Television

I Fought PBS and PBS Won

Downton Abbey gives the network a bona fide guilty pleasure.

AP Photo/Chris Pizzello
Maybe I should have heeded Joe Strummer's obscene warning back in 1980. "He who fucks nuns/Will later join the church," the Clash's front man sang biliously on London Calling— and here I am 32 years later, watching Downton Abbey. I guess Joe had my number all along. No doubt, this betrayal of my Jacobin youth won't seem excessively poignant to too many of you. That's not least because you're probably hooked on Downton Abbey yourself, but indulge me. When I was starting out as a TV reviewer—lured, like so many bright-eyed naifs, by the promise of groupies, big bucks, and high living— Village Voice readers soon got used to my heartlessness about PBS: "Off with those three little heads!" I once merrily wrote. More than anything else, public broadcasting's wan mania for importing high-toned Brit taradiddle got my goat, a prejudice dating back to my restless puberty. The original Forsyte Saga, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Brideshead Revisited —the PBS versions of the Rosetta Stone, in...

The Winner Is...Romney's Debate Coach

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
We learned so many things during Thursday night’s GOP debate in Jacksonville. Callista Gingrich would be a swell first lady because she plays the French horn and loves the arts. If you’re a Palestinian-American, don’t bother asking a Republican candidate in Florida to acknowledge your humanity, or even your existence. Immigration policy is really all about undocumented grandmothers. Rick Santorum used to go to church with the governor of Puerto Rico. And Ron Paul is itching to take on the other candidates in a 25-mile bike ride in the heat of Texas. The last debate before the Florida primary was, even by the standards of the 18 debates that preceded it, a stunningly vapid event—thanks largely to the preponderance of The View -level questions that moderator Wolf Blitzer and Jacksonville audience members asked. (Let’s not bother with Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, poverty or income inequality; we must know why the candidates think their spouses would make the best first ladies!) But the...

The Inside Track

Luck, HBO’s horse-racing series, is about the other American pastime: gaming the system.

 

E arly in the new HBO series Luck , a gangster’s chauffeur-cum-bodyguard, Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina), goes to L.A.’s Santa Anita racetrack with his boss, Chester “Ace” Bern-stein (Dustin Hoffman), and makes a bet on a long shot. When the horse comes in, Gus clutches his winning ticket and says happily: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you this isn’t a great fucking country.” I wouldn’t dream of it. But I will point out that Gus doesn’t win his bet because he’s been shrewd or even lucky. He wins because he’s gotten an inside tip from a dodgy trainer, a fact that, in the exhilaration of victory, he either forgets or takes for granted. Such is the slippery world of Luck , a program that aspires to capture not only the rich splendor of horse racing but this country in all its star-spangled dreams and delusions. This is no less than you’d expect of a show created by writer David Milch and co-produced by director Michael Mann, guys nobody would ever accuse of thinking small. While Mann has...

Cynthia Nixon, Gay and Proud

AP Photo/Robert Mecea
I'm one of fourteen Americans who has never watched an entire episode of "Sex and the City." The high heels and extreme grooming, the squealing girl talk, the pursuit of men—booooring. Give me a rerun of The Wire any day. So I had to be brought up to cultural speed when Cynthia Nixon, who played the show's sexy lawyer Miranda, made a little splash in The New York Times Magazine this past weekend by saying that, for her, being gay is a choice. Of course, the preferred LGBT movement line is that we were all "born this way"—and so her comments sent the Maoist portions of the LGBT thought police into an angry buzzing fury. Here's the relevant article, which is long because it is extremely thoughtful: I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I...

Colbert Does "It Gets Better"

Nerve is featuring Stephen Colbert's " It Gets Better " video. They're amazed that he can be straightforward and without irony. I'm more impressed with the friend he mentions, who turned around to a bully who was calling him queer and said ... well, watch it . Stephen Colbert's "It Gets Better" Video Colbert shares a personal story of bullying. Log in or register to post comments It reminded me of a woman I knew who, when being gay-baited by some kids on a Cambridge street back in Ye Old Bad Days, turned around and said, "That's Mr. Dyke to you." How cool is that?

Food-Stamp President?

