Robert Osborne, R.I.P.

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Robert Osborne (1932–2017), who died on March 6, started out as an aspiring young gay actor, whose talent was not equal to his aspiration. His acting career fizzled. But his enthusiasm for the art of film turned out to be a hundred times greater than his desire to act. Acting, after all, is only one aspect of the art. He didn’t repine; he kept involved. He became a writer about film, and eventually he became the founding and continuing host of that great American institution, Turner Classic Movies, which presents movies on cable TV, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and never edits or censors them.

Osborne’s genial, knowledgeable, and above all genuine presence made him a central figure in my life and the lives of many other people. I remember sharing happy hours watching TCM with the late Ronald Hamowy, when he was ill and had difficulty leaving his house. Ronald and I watched whatever movies Osborne presented, always appreciating the way he handled his role as host and (concise) commentator. Ronald knew more about movies than I did, and consequently knew better than I how to value Robert Osborne; but over the years I learned more about film, and a lot of it came from watching Osborne and TCM. There are few things in life that are both good and available at any time. TCM is one of those things, and Osborne was largely responsible for its continuance and success.

Osborne's acting career fizzled. But his enthusiasm for the art of film turned out to be a hundred times greater than his desire to act.

Osborne was famous for his friendships with Hollywood stars, but he was no idolator or press agent. His interviews with them dwelt on serious questions of art and craft and the challenges of life, and he had a way of gently bringing people out in conversation so that pretense vanished and personality emerged. He took human weakness for granted and went beyond it, to more interesting things.

I have no idea what Osborne’s politics were, because they were irrelevant to his work. I wish I could say as much about the unequal figures who have occupied the scene at TCM during recent years, years of the mysterious illness that seems finally to have claimed Osborne’s life. He was himself a strong personality, but he never thrust the purely-Osborne forward; he was always Osborne in pursuit of the life of film.

For this I am thankful. As Auntie Mame said, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” People who don’t know the history of film are missing much of the food and most of the fun. Osborne’s mission was to issue invitations to the banquet, to inspire in others his own enthusiasm for a great art form. He was not a “legend,” as dead celebrities are always proclaimed to be. No, he was a reality.




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The Great Debate

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Only my devotion to journalism made me watch the Clinton-Trump debate. It’s not my idea of fun to observe the collision of two giant gasbags somewhere above Long Island. And, as many people have pointed out, the meaning of such events, if any, ordinarily emerges not from what actually happened but from what was spun out of it, later.

So color me bored and irritated, before the thing even started.

The following is what your bored and irritated correspondent thought he observed. I’ll make it snappy, since you probably observed the damn debate yourself and have just as much right to an opinion as I have.

  1. In response to the introductory question about creation of jobs, Clinton revealed her conviction that you can do it by funding daycare, paying students’ way through college, and “making the rich pay their fair share.” Trump asserted that foreign countries are “stealing our jobs,” but Clinton returned to the idea of taxing the rich. She accused Trump of having “started [in business] with $14 million he received from his father.” She claimed that the economic collapse of 2008 had been created by a low-tax policy. She then began a long rant about government-sponsored “clean energy” creating millions of jobs.
     
  2. Responding to Trump’s verbal jabs about her failure to do anything good about the economy during her long career, Clinton smirked in a way I have often seen from schoolteachers who aren’t very bright. She then uncorked one of the most superior laughs I have ever seen, thus confirming one’s worst impressions of her character. She kept this up throughout the debate. She also continued her chronic habit of nodding her head while hearing things she disagrees with but cannot figure out how to respond to — for instance, Trump’s accusation that she had invented, or popularized, the term “’super-predator,” as applied to “black youths.”
     
  3. Trump frequently interrupted Clinton with little sarcastic remarks, to which the sworn-to-silence audience frequently made a favorable response. But I was wondering how, when Clinton brought up Trump’s failure to reveal his tax returns, he didn’t ask her why she hasn’t revealed the texts of the speeches she gave to Wall Street crony capitalists in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Didn’t he listen to Bernie Sanders’ successful attacks on her about that? Accused of initially supporting the Iraq war, Trump failed to mention the fact that Hillary voted for the war. He failed to mention, a propos the job-creation issue, that she bragged about her intention of putting coal miners out of their jobs. At other times, however, he provided facts (mainly about his own economic proposals) that were much more specific than hers.
     
  4. Clinton tried to popularize a catchphrase for Trump’s economic plan. The phrase seems to have been her idea of the one thing the audience should take home with them. The phrase was “Trumped-up trickle-down.” I rate that a failure.
     
  5. “Moderator” Lester Holt’s questions were filled with attempted zingers against Trump — such as a reiterated question about his birtherism — but none that I perceived against Clinton. In the second half of the event, Holt began to do “no, you’re wrong” “fact checking” against Trump, as advocated by the Clinton forces. I did not perceive him doing that against Clinton. To use a Trumpian word, Holt was a disaster. At many junctures, he seemed to be channeling Clinton.
     
  6. Trump made a clever transition from a question about internet security to a reminder that the hacking of the DNC revealed Clinton’s mistreatment of Sanders. Why, I wondered, didn’t he ask her why she, of all people, had been commenting with assurance about the security of electronic communications?
     
  7. Trump cleverly obscured his lack of thoughtfulness about nuclear war by discussing it in terms that no one could interpret.
     
  8. Hillary not so cleverly asserted — almost at the end, as if she thought that nothing else had worked — that Trump regards women as “pigs and dogs.”

The Summing Up:

Trump used the words disaster and unbelievable a lot, but most of his favorite verbal tics were absent, showing a degree of self-control that must have been heroic. He didn’t make a fool of himself, although he came close when he went off on a tangent about his “winning temperament,” as opposed to Clinton’s bad temperament, as witnessed in her remarkable “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” speech. He didn’t clearly identify the speech, so the uninformed were left to wonder, “What the hell is he talking about?” Hillary didn’t shriek like a maniac, which makes me wonder who on her staff had the unenviable job of telling her that she usually shrieks like a maniac.

I’ll agree with Charles Krauthammer’s instant analysis and call the thing a draw, although I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. Neither of them did demonstrably better than the other, although the media immediately started chattering about Clinton being on the offensive and Trump on the defensive. Each showed the ability to confirm the preexisting opinions of supporters. Since Trump was the underdog, he probably got a marginal advantage from his almost patient endurance of Clinton’s enormous sense of superiority. For me, the most memorable part of the debate was his comment, “She’s got experience, but it’s bad experience.” That doesn’t go far to compensate me for an hour and a half lost from what otherwise would have been a richer and fuller life.




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The New Cable

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“As a stranger give it welcome. / There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Or offered in your network TV listings. Strange things are afoot in home entertainment, and the made-for-Netflix series Stranger Things is a brilliant case in point.

If you’re tired of the endlessly inane sitcoms, crime dramas, talent shows and trashy pseudo-reality shows offered by CBS, NBC, and ABC, turn off your networks and turn on your Netflix. There you will find well-scripted shows with movie-quality production values streamed to you on your phone, your computer, or your Smart TV. And it won’t cost you the nearly $200 a month many are paying now for cable television throughout their homes. My Netflix account costs $9.99 a month — and I can even carry it with me when I travel and share it with family members in other states at no extra charge. I don’t need a cable box or even a digital video recorder, because Netflix provides all of its listings to me on demand, whenever I feel like watching it — no commercials, no interruptions, and no set schedule. All I need is an Internet connection. And the quality of the programming can be superb.

