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Published: Sat, 24 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sat, 24 Jun 2017 04:18:23 -0400


Gawker Documentary Fails to Make Case for Publishing Sex Tape

Fri, 23 Jun 2017 15:00:00 -0400

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. Available now on Netflix. I'm afraid that merely to disclose the subject of the Netflix documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press is about—the dire threat to the First Amendment posed by a jury's decision that a website did not have a right to show a stolen video of professional wrestler Hulk Hogan's penis in action—is to give away the entire plot: Yes, this is the latest and greatest chapter in the news media's eternal proclamation of martyrdom at the hands of prigs and fascists. And yes, it rises to such an awesome level of whining self-aggrandization that it threatens to spoil the good name of hogwash. So, spoiler alert. The case that's the subject of Nobody Speak is possibly the most fascinating and least significant in the three-century history of media litigation. It's full of depraved sex, villainous intrigue, and lurid betrayals. But its ultimate contribution to legal canon was not exactly epic. As longtime media lawyer Charles Glasser (an interview of whom would have been a welcome addition to Nobody Speak) wrote after the verdict, the case's lesson was simple: "Don't publish secretly-made sex tapes." The story begins in 2012, when celebrity wrestler Hogan (nom de real life: Terry Bollea) got an unusual gesture of friendship from his best pal, radio shock-jock Bubba the Love Sponge: Hey, wanna sleep with my wife? Hogan knew this was a frequent recreational activity of Bubba (nom de non-perv world: Todd Alan Clem) and the busty Mrs. Sponge and had previously declined to participate But this time, down on his luck—and wallet—after a series of business reverses and an expensive divorce, he agreed. What Hogan didn't know was that the Sponges routinely and secretly taped these marital guest appearances. (After the case blew up, Bubba claimed Hogan knew all about the taping, but he wouldn't repeat it under oath during the trial.) That might not have mattered except that a copy of the recording, apparently stolen by one of Bubba's employees, found its way into the hands of the scabby gossip website Gawker. Founded in 2002, Gawker regularly trafficked in sex tapes and such scoops as the grooming of Republican senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell's pubic hair. Founder Nick Denton, the British journalist who built Gawker into the centerpiece of a $200 million on-line media empire, routinely defended his celebrity-bullying scandal sheet as a champion of truth and democracy in a world of lickspittle mainstream media. "Everybody knows what usually appears, certainly, in the establishment media bears little resemblance to what's really going on," he says in Nobody Speak. Speaking truth to Bristol Palin and Justin Beiber! Gawker posted a chunk of the tape; Hogan's attorney asked it be taken down, and when Gawker refused, filed a breach of privacy lawsuit. What followed was a series of potboiler plot twists: Another sex tape, with racist remarks by Hogan that would get him booted out of pro wrestling; intimations that Gawker, wittingly or not, was acting as a stalking horse for blackmailers; an FBI sting against a sex-tape broker; and a series of legal stratagems by Hogan's attorneys that the Gawker legal team considered inexplicably stupid but which turned out to be brilliant. The real stupidity occurred on the Gawker side of the courtroom, none so lethally damaging as the swaggering arrogance of the site's former editor, A.J. Daulerio, who wrote the story accompanying the Hogan sex tape. During his testimony, Daulerio insisted that images of boinking celebrities are always newsworthy. Always? wondered Hogan's attorney. Well, maybe not if the celebrity was a child, Daulerio conceded dismissively. Under what age? asked the attorney. "Four," sneered Daulerio, a remark that nearly everybody agrees sent Gawker's case into a death spiral. In an interview in Nobody Speak, a wounded Daulerio insists that "Clearly, I'm kidding." So, there's a second lesson to be had in the Gawker case: Don't practice your stand-up act during sworn courtroom testimony. The case ended with the[...]

The Mist Gets Lost in a Baffling Cloud

Fri, 16 Jun 2017 15:00:00 -0400

The Mist. Spike. Thursday, June 22, 10 p.m. Stephen King's novella The Mist, published back in 1980 before he was too important to suffer editors, was a marvel of taut, muscular prose. A bunch of shoppers are marooned inside a grocery store when a heavy mist suddenly rolls across their small town. Inside it are a pack of fantastic creatures: Pterodactyls. Giant bugs. Other huge things, indiscernible through the fog except for their enormous, questing tentacles. They are hungry. They eat. A handful of people escape the grocery store and drive as fast and as far as they can in hopes of escape, but as the story ends, there's no real sign that they've succeeded. The whole thing was sort of like walking outside and discovering you had stumbled into a better-dubbed and shockingly realistic Japanese monster movie. There was a single subplot that extended directly from the action: the devolution of many of the people inside the store into superstitious religious mania. No soap-opera detritus, no Sophie's-choice moments about saving kids or mistresses over wives, no Freudian agonistes, not even all that much time pondering the cause of the events. The Mist landed like a brutally hard punch. Frank Darabont's 2007 film adaptation took almost exactly the same approach to great effect (though he did add a Hitchcockian surprise ending that, purposefully or not, seriously subverted King's contemptuous treatment of religion). If it doesn't seem to you that The Mist sounds like a good fit for a television series, then I've got bad news and worse news. The bad news is that you'll never be a production executive at Spike, Viacom's manly-men cable channel, which thought a TV version of The Mist sounded like a capital idea. The worse news is that a legion of demons did not burst from the ninth circle of Hell during production, set upon the cast and crew with fangs and claws, and leave them dangling from the sound-stage lighting towers by their own shredded intestines. Okay, it's possible I'm overreacting here just a smidge. But Spike's version of The Mist is one dumb piece of work. It's a "reimagination" (Spike, mindful of the scant resemblance of its show to King's novella or Darabont's film, has been careful to avoid the word "remake") by Danish TV producer Christian Torpe, whose shows are much beloved there. But his notion of U.S. politics and culture seems to be drawn in equal parts from a video archive divided between smarmy liberal-moralist soap operas like Peyton Place and redneck drive-in paranoia like Jackson County Jail. Cops beat the bejeezus out of practically anybody they encounter, just on general principle. A teenage girl who reports she was roofied and raped at a party is immediately branded a lying slut by the whole town. A popular teacher is fired for explaining to her high school class where babies come from. (And it's not from giant prehistoric eggs coaxed into hatching by tiny Japanese fertility goddesses.) That's just in the first episode. By week two, I'm sure we'll have worked our way to the Scopes Trial, Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy, and a mayor who takes a sledge hammer to Elvis Presley on the steps of city hall. Even if Torpe's characters hijacked a time machine to escape 1955 America, though, his conception of The Mist is dreadfully wrongheaded. Virtually every one of his changes conspires to rob the work of its gut-punch power. Stretching out the show's timeline and giving its characters extensive back stories (even if they were less silly ones than these) distracts from the story's sheer horror. Trapping the survivors in a shopping mall instead of a grocery store dissipates its air of claustrophobia. What you're left with is a version of As the World Turns in which booty calls have been exchanged for body counts. And though I'm not certain, it may be that Torpe (perhaps in deference to network bean-counters) has even eliminated The Mist's monsters. In the pilot episode, at least, none were visible; instead, any human who spent much time inside the fog turned homicidal and zombie-ish, a[...]

