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Published: Fri, 20 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Fri, 20 Jan 2017 17:44:52 -0500


Slenderman Documentary Unpacks Disturbing Teen Murder Attempt

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 15:15:00 -0500

Beware the Slenderman. HBO. Monday, January 23, 10 p.m. Riverdale. The CW. Thursday, January 26, 9 p.m. Kids these days! Remember the good old days when the worst trouble a mischievous child could get into was maybe joining a killer sex cult or blowing herself up in a Greenwich Village bomb factory? Well, television this week is full of evidence that Dennis the Menace has left the building, probably armed with a hatchet and a pocket full of strap-ons. Actually, HBO's documentary Beware the Slenderman doesn't deserve such a flippant introduction. It's a serious—and seriously disturbing—piece of work about a pair of 12-year-old Wisconsin girls who, inspired by a creepy internet meme, lured a friend into the woods after a birthday party and stabbed her 19 times. That she survived was no fault of theirs. The news of that 2014 attack on 12-year-old Payton Leutner by her supposed friends Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier was, for most American grown-ups, the first word they'd heard of Slenderman, a lanky, faceless character who for the past five years had been haunting Internet chatboards and campfire-story sites. In the beginning, Slenderman was nothing more than a shadowy and curiously disquieting image, digitally inserted into the periphery of family snapshots, usually eyeing or surrounded by children. But as he grew into a fad, inspiring fan fiction, homemade video games and a slew of "found-footage" videos modeled after The Blair Witch Project, the Slenderman myth acquired its own canon. He was said to abduct and murder little children in ominously unspecified ways. The victims were often unloved or neglected kids, giving the killings a somehow even more chilling penumbra of mercy. Slenderman was able to multiply his damage many times over by acquiring proxies, cult members to do his work. And practically anybody might be swept up in his machinations, as victim, proxy or both. "The moment you know about him, he knows about you," explains one Slenderman expert interviewed in Beware. Like millions of other kids, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier became fascinated by all things Slenderman. But unlike all the rest, they had trouble comprehending that he was imaginary. Perhaps social isolation was part of it; neither girl had many friends. (Though that begs the question, why turn on one of their few schoolmates who was a pal.) In any event, they plotted to qualify as proxies by murdering Peyton and fleeing to Slenderman's hidden kingdom in a nearby national park. In harrowingly matter-of-fact confessions to police later, they described how they first tried to convince their victim to go to sleep to avoid unnecessary confusion and noise. ("I don't like screaming," Anissa primly declared to the cops. "That's one thing I can't handle.") When that didn't work, they banged her head against the wall of a park restroom in an attempt to knock her unconscious. Finally they jumped her from behind ("like lionesses chasing down a zebra," bragged Anissa) and Morgan stabbed her 19 times. "I trusted you," murmured Peyton as they dragged her into the bushes to die. Which, miraculously, she didn't. Despite its title, Beware the Slenderman is not a call to moral panic. Writer-director Irene Taylor Brodsky, a CBS News producer before she turned to documentaries a decade ago, steers clear of both tabloid shrieking and babble. Neither the internet nor horror culture is demonized as an assassin of juvenile morality. Morgan's mother, noting that at the same age she was a big fan of Stephen King's It, a novel in which a group of children is terrorized by a killer clown, says she was aware of her daughter's fascination with Slenderman but thought nothing of it: "We never thought for a moment that she could believe that it's real." And though there's understandably a good bit of blue-sky psychological theorizing about what could possibly have turned a couple of cossetted suburban 12-year-olds homicidal, Brodsky always steers it back to basics. As one doctor notes, talk of childhood schizophrenia and adolescent delusions is fine. "But if your delusion sta[...]

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, homosexualit[...]

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.)

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 is not good for us." It can't be good for a president t[...]

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 into exile along the yellow brick road, which is coated with opium. Soon enough, she bumps into not the Scarecrow but a human being (Oliver Jackson-Cohen of NBC's [...]

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 cholera to Haiti. Ransom is supposedly based on the life of Laurent Combalbert, a French police hostage negotiator who went to work as a consultant for big international insurance companies that sell kidnapping-and-ra[...]

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 his attempts to conclude his journey by crossing the English Channel falls to pieces. "I survived shellings, I survived the sea, I survived everything." To wind up in a squalid French refugee camp, it appears. Exodus is [...]

