Thursday, December 30, 2010

On The Most 2010 Show of 2010

“There’s always a why. You just don’t understand it.”—Will Travers, Rubicon

“Consumers of all sources of media evidenced substantial misinformation, suggesting that false or misleading information is widespread in the general information environment, just as voters say they perceive it to be.”— Networks/University of Maryland study of the 2010 election.


I watched every episode of AMC’s Rubicon extremely late in the evening, in a dark room, all alone. At first, this was dictated by necessity—between football and premium-channel programming, Sunday nights in the fall of 2010 proved to be a watershed moment in the history of my DVR—but then I began to prefer it that way. Rubicon, about a (presumably) fictional lower Manhttan national intelligence think tank called the American Policy Institute, was a show best appreciated as a fever dream, a claustropobic vision purposely set in the most claustrophic neighborhood of the most claustrophobic city in the world. It was both hyperreal and ridiculously fantastic, an odd blend of tedious bureaucratic infighting and paranoiac thriller tropes. Its symbolism was heavy-handed, and certain characters came and went like disheveled red herrings, and entire episodes would pass with nothing really happening. Everyone was miserable and pale and on the verge of a breakdown, either over their use of recreational pharmaceuticals, their relationship with their spouses, or their growing knowledge of a vast conspiracy hatched by obsessive-compulsive oligarchs.

These are the reasons a lot of people hated Rubicon, and these are the reasons I enjoyed it. I think I would have fit in well at the American Policy Institute. I live my life in constant fear of the things I don’t know. I worry that my beliefs are shallow and incomplete. I worry that there is a cultural conversation taking place beyond my purview: Not necessarily that people are talking behind my back, but that they are privy to knowledge I don’t have. I would like to think I have certain inalienable views on sports and television and politics, but anytime someone argues the opposite viewpoint, I find myself wondering if I’ve missed some crucial fact that proves me empirically wrong.

This was one of the primary themes of Rubicon: That when we actually discover the truth, it is too late. As if to reinforce this notion, the title of the season’s final episode was “You Never Can Win.” Things blew up, a major character died, and then, nine days after the election of 2010, AMC reinforced that theme once more by cancelling the series.


Last week, a collaborative at the University of Maryland released results of a poll that measured the attitudes of voters in the first national vote since the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling struck down limits on election-related advertising. The title of the study: “Misinformation and the 2010 Election.” It provided empirical proof for what many of us already suspected: That part of the reason we can’t seem to find consensus on many of the major political issues of the day is because we can’t even seem to find consensus on the truth. Eight percent of the population believed that economic stimulus created or saved millions of jobs. Thirteen percent believed healthcare legislation would not increase the deficit. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, both of these things are true, yet somehow the mass perception of the opposite has come to define the partisan rigidity of the Obama administration.
Immediately, progressive websites leapt on the segment of the study which found that FOX News viewers were the most misinformed of all, while ignoring the fact that 77 percent of those who voted Democratic believed the stimulus did not create jobs, three in ten believed the healthcare legislation contributed to the deficit, and more than a quarter were no longer certain if there was a scientific consensus on global warming. The frightening part of this is not just that we’re all becoming more and more doctrinaire because of our retreat to partisan media sources; the frightening part is that there is a vast swath of moderate Americans who are hopelessly confused and deeply distrustful of even supposedly objective referees like scientists and budget wonks. The conspiracy is all around us: On one political pole, progressives are complaining that their message is being chewed up by a bureaucratic and dispassionate media; on the other political pole, conservatives are complaining that we are all falling victim to a vast and seditious cabal. It’s just what Rubicon’s lead character, Will Travers, discovered: Anywhere you turn, inside or outside the establishment, you never can win.
I’m glad Rubicon came and went so quickly, and I’m glad it was messy and imperfect and slow-moving, and I’m glad that, in the dark of night, it muddled my brain the way it did. Never in my lifetime have so many people—including me--felt so removed from understanding the why. Someday, when we look back on this time, rampant confusion will define the era. Rubicon wasn’t the best show of 2010—it may not have even been objectively good--but for that very reason, no show epitomized 2010 quite like it did.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On Football, Giants, Punters and Accountability

