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A More Perfect Union April 23, 2010

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Despite my general disdain for James Cameron’s Titanic, I’ve always been a huge fan of Kate Winslet.  In fact, she could star in a half dozen sequels to Titanic, and I’d still come down firmly on her side just for her portrayal of Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s to her immense credit that, post-Titanic, she didn’t snatch up every big paycheck that came down the line at the expense of her artistic integrity.  Instead, she’s stuck mainly to her indie roots, with only the Nancy Meyers-directed comedy The Holiday her only true foray into Hollywood convention (and even that one’s a little perverse by trying to pass off Jack Black as a romantic leading man).  Her other projects have all been stubbornly independent: Quills, Little Children, Holy Smoke – even movies like Finding Neverland and Revolutionary Road, despite their prestige and big-name casts, haven’t been terribly mainstream.

And then there’s her appearance on Ricky Gervais’ brilliant Office follow-up, Extras. For those who don’t know the plot, Extras focuses on a pair of the titular background actors, Andy Millman (played by Gervais) and Maggie Jacobs (Ashley Jensen).  The show isn’t quite as uncomfortable as The Office, but it still explores some of the same territory, as the harmlessly self-centered Andy and the hapless Maggie try to get a line or two while on the set of their latest movie, usually to humiliating effect.  The beauty of the show, however, is due to its celebrity cameos.  David Bowie, Ben Stiller, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Daniel Radcliffe, and others show up in various episodes and poke vicious fun at their public personas.

And that’s where Kate Winslet comes in.  In the series’ very first episode, Andy and Maggie are extras on the set of a Holocaust-themed movie.  Andy plays a German soldier, Maggie plays a Jewish refugee, and Winslet plays herself playing a nun who hides the Jews in a church.  In one of the episode’s subplots, Maggie reveals she has a new boyfriend who likes to talk dirty on the phone, but Maggie doesn’t know how to respond.  In a feat of comic derring-do, Winslet shows up to give her lessons.

(The following video of the first ten minutes of the episode is very funny, but if you only want to watch the shorter clip in question, watch from 5:00 to 7:20.)

Then, toward the end of the episode, Winslet checks in with Andy and Maggie to see how the phone call went.

Winslet’s performance is great for a variety of reasons, but for me the pleasure comes from seeing an actress often known for playing straight-laced characters in period movies (Sense and Sensibility, Quills, Finding Neverland, Jude) give lessons on masturbatory dirty talk.  And of course there’s an extra layer of subversion as she does it in a nun’s habit.  Winslet has shown hints of comic flair before, but her work here is so terrific (some of which admittedly has to be credited to Gervais, who has a knack for making everyone shine) that I wish she’d take the plunge and do a full-fledged comedy.  Stick her in Judd Apatow’s next movie, or let her star in something with, say, Zach Galifianakis or Paul Rudd or Steve Carell.  I’d be first in line.

*****

Current listening:

Josh Ritter – So Runs the World Away (2010)

Last movie seen:

The Crow (1994; Alex Proyas, dir.)

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Stiller Saturday April 17, 2010

Posted by monty in comedy, TV.
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The Ben Stiller Show is one of the great lost TV shows of the 90’s.  Not only did it feature, over the course of thirteen stellar episodes, razor-sharp parodies of popular culture, it launched the careers of a handful of our best comedians.  Besides Stiller himself, Judd Apatow was a producer and writer, the three cast members consisted of Bob Odenkirk, Andy Dick, and Janeane Garofalo, and David Cross joined the writing staff late in the series’ run, and appeared as a cast member in a few episodes.  Along with The State and The Kids in the Hall (and eventually Cross and Odenkirk’s own Mr. Show), The Ben Stiller Show was certainly one of the very best sketch shows of the last 25 years, and in its best moments, it’s top-notch television, bar none.

The two sketches below were written by Cross.  The first is probably my favorite sketch in the series’ run, called “The Legend of T.J. O’Pootertoot,” and the second is a sly parody of Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men (featuring Andy Dick’s killer impersonation of Keifer Sutherland).

And, what the hell, here’s one more.  It’s called “Legends of Springsteen.”  Enjoy.

I Don’t Know if This Is Ignorance or Transcendence April 16, 2010

Posted by monty in news, politics.
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Bob Cesca is one of my favorite writers, and for my money he’s doing the best job of anyone at unveiling the drooling, gibbering, psycho ward lunacy and racist dumbfuckery of the contemporary Republican party.

Cesca’s currently busy tilting, Don Quixote-style, at the Glenn Beck windmill, hell-bent on revealing him for the huckster and charlatan that he is.  I’ve long believed that Beck is engaged in a bit of quasi-Andy Kaufman performance art, and the only thing that keeps me from being completely in awe of him is the fact that so many of the people who watch him take him absolutely fucking seriously.  And that is, in a word, frightening.  Given a second word, it’s also irresponsible.  It’s one thing to spew lies with a nod and a wink, when your listeners know you’re not serious and are in on the joke. But it’s another thing entirely to do what Beck does, which is purposely deceive his fans, who choose to remain willfully ignorant, and who tune in to Beck because he gleefully pours gasoline on even their most unintelligible conspiracy theories.  Because, you know, fomenting anti-government violence and bigotry is fun.

Anyway, Cesca’s been writing some exceptional stuff about Beck recently.  Here’s a link to his most recent piece for the Huffington Post, which is, as usual, spot-on.

Bob Cesca (Huffington, Post, 4/14/10): Exposing Glenn Beck as a Dangerous Fraud, Part 2

And, for those who haven’t clicked the link on the right, here’s Cesca’s blog, which is full of goodies.

*****

Current listening:

Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New Here (2010)

The Walls Are Coming Down December 9, 2009

Posted by monty in TV.
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It’s always sort of funny to watch this blog capture – or reflect, I guess – the zeitgeist.  I can tell what’s happening in pop culture by which of my posts are currently getting the most hits.  So far today, roughly 500 people have stumbled across my comparison of The Biggest Loser (honorable and empowering) with More to Love (whiny and gluttonous), which means people are burning up the Internet trying to read about last night’s Biggest Loser finale. While I’ve written posts that are certainly more deserving of attention, I’m at least happy that the focus is on this one and no longer on the stupid one-sentence joke I posted about Levi Johnston several weeks ago.  Following Sarah Palin’s appearance on Oprah, hundreds of people were reading this blog, mainly because they were hoping to find a photo of Levi Johnston in the altogether.  Sorry to disappoint you, pervs.

Anyway, since I’ve written about Biggest Loser before, it seems appropriate to briefly discuss this season’s final episode.

• I love Bob the trainer.  I really do.  Jillian’s my favorite because … well, duh.  But Bob has that zen calm that I wish I had instead of the ball of anxiety that’s permanently lodged in my gut.  As much as I love Bob, though, I sort of resent the clips of him telling the contestants that they’re “heroes.”  I get that we live in a hyperbolic society where words are continuously dulled and diminished, but it seems especially cheap to refer to someone’s weight loss as a heroic act.  I don’t even care if, in winner Danny’s case, he’s doing it to be a better father.  Losing weight to be good to your family doesn’t make you a hero.  It means you’re finally not being a selfish bastard.

