Popular Culture

IMG_3340In the Middle Ages, true believers went gaga over relics — physical items that were either a holy person’s body part or closely associated with a saint.  All over Europe the major cathedrals claimed to display Jesus’ foreskin, the Virgin’s milk, a splinter from the cross, St. Peter’s toe, St. Anthony’s jaw and other items that seem bizarre and/or fabricated.  And yet for centuries these relics were the object of veneration that strengthened the faith of millions.

We do it differently in 21st Century America.  Our relics are associated with TV shows.  A couple of years ago the Museum of the Moving Image had a major Mad Men exhibition, complete with the show’s memorabilia (Don Draper’s fedora, Peggy Olsen’s sunglasses, etc.).   And now “Downtown Abbey” is getting the relic treatment with a full-blown exhibition in a former mansion in midtown Manhattan.

For anyone thinking of attending here is the tourist information:  the exhibition is housed in a three-story, very unassuming, building at 57th and Broadway.    The hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 and you are encouraged to buy them online for a specific time.

My office is caddy-corner to the exhibition (see view below from my floor), which I’ve walked past many times since it opened, completely unaware that the exhibition was even there, so it doesn’t exactly make a big splash on 57th Street.  The proximity worked for me, though, because the website was malfunctioning the day I wanted to go so I just walked over at 10:00 a.m. and waltzed in — definitely the best time to visit since I had the  space largely to myself.


The view from my workspace

The exhibition is a multi-media mix of video tours by Mr. Carson, a display of 50 costumes (mostly dresses but also suits and working uniforms), six or seven actual sets from the series, and lots and lots of props.  All this is interspersed with clips from the show and piped-in theme music.

The exhibit has a quasi-museum feel to it, with written text on the walls explaining cultural trends from the early Twentieth Century and putting the fashions into historical context.  It takes a minute to remember that what we are looking at is still just a set for a TV show and costumes that were created a few years ago — not actual artifacts like you’d find at an actual museum.

The layout of the exhibit loosely follows the layout of a grand house like Downton: the exhibits related to the servants are downstairs and the top two floors are reserved for the Crawley family’s displays.

The downstairs sets include Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, the servants’ dining room and Mr. Carson’s study.  And of course the servant’s costumes, which are even more monochromatic than they appeared on TV.


I don’t know who produced the text that elaborated on the lives of the servants but it’s in keeping with Julian Fellowes’ apparent belief that these grand houses were good for society.  We learn, for example, that the houses provided employment and upward mobility for the ambitious children of the local farmers and that most of the servant girls married themselves off and left service by their late 20’s.  Those without spouses could continue to rise within the hierarchy in the house and become lady’s maids and housekeepers.  There was a similar path for the men as well.  And who knows, this socio-economic interpretation might even be true, although the exhibit doesn’t dwell on the relentless work that being a maid entailed.

The second floor of the exhibit has a lot more color and glamour, showing the Crawleys’ dining room and Mary’s bedroom (a place of great drama, given that Mr. Pamuk expired in that bed and Anna’s baby came into the world in the same spot.) The dining room is the most spectacular set in the exhibit, with glorious silver and crystal.  There’s also a helpful account of how men had to wear white tie for every dinner, until the 1920s, when standards relaxed and they could get by with black tie.  How exhausting to be always playing a part!



Mary’s bedroom, complete with her evening robe and undergarments

The second floor continues the theme of Downton-as-benefactor.  We have a clip of Robert Crawley exclaiming that if Downton doesn’t provide hundreds of jobs it has no point.  So Downton does not exist to glorify one family and keep the lower classes in place — no, it’s a giant jobs program  Why Lord Grantham is FDR and Downton is the WPA!

Like the TV show itself, the Downton exhibit wants to have it both ways — it wants to be historically accurate and also demonstrate that the characters are more or less just like us.  For example, there’s text describing how stiff and formal the nightly dinner is supposed to be — it sounds daunting and not much fun.  However, this is accompanied by videos of the Crawleys breaking all the rules — laughing, yelling at each other, and not being the least bit stuffy.

