Monday, May 21, 2018

Podcast Review - Why Is This Happening?

To call Chris Hayes prolific is an understatement. At the tender age of 39, he has already written two books, began hosting a cable news show at 32, and has covered politics for nearly two decades. He is now branching out into podcasting, and his maiden voyage in that medium, Why Is This Happening? is a thoroughly engaging effort at explaining complex issues of the day. 

In many ways, the podcast format plays more to Hayes's strengthens than his eponymous hour-long TV show and harkens back to his original effort on MSNBC, Up With Chris. While the eight-o'clock hour requires devotion to a structured format with multiple guests covering the news of the day in staccato segments that often elide deeper understanding, Why Is This Happening? allows Hayes to stretch his legs and let his full nerd flag fly. 

The podcast is Hayes interviewing a subject matter expert for more than a half-hour in an effort to understand today's world. This allows Hayes's innate intellectual curiosity to shine. As an interviewer, this is critical - you get the sense that Hayes has not only read the books, articles, and essays written by his guests, but the books, articles, and essays his guests read in putting together their theses and the books, articles, and essays that contradict his guests' arguments. What results is a robust, deep discussion that informs the listener in ways that a five-minute TV segment is simply unable to do.

It is Hayes's fluency on so many different topics that makes Why so compelling. Compared to another wunderkind of his era - Ezra Klein - Hayes avoids the starry-eyed naivete of his wonkish colleague. Whereas Klein came into the public sphere through a college dorm room blog, Hayes was pounding the pavement in Chicago, experiencing, at a granular level, how policy, politics, and everyday life intersect.

This distinction is important. While both Hayes and Klein are well-read and thoughtful, Klein is too quick to offer benefit-of-the-doubt absolution for public policy that is abhorrent. Hayes, while unabashedly progressive, is clear-eyed in what has gone on in this country over the past several decades. For example, in his interview with Corey Rubin, Hayes concedes up front that the conservative movement has largely succeeded over the past 40 years in kneecapping regulation and redistributing income upward. But the genius of Why is in how Hayes is able to tie together these actions not just as a form of corporate domination by the elite class, but how it reflects what is now a centuries-long tradition of consolidating power by the white majority. 

Rubin’s observation that wealthy whites have successfully turned poorer whites against even poorer minority groups for more than a century is echoed in Hayes’s conversation with Brittney Cooper, as they discuss the different ways the struggles of whites and blacks are framed in the media and culture. Cooper’s interview also delves into the black experience in America and circles around everything from white male privilege to “Mean Girl” attacks on Beyonce for having too much. As Hayes point out (not ironically) it is a struggle to be human, but not everyone’s struggle is the same. When the conversation shifts to the competition among upper class parents to help their kids get ahead, Cooper rightly notes that is precisely the problem - the idea there are a limited number of opportunities in a zero-sum game where the air is rarefied - instead of making the effort to lift more people up.  

In speaking with Dexter Filkins, listeners will grasp not just the complexity of Middle East politics, but how easily small missteps might lead to the type of regional conflagration metastasizing into a global conflict that happened in 1914 and led to World War I. His fascinating discussion with Brittney Cooper is a master class on understanding identity politics not as a slur too often hurled to dismiss your political opponents, but a core tenet of how each of us views the world. These are not small ideas and the one-on-one conversation Hayes has with his guests gives them room to breathe, the conversation to meander into different directions, and has the salutary effect of giving the listener the feeling of sitting in on a friendly chat with really smart people. 

Of course, the question begged by Why Is This Happening? is Does Any Of This Matter? In delving into the theories of Edmund Burke or the millennia-long fight between Sunni and Shia, the podcast is certainly erudite, but can also come off as precisely the kind of "East Coast" elitist discussion that conservatives have inveighed against since George Wallace bemoaned pointy-headed intellectuals and Nixon fumed against the editorial board of the New York Times. Ultimately, forty minute deep dives into political theory, identity politics or military history is fine for the Georgetown cocktail party circuit, but how useful it is when the President can send out a tweet that consumes news cycles or makes stock markets gyrate wildly is less clear.

