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Published: Tue, 20 Feb 2018 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Tue, 20 Feb 2018 08:52:50 -0500


Netflix Loves the ‘90s in New Teen Comedy Everything Sucks!

Fri, 16 Feb 2018 15:45:00 -0500

Everything Sucks! Available now on Netflix. One of the most enduring cultural contributions of the Baby Boomers is the serio-comic generational-coming-of-age flick. (Whether that's a positive contribution or a cosmic banana peel is a discussion for another time and bottle of Jack Daniels.) Since American Graffiti's teenage archetypes drove off into the night toward Vietnam, the civil rights movement and K-tel hell, every generation, sub-generation and random demo (Hey, remember Generation Jones? The Bay City Rollers will never die!) has gotten a movie or TV series about its teenage years. From The Lords of Flatbush to The Wonder Years, from Pretty in Pink to Freaks and Geeks, getting older never gets old. What's interesting about this is that—except for the records/cassettes/CDs/mp3s they listened to—there doesn't to be a great deal of difference in the generations. Nerds, jocks, bullies, cool kids, bad boys, and mean girls march shoulder to shoulder through the decades in an eternal cycle of mindless oppression and hopeless sexual obsession. Toad, the Vespa-riding geek of American Graffiti, could just as easily be the reeking-of-virginity Finch in the American Pie movies. The bitch-to-the-bone Heathers of Heathers are clones (or maybe it's vice-versa) of the devious Cheerios cheering squad in Glee. Growing up is growing up. So saying that Netflix's back-to-the-'90s Everything Sucks! is derivative isn't a criticism, just an observation. Unlike ABC's Grown-ish, which swallowed The Breakfast Club and then regurgitated it whole, Everything Sucks! isn't a ripoff. But it's trapped by the parameters of the genre. There isn't much to see in it that you haven't run across before: a doomed romance not unlike the one in 16 Candles, a raucous cafeteria scene with echoes of Animal House, botched and malapropistic morning school announcements like Grease. But God knows kids who went to high school in the late 1990s deserve their chance to wallow in fuzzy nostalgia, too, especially since the two decades since they graduated have been largely comprised of economic malaise and Middle Eastern wars. So Everything Sucks! will have to do, and it does. It's funny, if not clamorously so; superbly acted, by a bunch of people you never heard of; and good-hearted, without being Hallmark-ish. You may not be screaming "Author!" at the end of every episode, but you might be smiling and thinking that 1996—existing in an age when the primary teenage use of cell phones was not to tearfully inform parents that a madman with an AR-15 was firing through the school windows—wasn't so bad. That's the year in which Everything Sucks! is set, in Boring, Oregon, which really exists even if the show's precise mise en scène, Boring High School ("Home of the Boring Beavers!") does not. Freshman geeks Luke (Jahi Di'Allo Winston, Feed the Beast), McQuaid (Rio Mangini, Nickelodeon's Bella and the Bulldogs) and Tyler (newcomer Quinn Liebling), frantically searching for protection from the terrors of high school, decide they might have a shot at the Audio-Visual Club. "It's beneath choir," notes one of them hopefully. "It's beneath Weather Club." Indeed, the AV Club turns out to be largely populated of clods and spastics whose closed-circuit TV production of the morning announcements is an ongoing technical disaster. When Luke tries to help out one of the crew, a pretty but eremitic girl named Kate (Canadian TV actress Peyton Kennedy), he peers into the viewfinder of her camera and warns her, "You're a little out of focus." Her reply—"I know, I'm trying to fix that"—will prove to be more ambiguous than Luke understands. Kate is laden with secrets, which Luke doesn't know as he lays plans to date her. What follows is the predictable if amusingly well-executed humor of a nerd suitor trying to punch above his romantic weight. (First dilemma: Whether to ask for the date via fax or telepathy.) But there's also a poignant streak; both Luke and Kate live in single-parent households that have left them with significant emotional scar tissue. And the rest of the ch[...]

When an Echo Chamber Gets Worked Up About Echo Chambers

Wed, 14 Feb 2018 11:40:00 -0500

The fear of filter bubbles has only grown stronger since Eli Pariser popularized the term at the beginning of the decade. Americans, he warned in his 2011 book The Filter Bubble, are "more and more enclosed in our own little bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we're being offered parallel but separate universes." If you follow elite political discourse, you've probably heard several ever-more-worried versions of that idea. Or at least I keep hearing them. It's possible that they just seem ubiquitous in my own particular bubble. Pariser's portrait may be popular, but that doesn't mean it's well-grounded. Four academics—Andrew Guess, Benjamin Lyons, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler—have just published a skeptical take on the topic. Summarizing several studies, they argue that "the 'echo chambers' narrative captures, at most, the experience of a minority of the public." For example: In controlled experiments, people do prefer congenial information over uncongenial information—a tendency that is especially prevalent in the domain of politics. People also tend to self-report a filtered media diet. But studies that actually track people's behavior tell a different story. On television, media outlets with a significant partisan or ideological slant simply do not reach most of the U.S. population. The audience of Fox News and MSNBC peaks at 2 million to 3 million for well-known shows by hosts like Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow in prime time. By comparison, about 24 million Americans tune into nightly network news broadcasts on NBC, ABC, and CBS and over 10 million viewers watch these networks' Sunday morning political talk shows. These audiences are in turn dwarfed by those for entertainment, where programs like The Big Bang Theory and Sunday Night Football attract as many as 20 million viewers. The point here isn't that the network newscasts are themselves free of ideology (they aren't!) or that viewers are getting their news from The Big Bang Theory. It's that people aren't as politically self-segregated as the narrative has it, and that the most popular media-consumption tribes aren't organized around news or political commentary at all. Guess & co. suggest that one reason the filter-bubble narrative is so popular in the press is because it's much more likely to be true of political writers and the people they cover. In the authors' words, "polarized media consumption is much more common among an important segment of the public—the most politically active, knowledgeable, and engaged. This group is disproportionately visible online and in public life." As a result, the idea that echo chambers are growing more common "has ironically been amplified and distorted in a kind of echo chamber effect." (Morris Fiorina made a similar argument in a recent Reason interview.) Some of us have been beating this drum for a while. Back in 2011, for example, I panned Pariser's book for missing the ways the internet has reduced rather than intensified the filter-bubble effect. I'll wrap up with an excerpt from that: Yes, our media consumption is increasingly personalized. But personalized does not mean isolated. Pariser imagines the Internet becoming a stagnant "city of ghettoes" where "connections and overlap between communities" disappear. But how many people belong to just one online community? A personalized Internet is an Internet geared toward your particular combination of interests, and therefore to your particular combination of human networks. If you're a Methodist Democrat in South Baltimore who watches birds, follows basketball, and loves Elvis, you might be in touch online with people who share your faith but not your politics, and vice versa; your neighborhood but not your hobby, and vice versa; your taste in sports but not in music, and vice versa. That isn't a city of ghettoes. It's a city of crossroads. And while there may be many good reasons to hate Facebook, an insufficient diversity of views isn't one of them. One of the chief effects of using the site, afte[...]