• On that same point, I grew tired of how 49-year-old Liz was continually portrayed as a victim, as though gangs of rogue Hostess executives held her down and force-fed her Twinkies.  Numerous times throughout the season, Jillian or Bob or Liz herself would say something like this: “You gave everything you had to take care of your family, and you didn’t have any time to take care of yourself.”  I’m sure she was busy.  No doubt.  I’m not diminishing the difficulty of raising a family.  But when the show started, Liz weighed 270 pounds.  That doesn’t happen by accident.  She might not have had time to take care of herself, but she sure as hell had time to stuff her face.  I think this bothers me precisely because The Biggest Loser so often avoids treating the contestants like powerless victims.  The show is usually about owning up to your demons and taking control of your life.  Laying the blame for Liz’ obesity at her family’s feet seems like a cop-out.

• Rebecca, the eliminated contestant who won the runner-up prize, looked pretty good, I have to say.  But I admit to being a little weirded out by her 180-degree change.  Tara, last season’s winner, clearly had a major-league epiphany, becoming more active as a result of her time on the show.  Even so, she still seemed like Tara – just a healthier version of herself.  Rebecca, on the other hand, almost didn’t look like the same person.  In her appearance last night, and on Jay Leno’s show a few weeks ago, she seems to have adopted a disconcerting gymrat/sexpot persona that has sent her careening completely to the opposite end of the personality spectrum.  And any extreme, lest we forget, is never good.  I always worry a little about people on the show becoming so transfixed with their weight loss that they lose sight of who they are – as though “fit” is a personality type.  I realize this is all just conjecture on my part.  I don’t know Rebecca, and I’m basing this only on a couple of 30-second television appearances.  But man.  There was something about her appearance – wiry, effusive, blond – that just seemed a little off, slightly manic and frenzied, like a person teetering on the brink of disaster.

• I could’ve done without the marriage proposal.  Just watching this show nearly sends me into a diabetic coma.  The last thing I needed to see was a guy blubbering on one knee while his wife-to-be impatiently held out her hand for the ring.

• Danny, this season’s winner, cut an impressive figure.  As much as I don’t buy into the notion of heroism through weight loss, there’s something undeniably exciting and motivating about seeing how much he accomplished.  It’s not just him, either.  The success stories are certainly inspiring, and if you’re obese and ready for a change, I’m sure it helps to see people overcome their condition.  And if the Dannys and Rebeccas and Shays and Rudys of the world can convince other people to get off their couches and get exercising, well … maybe there’s something heroic to it, after all.

*****

Current listening:

Rhett Miller – The Instigator (2002)

Current reading:

Chuck Palahniuk – Snuff (2008)

Intermission November 28, 2009

Posted by monty in movies, TV.
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Another reason why YouTube is occasionally magnificent.  Here, John Cleese delivers the eulogy at Graham Chapman’s funeral.  For those who don’t know how the Pythons did their writing, Michael Palin and Terry Jones were a team, Cleese and Chapman were a team, and Eric Idle wrote his stuff individually.  For this reason, no matter how long the troupe had been together, Cleese clearly knew Chapman best, and his farewell to his friend is both touching and brilliant.

Thanks, Graham.

As I watch this Python documentary on the Independent Film Channel, the sight of these aging geniuses is undeniably exciting, and it only reinforces why, collectively, they’ve been one of the biggest influences on my life, my sensibility, my personal philosophy of life, etc.  And even though the sight of them now reminds me too much of the passage of time – and that they won’t always be with us – it’s gratifying to hear Michel Palin talk about how, against all odds, he never really grew up; whatever it is that causes most people to become staid and boring as they reach and exceed middle age never happened to him.  And, watching the rest of the troupe in their interview segments (including Eric Idle singing a newly-penned song titled “Fuck Christmas”), it’s clear that Palin’s in good company.  We should all be so lucky.

Regularly scheduled programming should resume in a day or two.

*****

Current listening:

The Trash Can Sinatras – In the Music (2009)

Last movie seen:

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009; Wes Anderson, dir.)

Can’t Help but Smiling November 5, 2009

Posted by monty in comedy, TV.
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montypython

Monty Python will always be one of our most significant cultural dividers.  There’s really no waffling when it comes to what I consider to be the greatest collection of comedians of all time (just so there’s no question about which side of the divide I rest on).  You either love them fervently, slavishly, and absolutely, or you can’t figure out just what the hell everyone finds so funny.  If there’s a middle ground – slight, though it is – it might be the people who find Monty Python & the Holy Grail quite amusing, thank you very much, but who don’t have much time for the rest of their expansive output.

Fittingly, it’s with Holy Grail that I became a fan.  When I was a high school sophomore, a couple of my older friends were huge devotees of Python, and because I was a spineless little weasel, all I wanted was to be in on the joke.  One Friday night I went to the video store (I don’t think it was Blockbuster yet; it might have still been Video Towne), rented a copy of Holy Grail, and my comedy horizons were broadened forever.

It really was like nothing I’d ever seen: broad visual jokes (horsemen with coconuts), physical comedy that verges on slapstick (the battle with the Black Knight), bizarre arcana (“A five-ounce bird could not carry a one-pound coconut!”), unapologetic intelligence (“We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune!”), and a proliferation of non sequiturs that shouldn’t have worked but did.

I still didn’t know who everyone was, so it wasn’t until much later that I realized John Cleese played Lancelot and Tim and the Black Knight and one of the French guards.  And the jokes came so fast and furious that I vividly remember the movie coming to an end, immediately rewinding it, and starting it a second time.  It just blew me away.

And so began what has become a life-long love affair with all things Python.  As funny as Holy Grail is, I actually think The Life of Brian is a better movie – smarter and more sophisticated, to be sure, and a more comfortable mix of their verbal and physical comedy.

And I think – although I’m not positive – that this was the first example of satire I’d ever seen.  I didn’t then have the knowledge base that I have now, but even as a 16-year-old, I got what they were saying about the dangers of organized religion, and the peril of following a false prophet – as well as the importance of verb conjugation.

But the real joy for me has always been their BBC program, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Later sketch shows have done a good job of extending the Pythons’ humor, but there’s still really nothing that’s been able to match the dizzying display of comedy in an average episode of Flying Circus. The impact of their show has been somewhat diluted in the last forty years, but try looking at some other comedies during the late 60’s.  Everything had a punchline, and movies would end with a go-cart race or a pie fight.  The Pythons exploded all that – no punchlines, a slow pace when it was necessary, and an internal logic that you either accepted or you didn’t.

To try and post all the sketches that made a mark on me would take all day.  There are a few more here, which I put up a week ago in celebration of John Cleese’s birthday.  What I’ll leave you with instead is an anecdote I heard recently on the Independent Film Channel’s Python documentary, Almost the Truth, which I think perfectly captures the beauty of Monty Python.  In it, a comedian of Indian descent (I forget his name, sorry) recounted what it was like to be the first generation of his family to grow up in England.  He was gradually becoming more “English,” and as a result, the cultural gulf between him and his more traditional Indian parents was growing rapidly.  He hung out with British kids, listened to popular music, and fell in love with movies, and especially with Monty Python.  His mother, he says, could never understand it.  Something just didn’t translate.  Until the day she saw the fish-slapping dance.

