79th Academy Awards

February 26, 2007

Despite Tom Shales's dismissive review of the Oscar show in the Washington Post, I still think it was interesting and entertaining. Shales and other cynics can't seem to grasp that the whole point of the telecast is to show the most beautiful people in America dolled up in their fanciest clothes. If you want to see them, then the songs, dances, and jokes don't matter much. If you don't, nothing added is going to make you like the program.

Ellen DeGeneres did a creditable job as host, which Shales admits. She's likable and added a fresh tone to the show, which is always what it needs.

I was glad to see Helen Mirren get the award for best actress. I've liked her for a long time, and her respect for the queen was invigorating. The dreary anti-snobbery snobbery towards the British monarchy reflected by some Americans deserves as many refutations as anybody can find a way to deliver.

For the rest, I didn't much care who won, since I had seen none of the nominated films. I think that's the first time in my life I have missed them all, and I don't know if that's a commentary on me or on the pictures. One of my problems is I've never been enthralled by life among organized gangsters. I know their existence is supposed to be intense and, in a way, romantic. But I can't seem to make myself care much what happens to them. I don't even watch The Sopranos.

Movies, after all, are important in our culture. Just how important, I can't say but anything that is talked about as much as they are must have some influence. Also, I like them to get notice if for no other reason that it splashes gobs of mud in the faces of people who think of themselves as being more moral than the Hollywood folk are. There are various obnoxious habits, but bragging about one's own morality by sneering at some other group has to be at the top of the list.

Next year will be the 80th awards, and, again, people will sigh and moan about the dullness of the program, and, then, go ahead and watch it.

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Right-Wing Fun

February 16, 2007

The internet is sporting a preview to the The 1/2 Hour News Hour, the upcoming news spoof that's supposed to do for the right wing what The Daily Show has done for the left. It's going to be an up-hill battle. For one thing, it's hard to rival Jon Stewart. But the larger problem is that gentle sarcasm is not really the mode of the right-wing. They specialize in indignation and vein-popping anger, a la Bill O'Reilly.

The preview is not bad, but it's not hilarious either. It features some fun-poking at Barack Obama's instant celebrity, including a fictional new publication, BO, The Barack Obama Magazine. The sad truth is -- for the right-wing at least -- it tends to make Obama even more endearing than he is already.

I like to see true political humor coming from any direction. But I can't say I have optimistic feelings for this venture. It doesn't appear funny enough for the general public, nor is it vicious enough to please the people it's supposed to be supporting. It may be one more confirmation of the old adage that you have to be who you are. And, I'm afraid, right-wingers are not people for whom fun and laughter are central.

We always have to remember Dick Cheney.

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Things are really getting desperate on Desperate Housewives. Gabrielle and Carlos have, more or less, stolen a baby. Felicia is going around the neighborhood, announcing at social events, that Paul murdered her sister. She is also demanding that Mike murder him in turn. Bree is being accused of abuse by her son Andrew (who, if anybody ever has, deserves abuse) and Susan has been told by her ex-husband Carl that he still loves her even though he is going to marry Edie. Only Lynnette seems out of the crisis-mode at the moment. Some of this is generating a little more interest than the show has evoked in past weeks. Yet the atmosphere of the program has managed to make the most dire events inconsequential. Thus the series has created for itself a terrible barrier to climb across.  (Posted, 4/3/06)

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The Academy Awards show wasn't as bad as Tom Shales of the Washington Post says it was (he seems to become evermore snarly in his old age) but it wasn't scintillating either. Jon Stewart was a little off stride at the beginning. He made a recovery later. Still first impressions are lasting. The two best moments came from George Clooney and Reese Witherspoon. Clooney's acceptance speech for best supporting actor made the point that it's not a bad thing to be out of line with the popular will. It's a message that needs to be sent more often, especially in this age of phony patriotism. And Reese Witherspoon seemed genuinely delighted to have been selected as best actress. Maybe she really is just a girl from Tennessee who made good in Hollywood and that's such a quintessentially American story we all ought to hope it's true. Otherwise, things pretty much dragged along. We ought to get it out of our minds that an awards ceremony can be magnificent entertainment. It gives us a chance to see handsome people made up to look even more handsome than they are. That's fun in itself. It reminds us of the familiar faces that have stepped out of life over the past year, and it's always a shock to see how many there were. And there is, for better or worse, a panorama of what the biggest entertainment enterprise in the world thought would entice us. It's worth an evening to find out.  (Posted, 3/6/06)