Great shows are driven by great scripts, and the dialogue in this show feels natural and unforced.

Stranger Things, an eight-episode sci-fi series made specifically for Netflix, is a great example. Set in 1983, the show begins with a group of 12-year-old boys playing Dungeons & Dragons. They’re a lot like the kids in Steven Spielberg’s Goonies — likeable and outgoing, but slightly off. One has cleidocranial dysplasia, a genetic condition that prevents his permanent teeth from growing in; another has a weak chin that gives his face a beaklike quality. All of them are a little nerdy, but their friendship overcomes any sense of inadequacy.

When the game ends, the boys jump on their banana-seat bicycles and head for their various homes. (My immediate reaction: “Yes! Geeky boys on bicycles! I’m in!”) One of them, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), encounters a strange beast that seems connected to a strange government installation on the outskirts of town. No one is home when he arrives there, and he goes out to the shed to investigate. The lights start flickering, an ominous predatory growl is heard outside, and suddenly Will vanishes.

The rest of the series focuses on finding out what happened to Will and uncovering the truths behind that secret government laboratory. The eight hourlong episodes are sharp and suspenseful, and each ends with a cliffhanger reminiscent of Fox’s phenomenally successful, movie-quality 24. I “binge-watched” the entire series in a single day.

What makes Stranger Things so compelling? First is the quality of the scripts and the acting. Great shows are driven by great scripts, and the dialogue in this show feels natural and unforced, reminiscent of my own son and his friends hanging out in the ’80s. My only caveat is Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, mother of the missing boy, who is cloyingly, ferally crazed throughout the series, until her character suddenly and inexplicably ends up wearing lipstick, eyeshadow and false lashes with her hair combed out of her eyes in the last two episodes. (Winona must have seen the rushes and decided too much was too much.)

Prop master Lynda Reiss managed to recreate the ’80s with a budget of just $220,000 for eight hours of screen time.

Even more impressive than the script is the quality of the production. Netflix provided them a budget that allowed them to create a movie-quality show. But budget alone doesn’t lead to success; witness the nine-figure superhero films that have been dropping like flies at the box office this summer. The Duffer Brothers (twins Matt and Ross), who created the show and directed most of the episodes, know what they are doing. Much of their success (at least with semi-nerds like me) is in their skillfully crafted homage to Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, which is as impressive as J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011). It’s a little bit E.T. mixed with Poltergeist, The Goonies, and Stand By Me (Rob Reiner) too, with nods to numerous Stephen King books.

Prop master Lynda Reiss managed to recreate the ’80s with a budget of just $220,000 for eight hours of screen time. She reportedly searched eBay, flea markets, rental companies and estate sales to find the vintage boomboxes, telephones, bicycles, cars, movie posters, clothing and home furnishings that give the show its striking ambience. The soundtrack too, is authentic ’80s, with the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” providing a particularly poignant recurring motif.

This is a show that could only be set in the ’80s, when boys could still ride their bikes around town without telling their parents where they were going or when they would be home (and without their parents being investigated by Child Protective Services for letting them do so). It’s a reminder of just how free life was less than a generation ago, when kids learned all by themselves how to solve problems, stand up to bullies, navigate relationships, and manage not to get killed while snooping around empty buildings or abandoned rock quarries. Without cellphones, it was also a harder time for parents in many ways. I love how often the characters have to look for a pay phone in order to contact one another, and the reminder of how a mother had to wait anxiously at home beside the landline phone to hear from a late or missing child. Worry and trust went hand in hand back in the ’80s; it was a magical time, and I hope filmmakers continue to remind us of what it was like when kids roamed free.

So how is Netflix able to produce great programming such as this on a subscription model of ten bucks a month for unlimited viewing with little-to-no commercial advertising? There was a time when “made-for-TV” was code for “don’t expect much” from a movie. I expected that would be even truer of “made-for-Netflix,” with its inexpensive business model. Stranger Things is no anomaly, however. Series like House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and the wildly popular (and well-made) Orange is the New Black are just as impressive. I wondered how Netflix could afford such quality while the traditional network shows are becoming markedly worse. So I did some checking around.

It’s a reminder of just how free life was less than a generation ago, when kids learned all by themselves how to solve problems.

Netflix started as a home-delivery alternative to Blockbuster. Instead of driving to the local video store, wandering the aisles in search of something to watch on Friday night, and then paying exorbitant late fees when you inevitably forgot to take it back on time (after forgetting even to watch it), customers could create a list of films they wanted to see and have them delivered to their mailbox with a pre-stamped return mailer. When they finished watching the movie, whether it was the next day or two weeks later, they just set it out in the prepaid mailer for the mail carrier to take, and Netflix automatically sent them the next film on the list (or films, depending on their subscription plan). Eventually streaming replaced the need for physical DVDs, and instant gratification was possible.

Netflix had signed a deal with Starz that provided them access to a huge library of current movies, but when that contract ended about five years ago, their selection shrunk significantly overnight. They were still making a ton of money off subscriptions, but they needed to give those subscribers a reason to keep paying each month. Just as they had recognized that the video store model had to change, they realized that their new business model needed to change again. People weren't going to leave Netflix right away, but if their library stayed small and uninviting, Netflix would eventually lose their cash cow, the monthly streaming subscriptions.

Meanwhile, the television entertainment model was changing too. For decades the three major networks had dominated entertainment television, with cable as the poor stepsister largely providing cheap local-access programming, infomercials and news shows. Then HBO realized they could make inroads into in-home entertainment by providing original programming. Shows like The Sopranos, The Wire,and Curb Your Enthusiasm provided top-quality scripts, actors, and production values, while also pushing against FCC rules regarding language and nudity that controlled network programming.

When their contract with Starz ended, Netflix programmers realized that they could continue to spend a ton of money buying existing content, or they could create their own exclusive content. They’ve done both, providing their customers with favorite old network series from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, but also commissioning great new programs.

CEO Ted Sarandos was dead set on creating shows on par with those being made for HBO, and he had enough surplus cash to do it. Their first production was House of Cards, an American remake of a British series of the same name, and they managed to land David Fincher (Fight Club, Gone Girl, Se7en) as director and Kevin Spacey as the star. (Netflix also greenlighted Fuller House, so the quality of their programming runs the gamut.).

People weren't going to leave Netflix right away, but if their library stayed small and uninviting, Netflix would eventually lose their cash cow.

The biggest difference between Netflix programming and HBO programming is that Netflix is straight-to-consumer and subscription based, while HBO continues to go through the local cable TV model and requires a premium upcharge. With cable companies now requiring that customers rent a separate cable box (at $10 or more) for every television in the house, in-home entertainment now costs more than $100 a month. Add the Internet service and landline telephone that are usually bundled into the cable service, plus premium charges for movie channels, sports and HBO, and before long you’re paying closer to $200 a month. Is it any wonder that so many households are ripping out their landlines and cable and opting just for Internet-based entertainment? Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are all subscription-based, on-demand Internet streaming options that offer good quality programming at a more affordable price.

