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.”

Weird.

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.

Spending the weekend watching old Leslie Nielsen movies

I have a growing sense of dread over these close elections in which proto-fascists are still polling neck-and-neck with reasonable moderate Democrats.

I think the tendency of polls to underestimate Republican support is a real, ongoing thing primarily because Republicans en masse get their kicks by gumming up the political works. Lying is now in their DNA as a party.

So I’ve been watching Lt. Frank Drebin utter the most ridiculous puns in the history of movies, because it’s mindless and nobody does it like Leslie Nielsen did it.

“Who are you and how did you get in here?”

“I’m a locksmith. And I’m a locksmith.”

Ready or not, the Golden Globes will be back

That didn’t take long.

The Golden Globe Awards telecast, which sloshes money through the entertainment economy, will return in January with an even bigger platform. NBC canceled the show in 2021 amid an ethics, finance and diversity scandal that continues to simmer.

NBC said on Tuesday that it would broadcast the 80th Golden Globes ceremony on Jan. 10, a prime spot on Hollywood’s awards-season calendar. (Oscar balloting begins on Jan. 12.) For the first time, the show will also be available simultaneously online, through NBCUniversal’s streaming service, Peacock.

Nominations will be announced on Dec. 12.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), long noted for its lack of diversity, has made some changes:

The foreign press association has overhauled membership eligibility, recruited new members with an emphasis on diversity, enacted a stricter code of conduct, elected a new president and largely ended its tax-exempt status, transforming into a for-profit company with a philanthropic arm. Last month, the H.F.P.A. sent a letter to studios that pointed to “transformational change” in the areas of “diversity, transparency and accountability.”

The 108-member foreign press association now has six Black voters — up from zero last year — and has added 103 nonmember voters, a dozen or so of whom are Black.

Some publicists, stars and filmmakers are satisfied, or at least ready to end more than a year of behind-the-scenes bickering over the degree to which the H.F.P.A. needed to reform. Others are holding their noses, unsatisfied but willing to re-engage with the Globes as a promotional platform for Oscar campaigns. Another contingent remains adamant that the foreign press association has not done enough, and that the Globes should perhaps be retired forever.

“There isn’t a consensus,” said Amanda Lundberg, chief executive of 42West, a Hollywood public relations firm that represents stars like Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks and filmmakers such as Baz Luhrmann and Martin Scorsese. “Everyone will make up their own minds. Some feel good about it and some don’t.”

Hollywood businesses, however, are almost universally aligned: Please, pretty please, let the Golden Globes champagne flow again.

I think it’s one of the more entertaining awards shows precisely because it’s not taken as seriously as the Oscars. Therefore, more interesting — if unplanned things — are likely to happen. Too bad Ricky Gervais won’t be host again.

House of the Dragon brutally killed off a gay character and some people are not happy about it

Oh, dear. It’s only episode five of House of the Dragon, HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel, and they’re brutally killing off the gays as quickly as they are introducing them as characters:

Not only does a secret love never win, but it seems a secret queer love will never have a happy ending.

In the fifth episode of House of the Dragon, Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) prepares for her marriage to Ser Laenor Velaryon (Theo Nate); prior to their wedding, Rhaenyra tells Laenor that she understands his sexual orientation and proposes that they perform their royal duties while having other lovers.

Rhaenyra hopes to resume her affair with Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), but the swordsman refuses to be her side piece. On the other hand, Laenor’s lover, Ser Joffrey Lonmouth (Solly McLeod), is more than happy to go along with the arrangement.

Unfortunately, Joffrey and Laenor’s relationship doesn’t stand the test of time because Ser Criston Cole soon beats Joffrey to death. In other words, right after we meet the LGBTQ couple, the “bury your gays” trope makes its grand entrance.

For those unaware, the “bury your gays” trope sees queer characters meeting their demise far more frequently than their heterosexual counterparts. All in all, queer characters often suffer and rarely have the chance to be happy.

Now, this trope is incredibly outdated in this day and age, which explains why many fans took to social media to share their frustrations regarding the tragic turn of events in House of the Dragon.

“House of the Dragon introducing two gay characters only to have one of them graphically beaten to death on screen twenty minutes later, absolutely fuck off with this shit,” one fan wrote on Twitter. Another questioned, “How many minutes was that between introducing a gay love interests to killing one of them, GOT? That’s a #buryyourgays record.”

On the one hand, I think it’s not fair to artists (and writers are artists every bit as much as painters or sculptors) to expect them to consider every possible sensibility when creating television and movie scripts. This particular case of #BuryYourGays would have been much worse if the gay character was beaten and killed because he was gay, and not because he’s possibly a schemer who threatened to expose Ser Criston’s indiscretions.

On the other hand, television and movie writers likely try all the time to not play into other stereotypes — racial, misogynistic, etc. — while still remaining true to their artistic vision. Of all the stereotypes that do show up in scripts, the tragic, brutal deaths of gay men is one of the ones that makes its way through the editing process far too often in a Hollywood still dominated by straight men.