That is not to criticize Hayes's work - once upon a time, the public intellectual, not to mention good public policy informed by research, historical analysis, and its effect on people, was valued. No longer. But to Hayes's credit, he has never tried to sugar coat his bookishness or love of political theory. Now, unshackled from his anchor's desk at MSNBC, he has the opportunity to explore topics with the seriousness and attention to detail he clearly relishes. If Hayes's early podcasts are any indication of where this will lead, Why Is This Happening? will be a regular addition to your podcast rotation.

Ep 1 - Corey Rubin (B+)
Ep 2 - Dexter Filkins (A)
Ep 3 - Brittney Cooper (A)

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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Designated Survivor

As TV show premises go, the idea behind Designated Survivor was pretty good. Take an obscure, but interesting thing about our government – that one cabinet member is kept away from the President’s State of the Union address just in case a catastrophic event occurs that wipes out the rest of government – mix in a humble everyman as the accidental Commander-in-Chief when the black swan event happens, add a sinister plot that thrusts him into that job, and presto, TV ratings gold. You can almost hear the pitch meeting: “It will be The West Wing meets 24. We will even get Keifer Sutherland to play the lead role.”

So why is it, that after just two seasons, ABC canceled Designated Survivor? To me, this was an instance of the whole being far less than the sum of its parts. On paper, the idea made sense – what would happen if suddenly, our entire Congress, Supreme Court, not to mention the President, Vice President, and every other cabinet officer except the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was killed in a terrorist attack. Putting aside the fact that in real life, this would make Ben Carson President, Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman is a mild-mannered academic, a decent and caring husband and father, and the last person who could ever get elected President precisely because he is presented as the antithesis of a politician.

But Designated Survivor could never decide which it wanted to be – The West Wing or 24 and its failure to land on a consistent narrative arc is largely what doomed it. You could see in Season 1 a clear preference for the latter – an attempt at pulse-pounding (though my heart rate rarely accelerated past “mild jog”) drama involving shady bad guys who always seemed one step ahead. There was, for example, a Manchurian Candidate type, a Congressman at the speech who miraculously survived, but, it turns out, because he was tipped off and part of the plot, with the ultimate goal of getting him to the White House. He, and others, were chased by plucky FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), who was hunting down clues while always in peril. Meanwhile, Sutherland’s President Kirkman spends the early episodes in a combination of impotent rage and in-over-his-head self-doubt. The problem was, having been identified as Jack Bauer in 24, you wanted Sutherland to take out the bad guys himself; instead, he got bogged down in bureaucracy.  

While the FBI searched for the ring leaders, the show ran aground on the other half of its premise – how do you stand up a new government after the current one has been torn down? But lack of exposition and an unwillingness to just rip the band-aid off to create story lines and characters made this half of the show weak. The President’s main antagonist was the opposing party’s designated survivor (which I do not think is a real thing), but by the end of the season, she was joining his cabinet, never to be seen or heard from again. You could almost see the writers trying to find their way out of narrative dead ends as the body count rose, story lines involving Kirkman’s family receded, and the attendant shock endings (there was, of course, an assassination attempt on Kirkman, the killing of the FBI’s Deputy Director, and the Manchurian candidate as well), tried to clear the way for a second season reboot.  

Season two course-corrected too far in the other direction. The 24 aspect became an ancillary story line that was confusing and esoteric (mostly involving a computer hacker that turned out to be one of Kirkman’s friends) while the show went full West Wing with rat-a-tat-tat Sorkian walk-talk dialogue that lacked the panache or brio of that beloved show’s wordsmith. Episodes featured the predictable legislative squabbles, foreign policy crises, and B- and C-plot romantic entanglements among the staffers, but none of it felt earned or authentic. Kirkman’s wife was killed off halfway through the second season, setting up a convoluted 25th amendment crisis (presided over by a random Vice President who came into the show out of nowhere as the Mayor of D.C. and by the end of that episode was a heartbeat away from the presidency) when recordings of Kirkman’s therapy sessions were leaked on the Internet, purporting to show him as unstable. 

