Must not see TV

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about the NPR and NY Times reviews that raved about a new sitcom called Aliens in America, in which a Muslim Pakistani exchange student comes to an “All American” home and community.  I hadn’t yet seen the show, so I blogged, instead, about the fact that the reviewers seemed delighted about the fact that the show poked fun at the enemy:  and the enemy was us.  I found that incredibly disheartening.  Now, having seen the show, I’m even more disheartened.

Every American character is portrayed with a viciousness that is surprising.  The parents are paranoid ignoramuses; the teenager daughter is a self-obsessed mean girl; the American teenage boy is an incompetent, lying slacker; the black principal is a sleazy womanizer; the golden blond lead cheerleader is a direct descendant of Rommel, with a temperament to match; the cafeteria lady is rudely ignorant of Muslim dietary habits; the cops are jackbooted thugs who steal hard drives without warrants; teachers are stupid and disinterested; and on and on.  The only spot of intelligent virtue in the whole show is the Muslim exchange student.  He’s polite, he’s honest, he respects women, rather than treating them like objects, he’s an academic star, etc, etc.  It was creepy — dhimmitude made TV flesh.

Aside from the loathsome characters — and they are loathsome — the episode I saw was also a show case for Progressive paranoia about the evil government.  It’s been 12 hours, and the details are fading from my mind, but let me see if I can reconstruct it.

Mom has become paranoid that teenage boy is into drugs, so she begins spying on him.  The one activity he does that she thinks is virtuous is the “Rocket Club,” which she believes is an academic group that makes model rockets.  In fact, the Rocket Club is a sham, with teenage boy and his nerdy friends gathering to watch vaguely dirty movies and ogle women’s breasts.  She insists teenage boy take Muslim exchange student with him.  Muslim exchange student professes boredom, and chastises the other boys for disrespecting women.  He then expresses doubt about his ability to lie regarding the club’s real purpose.

When they return home, Muslim exchange student, lying for the first time in his life, goes overboard and describes a glorious club dedicated to rocket knowledge, right down to its space uniforms.  Teenage boy discovers that he now has to make those fantasies a reality.  He and his friends try to make costumes and create permission slips.  Meanwhile, Muslim exchange student goes to the store to build a real rocket — with a shopping list that mimics the list for a bomb.  He is arrested.

The arresting cop wants to see Muslim exchange student’s computer.  The latter is perfect agreeable, knowing he is innocent.  However, teenage boy has been using that computer to look at girlie sites, so he doesn’t want the cops to see it.  Searching through his memory, he resurrects the the vaguely taught notion of civil rights, and gives a stirring speech about the fact that, even though Muslim exchange student is a guest in the country, he has civil rights and cannot be searched and should not be made a suspect.  Parents cheer him on.  Cops decide not to search.

Meanwhile, however, word gets round and Muslim exchange student is viewed with suspicion by students and teachers.  Substitute teacher looks at him and says, “I have a wife and family.  Please don’t hurt me.”  Teenage daughter is refused admission on the cheer leading team because she’s soft on terrorism.  Muslim exchange student says to teenager that he’s okay giving up his civil rights, because this freedom stuff is really difficult and he doesn’t want to deal with it.  Teenager boy confesses to what he did with Muslim exchange student’s computer.  Muslim exchange student dutifully calls cops.  Cops arrive and take that computer and then, without a warrant, rip the family computer out of the wall, as wife weeps about “family photographs.”

Everybody then decides to create a real rocket club, with real rockets.  Even the principal tears himself away from the unseen woman waiting in his car to see the rocket launching.  The rocket ascends, then goes sideways, and appears to kill the cheerleader who is Rommel’s granddaughter.  With the exception of the Muslim exchange student, everyone at the launch — teenagers, parents, and principal — runs away.  Show ends.

I did not find the show funny but, then again, I’ve never been a fan of mean-spirited humor — that is, unless I’ve really disliked the person or group on the receiving end of the joke (e.g., Hitler).  As it is, I happen to like Americans as a whole, and found unpleasant, and unfunny, this wholesale attack on them, especially when the sole virtuous role was assigned to someone representative of a group that does not, through its spokespeople show Americans much good will.  (And here comes the usual disclaimer, and I do mean it, that there are millions of good, law-abiding, pro-American Muslims in our country, and even around the world.  Nevertheless, many of their religion have distinguished themselves lately by the fervor with which they state their desire to destroy us.  The New York Times has a good rundown on some of these homegrown terrorists and their computers.)

I opened this post with my opinion of the show.  Having read my pretty accurate summary, I’d like to know what you think.

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Laughing at the enemy

During World War II, Hollywood started churning out cartoons poking fun at Hitler.  Here’s a great example from Warner Brothers with Bugs taking Hitler on, and Disney did the famous Der Fuehrer’s Face, starring Donald Duck.  The cartoons obviously weren’t intended to minimize the dangers America was facing.  They were produced at the height of the war, and people were not in avoidance mode.  Instead, they served to release the tension — to let them laugh at that which, with reason, they feared most.