CNN’s Patty Hearst Docuseries Shows Surprising Depth

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 15:01:00 -0500

The Radical Story of Patty Hearst. CNN. Sunday, February 11, 9 p.m. Not to be flippant, but I sometimes think Patricia Hearst—the kidnapped heiress turned bank robber turned brainwash victim, not necessarily in that order—has been my personal full-employment program. I've been writing newspaper and magazine stories about her almost from the moment she was kidnapped in 1974, a stream of assignments that shows no sign of ending. I am, however, small economic potatoes compared to CNN's Jeffrey Toobin. After buying 150 boxes of research materials from one of Hearst's kidnappers—defense files compiled for their criminal trials, including secret FBI documents and reports from private investigators—he leveraged it into a series of blockbuster media properties: A book! A podcast! A movie! A TV series! The film was deep-sixed by a timid studio, at least temporarily, when an angry Hearst played the #MeToo card. (Satiate unfulfilled longing for a big-screen treatment with all those Patty-porn flicks from the 1970s or even Paul Schrader's lacerating 1988 film Patty Hearst.) But the TV show has arrived. Toobin's six-part documentary, The Radical Story of Patty Hearst, kicks off on CNN with back-to-back episodes Sunday. And somewhat to my surprise, there is still considerable life in the story, despite who is telling it. Hearst, an heiress to the Hearst media fortune, was an apolitical 19-year-old college kid when she was grabbed by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a band of semi-literate and fully crazy "urban guerrillas" who had already killed an Oakland school superintendent for his imagined fascism. (He wanted to introduce student IDs to the school system.) They threw her into a closet for six weeks, raped her, and threatened to kill her, reading her to sleep at night with the works of Stalin. When Hearst emerged two months later, she declared she had switched sides—"I have chosen to stay and fight"—and was now at war with the "pig Hearsts." What followed was a lunatic rollercoaster ride of bank robberies, shootouts, and bombings that ended with most of the SLA members dead and Hearst in the custody of the FBI, claiming to be brainwashed. As I wrote when Toobin's book American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst appeared in 2016, "It is not easy to botch an account of the Hearst case, which overflowed with primal cultural fears, political nutballery, criminal bang-bang, and lurid sexual subtexts." Toobin, however, proved himself equal to the task, managing to somehow produce a text with the batty lynch-mistress vehemence of his former CNN colleague Nancy Grace that was nonetheless as dull as the Stalinist semiotics the SLA loved. With barely a few sentences about real-life instances of what psychologists called coercive persuasion that might lend weight to Hearst's brainwashing defense—American POWs in North Korea who confessed to preposterous accusations of biological warfare, the bank-robbery hostages so smitten by their captors that they prompted the coining of the phrase "Stockholm syndrome," the hundreds of members of Rev. Jim Jones' doomsday temple in Guyana who let him talk them into mass suicide—Toobin blithely declared Hearst a thrill-seeking rich kid invoking class privilege who belonged in jail. There was no reason to expect anything different from The Radical Story of Patty Hearst. But, startlingly, Toobin proves himself a much better storyteller when the medium is video, at least for the first five hours or so. A large part of that is due to the surprising presence of a couple of long-silent participants in the Hearst drama. One is Steven Weed, Hearst's fiancé (and, ahem, former high school math teacher) at the time of her kidnapping. To many of the Americans following the case, Weed seemed a sketchy character from the beginning, a sexual wastrel in search of teenage nookie and a lifetime lunch ticket from a rich daddy. The impression was bolstered in the tapes Hearst sent from underground proclaiming her con[...]

