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Monthly Archives: March 2016

Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Donald Trump

It looks as if the reality television series sometimes known as the GOP presidential debates has been canceled.  The Republican front-runner, having successfully manipulated the debates since their debut last summer, has pulled down the curtain, apparently believing he has nothing to gain from additional episodes.

Still, in this crazy political season, we can’t rule out a series renewal.  The Republican National Committee has authorized another debate for April, which might occur in New York City. If that one comes through, it will be debate number 13 — which is appropriate, since a 13-week commitment is now standard for many TV series.

The Democrats, of course, went another way, limiting the number of debates, scheduling them on nights when few people would be watching, and then presenting mostly sedate affairs.  Few would mourn if the Democratic debate season was over.

The end of the GOP debates must come as a disappointment to the networks.  Some of the them were the most-watched programs of their week. In CNN’s case, the Sept. 16 debate gave the network the biggest audience in its history.  Even more important, the debates provided a platform for the networks’ news personalities.  Everyone knows who Megyn Kelly is now!

The debates followed the format of classic reality TV.  Crucially, no one was there “to make friends.” The season started with 16 contestants, and over time the field narrowed.  The most recent debate had four participants, and since then Marco Rubio has been voted of the island, bringing the remaining total to three.  And, as in most reality shows, the most popular character is someone you love to hate.

The debates have had something for everyone.  They’ve provided high comedy and low; they’ve had drama, backstabbing, character assassination, career suicide, pathos and pity.  And they’ve provided some of the most indelible memories of the TV season.

Good government types usually pooh-pooh televised debates as mere theater and unrelated to the “real” business of governing.  They seem to think a president should spend the day in the Oval Office poring over briefing books and dispassionately making policy decisions based on the facts alone.

In reality, presidential leadership requires good communications skills and the ability to make others bend to your will.  If you lack the charisma, wit, and brute personality to succeed in a debate, you’re unlikely to convince the American people or Congress to go along with you.  Sorry, Jeb Bush.

Since the first presidential debate in 1960, televised debates have been among the most consequential events of the campaign season.  A tan and rested John Kennedy is acknowledged to have won the election that year because of the visual contrast he offered with the tired and sweaty Richard Nixon.

Gerald Ford tanked his re-election bid in 1976 when he inexplicably declared that Poland was not in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.  Four years later, Ronald Reagan helped his cause by genially zinging Jimmy Carter (“There you go again”) for his misstatements of Reagan’s record.

Say what you will about this year’s debates and candidates, the voters cannot complain they haven’t been given a chance to make an informed decision.  Not all the debates were edifying — we didn’t really need to hear about the size of Trump’s manhood, for example — but some were practically public policy seminars. For example, there was the last one in Miami, when none of the participants thought it was in his interest to launch ad hominem attacks.

Over the last six months we’ve seen the candidates at their best and worst.  We’ve seen them try to out-bully, out-argue each other and out-charm each other. Their positions on all the issues in the race were examined, attacked and defended.  You might not like where they stand, but real differences among the candidates were delineated.

Donald Trump was obviously the star of the 2015-16 GOP debates.  His bankruptcies, his hiring of undocumented workers, his refusal to release his tax returns,  his lack of religious commitment, his bullying — they were all exposed, and a plurality of primary voters made the informed decision that they just didn’t care.  Again, voters cannot say they were duped or not warned.

If Trump was the star of the debates, I’d nominated Rubio as the Best Supporting Player.  In most of the debates he was the most articulate participant, and in the Feb. 25 Houston debate he delivered the most stinging attack on Trump’s character and business practices (not that it did Rubio any good.)  And yet it was Rubio who suffered the worst debate collapse when Chris Christie accused him of parroting memorized talking points, and he responded by doing just that.  Rubio, who had been surging in New Hampshire before that debate, ended up in fifth place and never seriously recovered his “Marcomentum.”

While we’re at it, congratulations to Fox News for hosting the best, most substantive debates.  It’s not surprising that a right-wing news team was able to identify and then probe on issues that mattered most to right-wing voters.  What’s surprising is that Fox didn’t pander to Trump like the rest of the networks.  Fox had the credibility with viewers to push back against Trump — and it used that credibility, even though it probably cost the network some viewer support.

Whether there will be another Republican debate will largely depend on whether Trump thinks he needs to verbally crush Ted Cruz to avoid a contested convention.  If not, we’ll have to wait for the fall, when the actual nominees go at it.