In fact, the character who should be the stuffiest — the Dowager Countess — is the liveliest of all and a softy underneath too. Violet Crawley has a whole area to herself, the highlight of which is a video of her dozen or so wittiest quips. But the exhibit goes to great pains to show that she was a fierce protector of her granddaughters and a breaker of tradition when it suited her.

The third floor has no sets from the show — just a lot of dresses, with a special emphasis on wedding dresses.  This section reminds me of the Smithsonian, where the First Ladies’ inauguration gowns are on display.  And it was at this point where I looked around and noticed that about 75 percent of the people at the exhibit were women of a certain age.  Most of the rest were their husbands or male companions.  All white, of course.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that — I just noted it as an interesting phenomenon.


It took me about an hour to complete the exhibit.  I later read a review by someone who said she spent two and a half hours there.  I can’t imagine it.  She must have looked at every sequin.

In the end I was glad I attended the exhibition if only to satisfy my curiosity.  Stepping into Downton World is like settling into a warm bath or drinking a glass of wine on the couch — its slightly soporific and tends to retard your cognitive ability, even as you get a feel-good tingle.  It’s a soft-edges world, where everything appears to be in balance and no permanent harm can come to anyone (unless you’re an actor who wants off the show, in which case you come to a gruesome end.)

So if you’e in NYC, by all means stop by to see it.  But don’t make a special trip.

Some other thoughts:

  • I’ve written extensively about Downton.  You can read my recaps here: (Gary’s Downton pieces.)
  • The exhibition was originally slated to run through the end of January but the run has been extended through April.
  • The exhibition building only has “up” elevators so if you can’t walk down stairs (and these are long staircases), you better give it a pass.  It’s hard to believe it is’t handicapped-accessible so if this is an issue call ahead to make sure.
  • The exhibition occurs in a building (218 West 57th Street) that used to house Lee’s Art Supplies, a pretty well-known art store.  The building has been sitting empty waiting for a Nordstrom’s to open across the street, and which point the owners plan to create a high-end retail space.  Higher-end than an art supply store, at least.  So this exhibition is a real gift to them, providing rental income when it might otherwise be empty.  For more detail on the property, check it out here.



CNN Airport

We’ve just escaped from the peak travel season, when tens of millions of people spent millions of hours waiting in the airport for their flights to depart, and experiencing rising blood pressure because CNN was pouring out of screens all around them.

There are two types of people who get aggravated watching CNN at the airport: those whose heads almost explode every time Donald Trump opens his mouth, and the “fake news” crowd who think the media, especially CNN, have a vendetta against the president.

With about 50 airport outlets, CNN Airport is not available at every gate but it’s the prime video source at many of the biggest airports. And it’s important to note that the CNN Airport feed is not the same as standard CNN, having a greater emphasis on sports and weather while editing out most airplane crash stories.

But even with the extra emphasis on sports and weather, there’s still a lot of political news on CNN Airport and that means a lot of commentary about President Trump. I’ve written before that the news media and the President pretend to be engaged in a fight to the death, but are actually in a codependent relationship at the expense of our sanity and peace of mind.   President Trump has a pathological need to see himself on TV 24/7 and the media desperately need ratings.

CNN in particular does not have clean hands. This is the network that I watch when I need to absorb live news so I saw a lot of their coverage of the 2016 Republican primaries. Back when it mattered and there were real alternatives to Trump, CNN seemed to be wall-to-wall Trump. I think they understood early on that airing a live Trump rally generated a lot higher ratings than a Jeb Bush town hall and acted accordingly.

Somewhere along the line this mutual back-scratching soured and now CNN and Trump are ostensibly at each other’s throats. You can’t go fifteen minutes without some CNN analyst, commentator, or panelist observing what an idiot the President is and of course the President is more than happy to respond in kind with a nasty tweet.

So, that’s great for CNN’s ratings, but is all that high school-level drama what we really need while we’re sitting at a gate waiting to be seated on our delayed flight?

And more to the point, in this day and age do we really need a news program to be constantly blaring at the airport at all? Almost everyone who can afford a plane ticket has a smartphone with access to Twitter or any newsfeed of their choosing.