So it turns out that I can still be shocked by public discourse. Yes, South Carolina is famous for primaries with dirty tricks and low blows; one almost looks forward to it, wondering what they'll do this time around. But my jaw dropped when Newt Gingrich called Barack Obama the " food-stamp president ." Wait—is that a dog whistle I hear? I'm not always fond of Chris Matthews , but he sure did nail it: Everyone can hear the whistle now, not just the Southern racists of yore. We know the connections being made about race, laziness, welfare queens, and all the rest. And it's shocking to hear it out loud. Over the weekend, Lee Siegel published an essay in The New York Times positing that Romney is, essentially, running as white—whiter than white, really, as white as you can get, free of Catholicism, cosmopolitanism, zealotry, adultery, or any other pollutant: Of course, I’m not talking about a strict count of melanin density. I’m referring to the countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways...

Mitt Romney the Serial Killer

Stephen Colbert announced last Thursday that he would form an exploratory run for the president in South Carolina. But, much as his real counterparts acted like true candidates long before their campaigns became official, Colbert's faux presidential campaign has begun to follow the lead of the real campaigns. He appeared on ABC's Sunday show The Week yesterday, and his super PAC (now officially controlled by Jon Stewart) has released a negative ad against Mitt Romney. The ad calls Romney "Mitt the Ripper" for his killing spree against corporations since they are, after all, people. Narrated by John Lithgow, the commercial turns Romney's words against him and ends with an image of Romney superimposed next to a wood chipper that chews up companies taken over by Bain and spits out money on the other side. Colbert himself is not mentioned; instead, the ad urges voters to turn against Romney, showing a sample ballot with the only two options being "Mitt Romney" and "Not Mitt Romney," the...

A New Candidate?

For fans of the horse race, this presidential election comes up a little short. The remaining contests are worth watching to see how the Republican Party's competing factions reconcile the fact that they must put aside their differences and support Romney if they hope to defeat Barack Obama, but any semblance of drama disappeared once Romney won the first two nominating states. He now leads the polls in the upcoming primary states. Thank god for Stephen Colbert. A recent Public Policy Polling survey showed that 5 percent of South Carolina Republicans would support the fake news host if he were a presidential candidate. That's 1 percent more than Jon Huntsman and falls within the margin of error for Rick Perry and Ron Paul. On last night's Colbert Report, the comedian hinted to his fans that he might have something up his sleeve, winking at a "major announcement" for Thursday night's show. “This just got real,” Colbert said. “I’ve got to ask, what do you think, nation? Should I run for...

Harmony in the U.K.

A Londoner on Downton Abbey’s second season

M uch about the phenomenal success of Downton Abbey , the hit British television show about a stately home, an aristocratic family, and their shadow kingdom of servants during the second decade of the 20th century, has come as a surprise. For one thing, the series is shown here on ITV, known to my grandmother’s generation, born around the time season one is set, as “the commercial channel.” (To understand the full impact of this descriptor, imagine it emerging in a splutter from the pursed lips of Downton’s grande dame, the Dowager Lady Grantham, played in a state of permanent quivering outrage by Dame Maggie Smith.) It is not that ITV has never been able to produce this kind of quality television— The Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead Revisited, and the original Upstairs, Downstairs all sailed triumphantly under its colors. But the once-sluggish station had been taken over in recent years by reality shows such as The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. So the appearance of Downton Abbey...

Yes We Camelot

What cultural artifacts will come to embody the current presidential administration?

F eel free to try this at home, but I guarantee you won't get anything out of it except a migraine. Imagine you've been a bit prematurely asked to fill a time capsule with telltale cultural artifacts of the Age of Obama—the evocative movies, TV shows, hit tunes, and other creative whatnots that will someday exemplify the ineffable atmosphere of our 44th president's first term. Realizing nobody has called these times "The Age of Obama" since early 2009 should be your first clue that this is no easy job. Try to persevere, though. Um—J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot, maybe? Obama's partisans and detractors alike do dig comparing him to Mr. Spock. TV's Glee and Modern Family? Hey, how about post – everything pop diva Lady Gaga? That's the best I can do off the top of my head, and they're all a bit of a stretch. The multiculti on steroids—OK, asteroids—of James Cameron's Avatar may be less of one. Yet the movie's conception predated not only Obama's presidency but George W. Bush's. Anyway,...

It's a Wonderful Lie

Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase's ad campaigns portray the institutions as your friendly neighborhood credit union.

