Things you learn when you have broadcast TV on in the background

I learned pretty quickly that if I leave broadcast TV on in the living room while I am trying to get things done (housework, etc.) Otto the Rescue Pittie will sleep for far longer periods of time before he comes to find me and be as irresistibly needy as he always is.

But having broadcast TV running means there are all sorts of things that air which you’ve never heard of before.

Such as: How did I miss the fact that Lorenzo Lamas had a TV show called Renegade that ran for five seasons (!!) between 1992 and 1997?

Also, I had forgotten how central Lorenzo’s hair was to his persona back then.

Lorenzo Lamas (left) in a scene from Renegade.

There is so much to love about Harrison Ford and his “I don’t give a shit” persona

I’m not much for celebrity interviews.

I can count the number of celebrities I’ve followed and admired in my life on one hand. Cher is definitely up there because she’s always been totally and unabashedly her own person. That is, to me, a fascinating quality in entertainment people. Especially rich Hollywood people because there is so much pressure in that industry to be something you’re not as a way toward greater riches. Madonna is also in the small group I admire.

So is Harrison Ford, who has an interview in The Hollywood Reporter where you can definitely tell the last place he wants to be is being interviewed by a member of the entertainment press. But he’s cordial, all while still being his own person. I mean, how grounded do you have to be to be Harrison Ford saying these things?

Did being in your first TV comedy, Shrinking, make you feel like you used some new muscle or learned some new things?

Would it be arrogant to say that I didn’t learn anything?

Not if it’s true.

Well, look, I really didn’t learn anything. (Laughs.) It’s about being in the room where it happens and being appropriate to the circumstances and welcoming the opportunity to generate something with a little spontaneity and a measure of truth.

The show’s co-creator Brett Goldstein said when he presented you with the script that you found something in it that related to your life. What was that?

I’m not sure I want to talk to you about that. There are family issues that were relatable to me, OK? I’ve got five kids. This guy’s got a daughter he doesn’t see very often and an ex-wife. There are issues with his family — which are not the same issues I have with my family. But there are things we worked our way through, so I found an emotional reality to attend to.

Your Shrinking character Paul is, I would imagine, closer to how you are in real life than your other roles. He’s low-key, smart, affable but also sometimes grumpy. Would that be fair?

I don’t have Parkinson’s [like Paul] or a deep knowledge of therapy, and I’m not in business with a couple of fucking maniacs. But I recognize that maybe he’s like me. Or maybe he’s not like me — and that’s acting.

So whether he is or isn’t is not something you’d want me to know.

You’ve hit on the first rule of Acting Club: Don’t talk about acting.

You said in a 2002 interview that you did some therapy once. What’s your honest opinion of the profession?

My opinion is not of the profession, it’s of the practitioner. There are all kinds of therapy. I’m sure many of them are useful to many people. I’m not anti-therapy for anybody — except for myself. I know who the fuck I am at this point.

I would feel like a failure after I did that interview.

There are a couple of my former reporters who have made it big in the entertainment press. If you’ve watched the red-carpet awards show previews, you’ve seen at least one of them on there, or on the likes of E! Entertainment Television or Bravo.

I won’t name them here because I get the impression that they would rather focus on their big-time success jobs rather than their little journalism job when they worked for me.

That’s OK. I get that.

But I will never, ever get how they do what they do. I would kill myself if I worked in a job where I have to suck up to entertainment industry types all day, every day. Seriously. I would put a bullet in my head. Interviews with people like Harrison Ford, whom you can tell doesn’t hold entertainment reporters in high regard — even as he is unfailingly professional with them — would give me an existential crisis afterward.

Oh, well. To each his own.

Harrison Ford in one of his most iconic photos.

You go, Madonna, with any alterations to your appearance that make you happy

I don’t usually wade into discussions about fashion, style and pop culture because I have always been the least fashionable gay man around. To this day, I have to remember to take a look at myself in a full-length mirror every morning to make sure I don’t have buttons missing or holes in my pants or some other such stupid thing that befalls me from time to time as I walk into work and someone points out that I have buttoned my shirt lop-sidedly. I really only recently took to heart the fact that I should not wear blue and black together — a habit that used to drive one of my exes to distraction.

But this thing with Madonna and the Grammys has been too much to take without saying something.

