Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Watching the Watchers

As of this post I’ll have broke out of my recent tie with my globe-trotting friend, the recent historicist and the red-haired poet. Competitive as I may be, that isn’t the sole reason for writing. However, as I am vaulting into first place post-wise (I have a lot of catching up to do in the replies, which I have loved reading and especially loved seeing some new names attached to them) I suppose I should begin by apologizing. With this post, I will become the lead contributor, which means that with this post there will be way too much TV being discussed on this fine web-based experiment.

I don’t want to apologize too much. Our instigator did write in his mission statement that we are “here” to, among other things, share our “musings on culture,” and as it should have it, recently my muse has found amusement therein (and in puns, evidently).

But with any luck, this post will do a little bit more than critique one specific show. Maybe with a little luck, patience and attention (and, as Focault said, as long as the “courage” does not desert me) I can do a little better, and perhaps even start to muse about, as our instigator put it, examine a portion of the “diverse elements of our community’s collective imagination.”

There’s been a trend of late, it seems to me (and to someone else who wrote about this first: I think it was about the show “Smith”, which I’ll discuss later, and it appeared in The Boston Globe) that lots of TV and some movies have tried very hard to romanticize suburban life. For the sake of argument, I’ll start the trend at “American Beauty” (it doesn’t really start here): in “AB”, Chris Cooper’s ex-Marine is a closet homosexual, his son Wes Bentley famously finds beauty in filming a plastic bag (and everything else), Annette Bening has an affair with the guy with the huge eyebrows on “The OC”, etc.. As normal and predictably yuppy/suburban as almost everyone seems, there’s always something dramatic happening behind closed doors. There’s a degree of romance to it: something special, something hidden, buried deep within the mundane.

But the ‘special’ in “American Beauty” doesn’t seem so special when it’s compared to the romantics of its descendents. Now we have Zach Braff and Natalie Portman trekking through the woods in garbage bags, destined for a ship hanging precipitously over a rock quarry, or peering through pin-holes in a hotel. Some of “Garden State”, I think, says that there’s more to the homes that we’ve left than we thought.

There’s also “Desperate Housewives.” “DH” loves showing us the back-stabbing, two-faced nature of suburbia (if anything, that’s not Romanization, its reality). But in order to flush out the narrative of niceness and normalcy (and to keep us watching), there’s always a layer of the truly bizarre waiting just beneath the suburban and everyday (Betty Applewhite locking up her son in the basement is probably at once both the best and worst example of this, and also probably bears some further examination).

There was “Sleeper Cell” and its movie-cousin “Arlington Road,” both about terrorists living next door to us. There’s “Smith”, the recently-cancelled Ray Liotta drama wherein the Goodfella played suburban dad by day, master-thief by night. And, hey, speaking of cancelled shows dealing with the same premise, there was even “Thief.” There might even be an element of Tyler Durden in there as well.

It’s not in everything that’s out there: “Lost” doesn’t romanticize everyday suburban life at all. “Heroes” takes us to the city, not the suburbs. And there’s “CSI” and its cousins, “House,” “Grey’s”, etc..

But there’s some sort of pattern here, some sort of general movement that these shows have either created or been pulled in to. I want to ask why: why this sudden urge to not just show how the difference between the performed public and the reserved private, but also to romanticize the everyday.

An uninteresting answer is that there’s a market for it. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it, but I should note it: obviously, Hollywood feeds on itself. There’s a reason why there’s fifteen “CSI’s”: TV has found a formula that works and wants to make the most of it. Relatedly, there might be a demographic pattern that TV is following to the suburbs. I don’t have any stats that say this is even a phenomenon, and I realize that suburbanization has been going on since the close of World War II, but maybe there’s been a recent surge, and maybe people want to watch what they identify with.

Certainly possible, certainly plausible. And certainly, I should recall these plausibilities as I start to get a little more interesting as I wonder why.

Why feel this maybe recent need to tell stories about ourselves in this manner? Why coat the everyday with the extraordinary? Entertainment, not just television, has always returned to examine its audience and their shared world. Sometimes it’s showed the audience in the happy-go-lucky way it saw itself (think “Leave it to Beaver”) and sometimes it tried to do just the opposite (“The Crucible”, etc.).

