What the (Bleep), Mike Wallace?
April 10, 2012 11:35 AM
By Noel Holston
On my first of what turned out to be many, many summer TV critics' tours to Los Angeles, CBS flew out Mike Wallace, 60 Minutes' guru of "gotcha" journalism, to do meet-and-greets. This was 1973, when the critic corps was still relatively small, so instead of mass press conferences there were small coffee klatch sessions that were almost cozy. Nobody asked hard questions. Everybody just chatted, and the interviewee -- whether it was Wallace or William "Cannon" Conrad or Sally Field -- was mainly expected to tell good anecdotes.
Wallace was extremely convivial, telling "war stories" about cheats and liars he's faced down and expounding on how he and his producers convinced these crooks to appear on camera. We all laughed a lot.
As the session was ending, I couldn't resist approaching the most feared and famous journalist in America. I had been on the TV beat for The Orlando Sentinel for less than six months. I had previously been a staff writer for the paper's Sunday magazine, Florida, and one of the last pieces I had written for the mag was a long feature about the "leper colony" in Carville, Louisiana. I couldn't wait to tell Wallace that Carville was a great story just waiting for him or Morley Safer.
"Mr. Wallace, Mr. Wallace," I called to him. He turned toward me. "I just wanted to tell you I have a great story idea for you. It's about -- "
He cut me off with one of those annoyed "Oh, please" looks well known to 60 Minutes viewers. "Sure, kid," he said. "Everybody does."
As he turned away, I was so stunned that my deeply ingrained Southern deference just disappeared. "Well, fuck you," I blurted.
He turned sharply and looked at me -- really looked at me for the first time. I gulped. "What's the story?" he asked.
I told him, as succinctly as I could, about Carville. He nodded as I explained, and then he said, "That is a good story, but it's not a 60 Minutes story." He went on to explain about conflict, finding the drama in a piece.
He thanked me for the suggestion, wished me luck with my writing, shook my hand.
Years later, when I was working for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I lined up a phone interview with Wallace to talk about some history special he was narrating. The publicist had gotten me his home phone number. We talked about the special, about 60 Minutes, even his struggle with depression. He was as candid as he was genial. As the interview was wrapping up, I mentioned the encounter described above.
Not surprisingly, given how many people he'd met in his professional life, he did not recall my outburst. But his behavior, he said, sounded like him, and he apologized.
No, I said, "I'm the one who should apologize for what I said. It was rude."
"Trust me when I tell you, Noel," he said. "You were not the first person who ever said that to me."
Hardee's Hopes Male Viewers Will Flip Over Its Sexy New Burger Ad
March 15, 2012 10:30 AM
By Noel Holston
Welcome to Burger Kink. May I take your order?
You can have it your way, or one of our hot and juicy sandwiches will have its way with you.
Would you like fries with that? A shake? A condom?
Okay, you got me. I'm faking it. These are slogans I made up, inspired by a current TV commercial for Hardee's, the fast-food chain formerly best known for its hot, moist, mouthwatering biscuits, not its hooooott, mooiist, ooooh, mouthwatering cupcakes.
Alexander Portnoy has nothing on Hardee's.
The perpetually horny protagonist of Philip Roth's best-selling 1969 novel, Portnoy's Complaint, told his shrink all about his masturbatory fantasies, including an infamous youthful encounter with a sirloin.
The commercial I'm talking about, in regular rotation at various times of day since its Super Bowl unveiling, depicts swimsuit model and actress Kate Upton on a steamy drive-in movie date with one of Hardee's jalapeno-topped Southwest Patty Melts.
The ad sets a new standard for sexualizing food by selling it as -- pardon the expression -- a happy meal. It goes beyond an earlier sandwich-orgy Hardee's commercial from 2009, featuring model Padma Lakshmi (at right) having her way with a Western Bacon Thick Burger.
This new Hardee's ad opens on a nostalgic 1950s drive-in movie tableau, cars neatly lined up in rows alongside speaker posts. Upton is sitting in a convertible, seemingly alone.
She pulls a thick, glistening sandwich from a Hardee's take-out bag on the front seat and opens her mouth really wide to take a sensuous bite. The sandwich makes her hot. She's soon wiping beads of sweat from around her neck and loosening her top, while the camera rises above her to get a National Geographic shot of her cleavage.
Next there's a shot of her rapturously gnawing on the sandwich while holding the Hardee's bag between her black-stocking'ed and gartered thighs. A quick jump cut, and she's in the back seat, on her back, legs up, writhing as she savors the juices.
It's all over in 30 seconds -- which, given the target audience, is probably just about right.
Hint: This particular commercial is not aimed at persuading women who look like Upton to endanger their coltish figures. The message would appear to be, "Hey, boys, you have next to no chance of ever having sex with a woman who looks like Upton unless you save your money and pay for it. But you can satisfy your hunger with one of these salacious sandwiches she has blessed."
The commercial is so over the top, it's almost laughable. But only almost.
Radio commentator Rush Limbaugh has earned himself a costly backlash with his vulgar, misogynist remarks about a young woman who gave testimony in support of mandatory insurance coverage of birth control. Yet the fact is, demeaning and objectifying women, though commonplace in advertising, goes largely unremarked, much less rebuked or boycotted.
Go Daddy, a.k.a. Gonaddy, is notorious for advertising its Internet services with slinky honeys who would seem perfectly at home, and appropriately dressed, for a come-hither Victoria's Secret lingerie commercial.
Burger King seemed to be moving into Burger Kink territory itself a while back, with a print ad in which a young woman was about to wrap her mouth around a "super seven incher" that supposedly would "BLOW" her mind -- and, presumably, yours.
Chipotle has advertised phallic burritos "big enough to ride."
And even good old Mickey D's has gotten into the suggestive market, with ads for its double cheeseburger. "I'd hit it," says a burger hound in the ad.