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Let's see, where do we stand on Desperate Housewives now? Bree is a drunk. Gabrielle's mother is just as awful as Gabrielle has always said she was. A hit man has been sent to kill Paul Young. Susan has got married -- to her old husband -- not for love but for insurance. Lynette and Tom continue to be the most idiotic parents ever seen on the planet. And we, the viewers are warned to be wary of those who are eager to help us. The last part we can accept without reservation. But what about the rest? There's no humor in it, and no horror either. And if bizarre behavior is to hold our attention, it seems like there ought to be either a little humor, or a little horror, in the mix. Soap operas depend on catching the audience up in the lives of the characters. But the hooks here are very weak and very brittle.  (Posted, 2/20/06)

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Desperate Housewives has sailed into the kind of down-draft which insures that no matter what twists the plot takes they comes across as boring. That's not a good place to be. Last night, though, the developments wouldn't have been interesting under even the best of conditions. I suppose the least dreary of the four sub-plots involved Bree's sneaking into the Applewhite's house and having a conversation with Caleb that revealed who he is and what he did. It's the kind of event that could have been fitted into a real melodrama, but Desperate Housewives is supposed to be a comedy. And, if it's not a comedy its silliness is so far out of place to ruin it for anything else. This series can work only if the four characters do zany things that are both amusing and have a kind of bizarre intelligence about them. At the moment, that's not happening.  (Posted, 2/13/06)

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I'm not a fan of TV situation comedies. A few have been good but a much greater number have been horrible. I'm afraid we can now add Emily's Reasons Why Not to the latter category. The only thing it has going for it is that the star, Heather Graham, is a very pretty girl. But that alone won't achieve success. The notion most situation comedies base themselves on is that dumb people are also witty. Perhaps it's an attempt to flatter the great number of actual dumb people who think they're witty. But that, as a formula for drawing viewers,  is suspect. At any rate, this is a series about a young woman's reasons for not getting together with particular young men. The mind palls at the thought of how many young men that will take if the series is to last. Each of these analyses are commented on by Emily's friends and associates, all of whom try mightily to say witty things about her efforts. If the initial episode is typical, they'll get about one laugh per night. That's probably not enough to keep people watching.  (Posted, 1/10/05)

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It appears that the producers of Desperate Housewives are getting more desperate than their characters. Last night, during a party at Bree's, Gabby kissed Lynnette's husband as a joke, and Lynnette got into a snit about it. I suppose the incident had a kind of trite reality behind it, but we need to keep in mind that reality is not what Desperate Housewives peddles. Reality was not much in view when Susan, disturbed by the sight of Mike and Paul fighting on the sidewalk, ran into the back of a parked car, popping the trunk lid to reveal a dead guy inside. The car was still there because the Applewhites, while stowing the body away, had locked their keys in the trunk and, evidently, didn't have another set. Exactly what they were expecting to do about it was never said. The only good moment was when Bree's jerky son was pressed up against the wall by her lawyer and told off in no uncertain terms. I will say that in this son, the show has managed to create one of the slimiest characters ever seen on TV. And that's an accomplishment of sorts.  (Posted, 1/9/06)

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In my Parade Magazine yesterday I saw a question about whether Desperate Housewives has become boring. And Parade seemed to agree that it has. I watched the next episode with the question in mind and I confess I didn't find the show scintillating. Carlos's fascination with a nun who wants to take him off to Botswana to do good strikes me as tiring. Lynnette's efforts to start a day care center at her job was less than gripping. Bree's relationship with her foul-brained son remains merely creepy. And Susan's courting of her long-lost father grows more dippy as we find out what kind of man he is. A person close to me said that the program doesn't know what it wants to be. Is it a comedy? There wasn't much that was funny in this episode. Is it a family drama? It's clearly no longer a mystery. We seem to know everything about everybody now. And the problem seems to be that the characters are not people worth knowing and therefore not worth caring about. At the moment it's hard to imagine wanting to have lunch with any of them.  (Posted, 12/5/05)