What might be at issue, what might cause today’s writers to apply the romantic ‘veneer’, is what they’re trying to show us (in the same way that Miller wanted his audience to do the work for him: he didn’t want to put Cotton Mather on the Supreme Court, instead he put 50s America side by side with Salem and let the audience draw their own conclusions). Maybe TV needs this gild to hide the audience from itself, from what is beneath their shared world, from what is inevitably beneath a gilded veneer: nothing.

Do we need this kind of romantic TV? Not just as a means of entertainingly exploring the public versus the private, but to substitute for something (I hate to say it) existentially missing? Do we have to have this possibility for the extraordinary? These aren’t rhetorical questions, I’m really asking: is it that bad?

Maybe it’s something else entirely. Is that lacquer slapped on top of normal life as a further means of self-delusion, or does it represent instead something optimistic, some attempt to beautify, improve or even dislodge the ordinary? Maybe these shows try to deregulate the sensible, or at the very leas suggest that we are all far more interesting than we ever let on. Maybe they’re suggesting that we should do away with whatever institutions encourage such insecurities in one another so that we may discover just how worthy we are of each others’ attention. Paradoxically, if this is the case, then the message is being conducted through the very institution of insecurities, like a secret code reverberating against the walls of a prison cell, sent by a desperate inmate tapping out against the walls of his own cell, praying that his neighbor will listen and understand. These show might be meant as encouragement (again, might be), but they themselves are not the answer to whatever root dissatisfaction we might feel. Instead, they only locate the problem and identify a possible point of rupture.

(Whether you believe our esteemed TV writers are covering something hollow (the pessimists) or encouraging better behavior (obviously the optimists; I really don’t want to suggest one or the other, or to even limit this to an either/or issue) I think that at the root of this (at least the present either/or issue) is dissatisfaction: with life, with suburbia, with normalcy, with our jobs, with what we have compared to what we wanted, to what have you. This root dissatisfaction, endemic of something bigger than how TV writers are feeling (because TV audiences are watching) might result in these shows I’ve been discussing. And our interpretation of these effects (i.e., whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist) might say more about how likely you imagine a satisfactory resolution to this ‘root dissatisfaction (if indeed we’re willing to admit that such a thing exists) than the effects themselves.)

Even “Heroes” and “Lost,” shows that aren’t located in the suburbs and have more admittedly fantastical elements still contain bits of this romantic salvation. On TV ordinary people wake up one day and find out they can fly and that the world suddenly needs them, or the island that they’re trapped on is paradoxically connected to the rest of the world—and maybe that's the only chance we get.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Real-Life Poetry from John's Real-Life Poetry Vault

A man who made the movie sitting in the theater and the jokers in the front laughing and cackling, and a young woman several rows before him who is crying just a little, then shivers, and turns around, and their eyes meet.
breathing outward and wind accelerating objective correlative--not causative--does still make us wonder how we did that.
but thre is no cause from you to it but only horizontality between you two progeny of a prima causa--is god--says one philosophy.
   (     ):
but then nothing i do can affect anything else, even causes I'd bet, until action could never be located because it left no clues/footprints or tracks on its proxmal lexes.

and the woman is wearing the mask.
In real life, eerybody rides in the sky-world on their magical glow-worm dragon partners, but in this allegory of the cave, you and me live in bubbles in this sky, whose limits are well within theirs, and yet infinite enough to contain us forever. But for someone who could measure our infinity as a calculable finitude--able to count, unable to count--, the limits and edges of our space, apparent to them, would allow them to pop in seemingly "in the middle of things" (yes...)
Fault lines and Jazz Music.

The historian's job

Every Thursday I have a historical methodology seminar-like class. So far, we have only examined medieval historiography, but we always end up discussing contemporary issues concerning the writing of history. I came out of the most recent discussion feeling somewhat pessimistic about the prospective course of my life. We delved into some excellent issues and had some very enriching discussions about the historian’s supposed purpose. One point stuck out in my mind, and is the basis for this post: if history is the pursuit of Truth about the past, isn’t the historian’s job inherently antisocial? As it goes without saying that no historian – or indeed anyone – can ever reach an objective truth about anything, it is, fundamentally, the historian’s duty to continuously destroy old myths by replacing them with new ones that supposedly offer a ‘better’ interpretation of the past. Do I really want to be a historian if my job is, when it comes down to it, to make people less comfortable with the accepted views of the past? Good historians have to be anarchists. Do I want to be an anarchist?

