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Television



All Reason.com articles with the "Television" tag.



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

Last Build Date: Fri, 19 Jan 2018 00:25:29 -0500

 



Why This Is TV's Golden Age!: Podcast

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

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

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

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

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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

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

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



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

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

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



American Crime Story Takes on Versace’s Murder

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

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



The Chi Inverts The Wire to Excellent Effect

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

The Chi. Showtime. Sunday, January 7, 10 p.m.(image)

One detective is explaining the South Chicago facts of life—or death—to a naive colleague: Its criminal gangs function as a self-cleansing oven that hums along at maximum efficiency when left alone. "They'll eventually kill who needs to be killed, and we'll file the paperwork," the cop declares breezily.

The Chi's goal is the subversion of that concept, and it's a mission gloriously accomplished. Full of characters who are neither gun-crazy gangbangers nor ruthless narcotraffickers, The Chi is a reminder that even in war zones, human life continues in all its giddy wonder.

Created and largely written by Chicago native Lena Waithe (whose Emmy for an episode of Netflix's Master of None was the first ever award to a black woman for comedy writing), The Chi and its pockmarked urban environment at first glance seem a skillful imitation of The Wire.

But instead of chronicling a drug gang and the way it molds a neighborhood into its image, as The Wire did with Baltimore, The Chi takes the opposite tack. It follows the stories of a handful of residents dodging and feinting their way between the gangbangers and cops, accepting the realities of their world without embracing them as they pursue something resembling normal life.

At the center of The Chi's large and immensely talented ensemble class is Jason Mitchell (Mudbound) playing Brandon, a chef who daydreams about opening a restaurant of his own with girlfriend Jerrika (Tiffany Boone, The Following) while trying to slow the steady slide of his mother Laverne (Sonja Sohn, The Wire) in alcoholism.

Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Treme) is a scuffling drifter, caught between the worsening medical problems of his elderly grandmother and the emotional collapse of a girlfriend who lost a son in another inexplicable skirmish in the war on drugs.

The profligacy of randy teenager Emmett (Jacob Latimore, Survivor's Remorse) has finally caught up to him, and he's doing an inner-city version of Dustin Hoffman's stormy Kramer vs. Kramer voyage of discovery through the perils of single fatherhood.

And Kevin (Alex Hibbert, Moonlight), a kid intent on winning a role in a middle-school play, is learning that avoiding being drawn into the neighborhood's adult problems is a considerably more difficult task.

The meandering paths of these characters mostly have little to do with narco guignol, and some of the most affecting scenes in The Chi could, with some different set-dressing, be dropped into any number of television dramas: Kevin's first, tentative flirtation with girl at his school; Ronnie's bleakly hilarious inability to corral his foul-mouthed mother; the kid at Kevin's school who keeps insisting to his disdainful friends that, "I'm husky, not fat."

But if Southside Chicago's violence is not the central reality in The Chi, it's still a fact of life—and when it erupts, it does so with a terrifying suddenness whose effects linger and rebound. For all its sweetly mundane moments, The Chi's narrative is ultimately driven by a seemingly senseless murder that ricochets through the neighborhood, breaking bodies and lives. If the show is a declaration that life abides, it's also a reminder that evil compounds. When the neighborhood's toxins splash into the lives of Bandon and his girlfriend, she pleads: "I really need to know you're not gonna do some stupid-ass 'hood shit." But The Chi, there are no promises.




