Monday, April 13, 2015

Mad Men S7E9 - New Business

"You people think money solves every problem."
"No, just this particular problem."

Gene Hofstadt and Don Draper, My Old Kentucky Home (Season 3, Episode 3)

Don Draper has never been bashful about using money to solve problems (or remind his underlings that it is their reward for hard work, as opposed to say, praise) but going from slipping his father-in-law a few bucks when his five-dollar bill goes missing to cutting his ex-wife a one million dollar check is a different story altogether.

New Business is an ironic title for the ninth episode of Mad Men's seventh season, because it had a much stronger feel of tying up loose ends. It turns out Arnold and Sylvia Rosen do still live in Don's building and have observed the rotating cast of characters Don has been bringing up to his penthouse apartment. Megan and Don's marriage, which appeared to sputter to an end during the first "half" of this season was made official with that aforementioned seven figure send-off. The petty backbiting at the attorney's office and Marie's own decision to extract a pound of flesh (if not a lot of Don's swanky furniture) notwithstanding, that type of behavior is standard fair in an acrimonious divorce. Of course, when you can blithely write such a large check, perhaps it is unnecessary to do any navel gazing or score any cheap points on the way out the door.

None of this reflected Megan in a particularly good light. We all know Harry is an odious troll who preys on young actresses, so his clumsy attempt to bed the now available Ms. Calvet was unsurprising, but here, Roger had it right when he recalled the acrimony of his divorce from a much younger woman who claimed he had stolen her best years even as she milked him for a new apartment. [1] The smug attitude Megan took with her sister after receiving her payout told you everything you needed to know. In a moral universe, is this justice? Who knows, but in love and war, things are rarely clean cut.

Having disposed of that particular problem, Don was free to focus on his new lady friend, Diana. Introduced as a possible Rachel Menken doppelgänger, it turns out she's a runaway from another life of suburban domesticity interrupted by the tragedy of the loss of a child. Don has been filling his mommy void with a steady stream of brunettes for the entire time we've "known" him, but there's a pathos to Diana that is particularly acute. Perhaps it is Don's own backstory of reinvention that piques his interest, or his knowledge that you cannot allow your past to define you, but there is something almost paternal in his attitude toward the younger woman. He gifts her a guidebook to New York City, but she can only look as far as the doorway to her one room apartment and the bottle of vodka she is using to drown her past. 

In this otherwise Don-centric episode, there was a quirky little B story between Peggy and Stan. These two, whose work relationship began so unpleasantly, are now what we today consider "work spouses" - good friends who know each other well and share intimacy, just not of the physical variety. [2] Here, they are more competitors than collaborators when a hip commercial director named Pima Ryan hits the scene, she stirs Stan's dormant interest in his own art outside of work (photography) and creates tension with Peggy over what images best catch the camera's eye. While Peggy rebuffs her advances [3] Stan give in to them, lording his prowess over the copy chief until she mentions that she too was the target of Pima's interest. 

But as the clock ticks down to the end of the show's run, through two episodes the dominant theme, other than each character's emotional struggle, is a sort of box checking - what happened to Rachel Menken? (died of leukemia). Kenny Cosgrove? (in house at Dow Chemical). Are the Rosen's still around? (yes). Megan? (filthy rich and never to be heard from again). Don's sudden interest in a diner waitress may be because he views her as a kindred spirit or just simply someone who will be nice enough to show up at his apartment at 3 a.m. to satisfy his emotional and physical needs, but much of his interaction with Diana is backward looking - explaining the number of coats in the closet or the length of time he has been separated. There is nothing "new" in this, or in his "type," the question, one supposes is whether this is just history repeating itself well past tragedy or farce.

PS - Betty as a psychologist is just exactly perfect.

END NOTES

1. Unlike Roger, who then defiled that apartment by having sex with Jane in it, one assumes Don won't be flying out to California any time soon. Dark Shadows, Season 5, Episode 9. 
2. This did not stop Stan from trying to make a play for Peggy while he was under the effects of the "Dr. Feelgood" B12 shot provided by Jim Cutler's doctor. The Crash, Season 6, Episode 8. 

3. A skill she initially cultivated with another photographer, Joyce, some years ago. The Rejected, Season 4, Episode 4. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Mad Men S7E8 - Severance

More than anything, the barometer of Mad Men is gauged by where Don Draper is on the spectrum between riding high and scraping the bottom of the barrel. In the wake of SC&P's acquisition by McCann, Don and Roger are flush with cash (and in Roger's case, some newly acquired, and unfortunate facial hair) and behaving badly. The Don we meet in Severance is safely ensconced back in his familiar corner office and cycling through women in a manner unseen since Betty kicked him to the curb at the end of Season 3. [1]

Money and the past are recurring themes throughout Severance. For those who got rich in the acquisition and those counting the money of those who got rich, money does not appear to be making anyone particularly happy. Roger is dismissive of a waitress at a coffee shop but attempts to make amends by leaving her a $100 bill on an $11 check. When Don returns to the same diner, she assumes it is to get his "money's worth" and they have an a quickie in the alley. She thinks it is one thing, he is so accustomed to women throwing themselves at him, he misses the connection and by the end of the episode, just wants to sit at the counter and mope. 

