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Published: Fri, 21 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Fri, 21 Oct 2016 23:51:56 -0400


CBS Limps to the Finish Line with Three Lackluster New Shows

Fri, 21 Oct 2016 15:00:00 -0400

Man with a Plan. CBS. Monday, October 24, 8:30 p.m. The Great Indoors. CBS. Thursday, October 27, 8:30 p.m. Pure Genius. CBS. Thursday, October 27, 10 p.m. My chum and former editor Virginia Postrel once wrote a book called The Future and Its Enemies. If she watches TV this week, she'll undoubtedly add a new chapter on CBS. Its three new sitcoms all cling ferociously (if, in one case, hilariously) to the past. If this keeps up, CBS—where the age of the average viewer is already 59, by far the eldest of any broadcast net—will have to change its boastful slogan from The Tiffany Network to The Methuselah Network. Before we get into a detailed necropsy, it's worth noting that this is the final week of the fall TV season's rollout, delayed a bit at CBS until its Thursday-night football schedule wrapped up. There's no sign of a breakout hit among the new shows, and this final group of CBS stragglers is unlikely to change that. If anything, the madly contemptuous tone toward millennials that drips from every scathing frame of the sitcom The Great Indoors is liable to actually raise the average age of the CBS audience not just to Social Security-benefit age but to the point where undertakers are setting up tents on the front lawn. Joel McHale (Community) plays Jack, a ballsy and distinctly middle-aged adventure reporter who's surprised when his outdoors magazine calls him home from an assignment living among bears. If you work in the journalism biz these days, the conversation with his publisher that follows needs no spoiler alert: Outdoor Limits, his magazine, is teetering on bankruptcy. The print edition is folding, there's no money left for tramping around wolverine lairs, and Jack is being brought home to supervise a team of young Web rats—"the digital day-care division," as he labels it—who know lots about the click-bait potential of frolicking-kitten videos and hipster listicles on surviving a zombie apocalypse, nothing about journalism or living outdoors. On the other side of the divide, Jack's experience with the interwebs is limited to posting a dancing-baby video on his MySpace page two decades ago. What follows is predictably murderous. The easily triggered kids ("I got passed over for a promotion again? What do I have to do? I've been here eight weeks!") regard Jack as a prehistoric artifact—as one says, "a human version of dial-up." Marvels another: "He has no Twitter, no Facebook. It's like he doesn't exist." The head of the magazine's HR department commiserates with Jack—"sometimes I want to beat them senseless with their selfie sticks"—but bluntly warns him there's no escape. "They're the only reason any of us is still employed, so get used to it. Generational warfare has been a television staple at least since Archie Bunker and the Meathead went at it more than four decades ago in All in the Family. And, misopedist Baby Boomer that I am, I'll admit to laughing gleefully at a lot of the snowflake-kiddie jokes, not to mention the idea of peddling $12 "ironic Spam sandwiches" to hipsters. But The Great Indoors flouts the fundamental Geneva Convention rule of generation-gap humor—equal hostility towards all—in its relentlessly one-sided assault on millennials; virtually every line that draws blood comes at their expense. It doesn't require an overdeveloped sense of empathy to see that, for anybody under 40, the show is going to feel less like a comedic experience than the receiving end of a gang-bang. When the show was screened for TV critics this summer, a press conference with the cast and producers nearly turned into a fistfight. In the demographic-centric world of television, that's poisonous. The Great Indoors may turn out to be a historic moment, the Custer's Last Stand of Baby Boomer television, but the key word there is "moment." The week's lone drama debut, Pure Genius, tries to take the opposite track, draping itself in the technotrappings of the digital future, but its heart is pure analog. Augustus Prew (The Borgias) plays a young Silicon Valley zillionaire whose passions have turned to[...]