I understand that in many cases clarifying the past for people is useful for their own edification. But it’s difficult to reconcile a mentality that it’s all for the greater good without feeling like it’s just being nitpicky. I can certainly see how some view the quest for historical truths as being an antisocial activity. One example to support this immediately comes to my mind: my neighbors from across the street in South Hadley visited Scotland a few years ago. When they came back, they told my family all about it, and how they especially liked Stirling, where they saw William Wallace’s sword! I almost said ‘well, that isn’t really his sword...’ but thought the better of it. Millions of people have seen that sword and believe it to be authentic – is it my job to tell them it’s not? Should it matter? I suppose that that’s a rather benign example, because were it widely publicized that the sword on display at the Wallace Monument isn’t actually Braveheart’s, I don’t think it would radically change anyone’s worldview. But you get my point. A slightly more potent example is that Churchill never actually delivered some of his most famous speeches during the ‘dark days’ of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. An actor was hired to impersonate him on the radio, possibly because he was drunk. Should everyone know that? Does it matter?

What is the purpose of history, really?

Saturday, October 28, 2006


Almost back to Belford

Home for me is dust,
Rising from a nameless road
Where wind's fingers play.

On the concept of Freedom

"Why are his feet so dusty?"...."Cause he's ripping up kilometers!" (K'Naan).

When BJ invited us to join this blog, he called me a man of freedom. I want to comment briefly on the concept of freedom. Certainly I will not astound anyone when I say that freedom is a relative term. In first world nations like the United States one has the freedom to get in a car and drive on a well-paved smooth road to a well-lit, bright super market, and fill a plastic cart with bulging red perky tomatoes. Similarly (or perhaps conversely), in a place like Dakar, Senegal, one has the freedom to walk along the edge of a dirt road ankle-deep in mud and lined with mounds of baking refuse to a hunching complex of damp dingy stalls lined with corrugated tin and covered with plastic sheets where in the half light one chokes on the stench of rotten meat and dried fish while picking through reed baskets of tomatoes for one or two that are still fresh.

Contemplating these two freedoms, one might eventually come to realize that in the light of the recent French colonial presence in Senegal, the second freedom is in fact much richer and more deeply colored than the first, as the freedoms in Dakar to walk where one wishes, to build corrugated-tin-walled markets, and to grow and sell and buy tomatoes are all relatively recent and new phenomena. Having experienced the freedom of buying tomatoes in each of these two worlds, one might also come to view certain freedoms of the United States less as freedoms and more as luxuries or aspects of easiness; and then to wonder where in these 'freedoms' sleeps the passionate actualized liberation of 1776 from the economic and military tyranny of Great Britain (the good queen of which now, I'm sorry to say, has our good brother Haley comfortably in her pocket), that liberation having served as a catalyst in the spawning of all other American freedoms. Perhaps in the imaginations of some individuals in those founding years, the then-unnamed creature capitalism would involve certain bold, inventive entrepreneurs starting their own economic ventures (perhaps with names like CBS, IBM, Simon and Schuster, or EPA) and employing and training people with the hope that those underlings would come to create similar businesses that could compete with the original in a way that would strengthen the economy on a whole and cultivate creativity, analytical thinking, and bold calculation of risks within each individual.

It seems today, as some of you have begun to grumble cantankerously of the chains that you worry are beginning to grow between your ankles and the legs of large wooden desks, that the disjunction between the actualized liberation from economic oppression over 200 years ago and the realization of the imagined possibilities of capitalism as perceived by our founding fathers and their kin could not grow any larger. Frustration with this and other fissures in the American social, political, and economic systems drove me to leave the country and to seek freedom elsewhere, and while easily romanticized (I am guilty of this myself) I urge you to realize that freedom is never necessarily synonymous with ease of living (and neither should ease of living or a quality of excessive luxury ever be equated with freedom - therein lies the strength of advertisement campaigns).