That Time the LaRouchies Won Two Primaries in Illinois

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 14:20:00 -0500

Arthur Jones, a man whose career includes a long stint in the National Socialist White People's Party, is on track to win the Republican nomination next month in Illinois' 3rd Congressional District. When this story first started attracting attention, some people added it to their list of signs that bigots are newly "emboldened" in the Trump era. But on closer examination, it turned out to be more of a sign that the Democrats have a stranglehold on the 3rd District: Jones is a perennial fringe candidate, and the only reason the old Nazi looks likely to actually win a primary this time is because he's the only candidate on the Republican side who bothered to sign up. That's the kind of thing that can happen in a race that one party is sure to lose. But this post isn't about Jones. It's about the déjà vu this story is giving me. It was in the same state, 32 years ago, that two followers of the proto-fascist crank Lyndon LaRouche managed to win the Democratic nominations for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. That time there were some other candidates on the primary ballot—George Sangmeister and Aurelia Pucinski, respectively. When Mark Fairchild and Janice Hart beat them, the most widespread theory had it that they won by having less "ethnic" names. Below you'll find a 1986 C-Span interview with Fairchild, the would-be lieutenant governor. Asked at the beginning if LaRouche runs an "anti-Semitic, hate-filled, neo-Nazi organization," Fairchild, who was 28 at the time, describes the charge as "pretty heavy-duty stuff" and denies it. He then goes on to discuss his platform, which among other things included quarantining AIDS patients and using the military to fight the war on drugs. The talk also turns to some of LaRouche's trademark conspiracy theories, including the notions that Henry Kissinger is secretly gay, that Walter Mondale is a KGB agent, and that the queen of England is a drug dealer. But the best moment comes at 51:20, when a caller reads a passage from the LaRouchie book Dope, Inc.: In the late 1940s, University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman was installed as President of the Gold Seal Liquor Company—the original Capone enterprise. Friedman soon also assumed the presidency of the Illinois Liquor Dealers Association—a position from which he no doubt carried out his first experiments in "free market economics." "My understanding," the caller remarks, "is that the Milton Friedman who headed Gold Seal Liquors is a totally different Milton Friedman than Milton Friedman the economist." For the record, the caller's understanding was correct. The Republicans wound up crushing the LaRouche Democrats. Meanwhile, Adlai Stevenson III, who had been set to be the Democratic nominee for governor, instead created a third party—the Solidarity Party—rather than share a ticket with Fairchild and Hart. The punchline: After Stevenson returned to the Democrats, the Solidarity Party and its ballot line were seized by a group whose cultist reputation rivaled the LaRouchies'—the New Alliance Party. And the New Alliance Party had been created by one Fred Newman, a former ally of a fellow named Lyndon LaRouche. Here is the full C-Span interview: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="512" height="330" frameborder="0"> (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. Dope, Inc. was co-authored by David Goldman, who after leaving the LaRouche movement started blogging under the name "Spengler"; to see what he's up to these days, go here.)[...]

Showtime Documentary Highlights Drug War’s Futility

Fri, 02 Feb 2018 15:00:00 -0500

(image) The Trade. Showtime. Friday, February 2, 9 p.m.

In all the billions of words and electronic images expended in telling the story of the war on drugs, perhaps nothing sums it up quite so concisely as a scene in Showtime's new documentary series The Trade. As a bedraggled mother is dragged off following her arrest on heroin charges, a cop kneels to speak to her crying children. "It's okay," he comforts them. "We're the good guys." After more than a century of this senseless, futile war, you still can't identify the players without a scorecard.

Producer-director Matthew Heineman, in his second go-round with the war on drugs (his 2015 film Cartel Land was nominated for the Oscar in documentaries), has given us an unnervingly close-up study of the conflict. Given an astonishing level of access to both Mexican drug lords and American junkies, he's intercut their stories with a narrative about an Ohio police narcotics squad, which though far more ordinary, is still revealing.

The result is a maddening and depressing account of cruelty and stupidity on every side. In the southwestern Mexico state of Guerrero, the country's top-producing poppy state, Don Miguel's heroin business is booming so much that he throws a giant Christmas party for the kids in his town, complete with toys and pizza.

But his body count is rising exponentially, too, as he settles difficulties (real or imagined) with rivals in distinctly un-lawyerly ways—a part of the job, Don Miguel is quick to add, that he doesn't enjoy: "It's no fun doing dirty work." Judging from the terrifyingly animalistic howls of townfolk who've found loved ones among roadside stacks of Don Miguel's tortured, headless victims, it's not much fun on the receiving end, either.

A couple of thousand miles to the northeast in Atlanta, we meet some of the consumers of Don Miguel's product. Skylar, a 30-ish junkie whose days are devoted to shooting a prodigious amount of dope and ripping off his parents, is—after going through seven overdoses and the shootings of a bunch of his friends—as fatigued as Don Miguel. "The last seven years have been like a frickin' roller coaster," he allows, saying he's ready to quit. His mother, who's heard it all before, is willing to help, but skeptical. "Skylar would walk over my dead body to get his drug," she declares with weary certainty.

And in Columbus, Ohio, narcotics cops are relentlessly pursuing their mission to get drugs off the street with the same single-minded zeal of the American military officer in Vietnam who famously observed that sometimes you've got to destroy a village in order to save it. "Chilling" isn't nearly a sufficient word for what it feels like to listen as they map out a flash-bang grenade attack on a suspected drug house, even though they know several small children are inside.

The raid, amazingly, ends without disaster, only because a couple of addled junkies—"dealers" in the sense only that they sell small amounts of dope to support their own habits—have better judgment than the cops and surrender without a fuss. "I am making a difference," brags one of the cops. "We are getting drug dealers off the street. At least this way we can say we are trying." So are Special Olympics softball players who get ribbons for hitting the ball even though they ran to third base instead of first. That analogy is dead-on, in more ways than one.