It’s hard to see how a Trump/Clinton debate would be anything other than a train wreck — and a huge ratings success.

better call Saul

Why aren’t more people talking about “Better Call Saul,” which is arguably the best show on television right at this very moment? (Or at least until “The Americans” starts up again.)

“Better Call Saul” — the prequel to “Breaking Bad,” — relates the story of how Walter White’s sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman came into being. It has the same pedigree as “Breaking Bad,”with Vince Gilligan as the creator/showrunner and writer/director/comedian Bob Odenkirk as the title character.  Like “Breaking Bad,” it’s set in New Mexico and features the same taut dialogue, beautiful photography and creative direction.  It’s absorbing and terrific to look at.

Alas, what it doesn’t have is a lot of buzz.

Determining whether a TV show is part of the national zeitgeist is pretty subjective exercise but there are objective ways of going about it.  The first clue is that whenever I try to share my excitement about the show I can’t find anyone else who’s watching it.  Then there’s the commentariat.  Last year Slate.com dedicated a weekly podcast to the show but there’s nothing similar this year; in fact, it rarely comes up in other podcasts that discuss the best shows of the week.  And in the online world, there aren’t as many weekly recaps as there were last year.

The TV ratings seem to be OK – decent when recorded viewing is added back in, but not spectacular.  As for social media — the keenest measure of “buzz” — it isn’t a social media leader among the published social media indexes.

So what gives?  I’m half-inclined to say it’s “too good” to generate a wide audience.  Unlike “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” isn’t violent or focused on the exploits of a criminal mastermind.  Instead it’s a perceptive character study about a small-time lawyer named Jimmy McGill who has a predilection for walking on the wild side.

The season one the narrative arc revolved around Jimmy’s attempt to prove himself to his older brother, who’s a brilliant but eccentric lawyer, and.  In season two, Jimmy has shown himself to be a capable lawyer, but he can’t help but be attracted to the thrill he gets from scamming greedy and obnoxious marks.

Jimmy’s legal hi-jinks are always amusing and frequently hilarious – funnier than half the sitcoms on TV to be honest.  And the story is absorbing because you know it’s leading up to the moment when Jimmy transforms from an honest but somewhat slippery lawyer into the outright morally dubious criminal attorney Saul Goodman.  The brilliance of the show is that this seems inevitable in retrospect but really isn’t.  Jimmy is constituted a certain way but he does have free will; he is making conscious decision after conscious decision that are incrementally turning him into Saul Goodman.

I’d like to think that in a different TV environment this show would generate huge attention.  But here’s the thing.  I argued earlier that “Better Call Saul,” was the best show on TV right now, but the truth is that I don’t really know.  People keep telling me about other great shows that I don’t have the chance to watch.  I’ve received so many suggestions that I can’t even remember them anymore.

I don’t get Showtime so I immediately write-off all those shows, and I’m pretty sure we don’t get BBC America so there’s another category of shows I don’t worry about.  But I only scratch the surface on HBO, FX, AMC and the other prestige networks.    “Better Call Saul’s” network AMC has another show, “Halt and Catch Fire,” that I’d love to watch but until I become a full-time TV critic I don’t think I’ll have time to do that.

Given the fragmented TV audience, it’s hard to think of many shows that actually do have buzz.  “Downton Abbey” had serious buzz at the end of its run.  “Saturday Night Live” has it when it has a good host; so does “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” when it produces a particularly amusing video segment.  The return of “House of Cards” generated some water cooler conversation as will the next season of “Game of Thrones” when it premieres next month. But none of these shows can monopolize the national conversation in the way that “Who shot J.R.” did 35 years ago, or that “Girls” did even as recently as five years ago.

I was at a small Manhattan dinner party a few weekends back and the four couples had a fairly extensive discussion about the movies that were nominated for the Academy Awards, but when we switched to television, there was not one show that even half of us had in common.  I tried to get everyone interested in “Better Call Saul” with a complete lack of success.  Too bad, because it’s a great show and deserves more attention.

In a world with so much choice, a show like “Better Call Saul” falls through the cracks, buzz-wise.   As do dozens of other really good shows.   There are worse problems to have but there are days when I wish I didn’t feel like I was watching TV in my own personal vacuum.

