Archive for April, 2014

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Stephen Colbert

The news that Stephen Colbert will be taking over the Late Show from David Letterman made front page news today. I must admit to feeling a none too small sense of loss.

What will this new Late Show look like? Will it look anything like the Colbert Report?

If not, if Colbert passes into the pantheon of well-meaning, but ultimately unimportant celebrity turnstiles like Conan O’Brien or Jay Leno, then we have lost something precious.

If you’re not already watching The Daily Show and its spin-off The Colbert Report then you might not understand why I feel this way. But these two programs are truly the last great bastions of satire in our age. Colbert, in particular, has served an invaluable role in illuminating the paradoxes and absurdities of twenty-first century politics.

Take, for example, Colbert’s running segment during the last election cycle. To lampoon this country’s disgusting campaign finance system, Colbert actually created a SuperPAC around his own faux-political ambitions, even going so far as to “hand it over” to crony John Stewart to expose how “separate” the interests of SuperPACs and the candidates they endorse really are. (There’s also a hilarious sequence where Colbert seizes the reigns of his unlimited pool of campaign money.)

His departure from the realm of satire to simple celebrity coddling as Letterman has practiced it would be a terrible blow to the ideological landscape where often it is only he and The Daily Show‘s John Stewart who dare say to an audience of millions that the emperor has no clothes.

But then again, perhaps this is a golden opportunity.

I’m sure that Colbert will not be bringing the right-wing sometimes dunder-headed ego-maniacal persona he has played so well for the last several years to CBS’s Late Show. But perhaps he will bring his political sensibility and his keen insight about what is wrong with the media and the political machine they are supposed to police for the public.

And in his place over on Comedy Central, perhaps we’ll get a new, equally biting half-hour of satire. Samantha Bee Tells It Like It Is, anyone?

Joss Whedon Can Do No Wrong (…and his latest show is still going to be cancelled)

Editorial Note: I wrote this yesterday but never posted it. So the “yesterday” references within the post are now a day out of sync. Sorry. 

Skyes-WTF-face

It’s time to talk again about Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Okay, first of all, let me dispense with some obvious things:

Yes, I know I am writing too much about geekery and Marvel in particular (partly because my literary focus is on a new novel, so sorry, those energies are otherwise engaged of late).

Yes, I realize that Joss Whedon is only an executive producer and that it’s his brother and sister-in-law who are the bona fide show runners.

Still, Joss’s fingerprints have been all over the SHIELD show from the beginning. Quippy dialogue. Artificial family (although, for the longest time this dimension felt quite forced). Strong butt-kicking female characters.

And really, though I’ve complained about the show in the past, even the fact that it was a slow starter is very Joss-like. After all (as I was saying to a friend recently) even his finest creation, Firefly/Serenity can only be fully appreciated when taken as a whole. You don’t judge any component of the Whedonverse based on a single episode (well, unless that episode is “Once More, with Feeling”); you have to pay attention to the long game.

So, this is me admitting that I was wrong about SHIELD.

Very, very, oh-so-very wrong.

Be warned, I’m about to get spoilery in regards to last night’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode, so if you haven’t seen it yet, then go get caught up…oh, but watch Captain America 2 first.

In my original review of the early stages of the show, I singled out Agent Ward as a complete waste of the viewer’s time.

But damn.

Last night it seemed like they were delivering Ward right into cliché valley. Before rushing into battle, he confesses his budding romantic feelings for the young, attractive female character (as opposed to the only slightly older attractive female character and the much older but still really attractive female character) who then bestows this warrior of righteousness with a good luck in case you die kiss. The scene was pure hokum. At the time, since I was enjoying the already twisty plot so much, I though to myself, “this is crap…forgivable crap, but crap.” Adding in my brain, “I hope they’re not going all-in on this Skye-Ward romance angle.”

They were not.

In fact, the whole scene was a total fake-out. It turns out Ward, literally the first character we met on the show, has been an enemy plant THE WHOLE FREAKIN TIME.

I saw this turn coming a few minutes off and watched it approach with the same breathless dread and awe I felt as the Red Wedding drew near in last season of Game of Thrones. Ward’s betrayal of SHIELD (via triple homicide, no less) was probably second only to that notorious nuptial scene in its visceral impact among recent genre fair. (Yes, I’m putting it up above any death in Walking Dead because death on that show isn’t remotely shocking anymore. You just expect it on a weekly basis.)

It was marvelous TV precisely because this was a show that, until then, had played it safe, taken no chances.

