Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Great American Inauguration Road Trip - "ObamaStock '09"

(A Feature Article)

January 19th, 2009 - MLK Day and the Anniversary of My Birth

Woke up – freezing – unusually early, yet took forever to get out of Cousin Nicky’s place in Jersey. Mom calls. Conversation goes as follows:

Mom: Where are you?

Steve: Hi, Madre.

Mom: Are you on the road?

Steve: We’re just leaving now.

Mom: You mean to tell me you haven’t left yet?


Steve: How’s it going, Mom?

Mom: Stephen (*now I know she’s serious*). Do you know how much of a madhouse it is?


Steve: What’s up, Mom?

Mom: I’ve been watching the news (*guarantee she’s been watching Fox*) and they say they’re closing down roads and subways. You can’t get into D.C.


Steve: It’s okay… we got it covered.

Mom: I don’t believe you—

Steve: Did you really call me to do this?

Mom: You can’t get into D.C. from Virginia—

Steve: We’re not staying in Virginia.

Mom: You’re not staying in Virginia? Then where are you…? Aw’right. Okay. You’re not telling me where you’re staying. What you’re doing – (*I feel at this point it’s important to mention that my mother is not Jewish.*)

Steve: We’re staying with a friend of mine from college. She lives in Silver Springs.

Mom: Do you know how faaaaaaar (*her Brooklyn kicks in – more than usual*) Silver Springs is from D.C.?


Steve: Well thanks for calling. We’re heading out in a minute. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Mom: Okay (*the sound of surrender*). I give up. Have a good time – if you ever get there.

Steve: Will do, momma. Love you.

It’s at this point that I feel I need to mention I turned 38 on this day and my cousin is just shy of 50. Our trusty travel companion Gretchen is 24 but possesses the maturity level of a 34 year old (I, on the other hand, possess the maturity level of a 24 year old… on a good day).

We drive through the snow and arrive in Silver Springs around 2 p.m. and settle in at my amazing friend Michelle’s place (*the first thing I notice is that her roommate has the entire box set of every “West Wing” episode known to man, and I start salivating – and this is the exact moment when I realize I probably have a problem that requires some type of counseling).

Michelle could not be a finer hostess and her place is the perfect size to house all three of us. Plus, she’s a close driving distance to the train station (what???? They have TRAINS that go into D.C.???!!!). So far so good. The snow even stops falling and the sun appears… and little birds start chirping: “hope… hope… change… change.” Its magical!

We drive to the train station and find a parking lot with blinking meters. Thank you Martin Luther King, Jr.!!! I love your dream: free parking for every American regardless of the color of their skin! This is where we come face to face with the first “Inauguration Obstacle”: the line at the metro station (dum-dum-dum!!!)

If you’ve never been to D.C., they have – in my opinion as a frequent subway rider – the weirdest ticket dispensing machines in ANY country. They’re similar to the B.A.R.T in San Francisco, which is another pain in the ass system to decipher. But it’s the San Francisco/East Bay area and you expect that kind of insanity out there on the Left Coast. It’s just a tad bit more disturbing in the Nation’s Capitol. HOWEVER, this is also the place where members of Congress and Senate live, work and “play” and the I.R.S is located here. So, in a way, it sort of makes perfect sense for D.C. to have such a pain in the ass metro ticket dispensing machines.

Fortunately, there was a metro worker on hand to assist the masses of out-of-towners in town for the Big Day. It was at this time that I got a taste of what America is probably going to look like if the demographers are correct: that America will be a minority majority country by 2020. At the Silver Springs Maryland metro station, 2020 had already arrived.

During the primaries this summer, I headed up to Lenox Ave in Harlem; the smell of incense burning and Obama paraphernalia all around – those MLK/Obama t-shirts on sale at every corner. Recognizing I was one of a handful of white guys in about a ten block radius (and that’s being conservative), I was well aware of the importance of Obama’s presidency to the predominantly African-American community of Harlem and knew I was witnessing firsthand the historic seismic cultural and political shift happening in our country.

This is important to realize because many of my friends, including my own brother, have had a child within the last five years. So it feels to me like there’s a baby-boom going on – at least in my world. These “youngins” (as I like to call them) are now coming of age during the Age of Obama. A child born on January 20th, 2009 will not know an America in which a son of a black African father cannot grow up to be president of these United States. His or her first president is Barack Hussein Obama. Very few of us ever thought that would be possible in our lifetime.

And yet, here I am being assisted by a no-nonsense female African-American metro worker in a sea of mostly black faces buying a metro ticket (actually two tickets because after seeing that line, it became abundantly clear to buy the ticket for Inauguration Day a day in advance) with Barack Obama’s face printed on it! The mere act of buying a metro ticket on Martin Luther King Day was somehow elevated to the level of poetic justice. It reminded me again how proud I am to be an American when I purchased that metro ticket from that pain in the ass ticket dispenser in Silver Springs, MD, allowing me entry into our Nation’s Capitol.

Subsequently, as the two days unfolded, the ride out of D.C. back to Silver Springs seemed a lot quicker and with ticket already in hand the pathway to the platform almost hassle free. This could not be said for much else. Seriously, between one and four million people from as far away as Africa and Australia descending on an already heavily populated metropolis. Shit’s bound to be crowded.

(Post note: Worth noting - not a single reported incident of violence or arrest attributed to the event. So if we’re celebrating the election of the first mixed race president and the crowds are filled with a majority of black and brown faces streaming onto the Washington Mall… riddle me this, Rush Limbaugh… ahhh, never mind! Moving on.)

