Monday, February 25, 2008

I'm Not Black. I'm Not White. And Neither Are You.
These are interesting times—whether living in them is a curse or boon is ultimately going to hinge upon whether we’re willing to shed our tribal instincts and cultural preconceptions in favor of redefining ourselves in a new century.

The American presidential campaign and the requisite coverage of it mirror those preconceptions and fears. Is Obama black enough? Is McCain young enough? Is Clinton woman (or man) enough? You have to take those questions, and their inevitable follow-ups, as rhetorical at best. They’re the political equivalent of a tabloid headline, and do nothing but divert our attention from the issues that are relevant to the future of not only America, but to the entire globe.

I’m not knocking rhetoric—it’s woven into the fabric of American history. From “Give me liberty, or give me death” to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” to “I have a dream” to “Yes we can”, well-timed phrases galvanize us to action. But like any power, in the wrong hands, rhetoric becomes insidious, inspiring our basest emotions of fear and hatred. Unwisely used, rhetoric destroys its practitioners and followers.

In the current US presidential campaign, rhetoric has become the bogeyman, cited as the evil destroying legitimate debate, except when those citing it use the very tool they rile against to further their own agendas. It’s always been like that, of course, but in our YouTube universe, the wrong nuance at the wrong instant can be used as leverage against the other side. That’s all well and fine, but eventually we have to step gingerly through the minefields the candidates and the pundits have set before us. We have to decide: do we really want a new future for America, or are we content to wallow in the muck of a failed past?

We in America tout our diversity as our greatest strength, and well we should. It’s also undeniable that we’ve committed some unforgivable errors along the way. No amount of reparations or apologies will erase those stains. And no amount of ancestral outrage is going to advance us further up the evolutionary scale. What will save us, if anything, is a rationed approach to unifying America.

Only one presidential candidate has risen to that challenge. Barack Obama is no stranger to the power of rhetoric, but he is the only presidential candidate who infuses it with an aura of genuine integrity. He’s shown that he’s willing to cross party lines to get results, but he’s also proven that he has the gumption to not back away from a principle in which he believes. Time and again, he’s substantively demonstrated his message of hope is a concrete one that transcends racial, social and all but most the extreme political factions.

This may very well be one the most important presidential elections in American history. The country is poised precariously at a crossroads that may chart its course for generations. The question becomes, will America continue to be a heart in conflict with itself, or will the US return to its roots, and become united once again? We can no longer afford to look at ourselves as black, white, brown or yellow, or define ourselves along ideological lines—we have to once again be the United States of America.

Barack Obama is the candidate most qualified to inspire us to achieve that goal. Agree with him or not on specific issues, he articulates his views in such a way that you have to admire him. More importantly, he leaves his viewpoints open to some degree of internal debate. And that’s something we haven’t seen in a long time.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Dexter Lite
The writers’ strike is finally over, and the networks find themselves with a glass more than half empty. When CBS announced earlier this month, with much ballyhoo, that they were breaking new ground by airing the first season of the acclaimed Showtime series Dexter, I was less than enthused. The subtle shadings of the series, colored in psychosis, vulgarity, sexual innuendo and dark humor couldn’t translate to a mainstream audience, I reasoned.

I was only half right.

People had heard of Dexter, and were curious about it. They didn’t get Showtime on their cable networks. I frequently received emails from people bemoaning the fact they weren’t subscribed to Showtime, and in my daily life, acquaintances frequently pestered me for recaps about a series they’d never seen. Dexter quickly become a pop icon, sight unseen.

To paraphrase Dexter’s inner monologue, tonight’s the night that it’s going to happen. At 10 PM ET/PT, CBS airs the premiere episode that started it all, with a pledge to broadcast the entire 12 episode first season over the coming weeks. Don’t get too excited, though. As I predicted, the CBS version is heavily edited. This may not bother newcomers to the series overmuch, but longtime devotees may find it overly safe. It’s like skimming a Cliff’s Notes version of a classic, and expecting to ace an exam. It can’t be done.

