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Published: Sun, 19 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 19 Feb 2017 22:24:15 -0500


Great Balls of Fire, Sun Records Puts on a Show

Fri, 17 Feb 2017 15:00:00 -0500

The Good Fight. CBS. Sunday, February 19, 8 p.m. Sun Records. CMT. Thursday, February 23, 10 p.m. "All rock 'n' roll came out of Sun Records!" declares Jerry Lee Lewis in the opening moments of CMT's bopping new miniseries. Like a lot of things in Sun Records, it's not quite true, but you'll be too busy dancing to care. Sun Records rocks! Filling out the early-1950s birth certificate of rock 'n' roll is no easy task. Did the water break in Chicago, where Chuck Berry was underlining his tone poems about the lives of an emerging demographic, the teenagers, with a jangling guitar? Or Philadelphia, where Bill Haley was punching up western swing music with machine-gun saxophone lines? Or West Texas, where Buddy Holly's nerd glasses distracted parents from his ragged cries to their kids to rave on? Memphis, perched just above the Mississippi Delta at a strategic spot where icy bluesmen and hillbilly shouters were bound to collide, has as good a claim as any of them. And Sam Phillips, owner of the corner-store Sun Records, if not the father of rock 'n' roll, was surely its midwife. Phillips in 1951 cut what is perhaps the first rock 'n' roll record, Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88 (though fans of Wynonie Harris' 1949 Good Rockin' Tonight will argue the point unto death and beyond). He discovered and signed Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, then eventually lost them all because his mom-and-pop business instincts never rose to the epic level of his artistic vision. Three generations past the rise of rock 'n' roll, the thrill of its rise—the most exciting cultural revolution in American history—is in danger of being forgotten in an age of fans who don't know who Paul McCartney or Wings are, much less that he was in a band before that. But Sun Records is more than up to the task of its tale. The 10-episode miniseries starts out in 1951, just as Phillips is turning away from a successful career as a radio-station engineer to concentrate on his bandbox recording studio. Moving away from his bread-and-butter business of taping funerals and weddings, Phillips starts encouraging musical acts he spots in the down-and-dirty clubs along Beale Street, the main artery of Memphis' black nightlife. But his efforts are met with relentless hostility by record distributors, radio stations, parents and even his own wife. "I swear I heard the heavens open up," he exclaims as he plays his newest record for his wife. Sniffs she: "Sounds like the gate to Hell to me." Intercut with Phillips' story in Memphis are scenes of simmering discontent from a restless post-war generation. In rural Arkansas, a teenage Johnny Cash is trying to escape not only the fields where his parents sharecrop, but the dead-end schools where the three R's are reading, writing and the road to Detroit in hopes of a job on an automobile assembly line. In Louisiana, an adolescent Jerry Lee Lewis and his priapic-TV-evangelist-to-be cousin Jimmy Swaggart are sneaking into whorehouses to ogle the girls and, in the process, inadvertently picking up a thing or two about jump-blues piano. Back in a public-housing project, shy high-school kid Elvis Presley's cultural tourism is taking the opposite direction: He's slipping away from sermons at his own church to listen to the gospel singing at a black congregation on the other side of town. And in Nashville, Presley's soon-to-be manager, carny barker Tom Parker, has hustled his way from a gig with nickel-a-peek dancing ducks ("You shoot 'em! You eat 'em! You chase 'em around the yard! You see 'em in the pool! But you ain't never seen 'em dance!") to promoting country crooner Eddy Arnold. The backdrops to the inexorable march of these characters toward a rendezvous with musical destiny are the racially constricted South, still strictly segregated right down to the water-fountain level, and the music industry, locked in its own straitjacket of Perry Como pop, busted-luck hillbilly ballads and monotonous cottonfield blues. Sun Records' nonstop soundtrack makes the point without pedantry; when you hear[...]

ShondaLand-style Drama Comes to CBS with Doubt

Fri, 10 Feb 2017 15:00:00 -0500

(image) Doubt. CBS. Wednesday, February 15, 10 p.m.

