Why Liberals Love TV's Fictional Conservatives

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AP Images/ABC/Eric McCandless When the third season of Scandal premieres tonight, you can bet I’m going to be glued to my set (and Twitter feed) like millions of other Americans. Shonda Rhimes creates mighty good, sexy, nail-biting, oh-my-sweet-God-that-didn’t-just-happen TV. But, good liberal that I am, I can’t help feeling that my love of ABC’s hit show should be attended by some guilt. No, not because what Rhimes calls “fluffier” entertainment is inherently inferior; I don’t feel guilty about it in that sense. But instead because beneath plotlines like that of black political fixer Olivia Pope’s interracial love with the white president and a gay White House Chief of Staff raising a baby with his husband, Scandal is, in essence, the story of an allegedly apolitical (amoral?) woman who routinely abets an illegitimate conservative administration, complete with a radical Evangelical vice-president a heartbeat away from being president. Rhimes and Co. have me rooting for these people...

Breaking Bad's Endgame

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AP Images/Doug Hyun T he Breaking Bad Backlash begins 60 hours from now and, if you listen very hard, you can hear the stirrings already, through the fever pitch of the phenomenon that the show has become and the nearly desperate anticipation surrounding this Sunday’s series finale. Mere ratings can’t capture an intensity that’s beyond quantifying by even (or especially) a stickler for precision like high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-maestro Walter White; no conclusion since The Sopranos ’ infamous cut to black has attracted this much zealous attention. If you haven’t seen a single episode of the show, odds are you know nearly as much about it as you do about shows of which you’ve witnessed every single inconsequential second, because for the last month the unhinged around you won’t shut the hell up about it. It would be kind of cool, and maybe even healthy, to start the backlash here but I can’t, because I’m convinced that White, as played by Bryan Cranston, is the greatest...

Why "Duck Dynasty" Became the Latest Conservative Cultural Touchstone

In a 21-hour speech full of weird moments, few were weirder than when Sen. Ted Cruz abandoned all talk of health care, Nazis, and freedom to talk for a while about Duck Dynasty . "This is a show about a god-fearing family of successful entrepreneurs who love guns, who love to hunt, and who believe in the American Dream," Cruz said. "It's something that according to Congress almost shouldn't exist." He then spent the next four minutes reciting a seemingly random collection of quotes from the show, along the lines of "You put five rednecks on mower, it's gonna be epic." It seemed as if one of his staffers, searching for things Cruz could talk about to pass the time, grabbed the list from a website somewhere. But it wasn't just like reading the phone book, because Duck Dynasty has become for conservatives an island sanctuary in a roiling cultural sea of liberal dangers. In case you're some kind of commie or you live in a monastery, Duck Dynasty is one of the most remarkable American...

The North Wing

The Danish series Borgen is a huge hit in Europe. Will its mixture of raw politics, social democratic ideals, and human frailties succeed in the U.S.?  

From Macbeth to I, Claudius , what makes political drama irresistible isn’t the collective but the intimate. Television writers understand what many historians don’t: Politics is the epic expression of humanity at its most private. Rack your brains, and you might recall that at the center of last winter’s House of Cards was a battle over education legislation; less forgettable are the unctuous and slithery monologues about congressional sway and supremacy by master manipulator Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey). The Danish series Borgen roils with policy skirmishes over an African civil war and the legal age of punishment for crimes by minors, but all of it is a stage for the transformation of Birgitte Nyborg, her nation’s first female prime minister. A voice of idealism at the outset, Nyborg struggles with the hard trade-offs of uniting a coalition of fractious parties. As she becomes cannier and more confident at governing, however, she loses her grip on a crumbling family—a daughter...

Watching Blue Caprice in the City that Serves as Its Stage

The movie based on the 2002 D.C. sniper spree is an odd watch in the wake of this week’s Navy Yard shooting.

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AP Photo/Rob Carr F or people who were living in the D.C. area during the Beltway sniper spree of October 2002, the big dislocation of Blue Caprice— Alexandre Moors's new movie about the killers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo, played here by Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond—is that we aren't in it. The surreally spooked atmosphere, the skittish way we'd scan the horizon on public errands, The Washington Post 's film reviewer Stephen Hunter venting his gun fetish in the guise of providing useful information … nope, none of that is on-screen. Not that it matters much, since few Washington moviegoers are likely to want to revisit the episode the same week that the Navy Yard massacre topped Muhammad and Malvo's death toll in a single morning. It's a basic rule of movie criticism that you don't scold a director by describing the movie he or she should have made. In this case, however, the subject matter is literally too close to home; I can't help it that I was living in Arlington...

Middle-Aged White Males: No Longer the Ones Who Knock

As we bid Breaking Bad adieu, a few words about the antiheroes who reigned over the past decade—and are finally going gently into the good night.

