Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The True Detective Backlash

On the roller-coaster ride that is the zeitgeist of modern popular culture, HBO's True Detective is at a nadir. The show, which spawned a thousand thought pieces during its bravura first season suddenly cannot do anything right. In the wake of the second season premiere, the reviews were damning, mocking everything from the overwrought dialogue to the forced imagery of eagle heads and artisanal dildos.
 
If there is anything we like more than an underdog, it is knocking someone off a very high pedestal. Having caught lightning in a bottle, True Detective was bound for a fall. Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of True Detective, is a particularly inviting target - he is self-absorbed and pretentious, has said some odd things in interviews, and has a very high opinion of himself. The first season landed in that perfect Venn of "serious television" and "internet sensation" that translates into something more sought after than ratings: buzz. From Twitter to the office water cooler, people could not get enough of Rust Cohle's aluminum Lone Star stick figures or his rhapsodizing like a 2 A.M. dorm room philosopher.
 
The web happily fell down the rabbit hole of obscure books and freeze frame images to discern the identity of the "Yellow King" and slapped show dialogue on fake greeting cards. But here is the thing – the half-life of cultural relevance in today’s day and age is incredibly short. The critical acclaim for True Detective was just another sugar high before the next big thing. By the time award season came around, the show garnered many nominations, but the once-thought acting award locks for Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson did not come to pass, while Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga were recognized at less prestigious ceremonies than either the Emmys or Golden Globes.
 
So when the casting and storyline for Season 2 were announced, the first hints of a backlash were primed to begin. Vince Vaughn? Four lead characters? A meditation on power and corruption through California land use policy? No Cary Joji Fukunaga? On first viewing, The Western Book of the Dead seemed to validate much of the criticism. The hour did feel cluttered at times trying to shoehorn in all the leads, there was a level of exposition that came off as heavy-handed, and having imbibed eight episodes worth of time-is-a-flat-circle-esque ramblings, lines like “Don’t do anything out of hunger, not even eating” came off as stale, not substantive. The cinematography, which was used to such great effect in turning rural Louisiana into an alien landscape, was now used in service of endless highways and industrial sites.
 
Of course, Pizzolatto was in a no-win situation. Had he simply made a second season with his first season stars (or in the same location) the outcry would have been that he was unwilling to take chances and the story would have been directly compared to the first season. Having chosen to start fresh with a new cast and location, critics are experiencing an addict’s woe – chasing the euphoria of the first high. When something so original and interesting is aired, the natural inclination is to want the next iteration of it to be equally good if not better. Second seasons are by their nature tricky in the same way movie sequels are, especially when the first go-round is so iconic. While shows like Seinfeld and Breaking Bad did not peak until several seasons in, other shows like Homeland and House of Cards have suffered similar sophomore slumps.
 
So allow me to offer a modest proposal. Stop extrapolating whether you will like an entire season of television based on a single hour of it. Go back and re-watch the premiere with an open mind, re-consider some of the warts you saw on first viewing. Take in Season 2 of True Detective without the baggage of comparison to what you already know. Wipe your own critical slate clean. Instead of hoping you will get that same chill up your spine when Rust Cohle said that the universe was one big ghetto, appreciate the genius of a coked-out, alcoholic Ray Velcoro calling his own son a pussy and looking a 12-year old in the eye and screaming FUCK YOU. Instead of envying the ample bosom that swelled in Marty Hart’s face, consider the empty shell that passes for Paul Woodaugh’s soul and the blank look on his face while receiving an enthusiastic blowjob with as much excitement as a trip to the dentist (and by the way, why did he wait until he was at his girlfriend’s apartment to pop his Viagra? Wouldn’t it have made sense to take care of that before he arrived so he would be at attention and ready to go?) Instead of the banter between Papania and Glbough, be open to Ani Bezzerides and Elvis Ilinca (I mean, come on, who doesn’t love a guy named Elvis?) And while you are at it, do not drill down too deeply into the weird iconography found in Ben Casper’s home or the riffs (or wig) of new age guru Eliot Bezzerides. We all know those blind alleys only lead to frustration and disappointment.
 
Meanwhile, the critics will continue picking apart the dialogue, marinating in absurdities like the saddest guitar playing woman in the world, and hate watching every flat line delivered by Vaughn. In doing so, they will, to paraphrase this season’s tag line, get the show they deserve.

 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Getting Real About Gun Violence After Charleston

Just a few days after the massacre in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, 1 person was killed and 9 injured when a gunman opened fire on a house party in a low income area of Philadelphia. The only thing that stopped that shooting from being far worse was bad aim. Unsurprisingly, this incident did not rate any coverage outside the Philadelphia media market, probably because that type of violence is commonplace in our country and addressing it is far more complicated than a simple sound bite or segment on a cable news chat show. 

On the other hand, the coverage of the Charleston massacre has been wall-to-wall for days, but, predictably, continues to miss the mark when it comes to addressing gun violence in our nation.  Do not get me wrong. What happened in Charleston was an awful tragedy, a hate crime, and, arguably, an act of domestic terrorism, but focusing attention on whether or not the Confederate flag should be taken down (it should, clearly) or on the mental faculty of Dylann Roof misses the forest for the trees if you are interested in the topic of what to do to reduce gun violence in our country. Indeed, attempting to create policy off of "black swan" mass shooting events while ignoring the everyday gun violence that is taking places on the streets of so many of our cities is political and journalistic malpractice. 

Sadly, "gun violence" is actually quite predictable - it occurs disproportionately in cities, is associated with things like domestic violence, drugs, and gang activity, with weapons that are used by people who acquire them illegally. This is an important point because the idea that strict, state-level gun laws in and of themselves will reduce gun violence is a fallacy. In New Jersey, where I live, the Brady Campaign rates our gun control laws as the third strictest in the nation - we require people to obtain licenses to purchase guns, we do background checks, closed the "gun show" loophole, and have a waiting period between when you get your gun license and when you can purchase a gun, and on and on, but that has not stopped Camden, to take one example, from consistently being at or near the top of the list of the most dangerous cities in our country. Other cities, like Newark, Trenton, and Paterson also experience a per capita murder rate far greater than the national average and just six cities in New Jersey account for the more than 340 shooting murders that occur in our state each year. 