When we arrive on the Mall, the sun has already vanished and the night brings a crispness and cascade of lights that make D.C. a truly breathtaking sight to behold. The D.C. Mall is enchanting during the day for those of us history and political junkies. But at night, the lights illuminating the Washington Monument, Capitol building, reflecting pools and Lincoln Memorial add a touch of the mystical to the whole experience.

It’s a given that it’s going to be cold on Inauguration Day and the night before is not much warmer. It’s just that you don’t tend to care as much when you realize you’re about to be a part of History. Because of that, you can’t help feeling like you’re connected to something larger, something communal, something that unites you with every other person you pass along the path to the Lincoln Memorial -- because everyone else out there on this night is there for the same exact reason… just to be there.

There are tons of other tourist destinations that are much warmer or possibly colder (see: Sundance Film Festival Park City, UT – which probably had less the amount of big name stars in attendance on this weekend than in years gone by). But the weight of gravitas associated with the Lincoln Memorial was at maximum capacity on Inauguration Eve and for that reason… the line was out of friggin’ control!!! You don’t expect to see a line snaking all along the outer rim leading up to Lincoln’s statue. But you really don’t expect to have to wait upwards of an hour to get inside that sacred piece of architecture… in the friggin’ cold. I mean, being a part of History and soaking up the “good vibes, man” is one thing. Waiting on a long-ass line to get inside to read the Gettysburg Address one more time for posterities’ sake… yeah, not so much. Sorry Abe, one inauguration speech this weekend will have to do… preferably the most current incarnation. But thanks again for all the good work and the whole Emancipation Proclamation, etc al! Good call… good call!

Cousin Nicky is busy texting away with his good friend, a New York playwright and teacher, Tom Kelly’s younger brother Kevin who is married to a politically connected woman with ties to Madame Secretary Hillary Clinton. Basically, whatever connects Kevin and his wife have is equivalent to the kids in college who knew where to score the really good weed while you’re stuck with that brown, Midwestern skunk that lacks that nice mellow buzz (*or at least I’ve heard from people that do that sort of thing* ;-).

Since Lincoln’s tomb was a bust, Kevin tipped us off to a sage burning to exhume “all the bad vibes.” Oh, if only the burning of sage could erase the worst aspects of the past eight years. I mean, where were the true Liberal Birkenstock wearing, sage burning, good vibes spreading Granolas when we needed them most??? If only…!!!

(Post note: We never found the sage burning and pretty much ended up heading to DuPont Circle and walking for miles and miles trying to find Kevin’s posse and a functional bathroom. By the time frost bite officially set in, we were ready to head back to Silver Springs.)


Around 5 a.m. I awoke to the sound of something that seemed to be not human in nature. If you’ve ever crashed at a friend’s place on an air mattress, floor or couch or stayed at a hostel or slept in a tent or the back of a van with travel companions, you know that at least one member out of the group will inevitably suffer from a sort of sleep apnea that requires immediate medical attention. I won’t say who – in order to save this person from embarrassment – but I will say that I am related to this person and I pray it’s not an affliction we pass on from generation to generation.

Had I had the good sense to capitalize on this early rising, woken the troops and gotten the hell out of Silver Springs, we may have had a fighting chance at securing a spot on the Mall.

HOWEVER, here’s how it all went down:

At approximately three a.m. the masses already began to camp out at the entrances to the Mall. By five a.m. the crowds had already reached critical mass. The gates to the Mall opened around seven a.m. and within an hour the Mall was almost at full capacity. By 10 a.m. the Mall was full, at least from the perspective of whatever officials were in charge of barricading the city. Since other folks had the same idea we had – to crash at a friend or relative (or casual acquaintance renting their place for hundreds, and is some cases thousands, of dollars) out in the ‘burbs – the lines for the Metro started filling up by around 5 a.m. Due to the mass influx of bodies and trains heading into D.C. the system could not handle that level of stress and started breaking down. Trains were delayed, people left stranded at Metro stops… it was, to use a technical term: a “clusterfuck” of epic proportions.

Meanwhile, we lay sleeping. Because why bother dealing with all that nonsense? Surely when we show up at around 10 or 11 a.m., the crowds will have settled down and we’ll just waltz right onto the Mall without any major complications. At least that’s the way we discussed it the night before when trying to decide when to leave. It was yet another thing entirely when we awoke that morning, turned on the news only to realize that we may just be completely screwed!
Undeterred, we took our damn sweet time fueling up with breakfast (which turns out to be the smartest decision we made that morning: eat BEFORE heading to D.C.), deciding if we could get away with parking all day at the blinking meter (we decided we’d take the risk) and finally boarding the train (with ease because of those pre-bought tickets with our soon to be president’s smiling face printed on them). Me and Gretchen were a little crabby, while Cousin Nick was his usual jovial self (looks like HE had a good night’s rest!).

I became that guy who finds the first person who looks like a “local” who’s “in the know” and starts barraging them with annoying questions – not taking into account they’re stuck on the same damn train we’re on. Next to the “locals” was an extremely friendly middle aged woman who talked to everybody. She was from Nebraska. Figures. After a while we realized that pretty much everybody else had a ticket to the actual event. Of course they got on the train at nine a.m. because they weren’t fighting for a place on the Mall.

Word kept circulating around the train that they had already closed the Mall and were locking down city streets and closing down Metro stations. Still, the closer we got to the city, the more people got on board – screaming and hollering and waving American flags and Obama t-shirts. Nobody seemed to mind that our train had been delayed because apparently someone had fallen onto the tracks and closed down a crucial station.

It took us at least an hour to get go D.C., but we finally arrived at Judicial instead of heading into the insanity over at Metro Center – which turned out to be a major miscalculation on our part. Judicial is on the other side of the Mall that, it turns out, we needed to be on.