Farewell to Nicholas von Hoffman, the Newsman Who Got Fired for Comparing Nixon to a Dead Mouse

Fri, 02 Feb 2018 09:30:00 -0500

Nicholas von Hoffman died yesterday. He was 88 years old and he wasn't that famous anymore, but he used to be all over the media: He had a Washington Post column that was syndicated across the country, he recorded radio commentaries for the CBS show Spectrum, and he had a recurring gig doing point/counterpoint segments for 60 Minutes, speaking for the left while James Kilpatrick represented the right. He was fired from that last job after the night he compared Richard Nixon to a dead mouse on a kitchen floor. "The question," he said of the president, "is who is going to pick it up by the tail and drop it in the trash. At this point it makes no difference whether he resigns, thereby depositing himself in a sanitary container, or whether Congress scoops him up in the dustpan of impeachment. But as an urgent national health measure, we've got to get that decomposing political corpse out of the White House." I'm trying to think of the last time von Hoffman had a big moment of public notoriety. It was probably in 2001, when Andrew Sullivan started handing out a sarcastic "Von Hoffman Award" for "stunningly wrong political, social and cultural predictions." The columnist had earned the honor by writing skeptically about the then-young war in Afghanistan—he had said the U.S. was "fighting blind" and "distracted by gusts of wishful thinking." What a nut, right? After a few years, an abashed Sullivan confessed that von Hoffman had had a point, and he renamed the prize for Dick Morris. Von Hoffman got his start as an activist, not a journalist, and in the '50s he was a lieutenant of sorts to the Chicago-based organizer Saul Alinsky. (My review of Radical, von Hoffman's memoir of his Alinsky days, is here.) From there he drifted into reporting, filing lively dispatches for the Chicago Daily News and then The Washington Post. He wrote sympathetically about the counterculture and the civil rights movement, unsympathetically about Nixon and the Vietnam War; he developed a reputation as the Post's in-house New Leftist. And that he was, more or less. But like the more anarchistic New Left types—and like his old boss Alinsky—von Hoffman didn't have much faith in big government. By the early 1970s, when he had his newspaper column and his 60 Minutes job, that distrust sometimes led him to unexpected positions. Take the time he devoted a column to the notion that the John Birch Society offers a useful "corrective to our thinking." (When they denounce Nixon or the Fed, he wrote, they start "talking about the uses of power, money and politics in ways we can learn from.") He still kept the Birchers at arm's length, naturally. But he didn't add any caveats in 1971 when he wrote a piece praising the foreign policy views of the isolationist Ohio senator Robert Taft. After quoting extensively from a speech the late Republican had given two decades earlier, von Hoffman announced that Taft was "right on every question all the way from inflation to the terrible demoralization of troops." Von Hoffman also wrote several '70s articles applauding the ideas of Louis Kelso, an apostle of employee ownership. That might sound more like what you'd expect from a New Left writer—worker power!—except that both Kelso and von Hoffman presented the proposal not as an alternative to capitalism but as a more radical form of it. When Henry Fairlie read some of those dispatches, he threw up his hands and complained that von Hoffman "parades himself as a radical" but wants "to make everyone a capitalist." And then there was his column about the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard. It didn't endorse the full ancap program, but it did embrace the most radical part of it. "One of Rothbard's best, new ideas is to shut down the police departments of America," he enthused. As von Hoffman expounded on this notion, he started to sound like an anarchist Mike Royko: "As almost anybody who's tried to call a cop knows, they are next t[...]

This Boring British Cops Clone May Show the Future of American Mass Surveillance

Wed, 31 Jan 2018 15:50:00 -0500

BBC's popular reality show Traffic Cops is not so far from what a stereotype-inclined American might imagine if told "it's like Cops, but British." It also shows a worrying future-that-might-be of mass surveillance in America. Traffic Cops may not be a montage of helmeted and mustachioed bobbies puffing after pickpocketing orphans on cobblestoned streets. But to American eyes, the constables of Traffic Cops do seem terribly proper and polite. Compared to the show's ever-controversial American cousin, there's very little shouting, wrestling, cracking of skulls, or brandishing of firearms. In fact, to Americans used to seeing copious amounts of such activities in our cop shows, Traffic Cops (and its spinoff, Motorway Cops) can seem downright boring. Sure, you get the occasional familiar chase-bail-run-tackle sequence. But thanks to strict national restrictions on engaging in high-speed chases, pursuits often end with the cops taking down a plate number and letting the fugitive drive away. This might sound like a pleasant alternative to American civil libertarians, but there's a sinister twist that sours the picture: mass surveillance. The really boring thing about the show is how much time the constables spend just waiting for alerts from Britain's driver surveillance network to pop up on their squad-car screens. Some background: Britain's major roads are among the most heavily surveilled on earth. Every day, more than 8,500 Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) devices placed along the country's roads and in police vehicles read and store the location of between 25 and 35 million license plates, potentially capturing more than half of Britain's entire population of 65 million. Driving in the United Kingdom is also regulated more heavily than in many parts of the U.S. In addition to being licensed and insured, British drivers must pay an annual per-vehicle excise tax meant to discourage private car ownership. The Ministry of Transportation is also supposed to inspect each car annually for compliance with environmental standards. The Ministry of Transporation and the United Kingdom's tax collection service share all their vehicle data with a vast law enforcement data management system called the Police National Computer (PNC). All private car insurers are required to do this as well. And the PNC is connected, of course, to the ANPR network. As such, the ANPR cameras are able to determine, within moments, the license, insurance, tax, and inspection status of every car they see. When the system spots a violation, it alerts the Traffic Cops. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" frameborder="0" height="315" width="560"> Occasionally, the ANPR helps the cops recover a stolen vehicle or locate a missing person. At other times it flags cars "known to be associated with drugs," cars possessed by people with unpaid tax debt, and cars whose owners have a history of "anti-social driving," whatever that is. But the great majority of the infractions it uncovers seem to involve skirting the high costs of compliance with Britain's burdensome driving regulation scheme. To judge from the show, the typical penalty seems to be a stiff fine and seizure of the car—a punishment the cops readily explain (with exquisite politeness) is imposed purely as a deterrent. In straight-to-camera bits filmed in the backs of police cars, "outlaw drivers" often confess that they haven't paid their road tax or renewed their inspection because they can't afford to, but still need to drive to get to work, take children to school, and so on. The cops nod sympathetically while writing out the ticket and calling the tow truck. These encounters typically end with frustrated driver and passenger standing by the side of the road as the constable, driving off, shakes his head sadly and reminds the audience that "driving is a pr[...]