Pete has what we now term "first world problems" as he scurries to hide his fortune from the government, a problem for which Ken feels little sympathy. Joan is still dismissed as a sexpot by the middle managers at McCann, who demean and belittle her as she and Peggy try to bridge a gap for the little account that could - Topaz - which is having its lunch eaten by L'eggs. [2] But Peggy's tolerance for Joan's disgust is limited. Not only did Peggy try to deftly parry the slimy commentary of their McCann peers, but she did not become a millionaire when SC&P was acquired, so she dismisses Joan's carping by observing that Joan does not even need to do the work because of the great fortune she received when SC&P was acquired. [3] 

Meanwhile, the past continues to haunt Don. More than using the company message service as his own private after-hours hook-up line, there is a subtle wink to Don's past in Severance, the main client is a fur company, a sales job from which Roger "discovered" Don nearly two decades before. [4] We also hear a name (and see a face) long forgotten - Rachel (Menken) Katz [5]. Way back in 1960, Don and Rachel carried on a furtive (and ultimately futile) affair that started with his swaggering proclamation that love was created by ad men like him and her distaste for his arrogance and ignorance that somehow melted into passion that curdled when Don's past was discovered by Pete and he wanted to run away with her to Los Angeles. [6]

Don has a dream that he sees her, only to discover that she has recently passed away. When he appears at the shiva he is snubbed by her surviving sister Barbara, whose long memory is triggered as soon as she greets him and hears his name. [7] There is much to be said for Don's tortured experiences with death [8] but the not-so-subtle twist of the knife given by Rachel's sister, asking after Don's family, telling him that Rachel had everything she wanted in the world, and questioning his presence there, chip away at Don, who visibly sags as he acknowledges his two divorces, hands over the cake he has brought to the mourning, and looks balefully on as the men begin prayer services. 

This second-half opener gives Peggy an opportunity to dip a toe in the dating waters, getting overly tipsy with Mathis's brother-in-law and, in the cold light of the morning following drunken plans for a trip to Paris, feels slightly regretful of her conduct. As for Ken, he both gets and gives the shaft - first, as he's let go for some long ago offense his first time around at McCann and then turning the tables by securing employment in house at Dow Chemical, and instead of firing the firm, he decides instead to be a thorn in their side as an overly demanding client. 

As is typical of Matthew Weiner, who wrote the seventh season's eighth episode, a lot of chum was sprinkled in the water without providing a clear direction for these final shows. Having skipped past the joy of Woodstock and the horror of Altamont and moved the narrative into the early months of 1970, [9] Weiner took a pass at certain social commentary. Ken's firing aside, there were few fireworks, but more a sense of reorienting the audience to the new normal - no Jim Cutler (no loss there), Ted and Roger's porn star quality mustaches, Joan drowning her frustrations at being an account woman in high end spending, and Don on a mostly upswing - if you ignore the quickie in the alley with the waitress, his return to the bottle, haunted expression over a love lost, and apparent interest in marking more notches on his bedpost. 

What did you think? 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

END NOTES

1. See, e.g., Christmas Comes But Once A Year, Season 4, Episode 2, Waldorf Stories, Season 4 Episode 6. 
2. As Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce teetered on the brink, Peggy and Ken brought in Topaz Pantyhose. Tomorrowland, Season 4, Episode 13.
3. In inflation adjusted dollars, Joan's $1.5 million stake is worth somewhere between $10-15 million in today's dollars.
4. Waldorf Stories, supra. See also, Field Trip, Season 7, Episode 3. 
5. We last saw Rachel with new husband Tilden Katz in The New Girl, Season 2, Episode 5. 
6. See, e.g., Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Season 1, Episode 1, Babylon, Season 1, Episode 6, Nixon v. Kennedy, Season 1, Episode 12. 
7. Babylon, supra. 
8. Don has a vision of his half-brother Adam while under anesthesia, The Shadow, Season 5, Episode 13, of Anna Draper in his office, The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7, and Bert Cooper doing a soft shoe, Waterloo, Season 7, Episode 7. 

9. The speech given by President Nixon shown during the episode occurred on April 30, 1970. http://time.com/3760142/mad-men-nixon-speech/

Monday, March 23, 2015

Girls Season Four

With each passing season, the phenomenon that was once Girls continues to wane. The show wrapped its fourth season last night with an ending akin to that of The Wizard of Oz. You see, much like Dorothy finding out she had the power to go home all the time, the "girls" merely needed to be exposed to pure, distilled "adulthood" to grow up - child birth made Jessa realize she wants to be a therapist and Hannah to move past Adam; Shoshana got a Yoda-like lecture from Hermie  and decided to embark on a career in Japan and Marnie just needed a pep talk from newly minted Neighborhood Board Chairman Ray Ploshansky to nail a coffee house tryout.  