De-stressing is the reason the Life Time Fitness gym chain decided to eliminate all national cable network news stations (not just CNN but also Fox News, MSNBC and CNBC) from the TV screens at its 128 fitness centers in the U.S. and Canada. The chain said its members had had enough “consistently negative or politically charged content” and wanted instead a family-oriented environment.

What’s good enough for a fitness center seems good enough for an airport. Rather than a news network that raises our anxiety levels at the airport how about a palliative video feed? I’m not talking about a Transcendental Meditation channel but maybe something with a higher level of entertainment.

How about a channel that shows nothing by animal videos? is a website devoted to cute and inspiring animal videos – turning that into a airport channel would raise everyone’s spirits. But even if animal videos are not your thing, I’m sure there are plenty of other mood-elevating content providers who could step forward.

Alas, the business of supplying airport video is just that – a business. Companies bid for this space and unless their erstwhile competitors make a sudden leap forward, CNN is likely to remain a dominant provider as long as airports look at the bottom line instead of what’s best for the mental health of travelers.








Bye bye 2017.  It wasn’t a great year for cinema — although it did produce one great movie (“Dunkirk”) and five or six pretty good ones.  And that doesn’t even include the movies I’ve yet to see because they haven’t yet been screened in the wilds of Connecticut.

It’s no surprise that most of my movies fall into two categories — blockbusters or arty independent films — given that this is where the creative action is these days.  Everyone in Hollywood is either shooting to gross $500 million or win an Oscar, with not a lot in between.  This makings rankings a little silly.  How are you supposed to decide whether “Lady Bird” is better than “Wonder Woman”?  They both have female directors and female protagonists trying to separate from their mothers.  The only difference is $450 million in ticket sales.

What’s a little surprising is how many of these movies — nine out of nineteen — are based on true stories, including two that climax with Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches” speech.  I guess all the original storytellers have moved to Netflix.

I’m a little sad that I only saw 19 movies this year — it’s not like I was giving up on the big screen, but week after week would go by with nothing interesting to watch — and some of the really arty stuff came and went so fast I missed it completely.  With that in mind, here’s my list.

1. Dunkirk

The most politically incorrect movie of the year.  The entire cast is composed of straight white men, for God’s sake!  The rescue of the surrounded British army from the beaches of Dunkirk by a flotilla of small pleasure craft is one of the great stories of World War II and Christopher Nolan has turned it into one of the greatest art films of all time, with minimal dialogue and a conflation of three different time sequences.  It’s epic, it’s thrilling and it’s going nowhere at the Oscars.

2. Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical account of her high school years in Sacramento is both very specific to its time and class, and universal to everyone who’s ever gone to high school and wanted something more.  The main character (played by the actress with the unpronounceable Irish name who starred in “Brooklyn”) struggles to be special and transcend her extremely middle-class background through various misadventures of senior year.  Everything seems to be on the line — and it is, for a girl who wants to get away from her hometown.

3. Get Out

Is this a direct attack on the Trump era’s approach to race or a remarkably well-made horror movie in the style of “Rosemary’s Baby”?  I’ll leave the politics to others but it is definitely a fun thriller in which the villains are white liberals.  Jordan Peale deservedly made a ton of money on this tale of a black dude who hooks up with someone out of a “Girls” episode (literally, it’s Allison Williams who plays Marnie) and ends up in trouble when he goes home to meet her parents.  The rising level of creepiness and dawning awareness of what’s happening is masterful. (Fun fact — Jordan Peale is himself married to a white woman — the comedian Chelsea Peretti.  I bet Thanksgiving with the in-laws was fun after this movie came out.)

4. Wonder Women

A p superhero movie — maybe the best of all time — because it’s intelligent, wry and to scale (at least until the final 15-minute battle with Ares, the evil god of war).  Gal Godot is the perfect Wonder Woman — as sexy as they come and playing the role straight.  The political commentary on the fact that the movie had a woman director almost ruined my fondness for the film (see more of my commentary here), but not entirely.

