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Published: Thu, 29 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Thu, 29 Jun 2017 01:33:08 -0400


The Mist Gets Lost in a Baffling Cloud

Fri, 16 Jun 2017 15:00:00 -0400

The Mist. Spike. Thursday, June 22, 10 p.m. Stephen King's novella The Mist, published back in 1980 before he was too important to suffer editors, was a marvel of taut, muscular prose. A bunch of shoppers are marooned inside a grocery store when a heavy mist suddenly rolls across their small town. Inside it are a pack of fantastic creatures: Pterodactyls. Giant bugs. Other huge things, indiscernible through the fog except for their enormous, questing tentacles. They are hungry. They eat. A handful of people escape the grocery store and drive as fast and as far as they can in hopes of escape, but as the story ends, there's no real sign that they've succeeded. The whole thing was sort of like walking outside and discovering you had stumbled into a better-dubbed and shockingly realistic Japanese monster movie. There was a single subplot that extended directly from the action: the devolution of many of the people inside the store into superstitious religious mania. No soap-opera detritus, no Sophie's-choice moments about saving kids or mistresses over wives, no Freudian agonistes, not even all that much time pondering the cause of the events. The Mist landed like a brutally hard punch. Frank Darabont's 2007 film adaptation took almost exactly the same approach to great effect (though he did add a Hitchcockian surprise ending that, purposefully or not, seriously subverted King's contemptuous treatment of religion). If it doesn't seem to you that The Mist sounds like a good fit for a television series, then I've got bad news and worse news. The bad news is that you'll never be a production executive at Spike, Viacom's manly-men cable channel, which thought a TV version of The Mist sounded like a capital idea. The worse news is that a legion of demons did not burst from the ninth circle of Hell during production, set upon the cast and crew with fangs and claws, and leave them dangling from the sound-stage lighting towers by their own shredded intestines. Okay, it's possible I'm overreacting here just a smidge. But Spike's version of The Mist is one dumb piece of work. It's a "reimagination" (Spike, mindful of the scant resemblance of its show to King's novella or Darabont's film, has been careful to avoid the word "remake") by Danish TV producer Christian Torpe, whose shows are much beloved there. But his notion of U.S. politics and culture seems to be drawn in equal parts from a video archive divided between smarmy liberal-moralist soap operas like Peyton Place and redneck drive-in paranoia like Jackson County Jail. Cops beat the bejeezus out of practically anybody they encounter, just on general principle. A teenage girl who reports she was roofied and raped at a party is immediately branded a lying slut by the whole town. A popular teacher is fired for explaining to her high school class where babies come from. (And it's not from giant prehistoric eggs coaxed into hatching by tiny Japanese fertility goddesses.) That's just in the first episode. By week two, I'm sure we'll have worked our way to the Scopes Trial, Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy, and a mayor who takes a sledge hammer to Elvis Presley on the steps of city hall. Even if Torpe's characters hijacked a time machine to escape 1955 America, though, his conception of The Mist is dreadfully wrongheaded. Virtually every one of his changes conspires to rob the work of its gut-punch power. Stretching out the show's timeline and giving its characters extensive back stories (even if they were less silly ones than these) distracts from the story's sheer horror. Trapping the survivors in a shopping mall instead of a grocery store dissipates its air of claustrophobia. What you're left with is a version of As the World Turns in which booty calls have been exchanged for body counts. And though I'm not certain, it may be that Torpe (perhaps in deference to network bean-counters) has even eliminated The Mist's monsters. In the pilot episode, at least, none were visible; instead, any human who spent much time inside the fog turned homicidal and zombie-ish, a much cheaper visual effect [...]