That being said, the CBS version of Dexter, hobbled as it is, nonetheless manages to limp into a new phase of network programming. It makes unnecessary concessions to a larger audience, such as deleting original opening credits sequence (a macabre masterpiece of satire that sets the tone for each episode), and it clumsily edits the potty mouths of Deb and Doakes (be prepared for an over-abundance of the word “freakin”). Even with those concessions, Dexter emerges as an antihero unlike any other.

Whether all twelve episodes of the first season will actually air on CBS is a matter of debate. In its early days, Dexter episodes were self-contained, with the Ice Truck Killer subplot serving more as a teaser than a plot device. It wasn’t until the third arc that he became an integral part of Dexter’s adventures. The question arises, then, will mainstream viewers follow his killing sprees for more than a few episodes?

I honestly don’t think so. Without the nuances of character, both the good guys and the bad guys, Dexter becomes another silly show with the troubled Cold Case leading it into a Sunday night audience. I really hope Dexter will garnish enough ratings to make the networks rethink their strategies. It would be really cool if Dexter broke down barriers during its CBS tenure. I’d love to see Weeds crossover to the mainstream. But we know that won’t happen. We may be ready for serial killer heroes, but a pot dealing suburban single mom?—that’s really stretching credibility.

It’s a moot point, anyway. Dexter’s pitted against a talking Mustang tonight. Guess who wins that battle.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Jericho: Revenge of the Peanut Gallery
Jericho: The Return could easily be subtitled “Revenge of the Peanut Gallery.” After diehard fans flooded CBS with thousands of peanuts (by some counts, 40,000 pounds worth) protesting the show’s cancellation, Jericho got a seven episode reprieve. It’s do or die time now for the post-apocalyptic series set in Kansas, and it’s returned as a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream.

It appears now that the “September” attacks launched against 23 cities and resulting in some 15 million deaths didn’t originate in North Korea and Iran, after all. Nope—it was an inside job plotted by some kind of shadow government in collusion with equally shadowy corporations. And they were so meticulous in their machinations that the dim-witted American public was utterly clueless. Nukes have that effect on people.

What made the first season of Jericho a ratings fiasco was its mom and apple pie version of the apocalypse. The premise of a small town in Kansas cut off from the world, struggling for survival in the face of unimaginable destruction, was never explored in anything resembling reality—or even satire. The kind of uncertainty that was the premise of the series breeds either panic or ennui, but in Jericho, a lets-pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps speech by Gerald McRaney’s character invariably brought the town together. Admittedly, in the second half of the season, a bit of paranoia was brought into play, mostly in the form of the town’s feud with the neighboring town New Bern, but even that came across more as high school rivalries than survival instincts. Even as they warring factions prepared for their final showdown at the season’s finale, it came across as a crosstown rivalry.

If the first season didn’t hold up to scrutiny, Jericho nonetheless built a small, but dedicated fanbase. Perhaps the campaign to save the show was based on economics, or maybe they just didn’t know that peanuts are more akin to beans than nuts. Either way, they’re unlikely to notice that the amped up, albeit abbreviated, Season Two takes the series more deeply into the valley of the lowest common denominator.

Where Season One focused on survival, however naively, Jericho now claims to focus on rebuilding and reconstruction. Taking its cues from everything to the American Civil War to the war in Iraq, with a little bit of the American Revolution thrown in for luck, the series now goes for a play at relevance to current events. It ends up being a series of clichés we’ve seen too many times before. Even more sadly, any “statements” it makes come off more as comic book morality than three-dimensional realism. Things take an ominous turn to be sure, but they presuppose that Baghdad and Jericho are interchangeable.

What was America is splintered into three different regions—west of the ‘blue line” (defined as the Mississippi River), the newly formed Allied States of America, based in Cheyenne, Wyoming has set up a decidedly right of center government, replete with revisionist history, an appointed president and a drive for a constitutional convention designed to redefine inalienable rights. East of the Mississippi is the tattered remains of the United States, now headquartered somewhere in Ohio. Which side will win apparently depends on an alliance with the reformed Republic of Texas. For reasons that may have logic in a parallel universe, Jericho becomes the focal point in the struggle for America.