The XFL Was a Flop, But It Made the NFL Better

Mon, 29 Jan 2018 11:00:00 -0500

The "X" in XFL never stood for anything. It was there literally only because it looked cool. That's the story in a nutsehll of the XFL, the professional football league dreamed up by professional wrestling mogul Vince McMahon that lasted for all of one season in the early aughts. It was style over substance, flair over football. And now, nearly two decades after it flopped, McMahon has announced the league's resurrection, promising a "family-friendly" version of football where players will stand for the national anthem. Play is supposed to begin in 2020. For now, there are no concrete plans regarding teams, stadiums, or a television deal. Which means that—like the "X" in the name—the league doesn't really exist at the moment as anything more than an idea, a placeholder. Even if the new XFL does manage to make it to the field, it's difficult to see this announcement as much more than very expensive publicity stunt by one of the greatest showmen of recent American history. McMahon is testing the thesis that fans have stayed away from NFL games this past year because of a handful of players' political statements, and he's promising to create a league that appeals to your relatives who write angry Facebook posts about Colin Kaepernick. His league is hardly going to challenge the NFL for American football supremacy, but it might help the NFL get better. After all, that's what the first iteration of the XFL did. Don't believe it? When you're watching the opening kickoff of next Sunday's Super Bowl, take a moment to appreciate the camera angle being used. Nearly every kickoff, field goal, and punt (along with many replays) in every NFL game is shown via the so-called SkyCam, a camera suspended over the field on a set of wires, giving the audience a low-flying bird's eye view. In many ways it's a better perspective on the game than you get from the traditional sideline camera, and it gives the TV audience a better view of the players than what the fans sitting in the front row get. And for that, you can thank McMahon. The SkyCam is probably the most longlasting contribution the former XFL made to the game of professional football, or at least to how we watch it. That camera angle is now a staple of NFL broadcasts. The league even used it as the main camera angle for one Thursday night game this season, to mixed reviews. Even when a single entity dominates a marketplace like the NFL has dominated the market for American professional football for five decades—the NFL, which has a special exemption from federal antitrust laws, has become the epitome of a corporate monopoly—it must continuously evolve to stay on top. Often, those evolutions come from the absorption of ideas pioneered by smaller firms trying to gain a toehold in the market. Even failures, such as the XFL, provide fodder for improvement of other products. Creative destruction needs bad ideas as much as good ones. The XFL's actual product was bad football. NBC sportscaster Bob Costas called the league a mixture of "mediocre high school football with a tawdry strip joint," and NBC had the contract to broadcast XFL games. Worse, it was forgettable football. Go ahead, name a single team that played in the league's one and only season. You can't. No one remembers the teams, or any of the games, or who won the lone championship (it was, fittingly, the Los Angeles Xtreme). That first iteration of the XFL, which lasted just a single season in the summer of 2001, was never a serious threat to the hegemony of the NFL. Still, innovation happens on the margins. Drawing on his background in professional wrestling, McMahon (along with the then-president of NBC Sports, Dick Ebersol, who co-founded the league) devised small but important changes to how games were presented on TV. Besides the SkyCam, the XFL was the first football league to use steadycam-equipped cameramen on the sideline[...]

Wormwood’s Bad Trip Peddles CIA Conspiracies

Fri, 26 Jan 2018 15:00:00 -0500

Wormwood. Available now on Netflix. Nothing bores me more than weepy declarations of the end of American innocence. If there ever was such a moment, it came hundreds of years ago when the first slave ship arrived, the first Indian was shot, or maybe when the first witch was hanged. But there's no denying that much of the country was pretty stunned to learn in 1975 that a CIA employee named Frank Olson jumped out a 10th-floor hotel window after being secretly dosed with LSD by his own boss as part of a U.S. government mind-control experiment. Toppling governments in Guatemala or Iran at least had some sense of purpose, however foul; Olson's death sounded more like a tawdry, callous frat prank, a profound and pointless repudiation of the very concept of morality. Five decades later, investigative filmmaker Errol Morris' Wormwood is trying to convince us that it was something even worse, the ruthless murder of a political dissident with his six-part documentary Wormwood, a razzle-dazzle exercise in multimedia virtuosity that substitutes sinister showmanship for facts and silly sophistry for deductive logic. American innocence may have been lost a long time ago, but the casual acceptance of Wormwood's empty claims certainly suggests that the tides of American citizens' cynicism about their government are teaching new high points. "Wormwood" in the Bible refers literally to poison and metaphorically to bitter truth, and both usages underlie the documentary. It recounts the quest of Eric Olson, Frank's son, to prove his father was not just collateral damage in a CIA experiment in behavioral control experiment but the victim of a government execution. Frank Olson, a bacteriologist, began working during World War II as a civilian contractor for a U.S. Army biological warfare lab and then graduated to a Frankenstein-ish CIA unit dedicated to better covert living through chemistry. It provided poisons for CIA assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and leftist Congolese leader Patrice Lumemba and dabbled in the use of LSD and other hallucinogens as two-way weapons that might be used either to unmask Soviet moles in the West or create American moles behind the Iron Curtain. In 1953, Olson and several CIA colleagues attended a retreat at a rural Maryland hunting lodge to discuss their work with psychotropic drugs. The meeting turned out to be more hands-on than anybody expected; Sidney Gottlieb, who ran the drug program, spiked the drinks of nearly all the participants with LSD. The idea was to see how they'd react to the drug in a non-clinical situation. The result was the spook version of a 1960s college dorm party; a lot of giggling and incoherent philosophical debates. Olson, however, had the mother of all bad trips. Within a couple of days, convinced he had made a fool of himself at the retreat, he showed up at his supervisor's office to say he wanted to quit or be fired. As his condition deteriorated over the next 24 hours, Olson's bosses decided he needed psychiatric help. They sent him to New York to see a doctor named Harold Abramson, who was interested in psychiatry but had no formal training. (By trade, he was an immunologist.) But he had been a CIA contractor, had a security clearance, and, perhaps most importantly, had worked with the agency's LSD project. Olson, however, grew even more paranoid. He was convinced the CIA was drugging him further. He snuck out of a Broadway show to avoid the armed men he was certain were waiting outside to grab him and spent a night wandering the streets, throwing away his identification and money, on what he imagined were CIA orders. The next night he went flying out his hotel room window. Olson's family was told only that he had jumped or fallen, not about the LSD dosing. And for the next 22 years, that was that. But when government and media investigations into CIA [...]