I have a non-popular take on Coughlin-Dodge situation. Good for the coach for holding accountable the player, who flat didn't do his job.--SI's Dominic Bonvissuto, via Twitter

A week ago, the Washington Redskins cut their starting punter. This would have been unremarkable except for the fact that the Redskins cut Hunter Smith because he botched the hold on a game-tying extra point. Smith was not having a particularly good season, but even so, he was cut because of one botched attempt to grip the pigskin, and he accepted the blame, in surprisingly eloquent fashion: "People that are my age -- and a little younger, and a little older -- want to blame somebody else, and they tend to want to self-protect," Smith said. This, of course, is a facile way of romanticizing the past, but even if you agree that it applies to modern society, I don't think it has anything to do with professional football.

Most sports are pretty bizarre, when you step back and consider them. Pro football is no exception: These are grown men subject to militaristic regulation in service of a child's game. There is something inherently weird about that, which is why it always kind of skeeves me out to watch Tom Coughlin pace the sidelines. As far as I can tell, Coughlin is as old-school and militaristic as coaches get; he appears purposefully dour and unhappy in almost all public situations, and unlike Bill Belichick, there is not the underlying sense that his players have some surreptitious grasp of his humanity. Most of the time when I watch Tom Coughlin, he just reminds me of the football coach from Dazed and Confused.

Now, it's possible that perception is completely misguided. It's possible that I just don't understand Tom Coughlin at all, and that Tom Coughlin spends the off-season breeding puppies to deliver to blind children; but even if the public Tom Coughlin is the real Tom Coughlin, I do understand that there is a place for discipline and accountability in football. I just think that people who preach about it in ceaseless fashion are ignoring the fact that no job in America is grounded more in discipline and accountability than that of a professional football player. How many times have marginal players who have repeatedly risked their own health and safety in service of a chosen batch of laundry been cut for missing a single block, or a single catch, or a single kick? Nothing provides accountability more than an overzealous fan base, a highly-paid coaching staff, and a national television audience, which is why I'm certain that as soon as Matt Dodge was unable to punt the ball out of bounds at the end of that game yesterday afternoon, he knew as well as anyone that he'd failed to complete his assigned task. He is not a superstar; he does not exist in a bubble; his error did not take place in some faraway gentleman's club or in a dogfighting kennel. He didn't need an authority figure to berate him publicly to understand the ramifications of his mistake.* It is very possible that Matt Dodge will be associated with that single play for the remainder of his life. The same can not be said for Coughlin, who had the good luck to win a Super Bowl due to one of the most fortuitous plays in the history of professional football.

That's what sets professional football apart from the rest of the world: Sometimes--and especially for those whose job it is to kick a football to a precise area in space--the difference between doing your job and not doing your job is a momentary lapse of concentration in the midst of tremendous pressure. And the moment of accountability tends to last forever.  

*In truth, even Coughlin's attempt to accept the blame afterward felt kind of like a kick in the groin: I will take responsibility for the fact that the punter I've been utilizing all season is an inexperienced slack-off who couldn't handle his responsibilities.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On The Top Twenty-Nine of Everything, 2010 (An Arbitary and Undefinitive List)

SIn no particular order.