The season finale nicely exposed much of what was wrong with the season as a whole. Too much plot crammed into too little time. Nowhere was this more true than with Lena Dunham's alter ego and titular main character Hannah Horvath. After pulling a particularly selfish stunt by letting Adam know that she had been admitted to the Iowa Writer's Workshop on the night of his Broadway premiere, the couple has an uneasy denouement (and unspoken "we're on a break" agreement) when Hannah makes her way to the prairie in the season's second episode. Instead of keeping Hannah in Iowa for the season to explore how couples handle long-distance relationships or let her stretch her literary wings (after all, she was supposed to be a voice of her generation) before a season ending "should I stay or should I go" conundrum, Hannah flames out spectacularly. Her fellow graduate students have no patience for her childish behavior and know-it-all attitude much less her actual writing, which they quickly peg as superficial and self-centered. 

That she folds her tent so quickly was particularly curious considering how much time had been spent during the prior three seasons getting us invested in the idea that Hannah was determined to be a writer - from burning bridges at her advertorial job at GQ to doing coke for a freelance website gig - suddenly, being bullied by snobby graduate students snuffed out her dream? When she gets back to find Adam has shacked up with a new woman (an excellent Gillian Jacobs as a pretentious artist named Mimi-Rose) it feels like, as Adam would say, another step in a series of random steps. 

Hannah spirals further when she meets Fran, a single teacher at the school she magically gets a substitute teaching job at and takes him to one of Mimi-Rose's art exhibits on their first date. She also befriends one of her teen students, Cleo, who she goes to get matching piercings with (bailing when the younger girl screams in horror as a needle is shoved through the underside of her tongue) and then berates when Cleo doesn't return Hannah's ten texts and three calls (!) after Tad comes out of the closet. Perhaps it is because Hannah talked Cleo into getting the underside of her tongue pierced that the teen snubs her, but the total lack of appropriateness and idea that you would rely on an adolescent for emotional support (and then have a tantrum when she does not) made me roll my eyes so hard I think I gave myself a concussion. 

Marnie is no better. Her relationship with pretty boy hipster Desi is volatile, beginning with her as the "other woman" whom Desi basically sells on the idea of his not being into traditional relationships, but somehow ends with a marriage proposal after he blows their $2,000 advance on some guitar equipment. Huh? Of course, she ignores the advice of the one person who actually does act like an adult - Ray - when he tells her that Desi is selfish and unworthy of her and it is ultimately left to Ray to dress down Desi so thoroughly (it really is one of the show's great scenes) that he no shows the coffee house gig a record executive  scheduled for him and Marnie.

Shoshana spends most of the season on a fruitless search for a job (perhaps a karmic comeuppance for being so incredibly rude to the one interviewer who did offer her gainful employment) before oddly shifting into a role as Ray's pseudo-campaign manager when the Grumpy's manager is left wanting at a neighborhood board meeting where his complaint about traffic on his street does not even make it onto the agenda. She also manages to insult another interviewer, Scott, but who ends up asking her out and offering her material comfort which she ultimately rejects in favor of a job in Tokyo offered to her during the season finale.  

Jessa and Adam gravitate toward each other in Hannah's absence and bond over AA, but Jessa is also typically Jessa - peeing on the street and then mouthing off to the cops who issue her a ticket, getting her and Adam arrested; setting up Adam with Mimi-Rose so she can get a crack at Ace (an also excellent Zachary Quinto), Mimi-Rose's ex, before the whole caper blows up spectacularly in Mimi-Rose's impossibly hip home when Ace and Jessa pop in unannounced and Jessa realizes she and Adam are simply pawns in the most narcissistic game of human chess ever played - she susses out that Mimi-Rose and Ace are heavyweight champions of self-absorption while she and Adam are rank amateurs.

But like a clever kid who skips showing her work and gets to the answer at the bottom of a math question, the show barely lingers on what would otherwise be major milestones in its characters development to get to some ending that seems satisfactory. Tad's coming out is played for some laughs but also humiliates him - he is just as emasculated by Lorraine post-coming out as he was pre, so did it really make a difference? Marnie goes from other woman to betrothed, steals Ray's thunder at his election night victory party, but then is able to perform flawlessly in her fiancé's absence when he bails on the most important performance of their nascent career. Even the coda to the finale, flashing forward six months (never mind the fact that the season presumably ends in November after Election Day, meaning NYC must have experienced a very rare May snowfall!) makes little sense. Fran had rightly pegged Hannah as self-involved and dramatic, yet somehow, by the magic touch of his hand on her back after she (dramatically) storms out of her class and her witnessing a child's birth, we are to assume that they are now a happy, stable couple tip toeing through the snowflakes. Ok. It is TV, so sure, why not.   


