Neil deGrasse Tyson, folks

Last week at the San Diego Comic-Con there evidently was some sort of panel where people (I guess) argued about which science fiction spaceship is the greatest of all time. Does that sound pointless? If you answered “yes,” you’re wrong. It’s very important you guys.

Anyway, Neil deGrasse Tyson was not on the panel, but he still managed to make an unassailable argument for good ol’ NCC-1701, no bloody A, B, C, or D.

I got a little choked up, I’m not gonna lie.

More on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom

I wanted to add some thoughts to inuyesta’s post about The Newsroom the other day. I’ve now watched two episodes and I am pretty much all-in. Like inuyesta I can’t claim to be a completely impartial observer as I also am a huge fan of The West Wing.

In his post, inuyesta was puzzled at the intense negative reaction that the show garnered from many in the news industry. I agree with him that there are legitimate criticisms about the show. We’ve already seen some of the Sorkinisms that some people find tiresome, but for people like me, it’s like catching up with an old friend. (Or meeting a new friend who reminds you of an old friend who died a horrible tragic death. Maybe this isn’t the best analogy.)

inuyesta suggested that perhaps this negative reaction was due to a certain jaded reaction to the earnestness of Sorkin’s writing. Or that Sorkin is seen as being smug and sanctimonious. Sorkin himself is quick to point out that he has never worked in the cable news business. He also says that he considers The Newsroom as a “valentine” to the news business. He is deliberately romanticizing and lionizing what he sees as the best parts of telejournalism.

I think the reason that the show has inspired such a negative reaction from Washington journalists is because by celebrating the best parts of journalism, Sorkin is shining a light on the widespread hackery that has come to dominate cable news. You could see this being played out in the second episode of the show when the new executive producer pitches her new idea of how to cover the news to the show’s staff. Mackenzie posts three questions on a whiteboard that the staff should ask themselves as they prepare stories for the show. But the fourth question is, “Are there really two sides to this story?” As an example of how this question might be asked, Will suggested that if House Republicans voted that the Earth was flat, the news media would report that Republicans and Democrats disagree on shape of earth. Some Disagree!

It’s really no huge Freudian mystery why cable news talking heads and newspaper reporters would find this kind of an attitude sanctimonious and preachy. Apparently, they may have just enough awareness to be a little embarrassed about their own hackery and the self preservation skills to attempt to kill the messenger.

There was a rumor about The Newsroom that Sorkin had based his character of Will McAvoy on Keith Olbermann. Sorkin denies it. I think it is much more likely that he based McAvoy and McHale (note to Sorkin: way too many Mc’s and Mac’s) on Rachel Maddow and her producer Bill Wolff, with the exception being that the idealistic woman is on camera instead of the veteran executive producer. Rolling Stone has a great profile of Maddow in their latest issue that you should read. In it, Maddow recounts her first speech she gave to her new staff.

The Sunday night before her first show, her executive producer, Bill Wolff, threw a launch party at his apartment and invited the entire Verdict staff. When everyone was sufficiently liquored up, Maddow gave a speech. “The point was to get everyone excited,” Wolff recalls. “‘OK, go get ’em, let’s go do this.'” What Maddow told them, instead, was that they needed to forget everything they had ever learned – that this show would be completely different from the one they’d been working on, that they must forget all of the skills they’d spent their careers building.

“That is crystallized in my memory,” says Susan Mikula, Maddow’s partner of 13 years, who attended the party. “Everyone was pale. It could not have been more of a bummer. Or more quiet.”

Does that sound familiar? The piece details how Maddow set out to do things completely differently than what cable news had been to that point. Her show is very much a rejection of the “false balance” that pervades so much of cable news, and is exactly what Mackenzie McHale attempted to outline in her first staff meeting on The Newsroom.

I tend to avoid rules of thumb, because they often oversimplify complex issues, but a good one might be that if the likes of Mark Halperin and Jake Tapper and Cokie Roberts and other cable news talking heads think something is too preachy or earnest, then it’s probably something worthwhile.

On the Reaction to HBO’s The Newsroom

I should begin this post with a confession: when it comes to Aaron Sorkin’s works, I am no neutral observer.  The West Wing is my favorite television show of all time; The Social Network might just be my favorite movie of all time.  I was endlessly pleased by Moneyball and The American President.  I even (gasp!) loved Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which was tragically cancelled after just one season of brilliance.

So a few months ago, when Jeff Daniels announced Sorkin’s return to television with a pitch-perfect, Bartlet-eqsue takedown of the insufferable delusion that America is still the greatest nation on Earth, I was practically giddy with excitement.  And today, a couple days removed from having actually watched the pilot for the first time, I remain giddily excited.  I suspect I will not like The Newsroom as much as I did The West Wing, but the prospect of getting a commercial-free hour of new Sorkin material every week has me thoroughly invigorated.

