Monday, May 20, 2024

Book Review - Nuclear War: A Scenario

Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it is fair to say the threat of nuclear war has receded in the public’s mind. Sure, regional wars have broken out, terrorist attacks have taken place, and missile launches in the Korean peninsula raise the diplomatic temperature from time to time, but the existential, build-a-bomb-shelter-in-your-home level of fear that loomed over the world during the Cold War no longer exists. But if you long for the days of “stop, drop, and roll,” Annie Jacobsen’s Nuclear War: A Scenario is here to remind you that civilization as we know it could end in less time than it takes to watch a Columbo rerun.

The scenario of the book’s title is not far-fetched. A paranoid North Korean dictator sends a lone ICBM missile hurtling toward the United States. That act is the jumping off point for Jacobsen’s book, which proceeds in a tick-tock manner of minutes and seconds, jumping across time zones and countries, putting us in the rooms where decisions are being made, be it the White House, Pentagon, military bases across the globe, the Kremlin, or the capitals of our NATO allies. It would read like a high tech thriller if the stakes were not so high and the actions so possible.

Jacobsen has done her homework, the book is littered with interviews and quotes from the men and women who have been at the highest levels of government, the military commanders who have led strategic planning for a nuclear war, and the soldiers whose fingers have been on buttons that would send millions to their deaths. In other words, when Jacobsen puts words in the mouths of presidential advisers bickering in front of the President as to what protocols need to be followed or calls to be made as a nuclear missile bears down on the U.S. at Mach 6, she is not pulling these ideas out of thin air, but rather, using the input she has received to inform her story.

And it is a grim one. As that lone missile speeds toward Washington, D.C. in an attempted “decapitation” of our government, the President orders a retaliatory strike with more than 80 nukes, but as he is departing the White House, a second, submarine-based missile launches, its target a nuclear power plant in California. Things spiral quickly. Both bombs hit their marks. The President is taken out of action when he bails out of Marine One and suffers life threatening injuries, civilian and military leaders who attempt to alert the Russians we are not preemptively attacking them fail to do so, and a Russian counter strike results in a domino effect of the other nuclear powers launching their missiles in a “use them or lose them” strategy that erases much of humanity in a scant 72 minutes.

There is more, and Jacobsen is not stingy with the gory details. Bodies vaporized, buildings turned to ash, modern telecommunications eliminated, the sheer magnitude of the destruction is difficult for the human mind to process or envision, it truly is the stuff of nightmares. Underlying all of this is the futility of so much of what we have done to avoid this ending. We may comfort ourselves in the fiction that abstract ideas like the presidential line of succession or the use of special codes to launch these weapons will somehow save us (or at least protect us) from the worst case scenario, but the book makes clear that is not the case. To take one example, when the President parachutes out of Marine One and is seriously injured on landing, the military and civilian leadership who make it to some place called Site R (which is a real place and is in fact an underground nuclear bunker built into the side of a mountain in Pennsylvania) cannot locate him and do not know if he is alive or dead. While others within the line of succession may still be alive, one, the Secretary of Defense (fifth in line if you care) is on site and by default is determined to be the Acting President because decisions have to be made. In the end, does it matter? No, but the point is that policies are just abstractions when life and death decisions about the fate of humanity need to be made on the fly.  

Worse, Jacobsen makes clear (although does not explicitly say) that the trillions we have spent on defense can only do so much. *One* nuclear missile launched by the North Koreans evades any attempt to knock it down, triggering our response. The “red phone” between Washington and Moscow fails to keep the nation’s two leaders in touch to mitigate the risk of civilization-ending escalation. Even the consequences from the fact that the trajectory of our missiles, which breach Russian air space on their way to North Korea, appear not to have been considered in real life, yet that flight pattern is what convinces the Russians they too are under attack and poof, humanity ends shortly thereafter.

Jacobsen may have more accurately subtitled her book a worst case scenario because hey, it is possible our missile defense with a 50 percent failure rate might knock down an incoming ICBM or the President might be able to track down his Russian counterpart to assure him we are not preemptively attacking his country. Cooler heads may prevail and “only” a few nuclear warheads might deliver their lethal blows, but even those scenarios are hardly comforting. Little has changed since the 1983 movie War Games concluded that the only way to “win” the game of nuclear war is not to play it.



Monday, April 8, 2024

TV Review - Elsbeth

In the 1970s, Peter Falk’s Columbo perfected a specific form of TV murder mystery: the so-called “how” (as opposed to “who”) dun it. In today’s media environment, where shows like True Detective create byzantine, multi-layered storylines designed to keep viewers guessing about a killer’s identity, the idea that a show could be compelling and popular when we, the audience know “who” done it from the start is a radical idea. After all, how interesting can it be to watch the detective figure out what we already know?

But that is the genius of Columbo. Each episode started the same way: by establishing the relationship between the killer and the victim, the motivation for the murder, and the ways in which the killer tries to cover his or her tracks. After the deed was done, Columbo would make his rumpled entrance, cigar dangling from his mouth, a five-o’clock-shadow clinging to his jaw, and a skepticism that whatever explanation his fellow police officers came up with to explain the dead body was probably wrong. And then Columbo started to, in the parlance of our times, “cook.” It might be a clue at the scene of the crime everyone else missed or a stray comment by someone Columbo quickly sized up as a potential suspect, but whatever it was, he would methodically pull at that little thread until the entire case revealed itself to him. That Falk could make a foregone conclusion so compelling was a testament to his ownership of the role (one that garnered him multiple (and well-deserved) Emmy awards.  