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Desperate Housewives last night served up one of its most event-filled episodes ever. Bree found out, at long last, that her pharmacist boyfriend George really is a loon and a dangerous one at that. Susan learned that her father isn't a dead war hero but alive and operating a feed store right across town from Wisteria Lane. A tiny bit of self-knowledge began to creep into Gabrielle's brain when it dawned on her that she's sorry she lost her baby. And Lynnette may have got the point that it's not a good idea to hire a co-worker to kidnap her sons, though with her you can't be sure because, despite conventional wisdom, she is, by far, the craziest of our four heroines. Even so, the best thing about the show was not its pace but its regaining a comic edge. Regardless of how some critics have come to talk of it, we ought to remember that Desperate Housewives is a a comedy and needs to be funny. Viewers who expect other qualities from it may be as psychologically challenged as the balmy characters themselves.  (Posted, 11/21/05)

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The first episode of Desperate Housewives' second season was pretty much business as usual, with the exception of one scene of near-genius. At Rex's funeral, Bree discovered that his mother had outfitted him with an ugly school tie, which supposedly meant something to him. So the aggrieved wife stalked into the audience, demanded a tie from one of her neighbors, and then returned to the coffin, where she knotted the more tasteful cravat around the corpse's neck. This is a woman after my own heart. If I were  TV character rather than a real life person, I would seek her out for courtship, considering, of course, that she is now a widow. The rest of the program didn't tell us much we didn't already know, other than that the new neighbors have someone chained up in their basement. But that's pretty much standard for Wisteria Lane. I guess we'll find out who the basement dweller is in later installments.  (Posted, 9/26/05)

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On the windup of Desperate Housewives (May 22, 2005), we learned what we knew already . Mary Alice killed Deirdre, the biological mother of Zack, and then enlisted Paul to help her bury the body in a little toy chest under the bottom of the swimming pool. We did get the details, though. We saw Mary Alice stick the knife in. The big surprise was the death of Rex, from heart failure. He died thinking that Bree deliberately fed him food high in potassium in order to get rid of him -- which she didn't. We all know he was killed by George, his luny pharmacist, who gave him the wrong medicine. But, so far, nobody on the show seems even to have suspected that. I suppose that's so, next year, the relation of George and Bree can be an item. I was a bit sad to see Rex go. He was one of the more sane characters. But, come to think of it, that may be what did him in. You can't be sane and stay on this program. I'm not sure "desperate" is the best adjective. But, it's established.

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The next to last episode of Desperate Housewives (May 15, 2005) raised more questions than it answered. Does Bree really want her husband Rex to die? Is that why she waited so long to take him to the hospital? Is Gabrielle going to abandon her husband and let him rot in jail because he monkeyed with her birth control pills? Is Lynette, with her sweet little ways, actually the most monstrous of all the wives?(I think I'd rather be hooked up with any of the others before her, although Susan runs her a pretty good race). At the end, Mary Alice told us that nothing is forever and that everything has to change. This is the kind of philosophical wisdom that makes us really glad she's dead already. We are careening towards the end of the first season, and we have been told, repeatedly, that somebody is not going to survive the final episode. I'm not sure who I would vote to have wiped out. And maybe that's the uncertainty the producers are counting on.

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The only important thing that happened to any of the major characters on Desperate Housewives for May 8th was that Susan learned that Mike is not really a drug-dealing murderer. So now she can love him as she has wanted to do all along. The rest of the program was fairly droopy. Lynette continues harried and unable to have as much sexual activity with her husband as she would like. But to care about that we have to believe that sex between them has a drab of significance. And that's getting harder and harder. The paternity of Gabrielle's coming baby is still in question, but since each potential father could produce a child that would look pretty much like the offspring of the other, who cares? At the moment, the most interesting feature of the series has moved to Felicia Tillman, the sister of the murdered Mrs. Huber. She wants to take over Zack, but for what purpose it's hard to guess. Maybe that can keep us going till the end of the season.