Hollywood is apparently carrying on the grand tradition of laughing at the enemy, this time with a new show called Aliens in America from the CW network.  The premise is that a bullied American high school student in Middle America is saved by the arrival of a Pakistani Muslim exchange student, who is bullied even more than our American friend.  The New York Times likes it as a fresh twist on the old imaginary friend theme.  NPR likes it as a fresh twist on a stale TV season.  Clearly, this show is fresh.  And it may well be a charming and delightful take on the age old theme of the outcast high school student.

What I noticed, though, when I listened to the clip provided on NPR, as well as when I read the NYT’s review, was that, from the reviewers’ point of view, the comic targets are the Americans:  The family who is ignorant about the fact that Muslims don’t eat pork; the snotty high school girl who humiliates the well-mannered, articulate, nerdy Pakistani boy on his first day by being tactless enough to mention 9/11.

It’s entirely possible that those two scenes are completely unrepresentative of the show as a whole, which I haven’t yet seen.  It’s also true that there are millions of Muslims who are lovely, peace loving, pro-American, democratically oriented people.  And its certainly true that Pakistan is sort of, in a weird way, our nominal ally.  But I have to admit that the actual details of the show don’t interest me here.

What I do find interesting is the fact that the reviewers chose to highlight the “Americans are idiots” aspect of the show, irrespective of whether that aspect dominates the show or appears in only one or two jokes.  To these two reviewers, the best way to promote a comedy they think is worth watching is to highlight the idiot American jokes.  Presumably, then, the idiot American facet of Aliens in America represents what the reviewers fear most — and what they fear is us!

In the old days, in comedy looking at Americans and those arrayed against her, Hollywood sought to use humor to cut “the other” down to size.  Nowadays, in comedy looking at Americans and those who, by their own admission and sometimes in inadvertent comedic fashion, have arrayed themselves against the U.S., Hollywood seeks to cut Americans down to size.  In the leftist media view, we don’t actually have any Muslim enemies.  Instead, we’re simply paranoid, xenophobic loonies who hate everyone.  In a fraught world, to the Liberal elite, Americans are the enemy that needs to be defanged through silly comedy.

A show to watch

I was going to write a review of Friday Night Lights but, somehow, never got around to it. My bottom line would have been: Watch It! Fortunately, S.T. Karnick, writing at National Review Online, has written the review I thought about, if only I could write so well. Karnick’s bottom line is the same as mine: Watch It! (And, through the miracles of the internet, you can even watch the pilot online.)

Showing Tuesdays at 8 P.M. EDT on NBC, and based on the popular movie of the same name (which itself was based on a book of the same name), Friday Night Lights tells the story of a small Texas town’s high-school football team as it makes a run for the state championship.

In the two episodes shown so far, the team begins a new season with a new coach facing the town’s expectation that they will win the state championship; narrowly wins its first game; suffers a huge loss as their star player is injured severely on the field; copes with that loss and the realization that it clearly dashes their hopes of winning the championship; undergoes internal dissension as the heightened pressure causes players to react badly; and prepares for game two while the townsfolk express their unaltered expectations for a championship and their doubts that the team can accomplish it, and threaten social ostracism of the players and coaches if the team falters as expected.

The show’s ostensible subject matter, high-school football, might seem to limit its appeal, but as the foregoing description suggests, the producers use this context to tell stories that are about much more than sports. The central interest of the show is what each character sees as his or her purpose in life and how they pursue it. We are invited to judge the characters on their view of what their purpose is: glory, pleasure, honor, service, etc.; and on how they go after it — by hard work, chicanery, manipulation, planning, intuition, etc. The show gives realistic looks at the obstacles the characters must overcome and the disappointments they endure.

You can read the rest of the review here.

What struck me about the show, aside from what a good show it is (something even the New York Times acknowledged, in a rave review), is how respectful it is of religion. Unlike the fairly despicable Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which sees Aaron Sorkin playing out his Freudian Fear of Christians, FNL shows how religion is an integral part of town life — not as a negative force, but as a binding force. It’s where people turn in time of tragedy, and it informs many of their decisions. The show doesn’t shy away from greed, hypocrisy, arrogance, teenage sexuality (which is presented as sleazy, not exciting), etc., but it doesn’t try to tie those vices to religion, either.

Sadly, this good show is tanking in the ratings war. I urge you to watch it, both because it may go away soon, which would be a shame, and because any increase in the audience might prevent it from going away soon, which would be a good thing.