5. The Last Jedi

The most beautiful and best-acted Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi suffers from mid-trilogy syndrome.  It’s obviously a bridge to get from the intro film to the finale, with a lot of extraneous filler and a huge body count.  A lot of the plot doesn’t make sense, but the characters are well-drawn and appealing.  Can’t wait for the next one!

6. Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2

A really fun space movie with enough emotional beats to keep you caring.  Who would have guessed that the schlumpy loser boyfriend on “Parks and Recreation” would become a major movie star?

7. The Big Sick

The real life (-ish) story of how the Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani met his future wife and stood by her while she was in a coma.  It’s funny, sweet and touching.  Probably the best coma movie since Sandra Bullock’s “While You Were Sleeping.”

8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The character played by Frances MacDormand is wild with fury and grief that the killer of her raped and murdered daughter’s has not been found and seeks to publicly shame the local sheriff.  It’s not as depressing as it sounds!  Emotionally-compelling and well-crafted until about 2/3rds of the way through when it completely goes off the rails.  Not sure what Peter Dinklage is doing in this movie.

9. All The Money In The World

An incredibly tense dramatization of the kidnapping of 16-year-old Paul Getty in 1973.  I’d have been having a heart attack if I didn’t know how it turned out in real life.  This is the movie in which completed scenes by Kevin Spacey were reshot with Christopher Plummer after those unfortunate revelations of sexual misconduct were exposed last fall.  Plummer was great, so — good job!

10. Hidden Figures

This movie should have been on last year’s list but was not available for screening when I published last year.  Very mainstream entertainment about the genius black women who helped launch the space program through their jobs as human computers.  Not particularly complex but the good gals win and it’s very satisfying.

11. Baby Driver

This is a lot of fun if you like car chases and pop music.  The title character is a superhuman get-away car driver with daddy issues.  Kevin Spacey plays the local crime lord but because the movie came out before those unfortunate revelations his scenes were NOT reshot by Christopher Plummer.

12. Patriots Day

A good recap of the police investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing.  Mark Wahlberg is the “everyman” stand-in who is miraculously at the site of every major break in the case.  Kudos to the cops who caught these terrorists.  It’s amazing to see how they were able to capture these guys so fast.  Talk about gripping.

13. American Made

Tom Cruise was born to play this role — the good old boy hot shot pilot who gets recruited by the CIA to smuggle arms to the Contras during the eighties.  Based on true events, which I confirmed on wikipedia.  Cruise is one of those guys who can’t be bound by everyday conventions and is addicted to danger.  BTW, Cruise plays a guy who’s about 35 and he looks it.

14. The Disaster Artist

I was completely unaware that “The Room” even existed and was considered to be the worst movie of all time until this James Franco dramatization.  If you are unfamiliar with the story, watch a few YouTube clips of the original movie because you will never believe that such a weird thing ever happened.

15. Darkest Hour

This is a decent counterpoint to “Dunkirk,” depicting as it does the political machinations in the British government while their army was being driven by the Nazis to the Dunkirk beaches.  Gary Oldham is very good as Churchill, but the movie feels claustrophobic with all those cabinet meetings.   And the invented scenes (like Churchill in the subway) really strain credibility.

16. The Lost City of Z

The last of the “based on a true story” movies I saw this year, this one is about an explorer searching for riches in the Amazon during the early 20th Century.  The movie has some things to say about colonialism, dream-seeking, racism, ambition and obsession, but everything proceeds with a stateliness that borders on boring.

17. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Cute but inconsequential retelling (again!!!!) of the Spider-Man origin story.  Tom Holland is winning as the teenage Spidey but I strained to care.

18. Thor Ragnarok

I am not a fan of the Marvel universe, having grown up as a DC Comics kid, but I’d heard this was funny.  And it was funny and jokey in the same way that “Guardians of the Galaxy” is.  But I could not have cared less about the fate of Thor or any of his dysfunctional family.  I was so bored I actually walked out half-war through.

