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Published: Fri, 28 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Fri, 28 Apr 2017 13:28:01 -0400


That Time New York's Department of Education Decided to Teach Kids What an 'Oreo' Is

Fri, 28 Apr 2017 09:35:00 -0400

For your "They Used to Do Children's Television Differently" files, here's a moment from the '70s show Vegetable Soup. Produced by the New York State Department of Education from 1975 to 1978, this multicultural-themed series aired on both PBS and NBC; the scene embedded below celebrates black slang. Not a bad idea for a segment. But at the 1:01 mark they casually throw in an expression that these days would've been vetoed long before the show got to air:

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For the full episode, which originally aired in 1975, go here. For a nightmare-nostalgia look back at the surreal and disturbing side of the show, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

ESPN Will Get Better, or Fail Trying

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 18:23:00 -0400

ESPN, which has lost millions of subscribers in recent years, announced it would be laying off 100 employees, mostly on-air talent, as The Hollywood Reporter reports—they are not the first big layoffs at the sports network, but represent ESPN's continuing efforts to respond to increased competitive pressure as fortress cable's hold on Americans' viewing habits continues to weaken. ESPN makes the majority of its money—two thirds of its revenue in 2013—on carriage fees. If you have a cable or satellite package with ESPN on it, the network gets a cut of your monthly bill whether you watch or not. The rest comes from advertising. In 2015, cable companies lost 1.1 million subscribers, four times the number they lost in 2014. Last year, 1.8 million people cut the cord. According to Disney, which owns ESPN, the network lost 3 million subscribers in 2015, and is down to 92 million from 99 million at the end of 2013. Competing cable networks don't always benefit—in February Fox Sports 1 lost even more subscribers than ESPN, and from a smaller base. Nevertheless, ESPN has the kind of long-term contracts for broadcasting rights other cable sports networks aren't saddled with. It spends more on content a year, $7.3 billion, than Netflix, which spends $5 billion. It's spending $166 million a year through 2036 on the ACC alone. According to Motley Fool, ESPN last year had $33.27 billion in long-term broadcast rights contract obligations for MLB, the NBA, the NFL, and the college football playoffs. ESPN has been successful for a long time, and according to Disney revenue and operating income for its cable networks still rose three percent in the first three quarters of 2016, as Motley Fool reported, a slowdown from previous years. ESPN enjoyed the benefits of being the first network to do what it did—dedicate its broadcasts entirely* to sports—and the benefits of the cable monopolies. Almost since its inception, the cable industry has been regulated at the local, state, and federal level. As a 1984 Cato report explained, federal regulations brought the cable industry to a near halt between 1966 and 1975. After courts and bureaucrats started rolling back these regulations, local governments stepped in with new regulations and controls. Clint Bolick noted in the 1984 report the danger posed by local regulation and franchising prompted by the fallacious idea that cable was a natural monopoly. Such predictions of natural monopoly formation, Bolick explained, tended to be self-fulfilling prophecies because of the government intervention they yield. By 2005, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) was concerned in the other direction, spending several years trying to combat the rising cable prices enabled by local government franchise regulations and the expansive bundles that came with them—George W. Bush's FCC wanted to force cable companies to offer more a la carte choices, but in the end, as Peter Suderman noted in 2015, it was market forces, and the internet in particular, that yielded the "great cable unbundling." ESPN's broadcasting rights binge may have been a response to those trends. Actual games are the currency of sports broadcasting. But ratings are down in many sports too. NFL ratings fell 9 percent last year (ESPN is paying $1.9 billion a year for the broadcasting rights to Monday Night Football through 2021). Major league has seen some ratings improvements after years of decline. At the same time as going all-in on being the home of broadcast sports, ESPN has moved away from the idea of all-sports coverage. Its own public editor reported of regular complaints about the network's foray into politics (generally of a specific left-wing variety). "Like it or not, ESPN isn't sticking to sports," Jim Brady wrote earlier this month. He repeated his assertion that disentangling sports and politics was a "fool's errand" while acknowledging that looking back at the last 20 years of ESPN's flagship news show Sports Center it was "noticeable how little politics and culture intruded into the ts[...]