In response to the cable-free movement in many homes, most networks are now offering some form of streaming, including HBO. Of course, if you’re paying $9.99 for Netflix, $14.99 for HBO Now, $99 a year for Amazon Prime Video (a bonus with shipping perks) and a few specialty stations, pretty soon you’re back over $100 for in-home entertainment. Perhaps in the future some of these services will start rebundling, and customers will be able to choose the services they want at a reasonable price. Choice — what a novel idea!

What’s next? It’s hard to say. The Hollywood studios have made a conscious decision to focus entirely on blockbuster franchise films and ignore the smaller, script-driven movies, creating a vacuum that wants to be filled. Netflix has been responding to that vacuum, committing to a six-film contract with comedian Adam Sandler and winning a bidding war on a script called Bright from Max Landis, son of John Landis of Thriller fame and a super-hot screenwriter in LA right now. Bright has a reported $90 million budget, comparable to almost any Hollywood studio product.

Netflix is also experimenting with a new distribution model of purchasing independent films and releasing them in theaters and on Netflix almost simultaneously. Beasts of No Nations with Cary Fukunaga of True Detective fame is one example. It earned almost nothing in the box office — not surprisingly, since a single ticket, small popcorn, and small drink currently costs close to $25. I love the atmosphere of a movie theater, but at those prices I’m starting to think it’s time to convert the basement into a home entertainment center.

I’m also concerned about how this new model will affect the careers of fledgling directors, since my understanding is that they earn very little, if anything, from individual views on Netflix. How will new filmmakers be able to continue their craft in the future if “success” means a distribution deal with one week of ticket sales in the theaters and an eternity of streaming on Netflix? I have hope that the market will solve this problem, just as it is solving the problem of outrageously expensive monopoly cable service. In the meantime, if Orange is the New Black, then Netflix is the new Cable. And I think that’s a good thing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Stranger Things," directed by Matt and Ross Duffer. Netflix, 2016, eight 50-minute episodes.



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They Couldn’t Have Said That!

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On May 27, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that his city had received a grant of $9 million dollars to employ people from Los Angeles who have recently gotten out of prison and train them in “life skills.” I’ve published a book about prisons, and I still do research in that area. I’ve usually liked the convicts and ex-convicts I’ve met. I’m very much in favor of giving them the clichéd second chance, and I don’t think I’d have any more worries about employing one of them than about employing an otherwise similar person who had never been in prison. People who land in prison tend to be fairly young, and they are much less likely to commit crimes when they get older. Also, as a prison warden remarked to me, many convicts committed their crimes when they were drunk or high, and they’re different people when they’re not that way. So if they don’t go crazy with substances again, why not employ them?

Not only is the elite not really the elite — it seldom is, anywhere or at any time — but it has become insane.

Nevertheless, I did have some problems with Garcetti’s glee over his $9 million grant, because the money came from CalTrans, the California state agency that is supposed to be maintaining our roads and is not, despite the fact that it constantly demands more money. The fact that the money came from CalTrans was obscured by news “reporting” that spoke about an “agreement” or “pact” between CalTrans and the city, or simply said that “between” them they would spend $9 million. I don’t think the source of the money was intentionally obscured; it was represented in that way because the news writers just didn’t care. What’s another $9 million of the taxpayers’ money? And who cares whether everyone in the state should pay for services to Angelenos, or just the Angelenos themselves?

More upsetting was the fact that nobody paid any attention to the strange things that Garcetti actually said in making his announcement — nobody, that is, except the “John and Ken Show,” an afternoon radio program that raucously exposes the misdeeds of California politicians. John and Ken ran and reran the audio of Garcetti’s remarks:

When we invest in people we don’t know where things will turn out. But when people have paid their debt to society, our debt of gratitude should be not just thanking them for serving that time, but allowing them a pathway back in. They will also have access to services from life skills training to cognitive behavior therapy. You can’t just give folks a job; you have to give services with the job.[emphasis added]

Who would say such a thing? And who would neglect to mention it, if they were reporting on a politician — the mayor of the nation’s second largest city — who said it? The answer: people who have spoken and listened to the language of political correctness for so long that they no longer recognize its most ridiculous extremes as . . . well, ridiculous — abnormal, absurd, insulting to the intelligence. The episode provides an index of how low the American “elite” has sunk. Not only is the elite not really the elite — it seldom is, anywhere or at any time — but it has become insane.

A few days after the “John and Ken Show” — which happens to be the most popular public affairs show in Southern California — started making fun of Garcetti, he grabbed an interview with a “John and Ken” reporter and said, pleasantly, that he (the mayor) had been confused. His remarks had been delivered on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and they had gotten mixed up with thoughts about members of the military for whose service we should be thankful. To my mind, this just made things worse. Garcetti’s excuse was that he had, sort of naturally, confused the idea of “service” when it applies to fighting for one’s country with the idea “service” when it applies to being sent to prison.

Oh well. From a great distance — the distance that “elite” speakers of the language have put between themselves and the rest of us — a lot of different things can look the same. Should I bring up the “workplace violence” at Ft. Hood?

Let’s follow the path from the ridiculous to the truly degraded. The man who shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando was a Muslim fanatic who repeatedly claimed religion as his motivation. Is there any mystery here? No. This was a religious crime, by now familiar to the whole world. For the editorial board of the New York Times, there’s no mystery either — except that it is somehow plain to the Times that Republican politicians were to blame for the atrocity:

While the precise motivation for the rampage remains unclear, it is evident that Mr. Mateen was driven by hatred toward gays and lesbians. Hate crimes don’t happen in a vacuum. They occur where bigotry is allowed to fester, where minorities are vilified and where people are scapegoated for political gain. Tragically, this is the state of American politics, driven too often by Republican politicians who see prejudice as something to exploit, not extinguish.

This sort of thing is beneath contempt, and almost beneath comment. The solemn denunciation of hate is itself an obvious product of hate. But hate is nothing compared to the cheap rhetorical tricks by which the writers try to develop reasons for their gross and obvious lie. The tricks are clear evidence that the authors know they are lying and are proud of their ability to continue lying without, as they imagine, getting caught.

From a great distance — the distance that “elite” speakers of the language have put between themselves and the rest of us — a lot of different things can look the same.

Do atrocious crimes happen in a vacuum? No. Do they tend to happen where bigotry is allowed to fester, minorities are vilified, etc.? Yes. And are there politicians in America who exploit prejudices (besides the prejudices that sway the New York Times)? Why, yes. Therefore, it was American politicians, specifically Republican politicians, who incited Mateen’s murders. A clever arrangement of thoughts!

Well, the authors must think so. It must never occur to these brilliant people that readers, even their readers (the numbers of whom are diminishing every hour), could possibly respond by saying, “Stop! Wait a minute! Wasn’t the atmosphere for this kind of slaughter the bigotry, vilification, and scapegoating practiced without let or shame by the radical Islamists whom Mateen claimed as his inspiration?” Which of course it was. Which of course it continues to be, not just in America but in Islamist regimes throughout the world, many of them the friends of the Times’ good friends. Not since the Times’ smug defenses of Stalinism has there been such an abjectly unconscious confession of the emptiness of modern liberal thought and writing. This is a vacuum that the Times can’t imagine anyone noticing.