But the longer the narrative arc of the show becomes, the more its whole strains credulity. Or maybe it is that life just moves oh so fast when you are in the rarefied hipster air of Brooklyn, but having brushed over so many of the small things that happen in life to get to bigger themes and sources of discovery, the show misses a basic point: life rarely affords a simple montage or defining moment that moves you in a different direction, it comes from slow and steady work and effort to change and break bad habits and inculcate new and better ones. What was too often missing from this season's work was the showing of that work. If anything, much of the behavior and decision making regresses before the deus ex machina ending that propelled the characters forward. Convenient, but not very satisfying. 

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Mad Men Death Pool

Death is as much a part of Mad Men as alcohol and infidelity. From Adam Whitman's suicide [1] to Bert Cooper's expiration as men landed on the moon [2], the show has not been bashful about sending characters to the great beyond. [3] As we round the corner and head for home with the final seven episodes beginning to air in three short weeks, let's take a minute and look at the Mad Men "Death Pool."

The Long-Shots

The Draper Children - Bobby and Gene (1000-1); Sally Draper (500-1): Sure, Bobby Draper has been played by multiple child actors and appears to eat up screen time for no other reason than to annoy us, but neither he nor younger brother Gene seem like obvious candidates for an untimely demise. Sally could get killed hitchhiking to Woodstock or Glen Bishop could turn out to be a murderous sociopath (though one would think Betty would be the target of his animus, not Sally), but short of that, I think she will live to experience (and surely roll her eyes at) the 1970s and the years of therapy she has ahead of her.

Harry Crane (250-1): Like cockroaches that will survive a nuclear holocaust, nothing seems to stop Harry Crane. Mergers and acquisitions, the birth of his children, seduction by a hare krishna harlot,  bingeing on hamburgers, and unfortunate sideburns, it all just rolls of Harry's back. 

Ken Cosgrove (250-1): Too anodyne to make waves for so long, when Ken briefly dipped his toe into the deeper waters of upper management, he ended up on the business end of some random GM executive's shotgun pellets. [4] Expect Ken to lay low, or better yet, hang up his spurs and become a full-time writer of weird science-fiction.

Ted Chaough (200-1): Way too nice to die young. 

Jim Cutler (175-1): Roger Sterling without the charm but also without the two prior heart attacks. 

Betty Draper Francis (150-1): Sure, her weight has yo-yo'd a bit of late and she smokes a lot, but life as a housewife has shielded Betty from some of the other obvious indicators of long-term health risk. She could go on another wild goose chase into a shady part of New York City [5] and end up losing more than the proprietary rights to her goulash recipe, but my guess is she is more likely to bury her second husband (more on that later).

Joan Holloway (150-1): Already dodged the greatest risk to an early death - being underneath lecherous Jaguar car dealer Herb Rennet. 

Cannot Be Ruled Out

Freddy Rumsen (125-1): Freddy is just the kind of mid-tier supporting player whose death could be used as an episode jolt.

Megan Draper (100-1): As much as people wanted to buy into the Megan-will-die-because-she-wore-a-Sharon-Tate-t-shirt, I don't see it happening. If she stays in La La Land, her more likely future is on the arm of some rich executive, not the victim of a ritual murder. 

Peggy Olson (80-1): Being a landlord and resident in one of New York's sketchier neighborhoods has not been without danger for Peggy, but it will likely be another few decades before her drinking, smoking, and high stress job catch up with her. 

The Contenders

Henry Francis (30-1): Killing off Henry would be a convenient way to put Betty and Don back together in middle-age, when, in theory, Don's wandering eye and marginal emotional growth might afford the couple a second chance. 

Don Draper (20-1): I have never subscribed to the theory that the show's opening credits are a foreshadowing of Don's suicide. That said, he has not been above allusions to death [6] and carries the guilt of two dead bodies on his conscience [7], but I am sticking to my belief that the credits speak to Don's uncanny ability to pull himself out of the fire in the moment before he is going to splatter all over the sidewalk and appear unperturbed, not a hair out of place, cigarette in hand, and ready for the next challenge. The only reason I have him ranked this high is because he is the main character in the show; however, those who know that Matt Weiner is a devotee of David Chase, should expect an ambiguous, Tony-Soprano-in-the-diner ending, not a Don-clutching-his-chest-and-fading-to-black ending. 

Pete Campbell (10-1): It seemed like Pete was <this close> to doing something untoward to himself while his marriage circled the drain and his paramour Beth Dawes had any memory of him zapped from her brain, [8] but his temporary relocation to California did nothing to salve the emotional wounds Pete suffers from. He is every bit as petulant, whiny, and offensive as ever and at some point, either by his own hand or someone else's, things are not going to end well. 

Roger Sterling: (3-1): Don's Sancho Panza, who almost did not make it through 1960 [9], has rebounded nicely through the sixties, but at some point all that Stoli, nicotine, and unhealthy diet have to catch up to him, right? 

What do you think?