The Handmaid’s Tale Lands an Excellent Adaptation

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 15:00:00 -0400

Great News. NBC. Tuesday, April 25, 9 p.m. The Handmaid's Tale. Hulu. Available Wednesday, April 26. When The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's account of a totalitarian takeover of America by a religious cult that reduces women to breeding stock, first appeared in 1985, it was instantly acclaimed as a feminist 1984 that exposed the misogyny not only of evangelical Christianity but of men in general. In short order, Atwood's novel was adapted to stage productions, radio plays, a ballet, an opera, and a messy Volker Schlöndorff film starring Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway. But the precise nature of Atwood's message was always a little more slippery than feminist critics let on. The Handmaid's Tale was written while Atwood was living in what was then still known as West Berlin, closely studying what was happening on the other side of the wall, and many of the novel's totalitarian devices (particularly self-criticism sessions in which women rip their own psyches to shreds at a brainwashing factory suggestively called the Red Center) are drawn from the playbook not of the Westboro Baptist Church but the Marxist regimes of the day. And the rigid class system of The Handmaid's Tale, in which some groups of women (particularly wives, daughters, and concubines of male leaders) were treated much better than male laborers seemed to mock male chauvinism less that the Soviet system of nomenklatura privilege. Then there are the anti-porn rants of the government apparatchiks in The Handmaid's Tale and their conflation of sex with rape, which sound suspiciously like the rhetoric of 1980s feminist groups like Take Back the Night. Was Atwood really stroking feminists, or needling them? That ambiguity remains in the latest and, by far, best incarnation of The Handmaid's Tale, the 10-hour miniseries that Hulu unveils this week. Though the three episodes Hulu made available for review lean somewhat more heavily on the tensions of resistance to a powerful totalitarian state, the show still seems to be firing potshots at targets all along the ideological and cultural spectrums. Certainly the feminist element is still strongly present. Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men stars as Offred—a contraction of the phrase "of Fred," connoting her status as the indentured sexual surrogate of Frederick Waterford (Josesph Fiennes), a high-ranking member of the ruling class of Gilead, the theocracy that has replaced the United States. What, exactly, led to the creation of Gilead remains largely untold, though there are references to a mass assassination of the U.S. Senate and vast toxic waste spills. (Whether the latter were contributors to or results of the government's collapse is unclear.) What is certain is that the new regime has imposed a strict caste system that is particularly brutal toward women. With female sterility rampant in the wake of the environmental catastrophes, the few women like Offred who are still capable of bearing children have been designated "handmaids," assigned to powerful men ("commanders") for a monthly session of joyless, clinical sex aimed solely at reproduction. However demeaning, the breeding is less hazardous than the ferocious jealousies of the wives of commanders, the domestic-servant Marthas, and even other handmaids, who are encouraged to spy on one another. One of the most horrifying scenes in The Handmaid's Tale is a Dante-esque tableau of handmaids chanting "Whose fault? Her fault!" at a gang-rape victim. Missteps are fatal: Either slowly, through reassignment to cleaning up toxic waste in the ominously named Colonies, or quickly, through impromptu hangings. The city bristles with dangling corpses of errant women, renegade Catholics and Quakers, and gay men, the latter chillingly referred to as "gender traitors." In a society so ruthlessly Stalinist in methodology if not ideology, so riddled with informers and secret police, resistance seems not just impossible but inconceivable. When Offred gets an invitation to "join us" from an underground group (delivered [...]

Bill O'Reilly: The Kennedy Conspiracy Years

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 12:30:00 -0400

As we await the next stage of Bill O'Reilly's career—RT host? FCC commissioner? down-on-his-luck high-school basketball coach?—let's set the Wayback Machine for 1979 and check out one of the fallen Fox star's earlier incarnations. Before he was the Joe Pyne of cable news, before he was the tantrum-prone anchor of a syndicated tabloid show, O'Reilly was a twentysomething baby-boomer with a moptop of '70s hair and a yen to do investigative journalism. In 1979, when JFK assassinology was arguably at its peak, he tackled the death of John F. Kennedy in a report for a TV station in Connecticut. In the clip below, O'Reilly focuses on one of the odder byways of the JFK theories: the so-called "umbrella man" who raised a parasol shortly before the president was shot.

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After the station re-aired that in 2013, an anchor there posted an item promoting it online. "Look for our Carter-era disco inspired logo, the size of the tape cassette recorder Bill carried with him, his powder blue bell bottom pants, and the copious chest hair he showed off to the viewers," he advised, adding: "Hey, it was the '70s." As for the actual theory explored in the report, he described it as "fascinating yet somewhat bizarre."