 

downton-xmas

Downton Abbey debuted six seasons ago as a fairly serious costume drama, quickly morphed into a high-end soap opera, and concluded the series Sunday night as a fairy tale with a distinctly “they lived happily ever after” vibe.  It’s almost as if Julian Fellowes came on the set one day and started pointing to each cast member like Oprah, yelling “You get a happy ending!” “You get a happy ending!” You get a happy ending!”  Did he run a fan fiction contest and decide to give the fans exactly what they most desired for every last character? Seems so.

The biggest surprise of this episode was that there were no surprises. None of the craziest theories came true. Almost everything that happened this season was preordained from the the final episode of last season, when the Crawley girls met the men who would ultimately become their husbands.  Oh sure, our heroes and heroines met some mild resistance as they marched relentlessly forward to their ultimate rewards, but these barriers were easily swept away.  That’s what happens when a deadline is looming.  I’m sure Baron Fellowes would have loved to wallow in a protracted and painful conflict involving Edith and Bertie’s dragon lady mom, but alas, he ran out of time and was forced to have the old bird simply change her mind.  Boy that was easy!

If there was anything unexpected about the episode (Season 6, Episode 9), it was that for all Fellowes’ talk about women’s advancement, he still fell back on the old Noah’s Ark approach to happiness: everyone needed to be paired up two-by-two.  And if they weren’t married by series end they were definitely headed that way.

The other great Down Abbey theme has been “times are changing.”  You can’t watch the series for more than ten minutes without someone bringing it up.   In the end, all the characters succumb (as we all must) to the inevitability of change.   But some are still not resigned to it, and I’m not sure where Julian Fellowes himself lands. In the very last lines of spoken dialogue Isobel says, “we’re going forward into the future, not back into the past,” to which the Dowager Countess replies,”If only we could.”  And if those last words aren’t ambiguous enough, the series ends with CGI snow falling on the house (which looks suspiciously like it exists in a snow globe) and  everyone singing that most nostalgic of songs, “Auld Lang Syne.”  So are we supposed to mourn or celebrate the passing of an era?  Both I guess.

In any event, the plot developments came so fast and furious that there really wasn’t time to dwell on big picture themes.  Here are the highlights:

  • Edith got married!  Did anyone think this wouldn’t happen?  In a more mature series Edith would have moved to London and become a successful businesswoman and perhaps met another successful London proprietor.  Nope. Not only does she have to be married but she has to marry a Marquess.  She’s back in town for exactly one day when Mary arranges for Bertie to meet her and propose again.  Apparently he had a change of heart about those “I couldn’t trust someone who doesn’t trust me” principals.  The only barrier is his uptight mother, who wants Brancaster Castle to become a moral center for the county.  She certainly won’t want a fallen woman for daughter-in-law, right?  Well, right, but only for about five minutes.   When Edith drops the Marigold bombshell she initially tries to break up the match (just as Lord Sinderby tried to break up up his son’s marriage to Rose) but eventually (wait for it — here it comes) she changes her mind.“Should I turn down a daughter-in-law who, in addition to having birth and brains, is entirely and unimpeachably honest?” she asks. “She was prepared to deny herself a great position, to say nothing of happiness, rather than claim it by deceit. We must applaud her.” Oh brother.
  • (Speaking of Edith, the only time I laughed out loud during the episode is when Lord Grantham gets the news of her engagement and rushes into tell his wife: “That was Edith.  You’re never going to believe it!” “She’s pregnant again!” Cora exclaims.)
  • (Speaking of the wedding, you have to hand it to Julian Fellows for lingering on the cleric’s line about whether any man can give just cause why Edith and Bertie shouldn’t get married.  He was definitely messing with us. How many of you thought Michael Greggson might re-emerge at that moment?)
  •  Isobel and Lord Merton got married!  As is explained to us multiple times in the episode, when they thought Merty would live a long life, his beastly son and daughter-in-law were only too happy to have Isobel take him off their hands so they wouldn’t have to care for him in his dotage.  But when it looked like he was going to pop off immediately from pernicious anemia (apparently a real thing) they decide to keep him close so there would be no messy complications from a deathbed marriage to a second wife. Intuiting that Merty has been kidnapped by his own family, Isobel and the Dowager Countess burst into the house and demand to see him.  Fortunately Merty he hears the commotion and runs away with them, leaving his rotten son in charge of the house.  And then it turns out that he doesn’t have pernicious anemia after all, just regular anemia.  Another happy ending!  Because what would an episode of Downton Abbey be like without at least one medical miracle to celebrate?
  • Carson retires! Speaking of medical miracles, it looks like there won’t be a one for Carson, who has a palsy (presumably some form of Parkinson’s).  He can no long reliably pour wine, which is about the most essential job in the house, so he offers to resign.  This would normally be considered a sad ending, but it’s a sad ending with the softest possible landing because his replacement will be Thomas Barrow, who takes the job with the understanding that Carson will be a sort of non-executive Chairman of the Board (i.e., in charge of the strategic issues at the house but not the day-to-day operations.)  So he gets to semi-retire with his dignity intact.
  • Barrow goes and comes! As for the aforementioned Thomas Barrow, he’s had a personality transplant this year and turned over a new leaf, trying to be a nice person.  The Granthams tried to get rid of him all season and as soon as he gets a job somewhere else, they want him back.  And now he’ll have the same relationship with Master George that Mary has with Carson.
  • Daisy succumbs. Daisy’s romantic problems have been among the most boring subplots of the whole series.  As Mrs. Patmore (aka Sigmund Freud) points out, she has exhibited a pattern of behavior in which she doesn’t like her suitors if they like her and only likes the suitors that don’t reciprocate.  Andy has been sniffing around for a while and Daisy could not have cared less, but when she gets a good look at him doing manly labor in his undershirt she is nearly undone with lust.  So she decides to move into the farm with Mr. Mason and there is a strong hint that she will hook up with Andy and Mr. Mason and Mrs. Patmore will also get married.  And so much for passing all those exams if she’s just going to be a pig farmers wife.
  • Oh, Molesly gets a full-time job at the school and Baxter finally decides not to go see her seducer in prison so that he will have “no power over [her].” (Why is this sub-sub-plot even still under discussion?)  Also, it looks like two of them will hook up eventually.
  • Denker outs Spratt and outfoxes herself. Denker deduces that Spratt is ghosting the advice column for Edith’s magazine and tells The Dowager Countess about it.  How she did that is unclear, and why she spilled the beans is also unclear.   I guess she ratted on him for the pure pleasure of being a bitch and because she hasn’t done anything pernicious in a while.  But if she really wanted to get rid of him all she needed to do was tattle on him hiding his fugitive nephew a few episodes ago.   I think we’ve seen that the Dowager Countess doesn’t like her servants tattling on each other.  Doesn’t Denker remember this?  In any event, the Dowager Countess finds the column highly amusing and Spratt rises in her estimate at Denker’s expense.
  • Lord Grantham appreciates the hospital president.  Like a spoiled child who’s jealous of a younger sibling, Lord Grantham thinks that his wife is spending too much time on hospital business. But when Rose (yes, she’s back too) takes him to a public meeting where the new consolidation plans are discussed, he’s very impressed indeed and gets over his qualms.
  • Miss Edmunds catches the bouquet!  Tom and Edith’s editor have been making eyes at each other for several episodes and the bouquet-catch is a signal that they too will pair off eventually.  After all Tom has the most romantic come-on ever: “We like strong women.  We like them very much.” Oh brother.
  • Anna delivers Baby Bates!  This is the kind of show where you know exactly when a pregnant woman’s water is going to break and it happens in Mary’s bedroom during the reception for Edith’s wedding. This is also apparently the kind of show where the mother-to-be has to deliver the baby in the very spot where her water broke. So instead of walking her to a more convenient spot they put her in Mary’s bed.   Out pops the baby in no time. But no worries about Anna needing to give up her job.  Apparently the Granthams offer on-site daycare so the little tyke will be put in the nursery with all the Grantham childen (and raised as their equal? I think not.)
  • Tom and Henry go into business! The last remaining subplot concerns Henry Talbot’s future occupation.  Guess what?  You’ll never believe it!  He and Tom are opening a car dealership in downtown Downton.  Who could have ever predicted that, what with Tom carrying on about his love of cars and his obvious man-crush on Henry?    Henry has conveniently lost his enthusiasm for racing after the death of his friend in the fiery crash, but he has to do something.  As Tom explains: “Women don’t understand that a man is what he does.  At least to himself.” I don’t think that last part came out exactly right, but now Tom and Henry will have their toys to play with.  They are even thinking about manufacturing cars.  WHAAAAAT?  They’re going to turn the town of Downton into a Yorkshire Detroit?  Doubtful.

The series ends in a warm bath of sweet syrup.  All our friends have had their innings and are in a happy place when the series ends.  It’s understood that Downton has endured its challenges.  And so what if none of the servants are working full time any more, what with all the pig-farming and B&B operating on the side? Somehow everyone will get by.