Unfortunately, it seems that The Internet is not so enamored.   Virtually every pop-culture outlet has taken to ripping The Newsroom as little more than delivery system for Aaron Sorkin’s condescension and moral lectures.  “Sanctimonious,” “smug,” “pretentious,” and “elitist” are the watchwords here.

In truth, there’s definitely something to this line of criticism.  The central premise of the show (unfortunately misapprehended by nearly every negative reviewer) is that the news media have abdicated their idealized role as purveyors of a Public Good in favor of the easy profits to be had in constructing and selling shallow imitations of reality.  This abdication, according to the premise, has had deeply pernicious effects on American democracy: allowing our political culture to be taken over by charlatans and demagogues who distract the country with bullshit while using government to enrich themselves and their allies at the expense of the common good.  A necessary condition of this premise is that the American public is complicit in its own destruction: Americans are either too stupid to know what’s going on, too stupid to realize it’s bad, or too apathetic to give a shit either way.  They are children who long ago fed their broccoli to the dog and are now subsisting on ice cream and lollipops.  This is an elitist worldview, and Will McAvoy’s professed “mission to civilize” the country by reversing the above trends certainly has the unmistakable air of patrimony.

But this commentary at the heart of the show isn’t what’s driving the criticism.  No, the charges of smugness and sanctimony and preachiness seem to have very little to do with the substance of the show’s criticism.  Instead, critics seem to be mad about…well, I’m not really sure.  For some it’s the earnestness or “idealism” of the characters, for some it’s the fact that from time to time they give what amount to speeches, for some it’s merely the fact that the characters use big words and make references to literature and the theater.  In other words, The Newsroom is smug and sanctimonious because it was written by Aaron Sorkin.

Color me shocked.

No, seriously.  Anyone who follows Internet pop culture yammering at all (and I say this with confidence because I follow Internet pop culture yammering very little) could have predicted how the early reviews for The Newsroom would go, because calling Aaron Sorkin a smug, sanctimonious elitist has been in vogue ever since Sorkin had the temerity to try to reclaim to word “elite” at the Golden Globes last year.  For example, check out this column from Grantland’s Tara Ariano, entitled “Aaron Sorkin Is Already Getting a Little Obnoxious About the Steve Jobs Movie He’s Writing.”

On his upcoming HBO series, The Newsroom: “The stuff that I write doesn’t work very well as background music.”

Take that, less ambitious TV writers whose work only requires half their viewers’ attention! What hacks!

“I try to write what I like, and what my friends like, and then cross my fingers and hope that it’s good enough for me to earn a living.”

Residuals from his various films and TV series aside, the Oscar probably helps keep him solvent. Furthermore, someone who’s worried about where his next paycheck is coming from probably wouldn’t be so mad about his union.

“Anytime you’re at the movies and you see the words ‘The following is based on a true story,’ you should think about it as a painting, not a photograph.”

That line feels pretty carefully polished for a statement that’s so fundamentally obvious.

“I really fell in love with the phonetic sound of intelligence.”

Some might say that really intelligent people don’t require repetitive 500-word sentences to get their points across. But sure.

“I can’t judge this character [Steve Jobs]. He has to be, for me, a hero. … To put it as simply as possible, you want to write the character like they are making their case to God, why they should be let into heaven.”

If this is really what defines Sorkin’s concept of his characters, then it’s even harder to account for the smug goons that populated Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

I mean, putting aside Ariano’s rather poor attempts at a snarky riff, do these quotes really even qualify as obnoxious?  Maybe as an Ivy League New York/San Francisco fart sniffer I’m out of touch with what rubs the rabble the wrong way, but none of this registers as particularly objectionable to me.  No matter though.  This column was from May of this year; by that point the “Everything Aaron Sorkin Says is Super Smug” meme was firmly embedded in the zeitgeist.   No matter what Sorkin said in that interview – and, returning to the point, no matter what The Newsroom‘s pilot looked like – he was going to be reacted to the same way.

This the problem with a lot of commentary these days, and not just in the realm of popular culture.  Prejudging The Newsroom because it was written by Aaron Sorkin is fairly trivial, but that’s certainly not where it ends.

Barack Obama supports this policy?  Must be socialist.

News reporter said something I disagree with?  Must be biased.

Supreme Court ruling I don’t like?  Must be judicial activism.