To be sure, there are any number of allegorical allusions the series could have touched upon with such a setup. The show’s producers failed to hit on any of them. In a rush to either put the dog to sleep or keep it on life support. They’ve opted for the latter, crueler option. Rather than actually tackling the issues they’ve set themselves up to confront, they’ve fallen back on the future as Old West cliché, thrown in the inevitable Big Brother on a big screen TV, thrown in a renegade secret agent and a sympathetic military commander, dashed in equal parts conspiracy and romance, and tossed it to the viewer like so many table scraps.

The days of Jericho are numbered. Hokey romance and daft conspiracies can only fuel the imagination so much. Having seen three of the seven episodes, I see very little hope for either a satisfactory conclusion, or a promiseof a third season.

Then again, I hate peanuts.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Origins of Horatio Hornblower
Horatio Hornblower is the penultimate icon of romantic naval fiction. That may or may not mean a lot to you, until you pause to consider that without Hornblower, there would probably never have been a Captain Kirk or a Jean-Luc Picard. Gene Roddenberry originally pitched Star Trek as “Horatio Hornblower in space.” It’s hardly surprising, then, that the deep space battles of Star Trek often resembled 19th century naval strategies.

That Horatio Hornblower evokes that kind of reverence 70 years after C.S. Forester first introduced the character to the world is testament to our inherent need for heroes. I’m not talking typical celluloid action, either—Hornblower embodies virtue, duty and courage—even when it means personal cost to him.

It’s no surprise that the adventures of Hornblower have been immortalized in film—first by Gregory Peck in 1951, in the film Captain Horatio Hornblower. But it was the A&E/ITV series of eight television movies aired 1998-2002, however, that indelibly stamped the character of Hornblower into the public consciousness. All eight movies are gathered in the Horatio Hornblower Collector’s Edition, which I recently reviewed. As I said then, the movies paint a rich tapestry of Hornblower’s career and times, but individually, they stand on their own as swashbuckling adventures.

“The Duel” (as it was known on A&E, or “The Even Chance”, on ITV) introduces a very young Hornblower. It’s 1793, and amidst uncertain times in Europe, a 17-year old midshipman Hornblower (Ioan Gruffudd) reports for duty aboard the harbored battleship Justinian. It’s hardly an auspicious entrance. Barely aboard, he’s looked upon by his mates with varying amounts of amusement and distrust, and then suffers a severe bout of seasickness. Young Hornblower, despite all that, remains quietly resolute to succeed as a seaman, and resultantly earns the grudging admiration of his fellow midshipmen. This, of course, makes him the target for the bullying senior midshipman, Jack Simpson (Dorian Healy), and sets in motion a series of events that parallel principles of honor and treachery.

Simpson, used to ruling through intimidation and force, rightly sees the intellectually superior Hornblower as a threat to his domination over the Justinian’s crew. His tactics don’t work on Hornblower, however, who silently endures Simpson. It’s a matter of honor, after all, and even a beating by Simpson doesn’t deter him from his principles. It does, however, earn him a stay on the riggings for refusing to incriminate Simpson. It’s only when Simpson accuses him of cheating at cards that Hornblower finally challenges the bully to a duel.

It’s at this point that Hornblower’s mettle is first tested, even though he’s denied the chance to prove it on his own terms. His friend Clayton, himself a victim of Simpson’s, coldcocks Hornblower and serves as his second in the duel, with tragic results. While there is no satisfaction for Hornblower, it sets him further on his ethical compass.

His mettle is tested once again as war breaks out with France, and he, along with several of the Justinian’s crew, are transferred to the Indefatigable, commanded by Sir Edward Pellew (Robert Lindsay.) Pellew is part seafarer, part iconoclast and part father figure. At their initial meeting, he makes it abundantly clear to Hornblower that he’ll brook no lack of discipline aboard his ship, nor will he tolerate vanities, such as duels, that may cost him needed manpower in a time of war.

From the outset, though, it’s readily apparent that Pellew sees a potential in Hornblower that the midshipman himself had kept submerged. Pellew charges Hornblower with whipping the unruly seamen of the Justinian into shape, and it’s not long before they prove themselves in battle. Hornblower remains steadfast, at least superficially, but is not above a bit of chicanery when it comes to strategy.

