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Published: Fri, 20 Apr 2018 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Fri, 20 Apr 2018 01:36:00 -0400


No Scandals in This HBO Elvis Documentary, Just Music

Fri, 13 Apr 2018 14:55:00 -0400

Elvis Presley: The Searcher. HBO. Saturday, April 14, 8 p.m. If the HBO documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher has a motto, it's a quote from an interview that Tom Petty gave the filmmakers shortly before his death last year: "We should not make the mistake of writing off a great artist by all the clatter that came later." Made with the assistance of the Presley family, the 206-minute The Searcher contains nothing of the tabloid Elvis. If you want to see him shooting out TV sets, watching teenage girls wrestle in their underwear, or chat up the dangers of drugs with President Nixon, this isn't the film for you. Even the benign side of celebrity is missing: There are no scenes of Elvis giving away cars to fans or racing his jet across the country for a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich. Instead, The Searcher zeroes in almost exclusively on Presley's music: where it came from, how he found it, how he synthesized rhythm and blues and country and western—and eventually jazz, gospel, opera and even old Marlene Dietrich records—into something so new that nobody even knew what to call it. Literally: On an old tape from the night Elvis and a pickup band turned a stately bluegrass waltz called "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" into a balls-to-the-wall jam that didn't resemble anything known to human ears, you can hear Sun Records owner Sam Phillips burst into the studio and shout, "That's a pop song now!" The phrase rock and roll wasn't yet part of the world's musical vocabulary. But it would be. "It was in that moment that the world changed," recounts The Band's Robbie Robertson in quiet awe. There are a lot of reasons to love The Searcher, and that tape fragment is a big one. Director Thom Zimny, who has made several well-regarded Bruce Springsteen documentaries, got access to everything in the Graceland archives, from home movies to ancient recordings of radio interviews. They range from lovable oddities, like Elvis' mom Gladys singing gospel songs, to the downright awesome: An old interview with long-dead Ike Turner recollecting the odd little white kid who used to sneak into his shows on Memphis' Beale Street and move his feet frantically to the beat of Turner's blues riffs. Some of those riffs, no doubt, made their way into Elvis' act at some point. The central point of The Searcher was that Elvis was influenced by everything, but imitated nothing. "He can pull in a wide range of genres," says one rock writer interviewed for the documentary. "And they all come out Elvis." There are interviews aplenty in The Searcher, including several with Elvis contemporaries like his longtime guitarist Scotty Moore that were done just before their deaths. (Startling—and, depending on your age, perhaps chilling—fact: Elvis would be well past 80 if he were still alive.) They are at their most insightful in discussing his records – how, exactly, he put them together. (And nearly everyone agrees that, especially in the beginning when all the rules were being made up as they went along, it was Elvis himself doing the producing, regardless of who was credited on the label.) "He didn't want to overproduce anything," says Phillips, whose pioneering Sun label issued Elvis' first two dozen recordings. That's putting it mildly; Sun's tiny studio never had more than two microphones, and rarely brought in a drummer. As Bruce Springsteen perceptively notes, much of the beat in early rock and roll records came not from a percussion section but a slappy, stand-up bass. The one interviewee who offers more personal that musical commentary is Elvis' ex-wife Priscilla, whose affectionate reminiscences are often laced with piquant humor. Just 15 when they started dating, she wryly admits she knew a lot more about the teeny-bopper music of pretty boys like Fabian and Fankie Avalon than her new boyfriends. And her description of listening to her parents dismissing Elvis as "disgusting" as they watched him on TV, not knowing he'd be dating their daughter in little more than a year, is hilarious. But it's also Priscilla who makes a rather convincing case that wh[...]

This Just In: The Simpsons Is Still On the Air

Fri, 13 Apr 2018 12:55:00 -0400

(image) The most striking thing about this week's Great Apu Debate isn't that various people like or dislike a '90s cartoon character. (*) It's the fact that the show is still on the air. I just called Apu "a '90s cartoon character," but they're actually still making up stories about him. No, really: They even have the same guy doing his voice. It's wild.

I kept watching new episodes of The Simpsons a lot longer than most of my friends kept watching new episodes of The Simpsons, making it about as far as 2009—but man, now that's nearly a decade ago. I can't even say "it isn't funny anymore," because for all I know the show has had a hidden revival and is secretly funny again. (Hey, it happened once before.) I'd hope that one of you would tell me about that if it happened, but I can't really expect you to, because let's be frank: You aren't watching either.

And this week the series suddenly wandered back into the news. But not because it did something radically new. We're talking about it because it was talking about itself, and by "talking about itself" I mean "talking about stuff it did in the '90s."

It's an odd sort of double vision, to be living and dead at the same time. The Simpsons is an old man haunted by his own ghost.

A couple years ago, Simpsonwave videos were big for a second or two. For those of you who missed their brief moment, these are fragments of old Simpsons episodes remixed into lo-fi nostalgic-sad mood pieces. Here's one:

src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

Here's another:

src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

Even as The Simpsons continued to air on Fox each week, those mini-movies treated the show not as an ongoing program but as a loose dreamscape of distorted memories, their images irrevocably tied to the past. Simpsonwave was an offshoot from the whole hypnagogic pop movement, a micro-genre obsessed with cultural memory. And you know what? That's been going on for a decade-plus now too; it's no more novel than The Simpsons is. Soon I'll be nostalgic for nostalgic remixes of early Simpsons episodes, and meanwhile new episodes of The Simpsons will keep coming out without anyone noticing, except occasionally when the series responds to a controversy about a choice some long-retired writers made when the Soviet Union still existed.

(* I'd write a post about Apu, but my views on the subject are unclickably moderate. Within the hermetic world of The Simpsons, I think Apu is perfectly defensible. I also think any South Asian who had to put up with kids yelling "Apu" at him has every right to resent the character; God knows I've hated TV shows for far less than that. Apu doesn't offend me, and the fact that he offends you doesn't offend me either. Peace.)