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We have now been regaled by the first of the final four on Desperate Housewives (May 1, 2005). It was less than scintillating. Gabrielle learned that she is pregnant. Lynette recharged her maniacal jealousy. Bree revived her friendship with the creepy pharmacist. And Susan's ditzy mother almost burned the house down. You'd think all that would provide enough action to keep interest high. But, actually, it was just frumpy. The line the producers walk lies between zaniness and enough genuine emotion to allow us to believe the characters are human. The producers, themselves, are desperate not to wander too far over onto the human side. But by avoiding what they seem to regard as conventional soap opera-ism they risk turning their characters into freaks. And not many people will want to watch a pure freak show. It's hard to know how to steer a series that got off to such a slam-bang start as Desperate Housewives. Expectations are created that can't be sustained and either the show has to evolve towards something more solid or else it will fritter away. I don't know which course Desperate Housewives will take. The four main characters, as they've been developed till now, may not have enough substance to keep the series appealing. At least some of them need to be liked by a sizable portion of the viewing public. At the moment it's hard to know which of them can develop that degree of popularity.

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Hulk Hogan is making a reality TV series about his own family life titled Hogan Knows Best. I have just discovered that the Hulk grew up in my old home town of Tampa. And guess what? His name growing up wasn't Hulk Hogan; it was Terry Bollea. He lives now near Tampa with his wife and two teenage children in a twenty thousand square foot house. That strikes me as excessive. I recall a few years back when one of my relatives built an eight thousand square foot house I thought he was out of his mind. I enjoy spacious houses but it seems to me that when a house creeps over five thousand square feet something is running off the track. In any case, Hulk has a big house and for the past several months TV camera men have been running all over it taking pictures of whatever they choose. They're even in Hulk's bedroom in the morning to capture his first yawn. Why people should want to see Hulk Hogan yawning as he wakes up passes my understanding. But, evidently, they do. Perhaps Hulk's parenting skills will work a revolution in that area of human endeavor. But, for some reason, I doubt it.

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Every time one of the characters on Desperate Housewives verges towards significance, the producers do something to shove her firmly back into folly. I have had hopes for Bree -- as I've mentioned before. But on Sunday, April 17th, she was transformed into an utter twit, apparently being genuinely convinced that if her son is, indeed, a homosexual then he won't get into heaven. Nobody can be interested in a woman with a brain like that. The son, meanwhile, continues to show that heaven is the last place he's likely to end up. He has, somehow, taken on pure malignity, although how he acquired it is still a mystery. If you're of a certain religious propensity, you might think he was chosen by the devil before he was born. This is a program that doesn't know how to manage its characters and may be plunging towards disaster because it's afraid some of them might slip to humanity.

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Desperate Housewives is such a silly program I tell myself in the midst of every episode I watch that I will watch no more. But, then, sometime before the end, there's some little thing that catches me up enough to get me ready for the next week. On April 3rd, it was the decision by Bree and Rex Van De Kamp to send their obnoxious son off to a teenage boot camp. Bree has struck me from the beginning as the character with the greatest possibilities on the series, and her decision to get rid of the boy for a while seemed a step towards realizing some of them. Her rigidity is not necessarily a bad thing if its exercised with intelligence and in this instance she seemed to be marshaling a genuine mind. I know the program is supposed to be a comedy. Still, I like to see smart people, even on comedies. Every farce needs a character or two to show just how farcical the rest of the people are and I think Bree's a good candidate to heighten the foolishness of those around her.

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Critics of Desperate Housewives have decried it for being far too sexy for general TV viewing. But my take is that it's not sexy enough. Numerous hints are given about sexual practices which are presumed to be deep and dark. But as the show continues, we begin to get the sense that the producers have no idea what deep and dark sex is. There's no real passion on the program and no real obsession. Instead we have silly people playing at sex with no grasp of its actuality. It may be that the murder mysteries will be enough to keep the show perking. The teasing revelations about who did what and why, as for example on the episode of March 27, 2005, however, grow ever less enthralling. If the makers of the program want to hold onto their initial ratings, they would be well advised to stick in an element of genuine sex every now and then, and get beyond the school-girlish fancies of Susan Mayer and Gabrielle Solis.

