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Published: Mon, 16 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Mon, 16 Jan 2017 06:19:14 -0500


The Young Pope: Entertaining but Incoherent

Fri, 13 Jan 2017 15:00:00 -0500

The Young Pope. HBO. Sunday, January 15, 9 p.m. Television's last excursion into papal politics—Showtime's The Borgias, in which Renaissance bad boys Alexander VI (better known to history by his birth name, Rodrigo Borgia) and Guiliano della Rovere (the future Julius II, the guy who bullied Michaelangelo over painting the Sistine Chapel) boinked and butchered their way across Europe—was debauched. The newest one, HBO's The Young Pope, is merely dazed: stylistically, narratively, theologically. Part soap opera, part jeremiad, and part dark comedy, its various incarnations don't always mesh very well. It strives for epic magnificence and falls well short of coherence. And yet it's kind of entertaining. In short, it's the 2016 of TV series. Watch it, enjoy it, but don't be surprised if you wake up with a hangover that feels like a Vladimir Putin lobotomy. An Italian-British-American co-production, The Young Pope has already aired in Rome with big ratings, though that doesn't necessarily mean much in a country driven to distraction by even the most mildly tittilatory material about the Vatican. Work has already begun on a second season, though HBO continues to bill it as a miniseries ("limited series," in current jargon), which suggests the network isn't convinced Americans will be quite as unhinged to see that the pope actually takes his shirt off at night. The title character is 47-year-old Lenny Belardo, the youngest pope since the 11th century, and the first American. (Naturally, he's played by a Brit, Jude Law.) Belardo's election was an upset managed by the Vatican's secretary of state, the sinister Cardinal Voiello (Italian film veteran Silvio Orlando), who wanted a charismatic but pliant pope—a "telegenic puppet," in the words of one church cynic—to carry out his agenda. Belardo predictably follows Hollywood rules about unpredictable proteges, kicking his sponsors in their holy butts. He puts Voiello to work making his coffee while choosing as his senior adviser a maternal nun (Diane Keaton, looking about as comfortable as a nun as Mary Tyler Moore did in Change of Habit) from the orphanage where he was dumped by hippie parents. And he alarms the Vatican's powerful marketing arm by forbidding the use of his image to sell trinkets—even firing the official Vatican photographer and demanding that all his public appearances be made in a carefully shadowed environment where his face can't be seen. But if The Young Pope's title and set-up had you expecting a warm parable about a quirky kid dumping stodgy church doctrine in favor of a warmly liberal new Catholicism that embraces Cuban peasant cooperatives and Code Pink, you're taking communion with the wrong show. Belardo's first act after sacking the Vatican photographer is to bring back the papal tiara, an act of flamboyance that hints his reticence about his image is less about abnegation of human ego than a fear of being recognized in connection with some past transgression. He upbraids and demotes a senior member of the curia for being gay and reams the papal cook for overfamiliarity. ("I do not appreciate friendly relationships. I'm a great fan of formal ones.") Even his chosen regnal name, Pius XIII, has dubious connotations; it's a provocative reminder of Piuses XI and XII, who played footsie with Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s. Certainly Belardo's ideas on spirituality would impress Mussolini in their style, if not content: Belardo wants the members of his church worshiping "24 hours a day, your hearts and minds full of God. And no room for free will. No room for liberty. No room for emancipation." Running a youthful reformer type, by itself, would have made The Young Pope a challenging work. But the turmoil sown by Belardo often seems less political or theological than simply the prolonged tantrum of a spoiled brat. Despite his Dean Wormer oration on 24/7 prayer, he takes apparent pleasure in a dream in which he delivers a homily in St. Peter's Square reminding Catholics of the joys of birth control, masturbation, homosexuality, and gay marriage among pr[...]

That '50s TV Show Where a Con Man Named Trump Promised to Build a Wall

Fri, 13 Jan 2017 09:29:00 -0500

Remember that TV western from the '50s where a con man named Trump promised to build a wall that would protect a Texas town from obliteration? No? Well, someone posted some scenes from it on YouTube, and Snopes says it's legit.

The actor who plays this Trump—Walter Trump—doesn't bear much physical or vocal resemblance to the fellow now preparing to be inaugurated, but he does sound a little Donaldesque when he declares, "I am the only one. Trust me. I can build a wall..."

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The show was Trackdown, and this installment—called "The End of the World"—apparently aired originally on May 9, 1958. Sadly, the full episode doesn't appear to be online. Someone, somewhere, please rectify that.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

Talking Obama's Legacy and Trump's Presidential Powers: Nick Gillespie

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 15:26:00 -0500

Earlier today, I was on the Keith Larson Show, talking about how Donald Trump will receive massive and enhanced powers as president, thanks in part to Barack Obama. Larson, a long-time North Carolina talker, is posting his shows at SoundCloud (below) and also TuneIn, iTunes, and Stitcher. Go here for more info on that.