The Simpsons Admitted Apu Is Problematic, Just Not the Way People Wanted

Mon, 09 Apr 2018 14:10:00 -0400

On last night's episode of The Simpsons, the show finally addressed the controversy surrounding the character of Apu, who some viewers consider a racist caricature of an Indian man. Apu, an Indian immigrant and manager of the Kwik-E-Mart, is voiced by Hank Azaria, a Jewish man. His portrayal of Apu has drawn criticism—most recently in the 2017 documentary, The Problem with Apu—for relying on ethnic stereotype. Indian comedian Hari Kondabolu, the film's star, is a Simpsons fan who grew up being thankful for Apu's existence but has come to view the character as extremely problematic. In a clip from the episode, Marge sanitizes a bedtime story, prompting Lisa to point out that the politically correct version is pretty boring. "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect," she says. "What can you do?" A portrait of Apu sits in the corner of the screen as she says this. The Simpsons goes after politically correct critics, singling out "The Problem With Apu" — Jon Levine (@LevineJonathan) April 9, 2018 Kondabolu was not pleased. Wow. "Politically Incorrect?" That's the takeaway from my movie & the discussion it sparked? Man, I really loved this show. This is sad. — Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) April 9, 2018 In "The Problem with Apu," I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress. — Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) April 9, 2018 Elsewhere, public reaction was thunderous. NPR's Linda Holmes accused The Simpsons of essentially telling Kondabolu to "drop dead." "So Lisa, the show's unshakable crusader for justice, including in matters of popular culture, has been reduced to a mouthpiece for the lazy idea that asking for better representation is an unfair burden on creators; an unreasonable demand that things be 'politically correct,'" wrote Holmes. "That is regrettable, to say the least." Joe's Carl Kinsella went even further, calling the episode "a gaping wound where the show's funny bone used to be. A malignant tumour in its brain blocking the path of any possible introspection whatsoever." I don't agree. The clip was clearly introspective. After lamenting that erasing all offense can make for uninteresting comedy, Lisa tacitly references the show's history of depicting Apu as a stereotype. Marge say that "some things will be dealt with at a later date, if at all." Many seem to be interpreting this as the writers letting themselves off the hook (The New York Times called it "a dismissal"), but I'm not so sure. It sounds like The Simpsons is making fun of itself for not handling this whole thing better, while also mocking the humorlessness of political-correctness-run-amok. The expressions on their faces say a great deal: Lisa and Marge look uncomfortable, even regretful, rather than defensive. This falls well short of a full apology, and thus it isn't surprising that Kondabolu and company aren't satisfied with it. But The Simpsons didn't dodge The Problem with Apu. The writers evidently think the problem is more complicated.[...]

Beware Censorship by Proxy

Mon, 09 Apr 2018 09:59:00 -0400

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. YouTube is worried you might believe too much of what you see on its website. Amid the clamor for someone, somewhere to do something about "fake news," the company plans to attach "information cues"—excerpts from Wikipedia—to videos that touch on "a list of well-known internet conspiracies." When YouTube, Facebook or Twitter cracks down on some form of expression—conspiracy theories, radical rants, terrorist propaganda—some of the targets inevitably complain that their freedom of speech is under attack. (This feeling of victimhood may be what sent Nasim Aghdam to YouTube headquarters, gun in hand.) There is a strong retort to this: These are private platforms with a right to decide what they publish. It is no more a violation of the First Amendment for YouTube to muzzle a channel it finds offensive than it is for this newspaper to refuse to run a column calling for Minnesota to invade Wisconsin. But what if a private platform suppresses speech because it's afraid the government might otherwise step in? Just as one effective end-run around the Fourth Amendment is to ask private companies for data they slurped up on their own, the First Amendment can be sidestepped when officials pressure the private sector into self-censorship. The end result can be rules more restrictive than the companies would impose on their own—and more intrusive than the government could get away with if it tried to impose them directly. It's happened before. The Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that free-speech protections did not apply to the movies, a decision rightly reversed in 1952. In the interim, the industry opted to stave off federal regulation by establishing a series of self-censorship systems. The most powerful of these was the Production Code, which was created in 1930 but didn't really grow teeth until 1934, when Congress was mulling several bipartisan bills to tone down motion picture content. Hollywood got the message. Under the code, seduction was "never the proper subject for a comedy," plots couldn't involve "sex relationships between the white and black races," and the drug trade "should not be brought to the attention of audiences," among other tight constraints. Some filmmakers found ways to subtly subvert the restrictions. Many others threw up their hands and let their films be bowdlerized. The Federal Communications Commission directly regulates much of what can and cannot be said over the "public" airwaves. But private radio and television networks also have created their own internal Standards and Practices departments that control content, sometimes at absurd levels of caution. (Early network censors objected to terms as mild as "bloody," "bollixed" and "the W.C.") Broadcasters are not eager to offend their audiences, so some version of Standards and Practices would probably exist even without the FCC. But the desire to stay on regulators' and legislators' good side has clearly been at work in those departments' decisions as well. You can tell because the self-imposed rules eased up when federal content controls were relaxed in the 1980s. The comic book industry adopted a Comics Code after the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held a hearing in 1954 on their products' alleged role in fostering crime. The immediate effect was to infantilize the industry, forcing a range of popular horror titles into the dustbin. The "parental advisory" labels affixed to CDs were invented following another Senate circus, the "porn rock" hearings of 1985. The stickers kept some records out of certain stores, and prompted some producers to edit songs or change album lineups to avoid the restrictions. In 1993, another set of Senate hearings inspired a comparable ratings system for video games. Those moves haven't had as much force as the rules adopted by Hollywood and the broadcasters, but that's because the threat of direct federal censorship wasn't as strong. A sort of censorship by proxy[...]