Black-ish Spinoff Grown-ish Really More of a Rip-off

Fri, 29 Dec 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Grown-ish. Freeform. Wednesday, January 3, 8 p.m. After nearly two decades of journeyman work on mostly forgettable TV shows—literally; does anyone remember I Hate My Teenage Daughter, canceled after two episodes in 2012?—Kenya Barris suddenly stood the industry on its head in 2014 with Black-ish, a sitcom about an upscale black family in which race is not ignored but actually acquires the status of a character as the family struggles with the question of whether being bougie is compatible with being black. Since then, everybody has been waiting to see if Barris had another big idea. And with the debut of the spinoff Grown-ish, we have the answer: Yes—to steal The Breakfast Club, lock, stock, and teen-angst barrel. In 1985, director John Hughes' The Breakfast Club was the latest of an emerging genre of what might be termed intra-generational rap films, in which the members of various age cohorts whined to one another that life was disappointing them. The Big Chill had the slouching-toward-middle-age Baby Boomers and their first intimations of mortality; St. Elmo's Fire, the front edge of the Gen Xers and their first intimations of working for a living. The Breakfast Club was for teenagers. It featured five archetypal kids—a pampered princess, a jock, a nerd, a rebel, and an outcast—marooned together in a Saturday-morning detention, little by little realizing that they're all concealing secrets and vulnerabilities under their labels. "We're all pretty bizarre," observes one. "Some of us are just better at hiding it, that's all." In Grown-ish, the high school kids have turned into first- and second-year college students, including Zoey, the eldest daughter in Black-ish (played by Yara Shahidi). The detention hall is now a class that runs from midnight to 2 a.m., taught by a mostly absentee adjunct professor with an erotic fixation on drones and attended almost exclusively by whores and methheads. And the kids' secrets reflect that three decades have passed; overbearing dads have been replaced by drug-dealing and manipulative moms by closeted bisexuality. Other than that, Grown-ish is a cell-by-cell clone of The Breakfast Club and its celebration of sophomoric melodrama, where cynical wisecracks inevitably give way to mock profundities, shouting matches to hyperemotive tears, and clichés to stereotypes. (Or maybe that one is the other way around.) The wholesale piracy is so blatant that Grown-ish even tries to make a joke or two about it. But the admission that you're stealing somebody else's work doesn't make it any less larcenous. Making a doppelganger of an endearing if adolescent movie, however pathetic from a creative standpoint, might at least make the cash registers jingle-jangle satisfactorily, especially when it airs on ABC's Freeform, a cable net pitched to high-school and college-aged audiences who are about as likely to have watched a 1985 film as they are to have read Plutarch in the original Greek. But a kleptomaniacal heart isn't the only or even the main problem with Grown-ish. Unlike its progenitor Black-ish, which sparkles with anarchic wit, Grown-ish feels forced, populated by stock characters reading lines delivered on a sweatshop assembly line. A more talented cast would have stabbed itself in the collective eye before speaking aloud sentences like, "The one thing I didn't know about college—that I'd never admit to my dad or anybody else—was that in all actuality, I would soon discover that I didn't know anything." Instead, these actors embrace another part of the script: "The more we cried, the more we realized why we stumbled into this crazy class." Yeah, the paycheck.[...]