Mike Rowe Wears Trump’s Robe, Fights a Drone, and Solves the Labor Shortage

Fri, 21 Oct 2016 10:00:00 -0400

What's life like for Mike Rowe without a network television show? Since CNN dropped Somebody's Gotta Do It, Rowe has had his privacy violated by a drone, the former host of Dirty Jobs survived the rumors of his own death swirling about the internet, and in the home stretch of an ugly presidential election, he worries more than ever about unemployment, the skills gap, and a widespread loss of meaning in American life. Yet Rowe himself remains more popular than ever. Days after Rowe read a letter from his mother detailing how she lost her purse at Wal-Mart, the post went hyperviral. It was seen by over 100 million people – "a third of the country!" he exclaims. "I've never seen anything like it," Rowe tells Reason TV, "I've talked to people at Facebook who said they've never seen anything like it." Rowe has also found a way to turn C.R.A.P – that's Collectibles, Rare and Precious – into philanthropy. His auction of a swanky Trump Tower bathrobe, signed by The Donald himself, fetched a cool $16,000 on eBay. The money then trickled down from the alleged billionaire to The Mike Rowe Works Foundation, which funds "work ethic scholarships" that provide out-of-luck workers with valuable skills for the modern economy. Nick Gillespie caught up with Mike Rowe in Nashville, Tennessee to chat about his affection for the Second Amendment, his adventures in podcasting, the 2016 election, the secret to extracting semen from a prize racehorse, and more. Produced by Todd Krainin. Hosted by Nick Gillespie. Cameras by Paul Detrick and Krainin. INTERVIEW CONTENTS 0:00 - Teaser. 0:45 - Intro. 1:05 - Naked Mike Rowe and a Mossberg 500 vs. a drone. 7:39 - What happened to Somebody's Gotta Do It? 11:34 - Have we lost touch with the important things in life? 15:50 - Work ethic scholarships. 18:56 - How to extract semen from a prize racehorse. 21:45 - Donald Trump's robe 23:33 - Thoughts on free trade. 31:02 - Thoughts on occupational licensure. 34:50 - The false choices of American life. 36:30 - The secret to a successful career: Love the hard work. 40:05 - The Way I Heard It and a massively popular letter from Rowe's mother. INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT: This is a rush transcript. Check against video for accuracy. Nick Gillespie Hi, I'm Nick Gillespie with Reason TV and we are sitting down with Mike Rowe of the Mike Rowe Works Foundation and of recently of Somebody's Gotta Do It and Dirty Jobs. Mike Rowe, thanks for talking to Reason TV. Mike Rowe Last time I saw you, you were wearing that same jacket and I was wearing this same hat. Gillespie Well there you go. What goes around comes around. Now, the two headlines that you are most famous for most recently are 'Naked Mike Rowe' and 'Mike Rowe Dead' What uh why were you naked and how did that lead to you being dead? Rowe Well it's a big week. I was uh in the midst of what I thought was some bizarre gardening dream and in the dream uh a bumblebee was in my ear. And when I awakened I realized A: It wasn't a dream and B: It wasn't a bee. But there was a buzzing sound and it was coming from the other side of my bedroom window and I leapt from the bed in what I described as my favorite pair of imaginary pajamas. And I pulled the drapes aside and there was a camera hovering, not in mid air, but from the belly of a drone and the drone was making this horrible buzzing sound. And I was standing there in my horrible nakedness not fully awake but sentient enough to know that something had to be done. So I retreated to the uh bed, pulled the Mossberg 500 from underneath. Gillespie And, by the way, do you get a uh is that a product placement? Rowe It's not. I just like the way I feel when I say Mossberg 500. It's a great shotgun. I keep it locked and loaded and the familiar chunk-chunk is very gratifying. Gillespie Now, this is in San Francisco. Rowe It is. Gillespie So is that legal to have a locked and loaded shotgun? Rowe It's it's it's it's hard to know. Uh but uh probably not. Gillespie Okay. So, now you're naked with a shotgun. And the drone. Rowe Right. So, so technically not[...]

Trump and the Lying Media

Thu, 20 Oct 2016 00:01:00 -0400

A couple of months ago, I had a nasty chore that I have to perform every so often. I had misquoted what a politician said in 1992, and a co-worker noticed the discrepancy. I wrote a correction, which my employer, the Chicago Tribune, promptly published. Does making a mistake like that cause me pain? Well, yes, sort of like the pain I'd get from being bitten by a wolverine and then dousing the wound with Tabasco. But sometimes mistakes happen, and when they do, the Tribune makes a point of letting our readers know. It's not hard to get a correction when a reputable newspaper gets something wrong. Wednesday's edition of The New York Times included 13. The Wall Street Journal had four. The Tribune had none, but it prominently featured a phone number and an email address, inviting readers to report errors. Donald Trump tells voters the news media do not provide honest information. "They will attack you. They will slander you. They will seek to destroy your career and your family," he insists. "They will lie, lie, lie, and then again they will do worse than that." Funny thing. As an opinion columnist, I've written dozens of columns disputing, contradicting, rebutting and even ridiculing him. I've met him and his campaign spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, and emailed with her. Yet neither of them nor anyone else associated with his campaign has ever asked for a correction of anything I've written. If I'm one of the journalists lying about him, why don't they point out my false claims and force the newspapers that publish my columns to set the record straight? Maybe they've been too busy meeting with his attorneys about the lawsuits he's planning. After The New York Times ran a story about two women who said he had sexually assaulted them, Trump threatened to sue for libel. His wife, Melania, threatened to sue People magazine after one of the alleged victims, a People writer, recalled a chat with her on the street. Neither lawsuit will ever come to pass. If he were to sue the Times, Trump would have to undergo interrogation about these and other accusations. His ex-wives and girlfriends could be deposed. So could his children, his friends, his enemies and his employees, past and present. From those depositions, the Times' lawyers might learn a lot of things that Trump would rather they didn't. In spite of all his bluster, Reuters reports, he hasn't sued a newspaper for libel since 1984—when he took the Chicago Tribune and its architecture critic to court for disparaging a skyscraper he had proposed. Trump lost and apparently learned a lesson. It's harder for a public figure to win a libel suit than it is for a private individual, because the legal requirements are different. But even a famous person has only to prove that the newspaper published a false story that harmed his or her reputation and knew or should have known the story was false. (Melania Trump would have no chance suing People, because the offending passage, true or not, wasn't damaging.) Such lawsuits rarely get file –and even more rarely succeed—because news organizations hardly ever do what the defamation laws punish. Trump's fulminations against the coverage of his campaign are equally hollow. He doesn't ask for corrections because, as a rule, there is nothing to correct. Newspapers routinely acknowledge when they get facts wrong, because their credibility is all they have. Trump doesn't admit or retract falsehoods, because his falsehoods are deliberate. PolitiFact has documented that 53 percent of his statements are entirely false and only 4 percent are entirely true. (For Hillary Clinton, the figures are 12 percent entirely false and 24 percent entirely true.) He thinks the news media are biased against him. What they are really biased against is his flagrant, incessant lying about matters large and small. Clinton has told her share of lies—which the news media have exposed. The difference is that her misstatements are limited in number and scope, while he emits a never-ending torrent of outlandish fictio[...]