19. The Batman Lego Movie

I loved the original “Lego Movie” but making a super-depressed depressed Batman into a superhero Lego protagonist throws away almost all of the joy from the first movie.  Like “Thor Ragnorok,” this isn’t exactly a bad movie — I just don’t care for the snarky superhero genre where nothing seems to be at stake.

Hardly anyone would claim that 2017 was one of the great years of television, but there were several memorable or even transcendent moments that are worth celebrating.  Here are my ten favorite television memories from 2017, in no particular order:

The Return of Special Agent Dale Cooper on Twin Peaks

“Twin Peaks: The Return” was arguably the most bizarre series that ever appeared on American television, seizing the crown from 1990’s original “Twin Peaks.”  And yet it was also the most mesmerizing thing to be on television in years.  The pace of the 2017 show was a  master class in delayed gratification, with long languid scenes in which not a lot happened and most tortuously, episode after episode in which Kyle Maclachlan  appeared as anyone other than Dale Cooper.  Finally, in episode 16, he transforms from “Dougie Jones,” the uncomprehending idiot savant to Special Agent Cooper himself with the great line “I am the FBI.”  What a glorious moment.

The Last Five Minutes of Super Bowl 51

Whether you think this moment was “great” TV depends obviously on your affinity for the New England Patriots and Tom (the GOAT) Brady.  But even to an disinterested observer this was amazing TV.

Jimmy Fallon’s “Let’s Dance” Monologue on Saturday Night Live

This has been a tough year for Jimmy Fallon because his light and silly approach to late night TV has seemed out of step with the national all-politics-all-the-time zeitgeist.  But his beautifully choreographed dance through the halls of NBC was not only a terrific tribute to David Bowie but a case study of how taking a break from politics can be joyous and life-affirming.  Let’s Dance!

Alex Bregman’s Hit from Game Five of the World Series

For the second year in a row, the World Series demonstrated why baseball, for all its mid-season languors, is the greatest game.  In a thrill ride of a series, the high point was the end of Game Five, an astounding five-hour and eleven-minute marathon that finally ended when Alex Bregman broke a 12-12 (!!!!!) tie with a 10th inning single.  How sorry I was that I wasn’t awake to see this live but how exciting it was to watch the replay the next morning.

“The Good Place” Season Finale

“The Good Place” is the smartest sitcom that’s been on network TV in a long time, and I mean literally smart, since actual philosophers have endorsed its presentation of situational ethics.  The show revolves around a deceased woman who finds herself in heaven despite having lived a selfish life on earth — the longer the series goes on, the deeper it digs into the issue of what it means to live a good life.  Thanks to the great comedic acting of Kristen Bell and Ted Danson the show is also very funny, but what gets it on this list is the conclusion of the first season, which contains one of the most surprising twists since Bobby’s dream in “Dallas.” (The key spoiler is in the clip below so be warned.)

Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” Closes Out Ken Burns’ Vietnam War Documentary

People tend to groan when a new Ken Burns documentary comes out because they are so long and so formulaic. Yet there’s no denying that he picks the most important American turning points to focus on and that that even if you sometimes feel like you’re taking your medicine when you watch, the cumulative power of these documentaries is remarkable.  For Baby Boomers, the 18-hour Vietnam War documentary was more powerful than most Ken Burns offerings because we lived it. My wife and I knew most of the history that was presented, but to have it laid out in one narrative deepened our understanding of that period in history.  In a documentary with many searing moments, perhaps the most memorable is the closing minutes, when a former soldier reads a tribute to his former comrades.  It’s hard not to cry.

Eleven Returns on “Stranger Things”

Two of the most widely anticipated shows of the year were new seasons of “Stranger Things” and “Twin Peaks,” and they both deployed the plot device of keeping a key protagonist exiled for most of the season.   The appearance of the super-powered girl named “Eleven” was the emotional high point of “Stranger Things,” providing a tremendous catharsis because it had been denied us for eight episodes.

Episode Three of “Five Came Back”

The Netflix documentary Five Came Back explores the experiences of five hugely successful Hollywood film directors – John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens — who volunteered to serve in World War II as documentarians and propagandists.  The whole series was great but the final episode, which covers the end of the war and the impact it had on the directors, is enormously powerful.