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy


END NOTES

1. Indian Summer, Season 1, Episode 11. 
2. Waterloo, Season 7, Episode 7.
3. Other notable deaths include Gene Hofstadt (The Arrangements, Season 3, Episode 4), Anna Draper (The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7), Ida "The Astronaut" Blankenship (The Beautiful Girls, Season 4, Episode 9), Lane Pryce (Commissions and Fees, Season 5, Episode 12), Mother Sterling (The Doorway Part I, Season 6, Episode 1), and Frank Gleason (The Crash, Season 6, Episode 8). 
4. The Quality of Mercy, Season 6, Episode 12. 
5. The Doorway Part II, Season 6, Episode 2. 
6. See, e.g., commenting on a Saturday night in the suburbs as making him want to "blow his brains out," (Signal 30, Season 5, Episode 5), doodling nooses on a note pad, (To Have and To Hold, Season 6, Episode 4), and using imagery others considered suicidal for a Royal Hawaiian marketing pitch (The Doorway Part II, Season 6, Episode 2). 
7. Don felt responsible for Adam Whitman's death because Don pushed him away. Don felt responsible for Lane Pryce's death because he fired Lane after discovering the Brit had embezzled money from the firm and forged Don's signature on the check that he wrote to steal from the firm.
8. The Phantom, Season 5, Episode 13. 

9. During Season 1, Roger has two heart attacks in close proximity to one another. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Review - Citizens of the Green Room

In the wake of This Town, his dishy, behind-the-curtain expose of the venality of "official" Washington, Mark Leibovich has published a follow-up of sorts. Citizens of the Green Room is sub-titled "profiles in courage and self-delusion" but the quippy title does little to mask the book's utter lack of charm or cohesion.

Citizens is a collection of Mr. Leibovich's writing over the years and offers readers the same sort of "access" to politicians, pundits, and hangers-on that his prior work did. There are vignettes about candidates for President waiting in line to use the men's room (then-candidate John Kerry comes up with a clever work around - using the women's room while a staffer stands a post outside), road trips in campaign vehicles (John McCain gets Phoenix Coyotes hockey updates while bantering with the author, Rick Santorum fires down food-on-the-go) and Chris Matthews holding court during the wee hours after a Presidential debate (his decorum is as you'd expect from a blowhard who keeps a running tally of the number of honorary degrees bestowed upon him).

But the book's failure is in its editing. Instead of sorting his prior work temporally or by subject matter, the reader is left hopscotching across the last ten or so years of politics, encountering names long forgotten (Scott McClellan or Jim Traficant anyone?) juxtaposed stories of the moment that are now so much water under the bridge (remember when Glenn Beck was a thing? or Teddy Kennedy Jr. was considered a serious candidate for his father's Senate seat?)

The narrative does not line up with the book's cover either, which shows a faceless man with his hand over his heart, money where a pocket square should be, an American flag lapel pin and a clip mic - which would suggest some nexus of money and access that This Town plumbed in depth but Citizens only lightly grazes. And while some of Leibovich's earlier work may take on importance (his mid 2000s profile of Jeb Bush includes references to insensitive comments Bush made about women and African-Americans during his 1994 race for Governor), much of it is political flotsam that is no longer relevant (does anyone really care what kind of memory device former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card relied on as opposed to his memorable observation that the "marketing" of the Iraq War would commence after Labor Day 2002 because summer "marketing" campaigns are ineffective). 

There is no question Leibovich is a talented writer whose punchy and descriptive prose paints a nice picture; however, little of what is included in Citizens has aged well or is worth revisiting. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Village

Today’s Politico Playbook nicely summarized the Beltway media’s disdain for the electoral process while neatly encapsulating the conventional wisdom of DC elites. You see, there is no need to hold Presidential primaries next year, because Mike Allen has advised us, in something he dubbed his “facts of life:"

What should be the presidential race of a lifetime (open nomination in both parties) is starting to look like a slog and maybe even a snore. Barring a major disruption in the force field, it's looking like Hillary vs. Jeb, and the same might still be true a year from now. The new dynamic of the GOP race, once totally up for grabs, is that someone has to knock out Jeb. It could be Walker, it could be Rubio, it could be Rand - but it'll be hard. The D.C. chatter is that for all Bush's advantages in the invisible primary, he has yet to encounter random voters, or perform strongly in an unscripted (or even scripted!) setting. Bush skeptics wonder over drinks if he's Phil Gramm from '96 - huge war chest, but a paper tiger.

But here's the rub: There's no post-Reagan instance of a Republican candidate who locks up the center right slot, plus big donors and the clear establishment blessing, then loses the nomination - Bush 41, Dole, Bush 43, McCain, Romney. Obviously, this trend could break. But based on what we know about modern campaigns, Bush 45 looks very strong for the nomination at this point.