Now that Shonda Rimes' production company ShondaLand has completely engulfed and devoured ABC, the rest of television has been waiting to see who would be the next hapless, helpless mouse in the python's ruthless jaws. Now we know: ShondaLand will soon be sucking the video marrow from the crushed bones of CBS as the ghosts of Walter Cronkite and Jed Clampett shriek from their basement refuge.

Sure, technically speaking, CBS' new legal drama Doubt is not a ShondaLand production. But series co-creators Joan Rater and Tony Phelan, between them, have logged 14 years on the ShondaLand juggernaut Grey's Anatomy, and star Katherine Heigl is its prodigal daughter, returned to TV after frittering away her Grey's stardom in the whorish, un-Shondaized world of film. So go ahead, CBS, keep shouting that it's not Shonda until the only thing we can see of you is your toes frantically wiggling as they slide down the python's gullet.

That all said, you can do a lot worse in television than ShondaLand, as CBS has spent decades proving with its endless parade of CSI and NCIS clones. Doubt has its interesting moments, and Heigl, despite her recent run of box-office disasters (seriously, excluding people who accidentally walked into the wrong theater, is there anybody who saw One for the Money?) remains a capable and appealing actress.

Format-wise, Doubt doesn't differ much from any legal drama made since the days of L.A. Law. You've got a nobly idealistic transgender lawyer (transgender actress Laverne Cox, Orange Is The New Black), a quirky lawyer who got his degree while in prison (Kobi Libii, Madame Secretary), a cold-bloodedly pragmatic lawyer (Dule Hill, Psych), and an ambitious young lawyer (Dreama Walker, Gossip Girl).

The firm is bookended by Isaiah Roth (Elliott Gould), an aging '60s radical who still gets jailed for contempt a couple of times a week for screaming "Fascist!" at judges, and Heigl as Sadie Ellis, whose impressive legal skills do not include keeping her emotions in check.

The relationship between Isaiah and Sadie is much more complicated than it first appears. And it's complicated by the fact that she's falling for a client (Steven Pasquale, Rescue Me)—a do-gooder pediatric surgeon accused of killing his college girlfriend 24 years ago when they were teenagers—despite growing evidence that he might be guilty. Sadie's blithe confidence that nice people don't do bad things worries Isaiah, whose political commitment led him into a similar mistake with another client several decades ago, at great and continuing cost.

The conflict between idealism and reality runs through Doubt like a bright thread, sometimes restated in explicitly political terms. Sometimes the firm's lawyers seem to be giving their clients short shrift in deference to dubious leftist shibboleths about community. Is "snitching" really the word for testifying against a gang-banger murderer?

That piquant political dilemma, coupled with the increasingly jagged story line of Sadie's dubious romance, keep Doubt more watchable than it probably has a right to be. And what's the use of arguing, anyway? Forget it, Jake, it's ShondaLand.