If you’ve not heard, Madonna has a new look — including a bold new face — that she unveiled as she came out on Grammys night to introduce Sam Smith and Kim Petras, a nonbinary performer and a trans woman. The 64-year-old singer’s new look has brought about the most vicious round of sexist, ageist commentary I’ve seen emanate from otherwise progressive cultural observers.

An op-ed in the New York Times had this to say:

In the wake of the Grammys, people complain she no longer looks like Madonna, but which Madonna comes to mind? She’s been a blonde and a brunette, butch and high femme. She’s worn castoffs and couture. She’s adopted and abandoned an English accent. She’s shown us her roots and her underwear, deliberately putting the hidden parts on display. Every new version of Madonna was both a look and a commentary on looking, a statement about the artifice of beauty, and about her own right to set the terms by which she was seen.

“I have never apologized for any of the creative choices I have made nor the way that I look or dress and I’m not going to start,” she wrote on her Instagram on Tuesday. “I am happy to do the trailblazing so that all the women behind me can have an easier time in the years to come.”

The latest look is not altogether novel. Back in 2008, New York magazine declared: “Out with the gaunt and tight, in with the plump and juicy. There’s a new face in town — and it’s a baby’s.” The article’s prime example was Madonna herself, whose refurbished face it compared to a restuffed saddle. But fashion is fickle. In 2019, Elle reported that “toddler-round cheeks, tumescent pouts and immobile foreheads” were “officially over.” Last week, “The Cut” called it again, with a feature on how the “sexy baby” look died.

Is it possible that Madonna has been so blinkered by her fame and wealth that she’s lost the ability to see herself objectively, like Michael Jackson pursuing an ever-thinner nose or Jocelyn Wildenstein doing … whatever it was she was doing? Yes, but whatever her intentions, the superstar has gotten us talking about how good looks are subjective and how ageism is pervasive.

In the end, whether she meant to make a statement or just to look younger, better, “refreshed,” almost doesn’t matter. If beauty is a construct, Madonna’s the one who put its scaffolding on display.

That is one of the nicer op-eds I’ve run across since Madonna’s appearance on the awards show.

That so much of the bile has come from gay men who should know better has been interesting and disconcerting to watch, especially since Madonna introduced those non-binary and trans performers that night.

Many of these gay men would never, I will hazard a guess, question the plastic surgery choices of a trans person. Why would they then do it a an older woman fully capable of making these decision on her own?

“Madonna clearly has an issue with plastic surgery and does not know when to stop,” I had one gay man say on my Facebook page. “She clearly needs an intervention. Encouraging her, or acting as if she does not have a problem, is not doing her any favors.”

This is, of course, foisting onto Madonna one person’s version of how women should look. Trans people know what this is like because of lot of surgically altered trans people know all too well that they do not necessarily — some do, some don’t — fit into the mold of what represents ideal classic Western male or female beauty.

Should we stop them from having plastic surgery because the results don’t match our expectations?

Then there is the issue of ageism. Somehow having plastic surgery because it’s medically necessary is seen as more acceptable than plastic surgery done purely for aesthetic reasons, especially if only because of perceived “vanity” or “being afraid of growing old.”

This runs us headlong into the many double standards that confront the aged. You can want big breasts or a smaller nose when you are 24, but when you’re 64, plastic surgery is a sign of deep personal brokenness.

You’re damned if you do or damned if you don’t when it comes to growing old.

Keep all your wrinkles and flabby old chins, and people think you look like shit. Try to get rid of them and you’re still said to look like shit.

Why would anyone, but especially Madonna, feel an obligation to live up to ridiculous standards like that?

Let’s also remember that Madonna’s net worth as of 2022 is said to have been $850 million.

This is before she kicked off her Celebration tour, which sold 600,000 tickets in one day.

She has had to add more than 20 dates to the 37 existing tour dates as of 1/20/23. Before that, her tour was 98% sold out. At some of the largest concert venues in the world.

Clearly her fans don’t care about her age or her decisions about how she looks.

And Madonna herself seems just as capable now as she has ever been about what decisions will help her to remain, after all these years and her untold number of detractors, the Queen of Pop.

Madonna unveiled her new look at the 2023 Grammy Awards.

Suddenly, I’m not in such a hurry to see “Knock at the Cabin”

I loves me a good horror movie, and the trailer for M. Night Shamalayan’s “Knock at the Cabin” looks freaky as hell.

Sure, a couple of his other movies have been not so great, but we’ve always got “Signs” to keep hope alive.