It is true that I have only myself to answer to, and have no pin-stripe fake-smile hair-grease whips driving me to pour my life into slobbering giants like CBS, IBM, Simon and Schuster, EPA, etc, but as some have said before, no freedom comes without a price, and I have met the cost in my own way. Still I would say that no easiness of living is worth a sacrifice in freedom, in the gift that is one's ability to think and act and feel and move entirely on one's own, no matter the cost of walking a self-conceived self-pursued alternative path, but I think you all know that already. I miss you all dearly and sincerely hope you will be able to join me for some stretch of my long-legged rambles.

System infiltrated

Few Americans would be surprised to discover that our educational system is flawed, perhaps irreparably. But fewer realize the extent to which these flaws are binding themselves, as if carefully, with society, so that the institution’s very defects are crucial elements in a kind of symbiotic relationship between this particular institution and the whole of our society.

When I bought myself a college education and walked off to join Teach for America, I never fashioned myself their poster-child. I have far more sense than that, I suppose. Although I could never have predicted the extent of my classroom management challenges or my principal’s malice, I certainly predicted my own skepticism for anything with a brand name. The “this is why I teach for America” stories are so formulaic that they could probably be synthesized with the aid of a computer program, a la The Postmodern Essay Generator. Or Madlibs. No: what drew me to accept the job (they refer to it as “the challenge”) was the twofold mission that the organization professes: to make immediate impact on students in my own classroom, and to make long-term systemic change with the positions that my experience would afford me.

I will leave the verdict on my “immediate” impact to the statheads (as prominent in this organization as in sabermetric baseball chatrooms) and the children – immediate impact, after all, does not really evidence itself immediately. However, the hope for long-term systemic change is, ironically, the one thing I feel that I can already judge. My studies have not been exhaustive, so whether systemic improvement is possible or the best means toward reaching it are not my aim. Rather, I can speak to the current trend that Teach for America, scrambling school systems, the government, and most other factions of whom I’m aware are perpetuating.

Depending on which study you read, the experts measure the achievement gap as something between three and four years. In other words, as a group, students of color (well, black and Latino) in our country at, say, age 17, have attained the basic educational skills of a white student of 13 or 14. No Child Left Behind, the revised version, has professed to address this issue with its bold statement that it will not consider schools to be meeting their AYP (Average Yearly Progress) unless certain at-risk subgroups, like racial groups and families that are economically disadvantaged, meet the same standards as their privileged peers. Similarly, Teach for America trains its corps members to set high “Big Goals” for their students and cites various studies to support the success of this, similar to the studies of Vincent Rascigno (1998) that proved that high teacher expectations had positive effects on students (while, for example, the effect of per-pupil expenditure was statistically insignificant). Struggling school systems have allowed many charter schools to crop up like bacilli, often scoring as dismally as their public school neighbors – who claim that the difference is that they, at least, make high achievement and high expectations their business.

However, each of these, which sometimes seem to be at odds, are equally distant from some brutal realities. I do not claim to have the monopoly on insight because of some newfound welcome-to-the-real-world skepticism. Nevertheless, this experience has showed me a few things. The first is that almost every faction is attempting to educate these students on the wrong side of the achievement gap by teaching them how to succeed in a system that has been designed so that they will fail. Setting the same “high expectations” is not enough if it is not accompanied by a serious reexamination, perhaps re-creation, of the standards by which we are forcing our children to use every effort to attain. Standardized tests are so flawed that my alma mater has garnered recent publicity for forswearing them in admissions requirements. ESL, still pervasive despite studies that argue for bilingual education, forces students to write in English before students have mastered their native language. And the ideals of our educational system are so distant from the realities of our society that many students in less-than-idyllic neighborhoods create two separate identities in order to survive (but rarely to thrive) at school.

Paulo Freire, educator and theorist from Brazil, is best known for his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which opposed “banking” education – akin to the idea of the tabula rasa. Among his many criticisms of contemporary education was his disapproval of the dichotomy between teacher and student, and he found that the mutual respect between equals contributing to an educational experience with the whole self proved more successful than the more frequented methods of education. Other theorists have supported the view that community-based education is the most successful, particularly with struggling student bodies; they have also evidenced the deleterious effect of an education that denies the full investment of the self. However, the system as it currently exists – the same system that most institutions and organizations encourage students to submit to in order to emerge successfully – denies the full investment of the self in its very nature. Certainly, the aims of education should include the attainment of literacy, mathematical and technical knowledge, and a breadth of other subject understanding. These aims, however, too often are positive side effects of American meritocracy. And well-meaning institutions and educators – carrying the message of “high and equal expectations” – too often stand for serving in a role akin to that of a cheerleader, one who ignores the fact that his candidate has been forced to amputate his limbs while, unlike his competitors, he has not been granted wings.