Glenn Garvin’s Best Television Shows of 2017*

Fri, 22 Dec 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Yeah, the fall TV season was an utter dog in which Delta Force clones killing Muslims were indistinguishable from SWAT teams shooting teenage mutants, and the new sitcoms, to draw on the scathing critical zeitgeist of my childhood. were all about as funny as a stop sign in a polio ward. And Roger Smith and Adam West died. But there were salutary developments, too, none so thrilling as the news that Netflix is developing interactive series in which the viewer gets to change the plot line as he pleases. So far they've only tried it in cartoons, and I'm dubious it will go much further—reshooting each scene five or six times to accommodate the whims of different viewers will make slow production to a crawl and make shows insanely expensive even by Netflix standards. (We'll get to that in a minute.) Imagine an episode of Homeland where half of America is watching Carrie break open an ISIS cell led by Barack Hussein Obama, while in the other half ISIS has morphed into a KGB station run by Donald Trumpski? Why should Facebook get all the fun of setting us at one another's throats? Other proclamations of seasonal glee, though, may be premature. Lots of programmers (who want to keep the supply of TV shows down in order to force Nielsen ratings—which are mostly expressed inside the business in terms of audience share—to rise) and critics (whose supposed power as gatekeepers is threatened if there are too many shows for them to keep track of) are insisting that 2017 is the year that television imploded under the weight of the vast supply of shows generated by cable TV and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. The increase in shows is real enough. Discarding children's programming and unscripted reality and competition shows, about 500 original series were available on TV this year, more than three times the norm of 100 to 150 just a few years back. And overall ratings are down by some measures, though the dip may have more to do with imperfect Nielsen technology in tracking cord-cutters, viewers who watch streaming services rather than cable or broadcast. But the most-employed argument that the TV programming bubble has burst is Netflix's cancellation of two of its highest-profile shows, Sense8 and The Get Down. Yet those shows died mostly because of their gaudy production costs: $12 million an episode for The Get Down, $9 million for Sense8. No television business ecosystem, past or present, can support those kinds of budgets. "A big expensive show for a huge audience is great," said Netflix programming boss Ted Sarandos at an industry conference earlier this year. "A big, expensive show for a tiny audience, it's hard even in our model to make that work very long." At some point, when human beings have evolved past eating, drinking, and having sex and do nothing but lie on their couches like giant bloated ticks watching television, TV programming will at last reach a saturation point, because there are only so many hours in a day. But there's no evidence we're anywhere near that point yet. And even if we were, you could still watch my choices for the year's 10 best shows: (tie) The Big Bang Theory (CBS), Lucifer (Fox) and Preacher (AMC). Disaffected geeks continue to resentfully refer to The Big Bang Theory as abusive "nerdface." But until somebody identifies an actual Cal Tech physicist with a wife who looks like Kaley Cuoco, I'll continue to believe it deserves a National Association for the Social Advancement of Nerds Image Award. Lucifer's theological change of focus this season, portraying God and his angels as a dysfunctional family of superpowers, kept it funny and original, while Preacher suffered slightly—but only slightly—at being reset from a hardscrabble Last Picture Show–esque Texas town to New Orleans. Big Little Lies (HBO). Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman performed the ultimate Ozzie and Harriet evisceration in their portrayal as su[...]



Reason's 2017 Gift Guide

Mon, 18 Dec 2017 09:30:00 -0500

As 2017 comes to an end, we've asked our staff to select some of the best books, movies, music, and other media released this year. Our picks range from a faux-communist cop show to a history of food and empire, from a collection of evangelical rock songs to a novel set on the moon—plus items about biodiversity, mythology, political partisanship, pro wrestling, and more. —Jesse Walker Ronald Bailey Science Correspondent Humanity isn't destroying the natural world; we're changing it. In many ways, our changes are creating richer and more vibrant ecosystems. That's the persuasive and liberating argument advanced by the York University conservation biologist Chris D. Thomas in his riveting new book, Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. "It is time for the ecological, conservation and environmental movement—of which I am a life-long member—to throw off the shackles of pessimism-laden, loss-only view of the world," he writes. As an increasingly wealthy and more technologically adept humanity continues to withdraw from nature, Thomas shows, wild creatures are returning to landscapes from which they once had been extirpated. This trend will strengthen as the 21st century unfolds. Humanity is also creating a new Pangaea by moving thousands of species around the globe and thereby increasing local biodiversity almost everywhere. For example, New Zealand's 2,000 native plant species have been joined by 2,000 from elsewhere, doubling the plant biodiversity of the islands. As plants and animals populate new regions, they start down different evolutionary paths that are already differentiating into new species. Meanwhile, only three of New Zealand's native plants have gone extinct. Thomas cogently argues that a thriving world of exotic ecosystems and biological renewal is at hand. By the time most readers have finished this well-written and carefully researched book, they should agree. Eric Boehm Reporter If the best album of the year is the best album to sing along with on a long road trip—and isn't it, really?—then the contest isn't even close in 2017. Japandroids' Near to the Wild Heart of Life is itself a road trip: one that reverses a rock 'n' roll cliché by aiming ever homeward, hungry for a love left behind. Neither robots nor Japanese imports, Japandroids take us on an alliterative ride from the noise of a New York night to the sweltering stink of a sinking city (New Orleans). The album's third track deserves a place on the admittedly short list of libertarian love songs for its title alone ("True Love and a Free Life of Free Will"), if not for its hazy scenes of cabarets and cantinas full of cigarette smoke, through which guitarist Brian King ruminates that love is the joining of mutual passions. "And I'll love you, if you love me," he sings—a punk rock version of a wedding vow. The Canadian duo's followup to 2012's Celebration Rock is more reflective lyrically and more experimental musically than its predecessor. The screaming guitar loops and hammering drums of the band's earlier work is still here in places, but King and drummer David Prowse pull out their synthesizers and slow the pace a bit in the middle of the album, as if giving their fans a moment to catch their breaths before another bombastic singalong. It works, and it's particularly enjoyable live, where screaming along to the driving chorus leaves you feeling like hitting the open road. Elizabeth Nolan Brown Associate Editor "Fake" is our president's favorite rallying cry. "Feminism" is Merriam-Webster's word of the year. Devious Russians dominate half the country's political fears. Passionate fights rage over "political correctness" and cultural representation. In this atmosphere, GLOW—a campy, hilarious, and heartwarming Netflix series about women's wrestling in mid-'80s Los Angeles—hardly seems like a historical piece[...]