But based on this review alone I’m thinking I might not waste my time:

Spoiler alert: the climactic event of “Knock at the Cabin” is a book burning. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that, lest anyone deem Hollywood a solid front of liberal messaging, this new film by M. Night Shyamalan provides yet another hefty counterexample. In a year that has delivered such models of illiberal retrenchment as “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Tár,” and “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Knock at the Cabin” has the virtue of being the most daring, brazen, imaginative, and radical of them. It’s starkly posed as a conflict of faith against reason—and it presents a faith-based order that’s ready and willing to use violence in pursuit of its redemptive vision. So far, so apt. What’s jolting about Shyamalan’s film is its call to capitulation. The director puts the onus on the liberal and progressive element of American society to meet violent religious radicals more than halfway, lest they yield to even worse rages, lest they unleash an apocalypse.

Or, rather, the Apocalypse. The premise of the movie is the visitation, upon an ordinary American family, of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who aren’t all men and who show up not on horseback but by truck, and who turn a seemingly run-of-the-mill home-invasion thriller into a cosmic spectacle of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. It’s also a suspense film, in which just about nothing but the plot matters, and therefore any discussion risks being spoiler-y; I’ll be careful, but be forewarned. The family that’s vacationing in the titular cabin, isolated in deep woods and far beyond cell-phone signals, comprises Andrew (Ben Aldridge), a human-rights lawyer; Eric (Jonathan Groff), whose job is unspecified; and their daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), who discloses at the start that she’s nearly eight, and whom they adopted from China. The foursome of intruders is led by one Leonard (Dave Bautista), a soft-spoken hulk and second-grade teacher from Chicago; his companions are Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a nurse from Southern California; Adriane (Abby Quinn), a line cook at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C.; and Redmond (Rupert Grint), who works for a gas company in Medford, Massachusetts.

The first contact is made, in the woods, by Leonard, who espies Wen catching grasshoppers and gently tries to convince her that he’s a nice guy, not a creep, explaining that he needs to meet her parents and that it’s a matter of his job—“maybe the most important job in the history of the world.” (For a second, I thought he might be a film critic.) The foursome indeed knocks, and, when they’re denied entry, they break in by means of the weapons that they call tools: neo-medieval, seemingly homemade devices (such as a pickaxe and a mallet at the end of a thick broomstick). Then they make the demand that already went viral, long before the movie’s opening, by way of its trailers. The four intruders claim to have foreknowledge of impending disasters that will extinguish human life—unless this family chooses one member to sacrifice and then carries out the killing, and not by suicide. One trailer put the choice starkly—“save your family or save humanity”—but, of course, there’s no choice; they need to do both, and the movie’s main suspense is how they’ll manage to pull it off.

There’s no discussing “Knock at the Cabin” without disclosing another pair of salient details: first, the quartet is endowed with powers stronger than mere clairvoyance. They’re able to cause apocalyptic, high-body-count plagues and, in the course of the action, they don’t shrink from doing so in the name of a higher justice, or, as they say, “judgment.” (It’s never clear that the apocalypse that they foresee is anything more than the one that they themselves control.) Second, out of all the cabins and all the families that the apocalyptos could have picked, they landed on a place inhabited by a couple with whom they had history—one of the quartet happens to have been a gay-basher who attacked Andrew and left him with serious injuries as well as some non-Christian thoughts about aggressive self-defense. (That the basher’s real name is revealed to be O’Bannon, an unambiguously political wink, suggests the extent to which Shyamalan expects an L.G.B.T.Q. human-rights attorney to turn the other cheek, forgive, defer, and, yes, even obey.)

Yeah, no. I don’t think so.

A scene from “Knock at the Cabin.”

It’s good to learn that Elizabeth Ashley is still alive and kicking around Hollywood

I am streaming on HBO Max the entire six-season run of 90 episodes of The Larry Sanders Show, the sitcom about a fictional talk show during which celebrities play exaggerated, often neurotic, versions of themselves.

The show ran aired until 1998. It started in 1992. That’s 31 years ago for anyone keeping track.

Because The Larry Sanders Show featured celebrities playing themselves, as you watch it in the way Hollywood shows also turn into time capsules, you find yourself constantly thinking, “I wonder where that person is now?”