George Bailey's Revenge

Fri, 23 Dec 2016 08:05:00 -0500

Seventy years ago this week, Frank Capra's Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life first appeared in theaters. Thirty years ago this week, Saturday Night Live broadcast what it claimed was the film's lost original ending:

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Capra was well attuned to both the sunny and the angry sides of populism, but whichever SNL scribe wrote that sketch married the two with much more brutal efficiency.

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

The Best Books, Films, Music, and Television of 2016

Thu, 22 Dec 2016 08:15:00 -0500

As the year drew to a close, we asked Reason's staff to select some of the best books, movies, and other media released in 2016. Our picks range from a novel about economic apocalypse to a sitcom about aliens, from a book about cocktails to a film about Hannah Arendt. Dig in. —Jesse Walker Eric Boehm, reporter With Painkillers, former Gaslight Anthem singer Brian Fallon leaves his Springsteen-meets-the-Replacements roots for a folksy-rock exploration of failed relationships, nostalgic romances, and the freedom that comes from letting go of the past, even if you'll never be rid of it. "You can't make me whole, I have to do that on my own," Fallon sings on the album's introspective closing number, a reference in equal parts to his recent divorce and to the breakup of his band. The simple Americana arrangements here put Fallon's skills as a songwriter—and he's one of the best out there right now—in the spotlight, particularly on "Rosemary," "Among Other Foolish Things," and "Smoke." He may be going in a new direction, but Fallon spends most of Painkillers looking back, examining hazy memories or half-remembered dreams of what might have been. There's borrowed cars, girls who love whiskey, and Rites of Spring. The good times, Fallon sings, are "lost in the songs they don't write anymore." Shikha Dalmia, senior analyst Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, a documentary by the Israeli director Ada Ushpiz, may not be the best offering of 2016, but it is arguably the most relevant. The West is experiencing a rise of demagogues, fuelled partly by right-wing populist movements. It is possible that in resisting them, Western liberalism will strengthen itself. It could also collapse into something horrible, as Weimar Germany did. The film, which hit select American theaters this year, offers a glimpse into the mass psychology that would allow that to happen. Arendt, a Jewish philosopher, fled to America from Nazi Germany. The documentary delves into her thought to understand how the land that produced the greatest minds in philosophy, literature, and music collapsed into the barbarism of Auschwitz. It excavates rare footage of Germany during Hitler's rule to show the campaign to dehumanize Jews that preceded the Holocaust. But the more crucial step, per Arendt, was the triumph of what Frankfurt School philosophers call instrumental or technocratic rationality over critical rationality. The film depicts Arendt's 1961 journey to Israel for The New Yorker to cover the famous trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi accused of war crimes. After observing months of testimony, Arendt coined her phrase "banality of evil" to convey that Eichmann, a diminutive and soft-spoken man, wasn't motivated so much by hatred of Jews. Rather, he believed that his job was to find the most efficient way to execute his assigned tasks, not raise big questions. Arendt was condemned for soft-peddling the Satanic nature of the Nazi regime. But the documentary shows that she was laying bare something still more horrible: how ordinary people can stumble into unspeakable evil when they let their civilizational guard down. Anthony Fisher, associate editor Louis CK blew up the concept of the 30-minute sitcom with his FX show Louie, where the main character's backstory would change without explanation and where excruciatingly painful situations could be both hilarious and cathartic. Now he may have blown up the episodic television show itself with the eight-part miniseries Horace and Pete, originally released on his own website but now available on Hulu. Though occasionally funny, this is no comedy—in fact, it's as much of a horror show as a drama. Set in the hellscape of a 100-year-old Irish bar in Brooklyn, the show's depiction of boredom, dumb arguments, sexism, familial abuse, mental illness, and pathological self-destruction make for perhaps[...]

