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.


Eric P said...

Yes, RIP, Terriers. One day, people will realize Donal Logue's TV worth (also RIP, Knights of Prosperity).

Re. your Part II, though, Michael, please provide examples of President Obama's success with being subtle. Over the months he's been in office, I've seen a man presiding over an administration which rather loudly and arrogantly paints his opponents as the enemy or economic "hostage takers," pounds a square peg into a round hole to pass a socialist healthcare program which will have doctors running for the retirement hills, and turning a blind eye to an overly invasive TSA "grope and grab" MO. On the non-policy standpoint, he's also been rather brazen with extravagant round-trips 'round the world to snag the Olympics for Chicago or visit with India, and/or a NYC date with the First Lady. Subtle? Hardly and couldn't agree to disagree more.

Americans don't want subtle in our presidents, either. Frankly, who would besides a New Europe currently muddled financially bailing out country after country? Whether it was Reagan, Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy or even Clinton, a Commander in Chief tends to be at their best when they no how to mix non-antagonistic larger-than-life with the subtle. Heck, using your criteria, it seems George W. Bush, someone with a genuine track record of reaching across the aisle (Teddy Kennedy's No Child Left Behind, immigration "reform") would certainly qualify. Speaking of him, I guess President Obama has been subtle, though to the chagrin of his supporters: realizing keeping Gitmo open's a good thing, trying terrorists in NYC may not be the brightest idea, or actually allowing everyone to keep more of the money they earn ("tax cut" is such a misnomer, especially considering unjust taxation is known as theft in the real world). Credit where it's due, of course. ;-)

Chris Bowyer said...

I'm not sure exactly when or how it happened, but it seems like, sometime in the last 3-4 years, all the Keynesians got together and decided that they should all start making offhand comments about how supply-side economics had apparently been empirically discredited. Which would be news to me, to say the least. Nor is the supply-side philosophy the same thing as the Laffer curve. In other words, I hear plenty of people talking about how discredited the philosophy is, but nobody actually discrediting it. Indeed, I've always found supply-side economics to be one of those rare things that not only bears out in practice, but makes sense intuitively as well.

That said, I agree with your assessment that people on the left really need to recognize to what degree Obama is simply doing what he thinks he can. Nobody, no matter how far left, should feel betrayed by him, because there's no evidence that he's adopted a more conservative worldview. He just believes this is the best he can do. The worst a frustrated liberal could say is that they think he is ineffective, pessimistic, or too quick to compromise, but they shouldn't doubt his intentions, because it doesn't appear they've changed at all. Their disagreement with Obama is one of judgment, not of ideology or principles.

This should hardly be a surprise, though. One of the things that I think distinguishes the left from the right is that the left is far more inclined to indulge in the belief that the only thing stopping their policies from achieving widespread adoption is that their leaders don't explain them well enough (or forcefully enough). They tend to regard political failures as the result of a lack of will, and often refuse the idea that it might be because there are plenty of people who still disagree with them.

To be fair, conservatives have their own negative tendencies. This is simply one negative trait that I think shows up a lot more on the left than the right.

Michael Weinreb said...

It's probably not productive for me to respond individually to every point made here, even though I started this whole argument, and even though you raise some fair counterarguments (Eric, I'll say I'm glad our yawning philosophical gap converges when it comes to college football). So I'll just let your comments stand as written, and refer you to Andrew Sullivan, who's actually making a lot of sense on this tax cut deal (at least to me):

Chris Bowyer said...

There are too many leaps of logic and generalizations in Sullivan's piece to possibly address them all, but here are the biggest:

1) He's equating any type of spending or tax cutting with "stimulus." Huge mistake, right off the bat.

2) The idea that the deal is shrewd because it may improve the economic situation is bizarre. What're Republicans supposed to do, NOT pursue policies they think will improve the economy, and which they promised to voters? Deliberately avoid even the types of policies they've ALWAYS supported in hopes that they can torpedo the economy and avoid blame just long enough to get Obama to lose?

3) Obama himself openly complained about the necessity of this compromise throughout his announcement of it (Peggy Noonan has a great column on this very topic). He's not going to be able to crow much if this works, because the very reason Sullian says the center will take another look at him (the left's complaining about it) will simultaneously distance the left from any success it might have. Sullivan can't even stop from contradicting himself, let alone the facts.

Sullivan also suggests that dealing with Obama at all is inherently a defeat because it rules out any portrayal of him as some kind of "alien commie Muslim" (that's the rough phrasing). The problem is that this belief is a ridiculous conservative carciature. It's limited among the population at large, non-existent among the actual people in Congress, and not really undermined anyway, because pretty much everyone understands that when you don't control the White House you can't do everything exactly the way you want.

Sullivan's a smart guy and a fantastic writer, but he went off the deep end sometime around '06. *Every* single time (this is barely an exaggeration, by the way) anything of significance happens, he thinks it's great for Obama, or bad for Republicans, or something Obama ultimately intended to bring about. Even the electoral drubbing last month is good for Obama, it seems, because now the GOP has to follow-through on what he regards as its untenable promises. It's well-nigh impossible to find an event he would think bodes poorly for the President.