The episode I watched last night featured Elizabeth Ashley, the gravel-voiced aging sex symbol of the era who was once married to actors George Peppard and James Farentino, two other superstars of their time.

Her exes are long dead, but Ashley has still been kicking around live theater, as this New York Times article notes:

ONE thing is clear as Elizabeth Ashley makes her entrance, taking over a nearly bare apartment-hotel suite here for an interview. She is going to be a fabulous old lady.

At 68, Ms. Ashley puts herself in that category already, professing to find it quite comfortable. “One gets to be as difficult and cranky and heretical and iconoclastic and out of order” as one pleases, she says in her familiar husky voice, tossing in an expletive.

“If you’re an old woman, we live in a culture that assumes you’re a whipped dog,” she adds, sitting cross-legged on the sofa. “But an old woman who is not a whipped dog can be right dangerous.”

Ms. Ashley looks singularly unwhipped in black Chinese pajamas and tinted glasses, smoking Carltons and drinking a mixture of peach schnapps and vodka. She is accompanied by her pug, Che, a gift from her son, Christian Peppard.

She declares herself “brain-dead at the moment,” exhausted after a day of rehearsals for “Zerline’s Tale,” a German one-act play, at Hartford Stage. (Jan. 19 was opening night.)

“There are some parts,” she says, that “by the time you’re old enough to play them, you’re just too old.” In terms of “the physical energy, the vocal energy, the mental energy, the emotional energy and the psychological energy,” that is.

“Zerline’s Tale,” Ms. Ashley stresses, is not a one-woman show. It is a two-character drama, but she is onstage throughout the play and is talking most of the time.

Her character is a former servant in an affluent late-19th-century household, making a confession decades later. It is crucial, Ms. Ashley explains without really explaining, that Zerline hold the other person’s attention. That should not be difficult, considering this particular actress’s intense stage persona, well known to audiences at Hartford Stage, where she has made at least four appearances.

“I love the theater itself. I like that stage,” she says. “I like the people that work there. There’s a kind of spirit about the place. And for the most part I like the stuff that I get to do here.”

I was fascinated with Ashley growing up. I had a crush on her in the ways that little gay boys have crushes on strong female role models. And that’s what Ashley was for me. Intelligent and strong and funny. Everything the female trailer trash I was growing up around were not.

Ashley might have been in thrall of the men whom she loved — who hasn’t that weakness? — but she did not suffer other male fools gladly.

Ashley hit a rough patch in the early ’90s when she ended up doing commercials for SlimFast and other companies, but she bounced back. (see below).

I found this short interview with her from just last year when she was 83. She is still kicking around Hollywood, mostly on Netflix in the show Russian Doll. (In that interview about the time in 1962 when she won a Tony Award, she says, “I remember Charles Nelson Reilly won also that night, and I remember he and I sort of walking out together and Charles grabbed my hand as we were trying to cross Park Avenue and he said, ‘Well look at us, we’re the newest stars around here’.”)

I hope the years have been kind to her. She lives in Ocala, Fla.

George Peppard and Elizabeth Ashley, looking every bit as fabulous as they were.

I’m not sure if I’m hooked on new HBO zombie series, but this one episode was amazing to watch

When I first heard news about the The Last of Us, HBO’s live-action adaptation of the video game of the same name, it was, to put it mildly, a bit of a turn-off.

For my tastes in film, movie treatments of video games have never been a big draw because they’ve never turned out well in the films I have seen. (See Lara Croft, Prince of Persia, etc.) Plus, my attention span issues have precluded the video game addictions that come so easily to so many others.

Add to this the fact that The Last Of Us is essentially a zombie movie with fungi rather than, well, whatever pathogens that all the other zombie films and TV series say ended civilization as we know it.

I thought, “Oh, hell no. Not another zombie series.”

I gave up on The Walking Dead a long time ago because while the character-driven story arcs in that show could still be interesting, those plotlines had to be interspersed with far too many repetitive zombie encounters that felt like all the same old zombie encounters. There are only so many ways you can create a zombie encounter on live action video.

But I’m in one of those frustrating in-between times in my streaming choices where the series I’ve been watching have ended completely, or are at the end of a season.

And since I have HBO Max and The Last of Us seemed to be getting good buzz for the first couple of episodes, I decided to dive in.

So far it’s pretty good for “just another” zombie apocalypse show. The Cordyceps fungus angle introduces some twists that are just different enough to be interesting. (There are about 600 species of Cordyceps in the real world BTW.)