That was the one and only time, he says, when he saw his mother laugh at Monty Python, and that moment forged a rare connection between mother and son.  There’s something about the fish-slapping dance that transcends culture and age to speak to all of us.  Funny stuff.

*****

Current listening:

Mark klamath

Mark Eitzel – Klamath

Wounded World November 4, 2009

Posted by monty in news, politics, TV.
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ParisHilton_Caulfield_8572072Part of me was ashamed to write about Jon Gosselin and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach the other day.  After all, a huge part of the problem with our celebutard-obsessed culture is that the media keeps giving them attention they don’t deserve.  Jon and Kate, Lindsay and Paris, the whack-job Mormon family who’ve mistaken Mom’s uterus for a broken gumball machine, the dimbulbs from The Hills, and the entire cast of the Twilight movies – they’d all be so much more bearable if their fame was proportional to their actual level of accomplishment.  That means I’d never know who Jon, Kate, Paris, or the Duggard family is, I’d know Lindsay only as the star of the Tina Fey-scripted Mean Girls, the Twilight cast would only appear in Entertainment Weekly articles I skip, and Heidi and Spencer and the rest of The Hills’ demon-spawn wouldn’t register on my radar until Joel McHale ridicules them on The Soup. There’s no earthly reason why any of these people show up on the news.  In a fair and just world, they’d be relegated to media oblivion.

sarah-palinThe same goes for Sarah Palin.  A full year after getting her ass handed to her by voters, she’s still hanging around, like the drunk who doesn’t realize the party’s over.  Her memoir, which we’re supposed to believe she wrote all by her widdle self in the space of a few months – despite the fact that she has yet to string more than three words together intelligibly in public – is currently ranked #3 on Amazon, which means that an unfortunate number of people actually believe she has something important to say about anything.  My guess is that the book will be good for either A) comic relief, or B) a literary drinking game, wherein the reader does a shot every time she uses the word maverick. Like all the names in the first paragraph, there is no reason, none whatsoever – and I’m quite serious about this – that she gets any media attention at all.  I don’t care if McCain chose her as his running mate in a cynical ploy to snatch vaginaed voters away from Obama.  She has yet to say anything of consequence about anything, and the fact that anyone is considering her a serious contender for the 2012 presidential election is testament only to how delusional a segment of this country remains.

There are exactly two choices for how the media should handle these people.  The first is to stop covering them.  It’s a simple solution, elegant and precise.  Don’t report on them, don’t show any photos or film, don’t tell us what they said.  They’re inconsequential, and every second you devote to them takes away a second you could be using to cover something that actually matters.

The other option – and I could conceivably throw the whole weight of my support behind this – is to reveal them as the buffoons they are.  If the NBC Nightly News were to include a 5-minute-long segment called “Daily Dickhead” where the likes of Spencer Pratt or Kim Kardashian were eviscerated through a montage of clips demonstrating their vacuous, selfish ways, I would tune in every night.  Seriously.  Any venture that encourages the American public to ridicule these self-involved twats is a worthwhile one, in my book.

And, incidentally, I would endorse this exact same handling of Sarah Palin.  Somehow we’ve arrived at the notion that being “fair” or being “objective” means treating both sides of an argument as equally valid.  As a result, we get serious news reporting of death panels and teabaggings and town hall meetings filled with angry white people who look like torch-wielding extras from Frankenstein. If the big news outlets were really worth their salt anymore, rather than report on these things as though they were legitimate news, they’d call bullshit on the whole enterprise.  The right-wing is going to paint the mainstream news media as a bunch of far-left pinko commie faggots anyway, so what would they have to lose if Brian Williams came to us on-air one night and said, “Sarah Palin said today in a town hall meeting that Barack Obama wants to kill your grandparents.  What a crazy bitch!”

I think it’s entirely fair to report on death panels and these teabag demonstrations or whatever else the right-wing concocts, but the Big 3 needs to have the smarts and the gumption to really report on them.  They need to show, for instance, how the right-wing is using lies and distortion and charged language to derail health care reform, as well as how Fox News and other Republican groups are organizing these supposedly “spontaneous” demonstrations.  The news bureaus feel, I guess, like they have to report on these things as serious phenomena, when the truth of it is, if they were really reporting objectively, they’d reveal all of it as a serious fraud to prey on voters’ fears of the U.S. turning into a grandma-killing noueveau-Cuba.

What we really need are more Matt Taibbis, the journalist who wrote the fantastic Rolling Stone article about the right-wing’s campaign against health care reform that I posted a month ago.  Taibbi wrote a terrific piece shortly after Palin stepped down as governor of Alaska, but he declined to publish it until now.  Here’s an excerpt:

Palin’s paranoid ramblings and self-pitying tantrums on the way out of office not only didn’t injure her chances for national office, they actually appeared to help, as polls taken in the week after her resignation showed that 71% of Republicans were now prepared to vote for her for president in 2012. Just as she had during the campaign last fall, Palin defied rational analysis by making a primal connection with the subterranean resentments of white middle America, which is apparently so pissed off now at the rest of the planet for not coddling its hurt feelings in the multicultural age that it is willing to embrace any politician who validates its insane sense of fucked-overness.

Nobody understands this political reality quite like Palin, even if she doesn’t actually understand it in the sense of someone who thinks her way to a conclusion, but merely lives it, unconsciously, with the unerring instinct of a herd animal. Palin’s supporters don’t judge her according to her almost completely nonexistent qualifications for serious office, they perceive her as they would a character in a Biblical narrative, a Job in heels with cross-eyes and a mashed-potato-brained husband who happens to spend a lot of time getting shat upon by Letterman and Maureen Dowd and the other modern-day Enemies of Christ.

On some level Palin understands better than any of us that what’s important to her base isn’t how well she does her job or even what she does with her time before 2012, but who her enemies are and how loudly she beats the drum against them – and when the news comes out that these foes have recently driven her to such distraction that she even started losing her hair (reportedly necessitating a recent emergency trip to personal hairdresser Jessica Steele), it elevates her conservative martyr credentials to previously unimagined levels.

As a national candidate she seems to us normal/rational observers mortally wounded, but as a conduit for middle American resentment she may actually have gained in stature, and don’t be at all surprised if she doesn’t emerge with the status of something like a religious figure when they roll the rock back for her inevitable candidacy three years from now.

This is exactly the kind of reporting we need now.  We need the news media to stop acting like every argument is pitched on a level playing field, and that every media personality needs to be treated with the same deference.  We need the media to do the heavy lifting and the critical thinking much of this country is unwilling to do itself.  And that means they need to be ready to point out the people, on both sides of the political fence and in all aspects of the media, that seek to do us harm.