Another view of the vacuum was provided by the Times’ idol and oracle, President Obama, in his recent discourse on the demands by people on the right, and people with sense, that he call Islamic terrorism “Islamic terrorism,” instead of “terror,” “hate,” and other unmodified, meaningless terms. These demands, alas, were not prompted by Word Watch, which has always wanted people to talk so that other people can understand what they’re saying. But the demands made sense. They were prompted by a realization that the president, like any other head of a vast bureaucracy, commands the apparatus as much by what he does not say as by what he actually does say. There are many indications that by refusing to make radical Islam a concern of law enforcement, by in fact saying that terrorism has nothing to do with Islamand that ISIS itself is not Islamic. Obama sends government agencies out on a futile search for “hate” instead of a search for certain specific fanatics who want to kill other people.

Finally, on June 14, faced with a catastrophic example of what he must have wanted to call nightclub violence, Obama meditated upon the weighty problem of nomenclature. Since he is a constant public speaker and an alleged author, his ideas about words would surely be worthy of consideration. And they are. “Calling a threat by a different name,” he pronounced, “does not make it go away.”

Reading that, one remembers the old chestnut about whether Senator McCarthy had any sense of decency. “Have you no logic, sir,” one wants to say. “At long last, have you no logic?” If calling a threat by a different name doesn’t make it go away, why do you insist on calling Islamic terrorism by so many different names?

The truth, I’m afraid, is that somehow such people as the president and the editors of the New York Times worry more about the tender feelings of radical Muslims — who violently oppose every value that the modern liberals profess — than about safeguarding the lives of normal Americans, gay or straight, white or black, Muslim or non-Muslim. This ruthlessness of sentiment is something I cannot explain.

Not since the Times’ smug defenses of Stalinism has there been such an abjectly unconscious confession of the emptiness of modern liberal thought and writing.

We saw it again, in a particularly ridiculous way, on June 20, when the FBI, under orders from the Department of Justice, issued a “transcript” of the Orlando assassin’s electronic conversations during the atrocity. The transcript was “redacted.” For people blissfully unfamiliar with the lingo of self-important organizations, redacted means censored. The conversations were long, but practically none of the words appeared in the transcript. All possible references to radical Islamic contacts and inspirations were removed. The alleged reason was that the government didn’t want to “propagandize” for the radicals, and that it did not want the surviving victims to be “retraumatized.”

Either the Attorney General and her employees believe this or not. If not, they’re lying. If so, they have a very strange idea of the effects of public discourse. If someone goes into a nightclub and starts slaughtering people, and in the process claims you as his inspiration, is that a good notice for you? Doubtful. More doubtful is the notion that translating the assassin’s “Allah” as “God” will save the feelings of his victims. (Yes, “Allah” is a word for the more or less shared god of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but in English it is always and everywhere rendered as “Allah.”)

All this was so exceedingly ridiculous that the government relented and published another redaction, which it called unredacted. The government relented — but it did not repent. This version apparently still lacked much of the original, and it still rendered “Allah” as “God.” I have no questions to ask the government about God, but I would like to know what all those expurgated words may have been. I would also like to know — really know — what these strange officials have in mind. Unfortunately, all you get from thinking about this is the craving for a good stiff drink.

I don’t have a drink to offer you, but here’s some good news. Fox’s late-night comedy show, “Red Eye,” which rose to greatness under the wonderful Greg Gutfeld, is under new management (Greg got a one-man show), and it seems to be working out. Tom Shillue, the new host, maintains Greg’s style of humor, one element of which is a constant stream of clichés deployed in solemnly hilarious ways. When Greg wanted to refer to Obama, he used to say, in an ominous tone, “President Obama, if that’s his real name.” Now Tom is discussing “the reclusive billionaire, Donald Trump.” This kind of stuff goes by too fast for you to wonder, “Why am I laughing?” But it’s great and you don’t forget it.

Greg Gutfeld is a libertarian, and probably Tom Shillue is also, though I haven’t heard him say so. I wish there were more libertarians with a sense of humor. For a single, delicious moment I thought that Gary Johnson, Libertarian nominee for president, had one of those things. In a television interview on May 23, I heard him say, “Most people are libertarians; it’s just that they don’t know it.”

I thought that was hilarious. Imagine: a nation full of libertarians, almost none of whom ever manage to vote for the Libertarian Party! What are they thinking? Are they drunk? Stoned? Are they as illiterate as the thousands of Californians, some of them celebrities, who recently discovered that when they registered to vote as partisans of the American Independent Party, they weren’t actually registering as “independents”? Or are they playing their own massive joke on the politicians — consistently voting for principles they detest? The zany adventures of a wacky electorate!

But Johnson didn’t smile; he just kept talking as if this absurdity were true! I’ve heard him say it several times since, and I’ve been forced to conclude that he is only being funny in the way that politicians usually are funny — unconsciously.

For people blissfully unfamiliar with the lingo of self-important organizations, "redacted" means "censored."

The sad truth is that most Americans are not libertarians. They are the beneficiaries of a great libertarian tradition, inseparable from this noble nation, but they are not libertarians. They are libertarian about gun laws but not about drug laws. Or they are libertarian about taxes but not about gun laws or drug laws. Or they are libertarian about the internet but not about taxes or gun laws or drug laws or anything else. They are libertarian about X but not about Y through Z or A through W.

These proclamations of Mr. Johnson are either pious lies or self-deception. He’s a nice guy, so I strongly suspect the latter. But they are uncomfortably close to the perpetual declarations of the mainline politicians, who are always assuring us that “what the American people really care about” or “what the American people really want” is miraculously identical with what the politicians themselves want or care about. That’s one reason why there’s so little real argument in American politics. The strategy is not to say anything new, anything you might have to argue for, but simply to compliment the audience as fulsomely as you can, then slip offstage, bearing away as many votes as you’ve managed to collect. I can’t see any reason to vote for someone like that, except to keep someone worse from winning.

I’m sorry if I done Mr. Johnson wrong. If he’s got any amusing remarks lying around, I hope he’ll come out with them. We can use them right now.




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Hollywood Fights Market; Market Wins

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Money Monster isn’t billed as a comedy (in fact, it’s supposed to be a thriller), but it is still one of the silliest films I’ve seen in ages.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is a cable TV investment personality of the Jim Cramer school, with a shtick that includes dancing girls, funny hats, crazy film clips, party noisemakers, and outlandish recommendations that often turn out to be profitable investments. He doesn’t think much about his viewers’ actual profits and losses because he never sees his viewers — that is, until Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) shows up on the set with a figurative axe to grind and a literal gun in his pocket. He also has a funny explosive vest to go with Lee’s funny hat. He makes Lee wear it.

We are expected to believe that Budwell, the terrorist, would be able to wander onto a live set, simply because he is dressed like a deliveryman and carries a couple of cardboard boxes.

I’ll warn you here that this review is going to contain a few spoilers, but knowing some of the plot twists is not going to ruin the film for you; it’s pretty much ruined on its own, and these are mad meanderings, not genuine twists. Besides, I don’t recommend that you waste your money or your time on this monster of a movie, and revealing some of the plot is the only way I can demonstrate to you just how silly and unbelievable the premise is.