Shakespeare and the Assassins

Fri, 16 Jun 2017 11:59:00 -0400

(image) Last weekend's Big Fake Outrage involved a Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Julius Caesar that features a Caesar based on Donald Trump. Caesar, as every schoolboy knows, is murdered in Act 3, so the show was denounced as "assassination porn" (note: the play is famously anti-assassination) that proves just how uniquely crazy Trump has made people (note: modernized productions of Julius Caesar are a cliché, and just a few years ago a high-profile performance featured a Caesar based on Barack Obama). Under different circumstances the hubbub might have faded by now, but on Wednesday some jerk tried to kill a bunch of congressmen and then some people started suggesting he was somehow influenced by the play (note: that's nuts). So we're still hearing about it.

But enough about Julius Caesar. Want to know what a tasteless assassination-themed appropriation of Shakespeare really sounds like? Check out MacBird!, Barbara Garson's MacBeth parody in which Lyndon Johnson plots the death of John F. Kennedy. Below you can hear a performance directed by Phil Austin, of Firesign Theatre fame, that aired on one of the Pacifica radio stations in 1967. If you'd rather read the script, it's here; but honestly, it's more fun when you can hear the actors' faux-Kennedy accents:

src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="500" height="40" frameborder="0">

The original performance of the play starred Stacy Keach in the LBJ role. Sadly, I don't have a recording of that one.

Bonus links: Matthew Lasar has more on MacBird! here. Garson has a cameo in my review of a rather different piece of literature here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For another Friday A/V Club with a Firesign Theatre connection, go here.

Summer Means Time for Television to Go Bonkers

Fri, 09 Jun 2017 14:55:00 -0400

Claws. TNT. Sunday, June 11, 9 p.m. Blood Drive. SyFy. Wednesday, June 14, 10 p.m. Summertime has arrived, and popcorn television is on us like a pack of rabid weasels. Like Santa and the elves at Christmas, sociopathic strippers and mechanical vampires frolic through the airwaves with increasing frequency until Labor Day Eve and the annual viewing of It's the Manson Girls, Charlie Brown! Good popcorn TV movies and shows are, as they used to say on one of its first exemplars, faster than a speeding bullet, the better to distract you from its innate stupidity. Claws (which, I was momentarily disappointed to discover, is not a modern blood-and-boobs remake of the epochal 1957 popcorn masterpiece Attack of the Crab Monsters) sets some kind of record in that regard. Set in a small-town Florida nail salon, it starts out like a Tyler Perry party-hearty sitcom, with astronomical numbers of tattoos, big butts, and random shouts of "Off the hook!" and "Shake it!" But within minutes it morphs into an entertaining, if slightly idiotic, action-suspense drama: The salon offers the full menu of traditional Florida services running from erotic asphyxiation to money-laundering to off-site drug hootchie-ism to murder. At the center of this lunatic universe is Desna (Niecy Nash, Scream Queens), the salon's owner and chief emissary to the money-laundering world. Her henchpersons include just-out-of-jail Polly (Carrie Preston, True Blood) and resident butt-kicker Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes, Devious Maids). They're all perpetually undersupplied with money and oversupplied with unreliable men—or, in Quiet Ann's case, women. Claws is the sort of show where funeral corteges include lines of flatbed truckers equipped with stripper poles, where characters reminisce about their good old days as hookers holed up in ratty beach motels "shooting Easter eggs out our butts" and launch into reflective soliloquies about the random interaction of the universe with human genitalia. "You tell yourself that you're just fulfilling your deepest carnal appetite, that deep need we all as human share for connectedness," muses Polly. "Then, boom, you're knocked up by a minor Kennedy." Nash, Preston, and Reyes play their roles with such gusto that your profound, debilitating shame at enjoying Claws will fade quickly. Blood Drive may take a little longer, but ultimately the charm of dialogue like, "Hand up! Turn around! Drop the leg!" is difficult to resist. A deeply deranged cross between Death Race 2000 and The Gumball Rally, Blood Drive—set in a wasteland America of 1999 (!) in which water is dispensed through ATM machines and the new police motto is We Kill Because We Care—is about an illegal cross-country race. But where the titillation in Gumball Rally was that the vehicles all had their catalytic converters removed, the cars in this race run on human blood. (When an appalled cop who stumbles onto the race asks, why blood, one of the drivers replies: "Have you seen gas prices lately?") The winner gets $10 million; the losers get fed to their cars. Like Claws, Blood Drive is part action-adventures thrills and spills, part darkly surrealist belly laughs. For instance, the drivers are regularly chided by a prim Siri-like voice from their cell phones that admonishes them for things like reckless driving but shrugs no-hard-no-foul when they feed a squad of Girl Scouts into a wood chipper for fuel. But Blood Drive has much more of a grindhouse feel (literally, in the case of the refueling scenes with those toothy gas tanks) and it rarely can resist the opportunity for a sophomoric crack. The show arguably has the worst potty-mouth in the history of basic cable, and its humor often meanders the line between penile and puerile. A race driver named Clown Dick is funny, kinda; a female police sergeant screaming "Suck my dick!" kinda less. Though it's not always easy to discern among all the phallicphobia and cannibalism, there is a plot running through Blood Drive. That cop who discovers [...]