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A common theory among viewers of Desperate Housewives is that Paul is not Zack's real father. But Zack may be Dana, the baby who is supposedly dead. The real dead person is Dana's (or Zack's) mother, who was killed by Paul and Mary Alice. Mrs. Huber found about about it, and that's why Mary Alice committed sucide. It's the dead woman that Mike moved to the neighborhood to find out about. Quite a tangle! But, plausible. The plot, of course, is secondary to the appeal of this series. The main thing is characterization. Exactly what view of the human character we're supposed to get from it I'm not exactly sure. It's clearly not a totally positive view. And yet, for some reason, the characters have a kind of appeal. Maybe it's that they tell us our own tangles are not all that far off the mark. And I suppose that could be consoling.

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On the most recent Boston Legal (January 16, 2005), Denny Crane announced, "Massachusetts is a blue state. God has no place here." The definition of who God is has now ascended from politics to TV comedy. I'm wondering where it might go from here. I have in mind a new show that could be called Putting God to the Test. It would involve a series of highly regulated prayers and challenges, with complicated social scientific systems for determining how God was responding. Then, based on the scientific results, we could have a panel of experts, analyzing God's  character.We might even get at that ancient question of whether God is a good guy or a bad guy. And, the ratings would be through the roof.

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Last Sunday's Desperate Housewives (January 16, 2004) was devoted primarily to the discovery of Martha Huber's murder. All the main characters had something to say about it but the only remark of genius came from Martha's newly introduced and highly mercenary sister who informed the press that there was one blessing in the incident and that was that there were no signs Martha had been molested. We might profit by taking some time to ask ourselves why her comment was so funny. In fact, you could probably reveal the entire history of our culture by spelling out the humor in the sisterly pronouncement. I can't write an entire history here. But, think about it. A TV show that has a line that provocative can't be all bad.

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One way I know I'm out of touch with the average TV fan is that I don't enjoy American Idol. It's not just that public humiliation disgusts me. I can find no pleasure in the outcome. The winners aren't particularly inviting entertainers.  That's because formal contests are an ineffective means for uncovering talent. No matter how the process is constructed, it ends up being stilted. There are dozens of singers sprinkled throughout the entertainment word, appearing in commercials and small roles, who are superior to the winners of American Idol. The program promotes itself by saying each year you get to turn an unknown into a superstar. But he or she is an artificial superstar whose subsequent appearances are manufactured by the publicity of a highly touted contest. This is all fairly obvious but what's not clear is why so many people find the program enthralling when it's actually little more than a combination of embarrassment and mediocrity. Yet the new season is kicking off on Tuesday, January 18th, with all indications pointing towards an audience of millions.

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The Parents Television Council has announced that "parental irresponsibility is at an all time high when culture is at an all time low." How do they know? They've discovered that lots of parents are letting their kids watch Desperate Housewives. It's the most popular program for children between the ages of nine and twelve. But, if you click on their list of the ten worst programs on television, Desperate Housewives doesn't make it, whereas Cold Case, CSI, and Will and Grace do. Even an innocuous piece of fluff like Two and a Half Men is worse than the infamous series that has corrupted not only children but Monday Night Football fans. I'm assuming that the producers of Desperate Housewives would love to be on PTC's worst list. But, what can they do? I think they've got to let their imagination run free if they really want to make it to the big time. That's why I'm eager to see what's coming in the next few weeks.

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I watched a rerun of Seinfeld a couple nights ago (December 28, 2004), the episode in which Elaine went to see The English Patient and thought it was just about the dumbest movie she had ever seen. The show got much of its comedic effect from the reputation of the film, which in 1996 was proclaimed ecstatically to be beyond magnificent. Now, more than eight years later, Elaine remains as funny as ever but she also begins to rise in stature as a film critic. As I think back on the movie, it doesn't descend to the level she assigned to it, but, on the other hand, it doesn't ascend to the heavens as I once thought it did. Truth is, the main thing I remember about it is the quietness of the house in Italy, where the Canadian nurse, played by Juliette Binoche, makes a little heaven for her badly burned patient. The sweltering love affair between Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas which, evidently, made millions weep, doesn't have a great hold on my memory. The way in which snatches of popular entertainment weave themselves together in the mind and, in a manner none of us understand, shape our view of the world is, perhaps, the most fascinating thing about juxtaposing these two wildly unalike productions.