True/Slant–Taibblog (11/02/09): Palinoia

*****

Current listening:

Talking heads true stories

Talking Heads – True Stories

Current reading:

BANR2005-full

Rattawut Lapcharoensap – “At the Café Lovely” (in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, ed. by Dave Eggers)

Sixty Seconds in Kingdom Come November 3, 2009

Posted by monty in TV.
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Sometime during the last season – and without me even realizing it – the American version of The Office became equivalent in quality to its British progenitor.

phptvdb-officeEver since the American version got its start in 2005, I’ve sworn up and down that it just doesn’t hit the same emotional notes as Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s original iteration of the show.  Much has been made of that show’s “comedy of discomfort,” of Gervais’ amazingly rendered office manager David Brent, of the delicious antagonism between employees Tim and Gareth, and of course the sweetly fumbling romance between Tim and Dawn.  As a comedy it’s nearly perfect, with each episode sporting one or two moments that should be immortalized in some comedy museum somewhere.

But what set it apart from the American version, at least until recently – and what makes me watch the entire series all the way through a couple times each year – is the rich vein of emotion that runs just below the surface.  The British version works so well because the characters, even David and Gareth, are profoundly real. There’s no cartoonish buffoonery or high-concept hijinks; the show is rooted in reality, and Gervais and Merchant were never afraid to let relevant emotion seep in when it was appropriate.  The scene at the end of Season 1 where David begs for his job is one of the most excruciatingly heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen on television.  And the culmination of Tim and Dawn’s relationship in the series finale is – with all apologies to the American version’s Jim and Pam – absolutely note-perfect.

I’ve used the word perfect a couple times, and that’s really the thing about the British version: each episode presents a situation, or sometimes a series of moments, that could go wrong in so many different ways – cheap comedy, easy laughs, bogus sentimentality – but Gervais, Merchant, and the actors found, 100% of the time, the exact right way to develop and resolve those situations.  That’s a nearly impossible feat that I’m not sure any other show has consistently replicated.

OfficeThe American version, by contrast, has more often than not gone for the easy laugh.  It’s usually a good laugh – don’t get me wrong – but the show has largely plowed a different furrow than the UK original. There’s no denying that the appealing chemistry between John Krasinski’s Jim and Jenna Fischer’s Pam helps keep the show grounded, but where the British version mined humor from the mundane, the American version often goes for the wacky premise – Michael burns his foot on a George Foreman grill!  Dwight plays the recorder at a bird’s funeral!  This tendency often drags the show into the realm of sitcom, which it otherwise seems to be commendably resisting.

One other fundamental difference between the two series rests with the characters.  The British version had a smaller canvas, focusing primarily on David Brent, Gareth, Dawn, and Tim.  There are certainly supporting characters – Dawn’s fiancee, Lee; Neil, the district office manager; Chris Finch, Brent’s #1 sales rep – but by and large the smaller characters play only bit parts.  The American version, on the other hand, has a sprawling cast, with entire episodes centering on (or at least featuring) a dozen or more other characters in the last few seasons.  I stress again that the show has been consistently funny, but I always felt that the sheer number of characters has diluted the impact.

Or at least that’s what I thought until a couple weeks ago.  Even the casual viewer knows that the show has been building steadily toward Jim and Pam’s wedding since the end of Season 2.  In short, they kiss, he goes away, he returns, he’s dating someone else, they get together, she goes to art school, he proposes, she’s pregnant.  The wedding episode finally rolled around shortly into this season, and I was pleasantly surprised while watching it until …

***** SPOILER ALERT FOR PEOPLE WHO CATCH UP LATER ON DVD *****

… the wedding march begins, one of the wedding party signals the organist to stop playing, and Dwight immediately turns on a boom box playing that godawful Chris Brown song that accompanied that stupid YouTube wedding dance sensation from a few months ago.  I don’t remember groaning out loud in disappointment, but it’s entirely possible that I did.  This kind of straight-faced parody/homage seemed to run counter to everything the show was about.  It was a predictable joke, and worse, it was about two months too late to even be topical.

But I kept watching, and a funny thing happened.  Each of the supporting characters did his or her dance down the aisle – Michael, Phyllis and Bob Vance, Andy (using a walker after tearing his scrotum in a dance contest the night before) and Erin, Kelly and Ryan, Stanley, Michael again, Oscar and Kevin, Angela, Creed, Dwight, and then the whole cast – and this sequence was intercut with scenes from the real wedding ceremony that had already taken place in secret.  Watching it, I realized just how brilliant this show has become.  Even though the humor is broader, the characters are just as finely drawn as in the British version, and the emotional reaction I had at the end of this episode  – sitting in my apartment with a big, dopey grin on my face and a lump in my throat – was based on just how much I’ve come to care about them over the last five seasons.  The huge cast is one of the reasons the show has continued to grow and improve, and the wedding dance – rather than the hokey and ill-conceived joke I thought it would be – seems to be just as much a celebration for the actors as it is for their characters.  Above all, it demonstrates just how far the show has come in five seasons, and just how much this remarkable cast has evolved into the funniest group of actors on television.

The wedding episode could have gone wrong in so many ways, but, taking a page from its UK counterpart, The Office did the unthinkable and made it perfect.

Here’s the wedding video, for those who haven’t seen it, or who just want to remember how great it is (and sorry if NBC makes you watch a commercial first):

Vodpod videos no longer available.

*****

Current listening:

Love earth

Love and Rockets – Earth Sun Moon

Current reading:

BANR2005-full

Kate Krautkramer – “Roadkill” (in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, ed. by Dave Eggers

Let Go of the Dream October 22, 2009

Posted by monty in news, religion, TV.
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1 comment so far

god_farside

For all of its failings as a serious news outlet, NBC’s The Today Show always provides me with at least one daily epiphany.  For instance, last week I realized just how far teenybopper music has fallen if Justin Bieber is now something worth squealing over.  The Beatles?  Of course.  Hanson?  I get it.  Hell, I could even understand – to a certain degree – the fervor over The Backstreet Boys.  But this little neutered homunculus?  Ten-year-old girls in this country really need to raise their standards.

Anyway, I often choose not to write about whatever caught my eye on Today simply because it would be silly for my primary inspiration to be a show that features Al Roker as a serious journalist.  But here’s the funny thing about Today: It does a hell of a good job at being populist – from its bite-sized headlines to its fan-friendly celebrity interviews to its cooking segments to the call-in portion of the show where people can pose their money questions to a battery of economist-type folks – and for that reason it seems to pretty accurately capture the “common man” vibe.

This is never truer than when the show features, almost daily, a kid who fell down a well or got a lawn dart stuck in his head or swallowed a bag of rubber bands.  It’s usually inane fluff, the very worst kind of “human interest” b.s. that epitomizes the non-news I wrote about last week.  But every so often there’ll be a story that gives me pause and makes me think about my life or society or The Big Picture™ or whatever.  Today it was the story of Mikey Czech, an 11-year-old kid who died of a brain tumor.