Why is Jeb Bush looking “very strong” for the GOP nomination in 2016? Because the Village said so. Because the people who cover Presidential politics genuflected before Jeb Bush at his first batted eyelash toward running for President. Because DC elites fawn over things like lists of former high-ranking government officials who will be advising the former Florida Governor, never mind the fact that some of these nefarious characters were responsible for the calamity that was the Iraq War. Because it is easy to dismiss polls showing that Bush is trailing his competition in Iowa and New Hampshire because his last name is “Bush,” ergo, he is presumptive even if he has already stepped on his dick with the hiring of a social media guru who quit because of racist tweets and during his one foreign policy speech, he confused Iraq and Iran and misstated, by an order of magnitude, the number of fighters in ISIS. Because the Village gave his brother a similar pass in 2000, never calling him out on his “fuzzy math” or vague policy ideas because he seemed like a decent guy to hang out with. Because the Village hasn’t questioned Jeb’s role in the 2000 election, Terry Schiavo, stand your ground laws, or his business dealings (much less some intemperate remarks he made about women and African-Americans during his 1994 run for Florida Governor).

In other words, the Village has spoken. The American people be damned.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

There's Something About Hillary

For a politician who has not even announced whether she is running for President, Hillary Clinton is already suffering the slings and arrows of unfavorable media coverage. There does not seem to be any particular reason for this and much of it is nonsensical, but as Al Gore can remind the former First Lady, when it come to the press corps, perception can quickly solidify into reality. Consider:

·        Hillary Isn’t Liberal Enough: Journalists itching for a big, splashy primary fight use this trope to suggest that Hillary is too closely tied to Wall Street or that the base of the party actually wants Elizabeth Warren as its nominee. But the idea that a woman who cut her teeth politically for George McGovern, spent decades advocating for women and children’s rights (go read her Beijing 1995 speech), greater access to health care, even a two-state solution that formally used the word “Palestine” (which she was predictably criticized for) is in Wall Street’s pocket is laughable. Further, the idea that the base craves a full-throated liberal did not result in Tom Harkin being nominated in 1992 or Bill Bradley getting the nod in 2000 or Howard Dean prevailing in 2004. Indeed, polling shows the “liberal base” is perfectly content with Hillary, even if the Washington Post found 13 Iowa Democrats who are not;

·        If Hillary Doesn’t Have A Competitive Primary, She Won’t Be “Battle Tested”: I guess this would make sense if the person in question had not spent the last 22 years in the national spotlight, most of them on the business end of some of the slimiest, dirtiest, and coordinated political attacks in recent memory. Long before the Tea Party was doing the bone-in-the-nose-Obama-is-not-American routine, the vast right wing conspiracy was claiming the Clintons allowed drug running in Arkansas and murdered Vince Foster.

People forget Hillary Clinton was called before a federal grand jury when she was First Lady and her husband was impeached. The chattering class in DC, from Maureen Dowd (whose perma-hate boner for the Clintons is well-known) to the “dean” of Washington reporters, David Broder, who said the Clintons “broke” Washington, have gone to lunch writing hit pieces about Bill and Hillary Clinton since the new generation of reporters were still drinking out of sippy cups. One thing I do not think we have to worry about is whether Hillary Clinton can handle personal or political attacks against her;

·        The American People Don’t Want A Bush Or Clinton Dynasty: Jeb Bush represents the third generation of Bush family members seeking national office that stretches back to Senator Prescott Bush in 1952. Indeed, a fourth generation Bush family member, George P., was just elected Texas Land Commissioner. That is a dynasty. Bill and Hillary Clinton are self-made people who came from lower and middle class (respectively) backgrounds, earned their way into college and law school, and then made their political bones. There were no Clinton or Rodham pères to grease the wheels for them.  

·        Hillary Doesn’t Stand For Anything: Aside from the fact that she is not, you know, a candidate for President yet, and therefore is not under any obligation, no matter what the media thinks, to stake out positions, there are few politicians with a lengthier public profile than Hillary Clinton. Her core positions on domestic and foreign policy are available to anyone with a computer and link to the Internet.

·        Hillary Needs To Learn From 2008: People forget that Hillary received more votes during the 2008 primaries than Barack Obama, but his campaign’s strategy of focusing on caucuses and the party’s proportional allocation of delegates in larger states accrued to his benefit. In large states like New Jersey, New York, California, Pennsylvania and Ohio, Hillary swamped Obama (though both went for him in the general election) but did not reap the benefit of large delegate hauls because of the party’s primary rules.


So while Jeb Bush is getting a free pass for being his “own man” even as he relies on more than twenty of his brother’s appointees and advisors, most notably failed Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz, former CIA Directors Porter Goss and Michael Hayden, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, and former Secretaries of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, Hillary is saddled with media types like Chuck Todd openly admitting to “Hillary Fatigue” and a general distaste for her, not her policies, but her. Make of that what you will.

Monday, February 16, 2015

In Rizzo We Trust?

As the Washington Nationals prepare for their 10th spring training, expectations for this year could not be higher. Unlike 2013, when the team was undone by then-manager Davey Johnson's "World Series or Bust" mentality, this year's squad has no choice but to embrace that expectation after spending more than $200 million to sign former AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer; adding him to what is already the deepest starting rotation in baseball and a team that won 96 games last year. Many returning players, like Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, and Bryce Harper are all in, or nearing, their prime playing years and the team has the taste of last October's bitter defeat to the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS in their collective mouths. 