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I was glad to see George Carlin take up the issue of what's natural on an HBO Special which was broadcast on Monday night (December 27, 2004). He was ridiculing people who say they only want to eat "natural" foods. All foods are natural, he said, because nature is just a synonym for everything. That being the case, there's no reason to use the word at all. He's right, of course, but, still, I predict a long future for "natural." It serves the egotistical desire to consider oneself more pure than others. And, "nature," we know, is pure despite being chock full of the most disgusting stuff -- maggots, rotten eggs, stinky garbage cans, and revolting material carted off from hospital operating rooms. Progressive people have an unconquerable desire to believe they live in a nurturing environment and it doesn't matter how lethal nature becomes. They'll just keep right on believing it.

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Last night (December 19, 2004) was betrayal time on Desperate Housewives. The principal motif of the program is a tease. Just when we're led to think something warm and encouraging might be happening, we find the characters turning towards suspicious hostility. Gabrielle betrayed her husband by burning his passport so he can't get out of jail. Bree told her husband, while he was awakening from heart surgery, that she was glad to discover he really loves her because now she can hurt him even more than she had anticipated. Lynette installed a hidden camera to spy on her near-perfect nanny. Susan sent her daughter's boyfriend Zack back to a father who, supposedly hates him. And, best of all, proper Maisy Gibbons, is, in a sense, betraying all the women in the neighborhood by running an afternoon pleasure palace out of her bedroom. Meanwhile, in the background, sweet, dead Mary Alice tells everybody to trust no one. And this program is advertised as a comedy. I guess what keeps us watching is hoping to see how funny it can get in the future.

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I had not seen Dr. Phil, other than on the Dave Letterman show, where he pretends to be more intelligent than Dave, so today (November 16, 2004) I decided to watch his own program. It turned out that he was dealing with real desperate housewives (as he termed them). Right on the program, three women revealed their dark secrets to their husbands. One was addicted to pain pills. Another had a sexual affair. The third was caught up in incessant bulimia. Dr. Phil had a psychological prescription for each of them once she had been open -- on TV -- about her problem. Dr. Phil's basic message is you can't get "help" until you subdue yourself to "help." All three couples appeared to accept the prescriptions gratefully (after all, Dr. Phil was going to pay for them). So, it all came off as very wholesome -- I suppose. Still, somehow, I was left feeling a little yucky. I found myself asking whether Dr. Phil might not be, himself, a more serious social disorder than any he was treating. Imagine if the whole world became populated by people like Dr. Phil. Would life any longer be worth living? I'm not really sure.

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I was skimming through a political web site when I came on the remark that this election was revenge for people who hate Will and Grace. Hate Will and Grace? I can see not liking it, or thinking it's silly, or finding it a waste of time. But hating it strikes me as being possessed of a bigger supply of hatred than anyone needs to be blessed with. I confess that I haven't watched it often, so I can't be certain there aren't hateful elements. But the three or four times I did see it presented me with a typical sit-com, populated by zanier-than-life characters who manage to say something ridiculous or witty every time they open their mouths. The hatred, presumably, arises because two of the characters are gay men. But why does that cause anyone to hate the program? It seems to be the case that some people are horribly offended when they're reminded that gay people exist. When it happens they become radically resentful. I doubt that it's accurate to call the reaction an illness, but it may be worse than an illness. It demands to be addressed one way or another. No flippant TV show is worth hating.

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Last night (November 10, 2004) I did something I never thought I would do, I watched Wife Swap. Why I did it, I can't say. For those of you who remain unenlightened, Wife Swap involves placing two women in each other's houses for two weeks. During the first week, the visitor has to follow the established habits of the household. During the second week, she gets to impose her rules. In the most recent episode we had Melissa and Cindy, both rather freakish, but freakish in different ways. Melissa is a rule-and-order fanatic. Cindy is a slob. Neither woman got along very well with her temporary husband, although Cindy's actual husband, the only sane person of the four, worked hard enough at the arrangement to avoid vulgarity and outright war. I have to say that if we judge these styles of living by the children they produce, Melissa wins hands down. If there were ever to be a worldwide contest for obnoxiousness and Cindy's daughters didn't finish first and second, we would have to say it was fixed. Is there something to be learned from all this. I doubt it. The appeal is simple invasiveness -- getting to go inside somebody else's private life. But that may be enough to keep it going.