The British Left vs. the Deep State

Fri, 09 Jun 2017 11:15:00 -0400

A phrase keeps cropping up in certain corners of the English press: A Very British Coup. That's the name of Chris Mullin's novel about a near-future U.K.—and by "near-future" I mean the early '90s, because the book was published in 1982—where a hard-left Labour government comes to power and then is undermined by intelligence agencies and their allies in the media. Writers started invoking the book after Jeremy Corbyn made his bid to be leader of the Labour Party, and Mullin himself got around 1,000 words in The Guardian a couple years ago to speculate about "how the political establishment would react to a Corbyn victory." Now that Corbyn has denied the Tories a parliamentary majority, you can expect the allusions to multiply. I haven't read the novel myself, but I've seen the 1988 miniseries based on it. Watching it today should be a resonant experience for both the Corbynite left and the Trumpian right: the former because of the hero's similarities to the current Labour leader, the latter because the idea of the deep state subverting an elected outsider has suddenly picked up currency among conservatives. And if you're neither a Corbynite nor a Trumpian, you still might enjoy it, just because it's a pretty good conspiracy thriller. Great cast, too. By the time this aired in the late '80s, the idea that Britain might make a sharp left turn seemed like an outlandish science fiction scenario. But Mullin was writing at the dawn of the decade, when the U.K. was in a deep recession and the solidly socialist Tony Benn had a shot at becoming Labour leader. The idea that hidden forces might try to undermine such a government didn't spring entirely from Mullin's imagination either: He was drawing on widely circulated stories that MI5 had deliberately subverted the Labour government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, effectively pushing him out of power. I don't know the evidence well enough to have an informed opinion on whether those tales are true. But I do know that James Jesus Angleton, the famously paranoid CIA counterintelligence chief, was convinced that Wilson was working for the Russians. Speaking of notions that have come cycling back into style. Here is part one of A Very British Coup: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Here is part two: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> And here's the final installment: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> The story was remade in 2012 as a four-part miniseries called Secret State; I haven't seen that one, but if you want to check it out you can watch the first episode here. Wikipedia's page on Harold Wilson conspiracy theories is here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.[...]

EpiPen Not Overpriced, Despite New York Times Complaint

Mon, 05 Jun 2017 16:00:00 -0400

"Outcry Over EpiPen Prices Hasn't Made Them Lower," is the misleading headline over Charles Duhigg's "Adventures in Capitalism" column in The New York Times business section. Duhigg writes, "I was surprised when my pharmacist informed me, months after those floggings and apologies had faded from the headlines, that I would still need to pay $609 for a box of two EpiPens." That's the third paragraph of the story. Twenty-six paragraphs later, way down toward the very end of the article, Duhigg discloses, "In fact, the company says that since it came under attack in August, nearly 90 percent of EpiPen buyers have paid less than $100 per box because of insurance, discounts or coupons." So it sure looks as if, contrary to the headline, the outcry over EpiPen prices has made them lower. I know something about this because I happen to have a family member who needs one of these things. This year, I was the one who went to the pharmacy to have the prescription filled. The price I paid out of pocket was less than it has been in years past and indeed, was less than $100 for the box of two. So, at least in my personal experience, the Times headline is inaccurate. An interesting question that the Times totally avoids is why Duhigg's health insurance is such that he has to pay $609 instead of the less than $100 that I paid. Maybe he is rich enough—he speaks for companies like Bloomberg, Fairmont Hotels, and American Express via the Harry Walker Agency, and his book "The Power of Habit" spent "over 168 weeks" on The New York Times bestseller list—that he goes without health insurance, or has chosen a plan with a very high deductible, figuring he can effectively self-insure for all but catastrophic costs. Maybe he gets his health insurance from the New York Times Company, and that company is under such financial duress, or so poorly managed, that it provides even star New York Times employees such as Duhigg with worse health coverage for prescription medicine than the insurance I purchase myself for my family. Maybe it was early in the calendar year, and Duhigg hadn't yet met his deductible for this sort of thing. Duhigg's column is 2,000 words long, but it somehow manages to avoid all of those questions. Duhigg does attack EpiPen manufacturer Mylan, asserting that the company "flouts the norms of good corporate behavior." He complains that the EpiPen costs "so much," and calls for investors to oust the company's board. Yet consider that for $609, or, for about 90% of people, less than $100 out of pocket, the company is offering a year's worth of access to potentially life-saving medicine, in a reliable delivery system. Compare that to the pricing of The New York Times: $1,014 for a yearlong seven-day-a-week home delivery subscription to a newspaper that, rather than saving your life, might inflict life-shortening stress. Times defenders might argue that very few people actually pay the full $1014 annual rate. Most people pay less because they buy online-only subscriptions, or get it through work or at the library, or have student or faculty discounts, or get cheaper introductory rates. That's like Mylan arguing that most people pay less than $100 rather than the full $609. I'm looking forward to the Charles Duhigg column complaining that The New York Times subscription pricing structure "flouts the norms of good corporate behavior," and calling for investors to replace members of the Times Company board of directors. But I suspect I'll be waiting a long time for that one. At the very least, a follow-up column explaining why the price he paid for the EpiPen is so much higher than what nearly 90 percent of other buyers paid would be in order. Otherwise, the "adventure in capitalism" here involves the Times itself ripping readers off for journalism that inaccurately portrays another company as rapacious. Next time around, rather than joining the pile-on against Mylan, maybe the Times might consider [...]