In true TV fashion, what’s old is new again, and CBS has revived the “how dun it” with its Thursday night offering, Elsbeth. The surface similarities are obvious – like Columbo, Elsbeth’s first act is spent briefly establishing the relationship between murderer and victim, the crime itself, and the killer’s attempt to stage the crime scene in order to draw attention away from themselves. Also like Lieutenant Columbo, Elsbeth Tascioni is a bit of a fish out of water. Whereas Columbo could be mistaken for a civilian nosing around a crime scene, Elsbeth is a civilian nosing around a crime scene (albeit under the auspices of being a consent decree monitor for the NYPD) and has a sort of manic pixie girl all grown up and with a sleeker wardrobe vibe even as she is weighed down by the massive tote bags she slings over each shoulder. They are both a little pushy and detail oriented and are not put off by ignoring social cues or conventions. In the end, they get the goods on the killer and everyone (other than the victim) lives happily ever after.

And that, friends, is where the similarities end. While Elsbeth is a decent Columbo knock off, it falters in a few obvious ways. The primary reason is that while Columbo episodes typically ran anywhere from 65 to 85 minutes, Elsbeth must resolve her cases in a scant 42 to 44. That matters enormously. Everything about Columbo unfolded at greater length and with heightened tension – from the murder to the investigation, allowing suspense to build before the inevitable conclusion. Elsbeth just does not have that luxury, so everything seems slightly hurried, the visual equivalent of listening to a podcast at 1.5x speed. This matters because so much of the enjoyment you get from Columbo is the slow burn of the Lieutenant methodically working his way to the killer by deep diving into the evidence, catching the killer in small lies that lead to bigger lies to cover the smaller lies until finally, having cornered his prey, Columbo pounces. And while Elsbeth does engage in a similar form of investigation, the more limited run time simply does not give the story enough time to breathe.

Adding to this problem is that unlike Columbo, which focused solely on investigating the murder of the week, Elsbeth has a side kick (a beat cop named Kaya) and a B story (allegations that the precinct captain where she works is corrupt) further eating into the time the show might otherwise use focused on her murder investigation. The B plot does not add anything (at least not yet) and while the presence of an informal partner is fine, the other problem is that the device through which Elsbeth is getting to these crime scenes – the consent decree monitor – is a little clunky and probably escapes the casual viewer. In this way, the show is more like Monk, who was on retainer to the police but was understood to very much not be part of law enforcement. Elsbeth, on the other hand, lives in a murkier gray area resulting in her doing things that very much look like police work even though she is not one.

The other thing that made Columbo exceptional was the not-so-subtle anti-elitism written into its scripts. Columbo was often underestimated because he looked like he just rolled out of bed and appeared dim witted. His adversaries were smart, rich, and/or influential, and routinely turned up their noses at someone who they saw as lesser. Columbo would use their dismissiveness to his advantage. By the time he had pieced together the solution, it was too late for the killers to recognize Columbo used his intelligence, gift for observation, and dogged work ethic against them. But most (if not all) of that is missing in Elsbeth. She is a wealthy, successful criminal defense lawyer who decided to switch sides late in her career. Yes, she comes across as quirky and the cops and criminals alike roll their eyes at some of her behavioral tics, but it never gets much beyond that. Moreover, the whole “country mouse in the big city” vibe the first few episodes have leaned into (the touristy upper decker ride, the foam Statue of Liberty headwear, etc.) does not make a lot of sense considering her prior place of residence was Chicago (hardly a small town), so her awe and wonder at New York seems over-the-top.

All that said, Elsbeth is not without its charms. It nicely incorporates technology (the pilot episode involves a pilfered SIM card) and pop culture (the third episode focuses on the murder of a reality star modeled after The Real Housewives franchise) into its stories and Elsbeth is played with a lightness and whimsy that fits into the idea of New York as a place of unique characters. It remains to be seen whether Elsbeth will mature into the kind of show whose re-runs will air on a daily basis 55 years from now.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

So THAT Is What It Is Called

Just add on constant anxiety, and this has pretty much been my life for as long as I can remember, or at least the past several years but getting people to understand what it is like to live like this is almost impossible. 

Monday, February 5, 2024

Why I Hated The Succession Finale

It may be crude (although I think Roman would approve) but when I think of the Succession finale, my mind immediately goes to something called a “ruined *rga*m.” For the unaware, a ruined *rga*m is when a woman manipulates a man right to the edge of climax and then withdraws the source of stimulation, thereby denying him the pleasure of a happy ending. And, much like the frustration I imagine one feels when this is done in the bedroom, so too did Jesse Armstrong tease Kendall Roy’s ascension to the throne only to pull his hand away at the last second, depriving us of the release we so desperately craved.

The show’s ending was particularly frustrating because the rest of the show’s fourth season was outstanding. There were no wasted episodes, much less wasted scenes and the storytelling moved at an often frenetic pace. From Logan’s shocking death to a disputed presidential election, and the tug of war over GoJo’s attempted acquisition of Waystar, it was exceptional entertainment, and Kendall was at the center of it all. The tragic figure we had watched try, over and over, to reach the top rung of the ladder finally found his mojo. Whether it was his powerful eulogy at Logan’s funeral or his charismatic performance when pitching Living+, it appeared our number one boy would finally “win,” giving us the satisfying ending viewers (or at least *this* viewer) long sought.