Killing Eve Offers Up an Exciting, Hilarious James Bond Gender Bend

Fri, 06 Apr 2018 15:00:00 -0400

Killing Eve. BBC America. Sunday, April 8, 8 p.m. Waco: The Longest Siege, Smithsonian Channel. Monday, April 9, 8 p.m. Eve Polastri works for MI-5, the British equivalent of the FBI, but her job—personal assistant to a mid-level bureaucrat in charge of security for visiting dignitaries—is mundane and her life terrifyingly boring. Literally: She awakes screaming from a dream that she's fallen asleep on both of her arms at once. She amuses herself by reading case files on female killers and plotting ways to get murder her husband without getting caught. But then, this cockeyed line of feminist thinking leads to her accidental involvement in the investigation of an apparent political murder. (Thinking aloud in front of a boss, Eve correctly guesses that the killer must be a woman.) And now she finds herself living out both sides of her fantasy in a kill-or-be-killed pursuit of a gorgeous but quite insane Russian assassin named Villanelle in BBC America's comic suspense thriller, Killing Eve. Alternating effortlessly between weirdly funny and chillingly tense, Killing Eve is the utterly endearing love child of oddball British novelist Luke Jennings and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who writes and stars in the eccentric Brit television comedy Fleabag. Waller-Bridge's adaptation of Jennings' book offers, from one perspective, a dizzy feminist reformulation of the James Bond mythos, with the same lively direction framing the same lushly exotic scenery and the same exotic manners of population control. The only difference, seemingly, is the gender of the killers. But there's more to Killing Eve than gender-joshing. Eve and Villanelle are polar opposites—or, perhaps, two sides of the same coin. Eve (Sandra Oh, Grey's Anatomy) is frowsy, middle-aged, and sexually indifferent, at least to her husband. Villanelle (Jodie Comer, Starz's The White Princess) is young, sleek, and promiscuous. Villanelle is a highly trained assassin. Eve, for all her intellectual prowess about the nature of homicide and its practitioners, is scared by loud noises. Most of all, Eve likes to think about killing, the whys and, especially, the hows. Villanelle just kills, constantly and joyously. Their cat and mouse game is magnetic and even erotic. It's also often extremely funny. Though violence can erupt, quickly and bloodily, at any moment in Killing Eve (I advise getting a tune-up for your gag reflex before sitting down to the first episode), the laughs come more frequently than shudders. And the show's value as a British-American cultural exchange cannot be underestimated. However else would we have known the overweening importance of genitalia references to the science of insulting bosses in Great Britain. "Dick swab" and "monkey dick," just to use a couple of examples, could be lexicological breakthroughs. But it's the women who really power the humor in Killing Eve. Comer, a product of British TV who isn't well known to American audiences—though she will be, soon enough—brings a manic, grisly, energy to her part. The scene in which she engages in a stare-down with an 8-year-old across a restaurant floor—just because—is a hilarious encapsulation of her entire character, a high school mean girl with a 9mm Glock and a case of sharpened knitting needles. Oh, meanwhile, deftly paints herself in the awkward hues of Fargo as the smart but often bumbling Eve. Watching her bring her textbook interrogation skills to bear on a half-mad witness who, before her sanity cracks altogether, discloses only that the cops should look for "a small-breasted psycho" is like a post-modernist chapter for Dick Tracy's Crimestoppers Textbook. As convincing as the bloodshed in Killing Eve is, it's all the work of the special effects geeks. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the mind-boggling butchering in the Smithsonian Channel documentary Waco: The Longest Siege. The deaths of 80-some people—including several children—at the hands of fanatic federa[...]

5 Things Everyone's Getting Wrong About Sinclair Broadcast Group

Tue, 03 Apr 2018 14:37:00 -0400

"This Pravda-style propaganda," a visibly shaken Joe Scarborough said on his MSNBC show Monday morning, "has to stop." Dan Rather concurred: "It's Orwellian," the veteran newsman tweeted. "A slippery slope to how despots wrest power, silence dissent, and oppress the masses." John Oliver, the discreet Superman of American journalism, performed last rites. "A brainwashed cult," he pronounced. What is it that has the journalistic class manning their battle stations against the totalitarian menace? This Deadspin supercut of the country's biggest name in local TV news, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, beaming out to each one of its markets the exact same promotional message: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> "Sinclair's fake-news zombies should terrify you," ran the headline of a David Rothkopf piece at CNN. You can see what he means—especially given the backstory, as reported a month ago by CNN's Brian Stelter, that the notoriously Republicanoid parent company was making local anchors "uncomfortable" by insisting they record the thing word for word. (There has been at least one refusenik.) Sure, many of the melodramatic sentiments contained within the advertorial were virtually indistinguishable from recent promotional campaigns by The New York Times ("factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever" vs. "the truth is more important than ever") or The Washington Post ("this is extremely dangerous to our democracy" vs. "democracy dies in darkness"), but the hostage-video vibe was unmistakable. When reading from the exact same teleprompter language, the least you can do is smile! src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> That video above and other such cookie-cutter local-TV segments that Conan O'Brien enjoys mocking were brought to you by a company called CNN Newsource, though there is clearly a difference between syndicated goofball content that stations choose to run and heavy-handed "fake news" lectures that they're ordered to broadcast. As one Sinclairite emailed Stelter last night: "It sickens me the way this company is encroaching upon trusted news brands in rural markets." Still, a certain sense of perspective and proportion has been noticeably absent from this, a story that has captured media imaginations far in excess to the facially unconstitutional assault on free speech that Congress passed just last month. So in order to encourage more media literacy and make even more new friends on Twitter, here is my list of five things people are getting wrong about L'affaire Sinclair: 1) Sinclair is not remotely a monopoly. "Sinclair Is Bad for Democracy. So Are Other Media Monopolies," runs the Washington Monthly headline from David Atkins. "Sinclair Broadcast Group is a Media Monopoly Thanks to Bill Clinton," says Colin Kalmbacher of Law & Crime. "Sinclair Broadcast Group and Media Monopolies, Explained," offers Teen Vogue's Danielle Corcione. None of these pieces manage to explain how a company currently prohibited from operating two of the top four stations in a given television market meets any of the various definitions of monopoly. Sinclair mostly owns and occasionally operates 193 local TV stations across the country (or "nearly 250" in the inflationary math of Law & Crime), including affiliates for ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox. (Confused by that? See #3.) As Jack Shafer wrote in Politico last year, "Today, the United States has 1,775 total television stations, about 5,200 cable systems run by 660 operators reaching 90 percent of homes and so many cable channels that TV executives complain about their number. The idea that Sinclair...might banish competing viewpoints from the marketplace reeks of stupidity." According to Pew Research, only 9 percent of Americans view television without aid of[...]