You see, strict gun laws in New Jersey do nothing about the lax gun laws in places like Virginia, North Carolina, or Georgia, three states where a large number of the "crime guns" recovered in New Jersey are originally purchased. In fact, roughly 80% of the guns used in the commission of crimes in New Jersey were bought somewhere outside of New Jersey and trafficked here to be used for illegal purposes. If it is easy to acquire guns in one place and traffic them into another place without much fear of apprehension or prosecution and is also very profitable for the people doing the trafficking, cutting off that pipeline will do a lot more to have a meaningful impact on gun violence than taking down a flag. 

Another talking point you hear a lot about is the the need for mental health screening, but that story is also mixed. First, there is no test or diagnosis that can accurately predict who may "go postal" and even if there was, research shows that people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of crime, not the perpetrators. 

Moreover, there is already a way to determine whether a person is disqualified from buying a gun based on a mental defect, but the data is incomplete. In early 2008. some guy named George W. Bush signed an amendment to the Brady Act requiring states to submit mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This amendment was passed after a gunman killed more than 20 people at Virginia Tech University and was supposed to ensure that people who were prohibited from buying a gun due to a mental health disability were not allowed to do so, as the gunman at Virginia Tech was. Before the law was signed, only 22 states turned over such information voluntarily, and even since the passage of the 2008 Brady Act Amendment, many states are not in full compliance with its requirements. In fact, the law provided financial incentives to try to speed the process, with mixed results - as recently as last month, DOJ was still putting out grant funding to get all states up to date. 

Lastly, "straw" purchasers, people who are not legally prohibited from buying guns and do so and then sell (or give) those guns to others, need to be made a priority by the Department of Justice and laws need to be strengthened to stiffen the penalties for making straw purchases, up to and including allowing prosecutors to charge straw purchasers with the same crime as those charged for the crime in which the straw purchased gun was used. 

Of course, adding prosecutors to go after straw purchasers and traffickers or making sure that all states are current in transmitting mental health records to NICS costs money and lord knows how friendly this Congress is toward giving more money to the federal government to discharge its duties. And such efforts do not even scratch the surface of the deeper questions of how to bring economic opportunity, better educational outcomes, and greater safety to cities where most of the gun violence is taking place in our country. But in the meantime, it would not kill the people who report on these issues to do a little digging to better understand the nature and reality of gun violence in America so they can start pressing our leaders to do things that will actually make a difference. 


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Friday, June 19, 2015

Book Review - Bad Days In History

When it was commissioned on September 27, 1942, no one could know that the USS William D. Porter would almost be involved in one of the most colossal screw-ups of the 20thcentury. A little over fourteen months after it was launched, the Porter was charged with protecting the USS Iowa as it took President Franklin D. Roosevelt across the Atlantic Ocean for a meeting in Tehran, Iran with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, when a tragedy almost struck that would have changed the course of modern history. The Porteraccidentally released one of its torpedoes, setting it on a collision course with Roosevelt’s vessel. Because ships were directed to maintain radio silence to avoid German U-boats, an attempt was made to warn the Iowa using a signal lamp, but the first attempt erroneously reported the direction of the torpedo and the second signal sent the wrong message. With literally moments to spare, the Porter broke radio silence, giving the Iowa just enough time to maneuver out of the way of the torpedo (which Roosevelt had been observing from the main deck), which exploded 3,000 yards away.

Stories like these are often relegated to the dustbin of history, but author Michael Farquhar has resurrected this and 364 (or so) other tales for his book, Bad Days in History, A Gleefully Grim Chronicle of Misfortune, Mayhem and Misery for Every Day of the Year. Unlike Roosevelt’s near miss, far more of history’s worst days did not end so luckily. Indeed, anything from the Middle Ages through oh, about the mid-19th century has a cruelty and blood lust to it that would not be out of place on Game of Thrones. Take December 6, 1741, the infant Russian king Ivan VI was kidnapped from his crib by his cousin Elizabeth (nice, right?) and some palace guards in a bloodless coup. After that, he was basically kept in total isolation for his entire life, devoid of love, affection, or any connection to the outside world save the guards directed to keep a close eye on him. Not horrible enough? Check out March 21st, clocking in with six separate atrocities, from the slaughter of Jews in the German town of Erfurt (1349), to an Archbishop being burned at the stake by Queen Mary I (1556), the opening of the first death camp by the Nazis (1933), and the murder of 69 people in Apartheid-era South Africa (1960). Grim indeed.

Of course, not every day had something so horrific happen. The best Farquhar could come up with for December 30th was the firing of Mike Shanahan by the Washington Redskins. Similarly, few tears will be shed for Steve Wynn, the billionaire casino mogul who, on September 30th, 2006, put his elbow through a $130 million Picasso, especially since he sued his insurer to repair the masterpiece and then sold it for $155 million to a hedge fund billionaire.

What I found most interesting was not the mayhem but the misfortune. Take Siegfried Esajas for example. He was the first Olympic athlete from the country of Suriname, but when he showed up for what he thought was a qualifying race at the Rome Olympics on the afternoon of September 2nd, 1960, he was told the heat had taken place that morning. Ejasas became a laughingstock for oversleeping and it was not until 2 weeks before his death in 2005 that Suriname’s Olympic Committee completed an investigation and determined that Ejasas had been given the wrong start time. In addition to a letter of apology and a plaque, Ejasas got something more important back – his dignity.

Another tale worthy of its own novel is that of Anna Jarvis, the woman who is credited with coming up with the idea for Mother’s Day. On May 9th, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a joint resolution of Congress establishing Mother’s Day, which should have been a signal event in Jarvis’s life. Instead, the commercialization of Mother’s Day (including the popularity of carnations, Mother Jarvis’s favorite flower) steadily made Anna Jarvis unhinged to the point that she lived out her final days in a sanitarium.

