Friday, January 31, 2014

"Homicide: the comedy"?

In a (for the New York Times) fluffy celebrity piece, one of the Times' TV critics, Mike Hale, discusses why veteran dramatic actor Andre Braugher landed up in one of this season's unexpected comedy hits, Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Much has been made about Braugher never having regularly performed in a sitcom, though one of his other shows, Men of a Certain Age, was a dramedy. Braugher himself thinks he got valuable comedy experience on what is still his best known TV show, Homicide: Life on the Street.

“Not many people are going to agree with me, but ‘Homicide’ was a comedy too,” he said. “It was a shoot-’em-up, and there were all these dangerous situations, but at heart I think it was an office comedy. We always came back to the squad, and the relationships were built upon mutual affection. And I always felt that they were comic in tone.”
The performer's perspective is often different from the audience's, so I won't hesitate to dispute Braugher's characterization of H: LOTS as "a shoot-'em-up". There was certainly gunplay on the show, but not nearly as much as there had been on earlier cop shows like Hawaii Five-O. Frankly, the shootings on H: LOTS always felt out of place on a show that defined its approach in its very first episode with Bayliss' declaration that he wanted to be on the homicide squad because he wanted to use his head, not his sidearm. In fact, there's an inexact but suggestive inverse relationship between the amount of gunfire in a given season of the show and the show's quality during that season.

But as for Braugher's larger point that the show was an office comedy, well, that's a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. Unlike Dick Wolf's Law & Order franchises, Homicide spent a lot of time delving into the detectives' downtime in the squad room. Unsurprisingly, a lot of these moments are comic ones, albeit with perhaps a grimmer edge than most of us see in our own workplaces. Many of the clips of the show in my brief walk down memory lane several months ago feature funny moments in and out of the squad room. Even the supremely dramatic conversation between Bolander and Gee in my very first paean to the show has the darkly comic exchange,

The Italians are an unforgiving lot.

I know — but we make great pasta. It balances out.

I made the point about Homicide's humor, in fact, in my own first thoughts about Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

I have a hunch that truly great dramas allow for the best laugh-out-loud moments, simply because the tension that is built up seeks any outlet for relief. I've laughed harder at ridiculous moments in The Wire than I have at virtually any sitcom. By contrast, mediocre dramas don't build up much tension, so their attempts at comic relief aren't really needed and, in fact, don't feel "earned".

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Hostility toward believers

I was going to comment on New York Times columnist David Brooks' column of a couple of days ago in the Times' own comments area but was unable to do so due to an odd technical glitch. Here's what I would have written.

Kudos to David Brooks for once again pleading victimhood for those poor oppressed religious believers out there.

Brooks spends his entire column talking about how "[t]here is a yawning gap between the way many believers experience faith and the way that faith is presented to the world" and trying to explain what faith means to believers. All well and good, but the point he made at the very start of his column — as the very first sentence, in fact — was:

There is a strong vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers in America today, especially among the young.
Yet nowhere does he address what is almost certainly the primary reason for that alleged hostility (for which he doesn't provide a citation, by the way, though I believe he's correct that it exists).

Religion simply isn't that big a deal until it's linked to politics. Or, more accurately, until religion starts throwing its weight around in politics.

Now, you can argue that religion and politics have been linked for ... well, forever, really. The very idea of "separation of church and state" didn't exist until the seventeenth century in Europe. Even today, many nations are implicitly associated with a particular faith simply because it never occurs to most of their inhabitants that things could be otherwise.

Yet it's one thing for religion to be so much a part of the fabric of life that it's as ubiquitous and invisible as air. It's another for religion to stake out a place in a nation's polity. When that happens, strife is guaranteed — because it's already present.

When a particular faith is ubiquitous, its adherents and leaders never need to announce their presence in politics: the faith is already there in every decision. A faith only announces political positions because it senses those positions aren't universally shared and therefore certain to be reflected in state policy. If that's true, the nation is divided on religious lines.

