Television

Stephen Colbert Isn't the Only One With a Fictional Character

Flickr/Reid Rosenberg
So Stephen Colbert will be replacing David Letterman when Letterman retires next year, and you'll be shocked to learn that at least one conservative is spitting mad about it. "CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America," said Rush Limbaugh . "No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservative values—now it's just wide out in the open." Funny, I thought Hollywood's assault on traditional American values was pretty overt already. But this is actually fitting, because I'll bet Limbaugh couldn't care less who's on CBS at 11:30. But Colbert's a liberal, so Limbaugh has to pretend to be angry about it. In other words, he's reacting exactly the way Stephen Colbert's character would. Now it's true that Colbert based his character not on Limbaugh but (mostly) on Bill O'Reilly. And like Colbert, O'Reilly is himself playing a character named Bill O'Reilly, the only difference being that the Bill O'Reilly character is just a slight...

As Good As It Gets for Oscar

AP Images/Jordan Strauss
AP Images/Jordan Strauss B y now everyone knows that—as my colleague Tom Carson pointed out last week—Oscar history is strewn with verdicts so absurd as to legitimately raise the question of why anyone cares, unless you find the Academy Awards irresistible for the way they’ve become part of Hollywood lore. You don’t have to go back as far as the notorious examples that Tom cited of Oliver or Around the World in Eighty Days upending the not-even-nominated 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Searchers in 1968 and 1956 respectively; there are examples more recent—2012, for instance. That was the year when sense gave way to vigilante justice and the actors’ bloc of the Oscar electorate, a Mercedes McCambridge glint in its eye, led the Academy in stringing up any nominee they could find who wasn’t Ben Affleck, rewarding Argo for Affleck’s omission from the Best Director cut in what turned out to be the snub of his dreams. Unhip as it is to point out, the Oscars were getting sharper and more...

Johnny Who?

AP Images/NBC/Lloyd Bishop
AP Images/NBC/Lloyd Bishop T he story goes that Johnny Carson, who hosted NBC’s The Tonight Show for count-’em 30 years—from 1962 to 1992—loved vacationing abroad because no one outside the United States knew who the hell he was. That certainly wasn’t the case here at home. In his heyday, basically the entire time he had the job, Carson wasn’t famous the way, for instance, Jane Fonda is famous. He was famous like Bayer aspirin or, to the more troubled members of his audience, Jim Beam. Outdoing even that plummily narcissistic Polonius, CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite, he was 20th-century American life’s most reassuring constant. Once he was done, he vanished from public view as if he’d been television’s Lawrence of Arabia, just with fewer hang-ups about revolutionizing a vast wasteland. Impervious to the latest fashion because he was so alert to it, Carson could always be counted on to deliver the goods. In his case, those were chiefly a reassurance that nothing could be too wrong...

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole of NYC’s Lena Dunham Obsession

Vogue Magazine
Flickr J ust as twentysomethings aren’t the ones writing about millennials ( that would be Ross Douthat ), Lena Dunham’s contemporaries aren’t the demographic that considers Girls its television muse. No, that would be over-twentysomething men, who make up over 20 percent of the show’s viewership and a perhaps even healthier percentage of the bylines featuring name drops of Dunham in the New York media ( this would also be Ross Douthat). Everyone who’s been having heart palpitations over Hannah Horvath’s desire to be a voice of a generation seems to have missed the New York old guard’s intention of making her the voice of the whole damn city. Since 2001, The New York Times has published over 300 articles mentioning Dunham, about 99 percent of which have been written in the past four years. And, except for the early days, right when Tiny Furniture became a thing and Girls screeners became zeitgeist incarnate, she’s hardly ever the subject matter. Any story with a wisp of beard, a hint...

CNN Losing Interest in News

Flickr/Gregor Smith
CNN has been having problems for some time, with anemic ratings and something of an identity crisis. In a world where people can get news of the moment from a million places, just what is the network that pioneered cable news for ? Not that the network doesn't still make plenty of money (it does), but unlike Fox and MSNBC, CNN hasn't seemed to have been able to figure out what its model is. In an interview with Capital New York, CNN chief Jeff Zucker, who has been on the job less than a year, said what the network needs is "more shows and less newscasts," in order to grab "viewers who are watching places like Discovery and History and Nat Geo and A&E." It all adds up to "an attitude and a take." As easy as this is to mock, I think they should go for it. Because really, would our democracy suffer if, say, we only got one hour a day of Wolf Blitzer's vaguely befuddled "take" on the news instead of the current two hours? Let's take a look at the current CNN schedule . After the...

Why Lara Logan Won't Lose Her Job

In case you haven't heard, CBS News is in a bit (but only a bit) of hot water over a story 60 Minutes recently aired about the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. It centered on a breathless account from a security contractor, who just happened to have written a book about it being published by a conservative imprint of a publishing house owned by CBS (that's synergy, baby). He told of the harrowing events of that night, including his own heroism and the spinelessness of the big shots who sit in their cushy offices while men of action like him do what must be done and get hung out to dry. The only problem was, he appears to be a liar who fabricated much of what 60 Minutes relayed in the story, which was reported by Lara Logan. After insisting for weeks that everything in its story checked out, CBS finally conceded that the contractor, one Dylan Davies, was lying to them and through them to their audience. On Sunday night, Logan delivered an extraordinarily half-assed on-air...

The False Glow of Remembered Childhood

Wait a minute - are you saying that my perspective on this might be colored by the fact that I'm ten years old? No way!
Three years ago, John Boehner was doing an interview when he lamented, perhaps with a tear peeking its way through the corner of his eye, that Democrats "are snuffing out the America that I grew up in." As Michael Tomasky noted at the time, the America Boehner grew up in (the 1950s) featured things like strong private-sector unions, a 90 percent top income-tax rate, enormous public-works projects, and a moderate Republican party, presumably all things Boehner wouldn't like, not to mention Jim Crow, terrible discrimination against women and gay people ... you get the point. But of course, "the America that I grew up in" is a place that exists only in the imagination— everyone's imagination. This is from an interview in Salon the other day with Adam Goldberg, creator of The Goldbergs , an ABC sitcom set in the 1980s: Why do you think audiences will be interested in a family show specifically set in the 1980s? I think the '80s works for a TV show because it's the last time the world was...

Dick Cheney Still Thinks He Was a Character on "24"

One of these two is not a real person.
Dick Cheney felt moved to write an entire book about the heart troubles he's had over the years, which I can understand. After all, we all find our particular maladies fascinating. What I don't get is why anybody else would care, since we don't tend to find other people's maladies interesting in the least. If you'd let me, I'd love nothing more than to blather on about my various knee injuries, but since I'm not RGIII, I have the sense to know that you really don't give a crap. Nevertheless, there's apparently an interesting tidbit or two in Cheney's book, including this reported by CBS News, which may validate what you already thought about him: Cheney had [his defibrillator] replaced in 2007 and his doctor, cardiologist Jonathan Reiner, with whom he wrote the book, had the device's wireless function disabled so a terrorist couldn't send his heart a fatal shock. Some years later, Cheney was watching an episode of the SHOWTIME hit "Homeland," in which that terrorist scenario was woven...

Why Liberals Love TV's Fictional Conservatives

AP Images/ABC/Eric McCandless
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

AP Images/Doug Hyun
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.

AP Photo/courtesy WJZ-TV
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...

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