Strangely enough, commercials for erectile dysfunction treatments like Cialis are downright demure, compared to the hot and heavy pitches for burgers, beer, cars and such. The emphasis is on romance, not doing the do. The twin tubs thing is positively 1950s-retro.
I'm not trying to launch a campaign to ban commercials like the onanistic Hardee's spots. It's an example of the private sector of our economy hard at work selling products, creating jobs.
But I would like to make a modest proposal that speaks to both the possible consequences of sexual marketing and the ongoing controversy about insurance coverage of birth control.
Why not levy a tax on companies that insist on using soft-core porn to sell their products, and use those tax revenues to subsidize birth control? If the businesses don't want to pay the tax, they can stop making the commercials.
One way or another, we should see a decrease in unwanted pregnancies.
You're Not 'The Sopranos,' So Stop With the Über-Story
March 5, 2012 2:35 PM
By Noel Holston
At least once a month, my wife and I order a DVD from Netflix that contains a quartet of Law & Order episodes, usually a disc from a mid-'90s season when the great minimalist Steven Hill was still playing the district attorney and both Sam Waterston's and Jerry Orbach's shtick were fresh.
We feel a need for something with which we can kill an hour here, an hour there, and not have to worry about: a) having our intelligence insulted, and b) committing ourselves to 12 hours of keeping track of yet another running storyline. Prime time dramas of that ilk are an endangered species.
I started thinking about this after reading a piece Ryan McGee recently wrote for the AVClub website. McGee created a bit of a stir in the blogosphere by contending that HBO, starting with The Sopranos, has done television more harm than good and has perhaps even "ruined" the medium. Which of course flies in the face of the conventional critical wisdom that we are in the midst of television's new "golden age of drama" thanks to HBO and the three Davids: Chase (Sopranos), Simon (The Wire) and Milch (Deadwood).
My initial reaction was that McGee was full of scungilli. But upon further reflection, I think he does have a point.
"HBO doesn't air episodes of television [anymore], it airs installments," McGee wrote. "An episode functions unto itself as a piece of entertainment, one that has an ebb and flow that can be enjoyed on its own terms. An installment serves the über-story of that season without regard for accomplishing anything substantial during its running time." He then argued that Luck [photo at right], HBO's latest adventure in installment-oriented, novelistic television, took an unconscionable three and a half hours to get up to a trot. He found the Milch series' failings all too typical of overreaching serials that have become commonplace since The Soproanos "turned into the boilerplate for what passes as critically relevant television."
If Luck took too long to dig its hooves in, that doesn't make novelized television a bad idea; it's just bad novelizing. Whether you're talking Jane Austen or Jacqueline Susann, Alan Ball or Aaron Spelling, if you produce long passages of fiction in which nothing substantial happens, you're not doing your job very well.
What bothers me more about the spreading popularity of HBO's Sopranos template is not that many of the shows it begat aren't as good. Sturgeon's "law" says that 90 percent of everything is crap, and television is not now and never has been immune to it. No, it's that pretty much all the networks, even the broadcast networks, have largely stopped commissioning and scheduling dramas that consist of stand-alone episodes. Well, okay, stand-alones that don't rely heavily on exploding cars or an endless parade of serial killers who make Jeffrey Dahmer look like Matt Lauer.
The self-contained or stand-alone episode has a distinguished history, not just in television but in literature. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories -- forerunner of the episodic procedural drama -- are as enthusiastically read today as the Charles Dickens novels that originally appeared in newspapers on the installment plan. Television over several decades used that model in dozens of engaging crime-solver variations, from Peter Gunn to The Rockford Files. I'd love to see the networks, cable and broadcast, embrace it again.
Even the series that most cleverly resolve a weekly plot while servicing novelistic character threads -- an elite group in which I would place CBS's The Good Wife [photo at right] and FX's Justified -- don't satisfy random (or rerun) viewing as well as series that wrap up neatly (or not so neatly), as Law & Order did. The networks may be limiting their own audience potential by buying so many dramas that require long-term viewing investment. I am utterly captivated by NBC's new musical serial Smash, but there's only so many of these shows I can watch live or stream later. I decided to abandon ABC's The River after one episode. Why bother working so hard to get into a (somewhat muddled) storyline if you know you'll get steadily more lost if you don't see every installment? NBC’s Awake, which premiered last Thursday after a run of intriguing, ubiquitous promos, already has me questioning whether I have the time for it.
There's nothing wrong with TV attempting serious long-form fiction. The medium is uniquely equipped for it. And I'm glad to have Mad Men and Breaking Bad. But sometimes all I want is a good short story.
What the Faulkner? The Sound and the Fury and 'The Simpsons'
February 12, 2012 3:00 PM
By Noel Holston
What's left to be said about The Simpsons as it approaches its milestone 500th episode on Sunday, Feb. 19, at 8 p.m. ET? Well, we could talk about its literary kinship to the works of William Faulkner.
Is not Homer Simpson, with his abiding fondness for beer, deep-fried everything and lassitude, only a coon dog and a 12-gauge away from being prototypical of a certain sort of Southern man? Are not Faulkner's fiction and The Simpsons both concerned with humankind's indomitable (and abominable) nature?...
Is not Springfield, the Simpson family's fictional hometown, the closest TV has ever come to a realm of characters and themes as diverse and rich as Faulkner's "apocryphal" Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi?
Faulkner gave us vengeful barn burner Ab Snopes. Simpsons creator Matt Groening and his cohorts gave us maniacal Sideshow Bob.
Faulkner gave us poor Benjy Compson, his mind all sound and fury. Groening gave us Crazy Cat Lady.
Faulkner gave us a symbolic bear. The Simpsons gave us a symbolic three-eyed fish.