Sad as that story is, that’s not the thing that caught my eye-ear.  In interviewing the parents about the charitable work they’re doing to find a cure for this particularly deadly type of cancer, the host asked them if their son’s death had in any diminished their faith in God.  The wife was very forthright, stating that they were devout Catholics, but that she was still dealing with a lot of anger.  Her husband, on the other hand, offered up that tried and true Christian platitude that underscores exactly why I could never, not ever ever in a million years, be a good Christian: “It has a greater purpose.”

You’re kidding me, right?  Your son, eleven years old, dies of a tumor at the base of his brain, and it’s somehow comforting to think that God intended his death to be part of some great plan?  That kind of belief system is so foreign to me that I don’t know whether to ridicule it or grudgingly admire it.  To claim that your son’s death was part of God’s plan is to admit that God, at the very least, allowed your son to die.  If you want to take a really cynical perspective (which I’m not; I’m just saying), you could even claim that God caused your son to die.  After all, a plan is preordained, it’s thought out, it’s, well … planned. The components of a plan don’t happen by happenstance.  If it’s part of a plan – or serves a greater purpose, to use the father’s own words – it’s not an accident.

Disagree?  Let’s say I have a plan to, I don’t know, sell the best-tasting lemonade in the history of the universe.  This plan means I have to develop a business model, find a place from which to sell or distribute the lemonade, advertise my product, and, last but not least, actually produce the lemonade.  As part of this plan I find the ideal location for a storefront/manufacturing base.  It’s in an old – but still tenanted – apartment building.  The building would be cheap to buy (the owner’s fallen on hard times, property values have tanked, etc.), and because the neighborhood is just starting to show signs of gentrification, it would be in my best interests to snatch up this place for my new business venture before prices skyrocket.  The landlord needs to sell, I want to buy, and the transaction goes down.  The problem?  Oh, yeah.  There are still people in the apartment building.  Obviously I can’t effectively operate an efficient lemonade business with a bunch of deadbeats taking up the space, so, as their new landlord, I evict them.  I know some of them don’t really have anywhere to go, but why is that my problem?  I’ve got a plan to execute and, let’s face it, the world needs more lemonade and fewer welfare cases.  So some of them find new places to live, some move in with their parents (or their kids), some become homeless.  At least one of the homeless dies from malnutrition.  Bummer, right?  But my plan is humming right along.

I know it’s just a dopey example, but I hope it makes the point that the plan – formulated and enacted by me – caused misery and death.  But guess what?  All the misery and death served a greater purpose.  It allowed me to become a lemonade mogul!  Pretty sweet, eh?  And just think: this is an example of a plan where the misery and death weren’t even intentional parts of my plan.  They were just byproducts.  Happy accidents, if you will.

But okay.  To return to the Czech father’s belief that his son’s death serves a greater purpose, if God is, as advertised, all-powerful, why can’t the plan or the purpose be achieved without the death of a little kid?  Let’s give the Big Guy the benefit of the doubt and assume that the purpose for Mikey Czech’s death (the purpose his father is talking about) is for his parents to become philanthropists and start a foundation dedicated to curing brain cancer.  Surely there’s a better way to convince someone to find a cure for brain cancer than to strike down his son with a painful, inoperative tumor.  Is it churlish of me to point out that if God really wanted a cure for cancer he could just bloody well go ahead and cure it himself any time he wanted to?

I know, I know.  The father is searching for comfort, and he finds it, like many before him, in his faith.  But hearing him write off his son’s death as just a cog in the machine set in motion by the Man in the Clouds made me realize yet again that profound religious belief is simply beyond me.  I can’t subscribe to any belief system that justifies the cruel and painful death of a little kid as just being part of some mysterious plan – or some “greater purpose” – that we’re just supposed to trust exists.  I just can’t do it.

I don’t have – nor have I ever claimed to have – any answers or definitive stance about religion or the existence of God.  I try to have an open mind about it, and if I have any beliefs, they’re more in line with the Deists of the 18th and 19th Centuries (see Locke, Twain, Franklin, Paine, Jefferson, Voltaire, et. al.).  If there’s a God, he’s non-interventionist, the Switzerland of deities.  He got the ball rolling, but after that, things happen according to the laws of nature, and he keeps his all-powerful nose out of it.  Believing that way seems much more realistic to me, for instance, than believing that God killed Mikey Czech and allows Dick Cheney to flourish, or that he’s a big football fan who, according to some athletes, allows one team to score a bunch of touchdowns and trips up the other team behind the line of scrimmage.

In the end, it seems to me that Mikey Czech’s mother has every right to be angry.  I suspect, however, that she’s angry for all the wrong reasons.  My guess is that she’s angry at God for allowing her son to die.  It seems to me, though, that she should be angry at the religious establishment that has allowed (and encouraged) her to believe that prayer works.  I know it’s comforting to think that God’s got our back, but if history teaches us anything, it’s that when the serious shit goes down, we’re on our own.

*****

Current listening:

David ziggy

David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Back Before We Were Brittle October 21, 2009

Posted by monty in news, politics, TV.
Tags: , , , ,
2 comments

20030410-foxnews-lies

Whenever someone says he watches Fox News – and says it without a veneer of irony – you know exactly what you’re getting.  It’s actually one of the most revealing things someone can say.  After all, you can admit to liking a crappy movie and still have pretty good taste in cinema, on the whole.  Similarly, you can have affection for a band that you know all the hip kids would ridicule you for, and still feel safe in the knowledge that you’re not a total square.  I have a soft spot for Hugh Grant movies and Elton John, but I also know how much I love the movies of Jim Jarmusch and the music of Radiohead.

But you can pretty much only watch Fox News in one of two ways.  You watch it because you believe it to be true, or you watch it because you just have to see what batshit-crazy things they’re saying today.  Before I go any farther, let me say that I also think this is true, although to a lesser degree, of MSNBC.  I think it’s a bad idea that the news has gotten so politicized that people can safely exist in their own little echo chamber, watching the stories of the day filtered through their own little ideological prism.  Even though I’m much more hip to MSNBC’s vibe, I don’t watch that channel – ever, really – simply because I know I’m going to agree with everything that say.  And while I think that Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann have slightly more journalistic integrity than Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, I personally think it’s boring to hear my own beliefs parroted back at me.  Some people – Fox viewers, for instance – like that kind of thing.  I don’t.

And that’s why, funnily enough, I’m more qualified to critique Fox than I am MSNBC.  I don’t watch the latter, but I went through a period of just about a year where I watched an awful lot of the former.  Much of this has to do with the fact, and I’ve known this for years, that I’m really only happy when I’m angry about something.  I don’t know why, I can’t explain it, but I’d watch Fox News every evening, through the headlines, through O’Reilly, through Hannity & Colmes, precisely because I liked to feel that anger smoldering away in my chest.  Even though I don’t turn on the channel anymore, I still watch clips of O’Reilly and Hannity and Fox’s gift to comedy, Glenn Beck, when I hear they did or said something worth getting my ire up over.