Fortunately the Downton denizens don’t know what’s ahead of them.  They’ll be hit by a world-wide Depression in just four years and ten years after that will be World War II.  Master George will almost certainly serve in the war and Downton itself might be requisitioned by the government for military purposes.  And after the war they’ll face high inheritance taxes and almost certainly be forced to turn over the estate to the National Trust.

No need to dwell on that now.  We leave Downton on New Year’s Eve 1926, at a time of peace and prosperity. In that spirit, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

 

GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Las Vegas

Super Tuesday is finally upon us, and much to the shock and chagrin of the media, Donald Trump appears to have an unstoppable head of steam in his quest to obtain the Republican nomination.

But if the media are appalled at the prospect of a Trump presidency, they only have themselves to blame, having showered him with media attention for the past thirty years and then given him a near-monopoly on press coverage these past six months.   And by “media” I really mean “television,” since television remains the most important way that people get their information.

Most TV pundits and smart guys thought that Trump’s candidacy was a joke when he launched his campaign last June.  Jon Stewart for his part, pretended to have a sexual climax at the mere thought of being able to cover a Trump campaign in his last weeks at “The Daily Show.”  Well, who’s laughing now, Jon?

The disparity of media coverage between Trump and the rest of the candidate field has been outlandish from day one.  The University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics has graphed the amount of coverage given to each candidate, and on any given day Trump averages more attention than the rest of the field combined.

The relationship between Trump and the media is sickly sadomasochistic: The more Trump beats up on them, the more time they give him.   The media might dislike him, but they know that whenever they give him time, their ratings go up.

In the media’s defense, there’s ALWAYS a reason to talk about Trump. He has a genius for manufacturing news and getting TV coverage with outrageous statements that keep the media focused on him.  The other candidates are then forced either to respond to his crazy talk  — or become completely invisible.  God forbid the cable networks pass on an opportunity to discuss the latest Trump tweet.

It’s no surprise why viewers tune in. Not only is he an entertainer, he’s far and away the most famous person running for the Republican nomination.  As the host of the highly rated “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” he deftly positioned himself as a knowing boss and capable leader.  Before that, he achieved fame as a high-wattage businessman and beauty pageant impresario.   Trump was already one of the most famous people in America when Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were still in high school.

But it’s more than fame alone that explains Trump’s high ratings.  In a sea of conventional politicians, he’s funny, colorful, and larger than life.  With his baubles, beautiful wives, and prizefighter friends, he lives a life that many middle-class voters would choose for themselves if they only had the money.

Unlike the social elites who mock him and his tastes, he doesn’t look down on middle-class aspirations; he embodies them. Plus he says whatever he wants and doesn’t care what the Jon Stewarts of the world think.

Theoretically the primary debates should have exposed Trump’s great weakness: the fact that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.   But too many of the moderators either let him slip by with vague answers, or, worse, tried to turn the debates into gladiator matches.  No one is going to win an insult contest against Donald Trump — and the more the moderators played it that way, the better it was for him.

Still, with the field now down to five candidates, there is less room for him to hide. At the most recent CNN debate Rubio and Cruz did successfully expose his shallowness on the issues, although that might not even matter at this point.

That CNN debate may have dinged Trump, but also demonstrated why the channel might as well change its name to the Trump News Network.  During the debate itself, the CNN questioners gave him vastly more time time than any other candidate, frequently directing their next line of questions to him first and then asking the others to respond to his answers.

And then when it was over, they immediately switched to a softball one-on-one interview with Chris Cuomo and the man of the hour himself, during which Trump was permitted to bash his opponents all over again without challenge.  If that wasn’t enough, they came back soon thereafter for a SECOND interview with Trump.

Much has been made about how Trump has run circles around the traditional media and the Republican establishment, but he’s also trouncing the anti-establishment special interest groups, including the right-wing media.  For decades, Republicans trembled at a negative word from Fox News, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, and the rest of what Hillary Clinton identified as a vast right-wing conspiracy.  No more.

Trump has swatted Fox away like like a cow brushing off an annoying fly, and made Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge swallow his departures from conservative orthodox — and like it. Perhaps nothing has been as surprising this election season as discovering that Fox News has no clothes. Trump has smashed the GOP, the traditional media and the conservative media. The question now is whether any of them will be able to regain the power they once had.