Experts Agree That Massively Popular Roseanne Reboot Shouldn't Be Popular at All

Fri, 30 Mar 2018 15:10:00 -0400

Oh, Roseanne Barr, can you ever win? Sure, the reboot of your wildly popular and long-lived eponymous 1990s sitcom is a ratings hit, but all the smartest people are acting like you just finished singing the National Anthem at a San Diego Padres game circa 1990. Or dressing up like Lady Hitler and burning cookies. Or pushing Pizzagate, the most-batshit-crazy Hillary Clinton conspiracy theory of them all. Or recovering memories that your parents molested you and then retracting them. How can you come from low-class roots, become massively successful in show biz, and then be pro-Donald Trump and pro-abortion at the same time? It just doesn't make sense, say all the smartest pundits in the country and at least one of your former co-stars? Can't you see that you're tearing us apart! It's not news that real-life Roseanne, who ran for president herself back in 2012 with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan as veep, is a Trump supporter, but the shock of someone being funny on network television and playing an unapologetic, unironic Trumpista at the same time is just too much for some of us to bear. To paraphrase Nixon, we're all snowflakes now. But who gave you the right, the person who popularized the once-ironic term domestic goddess before it was glammed up by Nigella Lawson and before being down-classed by Charlie Sheen, to be messing with our social-political-cultural categories yet again? Here's Roseanne's case for The Donald over Hillary Clinton way back in June 2016: I like Trump because he financed his own [campaign]. That's the only way he could've gotten that nomination. Because nobody wants a president who isn't from Yale and Harvard and in the club. 'Cause it's all about distribution. When you're in the club, you've got people that you sell to. That's how money changes hands, that's how business works. If you've got friends there, they scratch your back and blah, blah....To me, he's saying that the order of law matters. When a president can just pass laws all on his own, that is a little bit different than [Trump's] saying what America was supposed to be about. And Trump is saying people will have to be vetted, we'll have to have legal immigration. It's all a scam. I mean, illegal immigration. When people come here and they get a lot of benefits that our own veterans don't get. What's up with that? What's up, indeed? Roseanne has called herself a socialist at various points, by which she seems to mean a redistributionist rather than a latter-day Rosa Luxemburg, but she also has long trafficked in populist sentiments too. In her new sitcom, her titular character avers that Trump won the election because he at least talked about jobs. Her character and real-life counterpart, like most Americans, are finding fewer and fewer touch-points with traditional political categories of Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal. I don't presume to understand, much less agree, with Roseanne's political or comedic agenda but the plain fact is she's connecting with contemporary audiences and voters precisely because she no longer feels constrained by two political parties that have been around since before the Civil War. Roxanne Gay, who says she won't continue viewing the reboot even as she admits to laughing during its first two episodes, says that Roseanne's views are "muddled and incoherent." Which is to say they are merely reflecting new possible groupings in the body politic. Why shouldn't there be a political party that is pro-abortion and pro-lower taxes, say? Or pro-free trade and pro-union? Anti-war and anti-immigrant? I'm not arguing for any of those particular configurations, I'm simply stating that the conventional groupings we've inherited and revised endlessly from the mid-1960s on are pretty much as played out as the Comstock Lode. As political scientist Morris P. Fiorina writes in Unstable Majorities, the political groupings pushed by party activi[...]