I join the show below at the one-hour mark.

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BuzzFeed's Dossier Was Both Flimsy and Newsworthy

Wed, 11 Jan 2017 13:45:00 -0500

Is there a good defense of BuzzFeed's decision to publish the Urinegate memos last night? Glenn Greenwald's analysis of the story makes the best argument I've seen, though there are so many caveats here that I don't think it quite qualifies as a defense: It's almost impossible to imagine a scenario where it's justifiable for a news outlet to publish a totally anonymous, unverified, unvetted document filled with scurrilous and inflammatory allegations about which its own editor-in-chief says there "is serious reason to doubt the allegations," on the ground that they want to leave it to the public to decide whether to believe it. But even if one believes there is no such case where that is justified, yesterday's circumstances presented the most compelling scenario possible for doing this. Once CNN strongly hinted at these allegations, it left it to the public imagination to conjure up the dirt Russia allegedly had to blackmail and control Trump. By publishing these accusations, BuzzFeed ended that speculation. More importantly, it allowed everyone to see how dubious this document is, one the CIA and CNN had elevated into some sort of grave national security threat. Whether or not that's a defense, the basic argument here is true: Once I read what BuzzFeed had, I saw CNN's story in a rather different light. Now, that still leaves plenty of room to criticize BuzzFeed, which noted some errors in the dossier at the outset but could have done much more to report out its claims before publishing it. (To give the most obvious example, they should have asked Michael Cohen for comment on whether he had been to Prague at the time the file said he was there, rather than letting us wait til after the piece dropped to see Cohen deny he'd ever been to the city at all. BuzzFeed later updated its story to note his denial.) But even if BuzzFeed could have done a much better job of setting the context for the document it was printing, its report in turn supplied some valuable context for CNN's story. Beyond that, if this dossier, or a summary of it, has shaped the ways influential people in Washington have been behaving, the document itself is clearly newsworthy. On the other hand, I can't co-sign this part of Greenwald's column: There is a real danger here that this maneuver can harshly backfire, to the great benefit of Trump and to the great detriment of those who want to oppose him. If any of the significant claims in this "dossier" turn out to be provably false—such as Cohen's trip to Prague—many people will conclude, with Trump's encouragement, that large media outlets (CNN and BuzzFeed) and anti-Trump factions inside the government (CIA) are deploying "Fake News" to destroy him. In the eyes of many people, that will forever discredit—render impotent—future journalistic exposés that are based on actual, corroborated wrongdoing. Don't get me wrong: Trump's fans will certainly do this. But if this dossier didn't exist, they'd just point to something else. There's already enough kooky stuff out there for Trump's defenders to handwave about "fake news" whenever something legitimate comes out. This is, in fact, a pretty standard political maneuver. (Think of how many allegations against Barack Obama, credible or not, provoked a chorus of liberals making Benghazi jokes. And the standard Benghazi theories were a lot less far-out than the stuff in the BuzzFeed dossier.) In any event, a ton of Trump exposés have appeared since he entered the presidential race in mid-2015, some of them convincing and some of them not. It should be clear by now that many Trump loyalists are already perfectly capable of finding reasons to reject even the most well-sourced stories. To judge from some of the tweeters I saw taking the dossier's claims at face value last night, some people are perfectly capable of embracing even the most poorly-sourced allegations as well. It can be remarkably easy to believe the things you already want to believe. Bonus audio: Nick Gillespie [...]

Let's Be Clear About Who Drained the Meaning from the Phrase 'Fake News'