Soderbergh’s Messy Mosaic Jumps from App to HBO

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 15:00:00 -0500

Mosaic. HBO. Monday, January 22, 8 p.m. Mosaic's title is a bit of sly wordplay. Obviously it derives from the task presented by Steven Soderbergh's tale of murder in a small town—that is, to solve the crime. But something else needs to be pieced together here; namely, figuring out what the hell Mosaic is. A TV show? A video game? A digital version of one of those interactive dinner-theater murder mysteries? Though Mosaic is airing on TV for the first time next week, it's been around since last year as an app that allows viewers to direct the investigation themselves. Follow this clue or that. Pick the character whose perspective you wish the story to be told through. Check voicemails and emails between the suspects and the victim. Nothing you do will change the outcome—this isn't Clue, the 1985 board game movie that was shot with multiple endings—but it apparently alters a viewer's understanding of why things happened. I haven't used the Mosaic app myself. To me, the whole thing sounds like being invited to edit Soderbergh's rough cut without getting paid for it. Those who have tried the app mostly seem to regard it as an interesting experiment that ultimately fails, which is kind of what people thought about K Street, Soderbergh's 2003 HBO political drama shot with improvised dialogue rather than a script, except on that one, people used phrases like "utterly incomprehensible," "egregiously stupid," and "Soderbergh should be clubbed like a baby seal" in place of the word "interesting." As for Mosaic's merits as strictly a TV show—it airs five hours over three consecutive nights—they are mixed. Sharon Stone plays retired writer Olivia Lake, whose reputation and (dwindling) wealth rest on a single lucky punch thrown a quarter of a century ago: a children's book with multiple perspectives. It can be read as the story of a hunter trying to protect his family from a bear, or that of a bear trying to protect his family from a hunter. Advancing age has activated Olivia's cougar hormones, and she targets first a hunky young bartender (Garrett Hedlund, Unbroken) and then a charming corporate shark (Frederick Weller, Banshee) as romantic playthings. But it's not all clear who's zoomin' who. The bartender is a would-be artist looking for a patron; the suit, a bunco artist interested in separating Olivia from the deed to her mountainside estate. The multiple cons in Mosaic spin closer and closer, and a collision is inevitable. But when it comes, it's from an unexpected direction: Eric Neill, the corporate shark, declares his love for Olivia and confesses his scheming. Dominoes begin tumbling in all directions, some of them lethal. At times, Mosaic is a fascinating noir, especially when Stone is on screen. She hasn't always chosen roles wisely, but anybody who's seen her as the flighty mafia moll in Casino or the doomed woman on Death Row in Last Dance knows the extraordinary depth she can bring to the right film. It is on magnificent display in Mosaic. Some of the other members of the cast match match her, particularly Paul Reubens (yeah, that Paul Reubens) as Olivia's gay BFF and romantic strategist. Hedlund and Weller, on the other hand, offer flat and highly predictable performances that require the storyline to carry the show. Soderbergh's needless opacity—making viewers guess whether days, weeks or months have passed since the last scene is not mysterious, just confusing—sometimes renders that a difficult proposition. But a mosaic can't be judged until the last piece is in place. This one gains momentum as it moves along, and ultimately is an absorbing exploration of the complexity and incertitude of human relations. "I think kids' art is 100 percent a declaration of who they are," says Olivia of one of her philanthropic passions. "I think it's the last time we tell the [...]

Why This Is TV's Golden Age!: Podcast

Thu, 18 Jan 2018 17:00:00 -0500

At the dawn of the TV era Americans could choose between one of three channels. Even cornball programs like "My Mother the Car" could command a percentage of viewership that would dwarf today's juggernauts on streaming video. Is America losing some of its unity as families quit watching the same Friday night lineups?"

"I think that's a lot of crap," says Glenn Garvin, a Miami Herald columnist and Reason's resident television critic. "…the explosion of television material that started with cable in the 1980s has been a grand thing. What if you don't want to watch "My Mother The Car," "The Rifleman," "The Beverly Hillbillies?"

Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Garvin about the future of television, and why we're living in its golden age. As viewership continues to fragment, the behemoth models of old are dying out, replaced by higher quality, bespoke programs. The future is long-tail.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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Electric Dreams Is a Sci Fi Anthology Series That Warns Against Safe Spaces