The writing and acting are good, as are the rest of the things that make a television show engaging.

But the show went from very good to outstanding in the span of one episode — the third episode, to be exact — when the showrunners decided to devote nearly the entire episode to the unconventional same-sex love story of Bill (a gruff, solitary doomday prepper) and Frank (a stranger whom Bill ends up saving and then falling in love with).

To fully understand how amazing this episode was you have to understand that their relationship was not fully defined nor explored in the video game:

If you watched ‘Long Long Time’, the third episode of HBO’s post-apocalyptic series and are only just emotionally recovering, fans of the critically acclaimed Sony exclusive got the answer to a question that has been teased and theorized about for years: are Bill and Frank gay in The Last of Us game?

Giving audiences respite from the action-packed first two episodes, we’re transported back to 2003, a few days after the fungal outbreak that would decimate much of the world’s human population. We’re introduced to Bill (Nick Offerman) a “survivalist” who establishes his own paradise in the evacuated township of Lincoln. He sets up boobytraps and an electrified fence for protection while becoming totally self-sufficient for food and, perhaps most importantly, fine wine which he looted from the local liquor store. What he doesn’t anticipate is meeting Frank (Murray Bartlett) and how they would find love, hope and purpose in a bleak world. That, ultimately, is what The Last of Us, games and series, is about. Here’s how the show diverged and expanded on their story and if Bill and Frank are gay in The Last of Us game.

When you meet Bill in the games, Joel and Ellie are in need of guidance and supplies and as a player, you have to navigate your way through Bill’s traps. Joel and Ellie end up alerting a pack of Infected and Bill comes to the rescue. After the chaos dies down and Joel explains his mission to protect Ellie as they venture across the country, Bill mentions Frank but doesn’t go much into detail about the nature of their relationship. “Once upon a time, I had somebody that I cared about, it was a partner, somebody I had to look after. And in this world that sort of shit is good for one thing, gettin’ ya killed,” he says.

Not long after, the three of them find a decomposing body hanging from a rope. Bill is visibly upset but tries to remain composed. He confirms the body is Frank and notices the body has been bitten by Infected. “He was my partner, he’s the only idiot that would wear a shirt like that,” Bill says. Joel theorizes that Frank hung himself after becoming infected, though a nearby suicide note suggests the pair had a falling out—“I want you to know I hated your guts,” Frank wrote.

After you’ve got what supplies you need, you take Bill’s car to aid Joel and Ellie’s cross-country journey. In a cut-scene, Ellie reveals she helped herself to a pile of magazines. “I’m sure your ‘friend’ will be missing this tonight,” she says and the player will notice it’s an adult magazine with a man on the cover. “Light on the reading but it’s got some interesting photos,” she jests. Joel tells her the magazine isn’t for kids. She then asks why some of the pages are “stuck together” and Joel can’t figure out how to answer her. “I’m just f—king with you,” she tells Joel and throws the magazine out the window. We never see Bill again though he is mentioned a few more times in both The Last of Us Part I and the sequel.

“The word ‘partner’ is used and it’s in a limited emotional sense,” the episode’s director Peter Hoar told Entertainment Weekly of how the game hints at Bill and Frank’s relationship. “You’re like, ‘Business partner maybe?’ And this is why I love the way they told that story [in the game] because it feels like it happens just off camera and then you have to run away again, ’cause games can’t stop.”

In The Last of Us game, these are the only hints we’re given as to Bill’s sexual orientation but, as mentioned, the HBO series expands on his story significantly. In episode three, we learn Bill’s origin story of sorts. When the fungal outbreak—which would quickly decimate most of humanity—began, his town of Lincoln is evacuated. Residents are taken to quarantine zones (QZs) but if there was no room for them, they would be executed. “Dead people can’t be infected,” Joel (Pedro Pascal) tells Ellie (Bella Ramsey) upon discovering a mass grave not far from the town. Bill, however, is delighted he can finally be alone. He spends time raiding Home Depot, building an electric fence and setting boobytraps to protect against The Infected and raiders, while becoming totally self-sufficient in terms of food and, perhaps more importantly, fine wine that he procures from the local liquor store.