At a time when legislators, consumer advocates and the Occupy movement batter big banks for their questionable business practices, J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America have gone soft and fuzzy. The nation’s two largest banks are running saccharine television commercials that portray the massive multinationals as the Bailey Building and Loan Association. Bank of America recently rolled out its “Opportunity” campaign to highlight the company's nationwide bid to lend a hand— i.e. , money— to small businesses. (Ironically, It’s A Wonderful Life director Frank Capra modeled the Bailey's bank on BoA.) In Brooklyn, tenants of a green affordable housing project partly funded by BoA gush over their sleek new apartments, replete with AC and electric keys. “No one can pick the lock,” notes a tenant in a web version of the ad. Another tenant, a formerly homeless girl about ten, says of her new digs: “I feel smarter." In Los...

The Journal vs. Fox (Huh?)

Hard though it be to believe, a Wall Street Journal editorial Monday actually had the temerity to criticize Fox News. Not by name, of course—Murdoch editorialists are nothing if not discreet when going after other parts of the Murdoch empire—but the criticism was directed at some unnamed organization that puts Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly on television every night. The criticism came in an editorial on the late, lamented Herman Cain campaign. After noting that Cain was in no way ready for prime time, the editorial asserted that Cain had too many flaws to take on President Barack Obama. At that point, the Journal dipped its toe, gingerly, into criticism of the right-wing media. Cain’s unelectability, it said, is the weakness that the talk-radio establishment overlooked when it dismissed the sexual-harassment accusations against Mr. Cain as one more left-wing conspiracy. Whether true or not, the accusations resulted in settlements by the National Restaurant Association, where he had...

The Barney Frank Greatest Hits Reel

You knew it was coming. Some fabulous news organization would assign someone to come up with the Barney Frank YouTube highlights. Here it is at HuffPo. And here HuffPo's Ryan Grim fondly recalls being chewed out by the honorable member of Congress from Massachusetts, adding a few others' such memories: Politico's Glenn Thrush describes walking the same route to an answer. "Interviewing Barney Frank a 4-step process: 1. Ask question 2. Get told question is stupid/phony/immoral 3. Say 'yeah, yeah' 4. Get quote," he tweeted. Meanwhile, I've been having a debate with myself. I know Barney Frank's picture will soon be in the dictionary. But will it illustrate the word "irascible" or the word "curmudgeon"? Discuss.

A Quick-Step Forward

Dancing with the Stars challenges ballroom dancing's rigid gender roles.

You’d be forgiven if, like me, you spent several years avoiding ABC’s ballroom dancing contest show, Dancing With the Stars . It belongs to that saccharine genre of reality show geared toward “families,” which usually means it’s sterilized and scrubbed until there’s nothing left to either like or be offended by. It’s a cousin of the ready-to-be-euthanized American Idol . Its pen pal is the British show Britain’s Got Talent , which gave us Susan Boyle. This genre has a lot to make up for. But one night not long ago I caught the 13th Season on Hulu. The moment I was hooked came in week three, when J.R. Martinez, a former All My Children actor who had served in the Iraq War. (SPOILER ALERT: Martinez won last night). When he was 19, his Humvee hit an IED. It burned half his face, and on the show he’d already talked about his 32 surgeries. On this episode, he dedicated a Viennese Waltz to all of the soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Watching it, my pasta turned into a soggy...

Reality Check

TLC's new show, All-American Muslim, could educate the public about Islam — or not.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
Sandwiched in TLC’s fall schedule between Toddlers & Tiaras and Sister Wives, is a new reality series named, All-American Muslim. The show follows the lives of five Muslim families living in Dearborn, Michigan, and will premiere its eight-part stretch November 13. All-American Muslim does not fall into the trend of other reality shows: It does not profile rich socialites or rambunctious 20-something libertines. Instead, it tries its hand at a new, more dangerous formula: using religion as a basis for entertainment. In today’s volatile sociopolitical environment, All-American Muslim treads new and murky ground by attempting to “explain” a very diverse community of Muslim American citizens and the religious doctrine they follow— all in a one-hour timeslot. The cameras document its families as they face new stages and challenges in their lives. In an eventful premiere episode, both a wedding and a conversion take place. Many Muslims in America today face an onslaught of Islamophobia...

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