In other words, as long as our system is a meritocracy (and what else could those entrenched in capitalism imagine?) and as long as that meritocracy continues to deny “wings” – equipment to succeed – to its least educated – we can not expect equal and high expectations to be met. This is true, at least, as long as we pander to those with so-called social capital, who set the standards for success. In this black-and-white pass-fail dichotomy, the social capital and whole personhood that persons of color and impoverished Americans of all races possess is relegated to a curiosity commodified by the mainstream culture. It is the stuff of entertainment, not of education. Thus are the children of this side of the proverbial track forced into a split-identity existence if they are to succeed at all. It can be done, and it might be true that a few of these students will emerge stronger, but the system continues to relegate the vast majority of them to failure. Teachers, too, are forced by the system into pseudo-superior roles because standards and objectives are ours for the distribution – and because American culture forces us to be disciplinarians before we are educators.

Oddly, this is why I teach for America, but it’s not the message I’m supposed to be giving. I am not teaching because I want to create a system-wide change in which all teachers hold these sought-for high expectations, per se. I am not teaching merely because of the students in my school, though indeed they are an incentive. Rather, I am teaching because I don’t want to be part of the problem. I don’t want to be one of the privileged who collects diverse acquaintances and habits like charms on a bracelet – and this is more than mere vanity. My goal is that I can learn from my students and from my experience so that maybe I can neither pander to the system nor fight it. My goal is to recreate it, from the ground up – even if my contribution is only in the form of a much better-informed essay I’d be able to write two years from now. When I was in school, I learned a lot of fancy language that enabled me to write this essay, and students will generally be considered successful if they learn to do the same. I don’t want my students to write an essay, though – unless they write one because they mean it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Eleventh Hour

I was at work this morning, relegated to a conference room with some other new hires when, somehow, someway, and through no fault of my own, we began discussing religion. It was nothing more than a brief skirmish, perhaps even less, not even a flaring of tensions but maybe only a drawing of battle lines. It was brief and it was civil and I imagine that both its brevity and its civility are relatively lacking in similar conversations across the country.

One of the participants concisely and intelligently proclaimed his faith. That this gentleman was religious did not surprise me—statistically in today’s America, it’s always going to be the safe bet. What surprised me was the security he demonstrated with his own beliefs: he believed, and if others didn’t, fine, that was their decision. This statement (here presented in brutal paraphrase) generated a relative agreement from all parties involved, ending in a general consensus that this was one of the benefits of being an American.

I’m still inclined to agree with what this gentleman said. Indeed, in today’s America, I think this kind of relativism might just be the best all-around compromise between two sides that hate each other so much that usually in discussions with the opposition, their vile tends to impede them from forming sentences. Though I’ll be grappling with what my co-worker said throughout the rest of this post (grappling, mind you, and not answering) I want to offer this caveat: what he said might be the best we could possibly ask for nowadays. Might.

But on this site, except when its contributors digress to explore primetime TV shows and seventeenth century printing trivia, we must keep our eyes on the prize: the poorly-defined, cozy-feeling liberal cornerstone that is social justice (the term still evades me, and I challenge anyone to find any two liberals to agree on a definition. I honestly think the challenge would cause them both to combust: liberals conforming to a binding and finalized definition! GASP!).

In all seriousness, I’ve always been curious about the faithfuls’ interaction with what I think we’d all call ‘the good fight’. How do we (and by ‘we’ I mean your garden variety northeastern or coastal, private college suburban white kids who have rejected just about any form of God that’s come across our paths) team up and do business with them (for the sake of simplicity, by ‘them’ I mean progressive Christians, those who are light on dogma but high on interpretation and faith and willing to agree that some parts of the Bible might be a little outdated). We shouldn’t underestimate this ‘us and them’ relationship: indeed, ‘them’ came first. The abolitionist movement gained its momentum through the faithful, as did woman’s suffrage, as did civil rights.