It was at this point that we realized nobody really knew anything and asking nearby cops (that were blocking a city street that lead directly onto the Mall) the best place to actually see the day’s events on a Jumbotron was hit or miss depending on the officer. I, of course, got the one who didn’t know nuthin’ about nuthin’. Gretchen – who was probably in a crabbier mood than I was on this most joyous of occasions (Cousin Nick still jovial and full of mirth) and posses a knack for finding the pertinent information – of course found the cop who knew where to go and how to get there.

The only problem was, it required walking through a tunnel that took about a half an hour (or at least that’s how long it seemed to take) to emerge on the other side and STILL be nowhere near the coveted piece of real-estate everyone and their mother (and grandmother and aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews…) hoped to enter.

Not even halfway through the tunnel we noticed a large percentage of people heading the opposite direction. We stopped a random passerby to ask her where she was heading: “Home. Watch it on CNN on my couch in my living room. You can’t get onto the Mall. They’ve closed all the entrances.”

Still, we pressed on undaunted! All these other motherfuckers were heading towards the other end of the tunnel, maybe they knew something she didn’t know. Finally, we emerged triumphant – and had no idea where the hell we were, but we knew the Mall was somewhere in the general vicinity.

It was now about 10:35 a.m. and the “show” was set to start at 11:00 a.m. with the swearing in to commence as close to noon as possible. With little precious time to waste, we hauled ass in the direction we thought would lead us somewhere close enough to the Mall that maybe, just maybe, we’d be in earshot of speakers and maybe, just maybe, a Jumbotron!

I had my mind sent on being near the Smithsonian metro station because the MSNBC tent was supposed to be close by and I – a nostalgic creature – was hoping to spend Inauguration Day with the same folks I watched Barack deliver his Invesco Field convention speech when I flew out to Denver hoping to somehow score a ticket. With time running out, we followed the crowd that scurried like fleeing rats in every direction until I heard a noise coming from the direction of… the Smithsonian castle!

I made a mad dash through the pathway around the building, following the sound of an announcers voice (trusty travel companion and mirthful cousin close behind) and out onto the open area that surrounds the entrance to the Mall from the Smithsonian metro station (only yards away from the MSNBC tent and Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann in all their Liberal Media Biased glory).

And there we stood – minutes away from the official commencement of the inauguration of President Barack Obama – with a metallic fence and some sort of military tent between us and the mobs of early morning risers packed in like roaches on a piece of property that stretched from the Lincoln Memorial to our Nation’s Capitol. (Watching it later on CNN, and seeing photos online, it was hard not to gasp at the first initial aerial shot of the huddled masses of humanity cluttered together on that historic Mall.)

We could sort of make out the images on the Jumbotron way off on the opposite side of the Mall, which was blocked by trees and even more obstructed by the people that had climbed onto its branches. But the speaker was right there and the crowd around us was as happy to have found this spot as we were, so it really was a most joyous occasion – with the sun shining and the birds chirping… “hope… hope…” etc.

The events played out and, depending on your political point of view, it was either hysterically funny or utterly disrespectful when the entire crowd of millions collectively booed the sight of former president Bush and vice president Cheney (not to mention some negative feedback I later got from posting a short video of myself playfully chanting the “na-na-na-na” song in honor of our 43 president on my Facebook page) whenever they appeared on camera.

When it was all said and done, my crew of two finally made our way onto the Mall as the crowds immediately started pouring out during the poet laureates big moment (apparently, not a lot of poetry fans in the surrounding area). Once the Civil Rights era preacher finished his set with the lines, “If you’re white, do what’s right” (which later caused a furor on some AM and FM talk radio programs) the inauguration ceremony had concluded and it was on to the parade along Pennsylvania Avenue...
And as the former president's official helicopter transported him back to the heart of Texas, everyone appeared to be from the Bronx as they saluted him with a great Bronx Cheer and one finger salute (*much to the utter disgust of my W. loving mother*).

Since the crowds had mostly cleared out, we had a clear shot at the MSNBC tent and – being the camera whores that we are – rushed over to stand among the mob gathered underneath the swooping camera in hopes that friends watching at home might recognize us! (Gretchen, incidentally, caught sight of her secret crush Keith Olbermann and started swooning like a school girl ;-).

We headed back through that long-ass tunnel and over to my friend from college Meredith’s place in the Chinatown district to unthaw our fingers and toes and refuel on hot chocolate. Meredith works for Texas representative Lamar Smith (R), so she actually had tickets to the event.

HOWEVER, neither she nor her brother and sister-in-law actually made it into their section because the line was so long and the coordinators so unorganized that they eventually just decided to give up and head back to her apartment to watch it streamed live online (Meredith is one of those people I know that doesn’t own a television – not sure how she is able to live… but she seems to manage).

And so it was that the masses of Mall dwellers, along with me and my posse, managed to enjoy the day’s events alongside a nearby speaker and Jumbotron while people that actually had tickets to the event headed home to watch it from their living room. Ah, Democracy in action!

Of course, Cousin Nicky’s friend Kevin – the guy married to a woman who knows Hillary – sat in the good seats (with the people with the good weed); all the while Cousin Nick texting with him back and forth while I received my favorite text of the day. It was from my friend Aaron from high school. He was in a bar watching the event with 100 other people and wanted to let me know he was with me in solidarity…
Aaron lives in Paris.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Of Modern Masterpieces and Media Mayhem: 2008 Was Truly Great?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 5:20am

I have a confession to make: I’m personally going to miss the hell out of 2008. I’m sure a lot of people are grateful to put this rollercoaster of a time frame behind them. By mid-September (what is it about September anyway? Is it the designated month for disasters in America?) we all woke up one day and KA-BLAMO, there goes the economy! One minute P-Diddy, Puff Daddy, Sean John Puffy Combs is jet settin’ around in his private bling-bling – downin’ Cristal and smokin’ a Cohiba – and the next minute he’s auctionin’ his learjet on E-bay. Right? Sean Combs put his private plane on E-bay? Right? Or was it… oooooooh yeah… her.