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ABC is attempting to make a Sunday evening splash with a quasi-comedy, quasi-mystery, quasi-farce titled Desperate Housewives. One of the wives in question was, apparently so desperate she killed herself in the opening moments of the first episode. But death has not hampered her ability to relate what's going on in her old neighborhood, which seems, still, to attract her principal interest. No explaining the nature of the universe or life after death for her. Her four closest friends were shocked but they are now on a quest to find out what it was in her past that led to her rather radical decision. They, themselves, have situations that might reach the suicidal level but they give the impression they're going to stick with us for a while. All of them have severe problems with men -- or, at least, with little boys -- and when you consider what it would be like to spend a lot of time in their company, it's not hard to see why. I'm not sure whether the curiosity engendered by their absurdity can keep the show going or not. I guess if I were forced to wager, I'd bet not.

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One of the weird and slightly annoying features of Everybody Loves Raymond  is its take on sexuality. It seems that Ray is always eager to have sex but that Deborah is seldom willing. Last night (October 4, 2004) Deborah's seething anger at her mother-in-law transmogrified into seething passion and Ray had a good time for two nights running. But, then, when Deborah discovered that Ray was concealing his mother's repentance, she was infuriated and kicked Ray of the bedroom. You would think she would have been flattered. Where this 1950s' notion of woman's distaste for sex comes from is hard to fathom. And, why is it thought to be funny? This popular series is supposedly grounded on the solid marriage of the lead couple. And, yet, they almost never enjoy one another's company. Is this some perversely middle-class interpretation of normality?

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Da Ali G Show on HBO is funny. Anybody who doesn't think so is lacking a humor gene. Is it also cruel? Maybe, a little, although the people it spoofs  generally have it coming. Ali G, for those who haven't heard, is the stage persona of the young British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen. It's hard to describe what the Ali G character is to those who haven't seen him because he's a strange combination -- part-rapper, part member of the underclass, part Islamic naif. Cohen himself  describes Ali G as being both incredibly arrogant and incredibly ignorant. Ali G rose to fame by conducting interviews with public figures under the guise of being a reporter for a children's educational television program. And when he's face to face with them he asks questions of a kind that have never been heard before. One of my favorites was when he asked Brent Scowcroft if Iraq and Iran ought to be made to change their names because their similarity might cause a pilot who had been told to bomb one to bomb the other. The most interesting feature of his show is how the victims respond. Most reveal themselves to be astounding stuffed shirts. Some have hissy fits and stomp off the set. Some try to match Ali G's humor and fail. Some simply sit befuddled. The most astute reaction I've seen so far came from Patrick Buchanan. It has raised him immensely in my estimation. The tactic, of course, has now lost its effectiveness. Ali G has become too famous to keep up the ruse. But while it worked it produced skits that will be remembered as classics of comedy and, maybe, just maybe, taught us something about the nature of the people we select as our leaders.

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Bill Maher on his news-comedy show on HBO has a segment for each program where he lists a set of "new rules." One of them last night (August 14, 2004) was, "Stop saying we've turned the corner." Then he added, if we've really turned the corner how come Bush is still around? His program is fairly sharp and includes unrestrained dialogue with a panel of three guests each week. The one false note comes from Maher's dislike of religious belief. He's so cankered in that respect he says things that are merely stupid and not particularly funny. The hypocrisy of some so-called evangelicals is pretty hard to take but Maher needs to acknowledge that not all people who profess faith are cretins. If he could just get that straightened out, he would have a program to rival The Daily Show on the Comedy Channel.

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I saw Bette Midler on TV a couple nights ago (July 7, 2004) saying she intends to get involved in politics this summer because she would like to have an elected president rather than one that is assigned to us. She reminded me that the issue of the election in 2000 is not going away. Though it may not be talked about much in official circles or among journalists, it seems to be well-established in TV land that a well-heeled Bush team stole the election in Florida and thus the presidency. Whether or not we like the television version of the truth we had better get used to dealing with it. I'm uncertain how I feel about it myself. But, on reflection, I find no reason to conclude that it is any less accurate than what I'm told by the respectable people in government.