Picking on easy targets again

I think it’s time for me to explain why, after a life as a Democrat, I’ve turned my back so vehemently on my former party, and why I reject the word “liberal,” even though I once embraced it, and still hold to the classic ideas for which is stands. However, this will not be that post. I have a fair amount of work today, a short day in which to do it, and a backlog of fatigue. So, I’m going for the easy post, which is a quick comment on this week’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which I finally got around to watching.

As you know from an earlier post I did, Sorkin’s hostility to “Right Wing” Christians is pathetic and pathological. His lack of courage — that is, his picking on an easy target that he knows won’t strike back — was again evident in this week’s show. I don’t even have to waste time summarizing the plot, which was vapid and turgid. It’s enough to know that Studio 60 is a show about making a sketch comedy akin to Saturday Night Life (“SNL”). The big enemies are Bush, the network, and “Right Wing” Christians. Bush is dangerous to the country; while the network and those pesky Christians keep trying to mess with the heroes’ job security (as well as to stifle free speech, of course).

Because of the SNL premise, it is incumbent on the show to come up with some sketch ideas. This week’s sketch was called “Science Schmience,” and was apparently a parody of a Jeopardy-style game show. The contestants were an Orthodox Jew (played by Rob Reiner), who is a Kahane follower; a Taliban member; a Right Wing Christian; a Wiccan; and a college student. Throughout the show, you’d get interludes where the camera would bop in on rehearsals for this “comedy” sketch. The “host” would ask a question rooted in science, and you’d get to hear one of the “contestants” give a response rooted in faith.

Interestingly, the camera never got around to picking on that Taliban man’s beliefs. That is, there were moments were the Christian and the Jew were made to look like ignorant fools. There was a moment when the college student gave the right scientific answer but was told she was wrong under the “science shmience” rubric, and the “Wiccan” got to make a witch hat joke. The Taliban man’s only line was to the effect that “the Jew is right,” and even that wasn’t as to a religious point.

In other words, for all his big talk about freedom of speech and striking back at religious bigots, Sorkin never touched the Taliban man’s presumed extreme religious beliefs, violent political ideology, misogyny, etc. It was such a pathetically obvious avoidance that it simply reinforced the fact that Sorkin will only attack those he knows won’t strike back.  This is a bad show, not because it’s badly written (Sorkin is a good writer) or badly acted (the ensemble is strong), but because its ideas are manifestly wrong.  Ultimately, there is nothing Sorkin can do to use a fantasy to tout his courage, when we’re all well aware of what’s going on in the real world.  No wonder the show is a ratings disaster.

Studio 60 is in the dumps

Considering that it is a manic polemic, I’m not surprised that Studio 60 is not doing well in the ratings.

Attacking paper tigers

I’ve now watched two episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s new show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Well, to be completely honest, I sort of watched two episodes, sinced I slept through most of the second.

The show has the usual Sorkin trademarks — incredibly rapid-fire dialogue, some of it clever; a camera that likes to spin and zoom; and speeches, lots of speeches. This time, the speeches meld Sorkin’s two primary concerns: studio control over show content and Evangelical Christians.

In Sorkin’s world, the studios are constantly bowing down to the Evangelical Christians and bleaching “cutting edge” content from the brilliant work done by writers and directors. Sorkin is remarkably unconcerned by the fact that the studios are business-making entities and that their obligation to their shareholders isn’t to be cutting edge, but is to appeal to the greatest number of advertisers — which means attracting, not attacking, the largest audience demographic.

In the 24 hour a day cable world, if Sorkin has something burning to say, he can find a venue. As it is, despite his attacks on the studios, NBC seems happily to have assumed the martyr’s roll of hosting a show savaging its own approach to TV (although I’m sure the network bigwigs console themselves with the thought that, since they’re hosting the show, NBC must be considered a network that doesn’t pander in the way Sorkin describes).

In any event, as Sorkin constantly flexes his puny muscles with his brave attacks on Christians, I can’t help but think of my own recent American Thinker article about the Democrats’ horror of being on the receiving end of a verbal challenge to their ideas. You see, that’s what this whole Studio 60 is about: How dare those Evangelical Christians use market power in a capitalist economy to say I’m not brilliant? Further, how dare they challenge my attack against them?

I’d be much more impressed with Sorkin’s freedom of speech positioning if, instead of attacking Evangelical Christians who, for the most part, merely huff and puff about his inanities, he’d throw in a few Mohammed jokes or perhaps have a cutting-edge joke two about burkhas, honor killings, submission, free speech riots, etc.  Attacking paper tigers is scarcely the way to make the point about freedom of speech in a dangerous world.  But, as we well know, because the Kennedys, Trumans and Roosevelts are long gone, the Democrats’ enemies of choice are always the paper tigers who won’t fight back.