These sort of zero-content snap judgments are everywhere in media and politics.  Perhaps the best example came this morning when CNN and Fox both reported that the individual mandate had been struck down before they had even finished reading the synopsis of the Court’s decision; as soon as they saw that the individual mandate wasn’t acceptable under the Commerce Clause, they stopped reading and ran with it.  CNN did issue a correction, but the mentality that caused their error is cheapening discourse everywhere on every issue.

I wonder what Aaron Sorkin would have to say about that.


HBO’s “Girls” and the Persistent Question of Modern-Day Segregation

Since it debuted last month, HBO’s new series Girls has been the subject of intense jibber-jabbering and hand-wringing.  Though the series has been been widely praised among professional TV critics – its Metacritic score of 87 indicates “Universal acclaim” – it has had to weather a variety of criticisms from other pop culture commentators.  Some of these complaints are easily dismissed: I don’t care very much if some middle aged dude finds the characters “annoying, selfish, and entitled,” or if another one can’t get past the fact that the privileged characters of the shows are played by actresses who are, themselves, the privileged children of famous and successful people.

One particular criticism, however, is not so easily brushed aside.  As numerous commentators have now observed, Girls has a problem with race.  Specifically, it has a problem with the lack of any nonwhite race among its principal characters.  But is Girls the problem itself, or is it merely emblematic of a deeper social condition?

For the uninitiated, Girls is about a group of four young women living in New York City.  Though each of the girls – Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshonna – is in a slightly different phase of young-adulthood, the series thrives on their shared struggle to find and define their personal purpose and identity.  For Hannah – the show’s protagonist, played by producer, head writer, and director Lena Dunham – the journey begins when she’s suddenly cut off by her parents; she had been living on their dime for the two years between Oberlin and the beginning of Girls‘ narrative arc.   Though Hannah goes through a fair bit of stress from this development – she has to abandon her unpaid internship at a small publishing company and take a job as a secretary for a very handsy notary public – the focus of Girls is not on economic doldrums.  Instead, those concerns are simply one part of the general malaise and uncertainty facing the characters as they explore the process of, as Hannah puts it in a last plea to her parents, “becoming who I am.”

There’s so much in Girls that I can relate to.  Being 23 and living in New York City, I’m pretty much of the same demographic cohort that Dunham and her costars portray, many of the same generational issues and themes pervading Girls ring true for me.  Further, as a man of above average gender-enlightenedness who lives with two highly intelligent and dynamic young women, it’s a great thrill to see a show that takes the perspective of such young women so authentically.

However, there’s one aspect of Girls that is harder to relate to: I am a biracial person of mixed African-American and Caucasian descent, whereas the cast of Girls is entirely white.  Many commentators have derided Girls for its lack of diversity (and it is a nearly complete lack of diversity; the closest thing to nonwhite ethnicity in any character is in Jessa, a Brit whose wardrobe is obviously influenced by her travels to India), noting that New York City is the most ethnically diverse city in the country.  Dunham has responded to these critiques by insisting on her passion for authenticity; the characters are inspired by her own personality and those of a few very close friends, and Dunham didn’t feel that she could credibly depict the experiences of a minority character and did not want to resort to simple tokenism.  As Dunham said to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air,

“I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and I co-wrote a few episodes. But I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls. As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, ‘I hear this and I want to respond to it.’ And this is a hard issue to speak to because all I want to do is sound sensitive and not say anything that will horrify anyone or make them feel more isolated, but I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately.”

What all of these critiques miss, and what Dunham’s response only implies, is the more general problem that American society – even in such a diverse area as New York – remains remarkably segregated.  Moreover, the “elite” segments of our society, the enclaves of privilege and upward stability, are perhaps more segregated than any other.  For all the progress toward racial justice made in the past half-century, the face of America’s upper crust remains nearly exclusively white.

To be clear, the central characters of Girls are not wealthy in the way many New York City characters are.  These are not the successful career women of Sex and the City, who think nothing of shopping in Manhattan’s upscale boutiques and downing $20 cocktails to their hearts’ content.  These are also not the trust-fund endowed prep-school princesses of New York’s financier class found in Gossip Girls.  Hannah and her friends are New York transplants who live in cramped apartments in Brooklyn – Greenpoint, even, not the completely gentrified hipster haven of Williamsburg – and except for Jessa’s Louis Vuitton luggage, have no conspicuous displays of wealth.

Still, as many commentators have charged, these girls undoubtedly are of the privileged class, or at least a privileged class.  Hannah and her friends all attended Oberlin, a prestigious private  liberal arts college, and from all indications none of them are saddled by the crushing student debt that overwhelms so many of this generation.  In arguing against her parents’ decision to cut her off, Hannah whines, “But all of my friends get help from their parents.”   And it should not go unmentioned that Hannah’s parents cut her off not because Hannah has become some sort of genuine strain on their finances, but rather because they want to purchase a lake house.