There is, for the record, a non-conspiratorial explanation for the umbrella man; Errol Morris covers that here. O'Reilly returned to the JFK assassination during his tenure on Inside Edition; you can watch that happen here. More recently, O'Reilly wrote—or at least put his name on—a book called Killing Kennedy; I haven't read it, but a text search at Amazon reveals that the word "umbrella" doesn't appear in it.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. And I suppose I should take this opportunity to promote my book on the history of American conspiracy theories, right? Check that out here.)

Killing Bill O'Reilly

Wed, 19 Apr 2017 14:40:00 -0400

(image) You young folks might not believe this, but there were a few months in 2000 and 2001 when Bill O'Reilly felt refreshing. It's not that the Fox News host was all that better then than now: He was already a blustering blowhard with a transparently phony man-of-the-people schtick. It's just that he's the guy who knocked Larry King Live off its ratings pedestal, and at that point Larry King was so damn tired that you can't imagine what a relief it was to have a new 800-pound gorilla in town. Besides, that changing of the guard didn't just mean that one show was drawing more viewers than another. With King dethroned, a new era of more explicitly opinionated cable news was fully underway; and as terrible as the new order could be, I still preferred it to what came before.

If anyone at CNN came close to the impossible goal of not having a point of view, it was King, if only because he had reached some ethereal state where he didn't seem to know who he was interviewing half the time. O'Reilly may have had some dumb opinions, but at least he had opinions in the first place, and at least he wasn't shy about owning them. He even had some opinions that were unusual for Fox: At various points he has opposed the death penalty, endorsed campaign finance reform, and otherwise broken with the current conservative consensus. In the cable-news environment at the turn of the century, this felt almost like authenticity.

The O'Reilly age soon felt nearly as predictable and contrived as the order it had overthrown, and O'Reilly himself quickly showed us how often he could be a bully or a fool. Fortunately, still more alternatives were on the way: The internet became a mass phenomenon, and for all its flaws the net is still a great leap forward over the cable crew. And now O'Reilly's reign is coming to a formal end: He faces multiple credible accusations of sexual harassment, and with antsy advertisers pulling out of his show Fox has decided to cancel it.

I can't say I'll miss him. But I'll remember those months, or that month—or maybe it was just a week?—when the buffoon on Fox at 8:00 represented a step forward. As Jeremy Lott once put it, "He at least used to be an interesting crank."

Bonus video: That time O'Reilly told Reason's Jacob Sullum, "don't come near my family":

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Documentaries Put Spotlight on War Propaganda

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 15:00:00 -0400

Five Came Back. Available now on Netflix. American Experience: The Great War. PBS. Monday, April 10, 9 p.m. Growing up, I was completely absorbed by a CBS documentary series called The 20th Century that aired on weekends from 1958 1966. Every other episode, it seemed, was about a war. At the time, I thought the main reason was probably that Walter Cronkite, the narrator, had become famous as a combat correspondent. That may have had something to do with it, but with the passage of years and a widened perspective, I've come to suspect that the real reason is that war—preparing for it, fighting it, recovering from it, and arguing about what it meant—was the century's principal activity. From the decapitation fad during the Boxer War that opened the century to the trigger-happy streets of Mogadishu that closed it, war was a global avocation. TV this week takes a look back at the century's two biggest bangs with a pair of magnificent three-part documentaries. PBS' American Experience series spends six hours dissecting World War I (part of it, anyway; we'll get back to that), while Netflix explores how Hollywood enthusiastically picked up the propaganda gun during World War II with Five Came Back. Both shows convey an astonishing amount of information with a mixture of style and simplicity that other filmmakers could study to immense profit. World War I, as American Experience: The Great War paraphrases a conclusion already reached by the cast of Friends many years ago, is probably the biggest event in U.S. history of which Americans know next to nothing. In some ways, that will still be true even if they watch The Great War, which views the events strictly through the lens of how Americans were affected. The welter of royal bloodlines and backdoor treaties that turned a seemingly isolated event—the assassination of an Austrian nobleman by a Serbian teenager—into a worldwide conflagration involving Russia, France, England, Italy, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, Japan, and the United States is barely explored. Nor are many of the war's geopolitical shockwaves. Even the implosion of Russia's czarist government, which would eventually result in a Cold War that for nearly five decades threatened to turn apocalyptically hot, only gets a minute or two. What The Great War does do, in truly spectacular fashion. is limn the voracious expansion of the American government midwifed by World War I. When Woodrow Wilson's uncertain attempts at neutrality floundered and he called for a declaration of war in 1917 because "the world must be made safe for democracy," it made the United States unique among the combatants, notes a historian in The Great War: "It was not fighting for survival. It was fighting for an ideal." But as The Great War documents in horrifying detail, that ideal was the creation of a Leviathan state with unprecedented power: to draft young men and send them to a foreign war. To set price controls on food and impose dietary restrictions. To arrest and even deport political dissidents. To create a powerful government propaganda organ aimed not at enemy nations but the American people. (It expanded from one employee to about 100,000 in a couple of months.) To send goon squads known as Liberty Loan Committees roaming neighborhoods offering deals on war bonds that couldn't be refused. Wilson's actions did not go without dissent (signs at a protest march in New York City: MR. PRESIDENT, WHY NOT MAKE AMERICA SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY?) and dissent did not go without punishment. Wilson demanded, and got, a new Espionage Act that made it a crime to collect, record and disseminate information "harmful to the war effort," and he wielded it like an axe against the anti-war movement. By the fall of 1917, the federal government opened prison camps in Utah, Georgia, and North Carolina to house all the "security threats" Wilson's Justice Department had detected. Wilso[...]