Operation Odessa Turns ‘90s Drug War into a Black Comedy

Fri, 30 Mar 2018 15:00:00 -0400

Operation Odessa. Showtime. Saturday, March 31, 9 p.m. The Crossing. ABC. Monday, April 2, 10 p.m. You can, if you wish, see the documentary Operation Odessa as a grand metaphor for the war on drugs. In it, the DEA spends an eternity chasing a klatch of narcotraffickers, burning through stacks of money and agent man-hours, blowing off countless years of prison time for convicted criminals in order to get them to work as informers against the group, and accumulating 15,000 hours of wiretapped conversations. End result: Nobody's in jail and there's no evidence that the flow of cocaine into the United States has decreased so much as an ounce. Or you can ignore the political implications and just enjoy Operation Odessa as a madcap black comedy about three guys who are half-genius and half-oaf blundering in and out of harrowingly scary situations in a kind of post-modernist Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Director Tiller Russell has made well-regarded documentaries about police corruption and an all-felon baseball team, but the wildly entertaining Operation Odessa—which has been kicking around festivals for a few months before getting its first major exposure on Showtime—is clearly his masterpiece. Its protagonists are led by a Russian mobster known as Tarzan, who left his job as a Gambino family enforcer after his partner called in sick one day with a bullet in his head. Tarzan prudently moved to Miami and invested his savings in a sleazy Miami strip club he called Porky's after his favorite movie. "He classed the place up," recalls one employee. Among Tarzan's more genius innovations was a bit where a porn star lay on the stage with her legs open while customers paid $5 a shot to maneuver a dildo mounted on a remote-control toy car into her nether regions. And yet, surprisingly, the club acquired a certain louche reputation; even Tarzan himself wouldn't enter it without two pistols concealed on his body. Eventually the clientele consisted mostly of Russian gangsters. But some of Tarzan's other friends stopped by from time to time, among them a Miami classic-car dealer named Juan Almeida, whose off-the-books activities included mounting turbines in cigarette boats and helicopters, which not at all coincidentally allowed their drivers to outrace DEA vehicles. ("It's no secret that cocaine is cool," Almeida says by way of introducing himself in the documentary.) Also along for the ride was Tony Yester, a pilot whose cargos mostly consisted of stacked bricks of cocaine and money headed for the laundry. A part-time Cuban spy with passports in 41 names, Yester sometimes amused himself by sending postcards from Havana to the U.S. Marshal's office in Miami with messages like, "I'm here at the beach, sipping a fucking mojito. When are you going to come down to pick me up?" Yester felt misunderstood by the cops. "Me, I never have enjoyed killing anybody. I just want a few dollars," a DEA surveillance tape caught him brooding. "But when somebody has to go, somebody has to go." The three amigos were soon doing a variety of business with Colombian cocaine cartels. Their eventually took them to the post-breakup Soviet Union, where Tarzan coaxed a large load of military helicopters worth $10 million apiece out of the clueless ex-Marxists for $650,000 a pop. But when the local Russian mafia kidnapped him and demanded its cut, Tarzan had to summon Almeida, who flew into Moscow posing as cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. The bedazzled Russians were soon regular customers, swapping their military equipment for cocaine. So when one of Tarzan's cartel acquaintances casually inquired if he knew where the Colombians could get their hands on a military submarine, he knew just who to call. What Tarzan didn't know: a member of his mobster coterie back in Miami—a guy known as Cannibal after biting off a cop's nose while being arrested—had been turned[...]

State Kills Anti-Porn Bill After Discovering More About Its Backer, Free Speech Win for FX's Feud, FISA Warrants Under Scrutiny: Reason Roundup

Thu, 29 Mar 2018 09:30:00 -0400

State porn bills suffer a blow: New revelations about the man who authored trendy anti-porn and digital censorship legislation has killed its chances in at least one state, Rhode Island, and may doom its chances in the 17 other states with similar proposals. Thank goodness. The Rhode Island measure—which we covered here earlier this month—would have required people to pay a $20-per-device fee for the opportunity to access porn sites and any other content that might "affront current standards of decency" from phones, laptops, or other digitally enabled devices. Tech companies themselves were supposed to figure out how to make these filters ironclad or face serious liability. The man behind the idea, Chris Sevier, was lobbying around the country for similar legislation, which he sometimes called the "Elizabeth Smart Law," in reference to the Utah woman who was famously abducted from her home as a teenager in 2002. Smart recently demanded that Sevier stop using her name to sell his porn proposal, which she was not associated with and had not endorsed. Sevier told AP that "Elizabeth Smart Law" was just an "offhand name" and the measure was officially called the "Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Prevention Act." It's a bad legal month all around for Sevier, who had sued in federal court for the right to marry his laptop since same-sex couples can now wed. A federal judge in Utah threw out the case in mid-March. After an AP story on all of this Monday, Republican state Sen. Frank Ciccone, who had introduced the porn-fee bill in the Rhode Island Senate, withdrew his proposal from consideration. He told AP he felt "misled" by the people pushing the bill. "But not only me. I assume there's quite a few other people," [Ciccone] said, adding he assumes lawmakers in other states also will pull their bills. "A lot of us had misinformation." Dave Maass, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said he's not sure "whether legislators really fully understand the nanny state this bill would create." He also commented that it's "fascinating" how Sevier "is pulling this off, like how he's convincing so many people to introduce this bill." The whole fiasco isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of how a lot of state officials approach the lawmaking process. At minimum, you'd think someone in these legislators' offices would put a smidge of effort into finding out basic background about the people whose whims they're attempting to enable into law. That Sevier is a laptop-spouse-coveting zealot has long been public record. FREE MINDS FX wins First Amendment feud with centenarian star. Hollywood golden-age actress Olivia de Havilland didn't like her portrayal in last year's FX miniseries Feud, a Ryan Murphy vehicle that, like American Horror Story, will feature a different iconic feud each season. Last year's focused on Bette Davis and Joan Crawford; de Havilland (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) shows up recurring as a friend of Davis. The 101-year-old actress sued FX and Murphy over the portrayal, on false light and right of publicity claims. This week, a panel of Los Angeles Court of Appeal judges ruled against de Havilland in what EFF calls "a big win" for free speech. "If the lower court's interpretation of the law were correct, it would threaten a huge range of expression about real people, ranging from dramas, to documentaries, to fan websites," according to EFF. The appeals-court judges agreed: The [lower] court concluded that, because Feud tried to portray de Havilland as realistically as possible, the program was not "transformative" … and therefore not entitled to First Amendment protection. As appellants and numerous amici point out, this reasoning would render actionable all books, films, plays, and television programs that accurately portray real people. Indeed, the more realistic the portrayal, the[...]