Summer Means Time for Television to Go Bonkers

Fri, 09 Jun 2017 14:55:00 -0400

Claws. TNT. Sunday, June 11, 9 p.m. Blood Drive. SyFy. Wednesday, June 14, 10 p.m. Summertime has arrived, and popcorn television is on us like a pack of rabid weasels. Like Santa and the elves at Christmas, sociopathic strippers and mechanical vampires frolic through the airwaves with increasing frequency until Labor Day Eve and the annual viewing of It's the Manson Girls, Charlie Brown! Good popcorn TV movies and shows are, as they used to say on one of its first exemplars, faster than a speeding bullet, the better to distract you from its innate stupidity. Claws (which, I was momentarily disappointed to discover, is not a modern blood-and-boobs remake of the epochal 1957 popcorn masterpiece Attack of the Crab Monsters) sets some kind of record in that regard. Set in a small-town Florida nail salon, it starts out like a Tyler Perry party-hearty sitcom, with astronomical numbers of tattoos, big butts, and random shouts of "Off the hook!" and "Shake it!" But within minutes it morphs into an entertaining, if slightly idiotic, action-suspense drama: The salon offers the full menu of traditional Florida services running from erotic asphyxiation to money-laundering to off-site drug hootchie-ism to murder. At the center of this lunatic universe is Desna (Niecy Nash, Scream Queens), the salon's owner and chief emissary to the money-laundering world. Her henchpersons include just-out-of-jail Polly (Carrie Preston, True Blood) and resident butt-kicker Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes, Devious Maids). They're all perpetually undersupplied with money and oversupplied with unreliable men—or, in Quiet Ann's case, women. Claws is the sort of show where funeral corteges include lines of flatbed truckers equipped with stripper poles, where characters reminisce about their good old days as hookers holed up in ratty beach motels "shooting Easter eggs out our butts" and launch into reflective soliloquies about the random interaction of the universe with human genitalia. "You tell yourself that you're just fulfilling your deepest carnal appetite, that deep need we all as human share for connectedness," muses Polly. "Then, boom, you're knocked up by a minor Kennedy." Nash, Preston, and Reyes play their roles with such gusto that your profound, debilitating shame at enjoying Claws will fade quickly. Blood Drive may take a little longer, but ultimately the charm of dialogue like, "Hand up! Turn around! Drop the leg!" is difficult to resist. A deeply deranged cross between Death Race 2000 and The Gumball Rally, Blood Drive—set in a wasteland America of 1999 (!) in which water is dispensed through ATM machines and the new police motto is We Kill Because We Care—is about an illegal cross-country race. But where the titillation in Gumball Rally was that the vehicles all had their catalytic converters removed, the cars in this race run on human blood. (When an appalled cop who stumbles onto the race asks, why blood, one of the drivers replies: "Have you seen gas prices lately?") The winner gets $10 million; the losers get fed to their cars. Like Claws, Blood Drive is part action-adventures thrills and spills, part darkly surrealist belly laughs. For instance, the drivers are regularly chided by a prim Siri-like voice from their cell phones that admonishes them for things like reckless driving but shrugs no-hard-no-foul when they feed a squad of Girl Scouts into a wood chipper for fuel. But Blood Drive has much more of a grindhouse feel (literally, in the case of the refueling scenes with those toothy gas tanks) and it rarely can resist the opportunity for a sophomoric crack. The show arguably has the worst potty-mouth in the history of basic cable, and its humor often meanders the line between penile and puerile. A race driver named Clown Dick is funny, kinda; a female police sergeant screaming "Suck my dick!" kinda less. Though it's not always easy to discern among all the phallicphobia and cannibalism, there is a plot running through Blood Drive. That cop who discovers the race is forced to join it, teaming with a rookie f[...]

The British Left vs. the Deep State

Fri, 09 Jun 2017 11:15:00 -0400

(image) A phrase keeps cropping up in certain corners of the English press: A Very British Coup. That's the name of Chris Mullin's novel about a near-future U.K.—and by "near-future" I mean the early '90s, because the book was published in 1982—where a hard-left Labour government comes to power and then is undermined by intelligence agencies and their allies in the media. Writers started invoking the book after Jeremy Corbyn made his bid to be leader of the Labour Party, and Mullin himself got around 1,000 words in The Guardian a couple years ago to speculate about "how the political establishment would react to a Corbyn victory." Now that Corbyn has denied the Tories a parliamentary majority, you can expect the allusions to multiply.

I haven't read the novel myself, but I've seen the 1988 miniseries based on it. Watching it today should be a resonant experience for both the Corbynite left and the Trumpian right: the former because of the hero's similarities to the current Labour leader, the latter because the idea of the deep state subverting an elected outsider has suddenly picked up currency among conservatives. And if you're neither a Corbynite nor a Trumpian, you still might enjoy it, just because it's a pretty good conspiracy thriller. Great cast, too.

By the time this aired in the late '80s, the idea that Britain might make a sharp left turn seemed like an outlandish science fiction scenario. But Mullin was writing at the dawn of the decade, when the U.K. was in a deep recession and the solidly socialist Tony Benn had a shot at becoming Labour leader. The idea that hidden forces might try to undermine such a government didn't spring entirely from Mullin's imagination either: He was drawing on widely circulated stories that MI5 had deliberately subverted the Labour government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, effectively pushing him out of power. I don't know the evidence well enough to have an informed opinion on whether those tales are true. But I do know that James Jesus Angleton, the famously paranoid CIA counterintelligence chief, was convinced that Wilson was working for the Russians. Speaking of notions that have come cycling back into style.