Legion Breaks from Its Comic Book Roots with Hallucinogenic Weirdness

Fri, 03 Feb 2017 15:00:00 -0500

APB. Fox. Monday, February 6, 9 p.m. Legion. FX. Wednesday, February 8, 10 p.m. No television network rolls the dice with more abandon than FX. Originally conceived as a way to wring a few last nickels out of Fox's massive library of old action movies and television series, FX went rogue early the new millenium, offering up a steady stream of envelope-shredding programming that was as unhinged as it was excellent. Killer cops as heroes! Enema slapstick! Self-fellatio! So when FX announced it was embracing television's obsession with comic-book super heroes, you knew there'd be a catch. And Legion is a big one, in every sense of the word, a rollicking psychedelic trip of a show that washes over you like a vat of Ken Kesey Kool Aid. Splashy, free-associative and generally as nuts as its schizophrenic characters, Legion is as delirious and dazzling as television gets. Legion is based oh-so-loosely on the Marvel Comics character David Haller, a minor character in the X-Men comic-book family, so tangential that Marvel's studio gladly licensed him away rather than hanging on to him for one of its own films. And, on paper, you can see why. Dogged by hallucinations and fearfully violent temper tantrums since early childhood, Haller has been in and out of mental hospitals his whole life. His latest stay (in an institution with the suggestive name Clockworks) has lasted five years and shows no sign of ending, and Haller is increasingly resigned to a life of over-medication and locked rooms. That is, until a new inmate, pretty blonde Syd Barrett (the TV series Fargo), shows up. Though Syd's particular neurosis (she can't stand to be touched, even slightly) is not exactly conducive to romance, they quickly become a couple. Syd, however, is frustrated by Haller's acceptance that he belongs inside the hospital. "What if your problems aren't in your head? What if they aren't even problems?" she challenges him. What if "that's what makes you, you"? It's difficult to explain in any detail what happens after that without major spoilage of surprises that writer-director Noah Hawley has gone to extraordinary lengths to create. Suffice it to say that Haller does have some extraordinary powers, though it remains unclear whether they're the cause or the result of his derangement. Whichever is the case, they make him the object of multiple conspiracies, at least one of them lethally hostile, and the action rolls along at a quickening pace. There's another very good reason to not explain too much: There's a good chance I'd be wrong. Even more than the delusional cybervigilante Elliot Alderson of Mr. Robot, Haller is an unreliable narrator. The lurid, paranoid hallucinations that frequently detour or derail his train of thought make it nearly impossible to be certain what's real or true at any given moment. When a crowd of milling mental patients suddenly assembles into a Bollywood dance number, is that a schizophrenic's symbolic speech? A religious epiphany? Or just unglued synapses firing off in random patterns? Haller's disordered mind is interwoven into nearly every frame of Legion; hazy memory fragments dissolve into delusions and then dreams. Voices speed up, slow down; things break and crash; memories unspool, then abruptly rewind. Entire characters may be hallucinations. Watching Legion is fascinating, and at times, enervating. Hawley's liquid camera work and stutter-step editing effortlessly track the course of Haller's meandering thoughts; a wall turns into the top of a ping-pong table into another character. And everything from the show's wardrobe to its vehicles to its soundtrack is full of purposeful anachronisms that lend an almost subliminal sense that everything is flying apart, that the center of Legion's world cannot hold. All of Hawley's magnificent visual skills would be for naught, though, if Dan Stevens, the catastrophe-magnet young lawyer of Downton Abbey, weren't giving the performance of a lifetime as Haller. Stammering in incoherent confusion at one moment, cannily m[...]

Thomas Pynchon, Sitcom Star

Fri, 03 Feb 2017 11:10:00 -0500

(image) Now that television is a certified High Art and Americans binge-watch densely woven intertextual narratives for fun, I wouldn't be surprised if you told me tomorrow that Netflix is releasing a 30-part adaptation of Gravity's Rainbow with an option for a second season. But when I settled in one Tuesday evening in 1993 to watch The John Larroquette Show, a short-lived sitcom about a recovering alcoholic managing a St. Louis bus depot, TV was a medium with more modest ambitions. So I was kind of surprised when, a couple minutes into the episode, it launched into an extended Thomas Pynchon joke. There were places I expected to see references to Pynchon's paranoid postmodern novels, but this was not one of them.

The full episode, called "Newcomer," doesn't seem to be online. (Or rather, it's online only in that cropped-and-slowed-down format that YouTubers use to avoid the copyright police.) But you can see that scene, and a follow-up sequence near the end of the episode, in the clip below. Pynchon himself signed off on the dialogue (which is a little "racially charged," as they say), and there are rumors that the famously camera-shy writer slipped onscreen as an extra. Probably false rumors, but don't let that stop you from searching for him as you enjoy a TV moment so strange that for years I thought I might have dreamed it:

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Bonus links: Pynchon later had two cameos on The Simpsons. Watch 'em here and here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

Homeschooling Then and Now

Fri, 27 Jan 2017 16:05:00 -0500

(image) When the modern homeschooling movement started to emerge in the 1970s, many jurisdictions considered it a crime to teach your children at home. Today homeschooling is lawful in every state, albeit with different degrees of restrictions. That's one of the great victories for educational choice, and its impact is only increasing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of homeschooled children has grown from 850,000 in 1999, when the center started to count them, to 1,770,000 in 2011, the last year for which it has done a tally.

We're long past the days when the stereotypical homeschooler was a hippie or a fundamentalist. They're still there, but they've been joined by many members of the American mainstream.