Mon, 09 Jan 2017 13:45:00 -0500

A new take on "fake news" had been bubbling for a while, and now it has the imprimatur of a Washington Post columnist. Here's Margaret Sullivan: Fake news has a real meaning—deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public. For example: The one falsely claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, or the one alleging without basis that Hillary Clinton would be indicted just before the election. But though the term hasn't been around long, its meaning already is lost. So far, so good. The phrase "fake news" has been getting plastered willy-nilly on anything that's false, and sometimes just on something that someone wants to suggest is false. I've been complaining about that for more than a month. But then the column starts to go off track: "The speed with which the term became polarized and in fact a rhetorical weapon illustrates how efficient the conservative media machine has become," said George Washington University professor Nikki Usher. Wait. The conservative media machine? Did you think they came up with this? Let's be clear about the chain of events here. A year ago, "fake news" had a pretty specific meaning: clickbait sites that publish hoaxes. The hoax of the hour might be political, but it could as easily be a fraudulent report of a celebrity death or a weird-news story that's too good to be true. Over time the term was also applied to aggregation sites that don't specialize in hoaxes so much as they simply don't care whether the stories they're promoting are hoaxes. Not exactly the same thing, but you still had that basic model of a click-driven indifference to truth. But when the opinion-spouting class grabbed the phrase en masse right after the election, they used it much more broadly. They applied it to sites with a heavy ideological skew. They applied it to conspiracy theories cooked up by people who might not know what credible evidence looks like but sincerely think they're chasing a real scandal. (Sullivan's column alludes twice to "PizzaGate," a theory that owes its origins not to hoaxsters but to nuts.) Conservatives played a part in this, throwing the words "fake news" at mainstream-media stories that might be better described as "bad reporting" (or, sometimes, as "perfectly fine reporting that uncovered facts I don't like"). But they didn't invent the practice. They took what the center-left was doing and bent it to their own ends. Once you've started slapping the "fake news" label on anything that looks like sloppy reporting or ideological bias in the alternative press, you've pretty much guaranteed that people will start flinging it when they think they've spotted sloppy reporting or ideological bias in the mainstream. No media-machine efficiency was required. Ask the right who taught them how to do this stuff, and they can look up from their bed and tell you: You, all right? I learned it by watching you![...]

What Queen Elizabeth Reveals About Trump

Mon, 09 Jan 2017 00:01:00 -0500

Life for a modern monarch is often a jeweled prison, with an excess of tedium and a dearth of authority. Anyone who detests the idea of royals can take satisfaction in how insignificant they have become. But their adaptation to this shrunken role sheds a revealing light on Donald Trump. In its first season, the Netflix series The Crown depicts the early years of Queen Elizabeth II's reign. What becomes more obvious with each episode is that not only does the young sovereign lack the commanding power of William the Conqueror or Henry VIII but also she can rarely get her way even on outwardly trivial matters. She doesn't want to live at Buckingham Palace. She doesn't want to deprive her children of their father's surname. She doesn't want to quash her sister's marriage plans. Over and over, though, she capitulates. Watching, I kept wishing she would rise up and declare, "I'm the freaking queen of England, and I'll do as I damn well please!" She never does. Reverence for the past stands in the way. Though the great powers of the British crown have been taken away by Parliament, the cramped discretion Elizabeth endures is also one of her own choice. She could rebel against the suffocating conventions—because really, who's to stop her? But she accepts her duty to follow tradition. The American presidency has many powers, some stipulated in the Constitution and some established by those who occupied the White House. But presidents have usually observed certain long-standing norms meant to foster respect for the office, promote national cohesion and encourage democratic compromise. In Britain, the prime minister is the head of government and the queen is the head of state. Here, the president is both, acting as both the chief executive of the federal government and the ceremonial leader of the nation. The latter role has been shaped over centuries by men who recognized the limits and gravity of the office they held. Trump, however, accepts no limits or norms of behavior, insisting on doing exactly what suits him. He refuses to make public his tax returns. He includes his children, who are also his business partners, in meetings about government business. He pops off on Twitter whenever the urge strikes. He tramples over ethical boundaries. He insults his critics. He exalts himself. He behaves with a sense of entitlement that brooks no opposition. It's hard to recall that in 1998, congressional Republicans were so appalled by Bill Clinton's illicit affair and brazen deceptions that they impeached him. In his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush made a pointed promise to "uphold the honor and dignity of the office." That's an obligation dating back to George Washington. On the website of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, historian Stephen Knott writes that our first president never "sought to use his office for personal empowerment or gain. Neither did he shelter his friends for the sake of their friendships when conflicts of interest arose." His "restraint, solemnity, judiciousness, and nonpartisan stance created an image of presidential greatness, or dignity, that dominates the office even today." Or did. It may not take Trump long to make Americans forget there was a time when presidents practiced such virtues. Once, a leader who defended a Russian dictator while mocking U.S. intelligence professionals would have been pilloried as an appeaser, if not a traitor. But Trump has shown how easily the outrageous can come to seem ordinary. His rise brings to mind Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1993 essay, "Defining Deviancy Down," which lamented the collapse of standards of behavior and the resulting epidemic of violent crime. "We have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized," he wrote, "and also quietly raising the 'normal' level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard." In short, "we are getting used to a lot of behavior that [...]