How To Think About The Americans' Final Season: Podcast

Tue, 27 Mar 2018 22:43:00 -0400

Since 2013, FX's The Americans has revisited 1980s America and Cold War politics with a depth and nuance usually reserved for PBS documentaries. The first season begins in the early Reagan years, when the Cold War seemed forever on the verge of escalating into nuclear war. The sixth and final season debuts on Wednesday, March 28. The show follows the lives of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two Soviet sleeper agents whose cover is running a travel agency in the Northern Virginia suburbs near Washington, D.C. Their days are spent booking vacation packages and schlepping kids to school, and their nights are filled with deadly honeypot espionage setups, betrayals by and of close associates, and thefts of state secrets. Complicating matters is the presence of Stan Beeman, their neighbor who just happens to be an FBI agent working to infiltrate Soviet spy rings in America. The Americans is at once deeply serious and darkly comic, a domestic drama that plays out against the backdrop of the 20th century's twilight struggle. Gillespie recently sat down with Joe Weisberg, the show's creator, and Joel Fields, an executive producer and one of its lead writers, to discuss the genesis and meaning of the series, their thoughts on the Cold War, how changing technology is leading to better television, and what we can expect from the series' final season. "This is a profoundly political show," says Fields, "but it's not political necessarily in the sense of...which country is better, or how do the two systems compare. It's political simply in terms of our perspective. It's political in the sense that the two main characters...are driven by politics. Their motivation in life—not just in work, but their motivation in life—is ideological. They are political beings of a kind that you rarely see. "They've come all the way across the world and started this whole family and done everything for political reasons. Their hearts and souls are political. So in the final season, when Gorbachev has now come to power and is starting to change their country in very profound ways, Philip and Elizabeth are going to react to it differently. And so, imagine how that's going to impact their marriage. And that's really what the final season is going to be about." Audio production by Ian Keyser. Go here to listen and subscribe at iTunes. Rate and review us while you're there! Click below to listen via SoundCloud. src="" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0"> Video version producted and edited by Meredith Bragg. Cameras by Bragg, Jim Epstein, and Mark McDaniel. Go here to watch. Reason Podcast archive here. Subscribe to Reason's YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. The interview has been edited for clarity. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. For an audio version, subscribe to the Reason Podcast. Nick Gillespie: Joe, you were actually in the CIA for a number of years, and you've said that the agency, of all things, is what got you started thinking about doing something about your time in the agency. What was going on there? Joe Weisberg: One of the things that I sort of absorbed when I was there— I didn't think I was going to ever write about spies, or anything like that, but I still absorbed a lot that came out later. So, I was very, I worked with a lot of people who were married and had families, and like me, were lying to the people around them. And I didn't have kids, and I wasn't married at the time, but colleagues of mine had to lie to their kids about what they did—couldn't tell them they worked at the CIA, until a cert[...]

How Will The Americans' Final Season End? Q&A With the Creators Behind the Cold War Spy Drama

Mon, 26 Mar 2018 14:50:00 -0400

"We all struggle with questions of our true identity, our identity with our loved ones, and our public personas," says Joe Weisberg, the creator of FX's cold-war drama The Americans, which begins its final season on March 28, in an exclusive interview with Reason's Nick Gillespie. "In this final season, that all comes to a head for the characters, who have to deal with it in their careers as spies, challenging their loyalty to their family, but also testing it against their loyalty to one another in their marriage, and their loyalty to their country, and their core idealistic beliefs." Since 2013, The Americans has revisited 1980s America and Cold War politics with a depth and nuance usually reserved for PBS documentaries. The first season begins in the early Reagan years, when the Cold War seemed forever on the verge of escalating into nuclear war. The show follows the lives of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two Soviet sleeper agents whose cover is running a travel agency in the Northern Virginia suburbs near Washington, D.C. Their days are spent booking vacation packages and schlepping kids to school, and their nights are filled with deadly honeypot espionage setups, betrayals by and of close associates, and thefts of state secrets. Complicating matters is the presence of Stan Beeman, their neighbor who just happen to be an FBI agent working to infiltrate Soviet spy rings in America. The Americans is at once deeply serious and darkly comic, a domestic drama that plays out against the backdrop of the 20th century's twilight struggle. Gillepie recently sat down with Weisberg and Joel Fields, an executive producer and one of its lead writers, to discuss the genesis and meaning of the series, their thoughts on the Cold War, how changing technology is leading to better television, and what we can expect from the series' sixth and final season, which debuts on FX on March 28. Interview by Gillespie. Produced and edited by Meredith Bragg. Cameras by Bragg, Jim Epstein, and Mark McDaniel. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. The interview has been edited for clarity. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. For an audio version, subscribe to the Reason Podcast. Nick Gillespie: Joe, you were actually in the CIA for a number of years, and you've said that the agency, of all things, is what got you started thinking about doing something about your time in the agency. What was going on there? Joe Weisberg: One of the things that I sort of absorbed when I was there— I didn't think I was going to ever write about spies, or anything like that, but I still absorbed a lot that came out later. So, I was very, I worked with a lot of people who were married and had families, and like me, were lying to the people around them. And I didn't have kids, and I wasn't married at the time, but colleagues of mine had to lie to their kids about what they did—couldn't tell them they worked at the CIA, until a certain point that was known inside the agency as "the talk." When you sat down with your kids—and nobody told you what age to do it or anything like that, you had to determine for yourself when your kids were mature enough to keep it secret. And then you sat down, and you told them what you really did for a living. And if you thought your kids were maybe never mature enough for that, there were even occasionally some people who never told their kids. But that idea, even when I was there, I thought that was like, pretty intense. And after I'd left the CIA and sort of was no longer a part of that culture, the further away I got, the... In a way... I don't want to... It's not just that it seemed odd to me, it started to seem really like the most emotional and dramatic thing. And when I was[...]