For four years, he lives in total solitude—which suits Bill just fine. But everything changes when Frank accidentally stumbles into one of Bill’s traps trying to make it to the Boston QZ. Cautious of his new guest, Bill offers Frank a hot meal with a fine wine pairing, a hot shower and fresh clothes. They initially bond over their enjoyment of the finer things. When Frank notices a vintage piano, he digs out a Linda Ronstadt book of sheet music and plays, clumsily, ‘Long Long Time’. Bill steps in and offers his own emotional rendition. The pair are moved and when Frank asks who the girl is that Bill is singing about, Bill says, “it’s not a girl”. They kiss and when they retire to the bedroom, their exchanges are sweet and awkward. Frank adds he’d like to stay a few more days and 16 years later, they’re still together.

There is so much that feels not usual about this in the HBO series.

First of all, they are older men who become ever older and more grizzled as the episode progresses. Just the act of showing old gay men being tender and kissing feels out of the ordinary.

Hollywood also tends to portray gay men as being urban hipsters and not sympathetically as doomsday-prepping gun lovers. Not that we need gay gun lovers in multitudes on-screen. I’m sure they exist, but not in huge quantities. I could be wrong.

I won’t give away the ending of the third episode, but I will say that it’s heart-rendingly well-crafted. It’s not a gut punch or overplayed for pathos as much as it’s just another sad story in a world now full of sad stories. But it still felt revolutionary as I was watching it, and I’ve been watching gay episodes of TV series for a very long time.

The show’s treatment of same-sex relationships and love points to other issues about the current state of our politics in this country.

We are seeing a shocking retrenchment concerning LGBT issues in the GOP specifically, and the American right-wing in general.

I have witnessed the ebb and flow of LGBT issues for half a century. Any of our successes have always brought about a certain amount of political and religious backlash. But it was a small backlash here and there, not usually the widespread systemic backlash we are seeing now.

I think the acceptance of LGBT lives in Hollywood is here to stay and no amount of posturing by right-wing congresspeople and school boards is going to change that.

They might be able to ban our books in libraries, but the time of them being able to dictate morals to Hollywood is long past. And Hollywood is a far more powerful arbiter of mores than hard-copy libraries will ever be again.

Hollywood is getting better at presenting LGBT lives as just another fact of life rather than as a political selling point. Kids growing up now, unless they have extraordinarily controlling parents, are presented more all the time with LGBT characters that are just a part of everyday life. I see that in the undergraduates I deal with at work, to the extent that I am exposed to their thoughts on cultural issues.

That is not to say that we should not be vigilant. Germany had a remarkably well-formed liberal society in the late 1920s and we all know how that turned out. The term “never again” should always be paired with “It could happen again.”

Below are two videos.

The top one is a taste of Bill and Frank’s unstated (but hinted at) relationship in the video game.

The bottom is from episode three of the current HBO series. Note that it’s a doozy of a spoiler I still can’t watch without getting teary-eyed.

Nick Offerman (right) and Murray Bartlett play Frank and Bill, respectively, in a moving episode of “The Last of Us.”

I still love “The West Wing,” despite — or, perhaps, because of — its earnest hokiness

I loved the old series The West Wing, although some argue that it now seems hokey, dated and, most critically, it’s a show that depicts how a narcissistic Democratic Party establishment sees itself. This is why so many Bernie Sanders people (and Republicans) find the show revolting.

But I think the show has held up well. Which is why I found this Matty Yglesias piece today interesting:

The West Wing’s earnestness is probably the most distinctive thing about the show and why it is liked by a lot of people who work in politics.

Most fictional depictions of D.C. life show it as a super cynical place full of power-hungry schemers who don’t care about anything. This is a convenient device for a certain kind of thriller, but it’s extremely fake. The smart and accurate thing to say is that real-world politics is more “Veep” than “House of Cards,” which is extremely true. But “Veep” is satire, exaggerating for effect and fundamentally also overstating the level of cynicism in Washington.2 One of the guys who consulted for “The West Wing” is Gene Sperling, who worked on the Dukakis campaign in 1988, was an economic advisor to Mario Cuomo, and served as Deputy Director and then Director of the National Economic Council under Bill Clinton. After being out of government for eight years, he came back as a counselor to Tim Geithner at the beginning of Obama’s presidency and then did another three-year stint as NEC director. Now he’s a senior advisor in the White House charged with American Rescue Plan implementation.

Whatever criticisms you may offer of the guy, Gene Sperling is clearly sincerely very committed to his ideas and to the idea that by serving at a high level in government he can nudge public policy in better directions.