What HBO's Veep Gets Right About Politics: New at Reason

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 13:45:00 -0400

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Every television series based in the White House inevitably has to grapple with one fundamental question: what motivates politicians?

And it's HBO's hit comedy Veep, now entering its sixth season, that's actually figured it out.

Almost two decades ago, The West Wing presented one answer in the form of President Jed Bartlet, whom creator Aaron Sorkin imagined as a straight-talking statesman and public servant who transcends partisan politics and puts the common good of the American people above all else.

If The West Wing is idealistic White House fan fiction, Netflix's breakout series, House of Cards, is its dark reflection.

House of Cards imagines a Washington, D.C. in which corruption and blackmail are the murky waters in which politicians swim. In this world, only the predators survive, and Frank Underwood and his wife and co-conspirator Claire devour anything in their paths.

But it's Veep, that actually gets American politics right. It doesn't fantasize that politicians are flawed but heroic figures, nor the inverse that they are inherently sinister monsters. Veep proposes something more radical: Politicians aren't special.

Political theorists call this simple insight, that self-interest is the driving force of politics, public choice theory—a theory Nobel Prize-Winning economist James Buchanan called "politics without romance."

Watch the video above for the full explanation. Approximately 4:30. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Meredith Bragg.

What HBO's Veep Gets Right About Politics

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 13:22:00 -0400

Every television series based in the White House inevitably has to grapple with one fundamental question: what motivates politicians?

And it's HBO's hit comedy Veep, now entering its sixth season, that's actually figured it out.

Almost two decades ago, The West Wing presented one answer in the form of President Jed Bartlet, whom creator Aaron Sorkin imagined as a straight-talking statesman and public servant who transcends partisan politics and puts the common good of the American people above all else.

If The West Wing is idealistic White House fan fiction, Netflix's breakout series, House of Cards, is its dark reflection.

House of Cards imagines a Washington, D.C. in which corruption and blackmail are the murky waters in which politicians swim. In this world, only the predators survive, and Frank Underwood and his wife and co-conspirator Claire devour anything in their paths.

But it's Veep, that actually gets American politics right. It doesn't fantasize that politicians are flawed but heroic figures, nor the inverse that they are inherently sinister monsters. Veep proposes something more radical: Politicians aren't special.

Political theorists call this simple insight, that self-interest is the driving force of politics, public choice theory—a theory Nobel Prize-Winning economist James Buchanan called "politics without romance."

Watch the video above for the full explanation. Approximately 4:30. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Meredith Bragg.

The Great Beavis and Butt-Head Panic of '93

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 09:40:00 -0400

(image) These days Mike Judge is an acclaimed satirist and the subject of a respectful profile in The New York Times Magazine. But in 1993 he was the man behind Beavis and Butt-Head, an MTV series that middlebrow opinion almost universally denounced as a celebration of nihilism and stupidity. Worse yet, parents blamed it for allegedly inspiring various acts of mayhem around the country, including a fire that killed a girl.

Not everyone joined the anti-Beavis crusade, but even the folks who stuck up for the show often took it for granted that the program was dumb trash. They just figured that kids always like dumb trash and eventually will grow out of it. (Check out this column by Mike Littwin, who compares Beavis and Butt-Head to the Mad magazine of his youth—not because he recognizes Mad as a place that sometimes published sharp satire, but because he thinks Mad was dumb too.) There were a few critics who noticed that the series mocked rather than glorified its title characters. But speaking as someone who made that argument at the time, I can tell you that we weren't exactly the dominant perspective.