Can't you just see Bart Simpson sneaking off to Memphis in his grandfather's automobile with "reivers" Boon Hogganbeck and Ned McCaslin? Or one of Marge Simpson's twisted sisters keeping the corpse of a faithless lover in the spare bedroom? A Rose for Selma?
If not, well, so be it. I still believe it's arguable that no collection of fiction in any medium in the past quarter-century has shown us America, or at least its funhouse-mirror reflection, as thoroughly as The Simpsons.
The Simpsons is as American as McDonald's fried apple pies -- and littering the street with the wrappers. It's our foibles and foolish ways -- and a decent helping of our decency and pluck -- writ large and inked in primary colors.
The Simpsons and their extended family of friends, neighbors and foils -- lovelorn teacher Edna Krabappel, zealous Christian Ned Flanders, woeful barkeep Moe Szyslak, to cite just three -- embody our vulgarity and grace, our selfishness and generosity, our religiosity and irreverence, our ambition and sloth, our love of family and our impatience with same.
When The Simpsons premiered on Fox in December 1989, protectors of our national rectitude had multiple cows. The show -- young Huckleberry Bart in particular -- was declared evidence of our once noble nation's moral collapse, possibly even the beginning of The End Times.
Now the dozens of books inspired by the series include The Gospel According to The Simpsons and The Simpsons and Philosophy. Simpsons characters have graced the covers of Christianity Today and Guideposts for Teens as well as MAD and Forbes. The show has a Peabody Award, same as Sesame Street and 60 Minutes.
That doesn't mean The Simpsons has curbed its sass. About the only way The Simpsons has softened over two decades is in the appearance of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and little Maggie. Getting better-looking with time is just one more way the characters mirror us as a people.
The series' cheekiness may no longer be shocking, but it's ongoing and unbowed. Groening and company never tire of needling their network's media sibling, Fox News Channel, and its owner, Rupert Murdoch. On the upcoming 500th episode, Julian Assange, the controversial founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, is one of the guest stars who'll give voice to his animated stand-in.
If I had to apply a political label to The Simpsons, I wouldn't say liberal. I mean, c'mon , the giddy gore of the Itchy & Scratchy toons-within-a-toon is a do-gooder's nightmare. No, The Simpsons writers have always exhibited a libertarian streak. Viewers are encouraged to be ever vigilant with regard to authority -- all authority, be it in the form of an autocratic school principal, a know-it-all newscaster or a "friendly" commercial spokesperson. Advertising and consumerism are constant targets, and not even the show's own tireless merchandising is immune to barbs.
The Simpsons is as pro-liberty as any series ever shown on American television, a weekly brief on behalf of living and letting live and of laughing at ourselves as well as "others." It's a big tent, wide open, inviting and impudent without regard to race, religion, color, creed, sexual orientation or planet of national origin. Its humor can be cerebral or sophomoric.
What other TV series concocts guest-star bits for Suzanne Somers and Thomas Pynchon, Terry Gross and Ted Nugent? Where else are you going to see a football star catch an errant pass in the Cracker Jacks and an ingenious two-minute illustration of evolutionary theory? South Park? America's Funniest Home Videos? Nah.
Only on The Simpsons. Only in Springfield. Only, as Bill Faulkner or Krusty the
Clown might say, in Yuks-napatawpha.
Author's note: I obviously believe The Simpsons still has some juice, but there are plenty of one-time admirers who believe the show jumped the shark ages ago. If you're near the University of Georgia in Athens on Wednesday, Feb. 15, stop by for "Is The Simpsons Still Funny?," a roundtable co-sponsored by the Peabody Awards and the Willson Center for Humanities & Arts. It's set to start at 4 p.m. ET in the Miller Learning Center's Room 150. It's free, and open to anyone with an interest and an opinion.
Traveling the 'Downton Abbey' Road: Where It Came From, and Why Viewers Are Watching
February 3, 2012 9:50 PM
By Noel Holston
When you're alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go... Down-tonnnn!
Okay, I've gotten that out of the way, my worst pun of the year. So far.
But let's do talk about Downton Abbey, the most watched and talked-about series PBS has had since, oh, The Civil War...
The series' Season 2 premiere, a few weeks ago, pulled 4.2 million viewers, which is a veritable Super Bowl number in the public broadcasting world. Fans are having viewing parties and dressing up in costume. It has celebrity fans. Martha Stewart pronounced it more fun than insider trading. Or interior decorating. Or something.
My feelings about the Downton phenomenon are mixed. I mean, sure, it's handsomely produced, beautifully photographed and astutely cast, down to the smallest roles. But that's actually pretty typical of the British-made dramas and mysteries that get shown here under the Masterpiece banner. And many of them are every bit as good, if not better.
For all the critical effusion over the current "golden age" of television drama -- ushered in by HBO with The Sopranos, The Wire and such like, and now encompassing such current series as AMC's Mad Men and FX's Justified -- the fact is that American television took a decade or two to catch up with the Brits on the quality drama front.
Upstairs, Downstairs, the brilliantly written prototype for Downton Abbey, debuted on PBS in 1971, when prime-time drama in the USA was epitomized by Marcus Welby, M.D. and Bonanza.
I, Claudius, the Sopranos of ancient Rome, complete with sadistic whackings and flashes of nudity, was broadcast here in 1976.
British miniseries based on John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley's People (1982), starring Sir Alec Guinness, were as dense and challenging as anything yet produced by an American network.
And Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (1986) revealed literary potential in television previously undreamed of -- and still largely undeveloped.
What we're seeing nowadays on Masterpiece, in both the Classic and Mystery editions, is evidence of how the influence of British dramatic series wasn't one-way. As well written, costumed and cast as Upstairs, Downstairs and other British dramas from that first wave were, they were no better lit than American daytime soaps, and the sound was notoriously dreadful.
The serial dramas and one-shots showcased on Masterpiece in recent years boast the same vastly improved production values that mark current American series, such as The Good Wife and Treme.