For basically all of my adolescence, I have lived in the bubble of white-dominated privilege within a broader “diverse” community.  Both my home town (Santa Rosa, California) and my college town (Washington, DC) are nominally “diverse” places: Santa Rosa is nearly 40% nonwhite, and of course African-Americans are the majority in DC.  But that diversity was almost nowhere to be found in my peer groups.  Maria Carrillo High School was built to serve northeast Santa Rosa’s wealthy and predominantly white neighborhoods: Rincon Valley, Fountaingrove, and Skyhawk, with little input from the poorer, more Hispanic south side of town.  The same was true at George Washington University, a predominantly white private university, located in predominantly white Foggy Bottom, near the halls of power of the white-dominated political class, almost fully insulated from the poorer, blacker areas in Southeast.  (Indeed, the nearby Georgetown neighborhood infamously voted against having a Metro stop specifically to make it more difficult for people from Southeast to reach them.)

In my new home, the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, the issue is less physical segregation as in Santa Rosa and DC, but in social segregation, which gets more directly at the heart of this issue.  In this neighborhood, there are two key populations: the students and professorial staff of Columbia University, and a primarily Puerto Rican population being slowly displaced by the former group.  But despite the close proximity between the privileged, mostly white Ivy Leaguers and their more working-class Hispanic neighbors, there is almost no social mixing between the two groups.  To be sure, there’s more  to this dynamic than just race and class, but the reality remains.

I find it difficult to believe that my experiences in this regard are particularly unique.  Some critics of Girls, like Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart or The Hairpin’s Jenna Wortham, say that the insular whiteness of Girls is unrealistic because they (the authors) are twentysomething young women of color trying to make it in the creative world of New York City and they are members of racially diverse social groups.  But this utterly misses the point: in the context of this world that Girls depicts, is it really so unrealistic that a group of four close friends would not include any people of color?  Given what I see on a daily basis and given the number of conversations I have with certain of my Asian friends about the peculiarities of being one of the few people of color in white-dominated elite society, I can’t believe that the Girls group is as rare as critics would have us believe.

Discussion of the new segregation is nothing new.  Countless sociologists, political scientists, economists, and others have discussed the rise and implications of a fractured, niche-dominated society.  Americans increasingly seek out communities of people who are like themselves – politically, socioeconomically, culturally, and yes, racially.  This is exacerbated by the increasing stratification of wealth, the lack of upward mobility experienced by the lower classes and the still disproportionately brown face of those lower classes.  Everywhere you look in “elite” institutions – government and politics, academia, business and industry, the professions, entertainment – you find domination by whites.

So really, it is a shame that Girls doesn’t include any nonwhite central characters.  It is a shame that Lena Dunham doesn’t have enough familiarity with people of color that she could give them an authentic voice in her show.  But this shame shouldn’t be blamed on Dunham specifically, nor should her show be singled out for its lack of diversity.  No, Girls is simply a symptom, just the latest manifestation of a problem that is pervasive across all levels of American culture.  Rather than demonizing Dunham for creating a show devoid of minority characters, demonize the system that makes such segregation so realistic.

HBO’s “Veep” as exciting as the office itself

I had some hope for Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ show Veep on HBO. The commercials had some funny moments and it looked like it might be a no-holds-barred satirical look at Washington. I watched the first two episodes, but this morning I realized that the third episode had slipped off the DVR before I could watch it, and I didn’t even mind. Oh well.

The show follows the trials and tribulations of Vice President Selina Meyer, played by Louis-Dreyfus. From the very brief title sequence we can see that she was an early leader in the presidential primary, but eventually lost and settled for the veep slot.

After watching the first episode, in which Louis-Dreyfus’ vice president deals with the fallout of using the word “retard” at a policy announcement, I thought the show had promise. The character of Dan Egan, an amoral but seemingly very competent staffer, was funny and provided some great lines.

The second episode, however, dealt with a supposedly hilarious photo event at a yogurt shop, at which the VP developed symptoms from the flu. I thought maybe a show dealing with politics and the vice presidency could possibly make it two entire episodes before resorting to bodily function humor, but apparently that proved too taxing for the writers of Veep.

Watching the first episode, I thought maybe the character of Dan Egan was supposed to provide a contrast to the idealistic members of Selina’s staff. But apparently the funny thing was supposed to be that they are all amoral careerists, and Egan just happens to be competent. But then he looked pretty incompetent in the second episode as well.