Instead, Armstrong pulled a last second switcheroo by having Shiv, who had agreed to back Kendall and block the company’s sale, switch sides in a moment of boardroom skullduggery that landed her husband, Tom Wamgsgans, in the big chair.[1] There were two problems with this. One is superficial. The ending was lazy insofar as it recycled a plot line from Season One when Kendall attempted to remove Logan from power and was stymied by a single vote, except there it was Roman, not Shiv, who double crossed him. The other, and the focus of this essay, is more substantive. Simply put, the ending did not make sense within the universe Armstrong created.[2]

The show was called “Succession” not “Three Kids Don’t Know How To Share One Toy” which is basically how it ended. From the very first episode, the audience was conditioned to believe that one of Logan Roy’s children would, um, succeed him as head of Waystar – a point reinforced time and again. Most of that season (and season three) focused on Kendall’s attempt to force his way into leadership, the season two premiere included scenes where both Shiv and Roman pitched their vision of the company’s future hoping to be named their father’s successor[3], and the codicil to Logan’s will reflected his wish that Kendall take over upon his passing.[4] That one of the kids was in line to lead the company after Logan’s passing finds further support in the fact that when two non-family members – Rhea Jarrell and Gerri Kellman – held the CEO title, their reigns were incredibly short, with one leaving in disgust (Rhea) and the other dismissed as a mere place holder (Gerri).

Moreover, the show’s ethos emphasized the cutthroat environment Logan created. We were told, in various ways, that Logan gauged the mettle of his children either by how much abuse they could take[5] or which one could assert dominance over the other.[6] His leadership included sadistic games like “boar on the floor” and he explained to Kendall that business is like a knife fight in the mud. In other words, Ken, Shiv, and Roman were all raised to believe in a Darwinian worldview where the only objective is winning, regardless of what needs to be done to achieve that goal.

And Season Four (until the board room) affirmed that philosophy. While the kids were working together on a project after being expelled from Logan’s kingdom, once he died, the knives came out – as Logan had raised them to do. After Ken and Roman were named co-CEOs, Shiv immediately started plotting against them, looking for her own way to run the company by partnering behind their backs with Lukas. When Roman tapped out of the competition, incapable of processing the havoc he helped create with Mencken’s tainted victory, a final battle between Ken and Shiv was teed up, except when Greg’s handy intel confirmed that Lukas had no intention of appointing Shiv as Waystar CEO, her reaction was not to line up behind Kendall (and concede his win) but rather, to stab him in the back and support her husband, who she despised,[7] never mind the fact that at Logan’s memorial service, the kids agreed one of them should run the company. In other words, not only did Armstrong go against the show’s moral philosophy (winner take all), he did so in a way that was not even consistent with his own storyline!

This is particularly true because Kendall’s arc in season four so clearly reflected his growth into Logan’s logical successor. Prior to Logan’s death, there was always an air of insecurity around Kendall. He could get rattled easily in meetings and always seemed to be either second guessing his own decisions or thinking about how Logan would react to them. But after his father’s death, all that washed away. The old Kendall, who melted under the lights, was replaced by a new Kendall, self-assured in front of crowds whether he was pitching a retirement community, praising his father from the pulpit, or standing up to Lukas’s schoolyard taunts.

In addition to his public facing glow up, Kendall was also deft at working angles behind the scenes. When the company snoops learned that Lukas’s subscriber numbers were made up, it is Kendall who sweet talks Ebba into revealing other unsavory things about him. On the PR front, Kendall leveraged embarrassing information on Hugo to get him to dirty up Logan (post-mortem and off-the-record) with reporters, simultaneously giving Kendall a more positive public image. He also recruited Colin to join his inner circle, knowing it is invaluable to have an enforcer who can also keep his mouth shut. Time and again we got confirmation that Kendall embodied Logan’s dark energy and people took notice, be it the Waystar brain trust or the President-elect of these United States. In short, Kendall did all the things within the universe Jesse Armstrong created to “win” but instead of giving him that victory, the writers decided that Shiv would deny him the job because she could not have it.[8] Huh?

Defenders of the finale might argue that Logan was dismissive of his children and none was qualified to take his seat. Indeed, the last time he saw them face to face, he ridiculed them as not being serious people, to which I would respond in two ways. First, ok, but if Logan thought so little of his children, why did he keep handing them high level positions within his company?! But more seriously, his analysis was both ungenerous and inaccurate and also ignored his own failings as a leader. To be sure, as business executives, the three had their failings. Kendall overpaid for Vaulter, the satellite launch Roman led literally went kablooey, and Shiv sat by quietly when her father decided to cut Ken loose and make him take the fall for the cruise line debacle knowing it was her husband who was at least partly to blame.

But for all the ink that was spilled writing about Succession, you would be hard pressed to find anything with the title “Are We Sure Logan Roy Is Good At His Job?” It was a question that was never grappled with because of the force of his personality and ability to best his rivals (not to mention the narrative requirement that everyone else have a ring to chase), but if you get past the gruff insults and bullying behavior, you realize that Logan Roy was not that good at his job and it was his kids (the ones he claimed were not serious people) who bailed him out over and over again, all in service of showing they were capable of succeeding him!

Consider that almost every crisis at Waystar is triggered by some dumb decision Logan makes, starting at the beginning of Season One with Logan not telling Kendall (his supposed heir apparent) about a clause in the company’s debt agreement allowing its lenders to call in their notes if the company’s stock drops below a certain level. When Logan fell ill and the stock price tumbled, Ken solved this problem by bringing in Sandy and Stewy in exchange for board seats and the purchase of a minority stake in the company. Logan may have been unhappy with Ken’s decision, but was he really in a position to question it?