Now I realize that for every item I list demonstrating the faithfuls’ contribution to social justice, we could all probably list fifty reasons where faith has either curbed, halted or crushed the progression of social justice. I don’t debate that. Moreover, even for those items which I just listed, there’s still a lurking unease that the anti-essentialists and/or post-Nietzscheans (whose name, unlike Locke’s, is very difficult to spell) amongst us might have trouble ignoring: white abolitionists thought that the slaves should be freed because all men were equally inferior to God. Likewise, some of the reasoning that drove the women’s suffrage movement presumed that because men were spiritually superior beings whose minds were focused on the realm of ideas, women, more connected to the earth and the day-to-day, were better suited to make decisions on earth. Obviously, this presumption reeks of ol-fashioned essentialism.

Regardless of their reasoning the faithful were there, and they were pushing for social change. In the 60s they were joined by us (re-visit the definition of ‘we’ two paragraphs ago). I’m not saying all of those 60s Northern carpetbaggers were atheists or even agnostic, but chances are some of them were.

After we meet, after we work together (and sometimes, God willing, after we succeed together), what then? Nietzsche would have us believe that, just as the faithful should be committed to saving souls, we should be committed to re-directing their energies back to earth (a similarity that has always quietly bothered me). Should we presume that we have some type of ‘responsibility’ to ‘save’ the faithful from themselves, even the extremely progressive ones? Or should adopt the relativism that the gentleman with whom I work demonstrated?

And what about that relativism as exemplified by the faithful gentleman? My initial, gut reaction to his display of secure faith was pleasure, if not pride: I was proud of him for being able to, if not accept, then at least allow (or allow himself to allow) the presence of differing theological perspectives. And I still wonder if that relativism is the best, if not the only way of dealing with one another. But as a Christian, as one of the faithful, is he really allowed to do that? Does his faith allow him to do that? And if so, then how can he accommodate this leniency when, more often than not, there is only ‘one way’, and every other ‘way’ is not only wrong, but will get you landed right in H-E-Double Hockey sticks? From the outside, as I admittedly am, it’s hard to allow for any evolution within a faith when, well, evolution itself tends to be summarily rejected.

These are all personal questions for me: I’m not a progressive Christian, as a matter of fact, I’m not an anything Christian, but I am related to progressive Christians. I’ve recently ‘outed’ myself to them, not because of a recent anti-epiphany but instead just because of an increased ability to argue my point. They don’t pray at dinner, they rarely go to Church, they’re all for gay rights and, with a little wine, tend to declaim that the current President is the worst in history. But they still believe, and maybe for the most infuriating of reasons: because it makes them feel good.

I’d feel uncomfortable telling them that Freud would say this is childish (if only because usually my default position on Freud is to just say ‘Wrong’). The argument ended when I asked why they didn’t believe in Unicorns as, just like God, there’s no empirical evidence supporting their existence (in the spirit of the season, it’d be convenient if I suggested the Great Pumpkin). But for me, that’s what it comes down to.

These types of the faithful, good people whose hearts and minds struggle along with ours to achieve a better world, who don’t allow themselves to be entagled in dogma and superstition, always provoke a two-headed reaction in me, and this is the best way I can explain it:

Think of undertaking a twelve hour car ride with someone. For eleven and a half hours, they’ve been rock solid. Never asked to stop, were always good with the directions, volunteered to drive and when they did they kept the car on the road. For eleven and a half hours, you couldn’t have asked for a better co-pilot.

But in the eleventh and a half hour, they insist, they demand, that you stop the car. They’re hungry or they have to use the bathroom. And so you stop the car, because they’ve been so rock solid for so long. And a part of you wishes that you weren’t in such a damn hurry, that they have a right. But at the same time you think home is just half an hour away, and Jesus couldn’t they hold it for just half an hour?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Bartlett at the Improv

Aaron Sorkin never troubles himself with the final product. It’s always the process that makes his shows special, and for the most part he explores it wonderfully. The long shots are glossy, and the dialogue--though sometimes admittedly a bit of a caricature of itself--remains some of the smartest on TV. Mix in a cast of smart, good-looking people working hard at what they love, and for the most part, you’re all but guaranteed success.