But resplendent production values can't account for Downton Abbey's high ratings any more than good acting can. Bleak House, starring Gillian Anderson (seen at right), was incredible -- the ultimate Dickens adaption. And the Cranford series, with Judi Dench, and any of a number of Jane Austen adaptations have been splendid.
Quite honestly, Season 2 of Downton hasn't been good as those series and others. The pacing has gone from brisk to rushed. Smartly conceived scenes aren't given time to breathe, and too much of the dialogue is thinly disguised plot points.
So, why this series? And why now?
One analyst, nodding to the Occupy Wall Street movement, argues that the popularity of the series rests in its portrayal of "simmering class conflicts that resound a century later." Liberals and progressives supposedly adore the show because, in their bleeding hearts of hearts, they secretly pine for structure and order.
On Slate.com, Katie Roiphe suggested that -- like Downton's young heir, Matthew Crawley, who wasn't raised noble and actually works for a living -- we viewers are at once "disapproving of the flagrant exploitation of the estate and utterly seduced by it."
She went on to say there's "something reassuring about the retrograde class structures in Downton Abbey, something elegant and comforting in their rigidity."
Me? I like the costumes, the pretty women, Lord Grantham's dog, and the sardonic humor of his valet, Mr. Bates. I'm hoping for a Mystery spinoff in which Bates and his beloved, the maid Anna, bump off his nasty, estranged wife and go on the lam to America -- where they open a small motel on a quiet California highway.
Here's another theory, one that doesn't necessarily discount all those others about our conflicted attitudes about class -- though I would caution extrapolating the interest of 4 million viewers into a national trend. By that standard, the vastly more popular Two and a Half Men indicates we all want to be smirky lotharios.
Downton Abbey, I suggest, benefits from being in the right place at the right time.
It's a complicated, well-acted drama airing at 9 o'clock on Sunday night, a time slot in which HBO and Showtime, and other cable networks for the past decade, have conditioned viewers to expect above-average dramatic fare.
And it's being embraced not just by longtime PBS supporters, but by younger viewers for whom it's just another stop on the remote.
It's Masterpiece reaping a nice little harvest for all the seeds it has sewn over four decades.
Madrigal Mystery Tour: A Loving Romp Through the 12 Days of Christmas
December 21, 2011 12:00 PM
[This doesn't have anything to do with TV, really. But it's by one of our favorite TV WORTH WATCHING contributors -- and it's such a delightful story of love and creativity, I'm posting it, proudly, as my gift to all our readers. - DB]
By Noel Holston
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... a partridge. In a pear tree. Really.
This was a few years back, when we were still courting. But I'm reminded of her generosity and creativity every year about this time, because some newspaper or wire service or blogger invariably runs a feature article about how, if someone really were to give all the presents on that celebrated 12-day checklist today, the tab -- price-adjusted for inflation -- would be at least $10,000.
Well, not necessarily -- as I can tell you from experience.
See, the partridge in the pear tree that my true love gave me that Christmas was a small, tree-like branch, stuck into a cheery flower pot and adorned with little yellow balloons for pears and a dried mushroom that looked remarkably like a bird.
On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two Turtles -- the chocolate confection -- each riding atop a bar of Dove soap.
On the third day of Christmas, she presented me with three French hens. Well, okay, a small glass hen she found at a Salvation Army thrift store, plus three eggs. I could tell they were French because each wore a tiny black felt beret.
On the fourth day, while I was at work, my true love called my answering machine at home and mimicked the calls of four birds.
On the fifth day of Christmas, I opened a tasteful little jewelry box and discovered my true love had gifted me with five golden-looking rings -- obtained from her brother, a factory worker.
On the sixth day of Christmas, I got a basket of six eggs big enough to have been laid by geese.
On the seventh day, my true love presented me with a small, round hand mirror, its face gleaming like a lake. On it swam seven tiny, origami swans.
On the eighth day, I answered the doorbell at my house and found, on the front steps, a basket containing small cartons of dairy products -- 2 percent, half-and-half, chocolate, eggnog -- eight in all. The note was signed, simply, "The Maids."
On the ninth day, my true love gave me an aerobics video with nine buff ladies dancing.
On the 10th day of Christmas, my true love picked me up in her car and drove us to a parking garage in downtown Minneapolis (where we were then living -- in the city, not the garage). I knew it was the "lords a'leaping" day, but I couldn't imagine how she would pull it off. Out on the street, I saw the city's arts center up ahead. "Aha," I thought. "Ballet." But no. She steered me right past it. And then, as the Target Center marquee came into view, I got it. Ten royally well-compensated men -- courtiers, if you will, members of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz -- were about to do some serious leaping. She had purchased affordable seats for us in the high-altitude section. At halftime, I fell to one knee and proposed.
On the 11th day of Christmas, I was still so euphoric that I didn't mind that my true love gave to me an old LP of bagpipers piping.
And on the 12th day, she gathered a dozen or so of our friends in her living room, to drum up a solstice storm on everything from bongos and doumbeks to empty oatmeal canisters.
The cost of this Christmas extravaganza, far from five figures, was less than 50 bucks. And it's a gift that really has kept on giving. Those wonderful twelve days come back to me every time I hear that song.
Author's note: My true love is my wife, singer-songwriter Marty Winkler. You can experience her musical gifts at www.myspace.com/martywinkler.
Fighting for PBS's 'Fight of the Week'
November 21, 2011 10:00 AM
By Noel Holston
If it please the court, I'd like to advocate on behalf of The Advocates.
It's a series whose time has come. Again.
For those too young to remember, or for those who never caught an installment, The Advocates was a weekly public-TV presentation from 1969 through 1974, revived as a bi-weekly program for most of 1978-79. Co-produced by Boston's WGBH and Los Angeles' KCET, it was promoted as the "PBS Fight of the Week," and while the fisticuffs were all verbal, it could pack a wallop. Many an intellectual hotshot left the arena with his or her ego bruised...
