Sunday, March 30, 2008

TV: A very strange week

Gwen Ifill's off her meds again. We realized that was the message Friday's Washington Week on PBS was attempting to convey as host Gwen declared, "There are a lot of unanswered questions about that woman." She was referring to US Senator Hillary Clinton currently running for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination but the way she intoned, we were thinking back to That Hamilton Woman which starred Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier and was once seen as providing powerful performances from both actors, peformances worthy of study and praise. But things change and history has a way of ripping credit from women. So these days Vivien Leigh is mainly spoken of for her illnesses and all her many acting accomplishments are little noted. Olivier? Even all the rumors about Olivier didn't kill the excitement over his acting, but, then, he's a man.

We remembered Medium and that made us think of Agnes of God. In that film, method actors Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft gave tremendous performances, not just individually; in fact, it was the matchup between the two actresses onscreen that was most riveting. And we thought about how two Method actress co-starring wasn't something that garnered endless exploration; however, let Lee Strasberg students Al Pacino and Robert De Niro appear in the same film and it's 'news!' The way the no-sparks-on-screen in Heat qualified as 'news' and something to still reference and the way advance publicity on Righteous Kill has done the same. Fonda and Bancroft, two Academy Award winning actresses team up and most of the gas bags on acting still act as if it never happened. Kind of the way they can never shut up about Rober De Niro's weight gain (so committed!) for Raging Bull while acting as if they're unaware that Fonda put on many pounds to play the lead in The Dollmaker.

This seaon, Medium's offered sparks between Patricia Arquette (who stars as Allison) and Academy Award winner Anjelica Huston. It's provided tension and levels that have taken the show in an entirely new direction and Huston's giving the best performance of any guest actor on a series this decade. That's a credit to both women but let's focus on Houston for a minute because her incredible performance has received very little attention.

Huston could be starring in Anjie! if she wanted. She's a big enough name that she could have her own sitcom. She could also plug herself easily into one of Dick Wolf's cookie-cutter roles by making one simple phone call. Instead, she's guest starring on Medium and playing a very complex role in terms of what we accept from TV dramas in that she's not going for likeable.

"Oh, she's the bitch," you say. No, she's not playing that role either. This isn't Huston does Joan Collins. She's playing a difficult, cantankerous person -- a role many men are allowed to essay on television but few women. And Cynthia, her character, is not suffering from a disorder which is the only way a female guest star gets offered the opportunity to show true range in most dramas. As if America needs that 'out' when a woman's not all smiles and sunshine.

Cynthia's a missing persons investigator and she's sought out Allison for help. Backstory, Medium wrapped up a multi-arc story last May which found Allison outed by the press (guest star Neve Campbell) as a pscyhic which led to her losing her job for the district attorney and district attorney Manuel Devalos (Miguel Sandoval) losing his job. That season also featured Allison's husband Joe as the victim of work place violence when a crazed former employee held employees hostage. Since the company was awarded government contracts and doing classified work, the fact that the work environment was not secured meant that Joe should be receiving much money in a lawsuit against his company. With the outing of his wife as a psychic, no one wanted to represent Joe after his attorney walked.

All of that's to explain that Allison and Joe, who have three daughters, need money. They are very much in debt with creditors hounding them constantly. So when Cynthia shows up with a job offer, it really didn't matter what she was like, Allison needed the money. That plot device has allowed Huston to really bring dark shades to Cynthia who frequently snaps at Allison, mocks Allison's abilities and provides new meaning to the term "prickly."

With Arquette, Huston has an actress every bit her equal and, as with Fonda and Bancroft, far less interesting are the numerous individual details they're bringing to the scenes. Those are important, no question. But what you watch instead is the powerful duo of actresses and how they mesh and how they clash. While Huston is easily giving the strongest guest performance of the decade, equally true is that the performances the two give as a duo should be legendary already.

And in a fair world, it would be. But we don't live in that world, do we? We were reminded of that on Friday when Bill Moyers Journal offered up yet another take on race in the United States -- a topic we would have assumed he'd exhausted already this year going as far as he wanted to in conversations with Dr. Kathy, interviews with Shelby Steele, etc. March is, after all, Women's History Month and it will apparently end without Moyers ever exploring it. Rather strange with it being Women's History Month and on the heels of CBS News poll which found:

Voters are slightly more likely to say that a woman candidate faces more obstacles than a black candidate when it comes to presidential politics even as they see racism as a more serious problem for the nation overall, according to a new CBS News poll. Thirty nine percent of registered voters said a woman running for president faces more obstacles while 33 percent said a black candidate does.

But TV's rather strange these days. Let's return to Washington Week for further evidence. If you visit the website of the program, you'll read: "New polls showing Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton in dead heat . . ." That wasn't a point the gas bags appeared to grasp.

