, his gluttony, his gambling and his carnal pleasures.

The other way to look at it is that The Sopranos' lives went on, just without us there to watch. Chase leaves that to us to decide, which is in keeping with the show's existential framework. Jean-Paul Sartre would be pleased. And while the first view is appealing, the second probably makes more sense. Chase showed us the deaths of everyone else; maybe he just couldn't bear to finally take Tony out.

One of the reasons The Sopranos was considered TV genius was because it was true to life. It never became cliché or predictable or pandering, like much of TV (take that Grey's Anatomy). In both Chase's world and our own, life is unpredictable and doesn't offer closure. That was true of the entire series and especially true of the finale. Fans may have wanted more, but would we rather have show creators write shows that satisfy us or satisfy them? Ultimately, shows are better when the creator gets to be true to him or herself without interference from meddling networks or whining fans (and you take that, Lost). Would The Sopranos have been as good if David Chase allowed others to interfere with his vision? I'm sure it would not, which is why the show's finale was exactly right.

Some of TV's best comment on Sopranos finale

Chase speaks