Thank You, John Stossel, for Teaching Libertarians How to Do Cable News

Fri, 16 Dec 2016 21:25:00 -0500

Tonight (at 10 p.m. ET) is the last-ever episode of Stossel, the weekly Fox Business Network program that for seven years explained free-market principles better than any show on television. Host John Stossel, as he explains here in his weekly column, is moving on to other pursuits, including creating great content right here with Reason TV, and he will still be a contributor over in the Fox building. His final episode, appropriately, is a survey through the show's persistent and often hilarious attempts to illustrate difficult-to-visualize libertarian concepts using props, costumes, stunts, and engaging conversation, including with such beloved locals as Katherine Mangu-Ward (pictured) and Kmele Foster. I am honored to be one of the two live guests on tonight's program, along with our great friend and frequent collaborator Kennedy. And therein lies a brief story. I first met Kennedy in June 2011 in the exact same place you'll see us tonight: in Fox's Studio D, sitting next to John Stossel. This was during an hour-long special he very generously put together to discuss The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America, which I had freshly co-written with Nick Gillespie. It was a galvanizing moment—I had been doing increasing amounts of cable news, but had never seen anyone with as much TV charisma and quick wit as this former VJ. Soon she would begin collaborating regularly with both Reason TV and Stossel, the latter of whom brought her on as a special correspondent even though he didn't know half the time what the hell she was talking about (which, in typical John fashion, he would say out loud, on television). Lloyd Grove at The Daily Beast would later recount how the seeds of what would eventually flower as The Independents were planted at a Reason Weekend in Puerto Rico in February 2012. Stossel, Grove wrote, served as a mentor and helped recruit Kennedy to the six-year-old network. "She's a libertarian and I love that—there aren't many libertarians on TV," Stossel says, adding that Kennedy "is much more of a performer than I am. She lights up the screen." Some of their bonding occurred in the middle of a beach volleyball clinic that Stossel ran during a Reason weekend retreat in Puerto Rico. "He was in volleyball shorts and shirtless, and the man is in better shape than most 20-year-olds I know," Kennedy says of the 66-year-old Stossel, who had been using her as a special correspondent since the summer of 2012. "He's a really meticulous person, and his libertarian views evolved over time. I think when you start out as a liberal and you come to be a libertarian, you tend to be really forgiving of other people's political evolution, and you realize that people can change and come into their own. Libertarians can be loners. A lot of us can feel like misfits." Kennedy was like a unicorn for Stossel: A libertarian who was already great at television. For the rest of his run, John labored at the largely thankless and rarely acknowledged task of training questionably dressed free-market types like me to be less like Broadcast News' Albert Brooks and just a wee more William Hurt-ish. There were the green-room coachings ("Don't bore people with a bunch of numbers!"), the on-set eye-glazes when you wandered off point, the cutting quips about questionable ties. It was tough love, but, well, you have to consider the raw material here. The result of Stossel's conscious exertions is that the universe of camera-ready libertarians is much larger and considerably more polished than it was seven years ago. (Judge Andrew Napolitano's late, lamented Freedom Watch also deserves a shout-out here for giving reps to us rabble.) Next-generation shows like Kennedy get to take their libertarianism more for granted precisely because Stossel had done the s[...]

The 10 Best TV Shows of 2016

Fri, 16 Dec 2016 15:00:00 -0500

The most overused cliche in TV criticism in 2016—and believe me, this is not a designation to bestow casually—was the phrase "peak television." For this we must blame John Landgraf, paterfamilias of the sprawling family of FX cable networks, once regarded as one of the smartest guys in television, now better known as a genocidal threat to TV comedy for unleashing a wave of morose Louie C.K. sitcoms on his defenseless viewers. Landgraf, at a gathering of TV critics last year, said his industry was drowning in oversupply. "I long ago lost the ability to keep track of every scripted TV series," Landgraf said. "But this year, I finally lost the ability to keep track of every programmer who is in the scripted programming business. ...This is simply too much television. My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America, and that we'll begin to see declines coming the year after that and beyond." Journalists immediately inducted Landgraf's words into the Television Hall of Profundities, then quoted them ceaselessly without ever wondering (and certainly without asking) what they meant. Like: Too much for television for whom, exactly? Landgraf and other programming bosses? Undoubtedly. Half a dozen FX shows lost a whopping 20 percent or more of their audiences this year, and the broadcast nets aren't far behind: their viewers all disappeared in double-digit percentages in 2016. Certainly a good chunk of those missing viewers were seduced away by the abundance in programming across the many platforms—broadcast, cable, internet, video-on-demand—that we collectively refer to as "television." But on the other side of the TV screen—that is, the side where the viewers sit—I've yet to hear a single complaint about "too much television." TV programs are not motor vehicles that careen out of control and kill people (though somebody who accidentally tunes into, say, CBS' Bull, could be forgiven for arguing the contrary). The audience watches what it has the time and interest for and ignores the rest. Earlier this year, Landgraf's minions at FX, seeking to bolster his point, released a list of 1,415 shows that aired during TV prime-time hours in 2015. (And no, they didn't forget Dog with a Blog or Fat N Furious.) That sounds like a mind-boggling number ... until you consider that it's only about a tenth the number of books published in the United States in a typical year. Has anybody delivered a fiery oration on "too many books"? What the list really proved was that the concept of TV has evolved and expanded quickly and so abruptly in the past five or six years that there's barely any agreement even on the terms of the discussion. The list only included programs from broadcast and cable; Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Crackle and all the other streaming Internet services were excluded. These services, which began mostly as a device to watch network shows outside the strictures of the cable box, have become a major source of original programming. (Netflix alone produces about 40 of its own shows, more than most broadcast networks.) Landgraf may not consider Orange Is the New Black or House of Cards to be something other than TV, but I doubt that many viewers would agree. About the only thing that's clear is that the vast audience for home entertainment continues to migrate toward options that allow it the maximum freedom to evade artificial constraints on its time and taste. If television history were written as a miniseries, the main story arc would be the continuous efforts of viewers to use new technology to break out of the box created by TV's origins as a government-protected cartel. In the 1980s and '90s, viewers used cable TV to escape the old three-channel universe and its lowest-common-denominator ethos. Now they're employing television's new cyb[...]