In Season Two, Logan’s deal for PGM is scuttled because the cruise line scandal is exposed. We learn that the person responsible for preying on cruise line employees sexually was a guy named Lester McLintock, one of Logan’s “wolf pack” cronies who the kids knew as “Mo” (“mo-lester”) and whose conduct was an open secret within the company.[9] It is left to the kids to clean up the mess. Roman is sent to Turkey in search of a sovereign wealth fund deal that would take the company private while Kendall and Shiv do damage control in Washington, D.C.; the former, by giving a full-throated defense of his father in front of a Senate Committee hearing and the latter by talking a female whistleblower out of testifying. Their efforts stop the bleeding, but the thanks Ken is given for protecting his father is Logan’s demand he take the blame for a problem not of his doing.[10] Of course, none of this would have been needed had Logan fired Mo long ago instead of sweeping his crimes under the rug. That fact notwithstanding, Logan also had the option of stepping down as Chair and CEO of the company in the wake of the scandal but threw Ken under the bus instead.

Logan’s penchant for secrecy involving his health would also come back to bite him in Season Three when Sandy and Stewy’s takeover bid[11] came up for a vote before the shareholders. During the meeting, Logan forgets to take medication for his urinary tract infection, causing him to become delirious. Shiv again steps into the breach to hammer out a settlement with Sandi Furness when it looks like the shareholder vote will not go the family’s way, yet Logan criticizes his daughter’s actions like an arsonist complaining that the fire fighter did not douse the flames correctly. In short, when the company was in trouble because of one of Logan’s bad decisions, it was his supposedly inept children who cleaned up the mess.

These defensive moves are in addition to the affirmative ones the kids made at various points to further their father’s objectives. For example, when things looked iffy with Nan Pierce, Kendall got the deal over the finish line by befriending Naomi Pierce and convincing her to vote for it. He is also the first one to see the benefit of Waystar’s acquisition of GoJo and Roman is the one who connects with Lukas at Ken’s birthday party to build a relationship with the enigmatic Swede. Long story short, the idea that the kids were failures while their father was some master of the universe is belied by the events in series itself. Logan’s screw ups were as bad (if not worse) than anything the kids did and the kids constantly swooped in to save the day when he did screw up, yet the idea they were ill-equipped to succeed him somehow become show canon.[12] 

Another defense of the show’s ending might be that Logan viewed his kids as privileged and not having had to work for their success. “Make your own pile” he spits at them at the end of Season Three when he casts them out into the wilderness. Contrast the Roy children with Lukas, who we are led to believe built GoJo from scratch (and perhaps someone in whom Logan saw a little of his younger self), and Tom, a Midwesterner who does not come from money. Aren’t those two more simpatico with Logan’s view that success is earned not inherited? Perhaps, but do either of these men hold up to closer scrutiny?

Start with Tom. He may come from humble beginnings, but a middle class upbringing is not the sole qualification to take over as CEO. Regardless, Tom did not “earn” his pile any more than the Roy kids. He benefitted from a similar form of nepotism by dint of his dating and then marrying Shiv because he literally had zero executive skill! Among his failings? He orchestrated a ham-handed attempt to destroy evidence of the cruise line scandal, gave such poor testimony in front of the Senate he was referred to as a “smirking block of feta cheese[13],” used his own underling as a human foot stool, outsourced the firing of hundreds of ATN employees to Greg, and could not even meet the low bar of getting a proper slogan for the channel. If there was a “failson” in the group, it was him! Even more, while he would have been the logical person to take the fall for the cruise line scandal, Shiv saved him from the chopping block. In fact, Tom’s defining trait was loyalty (not necessarily a bad thing) to Logan, not a high level of business acumen and yet, in the dog-eat-dog world Jesse Armstrong created, we are supposed to believe that the actual qualities most valuable in getting to the top are blind subservience and mediocre job performance?  Sorry, not buying it.

As for Lukas, you will never convince me Waystar was better off in his hands. For one thing, as Kendall noted, Lukas did not understand Waystar’s business. Lukas wanted to convert one of the company’s primary sources of revenue – ATN – into a “Bloomberg grey” channel that would presumably just barf out news about Wall Street (hardly a ratings generator!) Such a decision would have been particularly stupid considering GoJo was going to need all the money it could get to service the debt it surely took out to buy Waystar, not to mention the company’s stock was going to take a hit over its inflated subscriber numbers.[14] Speaking of subscriber numbers, do we really think a guy who did that is going to be a good steward of an even bigger company? And, like Kendall, Lukas is (at a minimum) a recreational drug user who gets high with his employees, but unlike Kendall, Lukas also sexually harasses his underlings, opening him (and the company) up to significant liability (not to mention lots and lots of bad PR). Finally, much of his public image is built on a lie that he is some genius computer coder, which, if exposed, might also damage his company’s brand. Put differently, Lukas engages in wonky business practices, treats his employees terribly, and is not the tech genius his minions portray him to be, and yet, this guy is somehow more worthy of “winning” in the end? Again, not buying it.

The final argument in support of the ending is the most basic and the one Shiv relied on: Ken was responsible for the death of another human being and that ipso facto disqualified him from leading the company. Now I will admit, there is something to be said for this, although I think we can all agree Ken did feel remorse for his actions. But within the Succession universe, there are a couple of other problems with this argument.

First, Shiv was every bit as amoral as everyone else on the show. She knew about the Dodds incident all the way back at Chiantishire and it did not stop her from teaming up with Ken and Roman, first to try and block the sale of Waystar and then, when that failed, working together to buy Pierce. If she was so offended by Ken’s actions, why did she suddenly get religion at the eleventh hour? It is not like Shiv had some shiny moral compass guiding her. To take one example, the first time Shiv talks one-on-one with Lukas, he’s snorting cocaine and telling her about how he sent frozen blood bricks to his communications director after their relationship ended. Shiv’s reaction was to provide crisis consulting on how to make the problem go away, not concern over Lukas’s abhorrent behavior.