And something “The West Wing” deeply gets about politics is that there are a lot of people like that kicking around. Are there kooks and grifters and opportunists and criminals and morons? Sure.

But you genuinely can’t understand key developments in American political history — good ones like the Affordable Care Act or bad ones like the Dobbs decision — without understanding the large and often critical role played by earnest people who sincerely believe in what they are doing. Even a lot of the really bad characters in politics — Paul Ryan, for example — are extremely sincere. And when you look at someone who is both bad and also non-sincere like Donald Trump, you can’t understand Trump’s successes without understanding the sincerity of many of his collaborators. For better or worse, helping Trump beat Clinton seemed like a good way to try to advance the causes of making abortion illegal and taking health insurance away from poor people, and unless you grasp the sincerity with which lots of Republicans believe in those causes, you won’t be able to make sense of how he related to the party’s professionals.

I agree. There are an awful lot of people who are in government for all the right reasons. I know because I ran into them all the time when I was a newspaper editor.

The Republican Party wants all of us to believe that everyone in government is self-interested, because the more they can convince us that government is broken and populated by people with only their own interests at heart, the more they can dismantle government and put Wall Street in control of more facets of our public life and institutions.

Incidentally, you can watch The West Wing on HBO Max (with commercials), and without commercials if you pay on Amazon video and Apple TV.

Below is a scene from the show that captures its brilliance, as President Bartletts tears a new a-hole for a smug, self-satisfied and cruel right-wing radio host in attendance at a White House function.

Celine Dion has incurable neurological condition

Celine Dion has been the butt of so many jokes, often because she seems so nice that many people think it must be an act.

Dion has been a good sport all along about how she is ridiculed, most famously by Ana Gasteyer on SNL.

So it’s sad to hear that Dion has an incurable neurological condition that has stolen her ability to do what she loves most: entertain people with her soaring vocals.

Céline Dion revealed Thursday morning that she’s been diagnosed with Stiff Person Syndrome, a rare and incurable neurological disease that can cause debilitating muscle spasms.

In a tearful video posted to her Instagram account in both English and French, the Canadian singer said her condition would force her to postpone and cancel a series of upcoming concert dates.

“I’ve been dealing with problems with my health for a long time, and it’s been really difficult for me to face these challenges and to talk about everything that I’ve been going through,” Dion, 54, wrote in the posts caption. “It hurts me to tell you that I won’t be ready to restart my tour in Europe in February.”

“Recently, I’ve been diagnosed with a very rare neurological condition called Stiff Person Syndrome, which affects something like one in a million people,” she said in her video. “While we’re still learning about this rare condition, we now know that this is what has been causing all of the spasms that I’ve been having.”

I’ve never purchased a Celine Dion album or single. She’s not my cup of tea on that count.

But I’ve heard such amazing things about her live performances that I actually considered ponying up a decent chunk of change once to see her when I was going to be in Las Vegas. But, alas, her concerts were sold out during the time I was there.

Her time in residency during that, her second stay in Vegas, was seen by 1.74 million people.

Say what you will about her songs and lyrics, but a great many people found joy in seeing her sing in-person.

Celine Dion had a great sense of humor about being made fun of, as shown in this video.

My gawd, it’s been 25 years since “Titanic” was released

An email this morning from The New Yorker informs me that it’s been 25 years since the release of James Cameron’s blockbuster movie “Titanic”. (The New Yorker used the occasion to hawk the legendary Anthony Lane’s admiring review of the movie back in 1997.)

This is one of those points of information that, when it arrives, makes you stop to marvel at the arc of one’s life — what time lies behind you and (depending on health and fate) what time lies ahead of you.

It’s a trick of the mind that it seems to me that “Titanic” was released not so long ago. But it’s 25 years!

I decided to do a comparison.

Twenty-five years back from when I was 18 would have taken me to the following historical milestones in 1953:

  • Nikita Khrushchev wins power struggle in Soviet Union after the death of Josef Stalin.
  • An expedition led by Sir Edmund Hillary is the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest
  • James Watson and Francis Crick determine the structure of DNA
  • Alfred Kinsey publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Female
  • First clear evidence linking lung cancer to cigarette smoking
  • Elvis Presley recorded his first song
  • TV Guide debuts; on the cover of the first issue are Lucille Ball and her newborn son, Desi Arnaz IV
  • The first color television sets appear selling for $1,175
  • Transistor radios start to appear for sale

25 years is indeed a long time.