I’m Dying Up Here Wants Viewers to Take the Saying Literally

Fri, 02 Jun 2017 15:00:00 -0400

I'm Dying Up Here. Showtime. Sunday, June 4, 10 p.m. Somebody—Harry Shearer? Al Franken? Memory and Google both fail me—describing one of the grisly bloodbaths among the cast in the early day of Saturday Night Live once said, "It's not comedy if somebody's not crying." That's very much the idea behind Showtime's I'm Dying Up Here, a melodrama about the lives of a group of young stand-up comics scuffling through the comedy-club dives of Los Angeles as they wait for their big break. In the world of I'm Dying Up Here, comics succeed not by telling jokes but by ripping their own hearts out on stage. They achieve authenticity not by getting laughs but by dishing their secret fears, avarices and perversions to a bunch of voyeuristic strangers. "These are tortured souls who leave it all out there every night," declares Goldie, the owner of the seedy club where most of the show takes place. "That volatility, that pain—that's the price of brilliance." If this seems a bit of an overwrought view of, say, Jay Leno's monologues or Steve Martin's salute to King Tut, you've already zeroed in on the weakness at the heart of I'm Dying Up Here: its relentless pretension. Successful stand-up comedy does not require emotional vivisection any more than successful portraiture requires auriculectomy. The fact that a particular artist is neurotic does not make neurosis a job requirement. When the show's characters start talking about the nature of art, they sound like a sophomore English colloquium meeting at a beer garden. But considered for what it really is—a sharply observed soap opera about a wholly debauched and dysfunctional group of friends preying upon their mutual insecurities—I'm Dying Up Here offers considerable viewing pleasure. The show is based on a non-fiction book of the same name about the Los Angeles comedy scene of the early 1970s, when Pet Rock jokes were the order of the day and comics like Leno, Andy Kaufman and Robin Williams were trying to break in. Executive producer and creator Dave Flebotte (whose wildy disparate writing credits include everything from The Sopranos to Desperate Housewives) has elected to fictionalize his story. And although some elements are nonetheless unmistakable—particularly Goldie and her eponymous comedy club, who strongly resemble L.A.'s Comedy Store and its skinflint owner Mitzi Shore—it's a mistake to watch with a scorecard, trying to match real comedians to fictional counterparts. I'm Dying Up Here's characters are very much its own creations. They scrape by on gigs that that barely cover the cost of an overpriced Sunset Strip burger, picking up side work as game-show contestants or sexual Tinkertoys when that fails. They sleep in walk-in closets rented for $60 a week and comfort one another with bromides of the business. ("Lenny Bruce's first paying gig was for $12 and a plate of spaghetti!") And they wait to be "Discovered," which is generally defined as a spot on The Tonight Show (especially if Johnny Carson summons you over to the couch to chat after your bit). But in lean times, even getting invited to play the upstairs lounge at Goldie's—as opposed to the truly tawdry basement—will do. Both venues pay the same: nothing. Meanwhile, Goldie herself—the troupe's den mother to those on the way up, Cruella de Vil to everybody headed the other way—sits in the back cutting business deals over pizza-pans of cocaine. The passengers on this voyage of the damned endlessly reconfigure themselves for various acts of sexual piracy, backstabbing, career sabotage, and ultimately shoulder-crying. At times they seem linked mainly by a seemingly endless capacity for self-denigration if that's what it takes to prove their authenticity to Goldie. Texas oil princess Cassie (Ari Graynor, Bad Teacher) spews blowjob jokes. Self-lacerating chicano Edgar (Al Madrigal, The Daily Show) has a lot of scabrous jokes but only one punch[...]