Joining Gwen were James Barnes of National Journal, Doyle McManus of The Los Angeles Times, Jeanne Cumming of bad online media and AP's Charles Babington. (Babington, the hair was perfect, truly. No sarcasm.) And there was a great deal of 'churce' (as Spencer Tracy would pronounce it) morsels of what passed for 'revelations' but only revealed how shallow the discussion was. Doyle and James embarrassed themselves so frequently that it was difficult to tell them apart after a few minutes.

One offered, "She's thousands behind! If you don't count Florida and Michigan." Thanks for the add-on but shouldn't a press be aware that a presidential election in November will take place in all fifty states? Shouldn't a press not be concerned with the talking points of the Obama campaign and report the facts which is Hillary isn't behind due to Florida and Michigan?

If there's a re-vote, by all means, replace the votes. But there was a vote in both states and Hillary won both primaries. While it may not be in the Obama campaign's best interest to include those totals, the press is supposed to report what happened and what happened in those states' primaries was that Hillary won. "If you don't count"? Why wouldn't the press count them? They took place, millions voted. More people voted in the Florida primary, for example, than took part in all the primaries and caucuses before Florida combined. If you're the press, not the Obama campaign, and you're talking about the popular vote, there's no reason not to include Florida and Michigan. The press reports what happened. What happened is that Florida and Michigan voted. The delegates may be in dispute but there's no question that voters in both states showed up at the polls and no question about who won.

Another "churce" bit was this, "The voters seem to ask about healthcare so it's up to us to ask larger questions." This was in relation to the non-stop nonsense regarding Hillary's flight to Bosnia. The public cares about healthcare but the press focuses on "larger questions"?

We haven't seen that in the bulk of the coverage. What we have seen is tear down a candidate with a record to lift up one with no-record. Jeanne was her usual idiot self so we'll just ignore her the same way we ignore her 'news' 'outlet.' (We look forward to Gwen sitting down with Perez Hilton at the roundtable soon since he has more traffic than Jeanne's outlet and is, honestly, more photogenic than Jeanne.)

James made a point we applauded but Gwen stuck to the scripted narrative. On Jeremiah Wright, Barack's pastor, mentor and friend of over 20 years, James got in, "But I don't think it's passed." Gwen wasn't interested. The press had declared two weeks prior that it was over, so, in Gwen's mind, it's over. Someone forgot to pass that memo on to Andrea Mitchell. Thursday on NBC's Today, this was reported [you can hear or view a podcast at Today]:

Andrea Mitchell: And now even more controversy regarding Rev. Wright. An internet search reveals church bulletins over the past year with controversial pastor pages from the reverand. Some reprint anti-Israel writings from a range of people -- from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to an advisor to Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farkahn of the Nation of Islam and Hamas leader Musa Abu Marzook. One of Marzook's columns, reprinted by the church from the Los Angeles Times, says "Why should any Palestinian recognize the monstrous crimes carried out by Israel's founders and continued by its deformed modern apartheid state?" Obama told the Jerusalem Post the church was outrageously wrong to reprint the article and he denounced Hamas. And Trumpet, a magazine run by Wright's daughters quotes him as saying "White supremacy is clearly in charge" and slurring Italian's quote "garlic noses" and he also calls Jesus' crucifixion "a public lynching Italian style."

We've already had the damning of the United States from Wright, now we learned that he insulted Italians as well. For the record, we're aware of no connection to the African slave trade on Italy's part and wasn't that the reason Obama's nearly 5,000 word speech offered to excuse Wright's damning of America? Wasn't that the excuse hidden behind: "There was slavery!" And, of course, "There was Jim Crow!" As if either excused a pastor standing in front of a church and calling down damnation upon the United States in his role of person of God? It was a hateful thing to say and now we get even more evidence of the hate and Gwen doesn't want to explore the issue.

That's really amazing.

But it was a pretty amazing week. While the gasbags of Washington Week continued to offer their "It's over, Hillary, pack it in!" nonsense (despite Gwen's statement the week before that "If they want to have a fight all summer long, we'll cover it all summer long"), it was left to Joe Scarborough, of all people, to make some sense last week.

Appearing on MSNBC's Race for the White House (Taylor Marsh provides video here), he confronted a pompous Brit named Richard Wolf who insisted that the press ("we") decide.

Joe Scarborough: 'We'? You said that's how 'we' decided it? If that's the way the Democratic Party decided it then they wouldn't have super delegates! Let me tell you what 'we' love to do. 'We' in the media love to tell everybody, which 'we' have been telling everybody for months, that the numbers don't add for Hillary Clinton, she can't get enough delegates . . . Well guess what? The numbers don't add up for Barack Obama but 'we' don't tell that side of the story, do 'we'?" The super delegates are the rules of the Democratic Party and they can go any way they want.