New Cable Thrillers Pick Up Where Broadcast Premieres End

Fri, 14 Oct 2016 15:00:00 -0400

Berlin Station. Epix. Sunday, October 16, 9 p.m. Eyewitness. USA. Sunday, October 16, 10 p.m. Looking at the schedule this week, it's hard not to see a metaphor for the roiling changes in television. The broadcast networks take a break in their anachronistic fall rollout, on which they spent hundreds of millions of dollars and drove dozens of marketing focus groups insane—and cable quickly steps in with a pair of high-impact dramas which, though cheaper and lacking any big name stars, are at least as good as anything the broadcasters have offered up this fall. And one of them you can watch for free on-line! (For a couple of episodes, anyway.) USA's Eyewitness and Epix's Berlin Station share little but their high quality. Eyewitness is a conventional if extraordinarily well-executed crime thriller that grabs you almost from the first frame. Berlin Station is more of a slow burn, a grim, complex tale of spies on an existential treadmill who no longer remember why they got on but lack any idea of how to get off. Eyewitness is adapted from the Norwegian series Øyevitne, but its premise—teenagers on an illicit rendezvous witness a crime, but can't report it without giving themselves away—is as old as, well, teenagers. (My favorite example is Pat Frank's exquisitely paranoid Cold War novel, Forbidden Area, subsequently adapted for TV, in which a couple making out on the beach spot the arrival of a Soviet saboteur but don't tell anybody, which nearly leads to nuclear holocaust. Talk about the wages of sin!) Eyewitness gives the premise a very modern twist: The teenagers are gay. Lukas (James Paxton, Term Life) is a high school in-crowder who doesn't think his popularity would survive coming out of the closet. ("I don't wanna be that guy...nobody wants me to be that guy.") Philip (Tyler Young, When We Rise) is less uncomfortable on that score, but as a socially marginal foster kid, newly arrived at the small-town school from a drug-addled household in the city, feels he's in no position to argue. So when they witness a drug shootout in the woods that ends with four bodies on the ground, their lips stay sealed. Yet the complications are many. One of the supposed drug dealers was an undercover FBI agent, which brings federal interest. The local police chief (Julianne Nicholson) is not only Philip's foster mother (which allows him to surreptitiously monitor her investigation, but also stokes his paranoia) but also a former big-city homicide detective with a harrowing secret in her past. Worst of all, one of those drug dealers wasn't really dead—and now he's searching for the boys. Eyewitness is written and produced by Dutch-born Adi Hasak, who also created Øyevitne. His Hollywood resume is thin but nonetheless impressive; he's collaborated with Luc Bresson on a couple of thrillers (Three Days To Kill and Shadow Conspiracy) and created Shades of Blue, the startlingly good corrupt-cop crime drama that NBC used as late-in-the-year filler last season. Eyewitness gives every reason to think Hasak's got a promising career ahead of him. His script for the pilot episode is a model of expositional economy that lays down a complicated premise in just a few minutes, then adds complicating elements one by one. He has also somehow managed to capture the Nordic-noir feel of Øyevitne without the by-now cliched use of bleak weather. The intrusion of urban mayhem into the pastoral small-town setting gives Eyewitness an unsettlingly claustrophobic sense of a village under siege. You may not want to live there, but I bet you'll want to visit once a week. Berlin Station is anything but bucolic. Its astringent Berlin venues—soulless skyscrapers, neo-Isherwoodian techno clubs and harshly lit spy cubbyholes—are the sere landscape for this somber tale of spies who can't come in from the cold. Produced by, among others, spy novelist Olen Steinhauer and veteran TV writer-producer Bradford Winters (whose screenplays cover an impressive chronology from The Borgias[...]

Talkin' Clowns on the Radio

Wed, 12 Oct 2016 08:02:00 -0400

Because I can't stop writing about clowns, people ask me to go on the radio to talk about clowns. Here are two recent interviews about the Big Bozo Scare—the first, from last Friday, with the Calgary show At Night with Dan Riendeau...

src="" width="100%" height="150px" frameborder="0">

...and the other, from yesterday, with The Blaze's Pat and Stu:

src="" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0">

In other news, the AP reports that "Ronald McDonald is keeping a low profile with reports of creepy clown sightings on the rise." Naturally.

Newsweek Plays Connect-the-Dots with Putin, Trump, WikiLeaks

Tue, 11 Oct 2016 09:30:00 -0400

Did you hear the one about Newsweek proving that Russia's conspiring with WikiLeaks? Anyone who doubts wikileaks is working w/ Putin: read how my words falsely became those of a Clinton confidante. — Kurt Eichenwald (@kurteichenwald) October 10, 2016 That's Newsweek's Kurt Eichenwald promising a blockbuster and failing to deliver. At the time he sent that tweet, the article he was promoting looked like this. Later the article was updated significantly, changing the focus somewhat; it now looks like this. At neither point did it demonstrate that WikiLeaks has been "working w/ Putin." What it shows is that some people misread an item in WikiLeaks' recent release of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's emails. In the message in question, Clinton crony Sidney Blumenthal (described by Eichenwald as "second only to George Soros at the center of conservative conspiracy theories") passed along one of Eichenwald's articles. The Russian news/propaganda outlet Sputnik then published a piece that mistook Eichenwald's words for Blumenthal's, declaring that Clinton's "top confidante" had said the Benghazi attack "was almost certainly preventable" and that criticizing Clinton for this failure "is legitimate." In the updated version of the article, Eichenwald highlights the fact that Donald Trump himself made the same mistake at a rally in Wilkes-Barre yesterday. If that were all there is to the article, I wouldn't blame Eichenwald for writing it. If people were mistaking me for Sidney Blumenthal, I'd be chortling about it too; if one of those people was the Republican presidential nominee, I'd be all over it. But I wouldn't claim that this proves WikiLeaks is an arm of Moscow—or, as Eichenwald puts it in the article, that it is "proof that this act of cyberwar is...being orchestrated by the Russians"—because that "proof" is obviously absent. Some Russians A reporter at a Russian-funded site misread an item in a WikiLeaks document dump. (*) That doesn't demonstrate that the Russians are behind WikiLeaks any more than it demonstrates that they're behind Newsweek. The updated version of the article argues breathlessly that Trump must have gotten the story from Sputnik: "This false story was only reported by the Russian controlled agency (a reference appeared in a Turkish publication, but it was nothing but a link to the Sputnik article). So how did Donald Trump end up advancing the same falsehood put out by Putin's mouthpiece?...Who in the Trump campaign was feeding him falsehoods straight from the Kremlin?" Well, it's certainly possible that someone on the Trump campaign found it in Sputnik. It's in English; it's online; it easily could've popped up in a Google News Alert. A campaign that cites stories from Infowars and the National Enquirer isn't likely to shy away from reading Sputnik too. But Eichenwald's claim that the tale "was only reported by the Russian controlled agency" is not in fact true. As BuzzFeed's Jon Passantino points out, the claim was already circulating in a viral tweet hours before Sputnik picked it up. I realize that "Donald Trump relied on a dicey source and said something inaccurate" is kind of a dog-bites-man story these days. Russian puppetmasters are much more exciting. But a reporter shouldn't claim to have proven something he hasn't. Especially if the result is an article that moves from dismissively invoking "conservative conspiracy theories" to claiming, based on the thinnest reeds, to have exposed a vast Kremlin-directed conspiracy. Postscript, 12:55 a.m.: Eichenwald has updated his article again, in a process that's starting to look like a textbook case of motivated reasoning. Here is one of the new passages: Since Newsweek first broke the story online, some journalists have speculated that the misrepresentation of the email may have merely been an error by an overworked Russian news agency. However, according to a government o[...]

Trio of New Comedies Targets Female Viewers

Fri, 07 Oct 2016 14:00:00 -0400

American Housewife. ABC. Tuesday, October 11, 8:30 p.m. Divorce. HBO. Sunday, October 9, 10 p.m. Insecure. HBO. Sunday, October 9, 10:30 p.m. "The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is: 'What does a woman want?'" A sitcom, dude. Three of them, written by and oriented toward women, debut this week. But if you're seeking some sort of gender epiphany, this may not be the right milieu: Sisterhood may be powerful, but it definitely isn't commonality. ABC's American Housewife—the lone new broadcast show this week as the deluge of fall premieres slows to a trickle—is at once the most conventional and the funniest of the three. It's the latest dysfunctional-family comedy of the line spawned by Married ... With Children 30 years ago, which has expanded to dominate television so thoroughly that it's hard to remember a time when Ozzie and Harriet and Ward and June stalked the Earth, sniffing out and snuffing the unwholesome. That is definitely not the mission of American Housewife lead Katie Otto (Katy Mixon, much beloved as the corpulent party girl Victoria on Mike & Molly these many years). The self-proclaimed third-fattest housewife of Westport, Connecticut, her life goal is to not move up to No. 2, a modest ambition that seems doomed by the imminent departure of Fat Pam across the street. More forlornly, Katie takes an occasional half-heated stab at coaxing her youngest children—little OCDed-out Anna Kat, determined to lead a friend-free life after learning other kids carry germs, and her uber-Randian older brother Oliver, whose preferred bathroom reading is the Robb Report—towards normality. And exactly the reverse with teenager Taylor, whose previously recessive hot-chick gene has just blossomed, threatening to turn her into one of the air-kissing, Stepford Wife size twos who are the bane of Katie's existence. Of little help in these endeavors is husband Greg (Diedrich Bader, The Drew Carey Show), who mostly passively observes events from his perch on the upstairs toilet. The desperate-parents-and-damaged-kids formula of American Housewife is certainly nothing new. But creator and producer Sarah Dunn has had a long career path through some of TV's most successful sitcoms, from Veronica's Closet to Murphy Brown to Spin City, and she's learned a good deal along the way. American Housewife may be a knockoff rather than a tapestry, but it includes threads of wistfulness, paranoia and willful social deviance that will make you look twice. Or even thrice. I was floored by Oliver's retort to his mother's lecture about the virtues of unselfishness. "If I thought I might be a girl on the inside, you'd let me wear a skirt to school," he snapped. "This is no different. I should be allowed to be who I am." At the opposite end of the hilarity scale is HBO's Divorce, where the dialogue mostly runs along the lines of an embittered wife snapping at her overweight husband, "Keep spooning it in, you fat fuck." Rimshot: He collapses of a heart attack and goes into a coma. Created by British actress Sharon Horgan and co-produced by star Sarah Jessica Parker, Divorce chronicles the disintegration of the loveless wedlock of a middle-aged suburban couple, Frances (Parker) and Robert (Thomas Haden Church, Sideways). After seeing one of her best friend's marriages end literally in gunfire, Frances announces, "I want to save my life while I still care about it." That entails walking out on Robert to shack up with her professor boyfriend, who it turns out is unenthusiastic about evolving their relationship from "dirty little secret" to "bourgeois affair." That sends her ping-ponging back to Robert, who's also evolved: from broken-hearted to Defcon 5. What follows is the unrelievedly grim blow-by-blow of what HBO's publicity materials discouragingly refer to as "a very, very [...]

