Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"Boardwalk Empire," Season 3, Episodes 6-7

The machinations between Nucky Thompson and Gyp Rosetti continued, while Gillian Darmody went even crazier during episodes 6 and 7 of “Boardwalk Empire’s” third season.  However, I’m going to examine the intersections between Richard Harwood and significant historical events during these two hours.

Harwood met Jimmy Darmody in Chicago during season 1.  Like Darmody, Harwood was a World War I veteran and while Jimmy suffered life-altering psychological damage from his tour in Europe, Harwood was physically disfigured while serving as a sharpshooter.  He came back with Jimmy to Atlantic City and is now helping take care of Darmody’s son following his death at Nucky’s hands in the season 2 finale.

In episode 6, “Ging Gang Goolie,” Harwood spends time with other veterans at an American Legion hall.  Veterans formed the Legion, which would become one of the most important veteran’s groups on the 20th century, following their return from Europe.  After an older veteran of the Philippines fights in an amateur boxing match at the hall, Harwood assist him.  The older vet has been unable to go on after his son’s death in the Great War.

Striking up a friendship (or perhaps something more) with the older veteran’s daughter, he spends Easter at their home with other former soldiers in episode 7, “Sunday Best.”  The older vet criticizes the Harding Administration, telling the others that he voted for Eugene Debs in the 1920 election.  Another vet retorts, “You voted for a Bolshevik!”  “Debs is a socialist,” corrects Harwood.

Indeed, Debs was the leader of the American Socialist Party throughout the peak of its electoral clout in the first two decades of the 20th century.  Running for president five times under its banner, Debs won a high of nearly one million votes, including six percent of the popular vote, in the 1912 election.  He strongly opposed American entry into the First World War, believing the country was fighting on behalf of the large banks that had loaned significant sums to the Allied Powers. 

He continued to be outspoken during the war, urging young men to resist the draft.  As a result, Woodrow Wilson’s administration prosecuted him under the Espionage Act, one of the draconian measures the federal government used to crack down on dissent during the war.  Sentenced to 10 years in prison, Debs ran for president for a final time from jail in 1920.  It’s likely the older vet supported Debs because of his strong opposition to a conflict that led to his son’s death.  President Harding commuted Deb’s sentence and he was released in 1921. 

After a slow start, the pace of the season is picking up a bit.  Still, the emotional resonance of the conflicts between Eli and Jimmy during the first two seasons is still missed.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Saturday Night Live" and American Politics

As another political season comes to its conclusion, it makes sense to reflect on the impact of comedy on politics.  Today, political satire can been virtually everywhere on television, most adroitly on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Once upon a time, though, “Saturday Night Live” was the dominant source for political commentary on television.

Premiering in 1975, “SNL” and its “Not-Ready-For Prime Time Players,” represented the more cynical zeitgeist of the post-Vietnam/Watergate era, when there was little reluctance to skewer our national leaders.  “SNL” quickly played an important role in the first election during its nearly four-decade run, the 1976 contest between President Gerald Ford and Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia.

Though only on the show for one season, Chevy Chase made an indelible impression in portraying Ford.  Though the former University of Michigan football player was one of our most athletic presidents, Chase took advantage of a pair of televised stumbles by Ford to create a view of the president as a bumbling leader.  Interestingly, Chase made no attempt to impersonate Ford’s voice or other mannerisms.

With original producer Lorne Michaels absent for several seasons in the early-to-mid 1980s, “SNL” didn’t engage in much political commentary.  But when he returned for season 11, the show produced some of its best material.  One of its famous political sketches came when Phil Hartman portrayed Ronald Reagan during the middle of the Iran-contra scandal.  The “Gipper” famously had an image as a genial leader who left the details to his subordinates. In Hartman’s skit, Reagan plays a grandfatherly role in public while secretly masterminding every detail of the arms-for-hostages agreement in private.

Of course, Dana Carvey’s masterful take on George H. W. Bush remains the gold standard for political impersonations.  By exaggerating Bush 41’s mannerisms and voice, Carvey captured the essence of his persona.  Indeed, when people try to do impersonations of the elder Bush today they are simply imitating Carvey—whether they realize it or not.

While both Hartman and Darrell Hammond did a fine job as Bill Clinton, “SNL” truly returned to the center of the national water cooler in the disputed 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush.  Hammond’s portrayal of Gore in the first debate, with his constant references to the Social Security “lockbox” made the term a national punch line.  Gore’s advisers made him watch the skit to show make him aware of the image of his public persona.  Will Ferrell’s W was also impressive and his invocation of “strategery” as the center of his political philosophy so reflected Bush’s own mangled syntax that many actually believe he said it.

2008 may have marked the high point for “SNL,” with several shows making a significant impact on the dialogue of the campaign.  Hilary Clinton referenced a skit mocking the media’s fawning coverage of Obama during one of their many debates.  Though Fred Armisen struggled a bit with his Obama, Amy Poehler’s Hilary was excellent.