Second, Shiv understood the value of blackmail. To go back to the cruise line scandal, Shiv used information about it not once but twice during the series to her advantage. The first time, she was working for Gil Eavis and threatened to use it against Waystar if ATN did not stop attacking Eavis on air. The second time was when she convinced Kara not to testify in front of the Senate by offering her money to stay silent. In neither case did Shiv care one bit about the women Mo assaulted or the Waystar employees whose deaths were never investigated.[15] No, she just cared about using incriminating information to her advantage. Since it is clear she 1) knew how to blackmail people and 2) was not afraid to do so, why would she back her estranged husband and a guy who snubbed her twice instead of her brother, who she had enormous leverage over? The chances that Shiv would have any meaningful role in a GoJo-led Waystar were zero, but all she needed to do was threaten to go public with what she knew about Kendall’s role in Andrew Dodds’s death and he would have had no choice but to put her in a senior role in the company. In other words, why bother spending 39 episodes drilling into our heads that these are the rules by which your universe operates only to decide in the second-to-last-scene of the entire series that they no longer apply? It just does not make sense.

In the end, maybe none of this matters and maybe that was the point. GoJo’s acquisition of Waystar would likely make Kendall, Shiv, and Roman billionaires[16] who would never want for anything (at least financially) for the rest of their lives. Instead, each is left staring into the middle distance, wrestling with the same questions as the rest of us – Who Am I and What Do I Want To Do With My Life? In other words, all the time we spend with these characters was supposed to tell us that money can’t buy happiness. No kidding.  

If you’re interested in what an alternate, post-finale ending might look like, check out:

Succession– Six Months Later (Kendall’s Revenge)

If you want to read my episode-by-episode recaps, they can be found here

[1] While Tom did become head of Waystar, he would lead a subsidiary of GoJo with little actual power.

[2] The closest analogy I can think of is when Greg Daniels toyed with having Pam and Jim divorce in the final season of The Office only to back down mid-season in the face of massive fan backlash to the increasing tension in the Halpert marriage and introduction of the dreaded character “Brian the Boom Guy.” Instead, Armstrong went for an ending akin to making Bran – an important, but not central character – king at the end of Game of Thrones instead of one of the two logical choices, Jon or Dani.

[3] Indeed, the whole premise of The Summer Palace was Logan’s desire to name a successor, which he did (sort of)  – Siobhan.

[4] Yes, I know, the ambiguous pen mark could be read as an underline or a strike through, but the point, confirmed by Frank Vernon, was that sometime in the not too distant past, Logan memorialized his wish that Kendall succeed him.

[5] In Chiantishire, Caroline commented to Shiv that Logan liked treating his children like dogs and seeing how many times he could kick them and have them come running back to him.

[6] In Prague, Connor observed that Logan’s parenting philosophy was akin to pitting two dogs (again with the dogs!) against one another and then sending the weaker one off.

[7] This decision might have made sense if Shiv and Tom were happily married, but they were separated and had, less than a week before, the kind of empty-the-tank fight that couples have on the way to divorce.

[8] We will get into why Shiv’s decision making did not make sense within the show universe in more depth later, but suffice to say, her choice was particularly inexplicable considering the fact that Lukas snubbed her not once but twice (while also hiding the fact GoJo had lied about its subscriber numbers) and she and Tom were estranged. And if you claim Shiv could have been resentful about Kendall’s decision to side with Roman and call the election for Mencken, consider that 1) Tom was in on the decision too; and 2) when she met Mencken at Logan’s wake, she made clear she was willing to put aside her personal political views now that he was going to be President to allay any concerns about her leading the company.

[9] In addition to Mo’s conduct, there is a separate thread of the scandal involving mysterious deaths of cruise line employees that were never investigated because “no real person” was involved.

[10] Not only was this move incredibly selfish, it belied the fact that Ken had, per whistleblower James Weisel, cleaned up the cruise line while he was running the company. Talk about no good deed going unpunished!

[11] Another outgrowth of Logan’s poor choices. His decision to go back on his word and wrest control of the company back from Kendall in Season One resulted in Ken teaming up with Sandy and Stewy and making an unsolicited offer to buy it.

[12] It is also worth noting that the kids sniff out Logan’s plan to make another run at PGM and outbid him for the company.

[13] Due in part to the revelation that Tom sent Greg the same email (“you can’t make a tomelet without cracking a few Gregs”) *sixty seven* times in one day.

[14] While I understand TV is not real life, that the writers introduced this land mine into the story and then, in the very next episode, were like “never mind, no one thinks this is a big deal” did not sit well with me. Any company caught doing such a thing would not only see an immediate, and negative hit to its stock price (which would be particularly concerning here where a deal was on the precipice of being finalized) but an SEC investigation as well. Moreover, because the kids’ wealth was tied up in Waystar stock, depending on how the acquisition was structured, they could have taken a significant financial hit if, for example, those shares were going to be converted into shares of GoJo just as all this bad news breaks.

[15] This also reinforces the first point. Shiv is not some beacon of virtue, and excused and defended all manner of sleazy behavior by other people if it meant it helped her get ahead. That she was some beacon of virtue who could not stomach the idea of Kendall taking over based solely on the Dodds incident rings particularly hollow.

[16] I base this off the value (roughly $2 billion) Logan placed on Kendall’s shares of the family trust and am assuming Shiv and Roman had the same amount. Too Much Birthday; but see fn. 14 supra.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Important Office Episodes: Secretary's Day S6E22

Introducing a new character to a long-running, well-established sitcom can be challenging. An ensemble cast with 80+ episodes under its belt is like a stable atom and the appearance of a new cast member can ruin that chemistry or come across as a sign of desperation[1], which is what makes Secretary’s Day, the twenty-second episode of the sixth season of The Office, so important.

