Sunday, July 13, 2008

TV: The dog days of summer and the dogs

Summer television is so sub-standard that it's really sad when something even semi-interesting comes along and is betrayed from the start. Take CBS' Flashpoints. If it doesn't sound like a series you'd be interested it's because it has a lousy title.


Not only is the title lousy, it's already been used. By the same network. Not all that long ago. In 2007, CBS aired a prime time special anchored by Katie Couric entitled Flashpoint. (Subtitle "A War Chronicle, A Story of Bravery, Recovery and Lives Forever Changed.") The hour long drama currently occupying CBS' last hour of prime time on Fridays is not a news program. Nor is it an ode to a welder who wants to become a ballerina -- though we do see how some could make that mistake. It could have been called Sniper -- which was it's original title. It probably should have been called Elliot Survives Barely.

The reason for that is because, if you're a TV viewer, the first few minutes of the show are bound to have you thinking, "He took the break up with Maya so hard!" Elliot and Maya would be characters from the NBC sitcom Just Shoot Me. Enrico Colantoni played Elliot in the sitcom and plays the much less chipper Sgt. Gregory Parker on the drama. It will throw you for a few minutes, but, like Colantoni, you'll quickly adapt. Parker oversees the action and Colantoni makes you buy that skill -- even though the action does not include the coming on to models that TV viewers are familiar with him doing.

Largely, the cast is fine. Colantoni is a stand out, as are Hugh Dillion and Amy Jo Johnson. The latter two are snipers under Parker and, where there is crisis, there is Parker and company. In Friday's debut the hostage was a man who had an altercation with his wife, shot her dead and took a female bystander hostage.

The show opened with the hostage scene and then doubled back to the beginning. If you're thinking, "How very Quentin Tarantino," remember this is CBS and that's practically revolutionary for them. Revolutionary is the camera work which for the bulk of the show was some of the finest broadcast this year. The action scenes had action and tension and the multiple cameras (including hand-held) helped to create that.

Along the way, it sagged. Not surprising because the exterior work is amazing but the interior shots are pretty much the usual fare. The sagging gave you time to ponder "pro"-"cess." Dillon's character shot the man holding the hostage. Apparently he killed him because the scene contained talk of an autoposy. So you might have also wondered why they handcuffed a dead man? (They did handcuff him after the shooting.) But you probably kept coming back to "pro"-"cess." In America, people tend to say "process" ["praw-cess."] So you might have thought at first, "Oh, there's a character with a backstory of some kind. He's from Canada." But then another character starts saying "pro"-"cess." The show is filmed in Canada and supposed to take place in some unnamed big city (it's filmed in Toronto).

That may explain the different look -- and the exterior camera work is rich with color. We're not stressing the camera work because we have nothing else nice to say. (When have we ever worried about saying anything nice?) We're stressing it because, watch the show, there's some amazing work being done.

Other than Dillon's character, no one was given much to do. (He's troubled by the shooting and also bickering with his wife about her parent's anniversary.) There was a nice (and unexpected) moment where Dillon and another actor sang Gilbert & Sullivan. All of the actors gave the appearance that they lived beyond the camera frame. In 2007, it is not just the finest hour long new show CBS has aired, it's the finest of all the hour long shows CBS has aired -- old and new.

Since it is shot in Canada and uses Canadian writers, it wasn't delayed by the writers strike. So the real question here is why CBS waited until the summer to air it? For all the talk of being competitive in the summer, summer has become the time when networks burn off their lemmings. It wasn't always that way. Summer TV shows could go on to become hits. One of the best known examples would be The Sonny & Cher Show. But in recent years, that's not been the case and networks have mainly stuck to reruns which has allowed programs made for cable to further erode the broadcast viewing audience. This summer CBS has already offered a bust (Swingtown) and NBC's offered the ambitious Fear Itself. To provide on our own backstory, friends at CBS were hyping us on Swingtown. They never said a word about Flashpoints. Which has us wondering whether they just thought we'd like (bad) soap opera better or if no one realizes how good the cop drama is?

If the best program they've managed to stumble across isn't appreciated, they should all head over to PBS which is so frightening in the summers that every time a promo comes on for Bill Moyers Journal, we hold our breath until we're sure it's that show and not Bill Moyers American Tranny Experience. A network that builds its summers around fare such as the swap meet extravaganza that is Antique Roadshow (on all year, sadly) and the very bad History Detectives, doesn't have much to offer -- and even less to brag about. After catching Secrets of the Dead, we really started fearing Moyers would soon be dispatched for a weekly show where he makes over drag queens. The episode we caught (supplied to us by friends) was "Umbrella Assassin." The program bills itself as, "Part detective story, part true-life drama, SECRETS OF THE DEAD unearths evidence from around the world, challenging prevailing ideas and throwing fresh light on unexplained events." and apparently "fresh" doesn't include anything innovative done with cameras, editing or storytelling. In other words, it plays out a lot like Dick Wolf's cheapo, syndicated reality program Arrest Trial which even Have No Shame Wolf doesn't brag about.