And so it goes, from January 1st (Louis XII’s expiration in 1514) to December 31st (a 1926 announcement by the government that they were going to increase the amount of toxin they put into industrial alcohol to cut down on bootlegging during Prohibition). Bad Days is not a particularly heavy read and because each entry is no longer than a couple of pages the chapters do fly by. This book makes for ideal vacation reading or if you are just sitting around the house and want to learn a little bit about world history one day at a time.


Friday, June 12, 2015

TV Review - With All Due Respect

The primary cable news channels – CNN, Fox, and MSNBC – are littered with hour upon hour of political talk shows every day. Most follow some iteration of the same format, a host (or group of hosts) introducing the topics du jour, talking to politicians, former flacks, or academics, all wrapped in a neat hour-long package that you forget about almost as soon as the show is over.

As political journalism has become more diffuse (Snapchat (?!) is just the latest entrant into the 2016 Presidential news space), reporters are trying harder than ever to create a brand, whether it is wonk/nerds like Ezra Klein and Nate Silver or being the town crier/summer camp chronicler like Mike Allen. To this list we add Mark Halperin and John Heileman, two long-time journos who leveraged the success of their book about the 2008 Presidential election, Game Change, into a level of celebrity that resulted in million-dollar-a-year deals to leave their respective publications (Time and New York magazine) to join Bloomberg News.

In addition to writing for Bloomberg, the two host a daily half-hour TV show called With All Due Respect, which owes far more to the groundbreaking work of Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption than anything produced by Bill O’Reilly, Anderson Cooper, or Rachel Maddow. Indeed, WADR is such a carbon copy of PTI I am surprised Bloomberg has not been sued for copyright infringement. Viewers familiar with PTI will quickly notice the similarities – an “A” block of headlines, a “Five Good Minutes” esque “B” block interview, and a “C” block with more headlines, some sprinkling of pop culture, and other ephemera. The WADR look is also similar – a scrolling list of topics on the right hand side of the screen, a countdown clock as time dwindles on each subject, and a bell to signify the discussion should come to an end.

But while Wilbon and Kornheiser direct an often jaundiced eye at sports, something most of us use as a diversion from the daily stresses of life, Halperin and Heileman’s cynicism is directed at something far more consequential - the people who govern and make decisions that affect all of us – which makes their snarky attitude troubling, not amusing. The almost exclusive focus on optics, the “horse race” (polling), and the talking points of candidates and elected officials underscores why so many people are turned off to politics and how lazy so much of the political journalistic class has become. What little time is spent talking about actual policy is done purely from the perspective of who stands to gain or lose based on the passage or failure of one idea or the other.

Of course, the pair’s unapologetic gorging on the superficial is catnip for the insular world of the Beltway media, which spends far more time speaking to itself rather than the public at large. Indeed, many of the guests, who are otherwise obscure political hands or behind-closed-doors operators, give WADR a behind-the-velvet-rope quality that does have its charm if only to see how vacuous the political process is these days and how unabashedly the people who live it, celebrate it.


With All Due Respect airs weeknights on Bloomberg TV at 5 p.m. and re-airs at 8 p.m.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Why Marco's Money Matters


When the New York Times speaks, it means a little bit more than other newspapers or media outlets. Don’t believe me? Consider the shit storm that has been kicked up in the wake of a story by Times reporters Steve Eder and Michael Barbaro about Marco Rubio’s checkered financial history and seeming use of his political positions for personal benefit.

Much of the pearl clutching at the Times questions the relevance of Rubio’s money problems. Indeed, none other than Jon Stewart dismissed the story as “inconsequential gossip.” And if all the story did was tell a tale of someone who accumulated a lot of student debt and then paid it off while living within his means, I would wholeheartedly concur with Stewart’s assessment, but the story is not that, it is more about how someone who claims to have humble origins and modest tastes, you know, like us “ordinary” Americans, actually used his cache and influence to personally enrich himself thanks to very wealthy patrons while doing things that were, at a minimum, ethically questionable.

It is fair to ask how someone who was toiling away at a $72,000 a year job as a land use attorney at a now-defunct law firm somehow parlayed that modest salary into a $300,000 a year job at a far more prominent law firm in three short years and just as he was about to ascend to the Speakership of the Florida House of Representatives. It is also fair to ask what it says about a candidate who puts family members on the payroll of his political action committees and uses a state party credit card to pay for personal expenses like home improvement projects. And why can’t we learn more about Norman Braman, a billionaire who briefly hired Mr. Rubio as an attorney prior to his taking his seat in the U.S. Senate, bankrolled a college professorship that Mr. Rubio secured at Florida International University, and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Mr. Rubio or initiatives he supported and in return, received support from Mr. Rubio in securing state contracts.

Aren’t those precisely the types of things we should know about a candidate for President? Whether they are honest and trustworthy, do not abuse their position or have supporters who leverage campaign donations to receive government largesse? And if someone holds themself out as living the American Dream, why can’t we question the claim of a rags-to-riches story, especially one that already fell apart once when Mr. Rubio claimed his parents fled Castro’s Cuba?

The idea that Rubio is somehow relatable, or that the New York Times is trying to “poor-shame” him is laughable. Other than the fact that Rubio seems to have, like many Americans, a taste for living above his means, he is not like us in any way shape or form. We do not have the benefit of wealthy patrons ready to cushion our financial pitfalls. We also do not have the temerity to inveigh against others to be more responsible with their money, or to criticize government bloat while living a profligate lifestyle.

Rubio’s politics are hypocrisy of the first order. No one is criticizing Rubio for having student loans, but to spend lavishly on high-end cars, fancy homes, and a boat while claiming to understand the aspirations and hopes of the middle class does not even pass the laugh test. For Republicans, who are always searching for the whiff of scandal, why someone would allow a family member’s company to receive $90,000 in business from his political action committee is not only a totally appropriate question, but one that has to be asked and answered.

And if right wing commentators, and even those on the left, who, predictably, find such muck racking distasteful even if it is relevant, want to sweep this reporting under the rug, perhaps they should ask none other than Mitt Romney why it was that the people vetting Mitt’s running mates in 2012 flagged Mr. Rubio’s sketchy financial dealings as well. Surely, they had no political ax to grind other than making sure that their Cayman Islands-money-stashing boss was not coupled with a guy who was using-campaign-funds-for-private-benefit-and-relying-on-a-sugar-daddy-to-cover-his-expenses running mate, which makes perfect sense to me.


Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Electoral College & The 2016 Race For President

The political silly season is well underway in Washington and the vaunted campaign trail [1] with such important topics as "should a candidate tip at Chipotle" and "what does a person's driving record say about them as a candidate" sucking up an amount of media oxygen that should shame the entire profession, but we are well past the point of most journalists doing anything other than opining on the latest polling or politician "gaffe." 

So, while the Beltway media is doing its level best to portray Hillary Clinton as a weak front runner (never mind her more than 40 point lead on second-place Bernie Sanders) and the Republican field as "deep" (this includes a candidate who literally could not remember three things in a debate, another who questions evolution, a whole clown car of people who deny climate science and oh yeah, Donald Trump), the one thing that will matter on November 8, 2016 is the electoral college, and specifically, which candidate will receive the 270 votes necessary to win the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

That you have not heard much about this immutable fact of Presidential politics is perhaps unsurprising. The reality is that recent history suggests that Mrs. Clinton, assuming she is the nominee, will start with a tremendous advantage over her Republican rival, whoever it is. If you were to think about 270 electoral votes as the "end zone" on a 100 yard football field, Mrs. Clinton will essentially be starting at the other team's 10 yard line. 

No reporter worth his or her salt wants to report this fact, because it would essentially make the next 17 months a moot point, but consider this: the media's attempt to portray the country as "center right" notwithstanding, Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six elections, and four of the last six tallies in the electoral college. Of course, of those two losses, one has and will forever be disputed (2000), and was so close regardless, as to almost be considered a tie. More importantly, 18 states and the District of Columbia have voted Democratic in every one of the last six presidential elections. Those 18 states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin) plus D.C. equal 242 electoral votes (EVs) or 89.62% of the total needed to win the Presidency and none of those states could realistically be seen as competitive in 2016. [2] 

To that total, three other states with a total of 15 electoral votes, Iowa, New Hampshire, and New Mexico, have voted for the Democratic nominee in five of the last six elections. In the one election (2004) that Iowa and New Mexico went to the Republicans, they did so by < 1%, whereas in the two most recent elections, President Obama won the former by 10% (2008) and 7% (2012) and the latter by 15% (2008) and 10% (2012). In 2000, New Hampshire went for George W. Bush over Al Gore by 1.2%, but third-party candidate Ralph Nader received almost 4% of the vote. Since then, New Hampshire has been reliably Democratic, with John Kerry eking out a 1.5% win in 2004 before Barack Obama swamped McCain by 17% in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 by 15%. Those 15 EVs, added to the 242 that have gone for the Democrats in every election since 1992, would put Hillary Clinton just three electoral votes from history. 

Now consider that Nevada (6 EVs) and Ohio (18 EVs) have voted Democratic in four of the last six elections (and neither one for the Republicans since 2004, when the latter was famously won by the equivalent of the Ohio State University football stadium) and Florida (29 EVs) has gone for the Democrats the last two election cycles, barely went for George W. Bush in 2004 and was essentially a tie in 2000 (those 30,000 plus mysterious "Jews for Buchanan" votes in Palm Beach County and Ralph Nader's 1.6% statewide tally) and suddenly, the Republican mountain appears too high to climb. 

Indeed, the other side of the coin is not particularly favorable for the GOP. It has gone six-for-six in 13 states since 1992, but they only total 102 EVs (Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming). Another five states have voted for the GOP in five of the last six elections, adding 56 EVs to their haul, but still putting them more than 110 EVs away from victory. This is without even mentioning Virginia (13 EVs), a once reliable Republican state that has trended away from the party in the last two presidential elections and three of the last four gubernatorial elections. 

So, if you're scoring at home, if Hillary simply carries those states that have voted for the Democrats in every election since 1992 and five of the last six elections, she will need one measly state from among places like Virginia, Ohio, Florida, and Nevada that are demographically favorable to her and have most recently voted for a sitting President whose approval rating is trending up and against a candidate who is probably going to support unpopular positions on issues like immigration and social policy or is going to have the last name "Bush."

END NOTES

1. Every sign off from an enterprising reporter in Des Moines, Nashua, Las Vegas and most points in between receives the requisite "be safe on 'the trail'" or words to that effect. 
2. Some might say Wisconsin would be in play in Scott Walker were the nominee, however, President Obama carried the state in 2012 by 7 points. Walker's re-election in a strong Republican year (2014) was only by 6 points and with 700,000 fewer voters showing up at the booth. 

For general information, see:

http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2013/nov/10/george-will/george-will-paints-dire-electoral-picture-gop-says/


http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/the-gops-uphill-path-to-270-in-2016/2014/01/18/9404eb06-7fcf-11e3-93c1-0e888170b723_story.html

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Romney-ification Of Hillary Clinton

The latest media hullabaloo is, to quote Chuck Todd's "First Read" today, the "Romney-ification of Bill and Hillary Clinton." Through weeks of assiduous work, the media has done a rather elegant (if completely underhanded) two-step: Step One: Turn the Clinton Foundation, a charitable organization that has literally helped millions of people around the world, into some sort of unsavory slush fund where sketchy characters and foreign countries with bad human rights records dumped millions of dollars in exchange for entree into the Clintons' world. Step Two: Question the wealth accumulated by the former President and his wife because it was done through such unsavory ways as receiving money to give speeches (something so de rigueur among the elite class in Washington, there are agents who do nothing but book these engagements) and receiving book royalties. 

In other words, those sneaky, underhanded Clintons had the temerity to earn a living after they left the White House with millions of dollars in debt because of lawyers they had to pay fighting off an eight-year smear campaign by Republicans that was aided and abetted by a compliant Beltway media that never embraced them (David Broder famously noted that Bill Clinton "trashed" Washington). That Hillary Clinton served as a Senator for eight years and Secretary of State for four years and that her husband left behind a $236 billion budget surplus and peace and prosperity are really of no moment because you know, they made money and some people donated to their charity who are not Boy Scouts. 