Bill Weld's Weird Tuesday

Sat, 07 Jan 2017 07:00:00 -0500

Two days before the election, and just minutes before a Gary Johnson rally at Colorado Christian University, I asked the Libertarian Party's 2012 vice presidential nominee, Judge Jim Gray, what he thought went especially well with the party's historically successful yet emotionally disappointing run at the White House this year. The answer surprised me. "I really believe that Bill Weld was a really great addition to the campaign," volunteered the anti-drug war Orange County jurist, who had been hoping to repeat as veep nominee until the better-known ex-governor of Massachusetts became available. "I didn't get any national media, particularly, on my own in the 2012 campaign. Tried it, didn't work. When Gov. Johnson and Gov. Weld decided to do this, I think he was on [television] like 25 times before the convention.…What's the use of having the best message if nobody hears it?" Sure, I countered, but what about Weld's appearance five days earlier on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, in which the candidate said, after a campaign full of similar hints, that he was "here vouching for Mrs. Clinton"? "I would prefer not to say anything about that," Gray replied. William Weld has been provoking schizophrenic responses from Libertarians since at least 2006, when the Boston Brahmin decided to run for governor of New York on both the Libertarian and Republican tickets. (The Empire State has unusual ballot laws.) When seeking the L.P. nomination back then, Weld vowed that he would continue to run under that banner even if the GOP declined to select him. When Republicans indeed chose a different path, Weld reneged on his promise. ("That was a semi-disastrous race," he sort-of-explained to me at the Libertarian National Convention in Orlando this past May. "I crashed and burned as a carpetbagger.") The New York debacle was only one of several objections raised to Weld's candidacy at the Convention. His conversion to the party came less than three months after he had endorsed John Kasich for president. (Not only did the hand-flapping Ohio governor propose serial military interventions during his ill-fated run, but Libertarians loathe him for his role in denying the party ballot access in his home state. Johnson had to run as an independent there.) Weld has in various iterations been a drug warrior and a gun controller, and he gives off the distinct whiff of a man who is in it chiefly for himself. And yet outside the Orlando convention hall, and especially in the Northeastern-dominated political media, Weld was seen as his running mate's clear superior, a ginger Cary Grant to Johnson's mountain-biking Don Knotts. Mitt Romney said in June that he might just vote Libertarian if only the ticket were flipped. (That and many other high-rent hints at possible endorsements failed to materialize.) In September, Weld's pal Carl Bernstein said on CNN that "Weld by now must have a pretty good idea that he is running on a ticket headed by a flake." Every single reporter I talked to at the Libertarian Convention could not believe that delegates were hesitating even for a minute to embrace the guy. And yet Johnson himself was booed lustily at the convention for defending his preferred V.P. choice in a debate as "the original libertarian." Running against an unknown New York management consultant named Larry Sharpe and a fire-breathing southern radical (and convert to Islam) named Will Coley, the man who in the 1990s was floated as a future Republican presidential candidate got just 49 percent in the first round, seven votes short of the needed majority. That's when things got weird. The convention floor erupted in politicking and protest. Coley, who had come in third, dropped out to consolidate the anti-Weld bloc behind Sharpe. Fellow V.P. candidate dropout Alicia Dearn then brought Weld up onstage during her concession speech for an excruciating attempt to extract a promise not to "betray[...]

Report on Russian Involvement in U.S. Election Primarily about RT Network

Fri, 06 Jan 2017 17:25:00 -0500

This afternoon the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released its unclassified version of its report intended to show that the Russian government attempted to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election to try to help get Donald Trump elected. Because this is the unclassified version of the report, it is extremely short on presenting actual evidence and the report up front acknowledges that it cannot reveal a lot of information for fear of revealing sources or intelligence gathering methods. Its conclusions are the same as what it is in the classified report that we will not see: The CIA, FBI and NSA are all confident that the Russian government, with the support of President Vladimir Putin, attempted to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, attempted to discredit Hillary Clinton as a candidate and erode Americans confidence in our government. The declassified report is 25 pages long, but only a small part of it, just a couple of pages, talks about actual cyberintrusions or hacking and the role it might have played. And it's really what we've already heard. The agencies are confident that Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks, collected the emails, and then released them to the public through intermediaries like Guccifer 2.0, Wikileaks, and The agencies believe that Putin wanted to discredit Clinton because he blames her for anti-Putin protests from 2011 and 2012. Those pages also include a bunch of reasons why they believe Putin chose Trump over Clinton that are logical but aren't exactly provable. The summary (of a summary) is that Putin believed it would be easier to advance Russia's interests with Trump rather than Clinton. Then the report gets a little odd. All the above part takes up five pages. It is followed by seven pages of analysis of the operations of Russian-operated English-speaking news network RT (formerly known as Russia Today) and its role in spreading Kremlin-approved messaging. The goal of this section of the report is to highlight how Russian propaganda is reaching American listeners. And while it's obviously important for our intel folks to be aware of how this is all working, a look at their examples of how RT is fostering criticism of the United States government is illuminating in a way I'm not sure the intel agencies intended: For those who can't see the images from the report for whatever reason, they point to the fact that RT hosted debates from third-party candidates and publicized the idea that the two-party system doesn't represent a third of voters. In addition, they call the United States a surveillance state full of civil liberties abuses, police brutality, and drone use. Full disclosure here: I appeared on RT twice in 2012 to discuss a couple of instances of alleged police brutality in the Southern California area. I haven't been on since then. It became increasingly clear (especially after journalists there quit and went public about how the network actually operated) that the network was trying to slant the discussion to a sort of fatalistic "There's nothing we can do about these problems" attitude (as cynical as I am, I don't agree). I don't dispute the findings here about RT, but look at those examples and they could apply not just to Reason but to media outlets of varying ideological positions within America. Americans are abandoning the two political parties. People are genuinely upset about surveillance and police brutality. If this is an attempt to sway the public to be concerned about RT, it's not terribly persuasive. And it's several years after the reality of what RT is came to light anyway, so it just reads rather dated. I cannot imagine that this report will influence many people one way or the other. I said yesterday that it seems likely that Russia is behind the hack but the government will ne[...]