The Advocates was vastly more entertaining and enlightening than the so-called "debates" among Presidential contenders we see on television every four years. As the several recent telecasts involving Republican hopefuls underscore, these events are little more than opportunities for candidates to recite their respective talking points and slogans. In addition, the journalists whose questions they try to evade rarely call their bluffs or press hard for detailed elaboration, lest they look too partisan or pushy to a media-wary public.
The Advocates' format eliminates the interlocutors and leaves the debaters nowhere to run. It essentially recasts debate as a mock trial, with an "attorney" for the opposing sides of a question presenting expert witnesses to help make his or her case. At its best, it was as much fun to watch as a courtroom sequence on Boston Legal.
The series attracted top-tier participants. For instance, when The Advocates put the Equal Rights Amendment on its docket, the lead counsel in favor of passage was Eleanor Smeal, then president of the National Organization of Women, while the opposition arguments were framed by Phyllis Schlafly, the formidable head of Stop ERA.
The Advocates never won an Emmy, perhaps because there was no category for it. It did win a George Foster Peabody Award after its first season, on what was then still the National Educational Television Network, forerunner of PBS.
The Peabody board's citation called it a "series of bold, invigorating debates of crucial issues," grounded in the producers' belief "that in a courtroom atmosphere such controversial problems as abortion, smog versus the auto, the use of marijuana, or the danger of offshore drilling could be dramatized and reasonably, if hotly, discussed."
(Courtesy of YouTube, here's a sampling from a 1979 installment arguing for, and against, the legalization of marijuana, with Michael Dukakis as moderator:)
Note that most of the hot-button issues the board mentioned have, if anything, gained a few degrees Fahrenheit with the passing years. The format would work just as well today, on issues ranging from the credibility of global-warming science to the smartest way to deal with Iran's nuclear pursuits. The Advocates could "try" the realities and misconceptions of "Obamacare," or even the overall success or failure of the current President's administration.
What's more, the potential for public participation in The Advocates is much greater now than it was when it last aired, more than 30 years ago. We're well into the age of instant communication, live coverage of high-profile trials and non-stop punditry.
If the American public can cast votes by phone for their favorite performers on American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, why not use the same phone-vote system to get an indication of how citizens views various issues and controversies before and after they've watched courtroom-style testimony and cross-examination?
Who knows? Maybe the revenues from the phone calls could be applied to election costs or federal deficit reduction...
So, in summation (to adopt the courtroom tradition of closing arguments), somebody in the public television system -- or, if PBS is too strapped for funds, somebody at TruTV or some cable news network -- should consider reviving The Advocates. It was born in the late 1960s, a time of division and upheaval in America.
Watch video of New York police clearing Zuccotti Park and tell me a revival is not overdue.
An Artistic Chain Reaction: Music by 'Oz'-Mosis
November 4, 2011 6:30 AM
By Noel Holston
Art is a never-ending seduction. One thing leads to another. And another and another.
Examples of art begetting art are innumerable, from Chagall's take on A Midsummer Night's Dream to the W.H. Auden poem inspired by Breughel's Fall of Icarus to John Lennon's "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," with lyrics borrowed from a forgotten promoter's circus-poster pitch.
And there is perhaps no better example of this artistic chain reaction than the immortal 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, which will have its umpteenth annual showings this weekend on TBS (10 p.m. ET Friday, 8 p.m. ET Saturday, 7 p.m. ET Sunday)...
The songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg have outlived everybody associated with the film. "Over the Rainbow" is one of the most recorded songs of all time. "If I Only Had a Brain" is a jazz-pop favorite. Even unlikely snippets like "Optimistic Voices" get recycled by the likes of Bette Midler. The movie has inspired an R&B-flavored remake, The Wiz, and a Broadway musical, Wicked, each with its own hit songs.
A bit less obviously, rock and pop artists who weren't even born when the MGM musical was released have been touched and inspired by its music, themes and imagery.
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," the Elton John classic with lyrics by his original songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, is probably the best known (and most overt) rock song to recycle ideas and sentiments from the movie. It begins:
When are you gonna come down
When are you going to land
I should have stayed on the farm
I should have listened to my old man
Which is another way of saying, "There's no place like home," right, Auntie Em?
Similarly, there's that forever-stuck-in-our-heads truism about self-reliance from Dewey Bunnell, the primary songwriter of the group America (and an unabashed Wizard fan):
"Oz never did give nothin' to the Tin Man that he didn't already have." A generation knew exactly what he meant.
Look a bit harder and you find Melanie, the 1960s folk diva with the range of a Basque yodeler, harmonizing with her lead guitar player on her song "Cyclone" to create a sonic tornado. And in the midst of the turbulent, white-knuckle ride her lyrics describe, there's this hopeful, prayer-like bridge:
I open my eyes
When it gets bright
And I know I must be home
I know I must be home
Melanie was/is a devout Oz fan. In her song "Kansas," on another of her '60s albums, she skips and scats a jaunty melody, here and there capping the wordless lines with "Toto stop your barkin', we're not in Kansas no more."
In her beautiful, poignant song "If I Were Smart," country artist Shelby Lynne suggests her life would be so much easier if she didn't have a heart. And she compares her plight to that of the Tin Woodsman:
Oh the Tin Man played it cool
He said love's for fools
But his emptiness was real, he wanted more
But when his chest was pounding
He wished he'd never found it
Cause the hurt came hard and tears began to pour
If he was smart...
There are plenty more examples, including Oz-loving alt-rocker Alana Davis' 2005 CD, Surrender, Dorothy, and her song "Under the Rainbow."