Deconstructing Wonder Woman

Fri, 02 Jun 2017 12:35:00 -0400

If you want to watch a Wonder Woman movie today but can't make it to a theater to see the new film, I've got you covered. Below you'll find Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, a piece of feminist video art from the '70s. Let me clarify that: When Dara Birnbaum made this in 1978 and '79, it was feminist video art. And you can still read it that way if you want. But in 2017 this video—a piece of certified High Culture that I first encountered in a museum—is pretty much indistinguishable from the pop-culture remixes that crop up on YouTube every day now. I'm hardly the first person to notice this. Visit that Algonquin Roundtable of our time, YouTube's comment threads, and you'll find Birnbaum's video sparking reactions like this: And this: And this: I should probably explain, for those of you who don't follow such things, that "YouTube Poop" isn't a putdown; it's a genre. So here's the video. Once it would have struck most viewers as highly weird; today it's almost ordinary. That's the sort of thing that happens when a technology gets democratized. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> By the way: If you're curious about Birnbaum's original intent, here's how Electronic Arts Interface sums it up: Explosive bursts of fire open Technology/Transformation, an incendiary deconstruction of the ideology embedded in television form and pop cultural iconography. Appropriating imagery from the 1970s TV series Wonder Woman, Birnbaum isolates and repeats the moment of the "real" woman's symbolic transformation into super-hero. Entrapped in her magical metamorphosis by Birnbaum's stuttering edits, Wonder Woman spins dizzily like a music-box doll. Through radical manipulation of this female Pop icon, she subverts its meaning within the television text. Arresting the flow of images through fragmentation and repetition, Birnbaum condenses the comic-book narrative—Wonder Woman deflects bullets off her bracelets, "cuts" her throat in a hall of mirrors—distilling its essence to allow the subtext to emerge. In a further textual deconstruction, she spells out the words to the song Wonder Woman in Discoland on the screen. The lyrics' double entendres ("Get us out from under...Wonder Woman") reveal the sexual source of the superwoman's supposed empowerment: "Shake thy Wonder Maker." Writing about the "stutter-step progression of 'extended moments' of transformation from Wonder Woman," Birnbaum states, "The abbreviated narrative—running, spinning, saving a man—allows the underlying theme to surface: psychological transformation versus television product. Real becomes Wonder in order to "do good" (be moral) in an (a) or (im)moral society." Now head over to a bona fide YouTube Poop video and post an analysis like that in the comments. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]

ABC’s Baffling Sequel to Romeo and Juliet Fails to Live Up to Bard’s Name

Fri, 26 May 2017 15:00:00 -0400

Still Star-Crossed. ABC. Wednesday, May 31, 10 p.m. I cannot say Still Star-Crossed, ABC's aptly named sequel to Romeo and Juliet, was a complete waste of my time. It briefly brought back a memory of the epiphanic moment in college when I learned that a laudatory reference to anal sex was concealed in the bowdlerized version of Romeo and Juliet that we read in my high-school English class. Sadly, this Interwebs thing has practically obliterated delayed gratifications like that one; every 12-year-old in America can now discover what a filthy dog Shakespeare was and get a head start on having him banned from their school curriculums. Sadly, the previous paragraph pretty much exhausts discussion of any merits of Still Star-Crossed, an opinion which is apparently shared at ABC. The network once considered this Shonda Rhimes project the spearhead of its mid-season replacement corps; instead, it's being dumped out of the car during Memorial Day week, when Neilson ratings sweeps are safely in the past and a good percentage of America is on vacation. If Still Star-Crossed was taken hostage by a hacker the way the way the new Pirates of the Caribbean film reportedly had been, ABC and Disney would probably break out into delighted giggles and spend the promo budget on a karaoke party for the staff. To be precise in assigning blame for Still Star-Crossed, it was adapted from the 2013 novel of the same name by Melinda Taub (a writer at Full Frontal with Samantha Bee), which I might conceivably read at gunpoint, but only if the caliber was pretty high. The series was produced and written by Heather Mitchell, a veteran of several Rhimes shows whose biography says she once worked as an editor on the "Peanuts" comic strip, perhaps making sure the obscure dialect of Snoopy's pal Woodstock didn't include any secret avian obscenities. The conceit of Still Star-Crossed is that after Romeo and Juliet kill themselves (oops, spoiler alert), Verona is reeling with political jitters, not to mention murderous swordfights between the warring Capulet and Montague families that erupt about every seven minutes. The local pols decide this can only be cured by an arranged marriage between the two families, notwithstanding that the last wedding involving the two clans ended in a mutual suicide and—well, we get this entire mess. Minus the occasional scene of Katherine Heigl having sex with a ghost or haggling over malpractice-insurance prices, this sounds like reasonably good fodder for one of Rhimes' glossy, sex-and-murder soap operas. Instead, Still Star-Crossed is off the tracks from the opening moments. Rhimes' customarily snappy dialogue has been replaced with something that sounds like special-ed Shakespeare, interrupted by the occasional thudding anachronism. (My fave: A Montague yelling at a Capulet, "Maybe this is all on you!" Not exactly up there with, "Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs" or even, "A boy like that would kill your brudder/forget that boy and find anudder.") Then there's the weird Hamilton-style post-racial casting, with black and white actors playing cousins, brothers, sisters and whatever, as if 16th-century Italy was one big blended utopian family. Call me un-woke, but I found it not just distracting but extremely confusing in a show featuring a collection of indistinguishable 20-somethings, all clad in the same frocks and frills. (It should be admitted that fashion-porn addicts may have a good time watching Still Star-Crossed, as will firebugs—the production's candle budget must have wiped Pottery Barn's stock for the next 10 Christmases.) About the only member of the cast to stand out in this mess is British TV actress Lashana Lynch, playing Juliet's cousin Rosaline, one of the partners in the forced marriage. Lynch's nationality is fortunate, because like costume-drama Italians since the dawn of [...]