Still, Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin was probably the most impressive “SNL” political character since Carvey’s Bush 41.  Clearly aided by the physical similarity between her and the Alaska governor, Fey also captured her voice and mannerisms.  It became difficult to discern between the two.

You can’t win every election and this campaign has been a bit disappointing for the long-running show.  Furthermore, younger viewers are increasingly moving away from it for fresher programs.  Still, “Saturday Night Live” has been a key part of our politics since the disco era and remains so today.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

25th Anniversary of "Star Trek: the Next Generation"

Hard as it is to believe, this fall marks the 25th anniversary of the premiere of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (TNG).  While many doubted that “Star Trek” could continue without its original cast and characters, “TNG” became a runaway television hit that propelled the franchise into the 1990s and 21st century.

Debuting on NBC in 1966, the original Star Trek (“TOS” for “The Original Series”) was clearly a product of the Cold War.  As played by William Shatner, Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise was a JFK-like man of action, frequently engaging in fistfights and space battles, as well as a womanizer who seemed to have an old flame in every port/planet.  Indeed, “TNG” writer Ron Moore described “TOS” as a  ”morality play, with Capt. James T. Kirk as a futuristic John F. Kennedy piloting a warp-driven PT-109 through the far reaches of the galaxy.” (NYT, September 18,2006)   Though humanity and several other species had joined together in an UN-like “Federation” of planets, they still faced an enemy in the form of the evil Klingon Empire, a warrior-like race that served as an allegory for the Soviet Union. 

When “Next Generation” started in syndication in the fall of 1987, geopolitics had changed with the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev gaining power in the Soviet Union and implementing his dual policies of perestroika (economic liberalization) and glasnost (political openness).  Though no one could have imagined how rapidly it would conclude, the Cold War was winding down, with the Berlin Wall falling and Soviet Union collapsing during the show’s seven-year run.  Reflecting these historic events, “TNG” portrayed a future where there was peace between the Federation and the Klingons, with Mr. Worf (Michael Dorn), a Klingon officer, serving aboard the Enterprise.  Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played by the then-unknown Patrick Stewart, was more of a diplomat than Shatner’s Kirk, looking for non-violent solutions to interplanetary disputes.  Though Stewart became a sex symbol, Picard was no Kirk when it came to women, reflecting the rise of feminism in the intervening years.  He rarely had romantic relationships, though there was persistent sexual tension between him and longtime friend, Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden).

Though the show was supposed to focus on the ensemble cast, as opposed to the Big Three of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in “TOS,” Picard and android Commander Data (Brent Spiner), and to a lesser extent, Lt. Worf, became the center of gravity of the action on “TNG.”  The other characters, most notably First Officer William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), were not particularly interesting.

Though the show quickly became a ratings success, it did not really hit its creative stride until the season 3 finale, “The Best of Both Worlds, ” when the Federation’s arch-enemy, the Borg, takes Picard hostage and assimilates him into their collective.  When the season ended, the Borg are poised to attack Earth and Picard’s fate is unclear.  The suspense would be resolved in the fall with the planet emerging safe and Picard rescued, and the success of “TNG” guaranteed.  The program would run until 1994 and four more films starring Stewart and his cast mates would follow between 1994 and 2002 (though only “First Contact,” (1996) which also centered around a Borg invasion, was particularly good).

The success of “TNG” ensured the “Star Trek” franchise would not end with Kirk and Spock.  Three more television shows followed and though none reached the ratings heights of “TNG,” new episodes of “Star Trek” would air until “Enterprise” went off the air after only four seasons in 2005.

Though I thought “Enterprise’s” cancellation would mark the end of “Trek,” J.J. Abram’s reboot was a major hit when it premiered in 2009 and a sequel will follow in the summer of 2013.  Still, he would never have had the chance if “The Next Generation” hadn’t shown that the franchise could “live long and prosper” without its original actors.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ben Affleck's "Argo" and the Iranian Hostage Crisis

Ben Affleck’s “Argo” completes the makeover he began when he directed the critically praised “Gone Baby Gone” in 2007.  Finally banishing any lingering memories of “Bennifer” and “Gigli,” Affleck’s third outing as a director is a mature, adult film that will likely draw Oscar attention.  While I enjoyed the movie, it was weakened by the writers’ bizarre need to embellish an already dramatic story to the point it strained credulity.  A rare mix of history and thriller, “Argo” depicts the CIA’s effort to rescue six American diplomats who escaped the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when Iranian demonstrators seized it in November 1979. 

The movie begins with a brief but accurate review of U.S./Iranian relations in the years before the Iranian Revolution.  After reformist president Mohammed Mossadegh was elected in 1951, the United States and Great Britain conspired to engineer a coup to restore the Shah to power in 1953.  Upset that Mossadegh had nationalized Western oil holdings in Iran, the operation marked the beginning of a quarter-century of American backing of the repressive Shah.  U.S. support for the Iranian secret police, which enforced the Shah’s harsh rule, further estranged average Iranians from the American government.  Though the country grew wealthier because of its oil, the government and its corrupt cronies pilfered most of the riches.