Here's an artifact from the days when homeschooling still seemed novel and strange. It's a 1981 episode of Donahue, and the guests include two homeschooling families and John Holt, a fervent critic of institutional education. Back then, if Holt's estimate on the show is accurate, there were only about 10,000 homeschooling families in the U.S. (That's families, not students. But even if each of those families had a dozen kids, it would still be a big jump from there to 1999's numbers.)

The audience greets the guests with a mixture of interest, skepticism, and sheer fascination. (One woman accuses one of the families of operating a commune.) Phil Donahue, as always, has a ball hopping around and playing devil's advocate. And the video includes the ads from when the program first aired, so you'll also get to see spots for everything from The Muppet Show to the Barnum & Bailey circus (RIP):

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Bonus links: John Holt's one article for Reason, from way back in 1971, is here. The left/right alliance that legalized homeschooling is described here. And past editions of the Friday A/V Club are here.


National School Choice Week runs from January 24 through January 28 and features over 21,000 events involving almost 17,000 schools from all 50 states. Go here for more information about events and for data about how increasing school choice—charters, vouchers, educational savings accounts, and more—is one of the best ways to improve education for all Americans.

As a proud media sponsor of National School Choice Week, Reason is publishing daily articles, podcasts, videos, interviews, and other coverage exploring the ways education is being radically altered and made better by letting more people have more choices about learning. For a constantly updated list of stories, go to Reason's archive page on "school choice."

Stage and Screen Adaptations Launch in Lightweight Week of Television

Fri, 27 Jan 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Superior Donuts. CBS. Thursday, February 2, 8:30 p.m. Powerless. NBC. Thursday, February 2, 8:30 p.m. Training Day. CBS. Thursday, February 2, 10 p.m. In honor of your New Year's resolution to lose weight, the broadcast networks are rolling out a whole night's menu of Television Lite this week, fluffy spinoffs and remakes with minimal caloric intake. It may not be great TV, but it's arguably the best news for dieters since the FDA backed down from its threat to ban saccharine, The best of the bunch is probably CBS' sitcom Superior Donuts, an adaptation of the Tracy Letts stage play about a tattered old donut shop fighting to survive the gentrification of its uptown Chicago neighborhood. Judd Hirsch plays Arthur, the 70-something owner of the shop, which is so frozen in time that its jukebox plays vinyl records—or would, if it hadn't broken down a few decades back. When the gentrification threat hits Defcon 5 with the arrival of a Starbucks down the street, Arthur reluctantly hires his first employee: a street-smart black kid from the neighborhood named Franco (Jermaine Fowler, part of the troupe on TruTV's sketch-comedy Friends of the People). Franco promises that with a little guerrilla marketing, he can "help you bring this place into the 20th century." "You mean the 21st," corrects Arthur. Snaps Franco: "No I don't." Critics who thought the stage production of Superior Donuts was a little too sweet for its own good—and there were a lot of them—are likely to go into insulin shock at this one. In the play, Arthur was an ex-'60s radical whose occasional nostalgic musings about the age of Woodstock sometimes struck a bittersweet note of self-examination about why the world didn't get saved. But if Hirsch's character has any such wild card in his background, it's not on display in the pilot; passion, such as he has, is reserved for rants against the cronut, the macchiato and other modern debasements of the donut trade. Even the quirks of the small group of squirrely customers who keep the shop (barely) alive seem to have been bled out; a guy who carries around a portable fax machine needs aspirin, not Thorazine. Yet Superior Donuts is far from unwatchable. The snappy repartee between the crusty old white owner and his hustling young black employee may not quite draw the blood that the thematically similar Chico and the Man did, but it's not without its chuckles. And Fowler brings a madly exuberant charm to his role that marks him for future stardom. NBC's Powerless is a welcome lampoon of the comic-book superhero genre that may still develop some muscle, though for now it mostly should be called Punchless. It stars Vanessa Hudgens (Spring Breakers) as Emily Locke, the new director of research and development at Wayne Security, a not-very-profitable cog in the ubermachinery of Wayne Enterprises, which is owned by you-know-who. (If you don't know who, Powerless is definitely not the show for you.) Wayne Security's business is selling products that minimize the collateral damage of the various super heroes (all of them from the pages of DC Comics, which licensed the show; don't expect cameos from Spider-Man or Sailor Moon) rampaging around America, knocking down bridges and tossing trains over their shoulders in their brawls with the bad guys. But as Locke learns on her first day on the job, Wayne Security hasn't had a hit since sales of Joker Anti-Venom began lagging a couple of years ago, sending employee morale into a death spiral. Four of her predecessors as R&D chief have already been fired this year. "We'll do whatever you want until No. 6 comes along," says one employee in a tepid vote of confidence that's somewhat undercut when she learns her staff is working on an alarm that will warn them of her approach. Powerless is part workplace comedy and part waspish satire of a world in which the constant presence of superheroes has become a grating annoyance. It succeeds, occasionally[...]