Here is part one of A Very British Coup:

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Here is part two:

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And here's the final installment:

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The story was remade in 2012 as a four-part miniseries called Secret State; I haven't seen that one, but if you want to check it out you can watch the first episode here. Wikipedia's page on Harold Wilson conspiracy theories is here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

I’m Dying Up Here Wants Viewers to Take the Saying Literally

Fri, 02 Jun 2017 15:00:00 -0400

I'm Dying Up Here. Showtime. Sunday, June 4, 10 p.m. Somebody—Harry Shearer? Al Franken? Memory and Google both fail me—describing one of the grisly bloodbaths among the cast in the early day of Saturday Night Live once said, "It's not comedy if somebody's not crying." That's very much the idea behind Showtime's I'm Dying Up Here, a melodrama about the lives of a group of young stand-up comics scuffling through the comedy-club dives of Los Angeles as they wait for their big break. In the world of I'm Dying Up Here, comics succeed not by telling jokes but by ripping their own hearts out on stage. They achieve authenticity not by getting laughs but by dishing their secret fears, avarices and perversions to a bunch of voyeuristic strangers. "These are tortured souls who leave it all out there every night," declares Goldie, the owner of the seedy club where most of the show takes place. "That volatility, that pain—that's the price of brilliance." If this seems a bit of an overwrought view of, say, Jay Leno's monologues or Steve Martin's salute to King Tut, you've already zeroed in on the weakness at the heart of I'm Dying Up Here: its relentless pretension. Successful stand-up comedy does not require emotional vivisection any more than successful portraiture requires auriculectomy. The fact that a particular artist is neurotic does not make neurosis a job requirement. When the show's characters start talking about the nature of art, they sound like a sophomore English colloquium meeting at a beer garden. But considered for what it really is—a sharply observed soap opera about a wholly debauched and dysfunctional group of friends preying upon their mutual insecurities—I'm Dying Up Here offers considerable viewing pleasure. The show is based on a non-fiction book of the same name about the Los Angeles comedy scene of the early 1970s, when Pet Rock jokes were the order of the day and comics like Leno, Andy Kaufman and Robin Williams were trying to break in. Executive producer and creator Dave Flebotte (whose wildy disparate writing credits include everything from The Sopranos to Desperate Housewives) has elected to fictionalize his story. And although some elements are nonetheless unmistakable—particularly Goldie and her eponymous comedy club, who strongly resemble L.A.'s Comedy Store and its skinflint owner Mitzi Shore—it's a mistake to watch with a scorecard, trying to match real comedians to fictional counterparts. I'm Dying Up Here's characters are very much its own creations. They scrape by on gigs that that barely cover the cost of an overpriced Sunset Strip burger, picking up side work as game-show contestants or sexual Tinkertoys when that fails. They sleep in walk-in closets rented for $60 a week and comfort one another with bromides of the business. ("Lenny Bruce's first paying gig was for $12 and a plate of spaghetti!") And they wait to be "Discovered," which is generally defined as a spot on The Tonight Show (especially if Johnny Carson summons you over to the couch to chat after your bit). But in lean times, even getting invited to play the upstairs lounge at Goldie's—as opposed to the truly tawdry basement—will do. Both venues pay the same: nothing. Meanwhile, Goldie herself—the troupe's den mother to those on the way up, Cruella de Vil to everybody headed the other way—sits in the back cutting business deals over pizza-pans of cocaine. The passengers on this voyage of the damned endlessly reconfigure themselves for various acts of sexual piracy, backstabbing, career sabotage, and ultimately shoulder-crying. At times they seem linked mainly by a seemingly endless capacity for self-denigration if that's what it takes to prove their authenticity to Goldie. Texas oil princess Cassie (Ari Graynor, Bad Teacher) spews blowjob jokes. Self-lacerating chicano Edgar (Al Madrigal, The Daily Show) has a lot of scabrous jokes but only one punch line: "Mexico!" The most jaded of the lot is Angry Young Man Bill Hobbs, played b[...]