Skating to Freedom

Wed, 14 Dec 2016 00:01:00 -0500

My last Fox Business Network TV show airs Friday. That news pleases some people, like internet trolls who write that they are happy to be "rid of that noted LIAR and falsifier of news" who produces "hit pieces." Another wrote, "Hopefully the cancer came back to finish him off." To be clear, I'm not ending Stossel because I have cancer. I don't have cancer. I had a small tumor removed, and, best we can tell, it's gone. I didn't even have chemo or radiation. I'm moving on because I want to create a new libertarian internet-based platform with Reason TV and become an educator with the Charles Koch Institute's new Media and Journalism Fellowship program. I will still make appearances on Fox News. I had a good time hosting my own show for seven years, trying to find new ways to simplify economics and demonstrate the benefits of free markets. Unfortunately, economic freedom can be hard to demonstrate. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is, well, invisible. How do I explain it on TV? Friedrich Hayek's phrase "spontaneous order" is clearer but still hard to show. I was stumped until I read Rinkonomics: A Window on Spontaneous Order by George Mason University's Dan Klein. That inspired me to rent a skating rink. Why? Well, imagine you've never seen a rink, and you are the government regulator who approves new businesses. I tell you: I will flood that arena, freeze the water and then charge people money to strap sharp blades onto their feet and zip around on the ice. I will have few rules. Anyone can skate: young and old, skilled and unskilled. Most any regulator would resist my bizarre skating idea. Hillary Clinton might say that for my rink to be approved it must have stoplights, skating police and barriers between skilled and unskilled skaters, adults and children. I must have someone with a megaphone direct the skaters to make sure they don't smash into each other. So, I actually tried that. I rented a rink and bossed people around: "You, turn left, you slow down." Of course, the skaters hated that. And it didn't make skating safer. Some people, responding to my instructions, lost their balance and fell. There is spontaneous order on a normal skating rink. Skaters make their own decisions. No regulator knows the wishes, skills and immediate intentions of individual skaters better than skaters themselves. Regulators might say my attempts to direct skaters failed because I'm not a skating "expert." On my TV show, one guest said regulation must be done "by technocrats with expertise." So I hired an expert, an Olympic skater. She did no better with the megaphone. No "technocrat" has enough expertise to direct the skaters on the ice. For safety, rinks usually just have a few employees who police reckless skaters and simple rules like "skate counterclockwise." That's enough! Good thing rinks were invented before the modern regulatory state took over. Leave people free to make their own choices and a spontaneous order arises. Skaters find their own path. Buyers and sellers adjust to changing prices. Families raise kids. Musicians create jazz. That's what I've tried to demonstrate on my show. Control freaks have criticized such spontaneity for at least 2,400 years. Plato warned that music should be simple so that it does not stir up passion. In America, Ladies Home Journal once warned that jazz would lead "to a breaking away from all rules." Lucky America didn't have a Department of Music Safety then or jazz would have been banned. Over seven years on the Stossel show, I've done all sorts of stunts, trying to explain the benefits of liberty. I've dressed as a Founder and Santa and Uncle Sam, begged for money on Manhattan streets, broken windows, collected signatures on petitions to ban "dangerous" chemicals like dihydrogen monoxide (that's wate[...]