Vapid Cuban Documentarian Unwittingly Stumbles into Country’s Despairs

Fri, 15 Dec 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Cuba and the Cameraman. Available now on Netflix. Perhaps the pedants are right and Lenin never actually used the phrase "useful idiots" to describe communist camp followers in the West. If so, it's only because he never met the filmmaker Jon Alpert. Alpert has been regularly visiting Cuba for 45 years to interview Fidel Castro and in all that time, he's never asked a meaningful question. You think I'm exaggerating? I sooooooo wish. Consider Alpert's round-trip from Havana to New York with Castro in 1979, when the dictator was planning to address the United Nations. Cuba's army was intervening in Ethiopia, its economy had face-planted, and its domestic misery index was so high that the island would soon erupt into the Mariel boatlift, with 120,000 Cubans fleeing to Miami within a couple of months. Alpert was the only reporter traveling aboard Castro's plane and spent much of the trip, both coming and going, interviewing him. Here are some of the questions Alpert might reasonably have been expected to ask: Two decades after you threw off what you called the yoke of American corporate imperialism, why do Cubans still need ration cards? Why is a tenth of the population living outside Cuba? Why are 15,000 Cuban combat troops mucking around in Ethiopia when you can't keep food on the table at home? Are you ever going to hold elections? Alpert, unfortunately, didn't have time to get to any of those. As you can see in appalling detail in his 2015 documentary A Trip with Fidel, he was too busy on Castro's pajamas and diet: "What do you wear around the house?" "Did you pack anything special?" "Do you take all your food with you?" I'm not sure how useful that was—even Castro seems barely able to keep a straight face when Alpert clamors to see the presidential bed in his hotel suite–but it's surely Idiocy, the capital "I" not a typo. Alpert's newest fan letter to Castro, Cuba and the Cameraman, contains much of this same idolatry. Here's Alpert, interrupting a delegate to Cuba's Communist Party congress who's in the middle of a standing ovation for a Castro speech, to ask if she likes Fidel. (I don't want to break the exquisite dramatic tension of the narrative by giving away her answer.) Or cornering Fidel himself in another one of those exclusive interviews. Q. Do you have a message for the people of the United States? A. Always a message of friendship for the people of the United States for their hardworking spirit. Even when Alpert inadvertently asks a question that might lead Castro into swampy territory, there's never any follow up. When Alpert queries the Maximum Leader, during a visit to the United Nations, how he feels about a group of anti-Castro demonstrators across the street from his hotel, Castro blandly salutes the nobility of dissent. "I admire those who are against, because they are active," he says. "They move around. They work." That virtually begs for a question about Cuban dissidents like Armando Valladares or Ana Rodriguez, then both nearing the end of their second decades in hellhole prisons for defying the regime. None is forthcoming. Watching even a few minutes of Cuba and the Cameraman comes at the cost of a fearful number of brain cells. (And if you sit through the scene in which Alpert's young daughter asks Castro to sign a note to get her out of school, make sure there's an ICU located nearby.) Yet, however unintentionally, Alpert has introduced some revealing moments into his film. Cuba and the Cameraman is partly constructed from new material Alpert shot late last year around the time of the death of Castro. (He even got a final interview with Castro, though none of it appears in the documentary—suggesting that the rumors that the Maximum Leader's final days were none too lucid were true.) It is characteristically stupid, with Alpert polling Cubans at a memorial rally for Castro a[...]