Twin Peaks and the Moment TV Changed

Fri, 26 May 2017 14:44:00 -0400

When Twin Peaks came back to television this week, the critics agreed on one thing: It was a hell of a lot weirder than the show's first incarnation. That's an impressive accomplishment, given how strange the original series seemed at the time. In May of 1990, just a month after the program debuted, a Time writer marveled that "such a 'difficult' show could achieve prime-time success." You can give credit for that to cable TV, even though the old Twin Peaks wasn't a cable show. As that same Time piece noted, when the networks accounted for 90% of TV viewing, a series needed mass-audience numbers to survive. Today, with the networks attracting less than two-thirds of the audience, an 18% or 19% share is a passing grade. A show of limited appeal like Twin Peaks can make it; the art-house audience has become a marketing niche. In retrospect, that 1989-90 season was full of signs that a new TV era was beginning. The Simpsons became a weekly series, sparking a sometimes wildly creative wave of adult-oriented animation. Seinfeld debuted, bringing with it a style of humor that paved the way for a radically different sort of sitcom. And we were just a couple years away from Homicide: Life on the Street, a direct progenitor of both Oz and The Wire. Television was getting more inventive, and it was getting more inventive because of consumer choice. More choices meant more niches, more risk-taking, more artistic successes, and more entertainingly odd artistic failures. (1990 was the year of Cop Rock too.) This shift has been an ongoing process, one that began before that season started and is still continuing today. But if I had to pick a single moment that encapsulated the change, it would be a sequence in the third episode of Twin Peaks—the scene where it became firmly clear that David Lynch's show was not merely "quirky" or "unusual" but flat-out weird. An FBI agent investigating a murder brings a crew from the local sheriff's department out to the woods, and there he launches into this spiel: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> And then this happens: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> I know I'm not the only person who got hooked on the series when I saw that. I suspect that the exact same scene convinced a lot of people never to watch the damn show again. But that's OK. That's how choice and niches work. My favorite take on the original Twin Peaks, by the way, came from the Seattle-based writer Clark Humphrey. While most critics were calling the show the most surreal thing they'd ever seen on TV, Humphrey kept insisting that this was simply what the Pacific Northwest was like. "Having grown up in a Washington sawmill town," he reiterated recently, "I loved the series as a mostly-realistic portrayal of power and frustration in such a place." Not having grown up in a Washington sawmill town myself, I can't judge whether he's right. For all I know those spots are just crawling with log ladies and backwards-talking dwarves. Whether Humphrey was right was beside the point: I liked his take because it was eccentric, and that's what such an eccentric program deserved. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]

3 Ways We're Reliving the Watergate Culture War

Wed, 24 May 2017 14:45:00 -0400

Whether or not we're reliving the Watergate investigation, we sure do seem intent on reenacting the Watergate culture war. That isn't just true of Donald Trump's critics, who are understandably eager to compare the 37th and 45th presidents. It's true of Trump and his team, who keep echoing arguments offered by Richard Nixon and his defenders four decades ago: 1. The double-standard defense. Complain about something Trump has done, and someone is bound to ask why you didn't say a peep when Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama did some other bad thing. (You will get this response even if you protested Clinton or Obama's action quite loudly.) The most prominent person to talk like this, of course, is Donald Trump himself: With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017 But this defense is a lot older than the present president's political career. Throughout the Watergate investigation, Nixon complained angrily that his predecessors had gotten away with the very activities that were getting him in trouble. In his 2003 book Nixon's Shadow, the Rutgers historian David Greenberg lays out some examples: "If I were a liberal," [Nixon] told [die-hard defender Baruch Korff], "Watergate would be a blip." He compiled a private catalogue of behaviors by others that he believed excused his own. On the basis of comments J. Edgar Hoover made to him, he frequently claimed, not quite accurately, that Lyndon Johnson had bugged his campaign plane in 1968. When Nixon was chided for spying on political opponents, he shot back that John and Robert Kennedy had done the same. And as precedents for his 1972 program of political sabotage, he regularly cited the pranks of Democratic operative Dick Tuck, who had hounded Nixon since his 1950 Senate race. During the Watergate Hearings, [White House Chief of Staff H.R.] Haldeman testified that "dirty tricks" maestro Donald Segretti was hired to be a "Dick Tuck for our side." There's more—much more—but you get the idea. Now, Nixon may have gotten his facts a little scrambled when it came to that alleged airplane bug, and some of the supposed precursors to his crimes didn't actually fit the bill. (He seemed convinced that Daniel Ellsberg's leak of the Pentagon Papers was comparable to the Watergate break-in—a bizarre analogy, though if you've been following the debates over Edward Snowden you've probably heard worse.) But broadly speaking, the president had a point. Many American leaders had abused their powers, sometimes in ways that resembled the Nixon scandals, and the press hadn't always been quick to trumpet the news. Like Nixon, JFK had wiretapped reporters and used the IRS as a political weapon. LBJ may not have bugged Nixon's plane in 1968, but he did spy on Goldwater in 1964. And both Kennedy and Johnson, like many others who have held their job, presided over enormous violations of dissenters' civil liberties. You can make a decent case that Nixon's misbehavior was even worse than theirs, but you can see how the man could get a little resentful about the uneven attention. The trouble with the double-standard defense is that it isn't much of a defense. The crimes of prior presidents aren't a reason to let Nixon off the hook; they're a reason to rein in not just one abusive president but the whole imperial presidency. The same goes for any Trumpian abuses today. 2. Intimations of a "coup." Then as now, each side accused the other of plotting a coup. Rumors that Nixon was planning to seize dictatorial powers circulated not just on the political fringes but in official Washington; many of the president's foes feared that fascism was on the way. After Nixon had Special Prosecutor Archibald [...]

