Archive for the ‘TV’ Category


Trump is ever so slightly right about media bias, part 2: Streep-gate

January 10, 2017

[Click here for Part 1.]

Everyone has been talking about Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes acceptance speech in which she criticized Donald Trump for mocking a reporter’s disability. Predictably enough, Trump fan are incensed. But did Trump really make fun of Serge Kovaleski’s arthrogryposis? The truth, according to me, is that we’ll never know for sure.

Everyone who cares about this issue has seen the footage of Trump flailing around as he momentarily pretends to be Kovaleski. The key question is, was he specifically referencing Kovaleski’s physical limitations, or just impersonating a generic flustered, incompetent person?

The first interpretation is definitely plausible. But so is the second one, in light of two key points made by pro-Trump sites such as First, Trump’s vaguely epileptic flailing bears little resemblance to Kovaleski’s limited movements. Second, Trump has made similar flailing motions when mocking other (non-disabled) people (a general; Ted Cruz; himself, when forced to go on vacation; a bank president; Donna Brazile).

(The article I’m linking to is NOT a good article overall. It has many problems. But we’re not going to get into those. Let’s focus solely on the disability issue.)

I’ve read the Washington Post’s defense of Streep, but the evidence is not nearly as strong as the Post claims. In particular, the Post’s use of the still frame, showing that Trump’s arm and wrist were bent like Kovaleski’s for at least a fraction of a second, is a cheap trick, as pointed out by If Trump had frozen himself into a distinctly Kovaleski-like pose, that would indeed be damning, but the fact that his arm resembled Kovaleski’s at one moment in time is NOT a smoking gun. Not even close.

If Meryl Streep — whom I generally admire as an actress and as a person — wanted to make a compelling statement about Donald Trump’s treatment of marginalized people, she should have chosen a better, more clear-cut example. The fact that Trump seems (to liberals like me) like the kind of guy who might mock a disability does not mean that he actually did.

We need to pick our battles, people. This should not be one of them.

[UPDATE: Via Facebook, my friend David Crossman, who disagrees with me, cites another Washington Post fact-checker article that exposes Trump’s dishonesty in talking about Kovalesky. I agree with many aspects of that article, though not its specific conclusions on the disability issue.]

What exactly does this prove? Image taken from


“Glee” might have been better as a movie

March 20, 2012

I’m starting to grow weary of Glee. The excessively autotuned vocals grate more as time goes on, but, more importantly, the characters don’t seem to develop or grow in consistent, compelling ways. Quinn Fabray’s pregnancy in Season 1 seems to help her find a new maturity, but by Season 3 she’s talking crazy and acting mean again. OK, she’s just a high schooler, but what about cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester? The Glee Club does her an incredible service by arranging her sister’s funeral at the end of Season 2, and she is grateful, etc. But by the next fall she is back to her old anti-Glee Club ways. Similar observations can be made of other characters.

I don’t think this is simply a matter of poor writing or sloppiness on the part of Ryan Murphy et al. I think the show’s producers are trapped in the TV medium, in which weekly shows rely on having a cast of essentially stable characters who interact in mostly predictable ways, thus allowing new episodes to be generated rather quickly (one per week). If characters change too much, that throws off the default dynamics of the show, and it gets harder to churn out episodes according to the usual formula.

In plays and movies, by contrast, main characters often do change in important ways. They have a big adventure or learn an important lesson or whatever, and by the end they are unmistakably different. The fact that they have changed is not a problem, as it is on TV, because plays and movies are tidy, self-contained entities. We don’t come back to the theater (or the theatre) the next week expecting to see another show that picks up right where the previous one ended.

At this point I am reminded that Ryan Murphy originally conceived of Glee as a movie, not a TV series. I wonder if that might have worked better in some ways. Introduce a bunch of misfit kids and their inspiring teacher, follow them as they learn to work together and express themselves through music, cheer their triumph at a big competition, celebrate the friendships and insights they’ve gained, and be done with it.

This problem of being trapped in a TV template is not unique to Glee, of course. I used to really like House, too….


Scooby Don’t

March 10, 2012

Phil is starting to recognize the artificiality of certain plot devices in What’s New Scooby-Doo?

Me, trying to explain the episode “A Scooby-Doo Valentine”: “J.C. Chasez created evil clones of Shaggy, Scooby, Fred, Velma, and Daphne so that they would be arrested and put in jail. He did this because he was sick and tired of [his girlfriend] Rachel talking about [her ex-boyfriend] Shaggy all the time.”

Phil: “Why didn’t he just tell her?”

Exactly, son.


The guilty pleasures of Scooby-Doo

February 15, 2012

When I’m totally honest about it, I can admit that Phil and I watch too much Scooby-Doo, the animated TV show about four mystery-solving teenagers and their Great Dane. But when I’m feeling slightly defensive, rationalizations abound.