The Original Rock 'n' Roll Guitar God Was Actually a Goddess

Fri, 15 Dec 2017 13:50:00 -0500

Rock 'n' roll was born and baptized in a smoky nightclub somewhere, but the baby was conceived in a church. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard were all raised Pentecostal, and their sounds were shaped by the raucous gospel music they grew up with. And Chuck Berry cribbed his duckwalk from a gospel singer called Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose guitar style helped lay the groundwork for rock.

Tharpe was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this week, alongside such worthies as Nina Simone and the Cars. If you find yourself doubting that this honor should be bestowed on a woman who was already in her forties when "Jailhouse Rock" hit the charts, watch this old clip from the NBC show TV Gospel Time, originally broadcast in 1962. For about a minute and 20 seconds, it may seem like an ordinary gospel performance. And then Sister Tharpe starts soloing:

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/JeaBNAXfHfQ" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

A century ago, the early Pentecostals' multiracial revivals and ecstatic forms of worship sparked a moral panic. In the 1950s, rock 'n' roll provoked a similar reaction. Watching Tharpe play, you may start to see the outlines of more than one hidden continuity.

Just about all the founding fathers of rock 'n' roll—Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash—were Rosetta Tharpe fans. Gayle Wald's Tharpe bio Shout, Sister, Shout! quotes Jerry Lee Lewis falling over with praise for the woman: "I mean, she's singing religious music, but she is singing rock 'n' roll. She's...shakin', man....She jumps it. She's hitting that guitar, playing that guitar and she is singing. I said, 'Whoooo.' Sister Rosetta Tharpe." They say the Devil has all the best tunes, but he had to learn them somewhere.