Michael Weinreb said...

O.K., what the hell.

"Sullivan also suggests that dealing with Obama at all is inherently a defeat because it rules out any portrayal of him as some kind of "alien commie Muslim" (that's the rough phrasing). The problem is that this belief is a ridiculous conservative carciature. It's limited among the population at large..."


"non-existent among the actual people in Congress"


"...pretty much everyone understands that when you don't control the White House you can't do everything exactly the way you want."


(McConnell) said the only way Republicans in Congress can achieve their goals is "to put someone in the White House who won't veto" a repeal of Obama's health care reform, spending cuts and shrinking the government.

But, as Woody Allen once said, I am nothing more than a Jewish homosexual pornographer.

And I'll stop there, except to say that this is truly mind-boggling:

Chris Bowyer said...

"O.K., what the hell."

That's the spirit.

"Sullivan also suggests that dealing with Obama at all is inherently a defeat because it rules out any portrayal of him as some kind of "alien commie Muslim" (that's the rough phrasing). The problem is that this belief is a ridiculous conservative carciature. It's limited among the population at large..."


Yeah, I thought this would be trotted out. There are a few problems with it as a retort: first, it has nothing to do with "commie" or "Muslim." Second, it has nothing to do with whether or not he can be reasonable, which was the original point I was taking issue with. Third, the usage of "doubt" is very nebulous. I know people who say they "aren't sure," but by that they only mean that they can't verify it, and think he probably was.


The second person listed seems to be on there because he a) said he could not "swear on a stack of Bibles" that Obama was born in the U.S.. Another (Blackburn) even says she thinks he's a citizen, for crying out loud. Yet another (Burton) is on there because he co-sponsored a bill that would require Presidential candidates to present a birth certificate. It's a stupid idea, to be sure, but he's quoted as saying it's a good idea because "you wouldn't have all this hullballoo."

I stopped looking at sources after those three, because at that point it was clear that the only criteria for being included in this list is either a) expressing anything less than complete metaphysical certitude that Obama was born in the States or b) making any comment which birthers could potentially misinterpret and feed off of. And even with such lax standards, they only manage to find six out of 535 people who qualify.


"(McConnell) said the only way Republicans in Congress can achieve their goals is "to put someone in the White House who won't veto" a repeal of Obama's health care reform, spending cuts and shrinking the government."

I'm not sure how this contradicts what I said.

"And I'll stop there, except to say that this is truly mind-boggling:


It really isn't. Part of the package involved penalizes companies for outsourcing. It's a potentially important change to the tax code that really shouldn't be attached to a bill like this.

Moreover, it's a cheap political ploy. If I told you every first responder should get $1 billion, you'd say that was insane, so it's easily established that something is not a good idea simply by virtue of it being targeted towards people who need it. Somebody has to be the grown-up and ask questions about the cost of these things, and whether or not we're setting precedents that will end up extending to increasingly local (and numerous) responders, as well.

One rule of thumb I usually follow (yes, even with politicians I don't agree with) is that any time national political figures appear to be doing something unbelievably cruel and mind-numbingly evil, there's probably a lot more to the story. Nobody actually votes to drown puppies, or tase 7-year-olds, or screw over people like this so blatantly. Unfortunately, if someone doesn't like the amount involved, or how it's being paid for, or asks pertinent questions about scope, it's all too easy for the other side to paint even the slightest hesitancy or obstruction as outright opposition, and cynically capitalize on it.

Eric P said...

There are few Penn Staters I can't not agree to disagree with, Michael. We're good like that, and with Chris covering the Sullivan points similar to how I would, I retort with a nod to one of my co-contributors at Threedonia: http://www.threedonia.com/archives/33433

Also been meaning to thank you for recently mentioning the Gangrey.com story on Thurman Munson. I'll never forget running home from school 10/2/78 to watch the Yanks/Red Sox or my dad picking me up from little league all-star practice before driving up to Cleveland for my first MLB game 8/2/79, letting me know he'd heard on the radio the sad news about my gritty idol. Another link for ya, which you'll likely enjoy more than the one above: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYkpMhr70JI

Michael Weinreb said...

You know what? To be fair, here is a conservative explanation on the 9/11 bill. And it still doesn't make any damn sense to me. It may not be inherently evil, but this seems like an extremely impertinent place to suddenly draw the line on fiscal responsibility and crow over procedural process.


And because this is my damn blog, I get the last word. Thanks for engaging, fellas.

"I was a registered Republican. I have no idea what I am now," said Ray Simons, 60, a retired FDNY ambulance worker who said he's ill from two weeks at The Pile. "For senators to turn this down, it's like, oh, my God, it's the ultimate betrayal."

Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2010/12/10/2010-12-10_its_the_ultimate_betrayal_irate_worker_rages_over_defeat_of_911_health_bill.html#ixzz17pBYfikq