David Letterman, Full Circle

I don’t know which fact is more surprising (depressing?):

1. David Letterman is older than Johnny Carson was when Carson retired.

2. I’m older than David Letterman was when he began hosting Late Night.

When Johnny Carson aired his final Tonight Show in 1992, I had recently turned 14.  I was old enough to understand that Carson’s retirement was a big deal, although I couldn’t appreciate it on the same level that my parents could.

DavidLetterman1982I’m also too young to remember a time when David Letterman wasn’t on the air.  He took over the post-Carson timeslot in 1982.  I initially became aware of Letterman first-hand during one of his early prime-time anniversary specials, since staying up even to 11:30, much less Late Night‘s 12:30, was a tall order for a kid in single-digits.

Letterman’s show was, in some ways, an evolution of—and a reaction to—Carson’s Tonight Show.  Some of that was by design, as the Carson team specifically forbade Late Night from mimicking certain elements that would have made the program too similar to Johnny’s.  For example, Letterman wasn’t allowed to do a lengthy, Carson-esque monologue, and Paul Shaffer’s “World’s Most Dangerous Band” could only be a four-piece, not a full orchestra like the Tonight Show had.

Coupling Letterman’s own creativity with the external pressure of Carson’s restrictions gave birth to the most innovative talk show ever, and the most innovative late-night program of any kind in history, with the possible exception of Ernie Kovacs‘ brief stint as the host of Tonight.

Letterman would be the first to admit that he could never be as good as Carson at what Johnny did best.  Dave wasn’t nearly as charming as Johnny Carson was.  He also didn’t have Johnny’s acting chops or more multifaceted background as a performer.  To wit: Carson had begun his entertainment career as a young magician, of all things, but he later gained experience as a game-show host and possessed musical abilities entirely beyond the scope of Letterman’s more finite skill set.

But that was the point.

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A Last Word on Mad Men

I began to get worried at about 10:58.

Realizing there wasn’t much time left in the series, I wondered how Matthew Weiner would be able to conclude Mad Men in a way that made sense and was true to the characters he had developed over seven (really eight) seasons.

DonDraperDoorThe resolution wasn’t perfect, but I think time will be kind to it.

Last week, I discussed what we might get from the finale.  I noted one key scene in the penultimate episode, where Don appears to glean some stroke of inspiration from staring at a broken, old-fashioned Coke machine.  I said that I thought that would lead to an epiphanic moment in the finale, generating one last spectacular (and redemptive) pitch at McCann that produced an incredible, iconic campaign.

We didn’t get to see the pitch, sadly, but the conclusion of the finale lets the viewer in on the secret: It is implied (although not certain) that Don creates the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign by tapping into both cutting-edge culture and his unique insight into human nature to generate work that is brilliant consumer marketing disguised as a meaningful message.  Just as he has done for his entire career.

In the end, this is who Don is.  His own humanity was, as it turns out, irreversibly damaged by his horribly traumatic childhood.  Even literally assuming someone else’s identity wasn’t enough to repair the fractures in his psyche.

But the damage also left him with a savant-like gift for understanding the basic needs, desires, and weaknesses of other human beings—and humanity writ large.

That insight is the only true through line in the series.  The show begins and ends with it, and most of what comes in-between is either an exploration of Don’s insight, or an exploration of the manifestations of the damage that gave rise to that insight.

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At the End, What Do We Make of Mad Men?

The “Mount Rushmore of ________” is a tired construct at this point, but still serves a decent enough purpose: Trying to winnow down a presumably deep category to its four best examples can be a worthwhile exercise.

MadMenDonRogerBarWhen I think of my personal ranking of the four best television dramas ever, I find myself putting Mad Men at the top of the “also receiving votes” table.

Mad Men has always faced a greater degree of difficulty than most of the other names that crack the list.  Whereas the drama in, say, Breaking Bad includes literal life-or-death stakes, Mad Men is more of an examination of the relatable parts of our lives.  It incorporates universal themes of identity, career, and family, and places them in a context that also melds those concepts to a cultural analysis of American history.