Ser Laenor Velaryon and Ser Joffrey Lonmouth in “House of the Dragon.”

Ken Burns documentary on the U.S. and the Holocaust debuts on Sunday

Here’s a new documentary I’ll be sure to watch:

A good documentary about a well-known historical epoch reaffirms what we knew. A great one reaffirms what we knew but, through relentless and surprising detail, makes the history new and relevant. The U.S. and the Holocaust, the new three-part documentary from Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein, makes the story of American reluctance to help the Jews bracingly new—and chillingly relevant.

The film, which debuts Sunday night on PBS, was born as part of a joint project with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It gives not only an honest assessment of the ways that President Franklin D. Roosevelt could have done more—but a frankly brutal look at a country that was deeply and relentlessly racist, jingoistic, and antisemitic. And it could not plead ignorance.

“We did know what was going on,” Burns says, noting that in 1933 alone, there were 30,000 newspaper articles sounding various alarms about what the Nazis were doing in Germany. But the American public of this documentary was not merely indifferent to Jewish suffering; it mostly thought they brought it upon themselves. “This is part of who we are too,” says Novick.

Burns and Novick go on to note in the video below about the chilling parallels between what happened in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s and what has been happening America at the time they were making this new documentary.

And just in case you thought the filmmakers view all this as ancient history, the film concludes with a sound-bite from Donald J. Trump and a montage of footage from Charlottesville and the insurrection of January 6, 2021. “It’s been frightening … to be working [on] this film and be immersed in that time period while these things were happening around us,” said Novick. We will all find out soon enough just how much history we’ve learned.

Some polls suggest that, as the generations which actually lived through the Holocaust die off, younger people — even many younger Jews — do not see the lessons of the Holocaust as readily as they might have otherwise having been around, say, grandparents with concentration camp numbers tattooed on their forearms.

Let’s hope documentaries such as this one help keep the horror alive and relevant.

Gay pro wrestling star is ready to be the role model the sport needs

Pro wrestling is a mystery to me, mostly because I don’t understand the fans. These people shell out a lot of money to watch these matches and I’ve never understood the answers to these questions: Do most of them know it’s a sham and they are going along with the spectacle and showmanship of it all? Or do they actually think that, because these (mostly) guys do actually hurt themselves during their over-the-top wrestling match performances, that all of it must be real?

I’m not knocking the fans of pro wrestling, any more than I’m knocking my many friends who adore Project Runway, The Amazing Race or RuPaul’s Drag Race. All of those shows run disclaimers at the end during the credits that specifically state that the producers of those programs may have taken steps that affect who wins and loses based solely on what makes the program more watchable.

OK, not in so many words. But that is essentially what all these programs do. It’s “reality” showbiz-style.

Yet everyone I know who watches these shows puts all of that in the back of their minds as they immerse themselves in outcomes they deep down know are probably fixed.

So, back to wrestling. Which I bring up because a story caught my eye this morning.

It’s from the pro wrestling-obsessed YouTube channel TSC News via 411mania.com, and it involves AEW wrestler Anthony Bowens, one-half of a hugely popular tag team in the AEW. (The AEW, for those who do not know, is the wrestling promotion company that is giving the WWE a run for its money.)

Anthony Bowen is gay. And he doesn’t care who knows it. In fact, he wants to be wrestling’s first superstar gay hero. Says Bowen about the warm reception he’s received:

It’s great and it’s one of the things that attracted me to come into AEW when I came here as an extra before I was signed. I saw people like Sonny Kiss and Nyla Rose just walking around being themselves without judgment and people being inclusive with them and there was no fear for them at all to be themselves and that was super important to me for wherever I would land at the time.

There’s never a time where I’m at work where I’m consciously thinking about it, it’s something that’s openly celebrated. I bring it up openly in front of my friends and co-workers, so we’ve come a long way in terms of inclusiveness in locker rooms and such. Fans from time to time, we still have got work to do but it’s been overwhelmingly positive.

I take that responsibility of being an out athlete very seriously because I’d like to show that you can be a successful openly gay professional athlete without it being the center of attention, without being the center of focus. At times, it is important to bring it up. For next week in particular, Max and I are gonna fight for our lives in this match and we also wanna bring home gold and if we do, I end up being AEW’s first gay champion, which is something that I would be super proud of. So I’m going to have some extra inspiration underneath me for that match.

I think I’m probably safe in predicting that any pro wrestling match has more Trump fans than Biden fans, but that’s just a hunch.

Having an out-and-proud man of color in that sport is a watershed of some sort, though I don’t follow the sport closely enough to know how much of one it really is. It certainly feels like an important line to cross.

Anyway, you can watch Bowen’s entire TSC interview below. He seems very likable. I love him merely for having a framed Simpsons still above him while he is being interviewed.