1. Michael Raymond-James on "Terriers," as that guy we've all known.
2. The claustrophobic office sets on "Rubicon."
3. The Marc Maron-Louis CK podcast.
4. Bully.
5. Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon and Michael Pitt on Boardwalk Empire.
6. Abed.
7. The Hunger Games scenes from the first book of the trilogy.
8. This quote, from David Foster Wallace, in David Lipsky's Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: "I don't think writers are any smarter than other people. I think they may be more compelling in their stupidity, or in their confusion."
9. "Swim," by Surfer Blood.
10. John Legend (?!?) on "Blame Game."
11. Spike Jonze, "The Suburbs."
12. 400.
13. My friend Sean Howe's L.A. Burnout mixtape.
14. Jamey Johnson, "Lonely at the Top."
15. Fly.
16. You Are Not a Gadget. 
17. The shock and awe and cultural re-examination engendered by The Decision.
18. Deer Tick, "Twenty Miles."
19. The harmonizing in "Let's Go Surfing," by the Drums.
20. Mr. Peanut, by Adam Ross. 
21. The Suitcase.
22. Vampire Weekend, "White Sky."
23. Michael Vick, rolling to his left.
24. Drive-By Truckers, "The Fourth Night of My Drinking."
25. The last shot.
26. 30 for 30.
27. Roger Greenberg: The thing about you kids is that you're all kind of insensitive. I'm glad I grew up when I did. I'm freaked out by you kids cause your parents were too perfect to parenting. All that baby Mozart and Dan Zanes songs. You're all ADD and carpal tunnel. I hope I die before I end up meeting one of you in a job interview.
28. The shock and awe and cultural re-examination engendered by Cam Newton.
29. The End.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On Ben Roethlisberger, Dandy Don, North Dallas Forty, and Primal Urges

I wrote this piece for

"Two years ago in the snow in Pittsburgh, he threw two touchdowns in the fourth period to win by a single point. That night he checked into the hospital with a fractured jaw. There wasn't a pass he couldn't throw, a team he couldn't beat, a pain he couldn't endure, or a woman he couldn't fuck, given the right time and combination of pieces."—Peter Gent, North Dallas Forty
Near the beginning of the most brutal game of the most overtly violent season in the history of the National Football League, Ben Roethlisberger broke his nose. You could see it happen, because after being sacked by an angry swarm of Baltimore Raven defenders, Roethlisberger tore off his helmet and a rivulet of blood cascaded from his crooked proboscis. Weaving toward the sideline, a towel pressed to his nostrils, Roethlisberger looked a little like DeNiro playing Jake LaMotta, punch drunk and vacant, limping along on a badly injured foot that appeared to have been mummified by the trainers before the game.

Roethlisberger came back into the game, of course, because this is what Ben Roethlisberger does. If Tom Brady is the epitome of quarterbacking grace, and Peyton Manning is the prototype of quarterbacking subtetly and misdirection, Roethlisberger is the quarterback who epitomizes the brutality of his chosen profession.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Terriers and Presidents: A Semi-Political Screed

"I don't know if subtlety is something the American public is buying in droves."


In case you missed it--and you probably did--one of the best new shows of the television season got canceled the other day. It was called Terriers, and it was a private eye show with an inappropriate name and a lackluster marketing campaign; it also happened to be quirky and compelling and funny, and its two co-stars exuded more charisma and on-screen chemistry than anyone outside of Don and Peggy on Mad Men. And when it was over, a remarkable thing happened: The president of the FX Network, Jon Landgraf, held a press conference to explain why he'd cancelled the program.* Alan Sepinwall, one of the most respected television critics in the country and a primary champion of the show, said he couldn't remember that ever happening before.

In the end, the reason was pretty simple: The ratings for Terriers were terrible, even for a niche show on a cable network with a certain amount of critical cache. But during the press conference, Landgraf uttered the statement I've quoted above. He was talking about shows like Jersey Shore and The Kardashians,* about how a show like Terriers sometimes gets lost amid the noise. And he's right. It's always astounding to look at ratings and realize how few people are watching Mad Men in comparison to, say, Two and a Half Men. That's the thing about modern television: It's far better than it's ever been, and yet it's just as bad as it's ever been, as well. Most people turn on the television in search of mindless distraction, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, the hard numbers for a show like Terriers are a painful reminder that those of us who yearn for subtlety in our entertainment are still in the extreme minority.