You don't have to take my word for that. Just watch what happened when The McLaughlin Group tackled the topic.

After host John McLaughlin sets the tone for the segment by asking whether Beavis and Butt-Head should be banned, panelist Eleanor Clift suggests that the show "celebrates underachievement" and declares it a "part of the dumbing down of television." (This just as TV's golden age was about to bloom.) McLaughlin then notes that there is "a whole other school of thought" in which the series is a satire that lampoons its own audience. The other members of the panel start to chuckle, and one mutters "Yeah, right"; Fred Barnes declares, with the look of a man who is sure he's being clever, "John, if you believe that, I have one thing to say to you: 'What a dork!'" McLaughlin himself smirks a bit, and then it's back to bashing the show, with Chris Matthews saying the mother of the dead girl should sue MTV:

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Twenty-four years later, looking at Beavis and Butt-Head in the context of Judge's full body of work, the theory that set off that scoffing seems obviously true. But you shouldn't get too smug about those People From The Past who don't know as much as us Modern Folk do. There's a moment in that discussion when Clift goes off on a little rap about Generation X. As you listen to her spouting what were already moldy clichés back then, ponder how much of what she was reciting is being recycled almost unchanged for another demographic cohort today.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For my comments on that New York Times profile of Mike Judge, go here.)

The Mind of Mike Judge

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 13:37:00 -0400

(image) Willy Staley has written an entertaining profile of Mike Judge for The New York Times Magazine; if you like the writer/director/actor's work at all, I recommend reading it. I don't want to spoil any of the article's anecdotes by quoting them here, so instead I'll highlight this passage:

If you set aside his long-running TV show "King of the Hill," which is much too loving to be considered satire, Judge's corpus of work cleaves neatly into two pieces. In one, people are driven nearly to ruin in their efforts to escape the crush of immense managerial apparatuses ("Office Space," "Extract"). In the other, we see the opposite—imbeciles left completely and terrifyingly to their own devices ("Beavis and Butt-Head," "Idiocracy"). "Silicon Valley," remarkably, fuses both of these impulses. The tech world it skewers is the most dynamic sector of our economy, possibly representing the greatest concentration of brainpower and capital ever seen in human history, creating products that insinuate their control into every last corner of our lives. And yet it's nevertheless lousy with man-children who seem to want nothing more than the ability to prolong adolescence, theirs and ours alike, and have the means and the license and the asinine product ideas to do so.

(image) With one big caveat, I think that's a nice summary of how Judge's perspective manifests itself in his work. (It also helps explain why I prefer Office Space to Idiocracy: Both are funny, but only one really resonates with my worldview.) The caveat is that King of the Hill was shot through with satire, no matter how loving it could be. It's just that the series was a lot more willing to leave an imbecile to his own devices. Hank was naive, Bill was a loser, Boomhauer was barely coherent, and Dale was a raving paranoid, but they balanced each other out; everyone's good qualities made up for everyone else's flaws. The show's most reliable villains were interfering outsiders: regulators, ideologues, managers with MBAs, Ritalin-dispensing doctors. When such forces left it alone, their little suburb was able to take care of itself. You'll have to decide for yourself how much that represents a sunny side to Judge's outlook and how much it merely reflects the utopian conventions of the small-town sitcom.

Judge's current project is Silicon Valley, and most of the Times profile is focused on that. The show's "implicit suggestion," Staley writes, "is that if you want to see how the tech world's ostensibly freewheeling nature conceals a willingness to be party to systems of bureaucratic and governmental control—not to mention how it runs on a crass sort of hucksterism, and how it might represent a terrible misallocation of wealth and intellect—all you really need to do is look straight at it." To read the rest, go here.