The purpose of this post isn’t really for me to carp about Fox.  It’s old news, pardon the pun, and nothing I have to say about it will be a revelation to anyone.  But I do want to share a link from the Huffington Post, titled “The Ten Most Egregious Fox News Distortions” (and yes, of course I see the hypocrisy inherent in sharing a link critical of Fox that first appeared on a lefty site like Huffington).  The Right can argue until it’s blue in the face about the “liberal media” or the “left-wing media” or “the commie pinko faggot media,” but it would take a truly brazen neocon to claim with a straight face that the network news channels do anything even remotely close to what Fox has done in these ten examples.

Save this link and share it with your misguided friends when they tell you that they watch Fox News to get “the truth.”  Bullshit.  They watch it to get the truth they want to hear.  And there’s a big difference between the two.

The Huffington Post (10/20/09): The Ten Most Egregious Fox News Distortions

*****

Current listening:

Gemma hayes hollow of morning

Gemma Hayes – The Hollow of Morning

Current reading:

BANR2005-full

Daniel Alarcón – “Florida” (in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, 2005, ed. by Dave Eggers)

Look Into the Light October 18, 2009

Posted by monty in comedy, TV.
Tags: , , ,
1 comment so far

As I continue to think about the comedians that have sustained me over the years, I know Monty Python will get an extensive post at some point.  But until I get around to writing it, it was pure magic to see four of them together again on the Jimmy Fallon show recently.  Older, yes, but man – it’s still such a thrill to see them together.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

*****

Current listening:

Hothouse songs

Hothouse Flowers – Songs from the Rain

Last movie seen:

WIld things poster

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, dir.)

Non-Song of the Day (10/17/09: Mr. Show Edition) October 17, 2009

Posted by monty in comedy, TV.
Tags: , , , ,
3 comments

In honor of my imminent trip to see David Cross (and continuing the comedy thread from today’s earlier post), here’s a few of my favorite sketches from Mr. Show With Bob and David.  If you’ve never seen this groundbreaking HBO series starring Cross and Bob Odenkirk (and acting as a veritable incubator of comedic talent, launching the careers of Sarah Silverman, Paul F. Tompkins, Brian Posehn, and Tom Kenny [the voice of Spongebob Squarepants, for the uninitiated]), you’d better get while the getting’s good.

“Titannica”

“The Audition”

“Blowing Up the Moon”

The Edges Are No Longer Parallel October 16, 2009

Posted by monty in news, school, TV.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

sayahhh

Because television news seems to be doing all it can to contribute to the collective intellectual retardation of this country, stories involving children seem to get an increasing amount of play, especially on the morning shows (I watch Today, because they’re so sassy!).  This isn’t necessarily anything new, as the countless stories of children falling into wells will testify.  But every time I see one of these, I – along with many others, I’m sure – wonder why these stories are considered newsworthy.  I guess they’re human-interest stories, but in terms of importance, they rank right up there with stories of people getting lost while hiking: of minor importance to anyone outside immediate friends and family.  When we could be getting in-depth stories that analyze health care reform or the war in Afghanistan – you know, things of actual importance – we get Balloon Boy instead.

But I get ahead of myself.

This week there were three stories in the news, all involving kids.  Only one of them, I think, is deserving of any kind of national attention, and even that one you have to stretch a little.

Boy In BalloonMost recently, we have Balloon Boy. If you haven’t heard this story, it involves the unfortunately-named Falcon Heene, a six-year-old kid whose parents feared he had taken off in a giant Mylar balloon they were building in their garage.  When authorities finally chased down the balloon 90 miles later – after reaching an altitude of 7,000 feet – they found that Falcon wasn’t in it.  Fears ran high that the boy had fallen out somewhere along the line.  Upon searching further, Falcon was later found at home.  In the attic.  Playing in a box.

In other news, health care reform bill passes Senate committee.

The plot thickened – as it always does – when Falcon later said that he hadn’t come out of the attic when his parents called for him because “you guys said we did this for the show.”  Was this ridiculous non-story a hoax?  Falcon’s father, Richard Heene, vehemently denied it to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer (because of course he’d admit to perpetrating fraud on national television), but the rumor persists.  Other fun facts: Richard Heene and his wife Mayumi were contestants on the 100th episode of TV’s Wife Swap and the elder Heenes also “devote their time to scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials.”

Michael BThe second story is much more tragic, but I’m still not convinced it’s necessarily deserving of all the exposure it’s getting.  In South Florida, 15-year-old Michael Brewer was set on fire by five other teenagers because Brewer supposedly owed one of them $40 for a video game.

As the story goes, the boys poured rubbing alcohol on Brewer and then flicked a lighter at him.  Brewer, now burned on 65% of his body, ran and dove into a swimming pool, but it eventually took a man with a fire extinguisher to completely put out the flames.  The mother of two of the suspects denies they had anything to do with it, which is natural, I suppose.  After all, what mother wants to cop to her kids setting someone on fire?

In some ways I feel bad saying the news shouldn’t be preoccupied with this story.  It’s horrific and very, very sad, but it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know: that teenagers can be brutal and cruel and thoughtless.  We’ve seen this over and over again, and the only thing that changes is the vehicle of brutality.  From Columbine to the recent beating death of a Chicago teenager to Michael Brewer, there is never a shortage of adolescents doing horrific things to one another.  To treat it as national news is only to be redundant.

tdy_ellis_boy_091014.300wFinally, we have the story of six-year-old Zachary Christie, who was caught at school eating his lunch with a Cub Scout camping utensil that included a spork and a knife.  Under the school’s zero tolerance policy for weapons, Christie was suspended from school and sentenced to 45 days in a local reform school.  That’s right.  If you’ve ever wanted to know what pure evil looks like, just gaze at his photo.

Once this story got national exposure, the outcry was such that Christie’s punishment was diminished to a short suspension from school, and his placement in reform school was eliminated altogether.

Of the three stories described here, Christie’s is the only one that seems to me to be worth reporting.  There are a couple reasons.  The first is the social justice angle.  Any time a news story can bring injustice to light (and cause its prevention) it’s worth reporting.  Zachary’s punishment was obviously extreme, and there’s no telling what would be the future repercussions of this kid being sent to reform school at such a young age.  Reporting this story brought his situation to light and helped get his punishment reversed.

The second angle, from a policy standpoint, is the absolute lunacy of zero tolerance rules.  Any rule that effectively eliminates the context of the infraction is just not a good idea.  This is especially true when you’re dealing with young children, who often don’t fully understand the impact of their actions.  Case in point: I had a Cub Scout pocketknife of my own when I was younger.  I took it to school one day, not with the intention of shanking someone, but just because it was new and, like most little kids, I wanted to keep it with me.  I had it sitting on my desk at one point – with the blade unopened – and my teacher took it away and gave it back to me at the end of the day.  That’s fine.  I get it.  But I had absolutely no inkling that it was in any way bad form to bring the pocketknife to school.  The thought that I could get in trouble for displaying a cool Christmas present in class never even crossed my mind.  Now imagine that my elementary school had had a zero tolerance policy.  Would it be justified to suspend me and send me to reform school when A) there was no malice involved in my actions, and B) I probably wasn’t aware of the rule in the first place?