Words, *bleep* words

Mr. Bookworm rented a movie called Tigerland the other day, about men being trained to go off to the Vietnam War. I found it unwatchable, in large part because every other word was a filthy obscenity. There was almost no substance to the dialogue, just foul language. Thinking back, this has been part and parcel of Hollywood war movies from the past twenty years or so. According to Hollywood, anything military personnel says is wrapped in dirty words (and sex), from ig to zack.

I’d sort of buried this thought in my mind, but resurrected it when I read this NY Times story about new censorship guidelines, and whether they’ll affect a PBS documentary. Read the start of the story, and it’s clear that you, as a good American who believes in the virtues of Ken Burns’ documentaries and is opposed to censorship, should be shocked:

The PBS documentarian Ken Burns has been working for six years on “The War,” a soldier’s-eye view of World War II, and those who have seen parts of the 14-plus hours say they are replete with salty language appropriate to discussions of the horrors of war.

What viewers will see and hear when the series is broadcast in September 2007 is an open question.

A new Public Broadcasting Service policy that went into effect immediately when it was issued on May 31 requires producers whose shows are broadcast before 10 p.m. to adhere to tough editing requirements when it comes to coarse language, to comply with tightened rulings on broadcast indecency by the Federal Communications Commission.

Most notably, PBS’s deputy counsel, Paul Greco, wrote in a memo to stations, it is no longer enough simply to bleep out offensive words audibly when the camera shows a full view of the speaker’s mouth. From now on, the on-camera speaker’s mouth must also be obscured by a digital masking process, a solution that PBS producers have called cartoonish and clumsy.

In addition, profanities expressed in compound words must be audibly bleeped in their entirety so that viewers cannot decipher the words. In the past, PBS required producers to bleep only the offensive part of the compound word.

This sounds bad, because we know from the Civil War series Burns did that he is a masterful documentarian, and it would be a shame to mess with another American masterpiece. I’m almost ready to call the FCC myself, when I read down two more paragraphs:

Mr. Burns, in an interview, said he was not worried that his work, which he called a “very experiential take on the Second World War,” would be affected by the policy, noting that while the series includes some “very graphic violence,” there are just two profanities, read off camera. [Emphasis mine.]

So this really isn’t about Ken Burns’ at all, is it? In a 14 hour documentary, two seconds might be affected. The news story’s real goal picks up steam. First, we get the obligatory Bush dig:

Mr. Burns, perhaps best known for his prize-winning series “The Civil War,” insisted that “The War” would be shown in the preferred time slot of 8 p.m. He said he was “flabbergasted” that F.C.C. policy was being applied to documentaries, particularly when President Bush himself was inadvertently heard using vulgar language, broadcast on some cable newscasts, at the recent Group of Eight summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Then we find out about the shows PBS and the NYTimes are really worried about:

Margaret Drain, the vice president for national programs at WGBH in Boston, said her station was already examining how it would probably have to edit references to sexual activities in a coming “Masterpiece Theater” production, “Casanova.”

She said that while she understands how PBS arrived at its policy for documentaries, the station might not adhere to it for series like “Frontline” and “The American Experience,” particularly when tackling war topics where strong language reflects reality.

“The decisions we make in the future, to pixelate or not, may put us in the position of negotiating with or telling PBS about our position,” she said.

Ms. Sloan of PBS said, “This is an unhappy situation for all of us and we’re very concerned about the situation,” but added that producers are required to submit F.C.C.-compliant material.

In mid-June, shortly after the PBS edict, “Frontline” scheduled a last-minute rebroadcast of an episode on the Iraqi insurgency and digitally obscured the mouth of a soldier. Ms. Drain said that the same decision might not be made today, “now that we’ve had time to absorb everything.”

Frontline, by the way, is so hostile to the Bush administration you can practically see the producers foaming at the mouth in the back rooms as they make the show.

I don’t like profanity. I don’t use it and I don’t like to hear it used around me. I especially hate it when I hear it spewing out of childrens’ mouths. Nevertheless, I recognize that, in the entertainment world, there are certain places when it is appropriate. A well-made documentary that uses profanities in context may be acceptable, where a trash TV show or movie that relies on them in lieu of dialogue is, to me, unacceptable. I do recognize, though, that certain sectors of society don’t speak like saints. Indeed, if we were to wipe all obscenities out of movies, we’d end up with every movie being filled with the stilted dialogue that makes Guys and Dolls so charming.

In any event, I want to go back to a point at the beginning of my post, which is Hollywood’s love affair with soldiers and obscenities. My question to those of you who are now, or who have ever been in the military, is this: Do military personnel really use extreme profanity in practically every single sentence they utter? And, guys, I know you’re young, hormone-filled, and female-deprived when you’re in the military, but are all your references to women really in such graphic and demeaning terms as these same Hollywood films would have us believe? It’s okay if you answer yes — I won’t respect you less because I respect what you do, and it’s none of my business how you talk to each other. I’m just curious and want to know where the truth ends and Hollywood begins.

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