This tension culminated with the popular uprising that led to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.  Initially, the new government included a broad-based coalition of Iranian factions, but Islamists led by Ayatollah Khomeni eventually gained control of the new regime. 

Angered when the Carter Administration allowed the Shah to come to the U.S. for medical care, Iranian “students” took over the embassy on November 4, 1979.  The seizure played a key role in Khomeni’s consolidation of power and is impressively reenacted by Affleck.  The six diplomats who escaped were given refuge by the Canadian ambassador, and they hid in his residence for the next three months, unable to leave the compound.  Though major news outlets were aware of the situation, they stayed quiet to protect them.

The film shows the anger and frustration of ordinary Americans over the Carter Administration’s inability to retrieve the hostages.  Coming after the twin blows of Vietnam and Watergate, the 444-day ordeal only reinforced the sense of malaise and decline that pervaded the U.S. during the late 1970s.

More subtly, “Argo” captures the overall climate of America in the era.  The hostage crisis is the first major news event I really remember and the film offers the audience a window into the changes in American society over the last three decades.  For instance, the movie depicts almost as much cigarette smoking as in an episode of “Mad Men,” reflecting how the percentage of Americans who smoked hadn’t fallen dramatically since the Surgeon General’s report of 1964.  In an era long before cell phones, every character uses landlines and a rotary phone makes an appearance.

Contemporary news accounts from Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, and Ted Koppel appear throughout the film, reminding us of an era before cable and the Internet, when ABC, NBC, and CBS and their evening news programs remained the dominant sources of information for most Americans.  Indeed, Koppel’s nightly special, “America Held Hostage,” contributed to the sense of crisis and eventually became a regular program—“Nightline.”

Of course, ”Argo” is that unique phenomenon—a triumphant tale of the hostage crisis.  While the six diplomats who escaped were rescued, the remaining 52 were held by Iran and by extension, the whole nation was held hostage.  President Carter ordered a rescue mission, known as “Desert One,” which failed disastrously, with eight American soldiers dying after two helicopters collided in the Iranian desert.  Unable to win the hostages’ release, Carter lost badly to Republican Ronald Reagan in the 1980 elections.  After negotiating tirelessly during the transition period, Carter finally reached an agreement for the freedom of the hostages.  In a final attempt to humiliate Carter, Khomeni held their plane in Tehran until after Reagan had taken the oath of office.

At the end of the film, Carter’s voice is heard describing why the story had to remain secret, even though revealing it might have helped his chances for reelection in 1980.  Still, the rescue mission may yet have one final legacy—an Oscar nomination for best director for Ben Affleck.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

"Boardwalk Empire," Season 3, Episodes 2-3

Eli Thompson is released from prison and Nucky’s rivalry with Gyp Rosetti accelerated in episodes 2 and 3, but the intriguing historical angle came from a subplot involving Nucky’s African-American ally, Chalky White.  His family reveals the class divisions that emerged in the North as more and more Southern blacks moved to the region during the 1920s and beyond.

While Chalky’s wife and kids are educated and firmly part of the black middle class, Chalky is illiterate.  Last season, we saw some subtle tension within the family because of this dynamic.  This split comes to the forefront when his daughter’s would-be doctor boyfriend asks him for permission to marry her.

With European immigration cutoff because of World War I, Northern industrialists recruited black labor from the South.  Black newspapers like the Chicago Defender also played a pivotal role in this effort, urging their southern brethren to make the journey to the “Promised Land.”  Black populations in cities such as New York, Detroit, and Chicago grew considerably.

While Northern blacks encouraged the migration, tensions emerged when the newcomers arrived.  Southern blacks were often very deferential to white people, frustrating the older residents.  The newcomers’ evangelical worship seemed strange to Northern blacks raised in more reserved Protestant churches.  Chalky hints that her wife’s father was not thrilled when he initially met him, in part due to these kind of regional differences.

Chalky’s kids mention both jazz music and the poet Claude McKay.  Both represented key elements of black culture during the 1920s.  A distinctively African-American form of music, jazz emerged during the decade, particularly in New Orleans and Kansas City.  McKay’s poetry was part of the Harlem Renaissance, a flourishing of black culture that occurred as a result of the greater freedom experienced by Northern blacks.

By episode 3, we continue to see echoes of the “Godfather” series in the show.  Nucky is experiencing guilt over shooting his surrogate son Jimmy Darmody at the end of season 2.  This seems a clear parallel to Michael Corleone’s guilt over ordering the death of his brother Fredo in “Godfather II.”

Not so sure about the show’s direction at this point.  Rosetti doesn’t appear to be an engaging villain; he is simply so insecure that he takes an offense at any comment, making Joe Pesci’s character in “Goodfellas” look restrained by comparison.