In case you missed it--and you probably did--President Obama held a press conference this afternoon to discuss the impending deal on tax cuts. It was an odd moment, all these reporters pouncing on him for his perceived capitulation while Obama engaged in a vociferous argument for compromise in the face of otherwise certain defeat. It ended with the angriest pragmatist argument I'd seen from him since he became president; it felt like a moment of clarity amid months of obfuscation. And I'm sure the commetariat will find fault with the things he said, and I'm sure the left will continue with their apoplexy over his willingness to compromise in the face of certain defeat**, and I'm sure the right will continue to champion largely irrational ideas and question Obama's very fitness to hold office.

The problem facing our president, strangely enough, is the same problem that faced a low-rated program on a cable television network. The problem facing Barack Obama is that he is attempting to govern with subtlety, and those of us who appreciate such things are still in the extreme minority. Which means we may not appreciate what he's done until years later. Wrote Lost creator Damon Lindelof, "Cancellation sucks, but ten years from now, we'll still be talking about TERRIERS."

And someday, when we are again unwise enough to elect a blindly partisan figure to the highest office, we will know exactly what he means.

*He also mentioned Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead, which is a little more peculiar, since--while I've never seen Sons of Anarchy--I think both those shows are at least somewhat sophisticated in terms of plot and character development.

**What amazes me is how many smart people on the left fail to see the difference between abandoning one's principles and attempting to govern in the most effective manner. I admit, this is a colossally frustrating moment for everyone except the few remaining acolytes of Arthur Laffer, but today Obama essentially made the most compelling case I've ever seen by a president that he actually does put the American people before politics. And he will be villified for it, because--thanks to cable television and the Internet--people are more concerned with gamesmanship--with the winning and losing of politics--than they ever have been before.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

On He Who Shall Not Be Named, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Hamburgers

I don't know what will happen in Cleveland on Thursday night. I'd like to think nothing out of the ordinary will take place. I'd like to think that some people will jeer, and some people will laugh, and LeBron James will pour in 46 points and we will move on to the next overscrutinized twist in Miami's Season of Overkill. But since we have arrived at this crossroads, and since there is much navel-gazing taking place,* allow me my own indulgence.

I have stated this before, but I lived in Akron from 1995 until 2000. Those years happened to coincide with the modern heyday of Cleveland. I was young, and I would often find myself in a car on weekend night, hurtling up I-77 toward the Flats or the Warehouse District or Tremont to see a concert or to drink far too many beers. I was an outsider, but it seemed to me that Cleveland was the place you went when you wanted to experience urbanity; Cleveland is a small large city.

Akron was not that place. Because Akron, even as it was undergoing its own brief renaissance, even as it constructed a minor-league baseball stadium downtown, even as nightclubs sprouted up around it, felt like something much less urban. Akron is a large small city; you'd see the same people in the same places night after night, and there was something kind of comforting about it. Akron, my friend David Giffels** once said, has one of everything, but only one of everything. Akron, my friend Chuck once wrote, could be the Springfield we know from The Simpsons. Inexplicable things happen in Akron, news stories that capture the national imagination for their sheer weirdness. Akron incubates a great band approximately once every generation (Chrissie Hynde, Devo, the Black Keys), and Akron breeds serial killers, and Akron boasts an unimaginably great hamburger franchise, and now Akron has produced the most purely talented basketball player who ever lived. If Cleveland resides in some ignominious corner of the nation's cultural framework, Akron is an ignominious afterthought for Clevelanders. This is a town that identifies itself through several layers of inadequacy; whatever it produces is seen through that filter.

I don't know where I'm going with this, except to say that in some perverse way, it makes sense that LeBron James would continue to identify with Akron while dismissing Cleveland. One is a city of underdogs; the other is a forgotten place. At some level, they can't blame LeBron for leaving town. You can only go so far in Akron before you've done everything.

*Of course, much of this navel-gazing is well worth reading. Here is one well-crafted piece from Bill Reiter of Fox Sports, about Akron and its complex relationship with Cleveland how LeBron straddles both worlds. And here is another from my friend/noted raconteur/reporter/writer extraordinaire Wright Thompson, about the city of Cleveland.

**If there is a human being more loyalty to Akron, more of an understanding of what it means to live in Akron than David, I haven't met him.