Deconstructing Wonder Woman

Fri, 02 Jun 2017 12:35:00 -0400

If you want to watch a Wonder Woman movie today but can't make it to a theater to see the new film, I've got you covered. Below you'll find Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, a piece of feminist video art from the '70s. Let me clarify that: When Dara Birnbaum made this in 1978 and '79, it was feminist video art. And you can still read it that way if you want. But in 2017 this video—a piece of certified High Culture that I first encountered in a museum—is pretty much indistinguishable from the pop-culture remixes that crop up on YouTube every day now. I'm hardly the first person to notice this. Visit that Algonquin Roundtable of our time, YouTube's comment threads, and you'll find Birnbaum's video sparking reactions like this: And this: And this: I should probably explain, for those of you who don't follow such things, that "YouTube Poop" isn't a putdown; it's a genre. So here's the video. Once it would have struck most viewers as highly weird; today it's almost ordinary. That's the sort of thing that happens when a technology gets democratized. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> By the way: If you're curious about Birnbaum's original intent, here's how Electronic Arts Interface sums it up: Explosive bursts of fire open Technology/Transformation, an incendiary deconstruction of the ideology embedded in television form and pop cultural iconography. Appropriating imagery from the 1970s TV series Wonder Woman, Birnbaum isolates and repeats the moment of the "real" woman's symbolic transformation into super-hero. Entrapped in her magical metamorphosis by Birnbaum's stuttering edits, Wonder Woman spins dizzily like a music-box doll. Through radical manipulation of this female Pop icon, she subverts its meaning within the television text. Arresting the flow of images through fragmentation and repetition, Birnbaum condenses the comic-book narrative—Wonder Woman deflects bullets off her bracelets, "cuts" her throat in a hall of mirrors—distilling its essence to allow the subtext to emerge. In a further textual deconstruction, she spells out the words to the song Wonder Woman in Discoland on the screen. The lyrics' double entendres ("Get us out from under...Wonder Woman") reveal the sexual source of the superwoman's supposed empowerment: "Shake thy Wonder Maker." Writing about the "stutter-step progression of 'extended moments' of transformation from Wonder Woman," Birnbaum states, "The abbreviated narrative—running, spinning, saving a man—allows the underlying theme to surface: psychological transformation versus television product. Real becomes Wonder in order to "do good" (be moral) in an (a) or (im)moral society." Now head over to a bona fide YouTube Poop video and post an analysis like that in the comments. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]

ABC’s Baffling Sequel to Romeo and Juliet Fails to Live Up to Bard’s Name

Fri, 26 May 2017 15:00:00 -0400

Still Star-Crossed. ABC. Wednesday, May 31, 10 p.m. I cannot say Still Star-Crossed, ABC's aptly named sequel to Romeo and Juliet, was a complete waste of my time. It briefly brought back a memory of the epiphanic moment in college when I learned that a laudatory reference to anal sex was concealed in the bowdlerized version of Romeo and Juliet that we read in my high-school English class. Sadly, this Interwebs thing has practically obliterated delayed gratifications like that one; every 12-year-old in America can now discover what a filthy dog Shakespeare was and get a head start on having him banned from their school curriculums. Sadly, the previous paragraph pretty much exhausts discussion of any merits of Still Star-Crossed, an opinion which is apparently shared at ABC. The network once considered this Shonda Rhimes project the spearhead of its mid-season replacement corps; instead, it's being dumped out of the car during Memorial Day week, when Neilson ratings sweeps are safely in the past and a good percentage of America is on vacation. If Still Star-Crossed was taken hostage by a hacker the way the way the new Pirates of the Caribbean film reportedly had been, ABC and Disney would probably break out into delighted giggles and spend the promo budget on a karaoke party for the staff. To be precise in assigning blame for Still Star-Crossed, it was adapted from the 2013 novel of the same name by Melinda Taub (a writer at Full Frontal with Samantha Bee), which I might conceivably read at gunpoint, but only if the caliber was pretty high. The series was produced and written by Heather Mitchell, a veteran of several Rhimes shows whose biography says she once worked as an editor on the "Peanuts" comic strip, perhaps making sure the obscure dialect of Snoopy's pal Woodstock didn't include any secret avian obscenities. The conceit of Still Star-Crossed is that after Romeo and Juliet kill themselves (oops, spoiler alert), Verona is reeling with political jitters, not to mention murderous swordfights between the warring Capulet and Montague families that erupt about every seven minutes. The local pols decide this can only be cured by an arranged marriage between the two families, notwithstanding that the last wedding involving the two clans ended in a mutual suicide and—well, we get this entire mess. Minus the occasional scene of Katherine Heigl having sex with a ghost or haggling over malpractice-insurance prices, this sounds like reasonably good fodder for one of Rhimes' glossy, sex-and-murder soap operas. Instead, Still Star-Crossed is off the tracks from the opening moments. Rhimes' customarily snappy dialogue has been replaced with something that sounds like special-ed Shakespeare, interrupted by the occasional thudding anachronism. (My fave: A Montague yelling at a Capulet, "Maybe this is all on you!" Not exactly up there with, "Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs" or even, "A boy like that would kill your brudder/forget that boy and find anudder.") Then there's the weird Hamilton-style post-racial casting, with black and white actors playing cousins, brothers, sisters and whatever, as if 16th-century Italy was one big blended utopian family. Call me un-woke, but I found it not just distracting but extremely confusing in a show featuring a collection of indistinguishable 20-somethings, all clad in the same frocks and frills. (It should be admitted that fashion-porn addicts may have a good time watching Still Star-Crossed, as will firebugs—the production's candle budget must have wiped Pottery Barn's stock for the next 10 Christmases.) About the only member of the cast to stand out in this mess is British TV actress Lashana Lynch, playing Juliet's cousin Rosaline, one of the partners in the forced marriage. Lynch's nationality is fortunate, because like costume-drama Italians since the dawn of Hollywood, every character speaks in the posh British accent of the Cambridge Unio[...]