So the recap goes something like this: Democrats slice each other apart and whittle it down to Will and Grace’s painful choice: the woman or the black guy. Meanwhile: a Preacher, a Mormon, an Actor, a Guinea New Yorker (I’ll call him Mr. September), a War Hero and a Libertarian named Ron Paul couldn’t decide what it means to be a Conservative or a Republican or figure out how to be a desirable candidate. And that whole thing went on, and on, and on, and on… until all of us were pretty damn sick of the whole ordeal!In the meantime, for those of us addicted to the Media (or the MSM: Main Stream Media – for those of you “in the know”) the year seemed to be dominated by bloviating talking heads on MSNBC, FOX and CNN – and everybody suddenly became a political scientist. People who barely ever pick up a newspaper suddenly could talk with authority about Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy credentials and knew for damn sure that “Barack Obama never passed a single important piece of legislation!”

In my world, the year seemed to be dominated by nightly panel discussions dissecting every twist and turn of what turned out to be an historical drama of epic proportions. I mean let’s be honest: this election cycle was the single greatest piece of entertainment in a long time! It was better than anything on HBO, Showtime or the Dark Knight, Jason Bourne and James Bond combined. This election cycle had a Shakespearean cast of characters and so many plot points that if you missed an episode (a day in the life of) you almost had to spend an entire day online just to catch up.

I was in Ireland and an African transplant driving our airport transport bus was following the election just as closely. During that trip abroad, I actually suffered election withdrawals! I resisted for as long as possible, but I eventually broke down and watched, via the internet, the King of the Bloviates and Mr. Indignant himself, Keith Olbermann, blast off on one of his “Special Commentaries” – chastising Hillary Clinton for remarks that in some way linked the assassination of Bobby Kennedy to Barack Obama. I watched it in Paris… IN PARIS! I’m in one of the most romantic and engaging cities in the world… and I’m in my newfound French friend’s apartment watching Olbermann go around the corner because Hillary made a verbal faux pas that probably was the last nail in her already closing coffin.

This was the only Must See TV. Spearheaded by Olbermann, Maddow and Mathews along with O’Reilly and Hannity and the more “centrists” Blitzer, Cafferty, Dobbs, Cooper, Brown and of course King, the Greatest Show on Earth ran on a continuous loop 24/7. But it didn’t stop with 24 hour cable news. People were watching Whoopie Goldberg and Elisabeth Hasselbeck and those other broads on “The View.” McCain goes on “The View” and news is made! Holy shit. Talk about post-modern meltdown. Think the economy is in the tank, if “The View” is a legitimate news source – this shit was just completely out of fuck control!

Be as grateful as you want with the passing of a year that ushered in the collapse of the United States banking system, a devastating housing crisis thanks to some guy named Freddie and some chick named Fannie (I mean, who names their kid Fannie any more? No wonder the housing market went bust!) possibly the last gasping breath of the American auto industry and Wall Street executives finally receiving their come-upends – the end of the election season left somewhat of a hole in my psyche that I’ve still been trying to fill. Now I’m addicted to “The West Wing” reruns on Bravo because it combines political intrigue and wonkishness with episodic television, character development and complicated plot structure – as well as the writing of Aaron Sorkin. It’s also amazing to re-watch the episodes of the finale season when Hispanic Democratic contender Matt Santos (Jimmy Smitts – who kicked major ass this season on Showtime’s “Dexter”) goes up against seasoned Republican moderate Arnie Vinick (in a brilliant turn by the always exceptional Alan Alda) – the similarities to Obama v McCain are borderline eerie.

For some members of my family – who believe that Democrats are the representation of evil incarnate and members of other people’s families (most predominantly located in the southern region of the United States) who believe that Barack Obama is, indeed, the very Devil himself – November 4th was a major, major let down. But for me and the majority of friends in my inner-circle, it was probably the most exhilarating, liberating and flat out emotionally fulfilling moment of the last eight years. It was – but not quite – an exoneration of what we’ve had to endure since September 11th and its aftermath. Like a long distance runner who at the finish line holds his head proudly aloft and barrels past that yellow tape – watching Barack Obama walk out onto that stage in Grant Park, Chicago was tantamount to watching Nelson Mandela return to freedom after years of imprisonment on Robben Island.

There was this moment after California was called for Barack. If you were watching MSNBC, you may recall that they did something pretty remarkable: they shut the hell up! Without calling the election for Barack Obama, they turned the cameras on reaction shots of crowds in Grant Park and across the country. The single most electrifying moment for me personally was a young African-American woman just hitting the ground, overwhelmed with emotion. Behind her stood her friends on their cell phones. Who were they calling? Maybe one of them called their grandmother or grandfather who could never imagine a day that an African-American would ever be elected to the highest office in America?

Either way, that image of that young black woman who fell to her knees – completely crippled by overwhelming emotion – is permanently burned into my subconscious. Just the shear silence and the thoughtfulness of the MSNBC news director who decided to just let the moment unfold. There, in that place, in that time, in that moment – in the same location where decades early young protestors were being battered and beaten by members of the Chicago police force while chanting “The Whole World is Watching! The Whole World is Watching” – now, the eyes of the World were focused again on Grant Park, Chicago and one man standing on a lonely stage – triumphant, head held high, drinking it all in… “On this day. In this election. At this defining moment. Change has come to America.” His proclamation replacing forever more the embattled cry of the Hippie Generation of the late-1960s.