And the Oz influence extends to album covers as well, starting with Electric Light Orchestra's Eldorado, which featured a tight close-up on the wicked witch's spidery, green hands reaching for Dorothy's ruby-slippered feet. But that's enough for today. I have to save something for the book, which will be ready in -- well, when it's done.
To humbly paraphrase the great Mr. Harburg:
I might make a couple dollars
Off pop's Mozarts and Mahlers
Collecting their 'Oz' rhymes
And my findings might be published
And not written off as rubbish
If I finally find the time.
© Noel Holston, 2011
[Noel Holston, as you can tell, is at work on a book about the artistic legacy of L. Frank Baum's 'Oz' stories. - DB]
Is This a $16 Muffin? (No.)
September 27, 2011 4:33 PM
By Noel Holston
Speaking at an RTDNA conference the other day, Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News, decried the lack of investigative reporting by television news operations these days.
"I think a lot of people shy away from it because it's expensive and it's difficult and it takes a lot of time," he told his audience of digital news professionals. "We succeed at 60 Minutes by doing it and by caring about it and by working hard to make it as interesting as we can, because there is a place for it and I think there's a hunger for it out there."
Well, good for Fager, and amen to all that. But in all honesty, I would be a happier news junkie if those television journalism operations would simply do a better job of contextualizing the news they already report.
Take, for instance, the shocking -- shocking! -- revelation a few days ago that the U.S Justice Department had paid 16 hard-earned taxpayer bucks each for muffins at a conference on immigration at a Hilton hotel in Washington. Make your blood boil?
At least two evening newscasts, NBC's and ABC's, reported this ostensibly outrageous example of government waste that had been brought to light by the Justice Department's own Inspector General's office. The evening-news reports included mouthwatering shots of fresh, steaming muffins -- blueberry, I think -- and video of government officials sheepishly defending the expenditure. Vice President Biden was said to be demanding a review of all breakfast spending.
I was incensed for about three seconds. I shook my head in disgust.
Then I started to think about what I'd just been shown. And I found myself wondering:
Did the Justice Department's event planners just walk in and say, "Money's no object. Fleece us, please."
Why didn't the reporters and anchors direct at least a smidgen of their barely contained indignation at the hotel that presumably profiteered?
Or was it profiteering at all? Did the Hilton hotel in fact charge the Justice Department's people more than they charge private businesses holding conferences in its convention center?
I realize that to some of my fellow citizens, particularly those whose preferred caffeinated drink is tea, anything more than federal employees bringing Pop Tarts from home would be considered wasteful spending. But I am inclined to believe that fair, accurate reports would have put the cost of hotel catering into context and left the viewer to decide if the muffin "scandal" was worthy of outrage.
Turns out, the reports were not just lacking context -- they were wrong. A Hilton spokesperson told the Associated Press the next day that the $16 per person charged was standard pricing and that it covered not just a muffin but a continental breakfast -- coffee, fresh fruit, baked goods -- plus tax and gratuity. And that shouldn't surprise anyone who has ever eaten in the coffee shop or ordered room service at a hotel in Washington, New York or most any other large American city.
ABC News and NBC News both subsequently posted the Associated Press' follow-up story on their websites. But if either offered an on-air correction to its flabby reporting, I missed it.
CBS News either missed the muffin story or didn't find it outlandish enough to bother with. But that's not to let CBS off this particular hook.
Last Sunday's season premiere of 60 Minutes, the program that Fager wants all of CBS News to emulate, featured a piece fronted by Scott Pelley, the Evening News anchor, about New York's own personal anti-terrorist operation. To be sure, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's operation is impressive and then some, but the 60 Minutes take on it was almost laughably rah-rah and gaga. [Photo at top.]
Did it not occur to anyone producing this piece that somebody in New York City might question the amount of public funds Kelly's counterterrorism efforts gobble up? Could they find no one who is not dazzled but deeply worried about the advent of a surveillance system so sophisticated and ubiquitous they could monitor your failure to poop-scoop after your dog? Did they try? Where was the context?
Im all for more ambitious, risk-taking journalistic digging. But hey, let's take care of basics first.
Peabody Awards at 70: 'Oscar Wrapped In An Emmy Inside a Pulitzer'
May 17, 2011 10:30 AM
By Noel Holston
I'll never forget the time George Foster Peabody made Jon Stewart cry.
Well, in manner of speaking. It was back in May 2006. Mr. Peabody, by then, had been gone from this mortal coil about 68 years. Stewart, the incorrigibly irreverent host of The Daily Show, was on stage at the Waldorf-Astoria's grand ballroom, overseeing the presentation of the awards that bear the late, great philanthropist's name.
Twice a Peabody winner himself, Stewart was rocking the hall. He was boogalooing up and down that fine line between mischief and disrespect, kidding even big-name recipients like Martin Scorsese. But close to the end of the ceremony, after presiding over clips from winners that ranged from Hurricane Katrina coverage to the gut-punch cop show The Shield to a made-for-cable movie about a South African mother with AIDS, Stewart almost lost it...
Mr. Cool had to step back from his podium, swallow, and compose himself before he could finish up.
Moments like that -- Peabody moments, we like to call them at the program's headquarters on the University of Georgia campus -- happen every year. If it's not the emcee getting misty, it's a recipient like Lost creator Damon Lindelof confessing in his acceptance speech that he almost didn't fly in for the ceremony because of bad weather, but that his wife had told him, "This is the Peabody Awards. If you don't go, I will slap your face." And then he thanked her for her wise counsel in front of the thousand people in attendance.
What happens, you see, is that the creativity and social significance of the year's recipients slowly adds up, and reaches a sort of cumulative critical mass that can be humbling, whether you're a reporter at a radio station in Fargo or the highly paid creator of a hit network show.
(Click HERE for a clip of Jon Stewart introducing, then cleverly reacting to, one Peabody winner at the 2006 awards: Martin Scorsese, who won for his PBS American Masters biography, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.)