But, and maybe this is a cherry of Sorkin’s past shows, the end-product always winds up being really good, always winds up becoming the actual product of those smart, good-looking people whom you’ve been watching working hard at what they love. Sure you only see clips of Sportsnight, Sorkin’s first and very underrated show, but when you do it feels real, feels like you’re watching any two anchors chatting sports on ESPN. And when Martin Sheen delivers a speech it sounds—hell it even feels—like how a President should sound.

And I guess that’s why I’ve been grappling with Sorkin’s latest, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” It has big, beautiful, Goodfellas-esque long shots. It has snappy dialogue. It has an emphasis on writing (a TV show with a self-conscious emphasis on writing, let’s all marvel at that for a second or two) and, while I miss Toby and Leo, it does have smart, attractive people working hard at what they love.

But now, and for the first time, it’s what they make (and not how they make it) that has unfortunately eclipsed the Sorkin magic. The skits, or at least what we see of them, never seem to click with what everyone is working on. Unfortunately, this new show feels like a clearing-house of all the lefty topics he wanted to address during his time on ‘The West Wing’ but never got around to; ‘The West Wing’ was a perfect launching pad for all of Sorkin’s gripes with the right and the left. It was even great at suggesting policy based around those gripes, policy that remained congruent with the drama’s setting. But it can’t work like that in a show about a comedy show. Studio 60 has become a sketch show, but its Sorkin’s sketches that we see aired, and never the characters’.

Why? Because the skits simply aren’t funny. Sorkin has pulled a Dennis Miller like mistake it seems, trying to prove how smart he is while ignoring the only—I repeat: the only—rule that everyone has to abide by while writing comedy: Be Funny.

In comedy, you can be political, you can attack pop culture. You can air out social, economic and national tensions in a healthy and safe way. But before you do you have to earn it, and you earn it by making us laugh. Remember that while those great and original SNL episodes? Yes, they had Pryor and Chase screaming racial obscenities at one another. But they also had Ackroyd and Curtain donning cone heads and chugging six packs. They had landsharks. They had Belushi slicing through hoagie with a samurai sword. And eventually they even had Gumby, damnit.

But Sorkin gives us ‘Science Schmiance’, a watered-down game-show intent on attacking the religious right’s oftentimes tenuous relationship with the physical universe. He goes after CNN talking heads, easy targets sure, but Jon Stewart can do more with just one mug to the camera in response to the discussion of Sadaam’s “hidey-hole” than Sorkin can with five hundred words of scripted dialogue going after Nancy Grace. They even have another cast member appearing in a nearly suicidal role as a medieval warrior-Queen alluding to ancient battles while dealing with modern life. Yikes.

It might have started with the very first bit, the first ‘revolutionary’ skit that Matthew Perry’s character was going to use to revitalize the fictional Studio 60. So he puts on a musical send-up of ‘Modern Major General’. Cute. Clever. Predictably Sorkin. But not funny.

(I said ‘predictably Sorkin’ and I meant it: I really wonder if Aaron is trying to write himself in to what used to be the duo of Gilbert and Sullivan. Sorkin displayed his infatuation with G&S already in The West Wing with Ainsley Hayes’ character. Enough, Aaron. We get it. You like musical theater. Maybe you should put on a show about the backstage goings-on of a musical theater troupe and get it over with. Enough already. Just stop it.)

Perhaps what’s most disappointing about it all is that Studio 60 is funny: Nathan Corddry’s character walking around in a lobster suit, Matthew Perry reacting to the ‘cocktail napkin’ of a bat that Sarah Paulson hands him, and Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford squabbling are all funny. But the show-within-the-show never clicks the same way that Jed Bartlett’s speeches would click with Jed Bartlett.

Maybe Sorkin is trying to write Studio 60’s skits poorly to more accurately mirror SNL. But I doubt it: Sorkin gives us bad comedy when he means to (the most recent episode showcased two terrible Black comics) and Perry’s and Whitford’s characters are meant to resurrect the show, not dig it into a deeper hole.