Hollywood will go to great lengths to cast aspersions on Wall Street, business, and the free market, even greenlighting a movie with a script with more holes than a Chuck E. Cheese Whack-A-Mole (and a lot less entertaining). First we are expected to believe that Budwell, the terrorist, would be able to wander onto a live set, simply because he is dressed like a deliveryman and carries a couple of cardboard boxes. Sorry, folks, the days of Cary Grant sneaking into the boss’s office carrying a florist’s bouquet are long gone, and security at a television station is much tighter than that.

Then we are expected to believe that the cameras would continue to roll and the signal would continue to be broadcast while a lunatic holds a gun to the head of a nationally known journalist — or anyone, for that matter. Regardless of what the terrorist (and the voyeuristic television consumer) might be demanding, someone — anyone — would have pulled that plug immediately.

We are also expected to believe that Kyle invested all his money — all his money — in a single hedge fund. The SEC has rules about that. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, “qualified investors” must have a net worth of at least a million dollars, not counting their personal residence, or an income of at least $200,000, in order to purchase shares in risky investment vehicles such as the one in the script. Kyle makes $14 an hour as a sanitation worker. He is not a qualified investor. The hedge fund would not have accepted Kyle’s money. George Clooney and Jodie Foster (the film’s director) probably don’t realize this because they have managers who invest their money for them. They’re qualified investors; they just aren’t qualified to play with investors in the movies.

Next is Lee Gates’ ridiculous solution to Kyle’s problem. It seems that Kyle invested his money in a hedge fund that Lee recommended a few weeks ago, and the fund’s price tanked, taking Kyle’s money with it. Lee turns to the camera and asks his viewers to start buying the stock in order to pump up the price for Kyle and his fellow losers. First, viewers would smell a rat if a showman like Gates made such an outlandish plea. Remember Soupy Sales? “Kids, take a dollar out of your mother’s purse and send it to Soupy at this address . . .”

Kyle's girlfriend bawls him out and dares him to pull the trigger on the bomb — while she is in the studio. Who in the world would be that crazy?

More importantly, Lee’s idea wouldn’t help Kyle or the others who have lost money, even if the stock did return to previous levels. Stock prices rise and fall as new buyers purchase shares from current owners. It’s the ultimate example of supply and demand. In this case, the people who sold on the way down don’t own any shares anymore, so they aren’t going to get their money back, even if prices climb to the sky. They’re just going to feel worse. The only people who could make money on Lee’s new deal are the ones who buy at the bottom and sell at the new top. And believe me, Lee Gates would be investigated for investment fraud after these shenanigans were over. (Assuming he made it out of the exploding vest in one piece.)

The cops are just as stupid. They bring Kyle’s girlfriend to the studio to talk some sense into him and calm him down, even though they know she’s fit to be tied about him. And she’s just as stupid. Instead of calming him down, she bawls him out and dares him to pull the trigger on the bomb — while she is in the studio. Who in the world would be that crazy? And then there is the usual Hollywood inanity of having SWAT teams or, in this case, bomb squads enter a highly volatile location without wearing helmets. I know, it’s a film technique considered necessary so that we (the audience) can see their pretty faces while they talk.

In such situations, we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief, and usually I do. But in this movie my disbelief was suspended so far above reality that I became positively giddy from lack of oxygen.

The denouement is just as ridiculous as the build-up. We are supposed to believe that the greedy director of the hedge fund has manipulated a mining strike in South Africa in order to buy low and then sell high when the strike is called off, but a glitch in his plan resulted in a loss of $800,000,000. That’s a lot of platinum for two weeks’ digging.

I’m sure that George Clooney, who produced the film as well as starred in it, thinks he’s doing the world a big favor by pointing out the evils of greed and investing, but all he did with Money Monster is point out his own monstrous ignorance. He still has the dark swoony eyes, though. Maybe he should leave the social justice films for a while and make a nice romantic comedy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Money Monster," directed by Jodie Foster. Tristar Pictures, 2016, 98 minutes.



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Vox Populi

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At almost every really snazzy party I’ve been allowed to attend during the past few years, the conversation lagged until one among the elegant guests brought up American Idol — the TV show on which people compete by displaying the “skill” of shrieking in falsetto voices and manifesting faux emotions. As soon as that subject was introduced, everyone became enthusiastic. At last, they had something to share. Everyone, it seemed, was rooting for one or another of the contestants, although there was general agreement that all of them were wonderful and deserved the highest praise. This was enough to dash any illusions I might have harbored about the cultural level of the wealthy and powerful.

Imagine my horror when I found that someone named Clay Aiken was running for Congress and attracting attention, for no other reason than the fact that he had been a contestant on American Idol. What next, I thought — Hillary Clinton running for president?

On May 13, the electorate of North Carolina — working folks, mostly, not members of the mentally idle rich — laid my fears to rest. At least my fears about Clay Aiken. The media, ever zealous for the cause of Democrats, heralded his victory in the Democratic primary. What many stories didn’t mention was that he won by a mere 400 votes, beating a man who had died the day before.

Aiken may not get elected.

In fact, he will not get elected. His Republican opponent, now running for a third term, got 56% of the November vote last time. Even if she dies of campaign injuries, she’ll stand a very good chance of beating him.

As for Hillary — even if the Republicans nominate a dead man, which they probably will, chances are she’ll get beat.




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Suffering from PODADS (Post-Downton Abbey Depression Syndrome)?

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Downton Abbey is one of the most widely watched and highly acclaimed television series ever broadcast, anywhere in the world. It is set in north Yorkshire, and the story concerns the Crawley family, led by the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their servants, who are seen against a backdrop of the economic, political, and social changes from 1912 through the 1920s.

Since the series was written for independent TV by staunch Thatcherite (and Oscar winner) Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), it is no coincidence that Lord Grantham bears the name of Lady T’s birthplace to the south in Lincolnshire. I recall Julian striding down the aisle, west to east, in St Paul’s Cathedral, on the day of Lady T’s funeral. He certainly looked the part!

In real life Downton Abbey is Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, southwest of London, where all the exterior and most of the interior scenes are filmed. It is the home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, friends of Fellowes, and there are many parallels between the estate management issues faced by today’s Carnarvons and yesterday’s Granthams. There are also strong parallels on the marriage front, with a propensity for people in both families to marry loaded American women to keep the estate going. (Also of note is the role of the Carnarvon family in the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, led by the fourth earl, the great-great-grandfather of the present, eighth earl.)

Fans of the series have been descending on Highclere Castle in large numbers. It is open to the public on certain days, at advertised times. These arrangements are not prompted mainly by a desire to make money, much as that is welcome to fix leaky roofs. Rather, as the seventh earl told me on a visit in 1993, it was advisable for people such as him to open their estates to the public for inheritance tax purposes. Under UK law all these vast places have a huge incentive to open for a minimum of days — 90 comes to mind — because on the death of the owner the act of opening to the public for at least this minimum removes the property from the inheritance tax calculation. Tax avoidance, not tax evasion.

The number one reason why women were imprisoned in the UK was non-payment of the TV license fee.

Such is the popularity of Downton Abbey that as an Englishman resident in Florida I cannot open my mouth in front of strangers without being greeted with questions about the program or comments such as “you sound just like you stepped off the set of Downton Abbey!” With the ending of the latest (and reputedly penultimate) series, a new question has arisen: “Oh John, what can we watch now, to get over Post-Downton Abbey Depression Syndrome?”