When we first met Erin Hannon[2] toward the end of season five, it was as Pam’s replacement as the office receptionist after Pam left to go work for the Michael Scott Paper Company. When Pam returned to Dunder Mifflin as a saleswoman, Erin kept her job but the writers did not do much with her for the next twenty episodes other than to establish 1) that Michael saw her as lesser version of Pam, who Michael saw as a sort of emotional woobie but was busy getting married, being pregnant, and learning her new job and 2) as a potential love interest for Andy (and the two do in fact start dating just prior to this episode). In other words, she was a bit of a cipher, not well-defined, and adding little to the show overall.

But that all changed in an episode that gave Erin a chance to shine. There is a B plot involving a parody video transposing Kevin’s voice onto Cookie Monster, but the episode’s main focus is on Erin, who is taken out to lunch by Michael to celebrate secretary’s day. She is, as Michael notes during a talking head, weird, and that energy manifests itself in a variety of random non-sequiturs: Erin takes a picture of Michael asking her to lunch (weird). In the car on the way to lunch, she asks him in what decade he would have wanted to be a teenager (very weird) and then tells him she would have picked the 1490s because that was when Columbus discovered America (even weirder, and also not factually accurate). The bit goes on at lunch, where we learn Erin’s prior job was at a Taco Bell Express but she quit when it became a full-blown Taco Bell because she could not keep up (?) and, out of nowhere, asks Michael how many pillows he sleeps on (??). Part of what makes these lines so funny is Kemper’s wide-eyed innocence. To her, these are completely normal questions to ask as casual chit chat with a co-worker whereas Michael recoils at the bizarreness of it all, looking at her like she has three heads when she asks him if he has a favorite age or month.[3]

Naturally, when the two do engage in what most of us consider normal conversation, things go completely off the rails. Michael asks her how things are going with Andy (normal) and when she asks Michael to tell her about him before they met (also normal) the reveal about Andy’s prior engagement to Angela sends Erin spiraling. Her line reading of a simple phrase - “uh oh” - should be studied by actors. Four little letters but delivered as a warning sign that this character knows when she is about to melt down – which she does – before dropping what might be the oddest line in the show’s history: “in the foster home my hair was my room.” Like, WHAT? Kills me every time.

When Michael and Erin return to the office[4] for cake with the rest of their co-workers, Andy singles out Angela for planning a great party as Erin seethes in the background before absolutely nailing him in the face with a huge piece of cake and confronting him about why he never told her about his relationship with Angela. Here again, Kemper really delivers, accusing Andy of sleeping with other members of the office (possibly together?) before storming out as the camera pans to the cake with her smiling face on it. She then gets some great one-on-one moments, first with Angela, who attempts to upbraid Erin for embarrassing her in front of everyone, to which Erin replies “take it up with the chief of police” (another odd, but hilarious comment) and then with Pam, who attempts to console Erin by sharing her own experience of having been engaged to someone else before she and Jim got together. At first, Erin assumes it was Andy (?) and then, after Pam tells Erin that sometimes the heart does not know what it wants, she misreads the comment entirely, assuming Pam is talking about herself and wishes Pam well in finding what she (Pam) is looking for.

It is a lot to cram into a single episode (much less one plot line within it) but in these brief scenes, Erin delivers an all-time comedic heater capped off when she and Andy have a private conversation in which she questions whether his real name is Andy Bernard or Lionel Frankenstein. It is just so … weird, but the timing, the mannerisms, the line delivery are all spot on, showing (not simply telling, as Michael did early in the episode) that this character is vibrating at a different frequency than the rest of the gang.[5]

The only critique I have is that the writers failed to capitalize on this bravura performance. After this brief moment in the sun, Erin mostly reverted to being a background player involved in a revolving door of office romances (Gabe, Andy (again), Pete) where the writers never seemed sure whether or not to turn her and Andy into a will they/won’t they Pam and Jim 2.0[6] and an effort to make Michael into a quasi-father figure to her (which never really landed). The series finale did offer a nice grace note – the pitch perfect casting of Joan Cusack and Ed Begley, Jr. as her birth parents, with a heartfelt reunion and some synchronized dancing at Dwight and Angela’s wedding that confirmed her parents were just as odd as she was.

[1] Indeed, more than a few “jump the shark” moments are attributed to such a decision (e.g., cousin Oliver in The Brady Bunch).

[2] Real name Kelly, but due to the other Kelly’s attempt to get Charles Minor to notice her, changed to her middle name, Erin, so as to avoid confusion.

[3] While Michael has no answer, hers is April when she was seven (also weird!)

[4] Shout out to Steve Carrell for giving an ALL TIME eye roll you miss if you are not paying attention.

[5] With the possible exception of Creed, who is, as Ryan would say, on the freaking moon.

[6] Her Season Nine relationship with Pete had the most chemistry, but was treated like it never happened in the series finale.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Ten Years Later, True Detective Hits Different

When True Detective premiered in January 2014, it was a simpler time. Obama was President, Trump had not yet infected the body politic, and we were still in the so-called Golden Age of television, filled with thought-provoking prestige dramas. True D would get added to that list quickly. Its story telling, across multiple timelines, with two charismatic lead actors (Woody Harrelson as Martin Hart and Matthew McConaughey as Rustin Cole), and a mysterious whodunit (What was Carcosa? Who was the Yellow King?) was the kind of cultural catnip that launched a thousand think pieces (and more than a few memes). Ultimately, the show collected a boat load of awards and spawned two sequels (neither of which reached the narrative level or became part of the cultural zeitgeist of the original) with a third on the way.