The La La Land/Moonlight Academy Award Snafu

I’m not sure what compelled me to stay up to watch the end the end of the Oscar telecast this year, especially since a La La Land sweep seemed inevitable.  But I’m glad I did so I could see the biggest TV screw-up of the Millennium. I’ve rewatched this clip in Zapruder-like detail and sussed out the many villains and even a few heroes. On top of everything else, Moonlight was my favorite movie of the year too.

The Jail Scene of Atlanta

Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” accomplished something unusual — the creation of a world never before scene on TV, in this case an unvarnished look at the African American experience in Atlanta.  In a series with so many funny moments perhaps the most hilarious is the night that the Princeton-dropout protagonist spends in jail just trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.






Does anybody really know what time it is?  Does anyone care?  I know I don’t.  I’m increasingly living in a time-shifted dimension disconnected from time and season.

I realized how disconnected I am from live television a few weeks ago, when I sat down to watch HBO’s autism benefit and had no clue how to watch HBO live, despite being a 20-year subscriber.  I consume a lot of HBO content but almost always on HBO Go.  So when I wanted to watch the benefit, I couldn’t remember what, you know, “channel” the network was on, and had to go through the laborious process of finding that information from my cable provider’s website.

And then it occurred to me:  Except for sports and news, it’s been a long time since I watched any television show live.  In fact, I know the exact date I did so: Sunday, March 7, 2016, the series finale of “Downton Abbey.”  I was only watching live because I’d been recapping the show for a couple of years.  Before that, the last time I watched a show live because I absolutely HAD to was the series finale of “Mad Men.”

For the record, I’m not a cord-cutter.  We pay a lot to watch a full range of broadcast, cable, premium, and streaming channels.   I just don’t watch live.

This means I’ve lost complete track of when my favorite TV shows air and even what network they are on.  I literally have no idea what day “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is on — never mind the time — and have to think hard to remember it’s on Fox.

The way we watch TV in our house is, we look at the DVR recording guide to see what shows are in the queue (“Oh, ‘Modern Family’ was on last night!”).  If nothing urgent is there, then we move on to HBO and Netflix.  And if I have a spare half hour and want to watch a screen but there’s nothing I particularly need to see on Netflix, the last thing I’d do is channel-surf.  Much more likely is that I’ll click over to YouTube and watch some favorite music videos, film clips or TV scenes.

People time-shift for many reasons.  The original draw for VCRs was that they allowed you to fast-forward through commercials — and go out in the evening and catch your favorite show when you came home.  Still, the understanding was that using a video recorder would be the exception, not the rule.

Two trends have pushed me into a full-time time-shifter.   First, with all the high quality television available today, everything I watch is “Must-See TV.”  I would never just turn on the TV and watch whatever’s on.

Just as important, the fragmentation of TV, with the broadcast network monopoly smashed to pieces, means I no longer feel compelled to watch a show when it’s live so I can talk about it with friends or colleagues the next day.  No one’s watching what I’m watching, so there’s no water-cooler chatter about TV.

It’s funny how easily old habits die.  I can barely recall what it was like to watch the clock to make sure I didn’t miss a favorite show.  And yet back when I was younger and had a vastly more active social life outside the house, I somehow managed to consume even more television than I do now.

What I can’t wrap my head around is whether I am an outlier or a harbinger of future viewing habits.  Clearly a lot of people are still watching live TV.  Nielsen’s most recent Total Audience Report shows that the average person still watches nearly four hours of TV a day.  That’s only down by about 15 minutes compared to the same period two years ago.   (This would be a good time to remind everyone that only about half the homes in America even have DVRs, and fewer subscribe to premium cable channels).

But I don’t feel unique as a full-time timeshifter, certainly not with a 25-year-old in the family.  He’s lived in his own apartment for three years and would no more own a television than a Sony Walkman.

So maybe I’m slightly ahead of the curve.  A decade ago I pish-poshed futurists who said that live TV would eventually go away.  But now that it’s happened to me, I’m not so sure.