Glenn Greenwald on Wikileaks, Russian Hacking, and Distrusting Legacy Media and U.S. Intel (Reason Podcast)

Fri, 06 Jan 2017 16:45:00 -0500

Senate testimony from James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election hasn't convinced Glenn Greenwald to believe that high-ranking officials in the Putin regime successfully "hacked" the American way of life.

The co-founder (with Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras) of the investigative website The Intercept has no love for Putin, but he points out that the U.S. intelligence community has a checkered history at best of getting things right and telling the truth. In the newest Reason podcast, he notes that two of the most recent bombshell stories about Russian "hacks"—one about how Russians flooded the internet with "fake news" to tip the election to Donald Trump and one about Russians supposedly taking over Vermont's electrical grid—have already been thoroughly walked back and discredited.

A staunch opponent of the growth and abuse of presidential power, Greenwald is arguably the most consistent critic of government abuses of civil liberties, regardless of which party holds power. He's also a champion of whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, whose work he was central to making known to the broader public. In 2014, Reason gave Greenwald the Lanny Friedlander Prize, which is given to "an individual or group who has created a publication, medium, or distribution platform that vastly expands human freedom by increasing our ability to express ourselves, engage in debate, and generate new ways of understanding the power of 'Free Minds and Free Markets.'"

Though he identifies with the progressive left on many issues, his criticism of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama along with conservatives and Republicans has earned him enemies on all points of the spectrum. In this conversation with Nick Gillespie, he talks about how the concept of "fake news" obscures far more than it clarifies, explains what he doesn't like about Wikileaks' strategy for unredacted data dumps, and discusses how Obama swelled presidential power during his eight years in office. Greenwald, who spoke with Reason from his home in Brazil, also talked about the problems inherent in the government dictating more and more aspects of the economy and the health care industry, typically in the service of crony capitalism. No fan of Donald Trump and fearful of the power the billionaire president will inherit from his predecessor, Greenwald is nonetheless optimistic that a growing coalition of libertarians, liberals, and conservatives will begin to check the imbalance of power in Washington.

Produced by Ian Keyser.

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Brickbat: Stop Sharing

Fri, 06 Jan 2017 04:00:00 -0500

(image) The chairman of Germany's Social Democratic Party has proposed fining Facebook 500,000 euros for each "fake" news story on the site. Thomas Opperman says Facebook should be required to set up a commission within Germany to which people could file complaints about false stories. But he denied that such a commission would be an "opinion police" or "truth commission."