Therein lies the lesson against rushing to judgement. Joss Whedon has talked about how in screenwriting, certain moves can “buy” you later impact on your viewers. Killing Book and Wash in Serenity, “bought” Whedon the catharsis of the others’ survival. Here, all the times that characters were improbably saved–from expulsion or death–“bought” the ground shift of Ward going bad. It made it all the more powerful that SHIELD had never danced this way before.

By appearing to not take chances in the past, the show runners were setting the stage for a massive upset.

It is one that was planned as part of the larger Marvel universe from the beginning of the series. Now, the SHIELD agents are rogue. Ronin without a master…but with enemies who they used to call friends.

There is rich story-telling potential here at last. Everything else could be seen as mere prologue…if only it were going to last.

The bad news is that the ratings for last night’s clearly superior episode were the lowest yet for the series. This was pretty much the show’s one best hope for renewal, to pick up a bump off Captain America’s film outing. Sadly, that’s not to be.

So clear off a space on your shelf for the Blu-Ray set of “the complete series” of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and take heart, the producers say they intend to wrap up season one in a “nice little bow” so that the only loose ends will be the connections back to the larger universe.

Since these characters are part of a story that Marvel and their Disney overlords don’t want to see end any time soon, perhaps we will see them again at some point…

Just don’t count on that being on ABC.

Holy Crap! Did a Marvel Movie…Just Say Something?

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-trailer-0

As regular readers will note, I have been consistently fascinated by this huge media machine that fans know as the “MCU.”

That stands for Marvel Cinema Universe for you neophytes.

I won’t waste my breath retreading the history of this massive multi-movie endeavor that has garnered a couple billion dollars so far, but up to now, that history has told a story of action adventure story tropes being successfully staged by A-list talent for pure, empty-headed fun.

The latest installment, though, has offered us just a little more.

[Ahead there be SPOILERS!]

Not only is Captain America: The Winter Soldier by far the most complex of the Marvel films in its plotting (that’s not necessarily a good thing as it has a bit of a “oh, look, there’s the kitchen sink” feel to it), but it also innovates by using this very, very silly world of super heroes and diabolical villains to comment on our reality.

That’s right, kids. Captain America–always a propagandistic symbol in his own right–has a political message for the 21st century.

The plot, boiled down, is that S.H.I.E.L.D–the far-reaching, but thus-far benevolent super-spy organization that has been in the background during the entire MCU evolution–was infiltrated from the early days by the remnants of another group, the Nazi-splinter group of mad scientists called Hydra.

Wow…like I said: silly stuff.

But here’s the important part. Good ole all-American Captain America must bring down both organizations–why? Because these intertwined institutional beasts see too much and are at the “tipping point” of having the technological power to smite their enemies proactively.

It’s not hard to read it all as a post 9/11 allegory. The massive new fleet of S.H.I.E.L.D hellicarriers has built-in drone-like weapon systems that can snuff out satellite-selected human targets. What’s more is that a powerful computer algorithm has allowed the Hydra-SHIELD monstrosity to predict its enemies before they act against it. Analytics, anyone?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes on the surveillance state, but it doesn’t argue for a luddite approach to deal with these encroachments on the right to privacy. Instead, the story demands both accountability and transparency.

In the end, S.H.I.E.L.D. is destroyed. (Marvel fans are hardly shocked; it’s happened in the comics before, too. The only real question is: What are they planning for that TV show that centers on an organization that’s now belly up?) More importantly, though, the deep and dark secrets of both are uploaded onto the Internet.

Tucked in among all the ass-kicking (and some character stories about Captain America finding his old best buddy and a new one) this film asks: If the genie can’t be put back in the bottle, then what? And it suggests as an answer that we all need to know exactly what the genie is up to. What it knows…and what it can do.

Ultimately, corruption is the enemy. Nothing as powerful as S.H.I.E.L.D. was in this fictional universe can avoid it. Its analogue in the real world is clear: Every day we learn that the American security apparatus has more capabilities than we’d imagined the day before. They can read your e-mail. They can hack your computer remotely. Having that power is corruption itself. Its misuse is inevitable.

The only remedy to this inevitability is vigilance.

For that, there can’t be secrets.

American Kleptocracy: It’s Official!

There are many points in time during the last two generations that might be candidates, but I’m going to go ahead and call it: American democracy officially died yesterday, April 2, 2014.