Twin Peaks and the Moment TV Changed

Fri, 26 May 2017 14:44:00 -0400

When Twin Peaks came back to television this week, the critics agreed on one thing: It was a hell of a lot weirder than the show's first incarnation. That's an impressive accomplishment, given how strange the original series seemed at the time. In May of 1990, just a month after the program debuted, a Time writer marveled that "such a 'difficult' show could achieve prime-time success." You can give credit for that to cable TV, even though the old Twin Peaks wasn't a cable show. As that same Time piece noted, when the networks accounted for 90% of TV viewing, a series needed mass-audience numbers to survive. Today, with the networks attracting less than two-thirds of the audience, an 18% or 19% share is a passing grade. A show of limited appeal like Twin Peaks can make it; the art-house audience has become a marketing niche. In retrospect, that 1989-90 season was full of signs that a new TV era was beginning. The Simpsons became a weekly series, sparking a sometimes wildly creative wave of adult-oriented animation. Seinfeld debuted, bringing with it a style of humor that paved the way for a radically different sort of sitcom. And we were just a couple years away from Homicide: Life on the Street, a direct progenitor of both Oz and The Wire. Television was getting more inventive, and it was getting more inventive because of consumer choice. More choices meant more niches, more risk-taking, more artistic successes, and more entertainingly odd artistic failures. (1990 was the year of Cop Rock too.) This shift has been an ongoing process, one that began before that season started and is still continuing today. But if I had to pick a single moment that encapsulated the change, it would be a sequence in the third episode of Twin Peaks—the scene where it became firmly clear that David Lynch's show was not merely "quirky" or "unusual" but flat-out weird. An FBI agent investigating a murder brings a crew from the local sheriff's department out to the woods, and there he launches into this spiel: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> And then this happens: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> I know I'm not the only person who got hooked on the series when I saw that. I suspect that the exact same scene convinced a lot of people never to watch the damn show again. But that's OK. That's how choice and niches work. My favorite take on the original Twin Peaks, by the way, came from the Seattle-based writer Clark Humphrey. While most critics were calling the show the most surreal thing they'd ever seen on TV, Humphrey kept insisting that this was simply what the Pacific Northwest was like. "Having grown up in a Washington sawmill town," he reiterated recently, "I loved the series as a mostly-realistic portrayal of power and frustration in such a place." Not having grown up in a Washington sawmill town myself, I can't judge whether he's right. For all I know those spots are just crawling with log ladies and backwards-talking dwarves. Whether Humphrey was right was beside the point: I liked his take because it was eccentric, and that's what such an eccentric program deserved. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]