To start with, there is, “Carl Sagan endorsed it, so it must be good.” Sagan presumably knew a thing or two about compelling, worthwhile videography, as he starred in the TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage and wrote the novel on which the movie Contact was based. In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan praised Scooby-Doo for consistently showing that paranormal events have rational explanations.

Then there’s the nostalgia angle. We’ve been watching the What’s New, Scooby-Doo? incarnation of the show (2002-05) in which the character of Velma was voiced by Mindy Cohn, and Shaggy was voiced by Casey Kasem — Mindy Cohn of The Facts of Life, and Casey Kasem of the American Top 40 countdown. For those who grew up in the ’80s, as I did, these familiar, iconic voices are more than a little pleasing.

Phil likes the show because, hey, it’s about a big, goofy talking dog, and what’s not to like about that? But perhaps there is more to his enjoyment than meets the eye.


Liner notes for my awesome Glee mix

November 28, 2011

(1) “Leaving On A Jet Plane.” This song was cut from the pilot episode that aired on TV, but is included in the “Director’s Cut.” The plot up to this point: Will Schuester, now a Spanish teacher at his old high school, takes over the school’s glee club, renames it New Directions, and hopes to return it to the glory it enjoyed when he was a student. However, his wife Terri has just announced that she’s pregnant, and he decides that he needs a better job with better benefits. He sings this John Denver song in an empty auditorium as a farewell to William McKinley High….

(2) “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Emma, a guidance counselor at McKinley and friend of Will, urges him to stay at McKinley. Then Will overhears New Directions rehearsing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the still-empty auditorium and decides to stay after all. This song kind of sets the tone for the series, which spotlights plucky underdogs who rise to musical greatness in part because they “don’t stop believing.”

(3) “Alone.” This Heart song is performed on the show as a karaoke duet in a bowling alley. It’s a good reminder of just how magical karaoke can be.

(4) “Sweet Caroline.” Neil Diamond never seemed so good!

(5) “Defying Gravity.” This song is taken from the musical Wicked by Stephen Schwartz. It was performed in Wicked by Idina Menzel (as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West) with Kristin Chenoweth (as Glinda); both women have since guest-starred on Glee, Menzel as the coach of a rival glee club and Chenoweth as a talented but alcoholic singer. The Glee version of the song features the unusually high male voice of Chris Colfer.

(6) “I’ll Stand By You.” Finn, the quarterback of the football team and male lead of many New Directions songs, sings this to his daughter. Actually, the girl is not yet born and not really his, but the scene in which he serenades her sonogram was very poignant nonetheless.

(7) “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” / “Young Girl.” Glee’s music has included several “mashups.” This Police/Gary Puckett combo comes from the “Ballad” episode in which Rachel falls in love with Will, her teacher, and he sings this to her in an attempt to let her down easily.

(8) “(You’re) Having My Baby.” This 1974 hit for Paul Anka is widely hated for its perceived sappiness and chauvinism, according to Dave Barry’s Bad Song Survey and many other sources. Finn sings this at a dinner with his girlfriend’s parents to convey that they are, yes, having a baby. Her dad, not being a Paul Anka fan, kicks her out of the house.

(9) “True Colors.” Sometimes Glee dusts off songs you’ve forgotten about — this Cyndi Lauper hit from 1986, for example — and reminds you of how good they are.

(10) “Smile.” Here’s another one I hadn’t heard before but really like. The music was written by Charlie Chaplin as an instrumental theme for his 1936 movie Modern Times; the lyrics were added by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons 18 years later, according to Wikipedia.

(11) “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Finn’s girlfriend Quinn finally confesses that the baby she’s carrying isn’t his. Finn, understandably upset by the betrayal, later brings sheet music for this Rolling Stones song to the group as a last-minute addition to its Sectionals set list.

(12) “Borderline” / “Open Your Heart.” Another mashup, this one from the all-Madonna episode.

(13) “Dream On.” Will’s old singing nemesis, played by Neil Patrick Harris of Doogie Howser fame, auditions against Will for the role of Jean Valjean in a community theatre production of Les Miserables; moreover, they have both prepared the same audition song (Aerosmith’s “Dream On”) and, due to time constraints, are forced to sing it as a duet. This use of completely implausible coincidences to justify the inclusion of a killer musical number is typical of Glee, and can be funny or annoying, depending on one’s perspective.

(14) “Safety Dance.” One advantage of using an able-bodied actor to portray a wheelchair-bound character is that the character can jump up and dance in fantasy sequences while covering Men Without Hats.

(15) “Dream A Little Dream Of Me.” This song, first recorded in 1931, eventually became a hit for Mama Cass Elliot of The Mamas & the Papas.