And now that the narrative has locked in the Clinton Foundation as something nefarious, the knives are out because the Clintons have amassed a fortune. Ergo, the Clintons are the Romneys, because rich, or something. And while at the most general level it is true, both families are rich, both the manner in which they became that way, and more importantly, what they did with their money and what they believe in, is nowhere to be found in most media reporting. Mitt Romney accumulated his wealth buying distressed companies, outsourcing their work, stripping the valuable parts and taking the profits. His public service consisted of a single term as governor of Massachusetts and a year or so as the head of an Olympic Committee, where he did things like manufacture pins representing our country in China and deny free admission to 9/11 victims and their families. 

The Clintons on the other hand, have, in one way or the other, committed themselves to public service since the late 1970s. Hillary Clinton was an early champion of causes that are now so mainstream it is hard to believe they were ever controversial - supporting children's health care, equal pay for women, and the need for communities to help raise children. Her husband broke a 12 year run of Republican governance, did all the things the GOP claims it will do but never does - reduce the size of government, expand the economy, reduce the deficit and make government work more efficiently - before leaving office to start a foundation that has raised billions of dollars to help people in need. He has also become a sort of unofficial humanitarian ambassador when natural disasters strike and has a personal popularity among all Americans above 60%. 

But the media is expert at solidifying false narratives. So Hillary's public service is now turned on its head. After all, she hasn't driven a car in decades and has lived in a Secret Service cocoon, how could this woman possibly understand the needs of "ordinary" Americans? If this all seems oddly familiar, you are not experiencing déjà vu. The same hit job was done on John Kerry in 2004 because he married a wealthy widower (recall those windsailing photos and comments about Kerry being "vaguely French") and Al Gore, because he had the foresight to be an early investor in Silicon Valley tech companies and serve on the board of Apple Computers. For some reason, Democrats that amass great wealth offend the Beltway media even if those politicians have career-long records of supporting progressive ideas. 

Of course, after what are now months of negative reporting about Hillary, the media turns around and reports that voters do not find her honest or trustworthy, which should not be surprising considering all the media has done for the past few months is write stories about how untrustworthy and untruthful she is. It is lowest common denominator QED that also turned an earnest environmentalist like Al Gore into a phony and George W. Bush, a twice-failed businessman who got everything in life from his last name, into an everyman who the media would rather have a beer with. Once upon a time, this type of swift-boating was done by partisans who got away with it because the media failed to fact check them. Now, the media is doing their work for them. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Don Draper, A Coke Ad, and the End of Mad Men

The credits had not finished rolling on Mad Men's series finale, Person-to-Person, before the analysis of the show's final moments began to be dissected. Had Don achieved nirvana in Northern California? What was the meaning of that Coke ad? Were we supposed to assume Don created it or that it was simply a paean to the power of advertising? Was the finale good/bad/ambiguous? 

Writing my weekly recap the next morning, I was not entirely sure what to make of things. On the one hand, having Don achieve a zen-like acceptance of himself after jettisoning his entire life, going on a 3,000 mile hobo journey, confessing his sins to one of the few people (if not the only person) in his life whose opinion he valued, and then breaking down in a teary puddle when a stranger named Leonard summarized his entire miserable life in a succinct three minute monologue would have opened a potentially new chapter for Don with an optimistic grace note that was also of a piece with the cultural trends of the early 1970s that were inward (and eastern) looking after the tumult of the 1960s. 

On the other hand, if Don's enlightenment was used in service of creating an advertisement that trafficked in that sensibility to sell soda, it would be incredibly cynical and also entirely consistent with a show that started its run with its main character telling a woman he was attempting to seduce that love was manufactured to sell nylons and was never afraid to manipulate his own life story in the service of selling consumer products. [1]

The ambiguity lingered until Wednesday, when show runner Matthew Weiner was interviewed and essentially confirmed that yes, the bell-ringing-smile-on-Don's-face-Coke-ad connection was intentional. He said, "In the abstract, I did think, why not end this show with the greatest commercial ever made? In terms of what it means to people and everything, I am not ambiguity for ambiguity's sake. But it was nice to have your cake and eat it too, in terms of what is advertising, who is Don and what is that thing?" 

Weiner went on to lament people who viewed the ending with a jaundiced eye, saying "I did hear rumblings of people talking about the ad being corny. It's a little bit disturbing to me, that cynicism. I'm not saying advertising's not corny, but I'm saying that the people who find that ad corny, they're probably experiencing a lot of life that way, and they're missing out on something. Five years before that, black people and white people couldn't even be in an ad together! And the idea that someone in an enlightened state might have created something that's very pure — yeah, there's soda in there with a good feeling, but that ad to me is the best ad ever made, and it comes from a very good place ... That ad in particular is so much of its time, so beautiful and, I don't think, as — I don't know what the word is — villainous as the snark of today."

After reading Weiner's comments, my initial reaction was, "Did he watch his own show?" Seriously. What was the point of curling Don in the fetal position after Peggy called him a monster, or shedding tears in California while telling Anna he had "ruined" his family, or Sally walking in on him in flagrante delicto with the neighbor lady, or his secretary hurling an object at him after they slept together and he blew her off, or being minimized as a "man, in a room, with a checkbook" when he offered to help Anna, or Betty telling him she preferred their children live with her brother than him because he was such a bad father, [2] or any of the myriad other awful instances of Don's bad behavior and the aforementioned hobo jag if all that did was lead him to a place where he could imbibe the cultural zeitgeist and turn it into an ad for soda? I could not think of a more cynical way to end the show than to essentially turn it into a Rust Cohle-ian proof of concept that "time is a flat circle." [3] 

And don't get me wrong, I like the cynical solution because advertising is cynical and the show was cynical - people were consistently horrible to each other, they lied, cheated, and stole, so why are we asked, after 92 episodes, to suddenly put on the rose colored glasses? As Don reminded us over and over again, advertising is premised on selling happiness, of letting people know that things are ok even if the world is going to shit. Whether it is Burger Chef drowning out the noise of Vietnam or Dow Chemical selling Joe Willie Namath as American as apple pie while the Notre Dame fight song plays, it seems impossible to put a smiley face on the idea that that the key takeaway from Don nuking his whole life and landing in a Northern California commune was how to build a better TV ad.

