Television

The Blander Bush

HBO's 41 asks none of the hard questions about George H.W. Bush's uninspired career

(Wikimedia/Reagan Library Archives)
P remiering tonight on the channel that just got through bringing us Season Two of Game of Thrones —believe me, you'll miss its brute realism— 41 couldn't be a tenderer, more wart-free portrait of George H.W. Bush if one of his grandkids had put it together for a private screening on Poppy's 88th birthday. Which was, as it happens, Tuesday, and many happy returns. But that's no excuse for HBO to air nominal documentarian Jeffrey Roth's (who is he, you ask? Beats me.) feature-length Hallmark card. There's a place for valedictories this thoroughly pablumized. Namely, presidential libraries, one venue where even mediocre ex-Chief Executives are allowed to appear in a cloud-cuckoo-land that stays unmarred by anything less than awe at their wonderfulness. But since those who don't learn from the History Channel are doomed to reruns, or however that saying goes, I'm concerned the HBO brand may give today's youngsters the wrong idea. Few people would dispute that Bush the elder has gained a...

Mad Men's Shark Week

This season hasn't lived up to our reviewer's high expectations.

(AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Maybe an excess of cultishness will just always disgruntle me. It's not like I've read every last online analysis of last week's episode of Mad Men —of course not, because I'd still be at it at age 90. But I got irked anyway when I couldn't turn up any heretics willing to opine that the big shock of Christina Hendricks's Joan consenting to be pimped out by her bosses at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for the sake of landing the Jaguar account was kind of, how you say, jiveass. Even recappers who acknowledged that the point being made was on the sledgehammer side —wow, life in the advertising world is really all about prostitution? You don't say—did a quick 180 to praise Matthew Weiner for making it work. (That's the advantage of having a rep for subtlety; even turning crude looks clever.) And Mad Men fans are so invested in the damn thing, myself not totally excluded, that it's no fun to wonder if last Sunday's ep amounted to Fonzie donning his waterskis to jump the you-know-what. The...

Woke Up This Morning, Got Yourself a Gun

We’ve been talking all kinds of heavy-duty topics lately, haven’t we? Rape, anti-gay violence, fistulas—the kinds of things things that you might not want to bring up at your family’s dinner table. (Speaking of which, having family dinner conversation about your day can be a bit strained when one parent is a prosecutor who focuses on murder, child rape, and sexual assault, and the other is a journalist drawn to social injustice and evil deeds generally. “Hi, honey, how was your day?” “Saw some autopsy photos. Dude smashed her face into a zillion pieces with a mallet. And you?” “Oh, learned more about that Sierra Leone story in which four-year-olds were kidnapped for American adoption. A presidential commission confirmed the birthfamilies' stories. Please pass the tater tots.” Umm, nope.) So today I want to offer up a far more serious topic: television shows’ credit sequences. We’ve discovered Game of Thrones , and are now midway through the second season. The prosecutor likes the wars...

The Wonder of TV Debates

Me, some years ago, sneering at a pompous ass who is sneering right back.
Whenever Paul Krugman goes on television, you can see his discomfort coming off him. Or at least that's what I see; since I've never met him in person, I don't know how much his television manner differs from his ordinary manner. But he always looks as though inside he's shaking his head, saying to himself, "This is such bullshit. I can't wait to get out of here." And it's hard to blame him. The other day, Krugman did a debate on Bloomberg TV with noted economic crank Congressman Ron Paul, and came away utterly disgusted : Think about it: you approach what is, in the end, a somewhat technical subject in a format in which no data can be presented, in which there's no opportunity to check facts (everything Paul said about growth after World War II was wrong, but who will ever call him on it?). So people react based on their prejudices. If Ron Paul got on TV and said "Gah gah goo goo debasement! theft!" — which is a rough summary of what he actually did say — his supporters would say...

Rove Goes Mean Girls on Obama

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
Barack Obama is too cool to be President: It’s the implicit argument of the new ad from Karl Rove’s mega PAC American Crossroads , which shows President in a series of his cooler moments, and tries to argue that such coolness undermines his ability to do his job. The ad makes no logical sense, of course. There’s no reason to think that a quick wit or good taste in music somehow prevents someone from understanding how to run a country. But then again, this is Karl Rove we’re talking about, a man who built his career tapping the animal instincts of the electorate, hoping to activate the knee-jerk reactionary inside all of us just long enough to win at the polls. The only question is, why does he think this particular appeal will work? Rove does have a fine-tuned ear for every grievance uttered by the privileged but petty, so it’s no surprise that he’d try to find a political angle to the sport of hipster-bashing. As I’ve detailed before , hipster-bashing used to be the province of...