Trump's Saudi Trip Wasn't a Break From Tradition

Mon, 22 May 2017 19:02:00 -0400

Want to see the disconnect between America's actual foreign policy and the way many media professionals imagine it? Check out Anne Applebaum's Washington Post column calling Donald Trump's stop in Saudi Arabia a "bizarre and un-American visit." Applebaum complains that Saudi Arabia, a longstanding beneficiary of U.S. largesse, was a "very strange choice for a first trip abroad" because the last four presidents made their first foreign stops in Mexico or Canada instead. This critique is more about optics than substance, but she's right to see a shift here. The last five presidents, not four—and six of the last seven—had their first foreign excursions in either Canada or Mexico. Ronald Reagan never visited Saudi Arabia. George W. Bush didn't go there until the last year of his presidency. Barack Obama, on the other hand, visited in June 2009, not much later in his presidency than Trump, although he had made nine other foreign trips before then. Obama also visited the kingdom a record four times. (No other president had visited more than twice.) This shift doesn't reflect a specific policy goal of the Trump (or Obama) administration so much as a broader realignment of American priorities. Counterterrorism has taken on an ever more central role in U.S. foreign policy, and Saudi Arabia is America's largest Muslim-majority ally in the Middle East, despite its record of supporting the sort of Islamist extremism that contributes to terrorism. The U.S. has a long history of linking up with murderous dictatorships when it suits America's short-term foreign policy goals, with little regard for potential blowback. The unquestioned alliance with Saudi Arabia is part of that proud tradition. Applebaum complains that Saudi Arabia was Trump's first stop overseas, but what's really troubling is that the president has abandoned his campaign rhetoric questioning such relationships. Applebaum is aware of Saudi support for Islamism; indeed, her second complaint is that Saudi Arabia is a "strange place to speak out against Islamic extremism" because the government there subsidizes certain strains of extremism. True enough, though there really isn't a perfect venue for a speech on Islam. Obama delivered his first-year Islam speech in Cairo, the capital of a secular murderous dictatorship—and also went to Saudi Arabia first to, in his own words, seek the king's counsel on Islam. A similar amnesia afflicts Applebaum when she objects to Trump's participation in the sword dance, a traditional Saudi ritual. "[U]ntil now," she claims, "American presidents made it clear that, while we have to deal with Saudi leaders, we don't endorse their culture. Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others in the delegation did exactly that, by participating in this sinister all-male dance." There's just one problem with that take: George W. Bush also participated in the sword dance when he visited Saudi Arabia. And U.S. presidents regularly "endorse" Saudi culture by participating in various cultural activities while there. It's U.S. spending, not a sword dance, that underwrites the Saudis' reactionary and repressive regime; it's U.S. spending, not a medal or a bow, that raises thorny questions about how much responsibilty we bear for Riyadh's repression at home or its brutal war in Yemen. But acknowledging that means acknowledging that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is a longstanding, bipartisan project, and not simply the product of a single American president who appears enamored with strongman leaders. After complaining that the Trump administration appeared to embrace repressive Saudi culture, Applebaum also manages to complain about Tillerson denouncing human rights violations in Iran. "Yes, Americans are often hypocritical about where and when they pro[...]

How Deregulation Gave Us FM Radio, HBO, and the iPhone

Mon, 22 May 2017 14:14:00 -0400

"We've gone to a modern [broadcast] system that has a lot of places where stuff can happen without permission," says Thomas W. Hazlett, who's the FCC's former chief economist, a professor at Clemson University, and author of the new book The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone. "And we have seen that the smartphone revolution and some other great stuff in the wireless space has really burgeoned...That comes from deregulation." So-called net neutrality rules are designed to solve a non-existent problem and threaten to restrict consumer choice, Hazlett tells Reason's Nick Gillespie. "The travesty is there's already a regulatory scheme [to address anti-competitive behavior]—it's called antitrust law." Greater autonomy and consumer freedom led to the development of cable television, the smartphone revolution, and the modern internet. While we've come a long way from the old days of mother-may-I pleading with the FCC to grant licenses for new technology, Hazlett says, "there's a lot farther to go and there's a lot of stuff out there that's being suppressed." He points to the history of radio and television. Herbert Hoover and Lyndon Johnson exercised extraordinary control over spectrum allocation, which they used for their own political and financial gain. With liberalization, we now have hundreds of hours of varied television programming as compared to the big three broadcast networks of the '60s, an abundance of choices in smartphone providers and networks as compared to the Ma Bell monopoly, and more to come. Hazlett also discusses his views on current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, how the FCC delayed the arrival of cable television to protect incumbent broadcasters, and "the most infamous statement ever made by an FCC regulator" in a 1981 Q&A with Reason magazine. Interview by Nick Gillespie. Edited by Justin Monticello. Cameras by Todd Krainin and Mark McDaniel. Music by RW Smith. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Nick Gillespie: HI. I'm Nick Gillespie for Reason. Today, we're talking with Thomas Winslow Hazlett, an economics professor at Clemson, a long-time Reason contributor, former chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission, and author most recently of the epic new book, The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone. Tom, thanks for talking to us. Thomas Hazlett: Thanks for having me, Nick. Nick Gillespie: Your book is a masterful counterblast, I think, to the intellectual status quo when it comes to broadcasting, cable, Internet, especially related to things like spectrum auctions and net neutrality and whatnot. Your large argument is that government inhibits innovation rather than encourages it. Is that accurate? Thomas Hazlett: Yeah, that's the starting point, but I certainly go farther, a lot farther in this book, because there has been significant liberalization, and we learn a lot from the directions we've gone. We see the suppression through administrative allocations of spectrum, which just means that we have this Mother-may-I system where the government's in charge of who does what in wireless and has to give explicit permission. We've gone from a system like that to a modern system that has a lot of places where stuff can happen without permission. Nick Gillespie: Right. Thomas Hazlett: We have seen that what we call perhaps the smartphone revolution and some other great stuff in the wireless space has really burgeoned. We have these emerging networks and these ecosystems. That comes from [...]