Guerrilla Lobs Bombs at Romanticized History of ‘70s Violence

Fri, 07 Apr 2017 15:30:00 -0400

Guerrilla. Showtime. Sunday, April 16, 9 p.m. Before we get to everything else about Showtime's Guerrilla—how it's intelligent, insightful, resonant, well-acted and all that—let's deal with the mysterious question of why a show about an underground black-nationalist terrorist group of the 1970s, written and produced by Americans, would be set in Great Britain. To be sure, London had its share (actually, much more than its share) of political terrorism in the 1970s. But nearly all of it was connected to the issue of Northern Ireland. Neither the British black-power movement nor the government response to it ever reached the extreme levels of violence that wracked their counterparts in the United States; there was no Mayfair chapter of the Black Panthers. The 1970s underground group that most closely resembles the one portrayed in Guerrilla was the Black Liberation Army, the Panther offshoot for which JoAnne Chesimard, a.k.a. Assata Shakur, robbed banks and shot it out with cops, but it was a purely American affair. The most obvious answer for the show's peculiar venue is that it's a co-production with Great Britain's Sky TV, which seemed to suggest that Guerrilla's creator-writer-director John Ridley, who won a screenwriting Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, couldn't round up enough funding within the United States. Why that should be is just one of those Hollywood imponderables. Guerrilla is a thoughtful and undidactic look at a time when the left went from nutty to nihilistic. In one 18-month stretch of 1971-72, the FBI recorded more than 2,500 bombings in the United States, more than five a day. And much of the revolutionary violence was directed not at the war in Vietnam, where American involvement was in steep decline, but at racial iniquities. Underground American groups like the Weathermen and the Symbionese Liberation Army explicitly declared that their violence was committed to combat black oppression, even if the fingers that were pulling the triggers or lighting the fuses were, in many cases, white. The Black Lives Matter movement is different in many, many ways, but the echoes are there nonetheless. Frieda Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) and Babou Ceesay ('71) play the politically engaged young lovers Jas and Marcus. Marcus is a black teacher whose revolutionary impulses are strictly cerebral; trying to blaze the way for the fulfillment of Ho Chi Minh's dictum that "when the prison gates are opened, the real dragon will fly out," he spends his spare time teaching classes at a London jail, educating future cadres. Jas, a nurse and a red diaper baby with daddy issues (her father is in jail in India for killing soldiers), is less patient. "I have to be with someone who wants to do things," she warns Marcus. They're both jolted to action when a black friend is beaten to death by cops at a protest rally. But they immediately learn how easily violence can spiral out of control, when, breaking a Marxist street criminal named Dhari (Nathaniel Martello-White, Red Tails) out of jail in hopes that he can provide their movement with more muscular leadership, they accidentally kill a guard. Marcus is stricken by the blood on his hands, even when the hard-boiled Dhari scoffs, "No use talking you didn't do this, you didn't do that—you're in it." Jas, on the other hand, is enchanted to hear news reports speculate that their little group must be veteran revolutionaries, perhaps even an offshoot of the Panthers. "We're so fucking cool," she exclaims to Marcus, even as her newfound notoriety spurs her into new fits of rage. Ridley's keenly observant script clearly draws on the multiplying accounts of life underground by 1970s survivors who've come in from the cold, not only for details of the grungy day-to-day existence (Jas and Marcus at one point are reduced to [...]

Lousy News: Red Eye, One of Cable TV’s Best Shows, Gets Canceled

Tue, 04 Apr 2017 02:20:00 -0400

On Monday afternoon, without any real prior warning, the on-air talent and behind-the-scenes weirdos of Red Eye, the past decade's most oddly compelling cable news program, were told by Fox management that their show would be euthanized this Friday. Thus ends not just the most voluminously friendly venue for Reason staffers over that time period (including at 3 a.m. ET tonight, when I will be on), but also the terra firma in a broadcast micro-climate friendly to those many of us who can't fit neatly into the square (or round) pegs of political media. It's a sad day, y'all. salute to @RedEyeFNC fans who inspired us to do some seriously messed up shit. it was & will remain the strangest show ever to appear on tv. — GregGutfeld (@greggutfeld) April 3, 2017 The show was co-founded and anchored by Greg Gutfeld, a sort of impish hell-spawn of Andrew Breitbart and Johnny Rotten, back in 2007 (watch Reason TV's 2012 interview with Gutfeld here). With co-conspirators Bill Andrew Schulz (*see bottom of post), a spittle-flecked degenerate metrosexual, and Andy Levy, a semi-taciturn libertarian Army vet, the show was both a lifeline for political insomniacs and a Dadaist laboratory for defacing the boundaries of cable news. Examples of such abound in the Twitter timeline of Gutfeld, who continues to co-anchor daily on The Five as well as hosting his own weekly Fox News Channel show. As Nick Gillespie wrote upon the introduction of the latter: For my money, Greg Gutfeld is the most consistently funny and insightful conservative/libertarian critic of the news media and broadly defined culture industry. Certainly, he is the only person on the planet who admires equally both former Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) and post-punk standouts The Melvins (indeed, band founder Buzz Osbourne is a regular guest on various Gutfeld shows). At his best (which is to say, basically every day he shows up for work), Gutfeld casts a hugely wide net of references and knowledge about politics and culture and, most important, is absolutely honest about where he's coming from and why. To be honest, I wish he were more consistently libertarian but what are you gonna do, really? Gutfeld was replaced two years back by the genial comedian Tom Shillue; here's what he was saying tonight: watch #redeye all week! andy hosting 2nit-i'm back on Wed. (on @FallonTonight on tuesday!) More to say later-Tom and Andy still at FNC! — Tom Shillue (@tomshillue) April 3, 2017 So why was the show 86ed? Not the ratings, I don't think—FNC is coming off the most successful quarter in cable news history, and staffers were told it wasn't about numbers. Rather, the network said it wanted more live news at 3 a.m. Well, color me skeptical. As a general rule I do not meddle in the affairs of cable news executives, for they are subtle and quick to anger, but the most generous interpretation of this move is that they aim to maximize the recent public explosion of public interest in political news programming, while maybe saving a buck or two. This strikes me as remarkably pound-foolish at a moment when FNC's junior network features a Red Eye-resonant show, Kennedy, which has been going gangbusters since the election. If you want to solve the median-viewer-is-73 problem, you should be preferencing programs that feature youthful anchors not hidebound to the usual political predictability, IMO. All of which may or may not be fine advice, but I just want to give thanks to everyone at the Red Eye juggernaut for providing viewers a decade of much-needed laughs at the expense of politics, while giving some of us the reps we needed to go out into less friendly climates to talk about this stuff. Your presence will be missed, even as your influence spreads far beyond your broadcast footprint. Here's [...]