And attempts at introducing new characters either felt forced (sure, let’s sign up Michael J. Fox to play a lawyer who, in the span of three episodes is a special prosecutor against the president, a private attorney representing a kidnapped American, and a special prosecutor for the President who ends up turning on him) or superfluous (hi there, Tom Kirkman’s younger brother, greetings, ambitious young assistant who gets three lines in each episode!)

Ultimately, it was all to the show’s detriment, resulting in its cancelation. While the show’s failures were many (the haphazard plotting and mediocre casting primary among them), Designated Survivor also suffered from being asked to do too much. Although it will go down as a two-season failure, the show produced a total of 44 episodes – four more than the acclaimed drama Better Call Saul will have aired after its pending fourth season. If dramas aired on cable TV, Netflix, and Amazon have proven anything, it is that less is often more. So too here. Had Designated Survivor been written around a ten-to-thirteen-episode season and not twenty-two, the writing and story development would have been more focused. Instead of trying to serve the dual needs of a conspiracy thriller and a political melodrama, it could have chosen one over the other. Ironically, the seeds of its own destruction were built right into the show’s conceit.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018


Hollywood is a land of make believe inhabited by people who pretend to be someone else. Any time a TV show tackles the struggles of actors, there is an Inception quality to it - you have real-life stars portraying not-yet-famous characters next to real-life not-yet-famous actors trying to break through and make it big. In Barry, which wrapped its first season on Sunday, the added wrinkle is that among the strivers at a community theater acting troupe is a hit man who made his way to La La Land to kill one of their classmates. 

The season unfolds on the outskirts of Los Angeles, on stage and among the low rent criminals Barry meets. The two worlds intersect because dimwitted blonde Ryan Madison is sleeping with the wife of a Chechen mob boss named Goran. Barry is contracted to kill Ryan but can’t go through with it after accidentally walking in on an acting class led by one Gene M. Cousineau (played with brio by Henry Winkler, who walks off with every scene he is in) and befriending Ryan and his fellow classmates. 

You quickly realize everyone in Barry is D-list. Gene is a past-his-prime actor still auditioning for one line roles and whose main career achievement appears to be a coke-fueled performance of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night not in the three hours it usually takes, but less than forty minutes. Nevertheless, Gene is beloved by his actors, a motley assortment of fringe talent whose acting credits extend no further than You Tube videos and a CSI cameo as a dead body. The Chechen Mafia types think it’s ‘big time’ to send a bullet to a rival gang but Goran, and his goofy number two, Noho Hank, conduct business over phones tapped by the police, record their own criminal behavior for reasons unknown, and Hank sends Barry texts with emojis more appropriate for a twelve-year-old than a cold-blooded killer.  

It is all low rent, like the bric-a-brac that sprung up around Disneyland in Anaheim because Walt was not smart enough to buy the adjacent land (a problem he rectified in Florida). The theater troupe runs through scenes from movies while Gene toggles between boredom and ferocity (his takedown of Barry’s performance of the scene made famous by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross might be the single funniest in the show’s eight episodes) while the police officers who investigate Ryan’s murder have a Keystone Kops aspect to them. The lead detective, Janice, is seduced by Gene’s hammy come-ons while her underlings generally fumble about until the case breaks late in the season. 

As Barry’s sort-of love interest, Sarah Goldburg’s Sally Reed comes closest to getting her brass ring. She desperately wants to nail her role as Macbeth in front of an agent who she hopes will sign her so she can then dump him when she becomes more successful (hey, it worked for Emma Stone). While she has the unfortunate experience of getting dropped by another manager who she won’t sleep with, she is a ladder-climber, dropping Barry when he becomes jealous of her flirtations with a guy who voices Pinnochio and muscling her way past her classmates for the starring role in their Shakespeare production only to circle back to Barry when his grief over killing a Marine buddy spills over into his Macbeth performance with her. 

Overall, the show has an off-kilter feel. Through the first half of the eight episode season, Barry’s world weary assassin is reminiscent of John Cusack in Gross Pointe Blank. Bill Hader is more sad sack, his facial expressions elastic in joy when Sally is with him but often puzzled and muted when trying to cope with his handler, Fuches, and the Chechens. The introduction of Chris (the Marine Corps buddy) midway through the season is the pivot point that takes the show in a much darker direction. Barry, Chris, and two other former Marines are enlisted to knock out Goran’s Bolivian competition, but their mission fails. The two Marines are killed in a shootout and Barry murders Chris when he threatens to go to the police, staging the scene as a suicide even though Barry had met the man’s wife and child. 