HBO Ignores Madoff's Victims in Favor of Family Drama

Fri, 19 May 2017 15:00:00 -0400

The Wizard of Lies. HBO. Saturday, May 20, 8 p.m. Sorry, guys. Showtime has decided not to offer advance screenings of its reboot of the milestone of television weirdness, Twin Peaks, which premieres this weekend. This is either a canny make-'em-beg marketing strategy or a desperate effort to conceal an epic bomb. So instead of an incisive analysis of boogalooing and backwards-talking midgets, I can offer only the observation that every criminal breeds his own cult. Just as there are women who want to marry Charles Manson, there are people anxious to buy Bernie Madoff's underwear. And Madoffian salirophiliacs compose much of the audience for The Wizard of Lies, HBO's windy new docudrama on the decline and fall of the all-time Ponzi champ. The $65 billion collapse of Madoff's smoke-and-mirrors trading empire in 2008 would seem to offer great dramatic potential. Unlike the largely faceless, institutional banking collapse around the same time that triggered the Great Recession, the Madoff scandal had an easily identifiable villain driven by evil intention rather than carelessness. And his betrayal was breathtakingly personal; the thousands of victims included most of his friends and even his in-laws. There was even a potential hero: Harry Markopolis, an investment officer at a rival firm who for a decade fruitlessly warned that Madoff's returns were too good to be true. All these elements are present in Wizard, not to mention a marquee cast headed by Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, with frequent Oscar nominee Barry Levinson producing and directing. Yet it all comes together with much more fizzle than sizzle. Much of what's wrong with Wizard can be traced to Levinson's decision to go with a script by three relatively inexperienced writers (including his son Sam) that begins relatively late in the story—the day before Madoff's chicanery was exposed—and concentrates mainly on the damage he did to his own family. That precludes any real examination of any of the characters on their way to the top; all we see is their precipitous fall. Madoff's fraud is believed to have begun in the 1970s. His sons Mark and Andrew were both traders for the company, and his wife Ruth its bookkeeper in the early days. But they all denied any knowledge of his scheming, a claim grudgingly accepted by investigators (who never charged any of the three with anything), if not the public. Wizard follows Mark (Alessandro Nivola, American Hustle) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow, House of Cards) as they're bullied to the line of sanity and ultimately beyond it, alternately by their parents for disloyalty—the boys were the ones who revealed the fraud to federal authorities, then refused to help raise bail money for their father—and by friends who were wiped out. More fascinating, in a bug-under-the-magnifying-glass sort of way, is the case of Ruth (crisply played by Pfeiffer), cagey enough to give away a small fortune in jewelry before the cops can seize it, but utterly oblivious to the cracks in her cocoon of wealth and social standing until the mounting rage of her friends-turned-victims gets her kicked out of her regular beauty salon. Despite the mounting toll, she can't break away from her husband of more than five decades. As they lie in bed, awaiting for the effects of what will turn out to be a botched mutual attempt at a suicidal overdose of sleeping pills to take effect, Bernie murmurs a poignant goodbye: "We had a wonderful life." Without even a glance, she replies: "Yeah ... until you ruined it." This is all well and good, and might have made a good episode of Showtime's barbarous Wall Street drama Billions. But, having expressed every cogent thought in its head in the first 50 minutes, Wizard drags along for another tortuously repetitive hour and half, a long day's journey into utter banality. De Niro's strangely mannered turn as Madoff does not help[...]

Police Investigate a Cult Killing; It Turns Out to Be a Rock Video

Fri, 12 May 2017 12:01:00 -0400

(image) "It all began one peaceful Michigan morning," narrator Rafael Abramovitz explains, "when a farmer named Robert Reed woke up to check on his corn field. Farmer Reed looked up towards the sun that morning and saw something strange floating across the sky. It wasn't the usual flock of Canadian Geese. It looked more like a UFO, if you ask him."

So begins the tale of the time the FBI investigated the death of a man who was in fact still alive, as told by the tabloid show Hard Copy. It was 1989. The UFO turned out to be some weather balloons with a Super 8 camera attached. After they landed on his farm, Reed turned his find over to the police, thinking it might be a surveillance camera searching for marijuana. When the cops developed the film, they discovered what they took to be a cult murder or some similarly grisly crime.

A yearlong investigation followed, and in the course of it the FBI was called in. Eventually, the police figured out the truth: The supposed snuff film was actually lost footage from a Nine Inch Nails video. The crew had attached the camera to the balloons to get some low-tech aerial shots, and their helium cinematographers then blew away. The "murder victim" was Trent Reznor, and he was very much alive. Indeed, he was somewhat famous.

In the Hard Copy report, Reznor is amused by the whole thing. The cop they spoke with also seems a little amused. The one person trying very hard not to seem amused by the mistake is Abramovitz, the reporter, who's intent on making Reznor the villain of the piece, blaming him for a "wasted year of police work that could have gone into solving some real crimes." And if Abramovitz had anything to do with the tongue-in-cheek "reenactments" that accompany his narration, I suspect that deep down he was chuckling about it too.