'Prevailing ideas' were all that the program tossed around and the only "challenge" was for viewers to stay awake through yet another narrated program that used a lot of stills and teased like crazy to fill an hour. If that's what PBS thinks storytelling is, we are all in trouble and maybe they better stick to swap meets. The only 'unique' thing may have been the use of a filter over the camera to give everything some sort of look that made us feel like we were either underwater or staring at an aquarium. We decided the mood they were going for was "fishy."

It turned us off so that we were hesitant when PBS friends insisted we had to catch Foreign Exchange with Daljit Dhaliwal. We've caught a few shows in the past (including the Naomi Klein interview) but were reluctant to review it.

It's not a left show. We tried reviewing it months ago but kept coming back to, "It's not a left show." That's an issue because the host, Daljit Dhaliwal, has an accent and BBC experience, so there's a tendency in the United States to assume you're getting the gospel truth and, for reasons we've never been able to figure out, a left view. It must be that, so starved are we in the United States for a left point of view, the BBC's centrist view can seem as if was the lovechild of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. Yes, we realize that's impossible. It's also impossible for anyone steeped in the BBC to be a left voice.

During the initial phase of the illegal war, some PBS stations in this country carried the BBC coverage and, to American audiences, it was the truth, it was reality. It certainly wasn't like anything they saw on domestic news programs but, check with British audiences, it wasn't 'left' either.

At it's best, the BBC news division does what American news programs used to do. Ignore a great deal but provide some bits of realism. The BBC coverage of the Iraq War was too much realism for some vocal Americans and, bit by bit, many PBS stations began dropping it. In retrospect, maybe that was the first indication of how easily the Iraq War could fall off the radar? One minute you had hours and hours of coverage, the next they were back to Antique Road Show and Sit and Be Fit -- from bombs dropping to arm curls with a bag of dried beans.

The Iraq War was what sold us on last week's program. Two words, actually: Camilo Mejia.

Dhaliwal introduced him by noting he "was the first" Iraq War verteran "to publicly refuse" to continue serving. We'll provide the backstory. Mejia was serving in Iraq when his contract was due to expire. He could not be stop-lossed because he was not a citizen. The legality of stop-loss itself is in question, but Mejia could not be extended. But he was. From Iraq, his captain called the Florida National Guard and Kathy Tringially explained to him that he had to be discharged since his contract expired months ago. That was the policy. It was ignored. Mejia had not only served in Iraq, he had served his eight-year contract. "Why did you go AWOL?" Dhaliwal wanted to know and that detail is important part of the story.

Mejia noted that before he deployed to Iraq, he was "opposed to it politically;" however, serving "in Iraq, my opposition went from being political to personal." He spoke of the POW camp where Iraqis were treated inhumanely and he spoke of the combat missions that used the soldiers as bait and were directed from outside the battle "by officers with no combat experience." Mejia sketched out how soldiers would be sent to civilian populations on a mission and kept there longer than necessary because the point was for them to bait, to lure out resistance fighters. It would have been nice if Dhaliwal had appeared interested in that and explored it because what he described is not (as he noted) what they were trained to do and it put civilian populations at risk.

Many times, in casual conversations, you'll hear someone make some comment about how Iraqis who are opposed to the illegal war and resisting it with violence are attacking their own. What Mejia outlined is the US command attacking its own soldiers by intentionally putting them at risk and using them as a magnet to spur attacks. We've heard Mejia, chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War, tell his experiences many times and each time something new stands out. For us, that's what stood out. For Dhaliwal, it was time to move on to another question.

"The personal experience," Mejia explained, "is what I think made me a conscientious objector." And it just flew over Dhaliwal. We would have asked him to explain what he had gone through and what he was still going through to be granted CO status. We would have talked about how the situation is actually worse today than it was during Vietnam. We would have pointed that, in the past, people have been granted CO status if they fought it, even after a war ended.

The reason we would have done that is Mejia is often called a "deserter" and it's left at that. We don't oppose desertion based on ethical grounds. (And we're not all that concerned with desertion for any reason in this illegal war.) But Mejia's story is a complicated one and reducing it to "desertion" not only fails to note his reasons and his continued battle for CO status, it lets the military off the hook for their own breaking of the rules. His contract expired. The military knew they could keep him and had to discharge him but refused to do so. That's when, while on leave in Miami, Mejia took action.

To be clear, if he had time on his contract and had deserted, we wouldn't support him any less than we do today. Our point is that his story is much more complex and "deserter" really lets the US military off the hook when they failed to obey their own regulations. The same body that will scream "Regulations!" at everyone serving in it refused to follow them.