Barry appears to wrap things in a neat Hollywood bow when Barry murders Goran and his henchmen and the police pin the whole mess on a gang war with the Bolivians, Ryan (the deceased actor) and one of the Marines who died in the shootout with the Bolivians. But in an odd coda scene, we flash forward in time. Barry and Sally are together, working on a two-person play (directed by Gene) and spending a weekend with Gene and Janice at Gene’s retreat. Janice notices Barry’s surname is listed as “Block” not “Berkman” on the play’s poster and her suspicions are further aroused when Gene reminisces about the impromptu monologue about being a hit man Barry did to get into Gene’s acting class. When Janice sneaks out to look up “Barry Block” on Facebook, she ties the whole caper together, realizing it was Barry who appeared on a grainy video of the original murder scene. He confronts her and tries to talk her out of arresting him. When she demurs, he kills her, promising to be better as the show fades to black.

Huh? Barry has been renewed for a second season so I suppose this loose end will also be tied up, or maybe it was all just a dream (there were several such sequences in past episodes). This is Hollywood after all. 

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Cornell - 5/8/77

May Eighth is practically a religious holiday for Deadheads. To the converted, no more needs to be said. The mere utterance of this phrase immediately calls to mind a live show of such technical precision it is now immortalized in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. But to paraphrase from the Hagaddah, “what makes Cornell different from all other nights?” 

Cornell long ago secured its place atop the ranking of greatest Dead shows of all-time, but even in that rarefied air, opinions vary. Declaring something as “the best” on a topic as subjective as music, and particularly among a rabid fan base that runs the spectrum from octogenarians to Millenials, is impossible. 

I prefer to think of Cornell as the best example of that era of the Dead’s music - which is no small thing. The band had “retired” in October 1974 amid financial problems, burn out, and an interest among the members in pursuing solo projects. A four night Winterland run closed this chapter of what is known as “Jazz-era” Dead - shows punctuated by lengthy improvisational jams, trumpet and saxophone accompaniment, and a numbing perfection that makes one show indistinguishable from the other in the high quality of the musicianship. At times, these shows stretched to nearly four hours, and signature versions of songs like Dark Star, Eyes of the World, and Stella Blue abound. 

But even in retirement, the band never quite left the stage. A sui generis show in March 1975 stands as a lone example of what can best be described as Prog Rock on LSD, a 40 minute set comprising the entire album Blues For Allah featuring Merl Saunders on keyboard and jams so thick you feel like you are being sucked into a black hole. 

When the band emerged fully in 1976, the sound changed too. With Mickey Hart back in the fold, the group moved away from five-piece jazz influences and into a more traditional rock ’n’ roll sound splashed with a light coating of pop exemplified in the early 1977 album Terrapin Station. The band also settled on what would become the standard format for their live shows (but for some acoustic/electric sets in 1980) until Garcia’s passing in 1995: two sets with a “drums/space” segment midway through the second set, and a single encore. 

By early 1977, with the tour rust shaken off, the Dead alit for a spring tour for the ages, invading the Northeast with hot warm up shows in New York City, New Haven, Passaic, Boston and Springfield before landing in Ithaca, New York on the night of May 8th. The band burst out of the gate with an aggressive version of New Mingelwood Blues featuring hard charging leads by Garcia and speaker-rattling bass bombs by Lesh. First sets allowed the band to root through its back catalogue of musical influences - rhythm and blues, bluegrass, country, and folk, and Cornell is no different. Be it the ragtime feel of Deal or the country standard Mama Tried (with Weir giving a “thanks, Mom” nod on Mother’s Day). The band is on point and as will be clear when the fireworks really start later, the unsung hero of the night is Betty Jackson-Cantor, whose mix is sheer perfection - the instruments blending so seamlessly you would be excused for thinking the band was in a studio, the vocals clear as a bell. Of course, the band was not above contemporary influences and the stretched out set closer, Dancin’ in the Streets, a song of protest and resistance in the 60s, is rearranged in a hypnotic disco tempo that just will not stop. 