If all of that wandering just put Don right back where he started, what was the point of having him shed his entire existence - his job, his apartment, and one million of his hard earned dollars - not to mention the soul baring he did to Peggy or the bonding he did with Leonard, if all that bought him was the ability to distill his ability to make his wants our wants in the form of an ad that manipulated the universal desire for peace on earth in service of selling sugar water?

At the same time, it was totally consistent with who Don is as a person. As the critic Heather Havrilesky long ago observed, if you scratch an inch below Don's surface, all you get is more surface. Redemptive Don was someone we knew well - be it telling Birdie he hadn't been "respectful" towards her (the delicate way of saying he'd dipped his quill in many New York City ink wells), coming out of Anna's death with a new attitude on life, being a (mostly) good husband during the honeymoon period with Megan, or clawing his way back into SC&P after his Hershey meltdown, [4] Don was rarely as convincing as when he had bounced back from yet another rock bottom, but those attempts at turning a new leaf were never availing, so why wouldn't we, as viewers, be skeptical about the idea that this time would be different? 

Jon Hamm offered his own take, observing that "When we find Don in that place, and this stranger relates this story of not being heard or seen or understood or appreciated, the resonance for Don was total in that moment. There was a void staring at him. We see him in an incredibly vulnerable place, surrounded by strangers, and he reaches out to the only person he can at that moment, and it’s this stranger. My take is that, the next day, he wakes up in this beautiful place, and has this serene moment of understanding, and realizes who he is. And who he is, is an advertising man. And so, this thing comes to him. There’s a way to see it in a completely cynical way, and say, “Wow, that’s awful.” But I think that for Don, it represents some kind of understanding and comfort in this incredibly unquiet, uncomfortable life that he has led."

This is as reasonable an explanation as any other, except for the history of the entire series and Don's total and unremitting belief that people don't change [5] and nothing from slugging a tee totaling bible thumper to admitting his own lies and deceits to Dr. Faye Miller, Peggy, Megan, or the guys at the VFW had ever changed that. [6] Indeed, the entire end of the series was about Don giving up his life and all its trappings, but if Matt Weiner and Jon Hamm want us to believe Don is/was redeemed and that led to nothing more than the creation of an iconic commercial and not, say, becoming a better person, that strikes me as totally cynical. 

END NOTES

1. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Season 1, Episode 1. The two most obvious examples of Don manufacturing a fictional version of his actual life are the Kodak "Carousel" pitch, where he used slides of him with his wife and children to tell a story of nostalgic longing and love even as he was a philandering husband and largely absentee parent, and the Hershey pitch, which started off as a totally fake story of Don being allowed to pick out a candy of his choice at the corner store by his old man after mowing the lawn but collapsed into a searing admission of his true association with the candy bar - as a treat for picking the pockets of the johns on the whorehouse where he was raised. The Wheel, Season 1, Episode 13, In Care Of, Season 6, Episode 13. 

2. The Quality of Mercy, Season 6, Episode 12, The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12, Favors, Season 6, Episode 11, The Rejected, Season 4, Episode 4, The Good News, Season 4, Episode 3, Person-to-Person, Season 7, Episode 14. 

3. True Detective, The Secret Fate of All Life, Season 1, Episode 5.

4. Meditations in an Emergency, Season 2, Episode 13, The Summer Man, Season 4, Episode 8, see e.g., A Little Kiss Parts I & II, Season 5, Episodes 1 and 2, see, e.g., The Strategy, Season 7, Episode 6, Waterloo, Season 7, Episode 7. 

5. The Mountain King, supra.


6. In Care Of, supra, Hands and Knees, Season 4, Episode 10, Person-To-Person, Season 7, Episode 14, A Little Kiss, supra, The Milk and Honey Route, Season 7, Episode 13. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men S7E14 - Person To Person

"It's like no one cares that I'm gone." - Leonard

For a show that was built on its slavish devotion to documenting, in excruciatingly precise detail, the look, feel, and energy of the 1960s, it was fitting that Mad Men ended with Don Draper doing what so many who became disillusioned with the protests, marches, and be-ins of that era did - he found serenity and peace in a far away place and in what was a then-nascent movement toward spiritual enlightenment through eastern religions. 

To get there, Don Draper had to finally come clean about himself. Whereas the first "half" of this final season was about Don reclaiming his throne atop the world of advertising, the second "half" swiftly stripped away all that Don had so assiduously, if haphazardly, built up. There was little joy to be found in the rotating cast of characters coming in and out of the Draper bedroom, the extreme wealth Don accumulated literally sat in a checking account waiting to be signed over to a woman he rushed into marriage with during one of his prior attempts at reinvention, and the family he had created with his first wife was doing just fine without him, thank-you-very-much. Even the world where he asserted unquestioned dominance turned out to be a cruel joke. Having accurately predicted years ago that he wanted to avoid becoming a "cog" in the McCann wheel, [1] Don discovered there was literally a roomful of "Don Drapers" at his new firm, that he was no longer a unique snowflake.

So perhaps it was fitting that Stephanie, as a sort of proxy for her Aunt Anna, directed Don to their spiritual getaway. To Stephanie, Don is "Dick Whitman," not "Don Draper" the suave Madison Avenue executive, but, one assumes, someone who both cared very deeply about her aunt but was also a remote figure. However, when faced with the bad decisions she made, Don cannot sell her on the same pitch he gave Peggy in the wake of Peggy's unwanted pregnancy. [2] Indeed, instead of welcoming Don's observation that by moving on, she could put her past behind her, Stephanie twisted a similar knife that her mother did when Don learned of Anna's cancer diagnosis. Here, instead of diminishing Don as a "man in a room with a checkbook," Stephanie dismissed him by telling him they were not even family. 