The real problem, however, is that Veep refuses to actually take a stand about anything. Is Selina Meyer a Democrat? Is she a Republican? Unknown. I guess the point of not letting us know is that everyone in Washington is a big phony, regardless of party.

Let’s look at the most successful scripted political show of all time: The West Wing. President Bartlet was a Democrat. His staff members were idealistic and unapologetic Democrats and the show took a liberal position on issues. It often presented Republicans as good people who were honest, but philosophically opposed to the president’s agenda. It wasn’t afraid to stand for something. It ran for 7 years and was always one of the shows nominated for awards each year.

Now let’s look at a couple of shows that followed it. Mister Sterling was a show created by former West Wing producer Lawrence O’Donnell. It starred Josh Brolin as a US Senator from California, appointed to replace a disgraced Democrat. The show deliberately and pointedly made him an Independent rather than a Democrat, a fact which was supposedly unknown until after his appointment and which came as a huge shock to the Democratic governor who appointed him. It went out of its way to show the Democratic Party as being run by corrupt insiders. The wishy-washiness didn’t sit well. It was canceled after 10 episodes.

Two years later, ABC decided to try their hand at a political drama with Commander in Chief starring Geena Davis as President Mackenzie Allen. President Allen was dealing with a lot, having risen to the presidency from the vice presidency, and facing congressional leaders who felt she was unqualified for the job. She was also an Independent, not a Democrat or a Republican. We wouldn’t want to offend anyone, and we are appealing to everyone! The show was canceled after 19 episodes.

It’s not just that these situations were wildly implausible.  Can anyone imagine the Democratic Party supporting the appointment of a Senator who was not a confirmed Democrat? Can anyone imagine a president selecting an Independent as Vice President? People are used to suspending disbelief when watching TV shows. It’s that the implausibility resulted not from an attempt to make a story more exciting, but out of a desire to appeal to more people by not offending either side. It doesn’t work.

It is so obvious that Veep wants to be edgy and controversial, but they can’t even take a stand on determining the party affiliation of the main characters in the show. If the point is supposed to be that it doesn’t matter, that’s fine. But it’s not exactly a new idea. There is nothing edgy about sitting in the middle and saying both sides suck. It’s the opposite of edgy, by the definition of, you know, edge.

Game of… Oval Offices?

I saw this on the Facebook.

Win. Hodor made me express amusement in an audible fashion, as the kids say.

John Edwards could be Littlefinger. Rahm Emanuel as Varys? Who would be Ned Stark?

UPDATED: My wife says that John Edwards is Jaime Lannister, Ned Stark is Al Gore, and Littlefinger is Ben Bernanke or Larry Summers. I don’t know why but the idea of Bernanke and Summers running a brothel seems perfect.


Mitt, Ann, and the Dignity of Work

As I posted on Friday, last week there was a super spectacular OUTRAGE on the right wing about Democratic Strategist Obama Advisor CNN contributor Hilary Rosen’s comment that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life.” The Republicans, who are never shy about jumping on any possible gaffe and make it into a potential scandal, especially on issues where they are getting creamed, wasted no time in sending out fundraising emails, whipping up the rightwing blogosphere, and even offering merchandise on their site.

Like I said before, I think one of the GOP’s biggest problem with women voters is not just their policies, but the fact that they talk to women like women are stupid. And some of the talk from conservatives about this incident could only be believed by stupid people. I was told this weekend that Rosen got her marching orders from the president, and that she was sent out to attack motherhood to see if it would fly, and then when there was pushback, the White House threw her under the bus. That’s real stupidity folks.

Dumb people with access to Facebook

The link from Obama to Rosen has been a subject of great debate. Apparently she visited the White House 38 times? I’m skeptical, considering the right’s failures on similar claims, but whatever. Maybe she’s Obama’s best buddy; I don’t know. Regardless, anyone who reads Rosen’s quote in context knows that she wasn’t attacking motherhood; she was noting that Ann Romney wasn’t the best person to advise her husband on the issues and problems faced by mothers who do work outside the home.

Anyway, it’s not like President Obama himself said something that implied that stay-at-home moms don’t work, right? I mean… can you imagine the outrage if either of the actual candidates said something like that? Oh, hold on, what’s this:

Oh dear. Somehow these statements by Mitt Romney have completely failed to register on the conservative outrage meter. Weird. Oh well, after all, they were made way back in… January 2012. Ancient history in Mittland.

Chris Hayes deserves a lot of credit for unearthing this video and playing it on his show this weekend. Have I mentioned how much I think everyone should be watching that show? I think I have.