Grim Tidings Greet the New Year in Dark New Dramas

Fri, 06 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Emerald City. NBC. Friday, January 6, 9 p.m. Taboo. FX. Tuesday, January 10, 10 p.m. It says nearly all you need to know about Taboo that it's impossible to guess from the pilot episode exactly what the title of FX's menacing, macabre new drama refers. Incest? Miscegenation? Grave-robbing? Cannibalism? Murder? There are hints of all these and more in this eerie creepout of a show. A joint production of FX and the BBC, Taboo offers the same mixture of the baroque, the sinister and the seamy 19th-century streets of London as another recent British-American project, Showtime's Penny Dreadful. But unlike Penny Dreadful, which made its intentions explicit immediately (there are only so many directions a show can take with characters named Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and Lawrence Talbot), Taboo is vague about the precise nature of its malefic designs. The show gets under way in 1814 with the surprise arrival of long-lost explorer and soldier of fortune James Delaney at his father's funeral. Exclaims a shocked family friend: "They said you were dead!" To which the stony Delaney replies in a monotone: "I am." Even in Taboo's opening moments, the atmosphere is so exquisitely baleful that it's impossible to say if he's speaking metaphorically or literally. Delaney's return comes after a dozen years in Africa, including the wreck of a slave ship on which he was traveling and of which he was mysteriously the sole survivor. His return is regarded as unwise and unwelcome by what's left of a family tree rotted with madness and sexual adventurism. "The only legacy is a poisoned chalice," warns the family lawyer. Delaney's motive is elusive, too. Is he there to revive the tattered remnants of his father's shipping company? Or in hopes of pursuing an illicit relationship with his half-sister (Oona Chaplin, Game of Thrones)? Then there's the matter of a piece of land in North America that his father left him—supposedly just a small strip of rocky, desolate wasteland—that the mercantilist directors of the mammoth East India Company seem unnaturally interested in taking off his hands. Taboo was created by British screenwriters Tom Hardy, his father, Chips, and Steven Knight. Knight wrote the hard-bitten 2007 David Cronenberg detective film Eastern Promises; Tom Hardy is better known for his acting—he was nominated for an Oscar for his role supporting Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant—and his performance as Delaney is what gives Taboo much of its malevolent power. Delaney vibrates with the suggestion of terrifying violence, not just a capacity but an actual need for it. "People who do not know me," he warns one potential enemy, "soon come to understand that I do not have any sense." Who might unleash his rage, and why, are among the many anticipatory thrills that make Taboo irresistible. Altogether resistible, however, is Emerald City, NBC's sour attempt to remake Wizard of Oz as a Game of Thrones clone. Practically all this ill-conceived series has going for it is spotting the mutations in plot and characters brought on by the conversion from fairytale to cheerless sword-and-sorcery epic. Dorothy (Adria Arjona, Person of Interest) is still with us, but she's a tough Chicana ER nurse who, if she sang at all, would be a lot more likely to burst into "Breakin' Dishes" than "Over The Rainbow." Toto is no lapdog but a fierce German shepherd. And that tornado carries them from Kansas to Oz not in a farmhouse but a police car, though with equally deleterious results for the unfortunate witch it lands upon. The Munchkins are not dwarves but spear-carrying, fur-clad people who resemble Aleut Indians; instead of having a parade in Dorothy's honor, they waterboard her for awhile ("Only a witch can kill a witch," explains the Munchkin torturer-in-chief) and then march her[...]

Treat Porn 'Epidemic' Like We Did Tobacco, Utah Republican Proposes

Tue, 03 Jan 2017 15:30:00 -0500

(image) Last April, Utah passed a resolution declaring pornography a "public health hazard." The bizarre antic offered no remedy for this imagined scourge, nor any binding legislative action, but simply an assertion that porn leads "to a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts and societal harms."

Now the proverbial other shoe has dropped. Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross), who sponsored last year's porn resolution, said he will soon introduce new legislation that would allow Utah residents who imagine themselves addicted to porn to sue the websites where they watch it.

"I'm trying to kind of track the same path that was taken against tobacco 70 years ago," Weiler told Utah's "I'm looking at where we can push the envelope as a state of Utah. To pretend that this is not having any impact on our youth, on children's' minds as they're developing, as their attitudes towards sex and the opposite sex are being formed, I think is foolish."

Weiler fancies his solution a libertarian one.

"It's not government coming in and saying what you can and can't watch," he said. "It's just basically a message to the pornography industry that if someone in Utah can prove damages from the product, that they may be held liable financially."

It's easy to laugh at melodramatic musings like Weiler's and at such tone-deaf dealings as the Utah porn resolution. But this silly "porn as public health crisis" meme seems to now be spreading to other states, egged on by folks at the group formerly known as Morality in Media.

Last week, Virginia State Delegate Bob Marshall (R-Prince William) proposed legislation declaring porn a "public health crisis" that has reached "epidemic" proportions, the evidence of which can be seen by the fact that teenagers are—gasp—texting each other sexy pictures. (Because everyone knows that before ubiquitous internet porn, puberty-racked adolescents walked uphill both ways to and from school and never saw themselves as sexual beings...)

Despite the feverish paranoia of conservative lawmakers like Weiler and Marshall, many in the Republican rank-and-file think their party's obsession with issues like pornography is out of touch and misguided. Check out what delegates at the 2016 Republican National Convention had to say about porn's alleged public-health-hazard status in the video below.

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Hey Media: Let’s Not Turn Russian Hackers into the Next WMDs, Okay?