I’m not sure many people know that, post-Columbine, zero tolerance policies are actually fairly common in schools, especially for weapons, but also for drugs and alcohol.  A story like Zachary’s will, with any luck, clue people into the fact that these policies are out there, and that they’re usually a bad idea.  I understand the desire to keep kids safe, but at some point common sense has to enter the picture.  Imposing a blanket sentence on anyone who breaks a rule – without taking into account that there can be variations in how the rule is broken – is to completely remove the possibility of thoughtful, reasoned judgment from the person imposing the punishment.  It’s only through public pressure that schools will ever amend policies that run counter to intelligent thought, and it’s often only through seeing a story like Zachary’s that the public will ever be aware of what actually goes on in schools.

Television news often gets it wrong – actually, they usually get it wrong – and the fact that they got it right once this week is no reason to celebrate.  .333 might be a great average if you’re a major league ballplayer, but for a professional news organization, it’s downright abysmal.

Bonus footage: Zachary’s story on NBC’s Today:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

*****

Current listening:

Teenage fanclub howdy

Teenage Fanclub – Howdy!

Everyone Is Guilty October 8, 2009

Posted by monty in civil rights, TV.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

heyhey

One of the longest running shows in Australian television history is something called Hey Hey It’s Saturday. I don’t know much about it.  The show’s entry on Wikipedia makes it sound like a fast-paced sketch and variety show, which I don’t really think has a contemporary American equivalent.  The closest corollary I can think of is Saturday Night Live in its first couple seasons, when it often had more than one musician, sometimes a stand-up comedian, a short film or two by Albert Brooks, and the usual sketches.  Anyway, Hey Hey It’s Saturday started in 1971 and was canceled in 1999.  Australia’s Nine Network recently aired a Hey Hey reunion special, a stated goal of which was to feel out the possibility of bringing the show back to the airwaves.  This is where things get interesting.

One of the segments on the show is something called “Red Faces,” a Gong Show-y sort of thing where three individuals or groups of performers, all amateurs, perform before a panel of three judges.  “Red Faces” was revived for the recent reunion shows, and musician Harry Connick, Jr., made an appearance as one of the judges.  My guess is that Connick won’t be making many more of these appearances unless he’s personally able to vet the performers he’s judging.  Here’s the video.  And, oh yeah, did I mention one of the groups called themselves the Jackson Jive and performed in blackface? (Watch a bit of their performance, then skip to 1:50 to get Connick’s visibly uncomfortable reaction to it.  Watch to the end, or skip to 4:17 to catch the show’s special apology.

There are a couple things about this that strike me as interesting.  The first is how the cultural mores regarding race and ethnicity shift from country to country.  The shitstorm would be fast and furious if a singer showed up in blackface on American Idol, for instance.  But I think it’s especially fascinating that a country like Australia – with its own racial sins to atone for in its treatment of its aboriginal people – would find blackface acceptable and funny.  When the host asks the audience what score they’d give the group, you hear a smattering of “10’s,” but you certainly don’t hear the shouts of derision you’d get in this country.  I think this speaks to how prominently racial identity and the struggle for civil rights has been ingrained in our culture.  You just don’t spoof various ethnic groups for comedic value.

Or do you?

Here’s another video of Harry Connick, Jr., that stalwart defender of African-American dignity, on MadTV in 1996 (embedding has been disabled; click the YouTube link in the lower righthand corner to watch it there in a new window):

Now, look: I’m not calling Harry Connick, Jr., a racist, or even a hypocrite.  I don’t think he’s either of those things, and it’s not exactly clear from the sketch what the object of his mimicry is.  You could probably make the case that he’s merely imitating Southern Baptist preachers, but the similarity in hairstyle and vocal cadence between the two characters surely didn’t happen by accident.  This opens the door to the possibility that the sketch is mimicking black preachers, stopping just shy of blackface. I don’t know which it is, and it doesn’t really matter, at least not for the purpose of what I’m trying to say here.  The difference in acceptability between these two clips reveals the other fascinating thing about this mini-controversy.  When is it okay for one ethnic group to adopt the appearance and mannerisms of another for a joke – especially when the adopter is a member of the majority culture, and that majority culture has a long history of oppressing the mimicked minority?  I don’t have a solid, this-answer-is-carved-in-stone answer.  My gut tells me that it has something to do with the observation George Carlin made years ago about when racist language is acceptable: it depends on the context.

In the Hey Hey It’s Saturday act, the context made the group’s use of blackface unacceptable.  All-white group in a cartoonish performance, all-white judges, performed on a show in a country with an overwhelmingly white population, and if you look at the shots of the studio audience – not many black faces there.  On MadTV, though (setting aside the fact that it sucks), Connick’s appearance in a sketch with an otherwise all-black cast lends it a tacit stamp of approval.  It’s a sort of non-guilt-by-association.  If the other actors had been whites in blackface, it would have been completely offensive.  But with the other cast members being African-American, we see that they’re in on the joke (and, not knowing MadTV well enough to be familiar with its writing staff, they might even have written the joke), and that makes it okay.

It’s a tricky thing, this business of context and, as I said above, there are no firm rules governing it as far as I can see.  I do, however, think intelligence and intent play a huge role.  This is the why the jive-talking, gold-tooth-sporting robot caricatures in the recent Transformers movie are offensive, and John Cleese in blackface as one of the three wise men in The Life of Brian isn’t.  Cleese almost assuredly understands A) the historical accuracy of portraying the three wise men as Africans, and B) the cultural baggage attached to the act of wearing blackface.  The joke is, as much as I hate to use the term, meta in nature.  Cleese in blackface is funny not because he’s supposed to be making fun of black people, but because we recognize how ridiculous it is for John Cleese to be wearing blackface.  The joke isn’t on blacks, but on him.

Michael Bay (director of both Transformers movies), on the other hand, seems completely oblivious to the racist stereotype embodied by the two robots.  “We’re just putting more personality in,” he said, and added, “Young kids love these robots, because it makes it more accessible to them.”  I’m not sure what the implication is here.  That little kids love offensive stereotypes?  If that’s the case, maybe Bay should have included a female robot who’s no good at math and science, a yarmulke-wearing robot who loves money and says, “Oy vey” a lot, and a burrito-eating Mexican robot who’s too lazy to get up and fight the Decepticons.

My point – and I do have one – is this: The issue of racism is every bit as complicated as it’s ever been.  Maybe even more so.  We’ve got instances in popular culture like the few I’ve just described.  Politically, we’ve got liberals accusing conservatives of being racist, a popular talk-show whack-job accusing President Obama of being racist, and conservatives accusing liberals of being racist for accusing conservatives of being racist.  For supposedly being such a post-racial society, we sure do seem to talk about it an awful lot.  One thing I’m going to posit is that, even though I think we’re too sensitive as a society, racism, as with sexual harrassment, is in the eye of the beholder.  I may not have a firm definition of racism in popular culture, but I know it when I see it.