I’m not too proud to admit that I wept, and continued to do so for days to come. All of the anger and frustration and fear stirred up during the final days of the election cycle melted into oblivion in a sea of jubilation in Grant Park. Two Thousand and Eight had its high points along with its low points. It had Michael Phelp’s herculean feat of those incredible eight Olympic medal runs and there was Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, who actually won a well deserved Emmy for one of the best shows on TV that not enough people are watching.

Which inevitably brings me back to my favorite topic: Television and Film. I am a Media Whore. It’s my focal point. And it’s interesting that the year-end recap issue of Entertainment Weekly has officially pronounced the end of a second Golden Age of Television. Sad, but probably true. Within the last two years, we’ve seen the end of three of the best shows ever on television –hands down. For those of you who “don’t watch TV” because you think it’s a waste of time or it’s just plain stupid – I beg to differ. If you pick the right shows, you just might be witnessing something genuinely special; actual works of art told over 12 episodes on HBO, Showtime, FX and AMC.

Leaving television for just a moment, something else occurred in 2008. Those plucky geniuses at Pixar actually managed to pull off a bonafide modern masterpiece. You’d think that an animated feature about a robot abandoned on a deserted planet formally known as Earth is not the stuff that box office gold is made of; let alone allowing the first 30 minutes or so be a silent movie that begs comparison to the best work of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. But that’s exactly what they did, along with attempting social commentary about the dangers of environmental degradation, global warming, and human beings incapacitated by too much attention paid to television monitors (yes, I am fully aware of the irony in that statement ;-), cell phones, and internet social networking (more ironies abound). Pixar may have delivered the most truly unexpected work of art in 2008 with WALL-E. If you haven’t already seen it, you’ve gotta get on it!

In the same year that gave us yet another Bond and Batman redux, we also lost Heath Ledger (adding a touch of the macabre to an already darkly disturbing Dark Knight) and the iconoclastic philanthropist, and probably one of the greatest actors to grace the silver screen, Paul Newman. Unfortunately, Mr. Newman’s passing fell in with the same news cycle as the presidential election, so there was not much fanfare for an actor who a younger generation has little connection to other than maybe his delicious popcorn, cookies and salad dressings.

Since the best films come at the end of the year for Oscar consideration, for those of us who live on the Coasts, we get the first peek at the cream of the crop that will be hitting the screens in early 2009. My favorite picks for the year: (as already mentioned)” WALL-E”, “The Dark Knight”, “Quantum of Solace”, “Rachel Getting Married” (further proof that the Anne Hathaway really can act), “Tropic Thunder” and “Iron Man” (holy shit, Robert Downey, JR!), “Milk” and “Pineapple Express” (further proof that James Franco really can act) “Towelhead”, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (Woody is back!), “Burn After Reading" (not as good as the Cohen’s previous work, but still better than most of the crap out there), “Synecdoche, New York” (possibly another masterpiece of 2008), “Cadillac Records” (thank you Darnel Martin – and one helluva year for Beyonce… err Sasha Fierce… who also kicked ass on SNL and is all the viral video rage with all those sexy Single Lady moves!), Frost/Nixon, Doubt, Slumdog Millionaire, my boy Peter Tolan’s (of “Rescue Me” fame) “Finding Amanda” premiering at Tribeca (please rent this one!), and my favorite “Frozen River” with Melissa Leo (who deserves some kind of award because she’s painfully overlooked) and a Sundance hit: “Ballast.”

I have yet to see – but am dying to – Mickey Rourke’s resurrection in “The Wrestler”, Michelle Williams in “Wendy and Lucy”, “Seven Pounds”, “Waltz with Bashir”, “Defiance”, the return of Kate and Leo in “Revolutionary Road”, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (just to see Brad Pitt actually acting), Spike Lee’s “Miracle at Santa Anna” and his sparring partner (if you missed it, Spike had a little spat with…) Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” a whole ton of indie films shown at Sundance, Tribeca, Cannes and the rest that no one ever gets to see… and I’m down to sit through all 4 ½ hours of Steven Soderbergh y Benecio “Benny the Bull” Del Toro’s “Che”… come on, who’s with me???!!! (I’ll pass on: “Australia!” and that Chihuahua movie – and too bad Deniro and Pacino together again for the first time since “Heat” seems to be such an abysmal failure of epic proportions. Bummer.)

Now if I haven’t already lost you many paragraphs ago, I have something to say about television in the year of 2008. I don’t hide the fact that I want to write for episodic television. But I’m a little snobby about it because I’m hoping to get a gig for a good show on HBO, Showtime, FX or AMC. Yet, if you have no past experience and you’re just starting out, you get your foot in the door by working as a P.A. or maybe a writer’s assistant or some grunt job and hopefully someone will read your script and give you as shot at writing an episode of the equivalent of “Full House”; Paul Haggis started out writing on “The Facts of Life” so I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be writing for “Dexter” right off the bat. But I do have a television show idea that I’m “shopping” around and it’s geared towards the pay cable networks.

That’s why it’s such a sad state of affairs to read EW (Entertainment Weekly) pronounce the end of great television. If you do like television, like I do, the last ten years or so have been pretty damn amazing. Yes we’ve had a fair share of truly awful reality television (thank “American Idol’s” Ryan Seacrest for the newly minted “Mamma’s Boys” – which has to be one of the most hideous creations to spring from the Mind of Seacrest… and that’s not saying much)and D.O.A., mind-numbing sitcoms.