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




Final Vision Fails to Shed New Light on a Famous Family Murder Case

Fri, 08 Dec 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Final Vision. Investigation Discovery. Sunday, December 10, 8 p.m. The Jeffrey MacDonald case poses powerful arguments in favor of reincarnation. It has lived more lives, in more guises, than any Hindu priest. In 1969, when MacDonald was the sole survivor of a savage attack on his family by what he reported as a band of kids chanting "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs," barely a year after the Manson Family murders, the case seemed like the second chapter of Helter Skelter, further evidence that the 1960s counterculture was coming unhinged. (The fact that MacDonald was a Green Beret doctor who lived on a military base at a time when anti-war feelings were peaking only reinforced the political framework.) Then, when first military police and then civilian cops changed their minds and charged MacDonald with the murder of his pregnant wife and two little daughters, the case turned into an episode of Perry Mason, with melodramatic twists upending the plot. Not only did the accuser become the accused, but a journalist named Joe McGinniss—who was given full access to MacDonald's defense team—switched sides, declaring the doctor a drug-addled sociopath who slaughtered his entire family because one of the kids wet the bed. (And enhanced the television metaphor when his book became a wildly popular TV miniseries.) By the 1990s, the case had become a centerpiece for a growing skepticism about the motives and ethics of mainstream media reporters. In a searing two-part New Yorker story that evolved into a book, writer Janet Malcolm declared that journalists—and in particular, McGinniss—were nothing more than "a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." Other books argued that McGinniss, in pursuit of a best-seller, had helped put an innocent man in jail. Investigation Discovery's Final Vision is, perhaps, the MacDonald case's last manifestation: As a tattered wraith, a ghost of American cultural obsessions past, still capable of inflicting some chills but mostly beaming the subliminal message, "What was that all about?" Final Vision is not based on McGinniss' original book, Fatal Vision, or the 1984 miniseries it spawned, both of which were true-crime whodunnits. Rather, it's adapted from a wan essay-length e-book McGinniss published in 2012 as he was dying of cancer that rebuts various theories of the crime advanced in MacDonald's endless appeals of his conviction. The result is that McGinniss himself becomes a character in this TV version, which is as much about the relationship between the journalist and the doctor as it is the crime itself. The scenario, the gumshoe reporter vs. the charismatic celebrity doctor, is not unpromising. And the two principal actors, Dave Annable (Brothers & Sisters, 666 Park Avenue) as McGinniss, Scott Foley (Scandal, The Unit) as MacDonald, are both capable. The script, however, isn't. The 1980s miniseries had four hours of screen time to tell its story, while Final Vision must make do with half that. The result is a teleplay that often feels cramped and talky. Screenwriter Denis O'Neill (The River Wild) does a reasonably good job at following the meandering path of the basic story—MacDonald goes back and forth from victim to perpetrator several times as first military and then civilian courts delve into the case—but he lacks the time to really develop the characters. The screenwriter gets a lot of help when it comes to MacDonald. Foley is dazzling as MacDonald, whose breezy big-man-on-campus shell gradually melts away to reveal something much harder, and darker, beneath. Annable doesn't do badly in his role as McGinniss, but the script never makes the journalist much better than a backboard against which the case's evidence is bang[...]



The Winners in the AT&T-Time Warner Merger Will Be Consumers

Mon, 04 Dec 2017 12:30:00 -0500

On October 22, AT&T and Time Warner announced they had reached an agreement to merge the two companies. The deal, valued at about $85 billion, would create a vertically integrated company that produces content (movies, TV shows) and provides access to content (through cable, fiber-optic, DSL and wireless Internet connections). But on November 20, the Department of Justice brought suit against AT&T and Time Warner, seeking to block the merger on the grounds that it would inhibit competition, harming consumers. AT&T and Time Warner formally responded to the suit last Monday, refuting these claims and arguing the merged company would be investing in innovations that would expand consumer choice. The DOJ's case is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of the market for both access and content. If it were to succeed it would likely impede competition, resulting in less innovation and choice for consumers. Consumers are shifting away from the kinds of access and content bundles that so concern the DOJ. And they are doing so because such bundles poorly match their preferences. AT&T recognizes the trend of falling subscription rates for its traditional TV bundles. That's why it wants to expand into content. It could have done that by licensing legacy content from others, arranging syndication deals for new content, and building its own studio, as Netflix and Amazon have done. It chose instead to merge with Time Warner. At the heart of the DOJ's complaint is an assumption that the merged entity would use its market power to raise the price of content currently owned by Time Warner, or threaten to withhold programming, including hit shows such as Game of Thrones and NCAA March Madness. Time Warner could already make such threats, but the DOJ claims it would have greater incentive because it could benefit from some subscribers switching over to AT&T's networks (DirecTV, U-verse and DirecTV Now). A merged AT&T-Time Warner could, in principle, refuse to supply content to some distributors in order to drive consumers to purchase its own access and content bundles, but it would not be in the merged company's financial interest to do so. As Geoff Manne notes in the WSJ: "More than half of Time Warner's revenue, $6 billion last year, comes from fees that distributors pay to carry its content. Because fewer than 15% of home-video subscriptions are on networks owned by AT&T … the bulk of that revenue comes from other providers. In other words: Calculated using expected revenue, AT&T is paying $36 billion for the portion of Time Warner's business that comes from AT&T's competitors. The theory seems to be that the merged company would simply forgo this revenue in a speculative hope that withholding Time Warner content from distributors would induce masses of viewers to switch to AT&T—and maybe, one day, put competitors out of business. That this strategy would actually work is unfathomable. "Game of Thrones" is good, but it isn't that good." When Comcast merged with NBCUniversal in 2013, the DOJ employed a "consent decree" (a legally binding agreement between the DOJ and the merged entity) to mitigate concerns regarding the potential for the merged entity to use its market power to charge more. AT&T and Time Warner have now made a similar commitment, as they told the DOJ: "contingent only upon the closing of this merger, Turner has formally and irrevocably offered its distributors licensing terms that, for seven years after closing, (I) entitle the distributor to invoke "baseball-style" arbitration if it is unable to reach a satisfactory distribution agreement for Turner Networks and (ii) forbid Turner from "going dark" on any Turner distributor during the arbitration process." This "eliminates even the theoretical risk that[...]