CNN Accused of Bias Against Third Parties By a Post-Debate Focus Group Participant

Fri, 07 Oct 2016 13:00:00 -0400

During and after Tuesday's Vice Presidential Debate, CNN hosted a 28-person focus group of self-identified "undecided voters" at the University of Richmond (Va.). One of the participants in this group—Justin Smith—later complained on his Facebook page that CNN's Pamela Brown had asked the group if they now intended to vote for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or an unnamed third party candidate. In Smith's telling, two supported Trump, five supported Clinton, and 12 indicated they would vote for a third party candidate. But, Smith tells Reason, the producers then told the focus group they were going to "reshoot" the segment, only this time they replaced "third party candidate" as an option with "undecided." Smith says this caused confusion among the panel, leading some who had just raised their hands for "third party" to now raise their hands for "undecided." An important difference between the two questions: the cameras were only airing live on CNN during the "undecided" question, whereas the "third party" question was taped. Watch the segment that aired live—with "undecided" as an option as opposed to "third party"—below: src="" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> Smith's Facebook post has caused a bit of a stir online, with accusations that CNN is censoring third party supporters to favor a narrative in which the only opinions worth considering are from voters who support Trump, Clinton, or have not yet decided between the two. The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald weighed in on Twitter this morning, offering his opinion that "If this account is accurate, it comes pretty close to actual fraud." Though he has a "Evan McMullin for President" poster as his Facebook profile cover page, Smith tells Reason he is an undecided voter, it's just that he hasn't decided which third party candidate he will vote for. He calls himself a constitutional conservative and insists he will absolutely not vote for Trump and Clinton. For a while, he had considered voting for Constitution Party candidate Darrell Castle, but he's not on the ballot in Virginia, so Smith is now on the fence between voting for McMullin or Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. Smith says CNN producers told the focus group they would be taping certain questions as segments that might be used by CNN shows the next morning—a common TV news practice. Smith added that each of the questions they had been asked as a group had been taped twice. As a former cable TV news producer myself, I can attest that shooting more "packages" than you're likely to need is standard operating procedure. It's entirely possible that there was no nefarious intent on the part of CNN behind the creation of a taped package which included third party as a voting option. But the fact is, when the cameras went live, Brown didn't give the group the option of choosing a "third party." Live TV viewers were left with the impression that the majority of the focus group was undecided between Trump, Clinton, and no one else. "I was shocked that they would purposely not put it out there that people were supporting a third party," Smith told Reason, adding, "Intentionally covering that up...I can't imagine what their narrative is." CNN did not respond to requests for comment. Is it just an odd turn of events that the "undecided" question went out on live TV while the "third party" question went to tape? It's not clear whether the latter ever aired the next morning and I haven't been able to find a clip of it on CNN's website, but sometimes producers are left with more content than they can use. It's also important to note that CNN hasn't ignored third parties this election cycle; they have aired two Libertarian town halls in recent months, after all. However, editorial choices—such as deciding which questions get aired with the most viewers watching immediately after a[...]

The Sitcom and the Surveillance State

Fri, 07 Oct 2016 08:05:00 -0400

One of the weirdest half-hours of nominally normal 1960s television is "Top Secret," a 1963 episode of My Three Sons. This almost invasively wholesome series starred Fred MacMurray as Steve Douglas, an aeronautical engineer raising three boys after his wife's death. In this installment, he has to work at home on a classified project; to keep everything secure, the house is put under surveillance. "We'll handle this job as though the Douglas family was out to blow up New York City," one agent explains to his colleagues. "Every word, every move, every meaningful silence—that's our assignment, from Top Level Pentagon." An apparatus built to combat external and internal threats will be used instead on an ordinary American family, for what we are assured is the common good. For the rest of the episode the government invades everyone's privacy, but the biggest victims appear to be the feds themselves, who are bored to tears by what they find. They file dreary reports on a young boy's movements; they tap the family's phone, yielding nothing but the halting progress of a teenager's love life. At the end, Fred MacMurray's character breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly: You know, this security thing was a little tough on my family for a while, but, well, you can see that it was necessary. Of course, now that the project is completed I can tell you what it was all about. You see, what I was really working on was a type of missile— And then the words TOP SECRET appear over MacMurray's face and his next several sentences are scrambled. The security system that hovered over the Douglases turns out to be in our homes too, intercepting information before it can be heard on our televisions. It is difficult to describe this scene without it sounding deeply creepy, but the show presents it as perfectly benign. There's even a laugh track: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> In my book The United States of Paranoia, I contrasted that episode with a bicentennial-year edition of another sitcom, Good Times. (The summary above is adapted from my write-up in the book.) By 1976, the country had seen all sorts of official crimes exposed, from Watergate to COINTELPRO. Between that and the larger cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s, audiences were more willing to accept stories about the national security state abusing its power, even in a genre like the situation comedy. So when Good Times did a story about an ordinary American family falling under federal surveillance, it took a rather different approach to the subject. Here the FBI is shown callously disregarding its targets' liberty, privacy, and well-being, with disastrous results. This is how much pop culture can change in 13 years: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Part two of three: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Part three of three: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> As you may have noticed, "The Investigation" ends with John Amos looking directly at the camera, like Fred MacMurray at the end of "Top Secret." This time there's no laugh track. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]