Thu, 18 Jan 2018 08:30:00 -0500

Black Mirror got you down? Sci-fi enthusiasts should try out a similar yet less depressing new anthology series, Electric Dreams, which became available for streaming on Amazon Video last week. The series, based on the work of science fiction author Philip K. Dick and named after his famous novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is absolutely terrific. I've now watched all 10 episodes, each of which take on a separate and distinct sci-fi premise: a post-apocalyptic society, the breeding of artificial humans, an alien invasion, virtual reality, etc. The usual technology-is-going-to-kill-us-all themes pervade Electric Dreams, inviting comparisons with Black Mirror, an extremely popular British anthology series known for its deeply cynical treatment of mankind's reliance upon machines. But Electric Dreams restrains itself somewhat. Two of the episodes, "Autofac" and "Impossible Planet," introduce robots with seemingly sinister intentions, then complicate or outright betray those expectations by the stories' ends. And as far as humanity is concerned, the show's creators "have a lot more faith in the people" than Black Mirror does, observes The Verge's Noel Murray. Stories about corporations and governments harnessing powerful new technologies often invite libertarian questions, and Electric Dreams is no different. Most notably, the final episode, "Kill All Others," levels an obvious and timely criticism at the creeping totalitarianism of a government that loudly eliminates dissent while an apathetic populace shrugs and changes the channel. Another episode, "Safe and Sound," has a bunch of specifically libertarian axes to grind. (Minor spoilers to follow.) It stars Maura Tierney (The Affair) as Irene Lee, a political activist who leaves her home in a self-governed "bubble" within a futuristic United States to spend a year as an ambassador of sorts to a purportedly terrorism-prone major city. That no actual terrorist attacks have occurred is something widely known to bubble denizens, but people within the city receive a constant barrage of government-filtered news about barely thwarted attacks and threats of violence. Irene's daughter Foster accompanies her to the city, but finds it difficult to adjust to a new school, where outsiders are bullied for being potential terrorists. In a stroke of genius, the episode's writers make the school a metaphor for the absurdity of safe spaces. The students are surrounded by invasive and unnecessary security measures designed to make them feel both comfortable and protected from threats that aren't actually real. One student even complains that Foster's presence makes her feel unsafe. Later, when Foster begs Irene to buy her a "dex," a kind of iPad that doubles as a government tracking device—it would help her fit-in at school—mom objects on grounds that "I really don't want you to surrender what little freedom they allow you to have." Foster counters, "It's not a surrender, it's security. People need to know I'm safe." The villain of the episode is even a "so-called consumer rights advocate"; instead of warning customers that the dex is a threat to their privacy, the advocate is not-so-secretly working to making its use mandatory. The safe-space criticisms may have been too on the nose for some reviewers—Vulture's critic calls it "one of the most sneakily offensive episodes of television I've ever seen" for committing essentially two crimes: casting the mistreated outsiders (Irene and Foster) as white people, thus erasing the minority experience, and stoking a "kind of false-flag paranoia nonsense that's best left to Infowars." But that's a bad take. There isn't anything wrong with occasionally consuming a little fiction in which the people pushing safety are gullible, misguided, or[...]

The Handmaid’s Tale Author Margaret Atwood Accused of Crimes Against Feminism for Defending Due Process

Sun, 14 Jan 2018 13:10:00 -0500

In the first year of the Trump presidency, the Hulu television series The Handmaid's Tale—which concerns a dystopian future U.S. where totalitarian religious authorities subjugate women—became essential #Resistance viewing. Many saw parallels between the treatment of women within the universe of the show and President Trump's alleged history of abusive behavior. One might expect, Margaret Atwood, the author of the source material—the 1985 novel of the same name—would be considered something of a feminist hero. But now Atwood must counter charges that she is actually a "bad feminist," because she thinks the University of British Columbia denied due process to a male professor accused of sexual misconduct. "And now, it seems, I am conducting a War on Women, like the misogynistic, rape-enabling Bad Feminist that I am," wrote Atwood in an op-ed for The Globe and Mail. In 2016, Atwood joined dozens of other writers in signing a petition that called on UBC to release the records of its investigation into Steven Galloway, an author and chair of the university's creative writing program. Galloway was accused of sexual misconduct, but the details were fuzzy, and UBC's procedures for handling the complaint lacked even a semblance of transparency. Atwood has not taken a position on Galloway's guilt or innocence; rather, she believes the university was unfair to everyone involved in the dispute, and has made it impossible to determine the truth. (Galloway also lost his job.) As Atwood wrote: ...after an inquiry by a judge that went on for months, with multiple witnesses and interviews, the judge said there had been no sexual assault, according to a statement released by Mr. Galloway through his lawyer. The employee got fired anyway. Everyone was surprised, including me. His faculty association launched a grievance, which is continuing, and until it is over, the public still cannot have access to the judge's report or her reasoning from the evidence presented. The not-guilty verdict displeased some people. They continued to attack. It was at this point that details of UBC's flawed process began to circulate, and the UBC Accountable letter came into being. A fair-minded person would now withhold judgment as to guilt until the report and the evidence are available for us to see. We are grownups: We can make up our own minds, one way or the other. The signatories of the UBC Accountable letter have always taken this position. My critics have not, because they have already made up their minds. Are these Good Feminists fair-minded people? If not, they are just feeding into the very old narrative that holds women to be incapable of fairness or of considered judgment, and they are giving the opponents of women yet another reason to deny them positions of decision-making in the world. Several prominent signatories recently removed their names from the petition because they didn't want to appear like they are on the wrong side of the #MeToo movement. Author Carmen Aguirre, a spokesperson for the petition's signatories, told The Globe and Mail that "for those of us who have chosen to keep our names on, I get the sense that we feel stronger than ever about the content of the letter, which for us was always about due process and never about questioning the claims." It's deeply unfortunate that due process has become synonymous with rape denial in the minds of some feminists. As Atwood made abundantly clear in her op-ed, due process is vital specifically because women deserve the same rights and status as men: I believe that in order to have civil and human rights for women there have to be civil and human rights, period, including the right to fundamental justice, just as for women to have the vote, there has to b[...]