You might have missed it. It was not the top story on the news, as it should have been. It did not spark outrage and drive citizens into the street in protest, as it should have done.

No, America trudged along quite as it has for some time in the wake of this news–and that, of course, is part of the problem:  Our apathy and disengagement as a citizenry. As an example, I posted something about what an awful idea Taco Bell breakfast was on my Facebook and got twenty-seven likes and multiple comments. My post on the Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon vs. FEC earned not a single mouse click.

It’s that decision yesterday which removes all caps on individual campaign contributions that, when combined with the now infamous Citizens United decision, spells the death knell for what we have lazily continued to call democracy in this country. With no meaningful restrictions on campaign contributions remaining in a society that has become extremely stratified by wealth–with the gap between the richest few Americans and the vast majority of middle class and poor Americans now larger than at any other time in our history–there is literally nothing standing in the way of the .01% fulfilling Tom Perkins’ vision of wealthier Americans having more votes. Today, with mass media, money buys votes.

And the Supreme Court says that’s okay.

But it’s hardly front page news. It’s not worth getting upset about. It’s not even worth a click of the “like” button–as if that would mean anything. Now, a less cynical person might point out that Facebook is a social platform and people go to it to escape the world of politics and the stresses of the real world, so that’s why nobody would check out an article on the Supreme Court, even though they have time to imagine the in’s and out’s of fast food breakfast cuisine.

Again, I say, exactly.

We are too good at escaping. Too good at accepting the world as our moneyed overlords describe it to us.

A free society, they will tell us, is one without government pretending it knows what’s right for you. You should reject, as they have, the false lure of government “control.”

Republican and Tea Party fiend Charles Koch recently took to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal to argue exactly this. He’s not a bad guy, he insisted (though Obama is!). He’s just standing up for freedom! It’s the American way to be free…of government “control.”

Koch, in what can only be described as a bold-faced lie, also takes time to denounce “cronyism” and any kind of peddling of influence. Aside from the fact that his mere use of the word “crony” marks his worldview as hopelessly anachronistic (Gilded Age, anyone?), it is rank hypocrisy for someone who spends so much money buying politicians to promote his platform of anti-union and anti-regulation to pretend he’s opposed to the selling of influence.

His spurious defense continues.

Koch enlists the third president to his aide (which is surprising since his championing of separation of church and state usually makes Jefferson persona non grata among right-wing ideologues). He says that Thomas Jefferson warned us about exactly the sort of “collectivist” threat to our liberty that the Obama administration represents when he said, “The natural progress of things…is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”

But Koch’s vision of society and government is so myopic that he fails to see the irony. It is the concentration of power in the hands of men like him that threatens liberty, not the people vesting too much “control” in the government that represents their will. That’s the real thing that men like Koch fear. For if we had a functioning democracy, then government “control” would mean that the people were really in control–not the elites. Then government could serve the interests of society as a whole, instead of handing out tax breaks and regulation exemptions to the likes of Koch while opportunities dwindle and infrastructure crumbles for the rest of the population in the wealthiest nation on Earth.

The Founders, in fact, were deeply concerned about the concentration of wealth and its potential threat to our freedoms, but they could never in their wildest dreams have conceived of the kind of amassed capital that lies in the hands of men like the Koch brothers, or in those of Republican sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson.

Adelson, who personally spent 92 million dollars trying to crown a President Romney, recently held a soirée in Vegas that was dedicated to promoting pro-Israel policies. What it turned out to be was an event where Republican hopefuls crawled to Adelson’s feet in order to cow tow to the billionaire’s agenda. That agenda, by the way, now includes a strenuous attack on Internet gambling. If Sheldon gets his way, this moral blight will be eradicated from America’s cybershores! Did I mention where Adelson’s billions came from? Oh yeah, he owns casinos. Like Koch, he’s a man of deep principles.

If you need any further proof that our democracy is dead and our “representatives” serve masters other than the electorate, consider this anecdote from Adelson’s event:

Governor Chris Christie was one of the many acolytes vying for Sheldon Adelson’s attention at this gathering. Christie, though, made the mistake of calling Palestine “occupied territory” in his speech.

Molly Ball at The Atlantic reports that after “Christie erred by referring to the West Bank and Gaza as ‘occupied territories’…[he] was summoned to the master’s lair, where he abjectly apologized—a penance Adelson reportedly accepted.”

One can only imagine he licked Adelson’s shoes as he pleaded for mercy.

Welcome to the Kleptocracy, my friends. Long live the almighty dollar.