The report aired in 1991, complete with some closing comments about the alleged dangers of rock videos. It is a work of art:

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

Documentary on Prison Boom Fails to Provide Facts or Context

Fri, 05 May 2017 14:52:00 -0400

Independent Lens: The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. PBS. Monday, May 8, 10 p.m. Watching The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, I was reminded of an old movie joke. Q. How many surrealist directors does it take to screw in a light bulb? A. November. Airing as part of the PBS Independent Lens documentary film series, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is not really surrealist, just torpid and self-consciously arty. It's the sort of stuporous film in which you get languid shots of trains rolling endlessly along a track, images to which aesthetes can assign virtually any metaphoric value—the inexorable human will to free movement, the industrial world's uncaring despoliation of the environment, the quiet desperation of Americans awaiting delivery of their breakfast Cheerios—without fear of contradiction by actual reported facts, which are few and far between in Twelve Landscapes. Twelve Landscapes is rooted in a clever (conceptually, anyway) attempt to make virtue out of necessity. Making a documentary about America's burgeoning prisons (population 2.2 million and growing all the time) is an exercise in frustration because it's nearly impossible to get cameras inside them. So Canadian filmmaker Brett Story approached from the opposite direction, with a series of vignettes about how incarceration affects the world outside. But lots of thing can go wrong between conception and birth. Story's affection for the tedium of cinema verite, her rejection of journalism for aesthetics, and, most fundamentally, her neo-Marxist certainty that the driving force behind American penology is corporate conspiracy all combine to make large chunks of Twelve Landscapes nearly unwatchable. The fact that a lot of New York City chess hustlers learned their trade in prison (if it is a fact; if Story has any evidence beyond the assertion of a single player, it's not to be found in in Twelve Landscapes) is an interesting tidbit. But the key word is "tidbit"; watching guys stare at chessboards for four minutes is even more excruciating than it sounds. I thought it was interesting to listen to the musings of a California inmate who's part of an all-female forest-fire-fighting crew ("I think of myself as a hero, and [even though the prison rules prohibit me from talking to them] sometimes I can tell that the public does, too") until I learned—and not from the film itself—that she's actually an actress playing a composite character whose lines were collected from many different interviews. Story's refusal to use narration or otherwise provide facts to establish context for her vignettes actually damages her own arguments at times. The fact that people in Wheelwright, Kentucky, think their local prison is an economic boon to their community would have a lot more impact if Twelve Landscapes had mentioned that the surrounding counties host more than a dozen prisons, regional jails, and detention centers, including two supermax facilities; pockets of depressed rural America are becoming unlikely headquarters of the prison-industrial complex, welcoming correctional facilities that the suburbs don't want. Yet even with that detail added, the prison boom in Kentucky is more interesting than significant. Does Story really believe that America's enormous prison population was produced by the tawdry manipulations of powerful Appalachian political forces? A bit of actual reporting might have disclosed that—depending on whose numbers you believe—somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of U.S. prison inmates are incarcerated on drug charges. Even at the low end of that spectrum, ending the drug war would result in enormous savings in both dollars and broken lives. For all its flaws, though, the small-ball approach of Twelve Landscapes sometimes hits the target. There's a fascinating interview with the owner of a warehouse that [...]

Free to Adapt

Fri, 05 May 2017 13:40:00 -0400

One of my favorite books about architecture is Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn, a text that treats buildings as dynamic, evolving systems. It is shot through with disdain for architects who treat a structure as a "statement" without much thought for the practical impact on the people who actually live or work in it, and it bubbles over with appreciation for the trial-and-error process of adjusting, adapting, and maintaining a building over time. Put another way, it has a healthy skepticism toward grand plans and a respect for autonomous activity and evolved order. In 1997, three years after the book came out, the BBC turned it into a six-episode documentary. Brand scripted and hosted it; Brian Eno composed the music; writers ranging from Christopher Alexander to Joel Garreau appeared in it, along with a lot of people discussing places they've lived in, worked in, built, or rebuilt. Twenty years later, the series is still worth watching. Here's episode one, which chastises arrogant starchitects and praises buildings that are able to learn over time. "This building grew into its glory gradually, over 500 years," Brand says of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. "Who was the main architect? Time." src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Episode two celebrates what Brand calls "low-road" buildings, from storage modules to mobile homes—places where "you spend less money and you get more freedom." This one is probably my favorite installment: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Episode three looks at ways to apply the lessons of low-road buildings to other structures, making them more open to adaptation and change. Brand also reprises his book's caustic comments about the geodesic domes he promoted in his days running the Whole Earth Catalog: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Episode four is a jeremiad against zoning and other sorts of controls that get in the way of experimentation and adaptation: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Episode five, on maintenance, is as much about how buildings die as how they live: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> And then there's the final episode, which describes the different layers of a building, each evolving at a different rate. It concludes with a tribute to "the great survivors among buildings," which "are only sometimes distinguished-looking. What they have is an offhand mastery that seems haphazard, and layers and layers of soul." And there, with some closing shots of the home Robinson Jeffers built for himself on the California coast, the series ends: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> (Hat tip: Dan Colman. Reason interviewed Brand back in 2010; to read that, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]