Baylor’s Corrupt Athletics Program Takes Center Court in Disgraced

Fri, 31 Mar 2017 14:15:00 -0400

Disgraced. Showtime. Friday, March 31, 9 p.m. Last month, Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey, having just won her 500th game, felt secure enough to let everybody know how she really felt about the rape scandal that has swept through the school's athletic department like a tidal wave for the past 18 months. "I'm just tired of hearing about it," Mulkey told an arena full of fans, then added her remedy: "If somebody [is] around you and they ever say, 'I will never send my daughter to Baylor,' you knock them right in the face." As the fans roared, Mulkey triumphantly dropped the microphone. Presumably the targets Mulkey would like to punch out include the 17 women whose reports of rapes or assaults by Baylor athletes that school officials have admitted covering up since 2011. (Astonishingly, those may turn out to be low-ball numbers; a lawsuit filed in federal court by one victim says there were at least 52 rapes by 31 football players.) Mulkey seemed surprised that, outside the arena, not everybody was cheering. In the uproar that followed, she had to apologize, sort of. ("Knock them right in the face," she explained, was just a metaphor, though she didn't say for what.) But, if the history of Baylor intercollegiate athletics offers us any lesson, there was no need. When it comes to vicious, criminal behavior, the memory of the school's administration, coaching staff and fans can be measured in nanoseconds. Nobody, for instance, remembers Queso, the friendly alley cat who became a sort of informal mascot of Taco Cabana, a little Mexican-food joint just off the Baylor campus that was the hangout of a lot of the school's athletes. In 2011, two Baylor baseball players shot Queso with a pellet gun, beat him with a golf club and finally decapitated and skinned him. Penalty: suspension from the team for a little less than a month. Two years after that, one Baylor basketball player murdered another, a crime that triggered a deluge of revelations about cars, cash, and other goodies provided to the school's athletes by their coaches, under the table and massively in violation of NCAA rules. In an attempt to contain the damage, Baylor's then-basketball coach Dave Bliss tried to frame the murdered player as a drug dealer whose sideline explained his lush lifestyle. When one of the assistant coaches took exception to the frame-up, Bliss threatened to fire him, which turned out to be a catastrophic misstep: The assistant began wearing a wire, and the resulting tapes sank not just Bliss but the entire basketball program. The basketball scandal, too, has been little-mentioned in connection with the rape cover-up, though the parallels—an athletic department that considers itself above not only NCAA rules and state laws but even the standards of human decency—are obvious. That, however, may be about to change with Showtime's airing of Disgraced, a superb documentary that recounts the implosion of Baylor's basketball program in damning detail. At heart, the crisp and intense Disgraced is a true-crime documentary set against a backdrop of big-time college basketball. Better known as a bastion of Southern Baptist morality—dancing was banned on campus until 1996, and homosexuality was on its list of sexual misconduct as late as 2015—than as an athletic factory, Baylor decided in the late 1990s to end decades of basketball ineptitude. In 1999, ignoring hints that he'd flouted NCAA rules while coaching at nearby SMU, Baylor hired Bliss, who in a quarter of a century had amassed more than 450 wins in major-college basketball. Casting his nets far outside the sleepy boundaries of sleepy Waco, Bliss had startling success as a recruiter. And after three mediocre seasons, it looked as if his 2003-04 team might hav[...]