(16) “Poker Face.” This duet by Rachel and her mother Shelby (the coach of a rival glee club) was from a Lady Gaga-themed episode. Although I associate Lady Gaga with over-the-top spectacles, this stripped-down version of her song (with a piano providing the sole accompaniment) works really well.

(17) “Stronger.” With this track, we move to some highlights from Season 2. “Stronger” is taken from the episode featuring Britney Spears songs. Some decent self-empowerment sentiments here.

(18) “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Here the Beatles song has been dramatically altered; Kurt sings it as a tribute to his father Burt, who has suffered a heart attack and is in a coma.

(19) “Teenage Dream.” One of New Directions’ opponents at Sectionals in Season 2 is the Dalton Academy Warblers. Unlike most groups on the show-choir circuit, who rely heavily on full bands for instrumental backup, the Warblers resemble a true a cappella group. The arrangement of this Katy Perry song was borrowed from the Tufts Beelzebubs.

(20) “Forget You.” Just when you thought life at McKinley High couldn’t get any wackier, Gwyneth Paltrow shows up as a substitute teacher who channels Cee Lo Green.

(21) “Landslide.” Gwyneth Paltrow, continuing her bid for the title of Best Substitute Teacher Ever, covers a Fleetwood Mac song that Stevie Nicks wrote about her challenging relationship with Lindsey Buckingham: “Well I’ve been afraid of changing because I’ve built my life around you. But time makes you bolder, children get older, and I’m getting older too.”

(22) “Loser Like Me.” A song written specifically for Glee, this rivals “Don’t Stop Believin’” as a pro-underdog anthem for the series. Even with an atrocious bridge (not heard during the telecast), it’s still irresistibly catchy.

(23) “Never Going Back Again.” From the episode devoted to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album (1977). The members of Fleetwood Mac overcame frequent and emotional conflicts to make a great record; similarly, Will urges the members of New Directions to channel their own problems into making compelling music.


My aborted career as a Russian TV star

November 14, 2011

Some of you might be wondering what Jeremy was referring to in his comment about my brush with Hollywood. Well, here’s the full story in all of its convoluted glory….

In July of 1994, I was doing summer research in the Williams College biology department. Bon Appetit magazine came to campus to do a photo shoot for a Thanksgiving piece on Darra Goldstein, a professor of Russian who had written a cookbook. Since regular classes weren’t in session and Prof. Goldstein’s usual students weren’t around, I and some others were recruited to pose as her Thanksgiving guests. We gathered around a turkey and smiled at the idea of eating the still-raw-on-the-inside bird. One of the photos was indeed used in Bon Appetit‘s November issue. Shortly thereafter I was forwarded the following letter.

November 25, 1994

Darra Goldstein
Associate Professor of Russian
Williams College
Williamstown, Mass. 01267

Dear Prof. Goldstein,

I was wondering if you would be so kind as to to do me a favor and pass this letter along to one of your students. I shall explain. I am a producer, director and personal manager in Los Angeles…. I have produced many movies of the week and directed such shows as FAME, HILL ST.BLUES, MAGNUM P.I., DYNASTY, DALLAS, SILK STALKINGS etc. We have a very small but select group of actors that we manage and place in commercials, TV series and Feature films. One of them is ___ _____ who is the star of many movies of the week including the new ____ ______ which airs on Dec. 6 on CBS…. We now have been offered a new series deal for CBS and we are in the process of developing it. It is planned at the moment that he will have another character in the piece who is Russian or who can at least speak some Russian.

In looking through my BON APPEITE [sic] magazine, I saw the picture
that I am enclosing. [Stapled to the letter was the Goldstein article, with a circle around me and the words “THIS KID” written in pen.] The young man who is in the lower right hand corner has the look that we would want. I am assuming you know him and that he is a student.

This letter is to inquire as to whether or not this young man has ever acted or would be interested in checking it out. As I have come to know over the years, experience isn’t always necessary to get started in films and TV. It is a look and a personality.

If you would pass this letter on to this young man, I’d be most grateful and if he would like to contact me, please have him do so. I thank you very much for your cooperation.

______ _______

I called the guy and confessed my ignorance of Russian, as well as my plans to become a biologist rather than, say, an actor. Nevertheless, we agreed to meet when mutually convenient. This happened the following February, when I had a layover in Los Angeles en route to visiting UC-San Francisco as a prospective grad student. The guy told me that I wasn’t cut out for modeling (“they want dark, ethnic features”) but that he could help me get started as an actor. This would entail moving to L.A., taking a commercial acting class, getting a professional set of head shots, auditioning for commercials, getting an agent, and finding a non-acting job to pay the rent.

I declined this option in favor of the University of Washington’s Ph.D. program in physiology & biophysics, and the rest is history. But I’d like to think that in a parallel universe I’m a successful thespian — perhaps one who specializes in portraying Russians.