Roseanne Returns to Television, Older but Not Necessarily Wiser

Sat, 24 Mar 2018 10:00:00 -0400

The Terror. AMC. Monday, March 26, 9 p.m. Roseanne. ABC. Tuesday, March 27, 8 p.m. In a 500-channel world where programming demand is sucking Hollywood's creative blood dry, resulting in remakes—S.W.A.T.! Dynasty! Lethal Weapon!—the news that AMC was working on a series called The Terror flipped a lot of lids. This film was the most infamously cheapjack production of any of the 400 or so made by penny-ante director Roger Corman. It was made with production days, sets, and actors swiped from other Corman flicks (including three shooting days extorted from a failing Boris Karloff). It boasted a script written in a single weekend! It had Jack Nicholson tongue-kissing a corpse (severe penalties will be levied on anyone who tells an Anjelica Huston joke here) vying with screen time with a bird that eats people's eyes! Imagine this, week after week, laying waste to the minds of an entire generation. Well, don't. It turns out The Terror isn't a remake after all but a brand new series based on Dan Simmons' epic "What If?" novel about an altogether real British naval expedition that disappeared in the Arctic in the mid-1840s. And though I still tremble with nihilistic thrill at the depravity potential of a Corman remake for TV, the fact is that AMC's production of The Terror is a slow-burning horror-genre delight. The voyage upon which The Terror is based set out from Great Britain in 1845 intending to chart the route from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans through the Northwest Passage. But the two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, were caught in the ice and abandoned by their crews, who were never seen again. Reports of Inuit Indian tribes in the area gave rise to rumors of madness, murder and cannibalism; the examination of some skeletal remains discovered 150 years later suggested that at least some of the stories might be true. Simmons, in his novel, used a Ten Little Indians scenario, with crewmen disappearing from the ship one by one, to launch a book that was much more than a murder mystery. The Terror's writer-director David Kajganich has taken a slightly different route, using the star-crossed expedition's hardships to invite views to wonder if its troubles are super- or supra-natural. There is evidence for either, or both. Using a remarkable set built in Hungary, Kajganich's cameras emphasize the vast bleakness of the Arctic and its relative imperviousness to the flimsy technology of the day. Even knowing where they were was a major accomplishment for the expedition's leaders; decades before radio or radar, and traversing an area where the magnetic north pole rendered compass results dubious, the ships' navigators had to rely solely on their charts of the stars—when the weather allowed. The strength of the ice, the unpredictability of weather and ocean currents, and the shortage (and possible contamination) of provisions all conspire against the expedition. Then there's that half-glimpsed-in-the-twilight beast, so improbable that the officers suspect it's a hallucination of their overworked crewmen. Their skepticism also extends to the occasional straggling Inuits they encounter, all warning to run in the face of a nameless dread. As trouble mounts, one officer declares: "In this place, technology still bends the knee to luck." Retorts another: "This place wants us dead!" Simmons' novel was originally optioned for a feature film, but the decision to stretch it out to a mini-series was a wise one, allowing The Terror a leisurely development of the crew's growing anxieties. (Whether AMC viewers, accustomed to the rapid brains-eaten-per-minute count of its Walking Dead series, will like the slow-burn pace is another matter.) The Terror's virtually all-British cast is extraordinarily effective at teasing out the dread, teaspo[...]

Death of a Clown

Fri, 23 Mar 2018 12:50:00 -0400

The story was all over the news this week: The great clown Bozo is dead. This may have confused those of you who remember Bozo the Clown dying in 2008, or in 1997, or in 1994, or in 1991, or even (for you oldtimers) in 1967. A lot of men have played Bozo over the years, and the only one who's even arguably more famous than the character is Willard Scott. In this case the dead clown is Frank Avruch, who let the spirit of Bozo possess him on Boston's WHDH-TV from 1959 to 1970. The fact that more than one performer played Bozo isn't odd in itself; we're used to seeing different actors take on such roles as Batman, Romeo, Sherlock Holmes, Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln, and other figures from our shared cultural mythology. What's strange, looking back from 2018, is that there was a time when dozens of cities all had their own Bozos, each playing the same character in a separate locally produced show. Some programs are syndicated; Bozo was franchised. (Technically, it was both: Avruch's version of the series was eventually aired on other stations as well, so a town without a clown of its own could still have a Bozo show.) One of those Bozos ran for president. Yes, I know: Lots of bozos have run for president, and some of them have won. But Larry Harmon, the harlequin who bought Bozo's licensing rights in the 1950s and then decided to let a hundred TV clowns bloom, decided to toss his nose into the ring in 1984, running for the White House as the nominee of the Bozo Party. The Washington Post covered his announcement: Addressing an assemblage of 55 reporters and photographers at the National Press Club, Harmon, or Bozo, as he prefers to be called, warned of the arms race, the burgeoning national debt, and pledged "a few steps backward" to correct the major ills of the nation. The press, which over the years has seen dark-horse candidates for office prove successful, sat for 25 minutes without the least smile, until a reporter grinned for no discernible reason. The video below begins with a bland Today Show interview with Harmon that touches briefly on his campaign; at the 4:37 mark it cuts to footage from a far livelier campaign rally at Columbia University, featuring a punk band called the Nasty Bozos: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Harmon was a write-in candidate and not every state reports its write-in ballots, so it is unclear how many votes he received. But he got at least 21. I'll wrap up with a story about another late Bozo. 2007 saw the death of Ward McIntyre, who for six years served as the Bozo of Birmingham, Alabama. A poster at Democratic Underground (remember Democratic Underground?) reacted with this reminiscence: I first met Ward when I was in my late teens and working as a 'gofer' for a local ad agency....About 10 years later Bozo had come to local TV. It wasn't one of my favorite shows but it came on right before the evening news. So sometimes I'd catch the last few minutes. I knew most of the local broadcasters and Bozo sounded somewhat familiar, but I just couldn't quite place the voice. The character used kind of a raspy falsetto. One evening I bumped into Ward at a downtown watering hole. He waved me over to his table. I sat down, got a drink, and we chatted about this and that. And then it hit me. I looked at him and grinned. "BOZO!" A pained look came across his face. "Shhhhh. If you tell anybody I'll have to kick your ass!" Being Bozo was SO totally against his image. It had been a closely held secret. Hence the weird voice he used. I guess the money was good, though. And I never told. Until now. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]