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Last night on the David Letterman show (July 7, 2004) I received a kind of comeuppance for my belief that young American women are the dumbest girls in the world. Dave interviewed a young woman from the other hemisphere who rivalled anybody I've ever seen, even on Jay Leno, where they specialize in finding people who are ignorant beyond belief. But, then, I got to thinking. Maybe the reason these young people seem unbelievably dumb is that they aren't really what they appear to be but rather highly skilled actors and actresses who have received extensive training in portraying people with minds more dull than have ever existed on earth. If that's the case, I have to give them credit. They convey stupidity with a air of authority that requires tremendous talent. The roles nominated for academy awards don't begin to approach these.

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I have not been a super fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm. It's funny, yes. But it's an embarrassing kind of funny that causes one to come close to wishing he weren't a member of the human race. Yet I have to admit that last night (May 31, 2004) on HBO, the program achieved a rare hilarity. It was the episode about Larry David's renewing his wedding vows after ten years of marriage, the one in which he doesn't mind pledging to love his wife until he dies but is made uncomfortable by having to pledge to love her throughout eternity. Rabbis don't usually come off well on Curb Your Enthusiasm,  and the one slated to solemnize the renewed vows was particularly schleppy. Near the end of the show, he became offended by a remark of Larry's which he thought wasn't sensitive enough about those who were killed on September 11, 2001. Larry reminded him that though his brother had been killed on that date, it was in an automobile accident on 57th Street. And then he added he didn't think it counted if it happened uptown. It was a perfect Larry David rejoinder and I confess it sent me to bed in a happy mood.

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I once considered myself a country music fan (back when it was called "hillbilly"). But watching the Country Music Awards last night (May 26, 2004), I realized I no longer qualify. I barely recognized the names of any but the oldest performers. One of the new stars is Gretchen Wilson and her hit song, which she performed last night, is titled "Redneck Woman." It has the following line: "I can buy the same damn thing on a Wal Mart shelf half-price." Pride in shopping at Wal Mart may be a peculiar sort of pride but I guess we have to say it's pride nonetheless. I have nothing against it, except that I'm not sure it's true that one can get items of equal quality at Wal Mart for half what one would pay elsewhere -- or maybe the implication is not just any elsewhere but in a fancy store like Macy's. In any case, the Wal Mart allusion made me realize something about the evolution of country music. Country has nothing to do with it anymore. There was a time in America when there was a genuine distinction between rural and urban people. But that's not a difference that counts any longer. What matters now is class, as defined by formal education, taste, and, to a small extent, money. Somehow, I liked it better when country music was about rural manners more than about a nasty cultural conflict.

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Last night on HBO (May 16, 2004) I saw comedian Lewis Black. He says that if you travel outside the United States you don't hear people there proclaiming that their country is the greatest country on earth so often that you think you're going to have to throw up. Then you return home, and, Boy Oh Boy! On reflection I see he's right. I may not have travelled as much as he has but in the places I've visited, I never heard anyone talk about their country's superiority. It's not that people in other nations don't love their country. They do. But they love it for what it is, not because it's the best. I get the impression, sometimes, if we discovered that the United States is not the best, we'd start detesting it and resort either to emigration or to mass suicide.

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I watched the first of the final three episodes of Friends last night (April 22, 2004) and was reminded once again how much successful TV shows, and, particularly, situation comedies, appeal to what is missing in American life. Almost everyone would like to be a member of a group similar to the six characters of Friends and almost no one is. I suspect that friendship is more depleted in America in the first years of the 21st Century than it has ever been before. The reason is, we're too busy to have friends. We have schedules instead. Most of the people with whom I've been friendly are more devoted to their schedules than they could ever be to a mere human thing. But, it's not that way with Joey, and Rachel, and Ross, and Monica, and Chandller, and Phoebe. They have time for one another, time to sit everyday in a coffee shop and gossip about their lives and life in general. They are funny, yes, and that's part of the reason we tune them in. But they aren't as wildly funny as the characters of Seinfeld were. And they don't have to be. Though they all have comedic talent (I happen to think that Matt LeBlanc is the most talented among them), they draw us into their lives because they are faithful to the title of their show. They are friends.

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