It's a thought that's never occured to Gwen or multiple gasbags. They just keep working from the Obama talking points and calling what they do journalism.

As if Joe Scarborough as a voice of reason wasn't a big enough shock for the week, Friday we caught ABC's The View and saw Joy Behar proving to America that you really do get the face you deserve after forty. At this point, she's practically an overstuffed chair with a nozzle attachment. Behar used her time to ask 'pressing' questions to guest Barack Obama, such as how he was related to the actor Brad Pitt. We'll assume that was one of those "larger questions" that the 'infantile' public just doesn't think to probe the candidates about.

Barbara Walters was present. Despite offering that she found Obama "sexy," she then tried to summon up the authority she once held (and squandered) as a host of 20/20 asking, "When I just talked about you saying no member -- anybody doing that wouldn’t be working for me and you said its because the reverend has retired. Had the reverend not retired, were he still there, would you then have left the church or have said I just can't have anything to do with him?"

For those who've paid attention as the Wright scandal has unfolded, prepare to chuckle at Bambi's response: "Had the reverend not retired. Had he not acknowledged that what he had said had deeply offended people and were inappropriate and mischaracterized what I believe is the greatness of this country, for all its flaws, then I wouldn't have felt comfortable staying at the church."

Wright spewed hatred for 20 years.

Which part was offensive to Bambi?

Wright's never apologized so what's this nonsense about him having "acknowledged that what he had said had deeply offended people and were inappropriate"? Wright retired in January. Bambi was a member for 20 years. The excerpts getting media coverage from his sermons, the chuch bulletin notes Andrea Mitchell highlighted, did not take place this year or last. He has a long body of work but we're supposed to believe Bambi that he would have stepped down when, in fact, for 20 years he was just fine with it, just fine attending the church, being a member, soaking up the hate Wright rained down.

It was a very strange week and reminded us of a recent episode of Medium where Allison learned that a state senator supporting Manuel's campaign (for his old job as district attorney) was actually a canibal; Allison repeatedly explained what she was seeing and repeatedly was ignored, dismissed or just not believed. The man was 'charming' so the truth didn't matter and, in that storyline of Medium, we felt as if we were seeing the press coverage of the Democratic Party primary critiqued.

Allison's a mortal. That may be confusing to some. It confused The New York Times last year when a columnist felt the need to decry the show and others as a sign of our societal decay. Apparently someone's parents didn't let her watch Bewitched, The Girl With Something Extra, The Flying Nun, Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The New York Times saw in Medium evidence of a society trying to escape. As if 'reality' programming doesn't already provide that?

Actually what Patricia Arquette so strongly conveys is a woman who cannot escape. Not only does she have a gift/power that brings her problems, it's been passed on to at least two of her three daughters. Allison's a fighter and Arquette captures that as well as the price she sometimes pay for being that. It's a very complex performance (and an Emmy award winning one) that Arquette continues to provide but it is also a story of one woman trying to make a difference. It's amazing how quickly a show revolving around such a storyline, a program revolving around a woman, is reduced to societal decay by The New York Times.

But hasn't it also been amazing to watch the coverage of Hillary Clinton and the fawning over Barack Obama; That was captured perfectly on Friday's Washington Week. Remember that we told you Gwen passed over exploring whether Jeremiah Wright was having any impact on the Obama campaign even when James Barnes was attempting to interject that he didn't think it has passed? What you may not have caught is that Doyle McManus offered nothing of value. Is it having an effect? Doyle could have spoken to that but elected not to leaving us, again, surprised.

See, we caught Doyle's act Friday morning on the first hour of NPR's The Diane Rehm Show. Doyle was dismissive of any fallout over Jeremiah Wright then as well. But, funny thing, actual news happened during that broadcast. A caller from Dallas, Texas, named John, phoned in to explain that he voted and caucused for Barack Obama and had been selected as a delegate. The process now is for the state to determine which ones selected got o Colorado in August. But John was explaining that he could no longer support Barack Obama; Why? Because of the revealations about Jeremiah Wright's hate speech. Doyle, on Rehm's program, declared it was "buyer's remorse." Somehow, on PBS' Washington Week, when the issue of Wright was brought up, Doyle didn't think John was worth mentioning, didn't think a pledged delegate announcing he could no longer support Barack Obama due to Wright was anything worth sharing.

It was a very strange week and the thing we had to keep reminding ourselves is that Medium is scripted but our 'news' and 'public' affairs programs aren't supposed to be. NBC is airing Medium now on Monday's in prime time's final hours. The program also streams episodes online. In the latest storyline, viewers learned that, last decade, Cynthia's daughter was kidnapped. Allison had clues but Cynthia didn't want to believe her. Allison's one fictional woman fighting for her truth. In the real world, Hillary Clinton is among the many doing so.
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