Here are six other series that should hold you over until Downton Abbey returns. After listing them, I will return with a discussion of private versus public funding of such UK programs as come to PBS.

  1. Upstairs, Downstairs

    Made for independent TV (not the taxpayer funded BBC), its 68 episodes were broadcast from 1971 through 1975 and cover the years 1903 through 1930. The setting is a grand London townhouse — 165 Eaton Place in Belgravia, close to Lady T’s home in her final two decades. “Downstairs” work the servants, while the family lives, dines, and entertains “Upstairs,” much as in Downton Abbey. And again as in Downton Abbey, current events, from the grand to the less grand, permeate the plot.

    Such is the closeness of the respective story lines that at Wikipedia the first entry for “See Also” under Downton Abbey is Upstairs, Downstairs, and vice versa.

    Most of Upstairs, Downstairs was filmed in color, but be aware that the early episodes are in black and white, because of a strike by cameramen operating the then new technology — a reminder of labor relations pre-Thatcher.
     
  2. The Forsyte Saga

    Based on novels by Nobel Prizewinner John Galsworthy, the Saga covers 1906 through 1921. It was first made in black and white by the BBC (26 episodes, 1967) and then remade by the independent sector in color (13 episodes, 2002–2003). The plot is strong, but there is less of political economy and more of social change, as the Forsytes, unlike the Crawleys, are new to wealth.
     
  3. Cranford

    Made by the BBC, Cranford is based on the eponymous 1851 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, and related works. The original five episodes were broadcast in 2007, with two more episodes in 2009 that were marketed as Return to Cranford. Judi Dench stars throughout as Miss Matty, one of a group, mostly composed of spinsters and widows, who observe life in a small Cheshire town some 12 miles from the big city of Manchester. Weak on plot, it is really a series of vignettes, albeit quite well done. In later episodes, however, the effects of the expansion of the railroad system and the struggles of the local landowning family resonate in an interesting way.
     
  4. Lark Rise to Candleford

    Again made by the taxpayer-funded BBC, four series of this intelligent soap were broadcast between 2008 and 2011. Here the social contrasts lie between the poor hamlet of Lark Rise and the wealthier small town of Candleford. Set in the late 1890s, the 40 episodes are a bit light on the news and issues of the day but do examine the liberal tendencies of the hamlet versus the more Tory proclivities of the townies. One later episode includes extensive discussion of Self Help by Samuel Smiles, while another deals with the spread of the railroad. Those of you who so admired Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey have a treat in store as he appears as the stonemason Mr. Timmins, de facto leader of Lark Rise.
     
  5. Foyle’s War

    This independent production leaps us forward to World War II and the southern coastal town of Hastings, where Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle is faced with crimes generated by wartime rules, restrictions, and regulations. The twenty-plus episodes approach 100 minutes each. While they can be viewed out of order, there are connecting story lines.

    The research behind each episode is awesome, and the series does move noticeably from one focused on crimes against a backdrop of wartime order to a wartime order with crime. The setting in Hastings helps hugely, as the first few miles inland from the coast were subject to even more draconian state intervention than truly inland areas. You may recognize Michael Kitchen who plays Foyle as Bill Tanner from Bond movies.
     
  6. Doc Martin

    Made by independent TV, some six series of over 40 episodes have been broadcast to date, with a seventh and final series promised.

    In a series set in present-day West Country, UK, Doc Martin is a top London surgeon who opts for the life of a small coastal port’s only family doctor. Tensions emerge along with a strong love line. Little is made of the fact that all his patients come through socialized medicine, and the portrayal of the NHS is extremely gentle. The horrendous backlogs and delays of the NHS are simply ignored. However, the overall effect is addictive.

I have been careful to note who funded, made, or broadcast each of the seven series. You will have noticed the mix of private and the taxpayer funded BBC. So what? I hear you ask. (Also I am vague at times on exact episode numbers, as they vary from country to country. A Christmas special in the UK for example often becomes two episodes in the US.)

Well, the BBC is not funded out of general tax revenues; it is funded by a license fee. If you buy a TV you have to buy a license (say $200-$250 per annum), and you have to renew it every year or eventually face prison time. The state even employs a special police force equipped with license evasion radar detection vans to hunt down folk who have not paid. Parliament fixes the level of the fee every few years, and the total revenue raised goes in a block grant to fund the Beeb, as it is called, or the Big Bunch of Communists chez moi. I promise I am not joking here at all.

To keep the MPs and Lords in Parliament happy, the BBC maintains a huge lobbying effort within a 3-iron of the Palace of Westminster. Its office is on the very same block as the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs, where I served as CEO for 17 years, as in 1993–2009.

The private sector strives for ever higher standards while the subsidized public sector sinks, as we know, lower by the year.

Soon after moving to the IEA I discovered the following astonishing fact: the number one reason why women were imprisoned in the UK was non-payment of the TV license fee. Of course it was not billed as nonpayment of the BBC fee. Rather a household would not have the money to pay; they would evade and they’d be caught and ordered to pay; they’d fail and the lady of the household would do the time for something dressed up as failure to obey a court order. It just happened that by far the greatest number of such orders were BBC-related.

I was just appalled by this. The then-boss of the BBC was called Greg Dyke, and his Parliamentary henchman was my friend Michael Hastings.

For several years I would look for them on the street or at receptions and the like. I used to get right in their faces: “Hi Greg. Hi Michael. How many decent working-class ladies got imprisoned today because of you?” I was relentless. And the numbers dropped from the hundreds to something like ten — still disgusting but an improvement.

So how does this story of the funding of the BBC link back to my list of Post-Downton Abbey Depression Syndrome Antidotes?

A key argument for taxpayer funding of the BBC is that the private sector is bound to sink to the lowest common denominator, while a release from commercial considerations is vital to produce the great period dramas with their fantastic wardrobes and glorious settings for which the BBC is supposedly world famous.

Downton Abbey clearly blows this argument to Mars and back.

And when you look at my antidotes, my list of six picked (I promise) with no reference to funding source, the private sector clearly trumps the public.

The evidence is clear, the jury is in, and the foreman is addressing the judge: Your Honor, we the jury find the private sector innocent of dumbing down. Indeed we find that the private sector strives for ever higher standards while the subsidized public sector sinks, as we know, lower by the year.

Note: Immediately following my submission of this article, The Daily Telegraph of London published a report by Christopher Hope (March 21, 2014) under the headline “Not paying TV licence set to be decriminalised.” A group of 140 British MPs has won the support of the government for this change. It will, however, entail a year-long review and will form part of the negotiations that will take place ahead of the BBC Charter renewal due in 2017.


Editor's Note: Mr. Blundell thanks Mrs. Rashmi Ferris of Tampa, FL for prompting this article.



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The Kiddies Get Played Again

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The Duck Dynasty brouhaha is over, and for that we can be thankful. Many of those who got excited over it are somewhat embarrassed now. At least they should be. The way it ended — with the show’s resumption just as A&E was almost out of reruns — reveals it to have been a PR stunt and largely a sham. As a commenter on one of my favorite blogs put it, “Merry Christmas! We’ve been played!”