The Neighborhood of Make-Believe Prepares for War

Fri, 31 Mar 2017 13:15:00 -0400

For a week in 1983, life took a dark turn in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Over the course of five episodes of Mister Rogers, a mixture of miscommunication and anxiety convinced King Friday that another neighborhood nearby was stockpiling weapons. The king then ordered a major arms buildup himself, diverting money from the education budget and issuing an order to "conscript everyone in the neighborhood to help put the bombs together." Some of the other characters were willing to go along with this. ("King Friday wouldn't have us doing anything that was going to hurt anybody. He's always trying to keep people safe!" said X the Owl. "We shouldn't call them 'bombs,' though. We should call them 'surprise treats' or something like that."). But the orders did prompt some dissent from Lady Elaine Fairchilde, here as always the puppet most likely to call bullshit on King Friday. The tensions kept ramping up, with gas masks and air raid drills, until Lady Elaine and Lady Aberlin discerned that the other neighborhood had actually been building a bridge, not bombs. This comment on the arms race aired the same month as The Day After, a TV movie about a nuclear war. There was a big wave of worry about whether that film was too scary for children to see, and there were rumors that the Mister Rogers storyline was intended as an alternative to The Day After for young audiences. In fact it had been conceived separately and the timing was a coincidence. Eventually the episodes were withdrawn from rotation. But this month the first two installments of the sequence turned up on YouTube, leading to what may be my all-time favorite Daily Beast headline: The article below that headline concedes that it is unlikely these were posted to protest the president's proposed arms buildup. Though I must admit I kind of like the idea that someone is trying to communicate with the White House by quietly adding old episodes of children's television to YouTube. Anyway. After word spread that these were online, the copyright cadres swung into action and YouTube took them down. (Which is odd, since plenty of other old Mister Rogers episodes are on the site.) Someone else has reposted them, and I'm embedding that video below; the two Neighborhood of Make-Believe sequences start at the 16:19 and 42:09 marks. Watch 'em while you can: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> I can't show you parts three through five, but you can read summaries of them here, here, and here. Incidentally, the episodes embedded above also include some lessons about banks and mints. These spill into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe story when King Friday gets his treasurer Mr. Newmoney on the phone and inquires about how much cash is available for war production. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]

New FCC Rule Could Send TV Back to the Dark Ages of September 2016

Fri, 31 Mar 2017 11:56:00 -0400

(image) Here's how USA Today led its article about a rule change that will probably be adopted next month at the Federal Communications Commission:

TV-station owners may soon go on a buying spree, a consolidation wave that could limit programming options for viewers.

What is the proposal in question? I'll get to the details in a moment. But when it comes to judging how much it might limit your programming options, the key fact is that the rule would undo a regulation adopted in September of last year. Whatever purchases it sets off, we aren't exactly headed for uncharted territory. A more accurate lede would have been "TV-station owners may soon go on a buying spree, a consolidation wave that could end with the way things were six months ago," but I guess that isn't as exciting.

The specific change involves the fact that a single chain of stations isn't allowed to reach more than 39 percent of the country's households. When calculating that 39 percent, regulators used to count outlets on the UHF band as having only half the reach of outlets on the VHF band. Since September, the two sorts of stations have been counted as having the same reach. If the new proposal is adopted, regulators will go back to the old system.

The proposal's opponents say the UHF/VHF distinction shouldn't matter in the era of digital broadcasting. Proponents don't necessarily dispute that, but they suggest that the September change was adopted improperly, that the FCC is likely to lose a current court challenge to the rule, and that the commission should—in the words of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai—"launch a comprehensive review of the national ownership cap, including the UHF discount, later this year." In the past Pai has conceded that the technical reasons for the UHF discount no longer apply, but he also argued that changing it in isolation amounted to tightening the ownership cap through the back door, and that it would be better to consider both issues at once.

Most of this—basically everything but some details of Pai's position—is in the USA Today article, so if you read it to the end you may come to understand that this is essentially a technocratic debate about how to adjust two interdependent rules. But that's all the more reason to bristle at such an alarmist lede. I am capable of responding to regulatory changes at the FCC with enthusiasm, and I am capable of responding to regulatory changes at the FCC with gloom. Temporarily restoring the UHF discount is not going to spark either emotion.