What happens is this: recipients, emcees and audience members alike become palpably aware that a Peabody Award, the oldest in electronic media, is indeed the hardest to win. They are reminded that the awards go to not just technically excellent work, but work that addresses issues and ideas in a thoughtful manner, that challenges the mind or that breaks new ground.
They are reminded of just how good TV, radio and the Internet can be. They are reminded that the George Foster Peabody Awards are not only a gesture of respect, but a double-dog-dare.
It might have turned out differently. In 1938, the National Association of Broadcasters was looking to generate more respect for its members -- and, frankly, more publicity -- when its executive leadership asked Lambdin Kay, general manager of Atlanta's WSB-AM, to dream up a prize for radio that would have the cache that the Pulitzer does in the print world.
if it had been strictly an in-house industry trophy, what Kay came up with might have been only a bit more prestigious than, oh, a Golden Globe. But WSB's continuity editor, Lessie Smithgall (a University of Georgia graduate, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday), hooked Kay up with her mentor, John Drewry, the esteemed dean of UGA's Grady School of Journalism.
Once they'd outlined the award and obtained the use of the late Mr. Peabody's name (and a little start-up money) from his family, Kay and the NAB left it to Drewry to operate. That independence has been crucial to the prestige the award quickly acquired.
At the first ceremony, a 1941 shindig focused on 1940s radio fare, awards went to stations in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbia, Missouri, for public service, and to CBS Radio's Elmer Davis for his intrepid reporting. In 1942, Peabody winners ranged from The Man Behind the Gun, a drama, to Our Hidden Enemy, Venereal Disease, a documentary produced by KOAC Radio in Corvalis, Oregon. The unique Peabody emphasis on excellence without regard to genre was already evident.
The first awards to that new-fangled television thing didn't happen until 1948, when Peabodys went to ABC's Actor's Studio, an early experiment in live drama that involved the likes of John Steinbeck and Elia Kazan, and an NBC children's program called Howdy Doody. Again, we see that omnivorous purview that is still a Peabody hallmark.
At the 70th annual Peabody ceremony coming up Monday (May 23) in New York, Larry King will be the emcee. He's the latest in a long line of past Peabody winners -- Stewart, Walter Cronkite, Lesley Stahl, Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer -- who volunteer their services.
This year, the 38 Peabody recipients range from a jolting radio report about our flawed bail bond system to a documentary about guerilla video journalists in Burma to FX's Justified, a sort of modern-day Gunsmoke set in Appalachia.
Gunsmoke, by the way, never won a Peabody. Neither did I Love Lucy or The Andy Griffith Show, two other long-running oldies now widely considered TV classics. Oversights happen.
It wasn't that the Peabodys were snooty in the early days -- well, OK, maybe they were, just a little -- but that the early emphasis was heavily on news, education and public service. With a few exceptions, like Wally Cox's Mister Peepers and Lassie (yes, Lassie but no Lucy), the entertainment series honored by the Peabody board tended to be higher-brow fare, such as Omnibus and The Bell Telephone Hour.
But the Peabodys steadily evolved, along with the electronic media they honor. Entertainment programming began to get more attention when it became more connected to reality in the 1970s, the heyday of great Norman Lear and MTM Productions comedies.
Now, more than a decade after a Peabody board honored HBO's The Sopranos for exploring "the moral complexity of modern American life," it's not a big shock when a fresh configuration of the 16-member group cites a South Park, as well as an oral-history of the Civil Rights movement or a 30 Rock, along with a Roanoke TV station's remarkably calm live reporting of the Virginia Tech shooting spree.
In recent years, the Peabodys have averaged about one thousand TV, radio and Web entries -- news coverage, documentaries, entertainment, public-service campaigns, children's shows -- from as close by as Atlanta and as far away as Hong Kong and Berlin. From these, the board reaches unanimous agreement on only about three dozen.
After The Colbert Report was honored in 2007, a jubilant Stephen Colbert informed his Comedy Central audience that the Peabody is a "big deal" because it's "like an Oscar wrapped in an Emmy inside a Pulitzer."
For once, Colbert wasn't being hyperbolic. He could have noted that it's like an Oscar wrapped in an Emmy inside a Pulitzer, preserved in amber with a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval affixed and blessings from the Dali Lama and Oprah Winfrey.
It is a big deal.
Note: Noel Holston wrote about television and popular culture for The Orlando Sentinel, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and New York's Newsday before joining the Peabody Awards staff in 2006. He traces his awareness of the award to 1957, when one of his favorite TV shows, Captain Kangaroo, won its first Peabody and for weeks displayed the medallion at the conclusion of each broadcast. For more about this year's Peabody recipients, visit the official Peabody website HERE.
Why Fox's 'Glee' Shouldn't Win the Nobel Peace Prize
September 20, 2010 3:00 PM
By Noel Holston
I wonder what's next for Glee. Knighthood? An installation at the Louvre? The Nobel Peace Prize?
Nothing much would surprise me now that the Fox musical-comedy-fantasy-melodrama, which begins its second season Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET, has become the most over-praised TV series since, well, I can't think of a close second, let alone an equal.
It recently picked up an Emmy to go along with its Peabody and its Golden Globes. I wouldn't be shocked if the members of the Motion Picture Academy created a new category so they can give it an Oscar.
Seems like every time I watch any Fox prime-time show, I encounter an in-house promo citing critics' raves for Glee, including a quote from TV Guide to the effect that it "raises the bar for all of television."
Please. Glee is a nice little show, sort of a cross-breeding of American Idol and the old ABC Afterschool Specials. Over the course of its brief life, it has tirelessly contended that, as Mac Davis once put it, "music in the universal language, and love is the key, to peace, love and understanding, and living in harmony."