We Have a Clown Crime—But It's Not That Kind of Clown Crime

Thu, 06 Oct 2016 11:40:00 -0400

Two months into the Great Clown Panic of 2016, we finally have a clear-cut case of a "clown" committing a violent crime. It isn't really the kind of crime that people were worried about, and the perp wasn't really dressed as a clown, but... Actually, there's no need for a but. This is an ordinary crime committed in a not-all-that-unusual way. Some journalists are treating it as a sign that the Clown Threat is real, but that says more about media sensationalism than it does about anything else. What we have here is a lesson in how crime-trend narratives are constructed. Some background: For about two months now, people have been reporting encounters with mysterious, malevolent clowns, sparking rumors that the jokers plan to kidnap children, molest children, shoot up a classroom full of children, or otherwise victimize people, especially children. As is often the case during these phantom-clown scares—yes, this isn't the first one—the incidents generally fall into four categories: 1. Someone, usually a kid, reports that he spotted a clown lurking or that a clown attacked him. No one finds the clown. The episode never gets resolved, but it probably didn't really happen. 2. Someone reports that he spotted a clown lurking or that a clown attacked him. No one finds the clown. The episode does get resolved, because the person who made the report confesses to making it up. 3. Someone circulates a clown threat or clown sighting or clown something on Facebook or another social media platform. No clown actually shows up. 4. A prankster decides to take advantage of the fear spread by #1-3 by dressing as a clown and scaring people. He does not kidnap, molest, or shoot anybody. In other words, the scare is almost entirely a mix of hoaxes and hysteria. There are a couple of cases out there where police are taking reports of clown attacks seriously, but even then no one has been able to locate the alleged attackers. The "suspect wearing a clown costume" who reportedly grabbed someone at Texas State University has not been apprehended, for example. And while the headline-writers at SFGate took an alleged kidnapping attempt in Concord, California, seriously enough to write this credulous hed... ...when you read the actual article, you find that (a) yet again, only one witness has supposedly seen the clown; and (b) even if the incident did happen, the so-called kidnapping attempt consisted of the suspect pulling once on a child's arm while conversing with her mother. Strange things happen every day, but I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest that a crook isn't likely to try to snatch a child right in front of her mom, especially while dressed in a costume that could only make it harder to avoid everyone's attention as he slips away. So what's the bona fide violent crime that I mentioned at the beginning? On Tuesday night, a man wearing a clown mask robbed a Walgreens in Brownstown Township, Michigan. He did not try to kidnap or molest anyone. He did not announce his intentions in advance on Facebook. He wasn't even "dressed as a clown" in any meaningful sense of those words, though I've heard that phrase in the subsequent press coverage. He was wearing dark pants, a hoodie, and a mask to cover his face; he just happened to pick a clown mask, as robbers sometimes do. In short, his crime has virtually nothing in common with the phantom-clown scenarios that have been floating around the noösphere since August. Yet eight seconds into the Detroit TV station WDIV's report on the robbery, the anchor calls the stick-up "just one of what seem to be a string of clown attacks." And almost two minutes in, a reporter declares that there's a "growing concern about the escalation of violence in these clown-related attacks," as though armed robberies were the next stage in some sort of spiral toward Armagedd[...]

Calif. Newspapers Warm to Pot Legalization, Thanks to Taxes and Regulations

Wed, 05 Oct 2016 17:00:00 -0400

When California considered legalizing recreational marijuana use back in 2010 with Proposition 19, the then-pioneering nature of the initiative rendered it pretty much radioactive to nearly every newspaper editorial board in the state. I should know; I was one of only a handful of editorial writers to endorse Prop. 19, as editor of the tiny Desert Dispatch out in the Route 66 town of Barstow. Matt Welch wrote about the terrible logic behind the opposition (the proposition would create a confusing patchwork of city regulations and therefore that was somehow worse than putting people in jail). This year things are different. Not only have states like Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana without turning into hellscapes of addiction and tragedy (no more than usual, anyway); but Proposition 64, on the ballot this November, gives the state-controlled tax and regulation systems that so many editorial boards in the state are thirsting for. So now, newspapers who smacked down Prop. 19 back in 2010 are lining up to give Prop. 64 a thumb's up. The Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle are both officially endorsing the proposition. What pleased the Chronicle's board was the "blue-ribbon commission" brought together to hammer out the rules overseen by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and that cities will have the ability to levy their own taxes and ban outdoor cultivation. The Times as well is impressed that the new proposition introduces a regime that is so very, very regulated: The measure would impose state taxes on commercial cultivation and sales that could eventually raise more than $1 billion a year. The measure would dedicate the new revenue to youth drug education, prevention and treatment programs, law enforcement programs to reduce driving under the influence, and environmental restoration of land damaged by illegal cannabis cultivation. But there are some editorial boards who remain unconvinced. The rejection by the Sacramento Bee is particularly awful. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that the newspaper of the state's capitol is deeply offended at the idea that people outside the government might make lots of money off marijuana. The Bee's commentary is full-on nanny-state panic about exaggerated health concerns and misguided apples-and-oranges comparisons to tobacco and worries that advertising will "normalize" marijuana use the way it "normalized" alcohol use. So is the Bee opposed to legalized alcohol, too? Then there's this doozy of a section: Backers contend Proposition 64 is a civil liberties issue. And police do use marijuana as probable cause to investigate and, sometimes, arrest people, even if those arrests, which disproportionately affect poor black and Latino Californians, rarely lead to convictions and amount to harassment at times. But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports not a single person is in state prison today because of marijuana possession. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation decriminalizing marijuana possession in 2010. After years of inaction, the Legislature last year approved detailed regulations for medical marijuana. No one with a medical marijuana card—and they're readily available from physicians who advertise 4/20 services—risks so much as a ticket. Not a single person is in prison today, so what's the worry? That the police will have one less probable cause excuse to investigate and—in the Bee's own words—harass minorities isn't that big a deal because they don't end up in state prison! They are only "rarely" convicted! How privileged and sheltered a life do you have to live to look at this dynamic and think that everything's fine? Thus far Ballotpedia notes five major newspapers endorsing and six newspapers opposing. But the pro side got[...]