These reminders keep arriving that you are an old person, but most importantly an old person in the eyes of the rest of the world. It can mess with your head. You are the age of your grandparents.

This can be the last great mindfuck of your adult life, this coming to grips with your identity as an elderly person. And the fact that your time left could be 1] extremely short, 2] 30-40 years out, or 3] anywhere in-between.

In truth, the end could come at any moment for any of our human bodies living beyond the years that nature most often afforded us for the majority of the time-span of human existence.

I notice that some people of my generation are having a particularly hard time of it. And who could blame us?

Many of us were only 21 when MTV appeared. Our youth was truly being chronicled for the first time on television and online. It seems like such a short time ago that I was hanging out with friends in the DJ booth at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom as some of the biggest names in music performed at all-night parties. But it wasn’t a short time ago. It was 40 years ago.

Nobody in their 20s cares what I think about anything. In fact, ageism is a dish served up by much of society, even other old people.

It’s that encroaching invisibility to much of the rest of the world that is most difficult for many of my friends. And I’ve noticed in my circle of acquaintances that it’s the guys who were considered most hot who are having the hardest time of it.

I totally get it.

Think about it. Not long ago you could walk through a bar or restaurant or mall and turn every head. Now you can’t get waited on in a coffee shop.

I feel for anyone going through this.

As for myself, I’ve now lived through two pandemics — first AIDS, now COVID — during which I was considered high-risk. I was sure, at the beginning of each, that I was going to die. That means I confronted my mortality for the first time in my early 20s.

After watching that many people die, twice in adulthood, I consider every day I am upright and healthy to be a gift.

So I don’t care much that people in their 20s don’t see me.

And this makes me one of the lucky ones: I love solitude and my own company. I am never truly alone because I have so many things to occupy my mind and time.

But, man, 25 years since “Titanic.”


Cheri Oteri in SNL’s “Titanic” alternate ending.

Dave Chappelle both condemns and excuses anti-Semitism in SNL appearance

Yair Rosenberg is one of my favorite writers of today. He is a contributing writer at The Atlantic magazine, which describes his specialty as examining “the intersection of politics, culture, and religion.”

He is most prescient when he writes about anti-Semitism which is, sadly and scarily, having a comeback around the world, but particularly from American MAGA politics, QAnon-fueled conspiracies, and certain Black television music and sports stars.

In a piece this week, Rosenberg takes up the appearance of Dave Chappelle on Saturday Night Live, during which the multimillionaire comedian, who styles himself as oppressed by wokeness, managed to both make fun of anti-Semitism and excuse it in the name of free speech.

Rosenberg is not having it:

As I watched Dave Chappelle’s much-discussed Saturday Night Live monologue poking fun at recent anti-Semitic incidents involving Black celebrities, I finally figured out why I no longer felt comfortable cracking jokes about anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

In his 15-minute appearance, Chappelle, a habitual line-stepper, deliberately mocked the presumptions of both anti-Semites and their critics, with little concern for where the chips fell. He closed his potent performance with a pronouncement: “It shouldn’t be this scary to talk about anything. It’s making my job incredibly difficult, and to be honest with you, I’m getting sick of talking to a crowd like this. I love you to death, and I thank you for your support, and I hope they don’t take anything away from me—whoever they are.” In context, this felt like a cheap but clever attempt to immunize himself against criticism—say nothing, and his comedic choices go unchallenged; say something, and you’ve proved him right.

Rosenberg goes on to say:

And this is what I realized as I watched Chappelle’s monologue: When so many people have proved so susceptible to the conspiracism that animates anti-Semitism, it becomes harder and harder to laugh about it. Comedy cannot be divorced from its context. Jokes assume a shared set of presuppositions between the comedian and the audience, which are subverted for ironic effect. But when that collective context is called into question, and one no longer knows whether everyone in the room is operating from the same premises, what was once satire becomes suspect. After all, the best parody is often indistinguishable from the thing itself—the perfect impressionist is the one who sounds exactly like Donald Trump. But when the performance is anti-Semitism, and so much of society seems in thrall to its essential elements, it’s not clear whether the bit is setting up a punch line—or just a punch.

There’s a lot of good stuff in the rest of the piece. It’s worth your time to read it.

Chappelle on Saturday Night Live.