While that examination is part of what makes the show fascinating, there’s no doubt that it’s inherently easier to make a compelling television show about drug deals and murders than it is to make one about pitch meetings for now-defunct fast-food restaurants.

Yet, Mad Men has remained compelling more often than not, despite its focus on elements that aren’t so different from our own lives.  In fact, I’ve always thought the show is at its weakest when it veers into more far-fetched territory.

Which brings us to Sunday night.  Unlike other great television dramas, Mad Men doesn’t seem destined for a definitive conclusion.  Whereas shows like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or Lost or The Shield each defined a central conflict over the course of its last season, Mad Men, by its nature, has no such opportunity for make-or-break resolution.

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Apocalicious

The unmistakable and steady, if slow, decay of our society takes many forms. The markers are varied and numerous, sometimes with an innocent or frivolous countenance that hides the profoundly troubling nature of such signs.

CombosFrosting


I’m not clairvoyant.  I don’t know what the end of our society will look like.

But I do know that it will be filled with frosting.

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Untimely Movie Review: Gigi

After watching Gigi, I’m now more irritated than ever before that Saving Private Ryan didn’t win Best Picture.

GigiPosterThe movie—which did take home the Best Picture Oscar for 1958—begins with a borderline-elderly, thick-accented Parisian breaking the fourth wall to explain that it’s the year 1900 and take the viewer through a tutorial on the courtship habits of turn-of-the-century Paris.  After spying a very young girl running through the park, he breaks into an extra-creepy rendition of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.”

This is Maurice Chevalier’s Honore Lachaille, and his registry-worthy performance is the jumping-off point of the story of Gigi, played by Leslie Caron.  You may remember her from An American in Paris, an earlier film in this collection.  What follows are various half-sung songs and scenes of upper-class French doing upper-class French things.

My favorite moment was perhaps Gigi’s aunt complaining about Gigi learning English in school, saying that English-speakers refuse to learn French.  Like all her lines, she delivers this lament with an English accent.

There’s no reason to belabor this review.  Gigi won Best Picture in an era where set design, costumes, and merely being a period piece in Paris carried a lot of weight with voters.  That honor seems downright perplexing today.

The basic story is obviously the romance between Gigi and Gaston Lachaille, played by Louis Jourdan, best-remembered as Kamal Khan in Octopussy.  Or maybe that’s just me.

GigiLeslieCaronEither way, I’m baffled by the critical acclaim this movie received, especially after watching An American in Paris and the vastly superior Singin’ in the Rain.  Most of the performers in the film are passable—at best—as singers.  Perhaps not coincidentally, many of the musical numbers include significant chunks of lyrics that are more spoken than sung.

The story itself is also odd.  To wit, there is much congratulation thrown Gaston’s way when the discovery of his fiancee’s infidelity causes her to attempt suicide.  The plot also seems to borrow heavily from My Fair Lady, minus the charm.  That’s possibly not entirely a coincidence, as the same duo, the renowned Lerner and Loewe, wrote the songs for both films.

Cutting to the chase, this movie stinks.  And I can’t just chalk this up to my anti-musical bias—because it’s barely a musical, given the fact that the actors speak their way through most of the lyrics.  It’s a film where the story is alternately creepy and boring, and the ultimate outcome of the plot is never in doubt.

Is it a musical?  I don’t know—are they singing?  Is it a comedy?  I don’t know—I’m not laughing.

As outstanding and genuinely funny as Singin’ in the Rain was, this is the opposite.

If you’re looking for a positive, I will say that the special features on the blu-ray are very comprehensive and impressive.  In fact, one of the special features is an entire film—the 1949 French version of Gigi, complete with subtitles.

That’s about all I can muster on the plus side.

This is the worst film I’ve reviewed from this collection.

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The Debate Behind the Debate

The debate over Indiana’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has already taken some curious twists and turns.

The initial response from opponents was to go to the playbook that has been so wildly successful over the past five years—label the law as “hate,” condemn its proponents, create wild scenarios that conjure Nazi-esque horrors.

RFRAMapExcept something was different this time.  The law’s critics, probably overconfident because of their long winning streak, got a little sloppy.  Their blanket condemnations were met on this occasion by some defiant, salient points from the other side.  Namely, that numerous other states and the federal government have had similar laws for years, and, yet, somehow, those jurisdictions have avoided the descent into Jim-Crow-esque regimes promised as a certainty by opponents.

Faced with these inconvenient facts, RFRA critics have chosen two paths: One, taken by those like Apple’s Tim Cook, has been to ignore the realities of the application and history of these laws, and simply to continue to drum up opposition.  Even politicians are not immune to this phenomenon.  Now-Senator Chuck Schumer sponsored the original RFRA bill as a member of Congress, but condemned Indiana’s version this week.  Governor Dan Malloy of Connecticut issued a ban on state-funded travel to Indiana over the RFRA, but his own state actually has an RFRA with broader language in some respects than Indiana’s legislation.

The second path has been to distinguish the Indiana law from other RFRAs because of some slightly different procedural points that permit its use as a defense in actions between private parties, rather than simply those where the state is a party.  As noted by the Washington Post, this is a somewhat inconsequential distinction.  However, critics have to highlight this difference to avoid an embarrassing situation in which many “good” states have this law, and where, for example, people like Barack Obama (as a state legislator) voted for these measures.

The reality is that, if someone opposes the IN-RFRA on the grounds that it might someday allow a court to find a conservative Christian may be able to decline to service a gay wedding, then that opposition should extend to some of the other RFRAs as well.

All these laws do, in fact, is plug a hole created by Employment Division v. Smith, a 1990 Supreme Court case which—briefly—held that laws of general applicability need not receive the highest level of scrutiny used in certain other First Amendment cases.  The idea is that, if a law is simply a general one that happens to conflict with particular practices of a religion, it has a lower constitutional hurdle to clear than a law that specifically impacts religious practices.

The RFRA was an attempt to elevate such cases to the same strict-scrutiny standard that applies in cases involving direct infringement upon the free exercise of religion.  That standard doesn’t mean that the plaintiff always wins, it means that the government must prove that it is advancing a compelling state interest in order to justify its alleged infringement on religious exercise.

A later case, Boerne v. Flores, held that the federal RFRA could not be used in state-level cases.  That decision prompted a long list of states to adopt their own versions of the RFRA over the next several years.  The laws have been used in a variety of contexts to protect religious objectors who seek to be absolved from following certain laws that clash with their religious beliefs, such as a ban on facial hair in a prison, or regulations pertaining to wheeled conveyances that are in conflict with Amish religious and cultural traditions.

The Mother Jones and Gawker crowds would have you believe the RFRA is something close to apocalyptic, but a decade or two of actual experience with these laws strongly suggests otherwise.

So, what’s really going on, here?

This is part of a bigger cultural shift—one I’ve discussed in the past.

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The Most Transitional WrestleMania of All Time!

WrestleMania has always been a little different.

From its inception, when it was the only annual pay-per-view in the World Wrestling Federation’s arsenal, celebrity involvement was a point of emphasis.  From Liberace to Billy Martin to Muhammad Ali, the WWF packed the inaugural event with names intended to broaden the appeal of WrestleMania and reach outside pro wrestling’s core demographic.

WM31LogoThat tradition carried on beyond 1985, of course—to the point where the WWF/WWE created a separate “wing” of its not-physically-real Hall of Fame just for celebrity involvement.

But this desire to attract casual fans, former fans, and non-fans has manifested itself in a different way in recent years: I’m referring to the upswing of using non-full-time wrestlers in high-profile matches.

Sure, there has always been some of that.  Lawrence Taylor main-evented a WrestleMania, after all.  And Floyd Mayweather squared off against Big Show back at WrestleMania XXIV.

There are a few other examples where part-timers or “retired” wrestlers (always a slippery concept in this business) came back for a one-night-only match.  Generally, though, these were few and far-between.

Not anymore.

Unlike every other PPV the WWE puts on during the course of the year, latter-day WrestleManias have been consistently anchored by matches involving wrestlers who are not on the full-time active roster.  That trend seems to have reached its zenith this year.  Three of the biggest singles matches on the WrestleMania 31 card involve part-timers: Undertaker (vs. Bray Wyatt), Brock Lesnar (vs. Roman Reigns), and Sting vs. Triple H.

Undertaker has more or less been a once-a-year wrestler for a while now.  Per his unique contract, Lesnar appears a minimal number of times, sometimes disappearing for months.  The latter match (not to be confused with a ladder match) involves a guy who hasn’t wrestled in a year against a guy who has never wrestled in WWE.

There’s no question that WWE now treats the WrestleMania card as qualitatively different, not just quantitatively different, from the rest of its calendar.  It isn’t just a matter of WM being “bigger” than the others, or having a few added special attractions.  What has happened for the last few years is a step further.  The card is increasingly built around part-timers in an even more pronounced attempt to rope in fans who wouldn’t normally watch.

WrestleMania 27 had the Rock “hosting,” and the next two years had him in the main event.  WrestleMania 30 was originally supposed to have Batista in the spotlight before the “‘Yes!’ Movement” forced WWE to reconsider.  But WrestleMania 31 takes the role of part-timers even further.

That brings up a related point about this year’s show: Nearly every match involves an “old vs. new” component.  Surprisingly, I think old will prevail more often than not against new.

With that in mind, let’s take an in-depth look at WrestleMania 31 – The most transitional WrestleMania of all-time! Continue reading

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Let’s Talk About Oklahoma and Free Speech

UniversityOfOklahomaSealWith the news that University of Oklahoma President David Boren would be expelling two members of the SAE fraternity for singing a racial-slur-laden song, there has been an expected uptick in First Amendment experts in the comments sections of the news sites and social media outlets I frequent.

Eugene Volokh preemptively wrote a spot-on piece for the Washington Post about why Oklahoma may not expel these students (and then updated it a few hours later after the school, uh, expelled the students).  Volokh breaks down the legal reasoning perfectly, and I need not add anything to his thorough, big-picture argument.

Having said that, there are a few specific, recurring misconceptions I’ve seen crop up since the expulsion announcement.  I think these are worth addressing:

1. “The First Amendment only protects you from being prosecuted by the government, not from being expelled from a school.  The right to free speech is not a right not to get expelled.”

Huge problems here.  First, Oklahoma is a public (taxpayer-funded, state-run) university.  For First Amendment purposes, that makes it “the government.”  As a state actor, it is subject to the Constitution, including the requirement that it not violate the free-speech rights of its students.

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Timely Movie Review: Whiplash

(Obvious spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen Whiplash, don’t read any further)

I saw Birdman last week.  Interesting movie.  Michael Keaton was terrific.

I never need to see it again.

The first thing I did after watching Whiplash Monday night was to buy the blu-ray.

Whiplash01What makes Whiplash so superb is that it doesn’t take the stock, convenient approach to its characters—the approach that a lesser film might have taken.  A Whiplash in which J.K. Simmons’ Terence Fletcher is purely an evil, sadistic taskmaster and Miles Teller’s Andrew Nieman is simply the sympathetic underdog could have been a decent movie.  Forgettable, but decent.

The reason Whiplash is a great movie is that Nieman isn’t a one-dimensional, by-the-numbers protagonist.  He’s a warts-and-all, fledgling genius.  The audience roots for him early on because there’s an awkwardness about him as he tries to navigate life at the Shaffer Conservatory.  He also gains sympathy because of the abuse he takes from Dr. Fletcher.

Those sympathetic feelings are complicated when it becomes plain that Nieman can dish out abuse of his own. Continue reading

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Where Does It End?

This is an unsettling development . . .

CheeseWar

This is a sobering moment in the storied history of cheese-related conflict. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen escalation this frightening since the Razor Wars of a decade ago.

May heaven watch over us during this trying time.

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