And with that, and Stephanie's disinterest in the last worldly possession Don owned - Anna's engagement ring - Don literally had nothing. His rich man's hobo jag had come to an ignoble end. The material possessions gone, his value as a creative director unneeded, his first ex-wife, with little time left, had cruelly, but not unfairly made a decision as to who should raise their children, and deep down, Don knew it was the right call, his parental absenteeism having begun long before the ink was dry on their Reno divorce. So it was left to him to make one last person-to-person call to Anna's successor as "the only person in the world who truly knows me," Peggy Olson. [3] And in that call was the confessional that people in recovery need to make - an honest accounting of their failings and mistakes and to have the person listening to do so without judgment.

Peggy may have thought Don's admissions were those of a man about to end his life, and as we would learn, they were, in a way. Don seemed to be washing away the last remnants of his prior life, but in the moment, Peggy had more on her plate than she knew what to do with. She immediately called Stan to tell him of Don's perilous state, but instead of setting off alarm bells, the conversation turned into a confessional of its own, of Stan's love for Peggy and her love for him. As an offhand way of giving viewers a glimpse into her and the other main characters' futures, it was a surprisingly sanguine ending. Roger not only does right by his illegitimate child, but finds in Marie the kind of loving, but volatile partner who will keep him feeling youthful and challenged. Pete and Trudy are spirited triumphantly onto a Lear Jet and into a new life in Kansas, and Joan starts a new phase of her life as a businesswoman but without a partner in her life. 

While these "endings" are by definition amorphous - Pete could tire of Wichita, Roger and Marie's kinetic energy could curdle, Peggy might grow frustrated at Stan's ascot collection and the beard hair in the sink, and Joan's business could fail spectacularly - the fact that Weiner gave so many of his characters anything approaching a "happy ending" surely came as at least a small surprise after so many years of tumult and struggle. However, at least one character's ending is foretold - Betty stoically puffs away at her cigarettes even as lung cancer is killing her while Sally adopts the role of surrogate parent to her and her two younger brothers. 

The show's final images are particularly open to interpretation. Having his own frustrations and fears articulated by someone else - that no one would notice he was gone and that he never knew what to do with someone else's love anyway, Don collapses in a communal laying bear of emotions. The show ends as so many other episodes did - on Don Draper. But unlike so many other prior endings, where Don was forlorn, pensive, or hurt, as the meditative ohm passes his lips, we see something for the first time - a contented smile. And were the show have "faded to black," the implicit conclusion would have been clear - Don Draper 3.0 would be a quintessentially 1970s creation - of the monied class turning inward for happiness, but the use of that iconic Coca-Cola ad to end the show was a sly wink. When he spoke with Peggy from the commune, she asked Don when he was coming back so he could work on that most recognizable brand's advertising work. So was Don in deep cover, consuming the ethos of this self-awareness movement to simply turn it on its head to sell soda pop, or was his re-invention legitimate, a new leaf turned without the baggage of his prior life? Like so many things about this enigmatic character, the answer will forever remain a mystery.

*A personal note: Thank you to those who have frequented my blog to read my weekly recaps. I hope you have enjoyed the show as much as I did.  


END NOTES

1. Shut the Door, Have a Seat, Season 3, Episode 13.   
2. The New Girl, Season 2, Episode 5. 
3. The Good News, Season 4, Episode 3.

4. The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mad Men S7E13 - The Milk and Honey Route

"We've been looking for you." - Unnamed police officer, The Milk & Honey Route

Don Draper is now officially a hobo. Having left his job, moved out of his penthouse apartment, paid off his second ex-wife, and thought his first one (and their kids) no longer needed him around, Don set off on a walkabout that landed him in the heart of what was once the Dust Bowl and ground zero for the privation of the Great Depression that defined his childhood. That he would hand the keys to the one possession he still owned (a two-door Cadillac Coupe de Ville) to a con man who almost made Don's visit to Oklahoma far longer than he would have wanted, was of a piece with Don's comfort around people who are running from something. [1]

But that is all simply after action reporting. When your dreams are haunted by the fear that you will one be discovered as someone you are not, can you truly live? Well into 1970 and twenty years after his deceit, [2] that the man born Dick Whitman still has nightmares about having his true identity exposed is its own personal hell. Of course, Don has had close calls before. Whether it was his half-brother Adam showing up unannounced in New York City, [3] Pete's attempt at blackmailing Don into making him Head of Accounts, [4] or Don's demand that SCDP drop North American Aviation as a client for fear that a background check will reveal his lie, [5] like a fugitive who has evaded arrest, Don must always keep an eye out for danger. 

In fact, it was not his habitual philandering that caused Betty to demand a divorce, but rather, her discovery of his alternate life - of the manufactured person "Don Draper" was versus the man who grew up dirt poor in "coal country, Pennsylvania, by way of Ohio." [6]  The one person other than Betty that he ever shared his secret with, Dr. Faye Miller, encouraged him to both confront the trauma this dual life was creating for him and to investigate whether he could seek some sort of pardon for his actions. [7] Don's reaction to these suggestions was to run directly into the arms of a woman he hardly knew and away from the kind and nurturing woman who was trying to help him. So it was understandable that Don Draper had reservations about attending an American Legion fundraiser where other veterans might be present, not just because of Don's sense of inadequacy in their presence, [8] but the infinitesimal risk that someone who knew his true identity may call him out. 

A small river of booze and war stories had to flow, including one shared by another veteran of it-was-him-or-me life and death struggle, before Don could get to the simple truth he had been hiding for so long. "I killed my CO." A simple declarative sentence that was as basic as it could be misleading. To a casual listener, it would suggest cold-blooded murder. That he had waited twenty years to unburden himself felt like both a great relief and an odd way to describe the circumstances that attended his departure from Korea. Even then, he omitted the fact that he stole his Lieutenant's identity, but the deed was nevertheless done. That the veterans shrugged it off with a "you did what you had to do to get home" indifference and a triumphant singing of "Over There" must have been as much a surprise to Don as being awoken hours later by the same crew accusing him of theft. 