Move Over Housewives: The Real Governors of Virginia

(Flickr/videocrab)
I'm in the midst of reporting gig, so blogging's been a bit slow lately. But I rushed to my computer when I saw the news: Tareq Salahi has announced he's running for governor of Virginia. If you don't know of whom I speak, well, you're obviously wasting your time not watching Bravo reality television. Tareq and his then-wife Michaele famously snuck into a 2009 White House state dinner without invitation. More impressive, a Bravo film crew that was following them for the show Real Housewives of Washington D.C. filmed the couple as they got ready for the event and then went through various checkpoints. (In case you were wondering, it's the only one in the Housewives franchise to not get renewed for a second season.) But that's not even close to all. After the state dinner fiasco, there was the fake-kidnapping in 2011 . Tareq believed his wife had been taken, only to discover she'd run away with Journey band member Neil Schon. Earned media, I'm guessing, will not be a problem for Salahi...

Blood and Guts and Fluff

How torture scenes are dumbing down TV

(Flickr/Creative Commons)
One of the reasons Game of Thrones quickly overcame my aversion to medieval fantasy stories was its fresh approach to storytelling. From the diversity of characters to the emphasis on the voices of those of diminished status, the show lays waste to some clichés of television. Which is all the more reason that I was disappointed this past Sunday when the show resorted to what has become the most tiresome trope on television: the use of torture scenes to create tension. I’ve really hit a limit this time, and would like to ask the world of TV writers to try to go a year---longer, if possible---without raising the stakes by chaining one character down as another comes up with elaborately sophisticated ways to inflict pain. It’s a shame, too, because one show that has a right to plenty of torture scenes is Game of Thrones . It has a medieval setting, after all, so torture makes as much sense as heads on stakes and a lack of electricity. Indeed, the writers’ truly inventive torture---...

What Veep Captured about Washington

A scene from Veep.
The Washington Post has a feature in its Style section called "Hey, Isn't That...?" which reports on celebrity sightings in the District. It isn't a gossip column like you'd find in a paper in New York; it's just brief, breathless accounts of how an actual celebrity was right here in our town. Like, Susan Sarandon was spotted at a restaurant in Georgetown! Pinch me! It shows just how provincial D.C. can be. Which is why people here seem very taken with Veep , the HBO program that premiered last night. As Tom Carson pointed out last week, there are some things the show gets wrong, like the fact that people treat the vice president without much deference. And there are some things it gets right, like the look of offices on Capitol Hill (incredibly cramped, with people having to step over each other to get to their desks; see the picture that accompanies this post). And of course, some characteristics and scenarios are exaggerated in unrealistic ways—that's comedy. But the show's two...

There's No Politics Like Show Politics

You'll have a better time watching Veep if you don't expect the show to tell you much about the real or even "real" Washington.

(AP Photo/Matt Sayles, file)
Brought to us by The Thick of It and In The Loop creator Armando Ianucci and starring Julia-Louis Dreyfus as ditzy, vainglorious Vice President Selina Meyer, Veep , which premieres Sunday, is HBO's bid to break TV's long-standing jinx on shows about politics. And ... jinx, you ask? Hey, bub, what about The West Wing ? That's just it. The hat trick of The West Wing—which was at its worst and least convincing, you may recall, when obliged to gingerly dramatize Jed Bartlet's re-election campaign—was that it wasn't about politics at all. Certainly not in that greasy-pole way Disraeli told us about and that Robert A. Caro, whatever his frighteningly humorless virtues, fails to enjoy. With nary a sleazy careerist in sight (power for power's sake, ugh) The West Wing was about governance, something altogether loftier and more selfless in Aaron Sorkin's civics-infatuated imagination. Despite its argot-happy, hallway-trotting D.C. trappings, the series was basically a high-minded medical drama...

Don't Blame Feminism for Your Bad Sex Life

Why is the new HBO show Girls treated as symbolic of its generation and not other shows?

Courtesy of HBO
I didn’t get to watch the premiere of HBO’s new series Girls before witnessing the amazing amount of hype that managed to create a backlash before the show even aired. Having now watched it, I really wish I could have gone back in time and done so without reading so much about what the show says about TV, women, Brooklyn, education, the economy, and sex. I think I would have liked it more being free to watch it as I do shows about a group of male characters—a show about unique people doing stuff and being relatable because they are individuals. This is not to say that the pressure put on Girls as an emissary of single women has been all bad. It’s opened up discussions about the lack of racial diversity on television in a way that shows about white men seem to resist. But overall, the burden placed on this single show has been frustrating, especially when it comes to representations of sex. That one character has soulless, delusional sex with a guy who doesn’t share her expectations...

Approaching Peak Bitch on Television

TV is overrun with unflattering portrayals of women—where's the uproar?