At the time, I was in my early-40s, recently divorced and doing some of the best work of my professional life. In other words, it still felt like I had the world by the balls and better days were ahead. As the season unfolded, I found the later episodes the least interesting, thought they dragged a little, and was "meh" about the ending. The eye candy of the early episodes - Rust's interrogation room monologues on the meaning of life, the famous eight-minute tracking scene, the representation of Bayou culture, and the lush cinematography - drew me in. What I missed, like Rust and Marty ignoring the landscaper on the riding mower who turned out to be the killer, was a show telling a much different story.

Yesterday, I stumbled across a True D Season One marathon on HBO, and my experience was completely different than it had been 10 years ago. Obviously, the biggest difference was knowing "whodunit" but more than that, those later episodes, in the "present" timeline of 2012, felt much more relatable as a lonely man in his mid-50s whose career is in a cul de sac he cannot escape. During Marty's interview with Detectives Gilbough and Papania, he recounts the detective's curse, "the solution was right under my nose, but I was focused on the wrong clues." Initially, he points it out as a reason why the case was not solved faster, but later on, he applies it to his personal life too. Marty realized - too late - that having a wife and family was what he should have focused on, but instead, he was too busy carousing, boozing, and having affairs. 

It was a moment of introspection that I probably missed the first time around, but at this stage in my life, it resonated. Not because I wish I was still married, but more so about the emotion that dominates so much of my daily life: regret. Marty and Rust had everything going for them: they cracked a major case, each brought his own talents to their partnership, and they were both thriving. And yet, happiness eluded each of them. Their obsessive natures were their undoing. Rust refused to bend to authority (relatable) and Marty could only stay faithful for so long before he strayed (again). And so, Rust spends his days tending bar and getting drunk, completely isolated from anyone or anything. Marty eats frozen dinners after coming home from his dreary job as a private investigator. Neither man has any friends to speak of or healthy relationships. 

Even the primary critique of the first season - its treatment of women - carried less resonance for me. Far from being a celebration of men, Marty and Rust stand as cautionary tales of "focusing on the wrong clues" in life. In comparison, the female characters exercise far greater agency and independence than it might have seemed on first viewing. Marty's wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) is a no-BS partner who eventually kicks Marty to the curb but not before exacting a deep level of revenge against him by sleeping with Rust, blowing up their partnership to boot. Maggie only learns of Marty's initial infidelity because Lisa, (Alexandra Daddario) the woman Marty was having an affair with, tells her about it. And Lisa only does this because Marty reveals himself to be a jealous, unstable, jerk and instead of tolerating him, she takes back possession of her own life by ceasing to allow Marty to control it. In other words, these women are not doormats who allow men to walk all over them. Ultimately, Maggie remarries, lives in a beautifully-appointed home, and maintains a good relationship with her two daughters, whereas Marty lives alone, eats dinner by himself in front of the TV, and has not talked to his kids in years.

And so, when watching the show yesterday, the things that I had found so addictive when it first aired seemed much less interesting. Rust's musings about time being a flat circle felt more like college dorm room claptrap and the narrative seams were more obvious. Instead, I watched it through the eyes of someone who knows what it is for life not to turn out the way they had hoped. To live with regrets of decisions I have made, the authority figures who I did not bend to, and the consequences of those decisions. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

A Fool Proof Way To Get Someone To Stop DMing You

Just suggest you meet in person. Works like a charm every time. And while this is generally true on the dating apps, it works just as well in other contexts. To wit, after my ex-wife died, one of her nieces (the one my ex accused me of sleeping with!) reached out on Facebook to check in. After a little DM back and forth she was like "would love to catch up sometime" and, well, reader, I was admittedly ambivalent about the idea (one of my least favorite conversations is "remember when?") and figured it was just polite social contract chit chat, but just to prove the point, I was like "here's my number if you want to grab coffee or lunch sometime." And then ... crickets. Makes life so much easier when you realize people don't actually want to see you in person, they just want the illusion of it.  

Friday, December 15, 2023

Important Office Episodes: Business School (S3E17)

When Michael leaves Scranton for Colorado, the last person he says goodbye to is Pam. Theirs is a tearful embrace packed with the kind of emotional punch that only comes about when two people are closely bonded. Of course, it was not always so. In the show’s very first episode, Michael “fake fires” Pam, a particularly cruel prank that leaves her in tears. In those early days, Pam was meek and a bit of a wallflower; Michael was an obnoxious bully who often made derogatory (and sometimes sexist) comments toward Pam while she rolled her eyes behind his back and engaged in subtle forms of retaliation like pilfering his Threat Level Midnight script. That the two would become close friends seemed unlikely at best.

And yet, as the show unfolded and the characters developed, that is precisely what happened. A nice example of their nascent friendship occurred in Season Three’s Grief Counseling. Michael, despondent over the death of Ed Truck, his predecessor as regional manager, gets no comfort from his subordinates. But when a bird dies and an impromptu funeral is held for it, Pam gives a eulogy clearly directed at Michael and the sadness he feels. That season is one of evolution for both Michael and Pam. The branch narrowly avoids the chopping block and gives Michael the chance to prove he can manage a larger group of people while he starts a public relationship with Jan. Pam, having called off her wedding to Roy, is starting to come out of her shell (a bit), most particularly by signing up for a painting class (something Roy had dissuaded her from doing when they were engaged). While each was making halting steps toward a better, and more confident future, their path was still wet cement – three of the Stamford transfers left having seen Michael’s version of management and Pam, in a moment of weakness at Phyllis and Bob’s wedding, rekindled her relationship with Roy. A lot hung in the balance, which is why the season’s seventeenth episode, Business School, stands out as a critical one in the development of each character and their relationship to one another.