After all, if an old-timer like me can abandon live TV, anyone can.

Louis CK


How else to react to the news that Louis C.K., famous for his self-flagellating comedy specials and his  emotionally raw series on FX, had been taking self-exposure to the extreme in his private life?

I feel sorry for my son, who so admired Louis’ comedic daring and honesty.  I know how it feels.  As a kid I practically memorized all Bill Cosby’s records.  And then I graduated to Woody Allen movies in my late teens.  Now I feel that a large swath of my youthful enthusiasms are covered with slime.

Maybe there really is something in the DNA of comedians that causes bad choices.  One of the oldest clichés in the book is that people with difficult childhoods and damaged psyches find an outlet for their pain and self-loathing in stand-up comedy.  After all, a great deal of contemporary stand-up revolves around self-lacerating stories – stories that pick at a comedian’s most obvious wounds.

This cliché certainly does not apply to all comics.  If Jerry Seinfeld or Jim Gaffigan were accused of sexual deviancy the shock would be so intense that I’d give up watching comedy altogether.  But there are many comedians who do seem to have screw loose.  As Mark Twain purportedly said, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”

The list of sexually abusive comics is not short.  It goes all the way from C-listers like Andy Dick to stars like Al Franken.  The power they hold over audiences seems to embolden them to act out off-stage too.

Louis C.K., however, is in a class of his own.  He was known for years as a “comedian’s comedian,” using material that went right up the edge of what an audience could stand. His FX show started out as a word-of-mouth hit among comedy nerds.  I mostly liked the show but it always made me uneasy, which I gathered was the point.  Don’t let the audience get too comfortable.

In the very first “Louie” episode I ever watched, there’s a scene where Louis is stopped by a TSA agent at the airport who finds a tube of gel in his luggage.  He straightforwardly explains that it’s the “lube” he’ll be using for self-pleasuring when he gets to the hotel.  The TSA agent is dumbfounded and mildly disgusted by the matter-of-fact way Louis owns up to behavior is usually considered shameful.

I have to admit it creeped me out, but not enough to stop watching.  I was also unnerved by the frequent references to self-abuse in his comedy specials but assumed he was just pushing the envelope.  Who was to know that a comedian lauded for being a truth teller was actually telling the truth when confessing to audiences that he was a pervert? (And if you want to know what I’m talking about watch this clip:

Louis is now in celebrity purgatory.  The theatrical release of his new movie “I Love You Daddy” has been cancelled and HBO has removed his specials and other material from their streaming services.   Kevin Spacey has suffered a similar fate for his own sexual abuse scandals.  Netflix cancelled the upcoming season of “House of Cards” and he is being completely excised from Rideley Scott’s new movie “It’s a Shame,” with his scenes tossed out and reshot with Christopher Plummer.

The effort to make previously lauded entertainers disappear from our consciousness is typical of our overheated social media-driven culture.  In the old days we would stone sinners or cut off their hands.  Today we shame them on Twitter until they vanish.  I can understand that the entertainment business is a business and that no one particularly wants to see a new movie starring Louis C.K. or Kevin Spacey right now, but to pull existing content off HBO Go is vaguely reminiscent those Soviet-era May Day parades, where Politburo members who fell out of favor were erased from photographs.

And to be honest, it’s a bit rich for HBO to get politically correct on Louis C.K. when it profits so fabulously on violence against women on “Game of Thrones” or “Westworld.”  Just saying.

These spasms of morality always seem to be applied unevenly too.  For example, we have one sitting President of the United States accused of sexual assault and one former President accused of rape.  Apparently we hold our comedians to a higher standard of conduct than we do our national leaders.

My guess is that Louis C.K.’s career is not over. At least he had the grace to admit his sins and ask for forgiveness. And unlike Bill Cosby, his behavior was not completely contrary to the persona he presented on stage.  I expect an apology tour in a year or two, with a less sexualized performance, and maybe even a grudging concession to the benefits of conventional bourgeois behavior. Because if one good thing comes out of these scandals it’s that being outrageous on stage doesn’t give you a free pass from basic human decency.



