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

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