More specifically, it has put forth the proposition that a school music program can enable kids representing rich and poor, ebony and ivory, the jocks and the preppies, the bullies and the nerds, the straight and the gay, the overweight and the anorexic, the handicapped and the buff to see beyond their petty differences and find common purpose in life. And exchange wistful looks at least once per episode as they recognize their personal growth.
Well, OK, lovely. At a time when schools are ditching chorus and band and other extracurricular arts programs for lack of funds, it's great PR. And far better this than another voyeuristic melodrama about serial killers or another sitcom about a pudgy doofus with an improbably gorgeous wife. But the notion that Glee is historic, epochal, phenomenal television is silly.
The Wire raised the bar. The Singing Detective raised the bar. Friday Night Lights raises the bar. Glee? Well, it's the best musical-drama series since Cop Rock, although not as daring or original.
Given the success of Disney's High School Musical franchise, I'm not surprised that somebody thought, "High school, music, big box office, hmmm -- what if we did a series about teens who are in a glee club? And what if we have them sing songs their parents grew up on? OMG!!!"
What Glee portrays is much more akin to a high school's theater department or some sort of showstoppers troupe, not a glee club. I realize I've been out of high school more than a couple of years and that things change, but I still think of a glee club as being a choral unit whose members join their voices on songs like Oh Shenandoah and Battle Hymn of the Republic, not a collection of Idol-ready soloists who take turns backing each other up in a medley of hits by Olivia Newton-John or Journey.
But even if I'm being overly technical -- or old-fashioned -- about this, there's still the problem that the basic dramatic tension in Glee is strained. We're supposed to believe that the members of New Directions, the glee club at McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio, not only struggle to be recognized and respected by their classmates and the school's administration, but that they have sworn enemies out to undercut them at every turn?
Enter Sue Sylvester, the unscrupulous, power-mad cheerleading coach who has made it her mission to embarrass and undercut New Directions and its faculty advisor, Will Schuester, by any means possible. Every school or office has its petty despots, to be sure. But to find a TV nemesis as caricatured as scheming, skulking Sue, you have to go back to Boss Hogg or Sheriff Roscoe in The Dukes of Hazzard.
Yes, Sue had a mild attack of decency in the season finale, using her clout at McKinley to see to it that New Directions got another year's trial (and, conveniently, the series another season). But it's unlikely her change of heart will be anything but fleeting. Her over-the-top antagonism is an essential contrivance of the show.
But, you may say, what about the music? Where else on television can you turn to hear songs from My Fair Lady and West Side Story and Sweet Charity, songs made famous by Aerosmith and Lady Gaga and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap?
Nowhere. Not even on Idol, which has never had much use for show tunes. And I applaud the producers for sneaking in occasional reminders of musical theater's grand history. But is it too much to ask that the performances by Glee's undeniably talented cast bear a bit more resemblance to reality?
This is supposed to be high school, right? And these kids are presumably amateurs. Yet their rehearsals quickly elevate to improbably elaborate, misstep-free choreography, and the public performances are so intricate, they could have come straight from a Broadway stage.
The problem with Glee is never sour notes, just false ones.
GUEST BLOG #91: Noel Holston Ponders TV's Fondness for Douches Wild
May 12, 2010 10:53 AM
[Bianculli here: TV WORTH WATCHING is very proud to welcome yet another new columnist to our fraternity. Noel Holston is a veteran TV critic, most recently for New York Newsday, whose perspective is both scholarly and playful. His introductory column, for example, tackles an oft-neglected TV topic: "douche" as an acceptable prime-time punchline...]
We've Come a Long Way from Dingbats and Dirtbags
By Noel Holston
Is it just me, or has mainstream, prime-time TV undergone a little douche coup? Seems like everywhere I turn lately, there's some character insulting some other character by tossing out the d-word. As in, "What a douche." As in, "You're such a douche."
I've heard the insult mostly on sex-joke dependent sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother and Accidentally on Purpose and Cougar Town. But I even heard it in one of the last episodes of Ugly Betty, a show I'd always given credit for more wit than that. Invoking this feminine hygiene procedure/product for purposes of disparagement is threatening to become as commonplace in prime time as shots of pole-dancing strippers in cop shows.
Why douche, all of a sudden, has become the insult du jour, I can only guess. Maybe some influential Hollywood writer's estranged wife sent him a case of Eve as a parting gift. It's conceivable. There's a legendary showbiz story, after all, about an actor who sent an unkind critic a case of toilet tissue with a note that read: "These foolish things remind me of you."
The thing that annoys me about this trend is not that I find the word douche -- or Charmin, for that matter -- offensive. It's just not terribly clever or memorable.
We've come a long way from the restrictive, prudish days when Rob and Laura Petrie had to have twin beds in their New Rochelle bedroom on The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the writers of Maude had to get special permission from CBS for their heroine to call her husband, affectionately, a son of a bitch. And, generally speaking, that's a great thing.
But let's not forget that the ever-cautious souls in the networks' Standards and Practices departments for years forced TV writers to find euphemisms -- more colorful speech -- that caught the public fancy and were repeated endlessly.
Think of Archie Bunker on All in the Family saying, "Edith, you dingbat."
Think of Mick Belker on Hill Street Blues growling like a rabid dachshund and addressing lowlifes as "dirtbags."
Think of Flo, the mouthy waitress on Alice, saying, "Mel... kiss my grits."
Now imagine Archie or Belker invoking the phrase "douche bag" instead. Or Arch calling son-in-law Mike Stivic a "douche" instead of a "meathead." Or Flo telling her boss at the diner to kiss a body part that any, uh, dingbat on the street could come up with.
Sure, it might sound more authentic, more real, more everyday. But somehow I don't think we'd be getting any national catchphrases in the bargain.
Noel Holston wrote about TV, radio and popular culture for The Orlando Sentinel, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Newsday before semi-retiring to grow wine bottles near Athens, Georgia.
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