Starting with the 1997 hit “OZ”, HBO has been on a roll: “Sex and the City”, “Carnivale”, “Deadwood”, “Rome”, “Flight of the Conchords”, “Extras”, “Entourage”, “Six Feet Under”, “Real Time with Bill Maher”, “The Chris Rock Show” plus mini-series including “John Adams” and “Generation Kill”. Left off that list, of course, is the ultimate of ultimate: “The Sopranos.” Last year most of us watched – with complete befuddlement – our TV screens suddenly cut to black. People literally called their cable company to report issues with their cable boxes because they couldn’t believe that David Chase would be so cruel. Hello! It’s the fucking Sopranos for christsake! What the fuck did you think was going to happen? Did Tony get wacked? No… we got wacked, and it was a beautiful thing.

The end of this second golden age might have occurred in that black out moment ushered in by David Chase and Co. But the reason EW is ringing the death toll of TV is because this year saw the series finale of two of the most poetic and literary minded shows ever on television – probably the closest thing to watching a novel unfold on the small screen: “The Wire” and FX’s first big hit “The Shield.” If you didn’t watch these shows when they originally aired – fire up the NetFlix or go get the DVDs at your local Blockbuster because you’re gonna wanna see these shows! Works of art are hard to come by on television. But these are two shows that live up to the hype.

Sure, all the attention (and Emmys) go to: "Grey's Anatomy", “Desperate Housewives”, “Ugly Betty”, “24”, “ER”, “Heroes”, “Lost”, “House” and a few other network hack shows. But they don’t even come close to matching the subtle genius of “The Wire” and “The Shield.” These shows, along with “Mad Men” (created by Matt Weiner, a product of “The Soprano’s” farm team), “Breaking Bad” on AMC, “The Riches” and the first few seasons of “Nip/Tuck” (a show that’s truly lost its way and needs to be put to rest), “Damages” and my personal favorite "Rescue Me" (probably still the best written show on basic cable) on FX, and the Showtime trifecta of “Weeds”, “Dexter” and “The Tudors” are above and beyond anything on network television, save "Friday Night Lights" returning this month to NBC.

(Side Note: Strangely enough, I’ve heard that the Sci-Fi Networks “Battlestar Galactica” is actually bloody good. Who would have thunk it?)

In fact, the only shows that really have some true longevity and satirical potency are on NBC (which is apparently a dying network), FOX (with its Animation Domination Sunday night line-up) and Comedy Central’s back to back, one-two punch: “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” (who, along with Tina Fey, kept us all sane during the 24 hour news cycle insanity that was the 2008 presidential campaign) and the man of the hour: Stephen Colbert. “The Office” and “30 Rock” are the two remaining great sitcoms (sorry but “Two and a Half Men” and “How I Met Your Mother” blow like Santa Anna winds across the smog infested Los Angeles’ mountain range).

You’ll hear talk of “Pushing Daisies”, "Boston Legal", “Brothers and Sisters”, “Jericho”, “The Mentalist”, “Dirty Sexy Money”, “Life on Mars” and a whole slew of dramedies on the major networks – and that’s all fine and good. But for my money, you can’t beat FX (with “Rescue Me” returning in April and “Damages” back this month – I choose to skip “Dirt”), AMC, HBO (for Bill Maher alone, and now with the return of “Big Love”, “Flight of the Conchords” and another season of “True Blood” next year – yummy!) and Showtime (with Diablo Cody’s “The United States of Tara” and sex addict David Duchovny’s “Californication” along with “Brotherhood” and “Secret Diary of a Call Girl”).

Two Thousand and Eight marked the end of “The Wire” – which at its best proved that you can actually challenge your audience with multilayered plot structure, poetic language, profound discoveries and a healthy dose of street reality that very few shows actually nail with any degree of authenticity – and “The Shield” (same rules apply here). As television critic David Bianculli and NPR’s Terry Gross of “Fresh Air” noted on their year-end recap of the best of Television show, “The Shield” probably had the best pilot and the best last episode (even last few moments) of any show – ever. Period. The only other pilots and finale episodes that come close are probably “Six Feet Under” and “The Sopranos.”

So with the passing year, we say goodbye to two of the greatest shows ever aired on television, we welcomed a few masterpieces in film and on Broadway with Steppenwolf Theater Company’s production of Tracy Lett’s “August: Osage County”, and Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Little Flower of East Orange” directed by LAByrinth Theater Company artistic director Philip Seymour Hoffman (another Holy Shit Year for P.S.H!) at the Public Theater – evidence that theater is alive and well in New York City.

We survived one of the most ferocious presidential campaigns since – the last presidential campaign ;-). We witnessed a collapse on Wall Street, the rise of gas prices, the bombing of Mumbai, yet another war in Israel, a movie about W. called, well “W” by Mr. Happy Fun Guy: Oliver Stone. We lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in our 401Ks and on the stock market, and some of us invested with a guy who had a pretty good Ponzi scheme going and there’s a lot of strange financial Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon due to a guy named Madoff (who made off with all their fuckin’ money!)… and we all now know how to pronounce: “Blagojevich” (rhymes with bitch and the first part of it you sort of vomit out).

We lost Tim Russert right when we needed him most; here’s to Tim… “and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Lots of people died (Bo Diddley, we hardly knew ye!) and lots of truly weird shit went down. Videos went viral, Apple improved the I-Phone, Justin Timberlake actually performs well when he’s on SNL (who knew?), Amy Poehler said farewell and Kristin Wiig made me laugh until I peed a little. created “Dickipedia” – a must read – and Arianna’s Huffington Post beat out the Drudge Report for cultural relevance. Bill O’Reilly lost to Olbermann in the ratings war – Fox News out, MSNBC in – and Rachel Maddow is now television’s new reigning Lesbian media queen. California banned gay marriage and Sean Penn channeled Harvey Milk to explain to us why that’s so totally fucked up!