HBO Ignores Madoff's Victims in Favor of Family Drama

Fri, 19 May 2017 15:00:00 -0400

The Wizard of Lies. HBO. Saturday, May 20, 8 p.m. Sorry, guys. Showtime has decided not to offer advance screenings of its reboot of the milestone of television weirdness, Twin Peaks, which premieres this weekend. This is either a canny make-'em-beg marketing strategy or a desperate effort to conceal an epic bomb. So instead of an incisive analysis of boogalooing and backwards-talking midgets, I can offer only the observation that every criminal breeds his own cult. Just as there are women who want to marry Charles Manson, there are people anxious to buy Bernie Madoff's underwear. And Madoffian salirophiliacs compose much of the audience for The Wizard of Lies, HBO's windy new docudrama on the decline and fall of the all-time Ponzi champ. The $65 billion collapse of Madoff's smoke-and-mirrors trading empire in 2008 would seem to offer great dramatic potential. Unlike the largely faceless, institutional banking collapse around the same time that triggered the Great Recession, the Madoff scandal had an easily identifiable villain driven by evil intention rather than carelessness. And his betrayal was breathtakingly personal; the thousands of victims included most of his friends and even his in-laws. There was even a potential hero: Harry Markopolis, an investment officer at a rival firm who for a decade fruitlessly warned that Madoff's returns were too good to be true. All these elements are present in Wizard, not to mention a marquee cast headed by Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, with frequent Oscar nominee Barry Levinson producing and directing. Yet it all comes together with much more fizzle than sizzle. Much of what's wrong with Wizard can be traced to Levinson's decision to go with a script by three relatively inexperienced writers (including his son Sam) that begins relatively late in the story—the day before Madoff's chicanery was exposed—and concentrates mainly on the damage he did to his own family. That precludes any real examination of any of the characters on their way to the top; all we see is their precipitous fall. Madoff's fraud is believed to have begun in the 1970s. His sons Mark and Andrew were both traders for the company, and his wife Ruth its bookkeeper in the early days. But they all denied any knowledge of his scheming, a claim grudgingly accepted by investigators (who never charged any of the three with anything), if not the public. Wizard follows Mark (Alessandro Nivola, American Hustle) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow, House of Cards) as they're bullied to the line of sanity and ultimately beyond it, alternately by their parents for disloyalty—the boys were the ones who revealed the fraud to federal authorities, then refused to help raise bail money for their father—and by friends who were wiped out. More fascinating, in a bug-under-the-magnifying-glass sort of way, is the case of Ruth (crisply played by Pfeiffer), cagey enough to give away a small fortune in jewelry before the cops can seize it, but utterly oblivious to the cracks in her cocoon of wealth and social standing until the mounting rage of her friends-turned-victims gets her kicked out of her regular beauty salon. Despite the mounting toll, she can't break away from her husband of more than five decades. As they lie in bed, awaiting for the effects of what will turn out to be a botched mutual attempt at a suicidal overdose of sleeping pills to take effect, Bernie murmurs a poignant goodbye: "We had a wonderful life." Without even a glance, she replies: "Yeah ... until you ruined it." This is all well and good, and might have made a good episode of Showtime's barbarous Wall Street drama Billions. But, having expressed every cogent thought in its head in the first 50 minutes, Wiza[...]

For Trump, the Beginning of the End Has Begun

Thu, 18 May 2017 15:18:00 -0400

This is, from everything I have been able to gather this week, the beginning of the end of Donald Trump. The New Yorker and Slate, longtime impartial observers of our 45th president, declared the man who "could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters" has been done in by nothing more than the Comey memo. The memo that no one, including The New York Times, which reported its existence, has seen but is sure to bring about impeachment proceedings. "A Presidency of ideological meanness and unsurpassing incompetence has moved into another, more recognizable realm," New Yorker editor David Remnick opined gravely. "The usual comparison is with the Watergate era." And we all know how that turned out. Why, it was only last week the firing of the author of the phantom memo, former FBI director James Comey, was the beginning of the end of Trump and his administration. "The White House," a sanguine Frank Rich speculated, "will be outwitted and outmaneuvered at nearly every turn by the events to come. Let's not forget the good news that came out of the Comey firing: It turns out that Trump, who has no idea of what is required to be a competent president sitting on top of the vast federal government, also turns out to have no idea of how to be a competent gangster sitting on top of what increasingly seems to be a somewhat-less-vast Trump-Kushner family criminal enterprise." Last month, it was the Russians and their possible meddling in the presidential election that marked the beginning of the end and so much more for Robert Mueller, the new special counsel digging into that Russian relationship, has some pretty important questions to answer. "The questions will be answered in due time, but the situation could be worse than an illegitimate president," Jason Easley wrote. "It is now possible that Donald Trump is a ticking time bomb that was put in place by Putin to destroy democracy from within. "The United States of America can't have a literal Manchurian president." But if this beginning of the end of Donald Trump was followed in order by two discrete beginnings of the end, when, exactly, might the beginning of the end have begun? To find out, you must go back to June 16, 2015, the day Donald Trump announced his intention to run for president. While current technology makes it nearly impossible to trace to the minute the first declaration of the beginning of Trump's end, it was clear by early July eminent journalists and politicians were warming to the task. I'd like to thank Judd Legum, editor-in-chief of Think Progress, for doing my legwork for me. Between July and October of 2015 no fewer than 33 people predicted Trump's end had just begun. "Since the day that Trump's presidential campaign started, pundits from across the country have declared the "beginning of the end" of his run," Legum said. "So far, they've been wrong every time." Being wrong has deterred very few. Entering primary season in 2016, Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University was certain Trump had enough of the right stuff to become the Republican nominee, but never president. "The man remains a spectacularly unpopular presidential candidate," Drezner wrote. "Within a crowded GOP field, Trump's jerk persona and heterodox ramblings clearly draw enough support for him to do well. In a general election, he's such an undisciplined, unmitigated disaster that there's talk of Democrats retaking the U.S. House of Representatives." In June it was Trump's insensitive comments about the mass shooting in Orlando that were sure to do him in. A month later it was the speech he gave accepting the Republican Party's[...]