The moment one religious group takes a political position, other groups are likely to take one, too. And since we're talking about religious faith, the source of many people's deepest beliefs, we're automatically talking about a contentious issue, no matter what it is.

Orthodox religious believers hew to a particularly stringent view of their faith, and are likely to be among the most passionate in defending and advancing it. When defending and advancing their faith affects governmental policy, is it any surprise that it provokes a strong opposing response from those who don't share that faith?

And if, as has been true for at least thirty years in the U.S., those "orthodox religious believers" have experienced much success in elevating elements of their belief system to the level of law, is it any surprise that those who don't share those beliefs feel hostile?

Brooks conveniently also leaves out the flip side of his argument, the incredible hostility by many believers to non-believers. Hostility to other faiths is one thing; hostility to lack of belief is a far more virulent problem, as this Atlantic piece from last September shows. Heck, such hostility is the only thing that unites many believers of different faiths.

By leaving out politics and focusing only on the putatively beleaguered and misunderstood people of faith, Brooks implies that it's the rest of us who are the problem. That's nonsense.

... Oh, why am I pussyfooting around; this is my blog. Scratch "nonsense".

That's horseshit.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Libertarianism and reality

Scott Parker's essay in Salon, "Confessions of a former Libertarian: My personal, psychological and intellectual epiphany", is subtitled, "I was a Buddhist concerned with world suffering -- and I could no longer reconcile my humanity with my ideology".

Well, yes. Of course he couldn't.

Libertarianism is appealing because it holds out a very simple answer to every question in life: "let people choose for themselves". Conceptually, every problem can be solved by giving each person the maximum freedom to choose what he or she will do.

I'd love to believe this. So would a lot of people. The thing is, nobody has ever explained to me how this would make life better for the vast majority of people.

Libertarianism requires an awfully independent and self-reliant character. You don't, in principle, have to do everything yourself, but when your default answer to your neighbors is "leave me the hell alone", you don't foster much of a sense of community. Most people aren't that self-reliant. Most people don't want to be that self-reliant. Civilization exists because our ancestors discovered there were huge advantages to surrendering a degree of autonomy in return for living in a group and sharing a common interest. Libertarianism, taken to its logical conclusion, atomizes society. It disintegrates the social compact.

That is, to be sure, a bit of a reductio ad absurdum argument that caricatures libertarianism — yet such a race to absurdity is unavoidable because while libertarians are as successful as anyone at criticizing existing societies, they have been notably unsuccessful at promulgating a workable and appealing vision of their ideal society. The closest they've come is Ayn Rand, and if you think the denouement of Atlas Shrugged presents an attractive alternative to any existing developed nation, I hope you never attain genuine political power.

Adults (as opposed to idealistic adolescents) who espouse libertarianism, I've found, are mostly people who don't much like other people but think highly of themselves. It's unsurprising that their vision of the ideal world minimizes the impact others can have on them. It's hard not to conclude that libertarianism is really a way to justify rank selfishness — nay, to canonize it as the greatest virtue.

Libertarianism could only work in the ideal world that exists in the libertarian's imagination. We live is the real world. And in the real world, as Parker discovered, libertarianism's answers to real problems ring exceedingly hollow.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Guns and respect

From a backgrounder piece on the shooting of an unarmed movie patron by another patron that happened in Florida on 13 January:
Although he stressed that he was not present for the dispute and the shooting, Mr. Costas [a neighbor of the suspect] suspects the victim must have been aggressive enough to put [the suspect] Mr. Reeves in fear.

“If everybody would just treat each other with respect,” he said.

This is a variant on an argument advanced by gun-rights activists: "everyone would be more polite if everyone were armed."

With respect:


The victim "instigated" the confrontation by texting. The suspect objected. The confrontation escalated. Finally the victim stood up and "swung the popcorn bag at his side" toward the suspect's face; the suspect reached for his gun and fired.

Was the victim kind of an annoying prick in the run-up to the shooting? Well, yes, from the description in the article. Frankly, he could have gone outside to text, and there was no need to stand up and swing the popcorn at anybody.

But is his being an annoying prick an excuse for shooting the guy?

