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 thirteen 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 two measly states from among places like Virginia, Ohio, and Nevada (or just win Florida) 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."


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: