Wednesday, October 25, 2006

I'm out

Despite the qualified praise I recently bestowed on "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip", I'm dropping the show from my fall lineup. The past two episodes were perhaps the most self-indulgent, patronizing, implausible 120 minutes of television I've ever forced myself to suffer through. And I've watched a lot of TV in my time, my friends.

When I say that "Studio 60" talks down to its audience, I don't mean like an impatient teacher talks down to a student who is slow to absorb an obvious lesson; nor do I mean the way Democratic nominees for president talk down to voters. This show talks down to its viewers the way a nursing home attendant talks down to a 90-year-old who thinks Ike is still president; the way some Americans talk down to foreigners who don't speak English; the way I've heard cashiers at Giant Eagle talk down to the retarded kid who's bagging groceries for them. After-school specials had more nuance and subtlety than this show.

It's a really shame, too, because there is a lot of talent, a lot of good individual performances, being wasted while Aaron Sorkin tries to teach his audience a few ham-fisted lessons about the poor quality of prime time television (Knock-knock. Who's there? Irony. Irony who?), the lack of creative freedom in this country (Hell, someone keeps letting Sorkin make TV shows) and the fact that U.S. troops in the Middle East don't have enough body armor. (Don't ask.)


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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The bad American novel

If my blogging drops off dramatically next month (perish the thought, you say), here's why.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

You heard the man

Colin McNickle, the arch-conservative editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page, tells conservatives to take the GOP behind the woodshed on Election Day. He scoffs at fellow conservatives who say that the alternative--Democratic control of Congress--is far worse:

What's the definition of insanity again? In this case it's constantly returning Republicans to power and having the audacity to expect different results. And what could be more stupid than that?

Say what you want to about Colin--a former co-worker of mine--you can't challenge his conservative bona fides. Well, let me add a caveat: Colin and the Trib's editoral page represent fiscal, small-government conservatism with a strain of libertarianism. The Trib has editorialized in favor of gay marriage and has generally been neutral on the question of abortion, with some pro-choice leanings. (Which is not to say the Trib's editorial page is never in line with social conservatives.)

In other words, Colin represents the kind of conservative who lately has been taken for granted by Karl Rove and the GOP in their bid to build a permanent Republican majority. This is an interesting reversal of fortune for fiscal/libertarian conservatives, who once held sway in the GOP and kept social conservatives on a short leash, knowing they were unlikely to bolt to the Democrats.

But now small-governnment conservatives see a Republican Congress that, mired in corruption, is spending our grandchildren into hock on pork-barrel projects; is doing the bidding of the Christian right on a range of cultural issues including gay marriage; and has consented to an expansion of presidential power so great that even Richard Nixon would have blanched.

That big tent is shrinking, and it's fiscal conservatives who are being elbowed toward the exits. Come November 7 we'll see just how many follow Colin's advice.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Where the shadows lie

I briefly discuss Rick Santorum's bid for the hobbit vote, here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Live, from New York...

I never thought that of the two “Saturday Night Live”-inspired TV shows on the air this fall, that I would prefer Aaron Sorkin’s drama “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” to Tina Fey’s comedy “30 Rock.” I’m going to give “30 Rock” one more chance, but the pilot episode was rather flat, and Fey, the show’s star, doesn’t seem to be much of a comic actress. Two other SNL alums, Rachel Dratch and Tracy Morgan, also appear on the show. Dratch was largely wasted in the premiere, and Morgan’s performance was funny at times but often exhausting to watch. I like Morgan, but it always seemed like the writers on SNL didn’t quite know how to use his talents; perhaps it’s no surprise that he should encounter the same problem on “30 Rock”, given that Fey is the former SNL head writer. (I should add that I greatly enjoyed her on SNL, but sketch comedy is not the same as situation comedy.)

The bright spot in the first episode was Alec Baldwin, who honed his comedic skills during numerous stints as the host of SNL. Baldwin seems mercifully free of vanity in his middle years (Burt Reynolds, I’m looking at you) and few actors outside of William Shatner seem to enjoy self-effacement as much as Baldwin. Baldwin plays a clueless NBC executive whose claim to fame was inventing an oven for General Electric, the network’s corporate parent. One problem: David Letterman exhausted this line of humor about 20 years ago.

“Studio 60” also is set behind the scenes of a sketch comedy show, this time on a fictional network. It suffers from the same flaws that drove me from “The West Wing”—namely, moral vanity and condescension. The show goes out of its way to demonstrate its characters rectitude, nobility and worst of all, brains—the show is peppered with so many arcane references that Dennis Miller should sue for patent infringement. Another huge distraction—and critics have noted this—is that SNL exists in the “Studio 60” universe. This is problematic for several reasons. For one, we’re led to believe that “Studio 60” was groundbreaking in its day, yet it obviously has a format identical to SNL, from the host’s monologue to the fake newscast to the musical guest. It even airs at 11:30 p.m. and lasts 90 minutes—only on Friday night instead of Saturday. Plus, the characters on “Studio 60” are constantly referring to classic SNL bits and cast members. As my wife observed, why would they never refer to their own stuff?

The show is, however, well-paced and well-written, and most significantly, well-acted. Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry have great chemistry as the producer and head writer, respectively, of the fictional “Studio 60.” Perry demonstrates depth well beyond his glib “Friends” role. Amanda Peet is surprisingly good as the network president, and Steven Weber of “Wings” fame steals every scene he is in as the slick, jaded network chairman. The supporting characters like Weber’s Jack Rudolph and Evan Handler’s Ricky Tahoe are the most interesting, perhaps because we are not always sure that they are going to do the right thing.