Tue, 03 Jan 2017 12:20:00 -0500

Russian government hackers have taken control over our power grid! Oh, wait … no … never mind. A laptop not connected to the power grid at all had some malware on it that does not appear to be connected to the Russian government after all. You'll be forgiven for having ignored this final absurd international cybersecurity story of 2016 in favor of celebrating the passing of a year many folks couldn't wait to see end. On Friday evening, The Washington Post reported that hackers connected to the Russian government had penetrated the United States electrical grid through a Vermont power company, and the culprits were the same hacking group President Barack Obama's administration had associated with getting the release of internal emails from the Democratic National Committee. The story spread like wildfire through social media, particularly among those unhappy with President-Elect Donald Trump's warm relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his open skepticism of federal intelligence reports. Except the story turned out to be wildly inaccurate. Very quickly it turned out that the infected computer was not connected to the power grid and that the hackers (Russian or otherwise) did not gain access to the power plant. And by Monday, The Washington Post had reported that it didn't even appear that Russian hackers were even involved. The Post relied on anonymous government sources for its reporting, and when dealing with cybersecurity and tech issues there are so many opportunities for information to go awry. Relying on anonymous information from intel officials deliberately trying to shield themselves from taking responsibility for such leaks is a bad idea. In fairness to the Post, it very quickly corrected its mistakes, though it came after the story spread far and wide. It's very easy—and relevant—to look at what happened with this report and reflect back on the insistence from government sources that Saddam Hussein was hoarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Trump himself pointed this comparison out even before Friday's news blitz, attempting to shield himself from criticism for any connection to the DNC hack. America went to war over WMDs and many, many people died, Americans and Iraqis (and others). It seems unlikely that a response as extreme would happen between the U.S. and Russia, even had Hillary Clinton won instead of Trump. Nevertheless, we should all be very concerned at the possibility of not just history repeating, but for both media outlets and government intelligence officials to repeat their roles in helping make it happen. It's so easy to screw up reporting on cybersecurity (CNN was roundly mocked for using a screenshot from video game Fallout 4 to accompany its coverage of Russian sanctions to show what hacking looked like). Even before the initial Washington Post report was corrected, there was a big red flag buried deep within it. The initial reporting acknowledged that any "hacking" that took place happened because whoever was operating the computer in question clicked on a link from a phishing email that installed malware on the computer. Just as with the hack in the Democratic National Convention case, this isn't just a situation of a malicious intruder forcing his way into a system. He or she or they were invited in because of poor security practices on the user end. It's very important to remind folks of this component of cybersecurity vulnerability because otherwise this debate becomes about "What should America do to countries that engage in cyberespionage?" instead of "What should America do to prevent cyberespionage?" The difference between those two questions is very relevant. The first question creates an environment of intrusion and intervention[...]

New Shows The Mick and Ransom Ring in the New Year

Fri, 30 Dec 2016 15:00:00 -0500

The Mick. Fox. Sunday, January 1, 8 p.m. Ransom. CBS. Sunday, January 1, 8:30 p.m. If you were thinking Fox's The Mick was an homage to former New York Yankee centerfielders, then congratulations, you're already achieved 2017's first big disappointment and can stop wasting time hoping that this year will somehow be better than the last. If, however, you've been wondering when the stealth obscenity "see you next Tuesday" would slip across the broadcast television DEW line, or waiting for the medium's first Rosemary Kennedy joke, then this is the year—and perhaps the show—for you. You know you're about to watch something special when a network press release describes the lead character as "foul-mouthed [and] debaucherous." (Yeah, I didn't know it was a word, either.) That would be the title character Mick, short for McKenzie, a two-bit street hustler who makes her screen entrance by strolling through a supermarket, not just eating food off the shelves (Cheez-Whiz chased with Reddi-Whip right out of the can), but shaving under her arms and powdering her hoo-ha. She's freshening up for a party thrown by her sister, an ex-stripper who landed a Wall Street millionaire husband through strategic birth-control failure. Mick, at the party in search of a loan to fend off a digit-collecting loan shark, winds up with a bonus: a family. "I need you to watch the kids tonight," apologizes the sister as she and her husband flee the country one step ahead of an FBI white-collar crime unit. What follows is not some sweet seduced-by-motherhood fable, but black comedy adorned in malice and mordacity. The three kids she inherits are all, in varying degrees, menaces to society, including Sabrina (Sofia Black D'Elia, Gossip Girl), who though only 18 appears to be pursuing graduate studies in treacherous bitchery; 13-year-old Chip (Thomas Barbusa, The New Normal), a kind of Richie Rich gone bad; and Ben (newcomer Jack Stanton), a 7-year-old who's decent enough but also the sort of hopelessly dorky kid who will take a bet to lick a hot grill. Their lupine instincts are scarcely quelled by Mick's clueless attempts at parenting, When Chip complains he's being bullied at school, Mick's post-Dr. Spock advice—pull down the mean kid's pants and laugh at his tiny penis—turns out even more disastrously than you might guess. "It was humongous!" shrieks Chip though his mass of contusions and black eyes. "I'm lucky he didn't beat me with it." Yet for all their mutual loathing, Mick and the kids are forced by circumstances to forge something vaguely resembling a family, even if it's the most dysfunctional since the one head by Charlie Manson. If gags about sexual humiliation and weaponized genitalia don't seem to you as if they're likely to evolve into anything even remotely like The Waltons, you are beginning to grasp the hardball nature of The Mick. It's like a Child's Garden of the Crass and Brutal, including some some scenes of corporal punishment that look a bit like Tony Soprano's unfulfilled fantasies of how to get A.J. into line. But if you ever longed for the Roadrunner to be turned into Purina Coyote Chow or those little Family Circus kids to be sold to a Honduran sweatshop, The Mick might be for you. Kaitlin Olson, no stranger to the loutish and philistine—she's about to start her 13th season on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the FX cable channel's sociopathic lampoon of Seinfeld—is daffily funny as Mick, the Gen X slacker gazing in queasy befuddlement at what's slouching toward Bethlehem. Just plain daffy is the other big New Year's Day premiere, CBS' Ransom, a joint French-Canadian-American show that's the greatest argument against international comity since UN peacekeepers brought[...]