Had Don been in New York instead of on a rich man's walkabout, he might have learned that his first wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Death has an odd way of providing an after-the-fact slant on a person's life. Were we to have known that Betty had only seven years to live when she met Henry [9] or delivered baby Gene, [10] the scope of her life would have looked much different. But Sally had it wrong about her mother (a constant theme between these two, who never seemed to accept or understand one another even though they shared a stubborn streak). Betty was not treating her death as a tragedy, but rather with nobility. Betty would not let Sally feel at sea as she did when her own mother passed away. Her detailed explanation of the "arrangements" she wanted were practical, while lacing her farewell letter to her daughter with a humanity Betty was not able to show very often.  

On the other hand, the burden placed on young Sally's shoulders could not be greater. The panoply of adult issues presented to her before she is even old enough to drive is truly alarming. While divorce may seem run-of-the-mill in today's day and age, Sally was exposed to it in another time when such action was far less common. Were that not enough, she saw her step-mother's mother fellating one of her father's co-workers, [11] walked in on her own father having sex with another woman, [12] and is now being handed the awful news of her mother's impending death. 

Betty's cancer diagnosis is another period at the ends of a sentence when it comes to the show itself. As destinies are revealed, all the other options start to fall away. Viewers who want the finality of knowing what happens to the characters they have so assiduously followed for so long are left to ponder how these fates square with their own preferred outcomes. That it is implied Betty's untimely demise may have been due to cigarette smoking is ironic considering the central place that activity has played since the show's inception, but the idea that a person would die from complications associated with that activity are not particularly revelatory to us in 2015. 

Pete seems to confirm that Joan has ridden off into whatever sunset awaits her and her ascot wearing suitor Richard as he prowls the halls of McCann attempting to fend off the professional advances of Duck Phillips. But the idea that this "sour little boy" [13] could somehow find a redemptive streak as a family man in Wichita, Kansas would come as a massive surprise to anyone who has followed the litany of bad behavior and petulance that has been Pete's calling card since the day we met him. [14] 

Of course, the advertising profession is built on spinning a story that pulls at heart strings, whether it is true love or nostalgia for one's past, so it is unsurprising that Pete wants to place rose-colored glasses on his life with Trudy while conveniently forgetting everything from the fact that he swapped a chip 'n' dip wedding present for a rifle, [15] told her father that he did not love the man's daughter, [16] and had a pied-à-terre cum shag pad in New York. These indiscretions, both great and small, are easy to forget when you are approaching middle age and uncertain of your future, but it is particularly curious to see a man who wanted to be in New York City if nuclear holocaust was upon us [17] willing to pull up roots for the middle-of-nowhere Kansas. It is left to Trudy to at first splash cold water on the idea of their reunion, after all, her memory is far longer and the failings in their marriage for more his responsibility than hers, but ultimately, she buys into his tale of a second chance, after all, they say second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience. 

And while the Campbells have been hinting at reconciliation and a second chance for some time now, the question that remains unanswered is what Don will do with his third act. Will Betty's cancer diagnosis lead him back to New York where he will take responsibility for the three children she is going to leave behind? Continue his hobo ways, a lone Sears shopping bag containing all his world possessions until he reaches Long Beach, kicking himself that he sold the Craftsman cottage Anna lived in when she passed away? [18] Perhaps there was a hint in Don's treatment of Andy, the grifter who tried to frame Don for the $500 theft. Instead of punching Andy out, Don admonishes the young man to get his life straight, to not have his first foot in the adult world a false one that he would forever be running from. Don likes collecting wayward souls and trying to direct them to a future that does not include the mistakes he has made, but he seems incapable of following his own advice. It will be fascinating to see what he does when confronted with the need to be a father to children he has disappointed over and over, to "do the work" as Freddy admonished him to do [19] or take the lure of a modern day riding of the rails to reinvent himself once again, and in yet another guise.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 



END NOTES

1. In Season 3, Don picks up a couple who claim to be eloping to Niagra Falls. It turns out they are grifters who drug and rob him. Seven Twenty-Three, Season 3, Episode 7. Don also gives money to Suzanne Farrell's brother, an epileptic, and agrees to not drop him off at the VA Hospital where Suzanne arranged for him to get a job. The Color Blue, Season 3, Episode 10. And let us not get into the backstory of Diana, the Sad Waitress. See generally, Severance, Season 7, Episode 8, New Business, Season 7, Episode 9. 
2. Betty's letter to Sally is dated October 3, 1970. Don's reference to fighting he saw around the Yalu River in Korea would peg his service as sometime during 1950. 
3. Apartment 5G, Season 1, Episode 5. 
4. The Wheel, Season 1, Episode 13. 
5. Hands and Knees, Season 4, Episode 10.
6. Don's characterization of his youth is found in My Old Kentucky Home, Season 3, Episode 3. Betty's divorce demand occurs in The Gypsy and the Hobo, Season 3, Episode 11. 
7.  See, fn. 5. 
8. In Maidenform, Don and Betty attend a country club event on the 4th of July where veterans are asked to stand and be applauded. Don is reluctant to do so and looks forlorn as young Sally claps furiously for him. Maidenform, Season 2, Episode 6. 
9. My Old Kentucky Home, supra. 
10. The Fog, Season 3, Episode 5. 
11. At The Codfish Ball, Season 5, Episode 7.
12. Favors, Season 6, Episode 11. 
13. Ibid
14. While Pete's transgressions could take up their own blog post, if not a small book, a few of his "greatest hits" suffice. He affirmatively told Don he wanted Don's job in the show's very first episode. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Season 1, Episode 1, he sexually assaulted his neighbor's au pair, Souvenir, Season 3, Episode 8, told his ex-wife that he saw her father in a whore house, For Immediate Release, Season 6, Episode 6, slept with one of the Cos Cob housewives, The Collaborators, Season 6, Episode 3, and floated the idea of having Joan sleep with Herb Rennet to secure Jaguar, The Other Woman, Season 5, Episode 11. He also found a way to make becoming a millionaire sound like a struggle. Severance, supra. 
15. Red In The Face, Season 1, Episode 7. 
16. The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12. 
17. Meditations In An Emergency, Season 2, Episode 13. 
18. Tomorrowland, Season 4, Episode 13. 

19. The Monolith, Season 7, Episode 4.