Arthur Miller’s Daughter Humanizes Playwright in New Documentary

Fri, 16 Mar 2018 15:00:00 -0400

Arthur Miller: Writer. HBO. Monday, March 19, 8 p.m. The public image of the playwright Arthur Miller has always been chilly and cerebral, perhaps best summed up in his explanation to a reporter of why he wouldn't be attending the funeral of his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe, who committed suicide 18 months after they split: "She won't be there." The signal achievement of Arthur Miller: Writer, a documentary made by his writer-filmmaker daughter Rebecca, is to introduce some color into that black-and-white picture. In old home movies and impromptu interviews shot over she shot over two decades, her father is seen joking, singing, building furniture (complete with the requisite cursing: "Goddamn angles drive you crazy," he mutters when pieces don't fit together), and swapping family folktales with his brothers and sisters. Even his brief reminiscences about the stormy marriage to Monroe, though they sound cold (he couldn't do any writing during the marriage because "I guess, to put it frankly, I was taking care of her," which was "the most thankless job you can possibly imagine"), are spoken with an obvious pain that belies the wintry words. Humanizing her father is at once the most singularly successful element of Rebecca Miller's documentary, and the source of its failures. "He lived through so many different eras, almost like different lifetimes," she says early during her narration of the documentary, an insightful observation. There is Miller the star playwright, rattling Broadway with go-for-the-throat accounts of the crumbling dynamics of families whose patriarchs have been undone by outside forces: the delusional, failed Willie Loman of Death of a Salesman, or the sexually obsessed longshoreman Eddie Carbone of A View from the Bridge. Then there's Miller the brave (and a bit preening) moralist of the Red Scares in the 1950s, projecting a carefully constructed image of an innocent and courageous writer being persecuted for showing character at a time when, in the words of his daughter, "it was dangerous to be a liberal and an artist." There's also Miller the unwilling prey of the tabloids during the marriage to Monroe. Or Miller the gentle husband and dad, who when an adolescent Rebecca asked for a stereo, built one from scratch using discarded stuff he found at the dump. The Miller Rebecca knew best was the affectionate dad, finally getting domesticity and parenthood right, mostly, when his best work was well behind him, and the sections of Writer devoted to him ring mostly warm and true. They also have a revelatory feel that's mostly not present the rest of the time; so much has been written about Miller's work and his public persona that there's probably little new left to tell. (Indeed, a number of soundbites that seem to come from Rebecca's interviews with her father are actually him reading from Timebend, Miller's 1987 autobiography.) When Writer veers into other areas, it is not always as forthcoming. The account of Miller's marriage to Monroe concentrates entirely on her downward swirl of barbiturates and booze and doesn't mention that at least a small part of it probably resulted from her reading in his diary that he considered her an embarrassment around his friends. (Give Rebecca credit, though, for recounting the critical outrage at the vindictive and wildly egocentric play After the Fall, written by Miller after Monroe's death. The Village Voice suggested it be retitled I Slept with Marilyn Monroe.) Much worse is her fractured retelling of the events surrounding Miller's confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its investigation of Hollywood's Communist Party in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Director Elia Kazan, Miller's best f[...]

Will and Grace Botches the Gay Wedding Cake Fight

Fri, 16 Mar 2018 14:30:00 -0400

Granted, we shouldn't expect complex legal analysis from television comedies, even ones that have lawyers in them. But I thought that Will & Grace, of all shows, would at least grasp the basics of the conflict around conservative bakers and gay wedding cakes. Alas: Thursday's Will & Grace, in its comic pursuit of laughs connected to current gay issues, gets the entire wedding cake debate absurdly wrong in its attempt to flip the script. In "The Beefcake and the Cake Beef," over-the-top wealthy gadfly Karen, a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, is rejected by a bakery when she tries to get a cake made with "MAGA" on it for a birthday party for the president. Here's the set-up: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> Refusing Karen is well within the bakery's rights, and it will be regardless of how the Masterpiece Cakeshop case before the Supreme Court comes out. A pro-Trump message on a cake is speech. A cake baker, a T-shirt printer, or a book publisher cannot be forced to print speech that he or she disagrees with. That's called compelled speech. The show ends up taking this role reversal to a weird and terrible conclusion. Grace, who hates Trump and all he stands for, pushes the bakery to make Karen's MAGA cake, going so far as to raise the specter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) coming after them. To its credit, the show takes the argument to its natural, terrible conclusion: The episode ends with the baker reluctantly baking a customer a cake with a swastika on it. But in doing so, the show pretty much gets everything backwards. It mentions that the ACLU has represented the free speech rights of Nazis, and this is true, but the show doesn't even grasp the basic idea that the bakery has speech rights too. When it comes to compelled speech, the ACLU would likely be defending the bakery here. The argument about gay wedding cakes is fundamentally about what counts as speech and expression. The ACLU is representing gay couples in these wedding cases, including Masterpiece Cakeshop. Their argument is not that bakers have to cook whatever cake their customers demand. They're arguing that this isn't a speech or religious freedom issue and that it's foundationally about denying service to gay people in violation of public accommodation laws. They don't see wedding cakes and other wedding products as a form of expressive speech. The writing on the cake, yes. The cake itself, no. I think the ACLU is wrong here. So does the Reason Foundation, which publishes this site: We've submitted an amicus brief supporting the bakery and arguing that custom-made wedding goods like cakes and floral arrangements count as expressive speech and therefore that the government cannot force businesses to provide them. But even some libertarians disagree. Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy (hosted here at Reason) submitted an amicus brief supporting the opposite side. Within this dispute, though, neither side argues that a baker should be required to make any cake that any customer wants. People do not give up their rights to free speech (and more important, the right to refuse to communicate some speech) just because they've opened a business and serve the public. Everything about this debate is where those boundaries of speech sit. So Grace was completely in the wrong when she browbeat the bakery into making Karen's MAGA cake. By doing so, she treated those bakers as though they're nothing but servants with no say in what they may do—which, ironically, makes her just like Karen.[...]