AP Photo/Doug Hyun, AMC, FILE
AP Photo/AMC, Michael Yarish A s AMC's superlative-burdened Breaking Bad inches toward its September 29 finale—and honestly, would it kill series creator Vince Gilligan to include even one fast-paced scene to vary the endgame?—viewers are bidding adieu to more than just one show. With only Mad Men' s valedictory season still ahead, the whole cycle of morally murky cable dramas that transformed TV from cultural fast food to gourmet fare for the discerning many is winding down as well. Whatever comes next—more Game of Thrones wannabes? Black Is The New Orange Is The New Black ?—odds are we'll never gaze on such an untrammeled eruption of self-conscious artistry again. I sometimes think that's just as well. Everybody's discovery that TV can be, y'know, art has had its downsides, from the reification of status-conscious boutique audiences Balkanizing the world's most democratic medium to the devaluation of every series predating The Sopranos. I don't envy any TV scholar trying to inform...

Zombies, Zombies Everywhere

How the video game The Last of Us fits into the growing catalog of post-apocalyptic media.

P iles of rubble. Slowly collapsing buildings. Dirty, desperate people. Monsters in human shape, either by choice or by disease. The symbols are common by now. The rising wave of post-apocalyptic stories is one of the dominant cultural stories of the past decade. There's The Walking Dead , which went from comics to television, or The Hunger Games and World War Z , novels adapted to film. More importantly, it looks like the apocalypse is here to stay. Post-apocalyptic isn't “in” just because a few films were popular and spawned more films, it's popular because stories from different mediums are both reinforcing one another and building from the same foundation. The beating heart of this cross-media obsession is, in my view, video games. Over the past decade, games have become an increasingly understood (if not always explicitly acknowledged) component of the media landscape, particularly as people who were raised with games begin to create their own art, or analyze it. 1 1 In this...

Alec Guinness Gets a Makeover

The classic 1980s John le Carré miniseries Smiley's People is getting the Blu-ray treatment.

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Rex Features via AP Images O ne of the signature TV events of the 1980s comes out on Blu-ray this month. With Alec Guinness reprising his role as weary espionage panjandrum George Smiley, Smiley's People was the 1982 follow-up to the 1979 adaptation of John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy— itself a television landmark, meaning the sequel had to live up to expectations of a type previously unknown in TV land. Remember, this was the Stone Age. Educated folk weren't supposed to take TV seriously. From The Six Wives of Henry VIII to the original Forsyte Saga, the rare exceptions boasted reassuringly prestigious non-television pedigrees. Even I, Claudius— the Game of Thrones of its day—had the double-barreled cachet of ancient Rome and author Robert Graves to help the culturati rationalize tuning in for Peytonus Place . Because le Carré wasn't yet in that league and Cold War spy thrillers were still vaguely disreputable, Tinker, Tailor and then Smiley's People had no such insurance...

Shonda Rhimes' Huma Abedin

AP Photo/ Donald Traill T he times are few and far between these days when news hounds and junkies—almost all devotees of Twitter—turn away from its blinking columns of information, away from the breaking story going through mitosis at the hands of a thousand bloggers and pundits, and focus their attention on the mother medium of television. A thousand ergonomic office chairs swiveled toward the boob tube late yesterday afternoon to watch the biggest boob in New York City—and that’s saying quite a bit, since I’m pretty sure Geraldo lives there—try to explain himself and his naughty texts to young women, rife with gonad selfies and the misuse of a certain Latin preposition. We all know what to expect at such press conferences. The warped tableau of the wicked—shirtsleeves and downcast eyes and fluorescent lighting and off-script rambling. Anthony Weiner’s life has turned into bread and circuses for the political masses—the fragile ego of the featherweight former congressman is ripe...

All the News that's Fit to Reprint

Todd Williamson/Invision/AP
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP T he opening scene of The Newsroom ’s second season, debuting Sunday on HBO, won’t do a hell of a lot to increase creator Aaron Sorkin’s popularity with women. Marcia Gay Harden guests as a brusque in-house attorney deposing news anchor Will McAvoy about a story the fictitious Atlantic Cable News channel blew badly—erroneously reporting that the Obama administration used nerve gas during a black-ops operation in Pakistan. “Fuck me,” our lady lawyer finally snaps, exasperated by Will’s arch banter. (She’s not alone in that feeling, believe me.) After a pause, Will—ever the gentleman—turns to the other dudes in the room. “Well, would one of you fuck Ms. Halliday, please?” he asks. You have to feel for Harden when her character is obliged to soften, smile, and concede that the joke’s on her. On this show even more than his earlier ones, or maybe just more noticeably, Sorkin tends to divide his female characters among bitches, waifs, annoying ninnies, and...

Revolution Until Imprisonment

The documentary The Revolutionary, which documents the life of Charleston native and Chinese Communist Party member Sidney Rittenberg, looks at how political zeal becomes zealotry.