AP Photo
The new TV series GCB —originally titled Good Christian Bitches after the book of the same name—premiered last month on ABC. Don’t Trust the B–– in Apt. 23 will premiere on the same network April 11. Can you imagine a network using “the N word” in a show title? Don’t trust the N-word in Apt. 23 . That won’t happen, but between 1998 and 2007, the use of the word “bitch,” on television tripled , from 431 uses on 103 prime-time episodes in 1998 to 1, 277 uses on 685 shows in 2007. I don’t have the figures for 2012, but I’d be willing to bet that this latest development means our culture is even more comfortable with the term. If you’re about to tell me that bitch is a power term, take a look at what Merriam Webster has to say about it. Definition of BITCH 1 : the female of the dog or some other carnivorous mammals 2 a : a lewd or immoral woman b : a malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman —sometimes used as a generalized term of abuse 3 : something that is extremely difficult,...

Stacked Decks

The Titanic’s surprisingly timely centenary

Copyright Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images
Is it callous to call the Titanic ’s sinking everybody’s favorite disaster? No doubt, but you know what I mean. Considering how oodles of the tragic minutiae no buff can do without bump up against the climax’s unknowns, April 15, 1912, is like an ideal cross between the assassination of JFK and the Alamo. The unprovoked attack on a blameless iceberg by the pride of the White Star Line is far from the worst maritime disaster on record. It’s dwarfed in loss of life by the 1945 torpedoing of the Nazi leisure tub turned refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff . Only three years after the Titanic ’s demise, the Lusitania ’s sinking in 1915 had more historical consequence, rallying neutral America against the Huns and dangling the temptation of playing world policeman. For resonance and romance, though, there’s no contest. On a bitterly cold night 100 years ago, modern civilization didn’t just say goodbye to more than 1,500 boosters. It gained an industry. Now that the centenary is here, Titanic--...

Peter Dinklage Is a Baller

The producers of Game of Thrones succeed in writing a disabled character who is more than his disability.

(AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)
Confession: I only recently started watching Game of Thrones . Despite all the hype from people whose taste I trust, the swords-and-dragons thing just doesn’t appeal to me, even as much as horror or sci-fi. I must now admit I was wrong in my prejudice. The show’s deft characterization and careful plotting have overcome my native hostility to anything with a Ren Faire vibe. Of particular interest is the character of Tyrion Lannister, brother of the deceitful queen and a Renaissance man stuck in a medieval world. He’s also one of those rare characters in Hollywood: someone who has a disability but is not defined by it. Thus is the way of our new Golden Age of television, that a seemingly old-fashioned fantasy series would take a progressive approach to portraying disability that activists have been demanding for decades. Disabled actors struggle to find work in an environment that prizes the able-bodied, the young, the beautiful, and the impossibly thin. There are disabled characters to...

When Network Anchors Stop Being Polite ... And Start Getting Real

Peter Finch in "Network"
Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing , among other things, is coming out with a new HBO series called The Newsroom . What can we expect? If Sorkin's oeuvre is any indication, we can expect lots of rapid-fire dialogue delivered while people are walking purposefully down hallways, surprisingly cogent explanations of issues, and, above all, thorny moral quandaries tackled with bold truth-telling. Let's take a look at the trailer: This looks to me to be in some ways a news media version of Sorkin's The American President and, frankly, like a news media version of most films about politicians. I wrote about this a while back: "There's usually a scene in which the candidate begins giving a speech, stops in the middle and says, 'This is ridiculous,' to the horror of his handlers and the confusion of the crowd, then tosses away his prepared remarks and speaks from the heart. And it works—everyone is captivated, and the candidate achieves success, at least temporarily." In this case, it'...

Why Politicos Love "Game of Thrones"

The show satisfies the teenage cynic in all of us who thinks only sex, ambition, and revenge matter at the top.

(Helen Sloan/HBO)
I can't help wondering how many politicos—and long-suffering political spouses, too—are secretly hooked on HBO's sexy, hugely entertaining Game of Thrones, whose very lively second season kicks off Sunday. Not because they can identify, mind you. It's just hard not to imagine them envying their fantasy equivalents in George R.R. Martin's brutally uninhibited realm. In the Seven Kingdoms, contrition is as unknown as push-polling or George Will. Shouting "Seize him!" in a tone of icy hauteur is the conventional way of indicating you feel affronted. The preferred method of character assassination is lopping an opponent's head off, and the only sex scandal likely to trigger much outrage would be an episode without any. Honestly, can't you picture Newt and Callista humming "Over the Rainbow" between fistfuls of popcorn? Or Bill and Hillary warmly texting "If only" from two different continents? Best of all, there are no issues, no thorny policy questions, indeed no ideology as modern-day...

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