It's especially a point that can't be overlooked when the host is asking him about "loyalty." (His reply, "I think loyalty means speaking the truth.") She asked about his contract that he signed and he noted no one signed an agreement that said "you're going to commit torture, you're going to participate in an illegal war." Mejia noted to Dhaliwal that the only thing protected were the Ministry of Oil and others (such as the National Museum) were allowed to be vandalized and pillaged. He explained, "I believe this was about corporate profit. Iraq sits on the third largest oil resevoir."

Watching, two things stood out. Mejia is a hottie. We had just finished watching Flashpoint and the end was very weak with a new character being introduced in the final minutes who is supposed to be good looking but we found about as sexual as cream cheese. The second was that Road to Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia still has not received enough attention. Dhaliwal did show the cover on the program. We will assume she knows what is happening on camera. But does she know what's happening online?

We ask that because we intended to talk about much more including "spooks." (The ones ordering the torture who used aliases.) But we didn't take notes on the program. Daljit Dhaliwal kept going on and on about transcripts being available online. Well, yes, they are. At a cost ($10.00 -- our quotes in this are from memory). Besides the fact that Clark Kent doesn't intend to tell Perry White that he's Superman, there's also our ethical objection: PBS is public television. We've stated repeatedly that its transcripts should be online, that it should be available in easy to stream formats. Had we known that the transcript was for a cost we would have purchased it Friday night but no one should have to purchase it. When flocking your wares, it's important to note the cost. Otherwise, people will assume it's an open bar.

And how drunk did they get before they sat down at the roundtable on Washington Week? It surely couldn't just be the effects of the summer heat. We wondered that as we streamed the program online Friday night/Saturday morning. (Transcript goes up on Monday -- in reply to an e-mail question on how we missed the big Transcript-gate of Washington Week. We write these on Saturday night or Sunday morning. The transcript's not up then.) Our main reason for streaming was that the Green Party's convention was ongoing (it started Thursday and ends today) and Cynthia McKinney appeared to be their likely candidate for president (on Saturday she won the delegate vote, her running mate is Rosa Clemente). If you missed Gwen & the gang in 2008, not a show's gone by without talk of the presidential race. So we wondered, this being public television, whether they intended to live up to the mandate of diversity and provide the coverage they were created to provide (e.g. what the corporate news ignores)?

The convention and the candidate were not discussed, despite the fact that, as usual, the first topics was presidential politics. Which made us wonder exactly how long PBS' public affairs programs intended to ignore McKinney, Ralph Nader and Bob Barr? Our bet is (with a friend on CPB board) that NOW on PBS will be the first to explore all three and Moyers will ignore Nader and McKinney through at least September but may find time to book Barr. Our friend swears that Gwen has to discuss them. We asked, "Have you ever actually watched Washington Week?"

We did. And, again, the question is what were they drinking before the show? We decided Tom Gjelten (NPR) must have had a few wine coolers. To loosen him up. To the point that he declared that "Iran is a conflict we're just getting into." Just? Does Gjelten live in the same world as the rest of us or "just" visit? (He also dubbed it the "greatest strategic threat in generations." Pound those war drums, Tom.) ABC's Martha Raddatz was in full Martha Stewart mode and . . . very mellow. We decided she must have been drinking vodka stingers with a tequila chaser.

If Tom was merely visiting this world, Martha was beaming in from another galaxy. "It felt like an exit phase." "Exit phase." She was stuck on that phrase and, sadly, not speaking of recent bowel problems she'd experienced. No, she'd done another quick turnaround in Iraq and "It felt like an exit phase."

Gwen needs to lock up the hard stuff when Martha comes calling. If you doubt us, pay attention to this: "It doesn't mean it's going to happen in a year. It doesn't mean it's going to happen in four years." And yet, to Martha, on the ground in Iraq recently (or maybe skimming across the sand), "It felt like an exit phase." Apparently, though the illegal war "felt like an exit phase," it suffers from sort of constipation so it could take"a year" or "four years" or more. We'd recommend some fiber so everyone could stop waiting.

But that's the bulk of what summer television is, one long flush. And they wonder why they continue to bleed viewers? CBS has one show to be proud of this summer, Flashpoint. PBS' average is even worse.

For those interested in actual information and news -- in such short supply on PBS currently --
Pacifica Radio will broadcast a three hour special today on the Green Party convention which will stream online at the Pacifica website (noon to 3:00 p.m. EST; 11:00 a.m. to 2 p.m. Central and 9:00 a.m. to noon PST) and presumably be broadcast (and streaming) on all Pacifica station. Shared Sacrifice interviewed McKinney Saturday (program is downloadable online) and CSpan's Road To The White House offers coverage of McKinney and the Green Party convention as well as an interview with Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr (6:30 p.m. EST, 5:30 p.m. Central and 3:30 p.m. Pacific, repeating three hours later in all time zones). And for those who prefer text, Kimberly Wilder (On the Wilder Side) live blogged the convention Saturday.
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