With the huge ongoing success of “The Walking Dead,” “American Horror Story,” “Stranger Things 2”  “It” and “Get Out,” I’m tempted to say that horror is having a cultural moment, except that horror is always having a cultural moment.  There is hardly an era in which this supposedly disreputable genre hasn’t had a massive audience.

The popularity of movies that scare the bejeezus out of us goes back to the silent era, with “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Nosferatu.”  “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” were among the first blockbusters of the talkie era.  And every decade since then has had its own variation on horror movies.

As with any genre, there’s always a definitional issue with what is and isn’t horror, but classic horror seems to be about scaring viewers deeply enough to get their hearts pumping, using horrifying situations that involve a supernatural or non-rational event.  A scary movie with a psycho killer is a thriller.  A scary movie with a ghost is a horror movie.

TV is a relative latecomer to horror.  Given that horror exploits viewers’ revulsions and terrors, the powers-that-be used to believe that it was not suitable for TV, where unsuspecting kids might be watching with their kindly grandparents and end up scarred for life.  Those concerns seem hopelessly antiquated now, though, when any child with a smartphone can easily call up the most horrific videos of ISIS atrocities.

There were early TV shows that attempted to creep audiences out and scare them — within reason.  “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” were occasionally disturbing but always kept in line by network censors.  It wasn’t really until 1990 that a truly frightening horror series made it onto the air:  “Twin Peaks.” That David Lynch series is usually not included in the horror canon, although it contains all the genre elements including fright, eeriness, and supernatural explanations.  Among its other impacts, that series did demonstrate that there was an appetite among many viewers for creepy dramas.

Horror as delivered by “Twin Peaks”

Before “Twin Peaks,” TV’s aversion to horror was that the genre concerns itself with a fearful topic that is rarely appropriate for a device that sits innocently in a living room – death.  And not just the kind of death you see on a medical or crime show, where it’s sad when someone dies but at least they’re dead. No, horror reflects a profoundly unsettling death where the natural order is disrupted and everything we thought we knew about the subject is turned upside down.

The barely submerged fear that that there might not be a heavenly afterlife explains the enduring fascination with vampires or zombies — beings that were once dead but are now living – or inanimate creatures or animals that become animated with supernatural power.  Consequently horror is populated with ghosts, monsters, possessed children, werewolves, demons, Satanism, gore, vicious animals, evil witches, sadistic clowns, and cannibals.

The rise of cable TV and its niche targeting, combined with the loosening restrictions on televised violence, have created the opening for TV horror.  After decades without any truly terrifying TV shows, we’ve been deluged with them: “Penny Dreadful,” “Bates Motel,” “The Vampire Diaries,” “The Stain,” “Scream Queens,” “The Originals,” “Slasher,” etc, etc.

Personally, I think that horror is ill-suited for television, or at best a watered-down experience of watching horror at the movies.  Going to the movies is a proactive choice – you get out of the house, drive to a destination, pay money for tickets and find yourself in a dark space with a massive screen.  Usually this is an event that you plan with friends – maybe it’s even a group bonding experience like riding a roller coaster.  In other words, movie-going is an immersive event where the experience can be over-powering.  It gives you a shock that reminds you you’re still alive.

Watching TV is completely different.  The room is well-lit, the screen is smaller and half the time you’re watching by yourself and distracted by your smartphone.  It’s a solitary, not a social event and it doesn’t have the same impact as watching in the theater.  Viewers will frequently scream out loud at a horror movie, but rarely scream at home.

At yet, horror is very popular on TV.  There are people who watch murder, mutation and mutilation week after week.  All the philosophical justifications for horror – that it provides a cathartic release from death-related anxiety – melt away when watching horror transforms from being an occasional thing to a weekly or even daily event.  How much catharsis does a person need?

There’s a legitimate concern that too much horror makes people numb to it and in need of bigger and bigger doses, like any sensation junkie.  And at a time when there are no cultural overlords to impose order, who knows where it will end.  Let’s hope it’s somewhere short of live executions and murders.  We’ve already got the Internet for that.