And we ushered in the Age of Obama! 2008: the rise of Obama Nation. As bad as it got – electing the first African-American to the highest office in the land: “Oh, how sweet it is!”

So… here’s to 2009…

Now, fix this damn economy!!! “Just fix it


Monday, November 3, 2008 at 5:16am

A most ironic thing happened to me tonight on the eve of this historic election. I reached an epiphany moment: when it comes to the Bravo Network – I am as Red States as they come. I hate that fucking network. Aside from the re-runs of the West Wing (the last vestige of my Blue State’s sensibility), the programming on Bravo gets under my skin deeper than an entire day of MTV’s non-music line up.
At least with MTV I know the devil I’m getting. But Bravo devolved into Satan after being a sort of PBS on cable television steroids. It was an artist’s haven in the midst of mindless made for cable TV movies and a never ending loop of late night infomercials. I even tolerated, to a certain extent, the over the top gushing of Inside the Actor’s Studios pompous and perennial sycophant James Lipton. That all changed with the introduction of that hallmark of homosexual couture: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
I must admit, it’s camp value and unique cultural construct was a novelty act that I found to be slightly amusing if not mildly entertaining. But I could smell change a brewin’ and it had Gayville written all over it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Before there was “Logo”, homosexuals needed programs that spoke to their unique sensibilities. Queer Eye’s angle blended perfectly with the new direction of Bravo because it had at its core a socially conscious component: it was a way to make straight people (specifically straight men) feel comfortable with gay culture and, to a greater extent, a way to bridge the two worlds.
This is a good thing and by me stating this it makes my above assertion that I’m a Red States kinda guy (along with the fact that I watched Bravo in the early years because of its strong artistic and “cultural” cred) seem like a total head scratcher.
But herein lies the rub: this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine has a feature article, “The Woman Who Knows How Cool TV Can Be.”
It’s a PR piece trumpeting the accomplishments of Bravo’s commander-in-heels: Lauren Zalaznick. She’s the new basic cable “it” girl and the mastermind behind Bravo’s “hip” line of programming: Project Runway, Top Chef and all those glossy make-up and hair salon shows, spoiled southern California housewives, obnoxious raspy-voice red-headed D list comediennes, and a host of reality competition genre pieces shot on high definition video that look like an indie documentary that has seriously lost its moral compass.
Here’s a few samples from the Zalaznick PR fest that have me actually considering moving to Alaska, buying a shot gun, downing shots of Wild Turkey and decking out in trucker hat and an under arm stained t-shirt that reads “U.S.A: Like It Or Leave It, Commie”:
Regarding a “dramatic twist” or “reveal” on Top Chef… “For her, the idea neatly captured the ruthless way the big city can chew up and spit out even the best provincial talents: ’It’s like you’ve really arrived in New York –it’s where you fight for your terrible pot-washing job after you’ve been executive chef back in wherever, and then you get fired for washing your pot wrong.’‘You don’t think it’s gratuitous?’ asks Frances Berwick, the general manager for Bravo.‘Guess what?’ Zalaznick said. ‘It’s the toughest city in the country.’… (regarding ways that she and an underling could ramp up the drama even more…) Berwick laughed and shook his head. ‘That’s terrible.’
EXACTLY! Yet not that, “oh you’re so naughty, ha-ha-ha” type of terrible. No, terrible in a –this-shit-is-just-fucking-awful-culture-coarsening-vapidity-that-lower-middle-and-upper-class-urban-and-suburban-American-women-and-gay-men-lap-up-like-it’s-crystal-meth-infused-lip-gloss –kinda way.
It goes on. “Terrible if you’re living it, great if you’re watching it –that is one of the basic formulas for reality TV, a genre that has been wildly popular for years, if never exactly hip. Zalaznick’s innovation has been to take this form of mass entertainment and make it boutique and chic, aiming for a small but young and affluent audience, the kind that advertisers covet.
The article then goes on to mention the demographic these advertisers are coveting (women ages 18-49… I know, I know the reason I’m missing the point is because: it’s not for me! I’m a white urban college educated male in the 18-49 male demographic… like Sex and the City, I JUST DON’T GET IT!), and they’ve even put a face to the Bravo watcher – a chic gay man and an upwardly mobile woman that they refer to as “Will and Grace”, or more specifically the Bravo Affluencers. They even created an offshoot magazine…
“A certain kind of advertiser, naturally, likes shows about high-end tastes and consumption. .. Berwick, the general manager, came up with a catchy name for this premium demographic: the affluencers… (on the magazine’s cover): an attractive man and woman, both in their late 20s, shopping bags and P.D.A’s in hand, passports visibly in pockets, dressed casually but stylishly, looking savvy, plugged in, on top of it.
Here’s where my Red States gut checking gets somewhat confusing. See, I’m an urbanite through and through. I’m your a-typical culture vulture who consumes left-wing movies, media and politics. I’m as Greenwich Village as any of my neighboring “hipsters” – including Ms. Zalaznick herself. As the article mentions: “With Bravo, Zalaznick has created for herself the luxury of making television for an audience, in effect, of her co-workers, her dinner-party guests, her successful, liberal neighbors in Manhattan’s West Village.” And it goes without saying that this is why the Sunday New York Times Magazine loves this woman; because she’s their key demographic.
Which leads me, as everything inevitably does, back to politics and the 2008 election. The Culture Wars have been going on since the late ‘60s. But when I joined the war – roughly around the late ‘80s – I was departing from an Italian-American family from Brooklyn, New York that embraces Red States politics based on lower taxes for small business, religious issues (those of conservative Catholics), and “Family Values”. They called people like Ms. Zalaznick – and the Kennedy’s of Massachusetts, and the tax and spend liberals of New York, etc. – “Upper East Side Limousine Liberals.” Basically, The New York Times’ key demographic that would embrace the media agenda of someone like Ms. Zalaznick.