The set-up is straight-forward. Michael thinks he is being honored in one of Ryan’s business school classes when in fact Ryan invited him solely because doing so bumped him up a letter grade. Pam has invited the office to an art show featuring her and her classmates’ work. They each expect support and admiration, and instead, get the opposite. The students in Ryan’s class look puzzled at first by Michael’s off-the-wall presentation and then turn openly hostile when he gives what they think are non-sensical answers to their questions about the paper business. At the art exhibit Pam stands quietly by her display, her lone visitor being a little old lady who quickly wanders off. When Roy shows up (with his brother in tow, of course) and Pam could use a confidence boost, it is nowhere to be found. Instead, Roy is focused on himself and wants credit for being the only person from the office who showed up. When he and his brother leave after giving her paintings a cursory look, he again fails to read the situation, limply calling Pam’s art “the prettiest art of all the art” but being more concerned with whether she will stop by his place after the exhibit ends.

Meanwhile, Michael learns that Ryan has told his classmates that Dunder Mifflin is not competitive and will likely go out of business in the next 5 to 10 years. Instead of being discouraged like Pam, Michael lashes out, dissing the students as young and ignorant as he storms out of the lecture hall. Ryan’s observation cuts Michael in several ways. First, it comes from Ryan, who Michael views as a mentee and whose approval he desperately craves. Second, it plays into Michael’s insecurity over having never gone to college and being lectured to by a bunch of students. Finally, it calls into question Dunder Mifflin’s business strategy, which is an indirect insult to Michael.

Pam is faring no better. With Roy gone, she is excited to see Oscar and Gil (who do not notice she is behind them as they look at her work). While she expects them to say nice things, instead they dismiss her paintings as “motel art” and agree that she lacks the courage and honesty to be a great artist. She sags visibly, her self-confidence deflated. 

Had the episode ended on these dual notes, each character might have gone in a different – and darker – direction. Michael would have had to accept that Dunder Mifflin might not be able to compete with the big chain paper stores and he would not only lose his job, but people he considered a surrogate family. Pam could have easily decided that she was a failure and stopped painting. But that did not happen. Michael showed up to Pam’s exhibit just as she was taking down her work. Instead of dismissing her lack of talent as Oscar did or barely looking at her work like Roy, Michael takes a genuine interest in her paintings. He quickly zeroes in on Pam’s representation of the Scranton Office Park building, noticing the fine details like the cars parked in the lot and the location of his office window. When he asks her how much it would cost to buy it, she is surprised, but to Michael, the building represents who he is, it defines him as a person – “that is our building, and we sell paper” – he reminds her, so of course he needs to put it in the office. But more importantly, Michael tells Pam that he is proud of her. Her eyes well up with tears and she give Michael a big hug. It is in that moment (I’m ignoring the clumsy “Chunky” joke that kills the mood) that their friendship was fully cemented. Michael stayed true to his belief in his employees, that his job as their manager was to inspire them, that business is about people, and people will never go out of business. For Pam, receiving validation from Michael meant the world to her and confirmed that she was on the right track.

The ripple effect from that one scene was significant. With Ryan elevated to Jan’s job in Season Four, he attempted to implement many of the changes he thought Dunder Mifflin needed, in particular, the launch of a website so customers could buy paper online as opposed to working with a salesperson. Michael stood firm in his belief that customer service was the way to maintain the company’s viability against bigger competitors. In the end, Michael was proven right. Ryan’s website was a flop while the Scranton branch went from being at risk of closing to the most profitable office within the company. David Wallace would ask Michael to do a lecture circuit of the other branches to discuss his business tactics and when the company went bankrupt and was acquired by Sabre, the Scranton branch was singled out as one of the few bright spots.

For Pam, Michael’s support helped her be more open with people and stand up for herself. When Roy freaked out after she told him that she and Jim had kissed at casino night, Pam ended things with him once and for all. At the office’s beach day, she did a fire walk, called out her co-workers for skipping her exhibit, and told Jim she canceled her wedding to Roy because of him. Instead of giving up painting, she continued working at her craft, ultimately receiving commissions to paint two murals – one from the city of Scranton and the other from Nellie for the office warehouse.

And while Business School gave each character a shot in the arm individually, it also solidified their friendship. As the show unfolded, each would be there for the other time and again. Whether it was Pam joining the Michael Scott Paper Company or Michael choosing Pam to take the one new sales job when they both returned, the two of them touring the other branches in Season Five and being there for one another when each sought closure, or staying up all night to work on Michael’s alternative advertisement for Dunder Mifflin, their connection deepened, culminating in their emotional farewell. And that painting Michael swooned over? It would hang in a place of honor until the series ended and Pam plucked it off the wall to take with her to Austin, a reminder of who she could be and for Michael, a reminder of who he was.

2023 Year In Books

1. Writing of the Gods, Edward Dolnick

2. American Midnight, Adam Hoschild

3. Yours Truly, James Hagerty

4. Sweet Land of Liberty, Rossi Anastopoulo 

5. Mudlark, Laura Maiklem

6. Oscar Wars, Michael Schulman 

7. Trust the Plan, Will Sommer

8. When Shea Was Home, Brett Toppel

9. Banned Books, DK Publishing 

10. Black Death at the Golden Gate, David Randall

11. The Wager, David Grann

12. Saying It Loud, Mark Whitaker 

13. STFU, The Power of Keeping Your Mouth Shut in an Endlessly Noisy World, Dan Lyons

14. The Peacemaker, William Inboden

15. When The News Broke, Heather Hendershot

16. The Sewing Girl’s Tale, John Wood Sweet

17. Why We Did It, Tim Miller

18. Ringmaster, Abraham Riesman

20. Homegrown, Jeffrey Toobin

21. The Book of the Dead, John Lloyd

22. The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman

23. Opposable Thumbs, Mike Singer

24. The Big Time, Michael MacCambridge