I wasn’t as entertained, or as exercised, as a lot of people. I was watching not the media-manufactured drama, but America’s reaction to it. Those on both the political Left and the political Right who usually get taken in by such nonsense were sucked in yet again. What I found reassuring was that so many others weren’t.

Americans may be waking up from their long, hypnotic daze. They now hear the show’s star, Phil Robertson, pontificating about the virtues of menmarrying 15-year-old girls, and even those who rah-rahed his anatomically-explicit anti-gay tirade in GQ magazine are revolted. This may be another Terri Schiavo moment, when the social right overplays its hand so grossly that its fraudulence is exposed for all to see. That people who’ve expended so much effort trying to get the government to censor others are now rushing to the barricades to defend their “religious freedom,” and that they’re so confused about what censorship is or isn’t that they think a business has no right to suspend an employee, is rich indeed.

It is high time we woke up. Those who blur the line between free speech and censorship most likely do so because they intend to cross it themselves. This is a sorry crowd to be lecturing anybody about the freedom of anything. Not that their political adversaries conducted themselves any more nobly. To their credit, many in the public recognized this, too.

Those who fancy they’ve “taught A&E a lesson” are apparently too dull-witted to realize that they did exactly what the network wanted them to do.

All the predictable people did all the predictable things, and a good portion of the audience is getting bored with the act. GLAAD, which fancies itself something of a gay Anti-Defamation League, leapt in immediately after the GQ article came out, demanding that Robertson be punished. If they could have called in the troopers to kick in the door to the family mansion and drag the entire clan off to jail, they probably would have. I got emails from several gay rights groups, telling me how outraged I should be — and shilling for donations.

Though I’m reassured that many people were sensible enough to see the mummery for what it was, I’m worried that so many others weren’t. Activist organizations on both sides of the controversy raked in piles of money. Several politicians — some of whom I would have expected to behave with more restraint — seized the chance to grandstand. There is no one I would vote for now that I wouldn’t have before, but there are about a handful I might have supported, but now, as a matter of principle, would vote against.

What is wrong with those who permitted themselves to be so cynically played? Are they really so hollow inside, and do they truly have so little sense of themselves, that they can be trained to salivate, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, at the ding-ding of a bell? Those who fancy they’ve “taught A&E a lesson” are apparently too dull-witted to realize that they did exactly what the network wanted them to do.

I would feel sorry for them, if I weren’t rather frightened. I don’t think that Jefferson, or Adams, or Franklin ever envisioned the possibility that 230-odd years into the future, so many Americans would be so childish, shallow, gullible, and grasping. They probably wouldn’t fall for the charms of a bellowing little man with a funny mustache and a swastika armband, but anybody who makes them feel like godly patriots, or evolved progressives — depending on their illusion of choice — could seduce them into following him (or her) anywhere.

Are there enough grownups left in this country to run it? Liberty presupposes that citizens who have reached the age of majority are capable of functioning as adults. A media-manufactured controversy like the Duck Dynasty blowup demonstrates, with stark clarity, who belongs at the big table and who should be sitting with the kiddies.

Perhaps Duck Dynasty should become a watchword — a shorthand warning — for every time the bell again goes ding-ding-ding. It may be enough to jerk some people into adulthood, or at the very least to jerk them awake.




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The New Normal

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Science is the inspiration of those techno-libertarians who hold that evolutions in technology will ultimately lead to revolutions in political freedom. A commitment to the virtues of small business and entrepreneurs is a major inspiration for the ideals of free market capitalism. So it is easy to think that libertarians might feel that our values were being mocked by two primetime comedies, The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls — the first of which is about scientists and the second about two poor girls who start a business. Yet these sitcoms are deeply touching, hilarious, and also well-intentioned shows — because the audience laughs with the characters, not at them.

The Big Bang Theory, which premiered in 2007 and has now become ubiquitous, with reruns on TBS and new episodes on CBS, is the story of four scientists (two theoretical physicists, an astrophysicist, and an engineer) who work at Caltech. These four scientists are as close to the stereotypical nerd or geek as you can get. They constantly hang out at the local comic book store, play video games, enjoy Star Trek, can’t get girls to date them, and are beaten up by jocks. They constantly make reference to things that only scientists think about. One of them, for instance, dresses for Hallowe’en as the Doppler effect. The producers try to make the science on the show, of which there is a lot, completely accurate, and some episodes feature inside jokes that only scientists can understand.

The characters’ world is turned upside down when Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves into the apartment down the hall. Penny is an attractive, normal, “popular” sort of girl, who works as a waitress but dreams of becoming an actress. Leonard (Johnny Galecki), the protagonist, instantly falls in love with her. Much of the comedy in the show’s early years focused on Leonard’s feelings for Penny, and the jokes frequently involved the science nerds being totally ignorant of what Penny takes for granted (e.g., the rules of football, the names of such popular bands as Radiohead), or Penny being ignorant of the world of science and geek culture (e.g., online role playing games, the Klingon language). Leonard eventually started dating Penny, and they had a cute, adorable romance for about one season. But their relationships was sundered by the scheming machinations of Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton (who plays an evil version of himself). Leonard and Penny just recently got back together, which makes the show more enjoyable.

The real comedic gold, however, comes from Leonard’s roommate Sheldon (Jim Parsons, who won an Emmy for the role), a brilliant, supremely arrogant physicist with strong doses of OCD and Asperger’s syndrome. Sheldon constantly, and hilariously, insults everyone around him; at the same time everyone else perpetually makes fun of his arrogance and total disconnect from reality. In one episode Leonard calls Sheldon a sphincter, to which Sheldon replies, “The sphincter? A much maligned muscle; did you know there are over twenty different sphincters in the human body?”, and illustrates with an anatomical drawing from the internet.

The writing is usually clever. An instance: Sheldon and Penny are having a fight. Sheldon (threateningly): “You’re playing with forces beyond your ken.” Penny: “Yeah? Well your Ken can kiss my Barbie!” I said “usually.” In a few episodes each season the writing falls flat. This was especially noticeable during the episodes that immediately followed the end of Penny and Leonard’s dating.

But the show is always light-hearted, never serious. It was introduced with the tag line “smart is the new sexy,” yet it never says anything serious about science, or politics, or anything else. The extent of the show’s commentary on religion is Sheldon’s disdain for his Texan Christian mother’s creationism, and Sheldon’s lecturing Penny on the origins of Christmas as a pagan holiday. But the love-hate relationship between Penny, who represents the “normal” popular world, and Leonard, who represents the nerd-geek-science world, is central to the show. Their romance is premised on the idea that the normal, ignorant masses might eventually be able to appreciate the true value of science and technology. The conflict is not precisely between religion and science. It is about the conflict between pop culture and geek culture.

Business doesn’t really look like old rich white men at a corporate board meeting; it looks like two young women in aprons struggling to build a career and reach the middle class.

And, yes, true to its tag line, “The Big Bang Theory” makes it cool to be a geek; it turns smart into sexy. Science has not gotten PR this good since the genre of science fiction was first invented. The show goes a long way toward teaching the public about the details of the type of thinking behind science and what scientists do, so that people won’t just see the magical moving pictures on television and may instead actually get a taste of where the wires and circuit boards inside the TV come from. If Leonard can get Penny to date him, even for a while, then there is hope that all the nerds out there (and the scientific attitude they embody) can find acceptance in this world.