Brickbat: Fascinating

Wed, 03 May 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) In Winnipeg, Nick Troller has had a personalized license plate on his vehicle that reads "ASIMIL8" for the past two years. Around it he has a frame that says "We Are the Borg" and "Resistance is Futile." But now, Manitoba Public Insurance has demanded he return the license plate. It says two people have complained the word "assimilate" is offensive to indigenous people.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods Makes for a Raucous Television Adaptation

Fri, 28 Apr 2017 15:00:00 -0400

American Gods. Starz. Sunday, April 30, 9 p.m. When Shadow Moon, a newly released prison inmate flying home for a funeral, expresses his admiration for a con artist he's just spotted hustling his way to a free upgrade in first class, the scammer shares his secret: "It's about getting people to believe in you." That's as good a summary as any of American Gods, the cult-favorite 2001 novel finally making its way to the screen on the Starz cable network. Is religion just a gigantic hustle? And does it matter, as long as people believe? Most importantly of all, what happens if they stop believing? A rambunctious sci-fi/fantasy slice-and-dice of theology, myth, and hot-button sociology, with a generous dollop of pure depravity thrown in just for fun and Nielsen points, American Gods is a dizzying journey through humanity's obsession with theism and dogma. It doesn't always make sense—maybe it never makes sense—and its pace is dreadfully uneven. But a show in which a religious pilgrim trekking through the wilderness of a big-box electronic store is tempted by a goddess disguised as Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy, murmuring from a TV screen, "Hey, you ever wanted to see Lucy's tits?" is not easily dismissed. It all starts off with that (seemingly) chance meeting at the airport. Moon (Ricky Whittle, The 100), just released a few days early from prison following the death of both his wife and best friend in an unsavory accident, encounters the sleazily charming con man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane, Deadwood). After a bit of byplay, Mr. Wednesday offers Moon a job—"legal, for the most part"—as his assistant; with little to go home to, Moon accepts. What follows are a series of encounters with friends or enemies of Mr. Wednesday—it can be hard to tell the difference—ranging from the eccentric (that video proposition by the ersatz Lucy) to the threatening (a tall leprechaun less interested in pots of gold than in beating the bejeezus out of people). It is soon apparent that Moon has inadvertently struck some kind of infernal deal, though with whom or for what purpose remains unclear. What readers of the novel know, but TV newbies won't discover for several sometimes-agonizing episodes, is that Moon has been sucked into a generation-gap war between old gods (like Jesus and Easter, the goddess of spring and renewal) who came to America in the beliefs of its first immigrants, and new ones, (like Media, the manipulative trickster who posed as Lucy, or Technical Boy, the ultimate cybergeek) who've arisen as the land's culture has transformed itself. Executive producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green (who worked together on NBC's Heroes) have kept American Gods faithful to the vision of Neil Gaiman's novel as a meditation on the evolution of faith. That doesn't mean readers of the novel won't see deviations. Some are merely stylistic; Technical Boy (British stage actor Bruce Langley) is no longer a tubby, pallid kid who looks like he lives in his parents' basement, the 20th-century stereotype of net geeks, but a ruthless Silicon Valley shark who vapes zillion-dollar-an-ounce synthetic toad skins when he's not pillaging and looting the company down the street. Others are more substantive. Moon's ghostly wife Laura (Emily Browning, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events) has gone from a slutty bit player to a major character in search of redemption. The eight-episode series also shares the book's garish style. Except for the phlegmatic Moon, nearly every performance is madly over the top. That's often all for the good; it's practically impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen when McShane's lubricious treachery is afoot. But a little of Langley's vicious turn at Technical Boy [...]

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

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

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

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

ESPN Will Get Better, or Fail Trying

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

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