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S idney Rittenberg's face fills the screen in a college auditorium where The Revolutionary is being shown. His eyebrows are bold brushstrokes of white above narrowed, intent eyes. His lips are firm. He has the wrinkles and gnarled neck of an old man. He does not, however, look like a man who is 90 years old, or like one battered by spending 16 of those years in solitary confinement in China for the offense, ultimately, of believing too deeply in the Party and the revolution. "If you put one drop into the long river of human history, that's immortal ... You either make a difference or you don't make a difference," Rittenberg says to the camera in his Southern gentleman's drawl. This is his credo. Outside the auditorium windows, night has fallen. Rittenberg's larger-than-life face is reflected, translucent, in the glass, as if his memory were speaking out of the darkness. "History," he says wryly, "rolled right over me." The Revolutionary , recently released, is Sidney Rittenberg's...

John Oliver's Summer Audition

Jon Stewart's summer Daily Show replacement is doing just fine—but not fine enough that he endangers the Comedy Central king's reign.

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AP Photo/Charles Dharapak W hat did we learn from John Oliver's debut week hosting The Daily Show? We learned that Jon Stewart is nobody's fool. Stewart may be restless enough with his long-standing gig to take the summer off playing movie director, but that doesn't mean he wants a dauphin getting funny ideas. Oliver is an ideal placeholder—skillful, amusing, adding just enough novelty that he doesn't come off as a direct imitation. But he's plainly not a guy to go rogue and seize the opportunity to make us not miss our Jon. Supposing Obama were temporarily incapacitated, could we rely on Joe Biden to resist the same siren song? Remember, the politics of showbiz aren't always that different than the real thing. That's especially true of a franchise like The Daily Show. Not only Comedy Central's flagship property, it's also the, ahem, power base Stewart has to protect until he successfully translates himself to another realm. If movies don't do it—and I'm betting they won't—he's in the...

Game of Thrones and the Problem of Unhappy Endings

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AP Photo/HBO, Nick Briggs T hroughout America, fans of HBO's Game of Thrones slept soundly last night, or at least more soundly than they had the week before. On the finale of the series' third season (warning, spoilers ahead!), no major characters were killed and no key story lines came to an abrupt halt. But last week's episode, featuring the dramatic "Red Wedding" at which three key characters met their end—including Robb Stark, the closest thing the series had to a protagonist—generated an unusual amount of consternation and even anger among viewer, directed at the show's producers and George R.R. Martin, the author of the books on which it is based. Twitter exploded with comments like "I WANT TO KILL THE WRITERS AND PRODUCERS OF GAME OF THRONES," and "I'm pissed right now. Seriously want to scream. Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin, you evil, evil man," and "YOU RUINED MY LIFE GEORGE R R MARTIN + IF YOU DIDN'T LOOK LIKE SANTA I'D PUNCH YOU IN YOUR STUPID OLD MAN FACE." There...

"Pussy Riot Secret Headquarters,” Revealed

HBO’s documentary of the Russian performance artists is a riot for punk rock lovers and politicos alike.

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AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev, File "T hese people made all of you say it out loud," Vladimir Putin tells a foreign interviewer he's just discomfited by asking for a Russian translation of "Pussy Riot" in HBO's remarkable new doc, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, airing Monday and well worth your time. He thinks he's scoring a point against Western media's vestigial squeamishness, and he's actually got one: The New York Times might never have printed the word "Pussy" otherwise. Still, could activists ask for a better endorsement from their nemesis? "These people made all of you say it out loud" ought to be carved on a monument someday, and it won't be Putin's. Pussy Riot, you'll recall, is a Moscow-based aggregation of female performance artists whose three foremost members got arrested in February 2012. They'd disrupted services at an Orthodox cathedral with an abortive—the whole thing lasted 30 seconds—rendition of "A Punk Prayer," which summoned the Virgin Mary to feminism while slagging the...

How My 15 Minutes With Marc Maron Changed Everything

Talking politics and cracking un-wise with America's favorite over-sharer. 

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AP Images/Dan Hallman “A few years ago I was planning on killing myself in my garage, and now I’m doing the best thing I’ve ever done in my life in that same garage,” says comedian Marc Maron in the premiere episode of Maron . The eponymous new show on IFC is an extension of Maron’s real life, and the wildly successful WTF podcast that resurrected his career. Many of the plots grow out of actual experiences, from tracking down an Internet troll to dating a dominatrix. But the show probably won’t mine what Maron himself would describe as his most painful episode: hosting a liberal political talk radio show. I know this because I met Marc then, in 2006, when he was in that “planning on killing myself” phase. At the time I was performing random acts resembling stand-up comedy at laundromats and sandwich shops throughout the greater Los Angeles area, while also stepping into political writing with a new and exciting invention of the age called a blog. My comedian friends and I had a...