Sorkin and SNL should both follow this advice: just turn down the politics. Our elected officials will always be ridiculous. That staple of American comedy isn’t going anywhere, so be patient. Come back to ridiculous caricatures, awkward situations, or just plain goofy for a little while and make Studio 60 the example for sketch comedy in the same way that President Bartlett was for American politics.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Mis-enfranchisement: a dialogical poem by a native son of New Hampshire

(Settler's Green shopping plaza, North Conway, NH, at the base of the White Mountain National Forest)

My state has grown so quickly in the last few decades. We went from the richness of the lumber barons to the poverty of those who really were the state’s population in those preceding rapine years, and from there, well, to farming and then tourism and IT in the southern part of the state. The tourism is new enough, but the IT is very recent indeed, and however long the IT industry lasts, the tourism can last longer if we’re intelligent about it.
But now we’ve got all this money from the tourism in my generation and the next generation, wow, the amount of wealth they have comparatively, they’re really out there. And with all this money, we’ve got always in the top five of public school systems in the country.

It’s not that high.

It is. And these schools are so good that they train the kids for the world at large exceptionally well. If you’re smart, you can get a top-notch education in one of New Hampshire’s public schools and if not good enough than certainly enough in one of its excessively numerous private schools.

It’s always difficult to go home, you know when I visit the town where I grew up, I realize that I’ve got noone there who I know, they’re all graduated from out-of-state colleges. And your friends who are there aren’t your friends anymore. I guess it’s all out of the possession of power.

And when you’re raised and educated so well in a state whose main source of money has been applied so responsibly and charitably to the betterment of the society in the development of the institution of public schooling, that its industry has not been developed proportionally to accept the influx of talented young people into its work force, and so we have to leave. What are you going to do, if you graduate from an NH public school? Go to UNH? Which is really an amazing school, but that question seems like a legitimate one to all the people who state it—staying around at UNH appears as a failure to many.

It’s got a great honors program.

One of my friends is in the civil engineering program, and it’s a really amazing set she’s taking. [pause]
And we’ve really got nothing else to do, except work in IT. Only that there can only be so many people predisposed to being IT professionals.

So they could maybe be ski-lift operators or instructors?

Right, exactly. So what I’m saying is that we’ve got a perpetual diaspora of talent in our society. Picture like our ancestors in the beginning stages of capitalism, with free cities run by associations of leagues, generally. And from there to stronger mercantilisms and the formation of wealth centers, cities. Now the heirarchical structure would make it presupposable that the strongest members of a society, of a family, would go to where the opportunities were best. So the eldest or smartest son would go to the town to make his fortune. And the smartest would always be lured away to the cities by its promise, just power naturally wanting to consolidate itself and this facilitation of it in the free(er) transportation of goods and wealth generally.

You know, my house up in the country it’s some neighbors I see who are you think the talented are always lured away from the country to the profit of the city. [double entendre, unrecognized] It shows after five, ten generations of this.



So basically what you’re describing is a darwinian skimming off of the gene pool.


But what I – But what if it’s this, that [pause] it’s a defense mechanism, that since the ‘smartest’ are lured away to the cities from the countryside, then the actual ‘smartest’ one would be the one who, if we’re okay that humans evolutionarily require contact with other humans, like Marx’s species beings, then the smartest one is the one who finds a way to remain in the community, which is the one who appears to the powerful one who steals the poor community’s children, who is apparently stupid to the hegemonic in order that he might avoid them taking him from his community.

You’re promoting the slave mentality.

I think it’s just the opposite, beause I’ll allow that the slave mentality is an entirely real phenomenon, this is more counterposed against the hegemonic. I’m saying that the dominant has no conception at all of its subaltern. That the dominant did not ever completely form the subaltern because it is a history that insists on the pre-heirarchy stage, and the dominant have no access to this history because they are always themselves-plus-history, so while I do not defend any transcendental historical element, I say that the dominant’s attempts to understand what it controls and creates are always one step behind the subordinate’s. That even if one group ‘creates’ the history of another, it cannot decode the present.

Case Study

The other day as I was reading about the explosion of print culture in the mid-seventeenth century, I came across the origin of the terms 'upper case' and 'lower case'. In a seventeenth century printer's shop, the arrangement of letters was organized so that the compositor could locate all the letters necessary by reflex - and invariably the capital letters were in a tray higher on his desk than the uncapitalized ones.