I’ll give Sorkin credit—overall, the characters on “Studio 60” seem a bit more tarnished, and thus more human, than the do-gooders who roamed the White House on “The West Wing.” You might have voted for such people, but you wouldn’t have wanted to spend any length of time with them.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006


This blog was mentioned in the Best of Blogs column in today's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Unfortunately, the Trib attributed to me something that actually was written by Chris Potter in his recent "You Had To Ask" column in the City Paper. I discussed this column in a post on my blog Thursday, and I did attribute it to Chris, as you can see if you read the post.

Just so everyone knows, when I quote at length from another source, I do not use quotation marks but instead italicize the excerpted portion. My usual practice is to include the link to the original source before the excerpt.

I apologize to Chris for any confusion this may have caused.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Honorable Robert Ney

Just like I think John Kerry's apparent insistence on running again for president in 2008 is part of some nefarious Republican plot, I have to wonder if Bob Ney's refusal thus far to resign his seat in Congress--even after pleading guilty to corruption charges--is part of a Democratic conspiracy:

The announcement appeared to surprise and infuriate House Republican leaders, who are trying to tamp down other scandals that are threatening to damage the party in next month’s Congressional elections.

Keep up the good work, Mr. Ney.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Sticks and stones

Pittsburghers need thicker skins, says Chris Potter. Amen:

But if someone wanted evidence that Pittsburgh is a hick town, they wouldn’t need to hear Miller’s remarks. They could just listen to the city’s response. They could look at the sneering Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headline about Miller’s remarks: “Semi-famous actress dumps on the Burgh.” (What’s this? “One of America’s great newspapers” faulting someone else for having delusions of fame?) Or missives like the following, posted in response to an online Us magazine story:

“[W]alk up to any native Pittsburgher you know and tell them their hometown sucks. After you pick yourself up off the ground, you’ll realize that you don’t mess with [a] ’burgh man.”

Damn straight! We will totally kick the ass of anyone who says we’re unsophisticated. Anyone who doesn’t praise our friendliness should die and go to Hell.

Of course, Pittsburgh shouldn’t be judged by what some steakhead posts online. But there is something typically Pittsburgh about all this outrage.

It is, after all, the flip side to the fetishistic glee we get from positive national attention. We have an unhealthy fascination with what the world thinks of us. Every mention of the city in The New York Times or Forbes inevitably prompts stories of our own, in which reporters cover the coverage. There’s an entire cottage industry in coming up with Pittsburgh “branding statements” and ad campaigns. Actually, it’s not a cottage industry at all: When the Pirates and Steelers sought millions of tax dollars for new stadiums, a key selling point was that they would market the city to the world.

This PR fetish is a local tradition. As David Cannadine notes in his new biography of Andrew Mellon (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), it dates back at least 100 years. During the early 1900s, he notes, the famous Pittsburgh Survey was commissioned to study the city’s living and working conditions. The Survey discovered horrific dangers inside the city’s factories, and an appalling lack of sanitary or human services outside them. But instead of changing the miserable conditions, local leaders tried to downplay them with a PR campaign.

“[T]he local press launched a vigorous counter-offensive, denouncing the survey’s authors as ignorant outsiders,” Cannadine writes; business leaders concentrated on “projecting a more positive image of the city across the nation and attracting new industries.”

Gee, launching a PR campaign instead of getting down to the nitty-gritty of trying to solve the city's real problems. Where have I heard that before?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Your tax dollars at work

This about sums it up:

Look at the nonsense of this state investment in Downtown revitalization: the City puts lots of investment to get the now-empty Lazarus building built; the URA plans to sell its properties at a discount; the people who will live Downtown will likely come from other areas of the City or the County; and taxpayers are assisting in the construction of luxury condos and hotel space that the City does not need. What a winner!

Merely an accident

I was briefly listening to Sean Hannity's radio program this afternoon (yes, I am a masochist), and I swear I heard just a hint of disappointment in the right-wing talk show host's voice when he announced that a plane that hit a Manhattan high-rise was piloted by a New York Yankee and not a member of al Qaeda.

Then again, what was there to be happy about? It's a sad indictment of our times when we shoud find any measure of relief in a tragedy like this.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Let's get ready to rumble

Bill Peduto faces off against the Ravenstahl administration.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Keeping our powder dry

The spate of school shootings in the 1990s--which seem to be echoed in events of the past week--were horrific, but a statistical anomoly: school violence decreased during the 1990s, and schools were where children were least likely to be murdered.

But of course that's not how many people saw it, including fearful parents and anxious school administrators who worried they would be held responsible should something awful occur at their school. (The myths that surrounded the most notorious school shooting fueled the hysteria.) So they gave us a slew of bad policies that did not protect students but had potential to harm them. Like zero-tolerance policies that suspend or expel students for bringing harmless items or toy weapons to school. Like restrictions on student expression. Like school violence drills that needlessly frighten students. Not to mention the millions of dollars wasted on security devices and anti-violence programs.

The recent school shootings are unspeakable crimes. But they do not constitute an epidemic. I have hope, but little faith, that policymakers will keep their panic in check this time around.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

"I really do wonder sometimes what we're becoming in this country"

The Angry Drunk Bureaucrat lets us in on the latest outrage perpetrated by the Bush administration.