American Crime Story Takes on Versace’s Murder

Fri, 12 Jan 2018 15:00:00 -0500

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. FX. Wednesday, January 17, 10 p.m. It doesn't take long for The Assassination of Gianni Versace to get to the point. When the neo-couture designer is shot in the face outside his Miami Beach mansion, perhaps five minutes into the show, one riff-raff-ista snaps a quick Polaroid of his dying body, then begins soliciting business at the top of his voice: "I have the only photo of Versace! The bidding starts at 30 thousand!" A few feet away, tourists are soaking napkins in his puddled blood, then sealing them in plastic bags, artifacts of the True Cross for the 20th century's most heartfelt religion, the cult of celebrity. If Federico Fellini had ever visited South Beach, the result might have been something like The Assassination Of Gianni Versace—a long, horrified gaze at the corrupting effect of celebrity, not just on those who possess it, but on the culture in which they dwell. Scarcely a moment this nine-episode miniseries—the second installment of Executive Producer Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story anthology drama—goes by fixing on images of the garish and grotesque: A psycho gay hustler dances around the soon-to-be-corpse of one of his tricks, smothering under a hood of duct tape bound around his head in what he expected to be a playful S&M ritual; wizened old men, pale pork bellies hanging over their speedo bathing trunks, wander the streets, peering into the seedy clubs where writhing bodies are wreathed in clouds of amyl nitrite. And in scene after scene—the hospital, the morgue, the mortuary—the stiffening cadaver of Versace lies omnipresently by, gaping bullet wound in each cheek, awaiting repair with mortician's foundation, the final artifice of a life dedicated to the artful concealment of fashion. The last season of American Crime Story, which retold with stunning acuity the story of O.J. Simpson's murder trial, also focused in part on the corrosive effect of celebrity, but mostly in the context of the criminal justice system. This time around, Murphy and his screenwriter Tom Rob Smith (who in 2011 was a literary sensation with his Child 44 trilogy of novels about a homicide detective in Stalinist Russia) have taken square aim at celebrity and the cozenage it almost inevitably breeds. The 1997 Versace murder is a perfect vehicle for their exploration. Both the Italian-born Versace and Andrew Cunanan, the spree killer who shot him, inhabited a sybaritic club world where sex was easy, drugs cheap and image the coin for both. Versace used his status as a fashion icon to attract a steady parade of awed young men to his mansion. Cunanan, with no real accomplishments to his name ("Nothing, I've done nothing my whole life," he admits in a rare moment of candor) but possessing an excess of easy charm backed by a superlative talent for lying, pursues his own quarry: older men with money and a fearful indisposition to resist Cunanan's violent streak. A chance encounter between the two in San Francisco is seemingly uneventful, but in time it sets them on an inexorable collision course. Murphy, as usual, has accumulated an excellent cast, including Penelope Cruz as Versace's dour sister Donatella, a weathered Ricky Martin as his weary party-boy lover D'Amico, and Judith Light (Amazon's Transparent) as the tightly wound wife of one of Cunanan's deeply closeted tricks. And Versace himself is capably played by Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez in his first major English-speaking role after a decade or so of bit parts. But this show is ultimately the loot in a strong-arm robbery by Darren Criss as the murderous Cunanan. Criss, who played an amiably handsome prep school boy in Murphy's high-school-musical series[...]

The Chi Inverts The Wire to Excellent Effect

Fri, 05 Jan 2018 15:00:00 -0500

The Chi. Showtime. Sunday, January 7, 10 p.m. One detective is explaining the South Chicago facts of life—or death—to a naive colleague: Its criminal gangs function as a self-cleansing oven that hums along at maximum efficiency when left alone. "They'll eventually kill who needs to be killed, and we'll file the paperwork," the cop declares breezily. The Chi's goal is the subversion of that concept, and it's a mission gloriously accomplished. Full of characters who are neither gun-crazy gangbangers nor ruthless narcotraffickers, The Chi is a reminder that even in war zones, human life continues in all its giddy wonder. Created and largely written by Chicago native Lena Waithe (whose Emmy for an episode of Netflix's Master of None was the first ever award to a black woman for comedy writing), The Chi and its pockmarked urban environment at first glance seem a skillful imitation of The Wire. But instead of chronicling a drug gang and the way it molds a neighborhood into its image, as The Wire did with Baltimore, The Chi takes the opposite tack. It follows the stories of a handful of residents dodging and feinting their way between the gangbangers and cops, accepting the realities of their world without embracing them as they pursue something resembling normal life. At the center of The Chi's large and immensely talented ensemble class is Jason Mitchell (Mudbound) playing Brandon, a chef who daydreams about opening a restaurant of his own with girlfriend Jerrika (Tiffany Boone, The Following) while trying to slow the steady slide of his mother Laverne (Sonja Sohn, The Wire) in alcoholism. Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Treme) is a scuffling drifter, caught between the worsening medical problems of his elderly grandmother and the emotional collapse of a girlfriend who lost a son in another inexplicable skirmish in the war on drugs. The profligacy of randy teenager Emmett (Jacob Latimore, Survivor's Remorse) has finally caught up to him, and he's doing an inner-city version of Dustin Hoffman's stormy Kramer vs. Kramer voyage of discovery through the perils of single fatherhood. And Kevin (Alex Hibbert, Moonlight), a kid intent on winning a role in a middle-school play, is learning that avoiding being drawn into the neighborhood's adult problems is a considerably more difficult task. The meandering paths of these characters mostly have little to do with narco guignol, and some of the most affecting scenes in The Chi could, with some different set-dressing, be dropped into any number of television dramas: Kevin's first, tentative flirtation with girl at his school; Ronnie's bleakly hilarious inability to corral his foul-mouthed mother; the kid at Kevin's school who keeps insisting to his disdainful friends that, "I'm husky, not fat." But if Southside Chicago's violence is not the central reality in The Chi, it's still a fact of life—and when it erupts, it does so with a terrifying suddenness whose effects linger and rebound. For all its sweetly mundane moments, The Chi's narrative is ultimately driven by a seemingly senseless murder that ricochets through the neighborhood, breaking bodies and lives. If the show is a declaration that life abides, it's also a reminder that evil compounds. When the neighborhood's toxins splash into the lives of Bandon and his girlfriend, she pleads: "I really need to know you're not gonna do some stupid-ass 'hood shit." But The Chi, there are no promises.[...]