The Reporting of Trump’s PTSD Comments Shows Why His Supporters Hate the Media

Tue, 04 Oct 2016 14:15:00 -0400

Monday's coverage of Donald Trump's speech to veterans is a prime illustration of a trend noticed in September by Salena Zito over at The Atlantic: Some reporters and headline writers are taking Trump's comments very literally rather than attempting to address the substance or trying to plumb what he's really getting at. Trump's supporters are the exact opposite—they're interpreting what he actually means from his rather inarticulate way of saying what he has to say. The gulf between the two cultures has inflamed the anger of Trump supporters over how the media behaves. And honestly, with the way the media—or at least media headlines—have approached Trump's comments on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and veterans' health treatment, I honestly don't blame the Trump supporters. Here's what Trump actually said when asked about veterans and current suicide rates: When you talk about the mental health problems when people come back from war and combat and they see things that maybe a lot of folks in this room have seen many times over, and you're strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can't handle it, and they see horror stories, they see events that you couldn't see in a movie, nobody would believe it. Now we need a mental health help and medical and it's one of the things that I think is least addressed and it's one of the things I hear — like your question — one of the things I hear most about when I go around and talk to the veterans. So we're going to have a very, very robust, very very robust level of performance having to do with mental health. We are losing so many great people that can be taken care of if they have proper care. You know when you hear the 22 suicides a day, it's a big part of your question, but when you hear the 22 suicides a day, that should never be. That should never be, So we're going to be addressing that very strongly. And the whole mental health issue is going to be a very important issue when I take over, and the VA is going to be fixed in so many ways, but that's gonna be one of the ways we're gonna help. And that's in many respects going to be the number one thing we have to do because I think it's really been left behind. Ok? Thank you very much. So there is a path of criticism of Trump here, which is—just like many things he says in his public speeches—there's little actual content. There's a promise that things will be better under him with no real explanation why that will actually be the case. What is not a legitimate path of criticism is to look at the totality of these comments and suggest that Trump thinks veterans are weak or that he somehow doesn't want to support them. And yet, that's exactly what happened due to writers deciding to run with "some people can't take it" and emphasize it in headlines like 'Trump Suggests that Soldiers with PTSD Aren't 'Strong,'" and the even more weaselly "Trump Appears to Suggest that Veterans with PTSD Are Not 'Strong.'" [emphasis added] And, obviously, the Democrats are running with it, with Vice President Joe Biden responding with blustering outrage and Hillary Clinton's Twitter feed reminding folks of previous very stupid things (but unrelated) Trump has said about veterans. But that first part of Trump's response makes perfect sense to somebody putting out a sales pitch, and the outrage is completely phony. Trump is suggesting that the folks in the crowd are strong as he pivots to the discussion of mental health issues, because, frankly, a lot of people who need help don't actually want to admit it. He's providing an answer to these veterans without suggesting to them that any of them in particular need to take advantage of it. It's actually a clever way of approaching the discussion that somebody with Trump's backg[...]

Fall TV Season Gets Time Travel Type Shows Based on Older Shows and Films

Fri, 30 Sep 2016 15:00:00 -0400

Westworld. HBO. Sunday, October 2, 9 p.m. Timeless. NBC. Monday, October 3, 10 p.m. Conviction. ABC. Monday, October 3, 10 p.m. No Tomorrow. The CW. Tuesday, October 4, 9 p.m. Frequency. The CW. Wednesday, October 5, 9 p.m. In 1966, when CBS unveiled a show called It's About Time in which a pair of astronauts pierce the space-time continuum and discover that the human race is descended from a couple of cavemen played by Joe E. Ross and Imogene Coca, the old Philadelphia Bulletin was so unhinged that it called for congressional hearings. While I certainly share the conventional civic wisdom that TV critics should have subpoena power, not to mention droit du seigneur, I believe the Bulletin was a little bit ahead of the curve. A congressional investigation of time-travel shows wasn't probably warranted until 1992, when the characters of NBC's Qauntum Leap jumped back to the 1950s to put the idea of real estate into the head of a 12-year-old Donald Trump. If that didn't call for a "Have you no decency, sir?" moment... Anyway, I wonder what the folks at the Bulletin would have made of television this week, which is mostly one long orgy of time travel, both literal and metaphorical. As William Faulkner might have said if he'd had any Nielsen smarts, the past is never dead, it's not even in reruns yet. The literal part of the week's temporal excursions takes part in NBC's Timeless and The CW's Frequency, in which characters flit around from decade to decade, trying to debug the past. In Frequency—based on the 2000 Randy Quaid film of the same name—all the temporal tampering is aimed at a single event: a 20-year-old cop killing. NYPD homicide detective Raimy Sullivan (Peyton List, Blood & Oil) has built a whole career out of trying to prove she's nothing like her father Frank (Riley Smith, Nashville), murdered by his cohorts two decades earlier after going rogue on an undercover assignment. But when her late father's old ham radio set crackles to life during an electrical storm, Raimy finds herself talking to pop across the years. As family reunions go, this one is a bit on the harsh side. "You're telling me that in 20 years I'm gonna be on the force with my daughter?" Frank says delightedly after learning she's a cop. "No, you're dead," replies Raimy. Try wringing a Hallmark moment out of that. Worse yet, after Frank convinces her that he was—you guessed it!—framed, Raimy passes him information on how to avoid his death, with disastrous butterfly-effect results. Thus are launched what The CW hopes are 100 episodes or so of attempts to contain the ripple effects. Despite your understandable and probably entirely justified fear that the success of a show about a time-traveling ham radio will lead to a painful rash of sequels about time-traveling toaster-ovens and Waring blenders, Frequency is not so bad. The paradoxes of time-travel, though familiar to anybody with even a passing acquaintance with sci fi, are artfully woven in, and List is quite appealing as a daughter remaking her long-held image of a father she hardly knew. The action in the pilot episode moves a little fast, but with any luck, now that the show's premises are established, its metabolism will slow below hummingbird levels. Timeless doesn't admit to being based on anything, but it's sure a dead ringer for the marvelously cheesy and lovably stupid ABC series The Time Tunnel, in which government budget-cutting led to a couple of scientists getting marooned in an experimental device with an amusingly malevolent glitch. Every week it dropped them onto the Titanic or the middle of Custer's Last Stand; and every week their colleagues back in 1966 gave the machine a good hard kick just in time to save them by getting them tossed over to K[...]