Online Video Is Better Than Television: Podcast

Sat, 02 Dec 2017 10:15:00 -0500

In the latest episode of the Reason Podcast, Reason TV Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie chats with Managing Editor Meredith Bragg and Deputy Managing Editor Jim Epstein about the 10th anniversary of our video platform, our backgrounds in journalism, what makes our channel unique, its history, and where it's headed in the years to come.

This is Reason's annual webathon week, during which we ask our audience to support our activities with tax-deductible donations. If you like what we do, please consider supporting us. More details here.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime

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You Won’t Be Afraid of This Dark, But You Might Be Bored

Fri, 01 Dec 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Dark. Available now on Netflix. "We trust that time is linear," says the narrator in the early moments of Netflix's new sci-fi series Dark. But what if "yesterday, today and tomorrow are not consecutive"? A few minutes later, a young boy is showing his newest magic trick to his dad, a variant of the venerable street hustle in which a pea moves from under one cup to another, unseen. "How did it do that?" wonders the dad. "The question is not how," replies the magisterial young kid. "It's when." From these snapshots, you can tell a good deal about Dark: that it's about time travel. That the producers read a screenwriting textbook that contained a chapter or 10 about foreshadowing. And that watching this thing will require a degree of patience that would make Job look like somebody who accidentally took crystal meth in place of his OCD medicine. Though Dark was commissioned independently by Netflix, it's written, produced and largely acted by veterans of a German television industry that is undistinguished and likely to stay that way. Though the producers of Dark swear their scripts were all completed before the release of Netflix's Stranger Things last year, there are a striking number of coincident plot points between the two, starting with the premise: The disappearance of a kid that's seemingly rooted in a top-secret government facility just outside town. But it's the differences that are more significant. Where Stranger Things is deft, Dark is heavy-handed; where Stranger Things is well-paced, Dark moves at the speed of a dump truck lost in a bog; where Stranger Things' kids are likeable and funny, Dark's are sullen and sour. Dark is set in a rural German town on the edge of a gloomy woods, over which ominously towers an aging nuclear power plant that's about to be shut down. Among the characters—among being a key word, to which we'll return—are Jonas Kahnwald, a teenager shattered by his father's suicide; Ulrich Nielsen (Oliver Masucci), a married cop who's having an affair with Jonas' mother; and Ulrich's wife Katharina (Jördis Triebel), an administrator at the local high school, earnest but completely clueless about the murky undercurrents rippling through her student body. A gothic landscape populated by half-undone families seems promising territory for a spooky melodrama, and indeed, Dark's first episode crackles with sinister foreboding. But by the second, the show is hopelessly bogged down. Part of the problem is its weirdly schizoid gait; events move quickly, but scenes do not. Even more distracting is the constant parade of new characters with little or no suggestion of who they are or why they're important. Hi, Egon, Torben, and Jurgen! Why don't you go sit over there with Regina, Tronte and Edda, and talk about Bernd, Clara and Udo behind their backs? None of this is helped by Dark's poorly designed subtitles—the show is entirely in German—which are placed on-screen in such whimsical locations that finding them is a bit like a game of "Where's Waldo?" played at 24 frames per second, but without the intellectual satisfaction. Ultimately, Dark is underlit and underexplained, with too many characters too inclined to sit around in darkened rooms in wordless contemplation of existential mysteries. Among which are the dead birds who turn up, provenance unknown, every few scenes. Dark seems to want to say something profound on the subject of avicide, but the message doesn't get much beyond "Yuck!" At least I think so; I couldn't find the subtitle.[...]