The ghosts of the past emerge once again, once Hornblower’s crew rescue fellow sailors after a battle with the French. As fate would have it, Hornblower’s nemesis, Simpson, is among the survivors. Time has by no means tempered him—if anything, he’s more sadistically evil and than sociopathic than he was before. The showdown between the orderly Hornblower and the chaotic Simpson becomes inevitable. On the grander stage, their feud becomes an allegory for the battle between civilization and barbarism, with unexpected results.

The Duel is a worthy introduction to Horatio Hornblower. What makes Hornblower such an endearing character is his unwavering devotion to his personal ethics, even when they supercede protocol. His devotion to God and King is inestimable, but he’s not above bending the rules of gentlemen when situations call for it. He goes through hell, and emerges stronger for it. In short, he’s the everyman hero that every generation embraces. The Duel is a preview of how heroes are made.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Welcome to the Captain. Don't Check Your Bag Just Yet.
If nothing else, the writers’ strike has proven that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. It’s also borne witness to the truism that when empires are crumbling—in this case, the omnipotent studios and their producer lackeys—they’ll resort to bread and circuses to placate the populace. That’s why we’ve been treated to such high-minded entertainment as American Gladiators, a retread of a late-night nineties syndicated series elevated to cultural revolution by the presence of Hulk Hogan and the PR machine of the almighty Peacock. Testosterone and spandex sells, baby!

It’s also why we’re getting “new” episodes of series that have been languishing in purgatory for the past three months. In actuality, they’re episodes shot before the writers’ rebellion, which the studio empire shelved in case of a prolonged strike. Even that hasn’t weakened the writers’ resolve, fueled by Starbuck’s lattes as they are. That leaves the studios and producers with their last line of defense—they’re left with the final option. They’re pulling out the second stringers that didn’t make the cut last May, and promoting them as “brilliant.”

Welcome to the Captain is a case in point. The good news is that it’s replacing (at least for now) Big Bang Theory, one of the most ill-conceived shows about nerds in recent memory. The bad news is that Welcome to the Captain is an ill-conceived show about the tragically hip, blissfully languishing in their faded glories. The residents of El Capitan, who inexplicably call it the Captain, are mostly broadly drawn Hollywood has-beens and wannabes. There’s Saul (Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development), who prefers to be called “Uncle Saul”, who’s been living there for 26 years, and loves to remind anybody who’ll listen that he was a writer on Three’s Company, or as he calls it, “3-Co.” Along with the Captain’s doorman, Jesus (Al Madrigal)--yes, pronounced biblically—he’s the self-appointed gossipy leader of the community. Then there’s Astrid (Valerie Azlynn), the obligatory blonde bimbo with stars in her eyes who prefaces most nouns with an ‘s’. Of the oddball supporting characters, a remarkably preserved Raquel Welch stands out as Charlene Van Ark, a seasoned seductress who once starred in a seventies prime time soap.

It takes a certain amount of genius, or at least chutzpah, to make quirky characters in a rooming house environment work. Fawlty Towers pulled it off by virtue of absurdity, and did so brilliantly. Welcome to the Captain stops short of going over the top, and puts the absurdity on the back burner in favor of romance. The show centers on Josh Flug (Fran Kranz), who had won an Oscar for best short film years back, but is suffering from writer’s block. The Hollywood lifestyle isn’t helping, either. He’s a New Yorker, and he’s not adapting to the West Coast very well. But at the urging of his best friend (and accountant to the stars) Marty Tanner (Chris Klein), agrees to make a last stand by moving into the Captain. After the set-up encounters with the oddballs, he meets, and falls for, the aptly named Hope (Joanna Garcia), a not very good acupuncturist whom he sees as his soulmate.

What ensues are the requisite boy chases girl themes that are a mainstay of sitcoms from Dobie Gillis to Friends. And that’s the problem with Welcome to the Captain. It’s not that it’s a bad show—there are moments in it that are genuinely funny. But it teeters between the absurd and the romantic, and never finds a focus between the two. Written and directed by John Hamburg (Meet the Parents), it attempts to balance the edgy vitality of premium cable programs with perceived middle class values.

The second episode, which airs Monday 11 February, does venture a bit m Welcome to the Captain doesn’t look to be a post writers’ strike salvation. ore into the absurd, and offers a glimmer of hope for the series. It’s too early to predict its demise, but