But here is the thing, having the best regular season record in baseball, as the Nationals did in 2012 and in the National League in 2014, is no guarantee of post-season success. Moreover, the intangible chemistry that exists in a clubhouse is a fragile and tenuous thing, and there, the Nationals have tinkered with things in ways that may affect this year's squad. Consider the trading of Tyler Clippard, a stalwart 8th inning set-up man and beloved figure for his "fear the goggles" mentality and quirky delivery. That he also doubled as a closer (when needed) is no small thing considering Drew Storen's post-season performance (about which more in a moment). Or look at the looming free agency of Desmond, a player who started with the Expos organization before it moved to Washington and Zimmermann, a homegrown product drafted out of obscure Wisconsin-Stevens Point who has turned into one of the best pitchers in baseball. Neither player has been re-signed and most observers assume one or both will not be returning after this year because it will be cost prohibitive. 

These decisions might be defensible if the team was a "small market" club like Kansas City or Oakland or if these players were past their prime, but neither is the case. Clippard was owed a mere $9 million for 2015 (a bargain by today's standards) and Zimmermann is two years younger than Scherzer. Desmond is a unique talent at shortstop who hits for power and average but also possesses a strong throwing arm (though he does make a lot of errors) and is also only 29 years old. Signing Scherzer for $210 million when the starting rotation was already among the best in the business while failing to use that money to take care of home grown talent does not speak well of the organization and sends a message to players who are drafted and come up through the system that they can (and will) be jettisoned for a high profile free agent. And oh yeah, the Lerners are the wealthiest owners in the league, so money really should not be a problem.

Clippard was essentially flipped for a mediocre shortstop (Yunel Escobar) and replaced by Casey Janssen, a former Blue Jays closer coming off an injury-plagued season. Meanwhile, the team has a question mark at first base because they let Adam LaRoche leave via free agency, there is no guarantee Escobar will work at second (the team could have re-signed mid-season pick-up Asdrubal Cabrera but opted not to) and there is still a huge question mark in the bullpen. Drew Storen has now blown two critical saves in the post-season and no matter how many regular season wins the team piles up, none of it will matter if the guy they call on to finish games is incapable of doing so. Last year, Storen was put in a tough spot by manager Matt Williams who, in my view, made an awful decision to lift Zimmermann in the bottom of the ninth inning of game two of the NLDS, but it happened, and Storen blew the game. 

No GM bats 1.000 and Rizzo's long-term record speaks for itself; however, in the quest for winning that elusive World Series, the team may be setting itself up for failure. In addition to Zimmermann, Doug Fister, who Rizzo swiped from the Detroit Tigers and was arguably the team's most consistent starter last year, is also unsigned after this year and Strasburg can walk in 2016. The team can't simultaneously discuss a long-term window that requires fiscal prudence while spending lavishly on a shiny toy like Scherzer, who is signed until age 37, well past when he is expected to pitch at a high level. 

Instead of making some small changes and focusing on locking down players who have contributed to that success, I fear the team is following a path of teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, all of whom lost sight of building their farm systems and adding strategic parts in favor of splashy free agent signings. And while the Red Sox won it all two years ago, neither New York or Philadelphia has won a title in more than five years and each is now mediocre at best. Meanwhile, the Giants have won three of the last five World Series without getting drawn into the types of bidding wars that result in contracts that can cripple teams in the long run.  Of course, if the Nationals do win it all this year, this will all be moot, but if they do not, the window on future contention may slam shut. 


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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Brian Williams and the Future of News Broadcasting

Now that NBC has dropped a six-month suspension on NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams for fabricating a story about his experiences in Iraq, the Monday-morning quarterbacking has begun both about Williams’s apparent penchant for embellishment (which was supposedly well known, but never discussed) and whether he will ever be able to regain the trust of his viewers.

While these are natural questions to ask, they are small bore compared to the far more serious ones the media should be asking itself about its role in contemporary society. You see, while Williams’s offense was largely one of self-aggrandizement, the bigger, and more troubling issue is about how “the media” has largely sacrificed its role as neutral arbiter of fact-based reporting and become a small step removed from gossip and tabloid journalism.

In today’s culture, the coin of the realm is sniffing out hypocrisy and double standards. It did not take long for the Twitterverse to observe that Brian Williams’s suspension was a more severe punishment for anything having to do with the Iraq War than any suffered by a member of the Bush Administration that bent the truth over and over to convince America of the correctness of that war. Of course, the lies and cherry-picked intelligence spewed by the Bush Administration would have been blunted by a more skeptical media horde, but instead, a compliant press corps largely acted as stenographers for these falsehoods without questioning the veracity of their claims, to devastating results.