Keeping that in mind, I have two suggestions:

1) Audience members need to be more critical of what they’re watching, reading, and listening to.  And by “critical” I mean thoughtful and discerning. There’s often a knee-jerk reaction to things involving race, but little attempt to actually unpack what happened.  After Michael Richards had his meltdown a few years ago, I was one of the few who was convinced he wasn’t actually racist.  Likewise, I’ve been very reluctant to portray Obama’s detractors – no matter how misguided I think they are – as racists the way some have.  It’s usually much more complicated than simple racism, and I think people often need to be more intelligent in the way they process what they see in the media.

2) The necessary counterpoint is that people always need to be mindful of how their message comes across to others.  I’m sure the Jackson Jive didn’t intend for their act to be racist.  It is.  I don’t think Michael Bay set out to make two racist robots.  He did.  Claiming ignorance just isn’t good enough. This is what I think is really at the heart of political correctness: it means not being a thoughtless dipshit.  I know the term political correctness has been perverted and bent out of true by both ends of the political spectrum, but I think its tenets are sound.  Think before you speak.  Who’s your audience?  How will what you say be interpreted by someone who’s not a member of your core audience?  Do your words match your intent?

It’s called being an intelligent, thoughtful person.  A little more of that might prevent us from ever again being faced with the awkwardness of seeing Harry Connick, Jr. speaking on behalf of the American people.

*****

Current listening:

Neds atomic dustbin brainblood

Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – Brainbloodvolume

Never Want to Be That Way Again October 7, 2009

Posted by monty in TV.
Tags: , , , , ,
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biggest_loser(1)vs.   more to love

Can there be any clearer a philosophical dividing line in the United States’ obesity epidemic than the one separating NBC’ The Biggest Loser from Fox’s More to Love?  One features a group of people who realize they’re unhealthy and are actively trying to do something about it, the other revolves around a cast that has resigned itself to a lifetime of midnight cookie dough binges, and whose members are now trying to find a mate with an equally low willpower threshold.

One thing I want to say first: I’m not insensitive to struggles with weight. I’m roughly 5’10”, and by the time I graduated from college, I was topping out at around 200 pounds.  It wasn’t life-threatening, but it also wasn’t healthy.  A year later I became a vegetarian and dropped roughly 20 pounds.  A couple years after that I started running and lost another 30.  Now well into my mid-30’s, I’ve gained about 20 of that back, and I’m in a perpetual state of trying to get rid of it.  I run until my legs (or, more recently, my heart) tell me it’s time to pack it in.  The chips in my pantry taunt me in the evening, and it’s only because popcorn started doing horrendous things to my digestive system that I stopped scarfing the stuff down at movies like a junkie going after his fix.  So I know about weight gain and how hard it is to lose it and keep it off.  I get it.  But because I’ve gone through the struggle myself, I’m perhaps less patient with the whining of the obese than I might otherwise be inclined to be.

But that’s not why I’m writing this.  First, the shows, for the uninitiated.

aliThe Biggest Loser is a reality show where 16 (I think) morbidly obese people try to lose as much weight as they can over the course of a season.  They’re sequestered at a ranch, monitored by physicians, taught how to eat well, and trained by two professionals, Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels.  Bob is the Zen, centered good cop to Jillian’s batshit, drill instructor bad cop.  When the contestants are resistant to the training, Bob employs New Age, feel-good reassurance, resorting to anger only when gentle negotiation fails.  Jillian, on the other hand, screams at them and beats them about the head and shoulders with her abs. Some of the contestants favor Bob; some respond well to Jillian. (As a totally unnecessary sidenote, I’d be firmly in the Jillian camp.  I’m a good soldier, and I take orders well.  Also, she’s hot.)  For most of the season the cast is paired up into teams of two.  At the end of each episode the teams weigh in, and the two teams with the lowest percentage of weight lost in the previous week go up for elimination.  The other teams then decide which team goes home.  The elimination is the least interesting aspect of the show to me.  I couldn’t care less about the weepy drama that goes into making that decision.  It’s far more fascinating to see how seriously (or how un-seriously) some of the cast take their weight loss journey.  A lot of them take Bob and Jillian’s training to heart and push themselves harder and farther than I’d ever think possible.  Some of them seem so unwilling to work out that I wonder how they got selected for the show in the first place.  In all, it’s oddly inspiring to see a group of people who have decided to make a positive change in their lives.

more to love 2 And that brings me to More to Love. The premise of this show is slightly more simplistic than The Biggest Loser. Here, a Fat Guy has to decide which Fat Girl is going to be his bride.  They hang out a lot, they go on dates, they bitch about wearing bathing suits, they cry about being picked on.  And at the end of each episode, Fat Guy eliminates two Fat Girls, who then predictably weep on camera about how they’re never going to find another swell guy who has a thing for Fat Girls.

Oh, and they eat.  A lot.

Every episode (and I suffered through most of the season before finally turning away in disgust) included at least one segment where the entire cast plunged into a table of food with all the fervor and abandon of a Bacchanalian orgy.

Am I being insensitive?  Maybe.  But here’s the thing: The Biggest Loser – for all its edited and manufactured inspiration – is, at heart, a show about empowerment, while More to Love is a solipsistic parade of victimhood. There’s no (or very little) reference to any of the cast ever trying to get healthy, but a whole lot of time is spent crying about how unfair it is that guys don’t find overweight women very attractive.  They cry about being picked on at school, they cry about never having had a date, they cry about never being hit on. But do they ever cry about how hard it is to find time to eat healthy and go for a walk?  “The world is a cruel place to overweight people,” they weep, “and are those burritos over there?”

Of course it’s unfair that we live in an image-obsessed society, but that’s not really the issue here.  These women are contestants on a show whose very premise is based on not getting healthy.  Rather than putting in the work to change their lives for the better, these women have gone on a show that allows them to revel in their unhealthiness.  Imagine, as a useful analogy, a show called Junkie Love. On this show, the contestants are female heroin addicts, and each week a male heroin addict eliminates two of them until he settles on his perfect junkie match.  Okay, come to think of it, that show would actually turn out to be pretty popular.  But do you see the point?  In no way would anyone think that’s a healthy relationship, or a healthy environment in which to find a mate.  But a show like More to Love says, “Don’t try to get healthy, fatties.  Come on our show and find true love with someone just as lazy as you are.”  Is it possible that Fox has edited out all the footage of the women talking about how much they’ve exercised and how often they’ve eaten a diet of fresh, healthy food?  Maybe.  But unlikely.  And isn’t the very act of appearing on a show with the premise of More to Love a form of surrender?

Look.  I feel sympathy for people who get picked on and rejected because of how they look.  It’s not like women have ever been knocking down my door for a date, so I get it.  But when you stop to consider just how much of a problem obesity has become in this country – not to mention how much of a drag the corresponding diseases have become on our health care system – a show like More to Love starts to look more and more irresponsible.  We’re at a point where we should be encouraging people, like The Biggest Loser does, to be fit, to get healthy, to make smart choices.  All that More to Love encourages is malaise, and the reassurance that the best solution is just to give up.

*****

Current listening:

Boxer exits

The Boxer Rebellion – Exits

Current reading:

idrinkforareason

David Cross – I Drink for a Reason