Australian Zombie Drama Takes Decidedly Different Journey

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 15:00:00 -0500

Glitch. Available now on Netflix. Check your metabolic privilege, breather. Not all zombies are desiccated, intestine-dragging, brain-eating ragamuffins. In French television's 2012 Les Revenants and the 2015 A&E remake The Returned, reanimated corpses on missions of reconciliation and revenge were cute as bugs and no meaner than your average reality-show contestant. And the most-bootlegged unsuccessful pilot in Hollywood history was for a proposed 2007 CBS series called Babylon Fields, starring Amber Tamblyn, in which the zombies were presented as the next stage of human evolution, complete with undead super-libidos. Joining the zombies-are-people-too club is Glitch, an oddly engaging little show from Australian television now streaming on Netflix. Though its opening scene—naked corpses (Aussies apparently prefer their interments commando-style) clawing their way out of a rural graveyard under a full moon—gives every indication of being yet another homage to/ripoff of George Romero, all bets are off the rest of the way. For one thing, there's no suggestion that the reanimation phenomenon is taking place anywhere but Yoorana, the country village better known to locals as "the ass-end of the ass-end of the world." Nor are all the dead returning, only a handful. They arise without being able to remember anything at all, even how to speak. But their memories improve with time (the breakthrough is especially quick for the thirst for beer), and clues to their identities emerge, though without shedding much light on what's happening. One craggy old man, glancing at a statue of the Yoorana's 19th century founder, exclaims, "That's me! I'm the fookin' mayor!" Another turns out to be an Italian immigrant, shot while escaping a World War II detention camp. For some, recognition is much quicker: A cop called to the cemetery to investigate what he assumes is the aftermath of an all-night bender is stunned to see his wife walking toward him, two years after he buried her. The cop's reaction—following a short burst of violent denial, he takes his wife to their old rendezvous spot in a park, where they lie on their backs and gaze at the stars—is a big part of what makes Glitch an interesting piece of work. Yoorana's living, confronted with the impossible, shrug in stoic acceptance and make the best of it. A doctor, told the patient she's examining died years ago, replies that that was then, this is now: "I've taken this woman's blood pressure, and she's not dead." The dead themselves seem scarcely more disturbed. When the cops ask one woman—who has just awakened, mossy and muddy, in an open grave—if she can remember her name, she tartly replies: "What business is it of yours?" This matter-of-fact acceptance of the absurd or impossible has long been an element of Australian comedies, particularly Wilfred, in which a morose young lawyer awakens from a suicide attempt to discover the neighbor's puppy now appears to him as a conspiracy-minded man ("Why do you think no dogs died in the Holocaust? Because we knew it was coming!") in a dogsuit. Uncertain whether he's in grips of a drug-induced hallucination, a prolonged death rattle, or some sketchy version of the hereafter, the lawyer just decides to go with the flow. Glitch adapts the formula to drama with considerable success, with help from a capable cast of Australian TV veterans, including Patrick Brammall and Emma Booth as the policeman and his zombie wife. That doesn't mean Glitch isn't spooky. What summoned the dead back and why remains a mystery, only deepened by some spectacularly grisly evidence that their new-found health isn't necessarily permanent. And there are domestic complications, too, as the dead learn that, despite assurances from their [...]

NPR Does Alex Jones

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 21:13:00 -0500

All Things Considered's David Folkenflik did a report today on the conspiracy-chasing talk-show host Alex Jones. Because I wrote a book about conspiracy theories, I was one of the people Folkenflik interviewed. You can listen to it here:

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Folkenflik's story leads with last weekend's PizzaGate shooting, in which an Alex Jones fan fired a rifle in a D.C. pizza joint because he believed child sex slaves were being held there. But Folkenflik interviewed me on Friday—two days before the incident—so I didn't say anything about that. Instead I'm quoted on the general contours of Jones' worldview. The written version of the report extends my cameo a little longer than it lasts on the radio, adding a line that contrasts my thoughts on Jones' politics with the Southern Poverty Law Center's views on the topic.

When I was chatting with Folkenflik, I mentioned that if I ever write a profile of Jones, the two people I'd most want to interview for it are the filmmakers Richard Linklater and Mike Judge. Linklater put Jones in his 2001 movie Waking Life, and it's a rather interesting scene to watch now that Jones has attracted national notoriety. Jones is generally understood as a "right-wing" guy, and I understand why that's so. (He certainly isn't a leftist.) But he slips easily into the Phildickian film's countercultural worldview, condemning "dehumanization," "classism," "systems of control," and "this corporate slave state" as he drives through a dreamscape:

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And Judge? Jones conducted a chummy interview with the Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill creator back in 2013. It's a pretty fascinating conversation, especially when the talk turns to Dale Gribble, King of the Hill's resident conspiracy theorist. Dale, Judge chuckles, "probably gives you guys a bad name":

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It's not easy to imagine, say, Rush Limbaugh delivering the rant in the first video or the interview in the second. Any accounting of Alex Jones' worldview—and of the place he occupies in our cultural terrain—needs to consider the question of what people like Linklater and Judge see in the man, and vice versa.

Obligatory advertisement: As I said at the top, I wrote a book about conspiracy stories. It's called The United States of Paranoia, and if you find this stuff interesting you may find the book interesting too. But I should probably note upfront that it mentions Jones just once, and only fleetingly at that.

HBO Documentaries Illuminate Castro’s Brutal Cuba

Sat, 03 Dec 2016 15:00:00 -0500

Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death. HBO. Sunday, December 4, 9:45 a.m. Mariela Castro's March: Cuba's LGBT Revolution. HBO. Tuesday, December 6, 5 p.m. HBO should get a little trophy from the television industry for giving executives something to talk about at holiday parties besides falling ratings and the specific level of Hell that should be reserved for whoever invented this internet thing. Instead, they can ponder over the question: Is HBO's documentary division the most genius outfit in television, or just the luckiest? Months ago, HBO acquired two unheralded documentaries on Cuba, then booked them for the very moment when Fidel Castro would head off to the great workers' collective in the sky. Water-cooler buzz galore, Latin American Policy Wonk Department. And if that department had an Emmy, Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death would win it right now. First-time director Olatz López Garmendia is better known as a model and a fashion designer, but she must have had a career in operating heavy construction equipment, too, because Patria O Muerte takes a merciless wrecking ball to the Potemkin Village imagery of Cuba promoted by most of the American chattering class. The desolation and despair of Castro's Revolution—its actually existing socialism, as Marxist theoreticians of the 1950s would have called it—has never been on such devastating display for American audiences. Garmendia lived in Cuba as a child, when her Spaniard parents joined the flocks of European Fidel groupies moving to Havana to stand by their man, but she clearly didn't swallow the Kool-Aid; Patria O Muerte is not her first demythology project on Cuba. She also informed the sensibilities of her then-husband, Julian Schnabel, when he was making his epic anti-Castro movie Before Night Falls. (Garmendia worked on the film as music supervisor.) She made Patria O Muerte as something of a samizdat work; the film was shot without Cuban authorization, and she had a devil of a time getting the footage off the island. Without narration and little archival footage, Patria O Muerte makes its points through a series of interviews of ordinary Cubans, filmed in their seedy tenement apartments in Old Havana. The stories they tell, with only occasional exceptions, are not of lurid torture or persecution, but of the quiet desperation of life in a dead-end society weighed down by decay of every type: economic, physical, mental. There's a cadaverous old man named Julio who bluntly declares his life useless and is clearly talking about more than his grubby apartment when he responds to a question: "What am I missing? Everything." Or Valery, a goth transvestite who took to the streets as a jinatera, as the island's part-time hookers are known, after the remittances from a sister in the United States dried up and she found herself without enough money to buy a new toothbrush. That career ended, though, one night after she was lectured by a tourist whose appreciation for cheap commercial sex had not diminished his more-revolutionary-than-thou ardor for the Castro regime. He told her that "Cubans were shameless, that Cubans said they had problems, when there weren't any problems in Cuba." Retorted Valery: "If that's true, then what am I doing here with you for $20?" She left the streets, fearful that she was "about to kill [herself], or kill one of these foreigners." Or Mercedes, a housewife living in a tottering building built in the 1870s in which she must sleep with one eye open to avoid being hit by chunks of falling masonry. Her young son, injured in a balcony collapse, needs surgery, but building repairs make it impossible: "If we buy cement, then we can't buy food or med[...]