Essentially, the article highlights the shear genius of Ms. Zalaznick – a Brown undergrad who started her career as a co-producer of the Harmony Korine indie flick “Kids”!!! – pitch perfect evaluation of the culture. Ms. Zalaznick and her underlings understand how to sell this “hipster” culture to the masses by realizing that America’s new drug of choice is voyeurism. And what pisses me off most about Zalaznick and her out of fucking control network is that she’s someone who started off making cutting edge independent films and studied “semiotics” as a major in college, and found a way to make shitloads of money dumbing down the culture by selling her shows as upper class, chic gloss “reality.” She is the standard issue liberal of the old school Bravo network and she found a way to merge it with the voyeurism craze kicked off by Survivor and then created an entire programming platform that took the initial genius of Queer Eye, stripped it of its soul and desire to unify disparate ideologies, added the element of competition and bitchy female backbiting and amped up the ego level to an almost Hitler-esque style of cutthroat schadenfreude.
The article goes on: Zalaznick still sounds more like a semiotics major than like the typical corporate cheerleader. To her, what she’s producing isn’t rampant consumerism on display to be emulated or mocked, or both—it’s a form of social anthropology, a cultural context as worthy of analysis as any other, an art form suitable for her intellects. She invests the small details of pop culture with great significance…”
And here’s where I go all Red States railing against the Liberal Elites. Zalaznick believes she’s just inviting all of the hip gay men and sophisticated urban women in on the joke – enabling them to laugh at how ironic it all is – like as if to say: “We’re not talking all of this shit too seriously. We’re just watching it the way we read People and US Magazine. It’s just fun and we like to look at the dresses, hairstyles and make-up.” And that’s all well and good, but Zalaznick is the only one getting incredibly rich off of the dream of a more fulfilling life through Liberal voyeurism.
Essentially, it’s really, really smart people selling dumb shit to people who think they’re smarter than the shit they’re watching. But at the same time, it’s incredibly condescending because it’s wrapped up in the same kind of Limo Liberal sensibility that infuriates the Red State voters who swing towards McCain.
In my estimation, the only reality TV worth watching is Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days on FX. Spurlock is the guy responsible for Supersize Me. His brilliant documentary show highlights a controversial subject and turns the tables on the participants. For 30 days, he’ll have a woman who is pro-choice live with an anti-choice family, or a woman who is in favor of more gun control live with a family of NRA gun aficionados. No, there isn’t any competition involved (and just for the record, Bravo is not the only network dedicated to competitive reality television or docudramas like Tori Spelling’s spoiled bitchy drama fest or that two Corey’s heinous freak show).
But Zalaznick and Spurlock are examples of two sides of Liberal media programming. Spurlock is clearly a Liberal. He hails from West Virginia, but he and his girlfriend are blue collar Liberals, like Michael Moore, who are dedicated to using reality programming to elevate the culture. Michael Moore can be gratuitously one-sided, but he’s also pretty damn funny. Spurlock doesn’t try and go for laughs, but he does try to go beneath the surface and dig up the truth buried in our sometimes divided nation.
Zalaznick wants to create the opposite of truth. In order to keep Bravo high up there in the ratings and her network competitive, she’s created shows that really nail the cultural zeitgeist. Unfortunately, that zeitgeist happens to be mind-numbingly vacuous, catty, and decidedly limousine Liberal.
Which is why the tone of the Times article made me almost want to enlist in the Red States army… if it weren’t for the power of the Obama message. Barack Obama is the antithesis of the Liberal agenda of Zalaznick – who has probably donated the maximum to his campaign and I can just imagine her Prius limousine decked out with Obama/Biden bumper stickers. Just like the Republicans who are at war within their party, Liberals also need to do some soul searching. The division is between the target demographic of the Bravo Network, and the Heartland style of the Democratic Party spearheaded by Barack Obama.
Being a New Yorker, I’m surrounded by the Bravo Network culture and it kind of gives me the creeps. I yearn for Obama’s America because it’s everything that the Bravo Network is not. It’s also a referendum on elitist Liberalism and amoral capitalism highlighted by the Hollywood executives that make oodles and oodles of dollars by coarsening a culture in which they hold themselves intellectually superior.
It’s ironic that McCain compared Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Obama is the polar opposite not only of this type of celebrity, but of the whole culture that feeds into it. I find the kind of reality TV competition dramas propagated by the entirety of the Bravo Network so disturbing because they fall in league with shows like uber-corporate wingnut Donald Trump’s The Apprentices on NBC (the parent network of Bravo programs such as Project Runway). Zalaznick is a hardcore, New York, Upper West Side former indie film producer and a hardcore Liberal who views the shows she’s producing as some Machiavellian anthropological study. She’s the kind of woman that kept me at arms length from the entertainment industry in general. The reason I didn’t, at age 25, move to L.A. and get a desk job in a studio to work my way up through the ranks to one day become some asshole producer or network executive, like Zalaznick, is because at the end of that rainbow stands Kathy Griffin at the podium winning an Emmy – for her beyond annoying Bravo “reality” show – telling Jesus to “suck it”.
That alone almost makes me want to vote Republican just to spite them. But that’s not going to happen… this time.