That no one was held to account for these lies is a far more egregious crime than any tall tale woven by a hairdo who sits behind a desk and reads off a TelePrompTer. And not only are people not held to account, but they appear on our TV screens over and over again. The ones who claimed Iraqis would great us as liberators or that WMD existed, that the fundamentals of our economy were strong (even as we were melting down), that Obamacare would destroy the economy, or that bailing out GM and Chrysler was a bad idea. There is literally no end to the willingness of “news” outlets to continue having people on TV who have been so wrong about so many things.

As for the politicians, they no longer need fear that anyone will seriously question them. Not when the moderator of Meet the Press concedes that he does not push his guests for fear they will no longer appear on his show or that guests can simply regurgitate pre-fabricated talking points without fear they will be fact checked by their hosts. Instead, they risk being turned into cable news fodder to fill out a news cycle if an aide’s odious tweets are exposed or they make an ill-advised comment about vaccinating your children.

On the other hand, crises of the day are elevated into the latest “-gate” while the solution is rarely reported with anywhere near the same level of attention or focus. The glitches that attended the roll-out of healthcare.gov dominated the news for a week or more and then disappeared. That the website has been used by millions to get health coverage barely merits a mention, whereas the initial “rocky roll-out” caused Chuck Todd to demand an apology from the President of the United States. The list goes on and on, from Ebola to the Veterans Administration, relations between Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD, children crossing the border from Mexico and many other stories in between hoover up precious airtime right up until the moment that the problem is solved or a new scandal erupts, at which point, you never hear about it again.  

This is not to say that a website should be glitchy or that relations between the Mayor of the country’s largest city and his police force do not matter, but the proportionality of the reporting is completely out of whack. Whether it’s a failure to acknowledge the numerous reports on how the Affordable Care Act is changing the delivery of health care in our country or how the economy has rebounded in a meaningful way, by giving “good news” such short shrift, the populace is harmed because they are left with an incomplete and inaccurate view of the world around them. On the other hand, taking 13 Iowa Democrats who do not like Hillary Clinton and turning that into a news story about her failure to connect with the base was actually a thing that was reported in The Washington Post.

So instead of hoisting Brian Williams on his own petard for being a smug prick who thought he could get away with making himself the hero in his very own war story, the media should spend a little more time looking at itself in the mirror and asking whether it is doing its job.
 
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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Voice of A Generation, 4

A voice of a generation died on Sunday night in Iowa City, Iowa. The voice, which began as a clarion call about the pitfalls and life lessons learned by a very specific slice of upper-middle class, white Brooklynites finally collapsed under its own weight when Hannah Horvath quit the Iowa Writer’s Workshop because her classmates Mean-Girl’d her and thought her work unserious or worthy of their accolades.

Of course, she did little to ingratiate herself with her fellow graduate students, but having taken the next step in a series of random steps (to paraphrase Adam) and failed spectacularly, to pull up stakes is just the sort of who-gives-a-shit kind of decision that I guess you can make when it does not appear that you need to earn money to live or be concerned about consequences other than the fact your boyfriend got himself a new girlfriend while you were away, which should not surprise you since you randomly told him you were going to Iowa the night of his Broadway premiere. But hey, <shrug>  

For all its acclaim and the avalanche of thought pieces, show recaps, and Internet buzz it generated, Hannah’s return to Brooklyn, only to discover that Adam has shacked up (in her apartment no less!) with a new lover is the jump-the-shark moment when Girls has officially run out of things to say. It is not just that Jessa continues to have a cosmic get-out-of-jail free card (even when she pees on the sidewalk) or that Marnie can make from-behind-ass-eating oddly untittilating, or that Shosh seems to be a Tourette’s robot incapable of speaking in anything other than an odd staccato that one can only hope does not actually exist in real life, it is that one can only roll one’s eyes so many times at this crew before finally saying, WHO CARES.

When it began, Girls seemed revelatory and fresh, its protagonist famously advising her parents that she thought she could be “a voice of a generation.” But that wobbly combination of self-confidence and insecurity that is stereotypically millennial wears thin after a while when the people start looking like hamsters on a wheel and no progress is made. While it is true that the Seinfeld gang went to lunch on the “no lessons learned” mantra for nine seasons, it took itself far less seriously and was elevated by the vox populi to its exalted state from meager ratings to be a show that tens of millions watched each week. On the other hand, and as others have observed, shows like Broad City have cropped up to show a more realistic (and bawdy) version of life in New York City for random 20somethings.

My own feelings about Girls are well-documented and there is something to be said about the idea that anything in culture only loses its relevance if people stop paying attention to it. Clearly, Girls still matters to some in the media, just not in the way it once did. Recaps and analysis seem perfunctory and the show is no longer appointment television, which highlights the difficulty any show has in sustaining the sweet spot of cultural zeitgeist and critical accolades and underscores the difference between the very good and truly great.

Follow me on Twitter: @scarylawyerguy


Season 2: http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2013/08/girls-season-two-review.html

Season 1: http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2013/03/girls-season-one.html