Two Broke Girlsstarted this season, so there is less of a body of work by which to judge it, but every episode I have seen has been hilarious. This show is designed as a microcosm of the Great Recession. Caroline (Beth Behrs), a wealthy heiress and Wharton Business School graduate, is thrust into poverty when her father loses their fortune and goes to jail for running a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. Caroline is hopelessly naïve about how to cope with low-income life. All she has left is her pet horse. Somehow a Wharton degree does not help her to get a white-collar job. She is taken in by Max (Kat Dennings), a young, snarky, sassy, wisecracking waitress who lives in Brooklyn. Caroline becomes Max’s roommate and gets a job as a waitress at the Brooklyn diner where Max works.

Poverty is the constant undercurrent in the show, which lists an update on the amount of money in the two girls’ bank account at the conclusion of each show (it fluctuates between $200 and $800). But the episodes help the audience, nervous about its own finances, laugh at life and not get beaten down by financial worries. After all, Max and Caroline always find a way to survive. The show is remarkably raunchy (one episode had a running joke about the diner’s horny, seedy chef asking the girls’ Polish friend [Jennifer Coolidge], who runs a cleaning business, to “come to my apartment to clean,” and her replying, “You cannot make me come, I will not come”). Max always has a wise-crack or an insult to shoot at someone. Both actresses are superb in their roles.

What do two broke girls do to cope with the Great Recession? One thing they don’t do is wait around for the welfare state to pay their bills. They start a small business instead. Max bakes cupcakes; Caroline sets up a cupcake business and promotes the sale of cupcakes. Much of the plot involves the girls’ desperate schemes to raise money to fund their cupcake website or find new places to sell their cupcakes. It is just good old-fashioned American effort — people trying to rise from poverty by being productive and selling a product to people who want it.

Unfortunately for the audience’s economic education, nowhere to be seen are New York City health inspectors grading their kitchen, or the IRS auditing their financial records, or any of the goon squad of federal, state, and city bureaucrats who in real life would try to regulate and tax the life out of their startup. The show is not political at all; aside from the implicit feminism of two single girls being very assertive and self-sufficient, it has no explicit message. But the simple yet touching portrayal of two tough, smart-alecky girls, who constantly poke fun at the people around them and use their sense of humor as a way to cope with the sorrows of economic disaster, is an inspiration that everyone stricken by the Great Recession can learn from.

A lot of people are talking about “the new normal” in connection with the Great Recession. But what do The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls say about American mainstream culture? These shows are on CBS, which touts itself as “America’s most-watched network,” not a niche market like Fox Business Network. Both shows have consistently received high ratings (although Two Broke Girls had some unfavorable reviews). A show about nerds coping with the world of pop culture has become a symbol of the world of pop culture assimilating nerd culture. From World of Warcraft to urban fantasy novels such as Harry Potter and Twilight, to the popularization of social media on electronic devices, to the omnipresence of the internet, the technology-obsessed geek world of the techno-libertarian has become, well, how shall I say it . . . normal. And a realization that poverty is the new normal, but it is necessary to take a can-do attitude to rise out of it — that is also catching on.

The libertarian angle is clear: business doesn’t really look like old rich white men at a corporate board meeting; it looks like two young women in aprons struggling to build a career and reach the middle class. Inspired by these two shows, I dare to speculate that if technology continues to evolve and shape the world in which we live, and if prolonged financial desperation forces America to wake up to economic reality and embrace free market principles as the path to recovery, then maybe a few decades from now libertarianism will also be . . . dare I say it? the new normal.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Big Bang Theory," CBS, Thursday, 8:00pm; and "Two Broke Girls," CBS, Monday, 8:30pm.



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The Craze to Canonize Mike Wallace

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Day after day, the big news — according to Yahoo, CNN, the old TV networks, and all the self-important newspapers — has been the sad demise of Mike Wallace, at the young age of 93.

Always he is called the “legendary” Mike Wallace, as if “legendary” were a title like Grand Exalted First Convener of the Muskrats’ Fraternal and Benevolent Association — an honorary title that for form’s sake must always be prefixed to the real name. Sounds good, means nothing — except, I’m afraid, to the fraternity of “newspeople” who put out this stuff.

Fools like Wallace were, and are, appointed to parrot the common opinions of a small circle of “opinion leaders.”

The man was a legend? He was a television “correspondent.” How can a man who read the news (or purported news) be the subject of some mysterious legend? If “legendary” is taken literally, it can only mean that to most Americans, his very being was mysterious; until now, most living people didn’t even know he existed. But to read the “news,” one would think that American peasants sat around the hearth fire every night, spinning yarns about Mike the Great.

Fortunately for the nation’s sanity, one of Wallace’s real, uh, um, accomplishments has now resurfaced. It’s a documentary about homosexuality that he concocted for CBS in 1967. In it, he opined:

“The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in nor capable of a lasting relationship like that of heterosexual marriage. His sex life — his love life — consists of chance encounters at the clubs and bars he inhabits, and even on the streets of the city. The pickup — the one night stand — these are the characteristics of the homosexual relationship.”

That was grossly and offensively untrue. It is untrue now; it was untrue then. It was known to be untrue to people who actually knew any gay people (which, however, Wallace did), or had read a book that went deeper into the mysteries of sexuality than, say, the collected sermons of Pope Pius XII. Wallace later insisted:

“That is — God help us — what our understanding of the homosexual lifestyle was a mere twenty-five years ago because nobody was out of the closet and because that’s what we heard from doctors.”

But supposing it’s true that “nobody was out of the closet” (and some of the people whom Wallace encountered were out of the closet), and also that this is what everyone understood (which it wasn’t): why, if Wallace knew nothing more than the falsehoods that everybody else — i.e., “we” — appeared to know, did he appoint himself to announce those falsehoods from the papal chair of CBS, as if they were news?

Here’s what’s going on. Fools like Wallace were, and are, appointed to parrot the common opinions — that is, the callow beliefs, misinformed notions, strange hunches, weird superstitions, and flat-out hysterias — of a small circle of “opinion leaders.” That is the “we.” These people are not particularly well educated. They know little or nothing about history. They aren’t curious about it, either. Their knowledge of science (“what we heard from doctors”) is extremely limited and completely unskeptical. If they read a book, they look for something that will confirm their pre-existing views, especially their assumption that everything important or “legendary” will naturally pertain to people like themselves. They know little of normal human life, by which I mean not only the vast field of sexuality but also such commonplace and obvious matters as how money is made, the nature of governmental power, normal forms and practices of religious belief, the fact that people actually enjoy getting drunk (I have an academic book on my table that attempts to explain why people drink), the various reasons why people value guns and other means of self-defense, the reasons why young families might want to live in the suburbs instead of some “green” high-rise, the resistance of parents to new-fangled notions of education, and above all, the sullen resistance of normal people to being “educated” by dopes like Wallace.

Yet these people — the “we” — are advertised (by themselves!) as heroes and “legends.”

You can say this about every broadcasting or newspaper “legend” you find. Cronkite. Murrow. And the next one who dies. He’ll get no eulogies from me.




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