Godless Is a Classic Western for the New Millennium

Fri, 24 Nov 2017 08:00:00 -0500

Godless. Available now on Netflix. When screenwriter Scott Frank was taking his script for Godless—then planned as a film rather than a TV miniseries—around to studios, he recalls that he was inevitably greeted with enthusiasm, but of entirely the wrong kind. "Oh, you wrote a Western," the suits would say. "I really hope someone else makes it." In today's Hollywood, Westerns are regard as politically malodorous relics of a white-guy Manifest Destiny era, and, even worse—so much worse, so much—dead on arrival in the overseas box-office sweepstakes. So thank heavens—or perhaps some lower theologic entity, it's not clear yet—for Netflix, which not only bought Godless on the spot but suggested tripling its length to turn it into a TV miniseries. Godless is a classic Western, the sort with big skies, wide prairies, gorgeous desolation, thundering herds, and smoking six-shooters. There are good men with failed nerves and bad men who get worse. Morality clashes with survival and doesn't always win. Frank has been mostly known as a screenwriter. (Among other things, he adapted Phillip K. Dick's short story Minority Report for Steven Spielberg.) But on Godless he took the writing and producing reins, too, and the scope of his vision is obvious from the show's opening moments: Several men ride into a town, nearly invisible in the middle of a blinding dust storm, the only sound the tolling of a lonely church bell. Little by little, forms emerge from the darkness ... two, three, four, many. Shot, stabbed, crushed, dangling from the end of ropes. At the end of main street, the telegraph chatters with messages that no living hand will ever decipher. This hellish landscape is the work of Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels, disguised under a beard the size of a rose bush), a psychopathic bandit whose recitation of Biblical scripture usually presages the violent death of somebody, or more likely, a bunch of somebodies. Griffin and his gang obliterated the town in the process of trying to rob a train carrying the railroad payroll. Their ordinary blood-lust went into overdrive when the $50,000 proceeds of the heist was made off with by Griffin's renegade lieutenant, master gunslinger Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell, Unbroken). To add injury to insult, Goode blew Griffin's arm off while making his escape. Now Goode is racing across the desert with Griffin in hot pursuit. Their paths will soon converge in a New Mexico town called, with exquisite irony, La Belle. Virtually destroyed—both physically and economically—by a mining explosion that killed nearly the entire adult male population, La Belle is now home mostly to just a few dozen penniless widows. Worse yet, the face of the law in La Belle is a discredited sheriff, Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy, Halt And Catch Fire), scorned by the townspeople as a coward for unspecified reasons. Their contempt would increase ten-fold if they knew his secret—that he's going blind. His only supporter is the twice-widowed Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey), whose ability to keep wringing a living out of the ranch without a man to lean on has made the citizens of La Belle regard her as a witch or worse, a consort of Indians. The collision of all these vectors results in a show that's something like a handball match between High Noon and The Magnificent Seven, in which meditations on the nature of courage and the meaning of masculinity are batted back and forth with poignancy and clarity (and none of the fruitless debate about whether Gary Cooper is supposed to represent Dalton Trumbo or Joe McCarthy). But Frank has deftly moved the terms of the debate into the new millennium, without any sense of heavy-handed politi[...]