For those of us who grew up on Cornell via cassette tape, the second set starts anachronistically. Can we rate different versions of Take A Step Back and deem this one the best? There is something in Jerry’s “horribly smashed” comment that always makes me chuckle and Bob’s admonition that you don’t want all your friends up front to be “real bug eyed” is just so Bobby. The band must have been satisfied with the crowd’s response, because Scarlet>Fire starts with a musical explosion that floods your eardrums in a way that every time I hear it, I mutter to myself “perfect from note one.” And it is. There is sheer joy in Garcia’s voice and magic in his finger tips as he leads the band through this staple of the Dead’s canon. Jerry’s leads are matched by Lesh’s throbbing bass and Keith Godchaux’s rich piano counterpoint. 

The thing you notice is how effortless the playing sounds, like the notes are arranged in front of them and the band is simply following a chart, but what you are experiencing instead is a group performing at a creative peak. The transition from Scarlet into Fire is extended, as Garcia starts playing the line until Lesh decides to join. While latter-day Heads are familiar with the coupling of these two songs, this was all new territory back in ’77. The band brings the funk as Phil lays down a groove that will get your toes tapping, with Jerry picking up on the beat and away we go through verses and soaring guitar solos. Fire is also a perfect example of Weir’s unconventional but “just exactly perfect” (for the Dead) rhythm guitar playing. He does not play the rhythm so much as embellish Garcia’s leads, punctuating the musical themes while allowing Garcia’s brilliance to take center stage. 

Weir’s Estimated Prophet was a newcomer to the live rotation and was played frequently throughout 1977, including at Cornell. But even after a few months, the band was already stretching the relatively straight-forward studio version into a slinkier live performer, with Garcia leaning into his wah-wah pedal and the song taking on a bit of a reggae feel. 

As events unfolded, it is easy to see Estimated as a sort of palate cleanser before the St Stephen > NFA > St Stephen main course. Part of what makes Cornell so memorable is even the minor hiccups are perfect, as in Donna’s too-soon entry into the “lady fingers” stanza of St Stephen, her voice ephemeral and drifting off as if it was always planned that way. The band barrels into Not Fade Away with gusto. Of course, Not Fade Away in the 70s was not the second-set crowd pleasing love letter from the band to the audience it became in later years. No, in Ithaca, New York, NFA was a balls-out rocker, stretched through and through and left hung out to dry, an orgy of musicianship that gives you hammer throwing guitar leads, room-rattling bass drops, and piano playing that will assault your senses in ways you did not think possible. 

And then, after a brief segue back into St Stephen, Jerry throws out Morning Dew, a 14-minute masterpiece of music that has within it moments of hushed silence, where you can hear a pin drop in a venue filled with 4,800 people, interspersed with rich instrumentals that punctuate the lyrics as the song builds toward a crescendo that if heard under the proper influence, may literally make you feel like you are seeing God. It all comes to a head as Jerry goes for ever more ambitious leads, his fingers fanning his guitar at such a speed the room starts to spin; and, as he bellows the final song’s final line, “I guess it does not matter . . . anyway” Keith hits a piano run that puts an exclamation point on the proceedings. The song will literally take your breath away, Weir’s meek “thank you” not nearly doing justice to what may be the greatest single song performance in the band’s 30-year career. The night ends with a quintessential Dead coda - One More Saturday Night - played on Sunday. 

Whew. Much has been written about Cornell, particularly with its “official” release last year around the time of the 40th anniversary of the concert. For me, the show has been a part of my life for going on 25 years. I know every note, from the wonky one Jerry hits to bring the band back into St Stephen to the one Phil plays signaling the full transition into Fire on the Mountain. I have played “air piano” as Keith closes out Morning Dew and mimicked Weir’s A-YOW during One More Saturday Night. Whether Cornell is the band’s greatest performance or not is a dorm room debate for music lovers, many of whom are well into their fifth (or sixth) decade of living and beside the point of simply appreciating a band playing at the height of their powers on a night that is now part of musical history. 

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