Will Donald Trump Cut Public Broadcasting Loose, Or Will He Decide He's the Man to Make It Great Again?

Mon, 23 Jan 2017 17:25:00 -0500

The press is aflutter with talk that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting may be headed for the chopping block. More specifically, The Hill informs us that Trump staffers have been "discussing" the "privatization" of the CPB. In other words, we don't actually know what's happening. "Discussing" means the administration hasn't settled on a plan; "privatization" could take many forms. Nor do we know how any particular proposal will play out politically. Usually I roll my eyes during these debates, knowing that for all the apocalyptic rhetoric they inspire they have invariably ended with the CPB still in the budget. Occasionally it gets a funding cut, but even those tend to be erased within a few years. But as you may have noticed, our new president is unpredictable. Given all the allegedly impossible things that have happened lately, you can't just assume past will be prologue, even if the forces that have kept the CPB alive in the past are still at work. That said: The forces that have kept the CPB alive in the past are quite definitely still at work. Back in 2011, when congressional Republicans were threatening to cut off NPR's money because it had fired Juan Williams, I offered a brief tour through the history of the We're Going To Defund Public Broadcasting show. The Williams spat, I wrote, was a more exciting hook for the drama than the one Richard Nixon used in 1971, when presidential pique at the Eastern liberals who dominated PBS spurred him to propose a "return to localism" that would have kneecapped the crowd in charge of the system. On the other hand, it doesn't have the cloak-and-dagger spirit that the State Department flunky Otto Reich brought to the play in 1985, right after Ronald Reagan's reelection, when he met with NPR staffers in a smoky little room and warned them that the White House thought they were "Moscow on the Potomac." Nor is it as colorful as the 1993 spectacle starring Bob Dole and David Horowitz, who attacked the radical Pacifica network rather than NPR, providing an opportunity to quote a much weirder series of statements than anything in the Juan Williams kerfuffle. ("We didn't have Satan before the white man. So the white man is Satan himself.") And the exclusive focus on NPR this time around means the stakes don't feel as high as they did in 1994, when Speaker-elect Gingrich started musing that he might "zero out" the entire public broadcasting budget. A decade later, a House subcommittee heightened the dramatic tension by voting to eliminate federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) altogether. That element of danger was a suspenseful touch. While there are Republicans who honestly think the government shouldn't be in the business of subsidizing public broadcasters, there are more Republicans—or, at least, more powerful Republicans—who just think the government should be subsidizing a slightly different group of public broadcasters. As I wrote in 2011, "The system was still standing after Nixon made his threats, but all save one of the programs he found objectionable went off the air. After the Gingrich-era battle ended, the Republican pundits Fred Barnes, Peggy Noonan, and Ben Wattenberg all landed gigs at PBS—and following an initial cut, the CPB's budget crept back upward. The funding fight under George W. Bush took place against the backdrop of a conservative CPB chief crusading for a more right-friendly PBS and NPR." (*) These exercises may not cut public broadcasters loose, but they do whip them into line. Needless to say, it would be completely in character for Trump to try a trick like that. (Sample scenario: He ruminates about funding cuts, PBS adds a MAGA voice or two to its lineup, and then the president declares public television a great American institution.) On the other hand, it would also be in character for Trump to endorse a privatization plan as a painless concession to the [...]

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 coss[...]

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[...]

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 'norma[...]

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-i[...]

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 i[...]

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 [...]

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.)