Do you, Mr. Reeves, think that, in retrospect, everybody could have lived through the movie screening if you hadn't been so goddamned insistent on being the enforcer of the theater's rules?

Did it ever occur to you, Mr. Reeves, that maybe the victim would have put his phone away once the movie began? (The movie hadn't yet started when the shooting occurred.) That has been my experience, anyway. And those who don't put away their phones aren't likely to react well to an admonishment from another moviegoer. Or were you counting on a bad reaction, Mr. Reeves? Did you want to spark a confrontation?

Does it occur to anyone else that even a handful of imbeciles like Mr. Reeves makes arming everyone a really stupid idea?

But to get back to the neighbor's remark ... yes, if only everyone would treat one another with respect. And if only so many of us didn't think that bearing a gun was the right way to cultivate respect.

Guns and respect. Let's stop linking these two things.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The neverending race

In spite of experience, I still regularly peruse the new-story listings on Yahoo!'s home page. Today, in addition to the usual spate of breathless "you won't believe this" teasers, sports news, celebrity buzzing, and ads masquerading as stories (somehow I'm just not curious enough to find out why the razor industry is running scared of this one guy), I saw a piece about TV pilots that have been ordered for next season.

Next season.

Um, has anyone noticed — this one isn't over yet?

The midseason pilots haven't had a decent chance to underwhelm us. Yet somebody's already flogging what we might (or more likely might not) see in eight or nine months.

Last week there was a breathless "forget 2014, here are the 2015 movies to watch!" piece (which I ignored).

I believe in looking to the future, but not like this.

It'd be a good thing for our collective blood pressure and sanity if the professional hype industry suffered a major downturn and these folks were forced to find real, useful work.

Meanwhile, ignore them. Try living in the present.

The future will be here soon enough.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Hey, Charlie Rose

It has been many years since I watched more than a few seconds of Charlie Rose's talk show. I watched tonight. I hoped my initial impression of him was wrong. It wasn't.

Mr. Rose, I want to like your show. There's just one problem.

You don't shut up!

If you aren't stomping all over your interlocutor with the insights of which you're too obviously proud, you're chiming in with totally unnecessary affirming noises ("mm", "yes", etc.) that make it difficult if not impossible to hear your interviewee. You remember your interviewee — your guest — the reason we tuned in?

If your guest is talking, can you stop?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Pastafarian sworn in

Finally, a Pastafarian has been elected. Or at least an elected official has admitted to being a Pastafarian in public.

Ramen, newly-seated Pomfret, NY town council member Christopher Schaeffer!

(Never heard of Pastafarianism? Oh, my. You need to acquaint yourself with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You really do.)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Making it simple for Beyonce

I don't really give a shit about Beyonce or her music. However, in re: her justification for sampling NASA's communications at the moment of the Challenger disaster, I have to comment.

According to Forrest Wickman at Slate, Beyonce's apology (quoted by Wickman) says in part:

The song ‘XO’ was recorded with the sincerest intention to help heal those who have lost loved ones and to remind us that unexpected things happen, so love and appreciate every minute that you have with those who mean the most to you …
Wickman says the song is about mortality, not just "a failed relationship" as some news outlets have claimed, and the difference puts the sample in the proper context for it to make sense.

I haven't heard the song and I'm not going to, because based on her intentions I already know she fouled up.

The Challenger disaster wasn't her tragedy. If she had lost a loved one in the explosion, maybe she'd be entitled to write a song about that.

But she didn't lose anyone in that tragedy. The song isn't even about it. Taking her at her word, the song just abstractly urges us to make the most of our time with our loved ones. That's nice.

Unfortunately, she decided to give her song some emotional heft by referring to a very non-abstract disaster. And that was crass.

Beyonce, your intentions are irrelevant. Using the Challenger audio clip was exploitative. Some might even say it was cruel. There were a million other ways you could have driven home your point. Why the shuttle explosion? (The cynic's answer: because there was a readily available audio clip. Duh.)

Admit that you made a serious error in judgment, remix the song without the clip, and move on.