The Exorcist and MacGyver Are Back with Reboots

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 15:00:00 -0400

MacGyver. CBS. Friday, September 23, 8 p.m. The Exorcist. Fox. Friday, September 23, 9 p.m. Watching new TV shows, I often wish I could have been in the pitch meetings in which network executives bought them. "Hey, Dave, when The Exorcist first came out, people in the audience puked right in their seats! Wouldn't it be great if we had some of that?" Or: "Really, Mr. Geller, the original MacGyver was so profoundly stupid that Saturday Night Live is still making fun of it 30 years later! It's a natural for us!" These examples are not, as you have surmised, hypothetical. As the broadcast nets pass the midway point in the rollout of their new fall season, they're offering up two remakes of resurrected video corpses on a single night. All you need is to throw in a frozen Swanson turkey dinner for a complete National TV Archeological Dig Day. One of these, surprisingly, is not half-bad. I was never a fan of even the original Exorcist, much less its various klunky sequels and prequels. It always seemed to me to be a passel of gloppy special effects wrapped around a meager plot, going for cheap gross-outs rather than genuine scares. This new television version certainly has its share of projectilized pea soup. But the characters and story, at least in the pilot, are much more finely honed and much less predictable. The show's surprises are all the more striking because this Exorcist follows, at least in a general way, the framework of its 1973 cinematic ancestor. Alfonso Herrera (Sens8) plays a charismatic young priest in a decaying Chicago neighborhood where his principal duty is raising money to keep his dilapidated church from falling to pieces. The closest he gets to actual theological work is absolving the cats of his aging parishioners for their sins against birds and mice. One day, though, he's visited by a frazzled member of his flock (Geena Davis), the de facto head of a troubled family. She cites the usual complaints—bitchy teenage daughter, noises in the wall, moving furniture, an unquenchable thirst for the blood of virgin goats (okay, I made that one up, but you know it's coming sooner or later—and then sums up: "It's a demon, and it's trying to take my daughter." Replies the blithely post-Vatican II Father Tomas: "Demons are metaphors." And it's not just the existence of demons Father Tomas doubts; he's wondering about the whole foundation of his faith. "If you talk to other priests," he confides in an unguarded moment, "they will tell you they heard God's voice. ... I never had that." What he does have are haunting nightmares about a disastrously unsuccessful exorcism attempt by another priest. And when he learns that the dreams are true, he thinks he may be hearing God's voice after all. He doesn't consider the possibility that someone else, much darker, is going to do the talking. The Exorcist's pilot was directed by Rupert Wyatt, of Rise of the Planet of the Apes fame, and it's photographed in dim tones and silhouettes that lend the show an atmosphere of foreboding and desolation. (Including a couple of shots of priests peering up at the demon's lair from the shadows of the streets below that are definitely an homage to the work of cinematographer Owen Roizman on the original film.) So do the performances of Herrera, note-perfect as the priest whose handsome, friendly mien masks so many crippling incertitudes about his calling, and Davis as the mother holding onto sanity by a frayed thread. The most interesting thing of all about The Exorcist is that it shares the hardball theology of Fox's Lucifer, AMC's Preacher and Cinemax's exorcism show Outcast. One renegade priest in The Exorcist even resolves his doctrinal disputes with Rome not with an encyclical but [...]

Friday A/V Club: ABC, LSD, and the CIA

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 13:15:00 -0400

(image) Watergate and the other scandals of the '70s sparked a surge in skepticism toward the country's most powerful institutions. Here is an artifact from that era: a 1979 ABC News special called Mission: Mind Control. The hour-long documentary examines the CIA and Army's attempts to master brainwashing and other sorts of behavioral manipulation, included unethical experiments in which unwitting subjects were dosed with psychedelic drugs.

The show occasionally lapses into TV-news goofiness—at one point, as psychedelic imagery flashes on the screen, we're told that what we're watching is "considered by many experts to be the closest illustration of the effects of a hallucinogenic"—but at its core it's a hard-hitting piece of journalism. It was preserved, interestingly, by the National Archives and Records Administration, which did not bother to remove the commercials from the broadcast. So along with a harrowing exposé of official crimes, you get to see Will Rogers Jr. pitching Grape Nuts and a promo for a Geraldo Rivera report on a biker gang (featuring "dope, death, and the Bandidos"). Enjoy:

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