Exodus Delves into the Horrible Life of Refugees

Fri, 23 Dec 2016 15:00:00 -0500

Frontline: Exodus. PBS. Tuesday, December 27, 9 p.m. Meet Isra'a, whose young life as a connoisseur of fine toys was rudely interrupted by a missile that obliterated the fine Syrian home of her merchant father. Now she's a canny street kid in the Turkish harbor town of Izmir, where her expertise includes one of the world's oddest niche markets—an open-air plaza where refugee families like hers can purchase all the appurtenances of illicit sea travel. Over there, she gestures, are the dealers in "rubber rings"—inner tubes, which are used as life preservers by upscale refugees and as vehicles by those whose hopes are bigger than their wallets. The rubber-ring trade is only for the hardiest of entrepreneurs, Isra'a observes, since cops periodically sweep through and confiscate their stocks in hopes of discouraging refugee traffic. (Isra'a, though only 10 or 12, knows a good bit about the police; she laughs as other kids admiringly describe how she shouted at them to run when cops recently grabbed her and slapped her around.) Less noticeable and therefore less risky, she advises, is the trade in small plastic bags that close with drawstrings: a waterproof carrying case for the cell phones that even the poorest emigres carry to map their trips and call for help in case of sinking, abduction or the other routine imperilments of refugee life. "If, God forbid, the dinghy sinks," Isra'a explains, "the phone will be safe." About the fate of the people carrying the phone, she is silent. Isra'a one of a dozen or so refugees whose journeys are chronicled in Exodus, a sweeping yet intimate episode of the PBS documentary series Frontline. From passengers frantically bailing water out of a floundering boat in the Mediterranean to a riot inside the notorious Calais camp known as "The Jungle," footage shot by the refugees themselves with smartphone cameras turns Exodus into something more like a diary than a documentary. Their message is that they are not so different than the rest of us would be if confronted with their dire circumstances. "Anyone can be a refugee," muses Ahmad, a young Syrian man who spent months slipping across borders in the Middle East and Europe in order to reach England after ISIS took over his village. "It's not something you choose. It's something that happens to you." The refugees are among more than a million who smuggled themselves into Europe from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East during 2015. The flow is even heavier this year as Syria disintegrates into total chaos, from which most of the refugees in Exodus are bolting. ("A country that's thousands of years old was destroyed in a minute," mourns one.) But as a young man named Sadiq, fleeing a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, reminds us, the ceaseless wars of the 21st century have left behind many burned-out hellholes in which the only reasonable alternative is escape. "I'm sure if they had the money, nobody would remain in Afghanistan," says Sadiq as he makes his way toward his personal vision of Utopia, Finland. "Afghanistan would be empty." How unlivable these ruined countries are is underlined again and again by the fact that not a single of the refugees profiled in Exodus ever turned back, despite enduring kidnappings, beatings, thefts, hunger, and extortions. When their fellow man wasn't using them as a punching bag, the Earth itself took over: treacherous seas, scorching deserts, sucking mud flats. But don't be misled; this is no tale of indefatigable pluckiness. Even the success stories among the refugees are half-mad before their travel ends. "I survived ISIS, I survived beheadings, I survived Assad," declares one Syrian refugee, nearing hysteria after yet another of h[...]