Sunday, October 11, 2009

TV: The Good, the Barack and the Ugly

The best new drama of the season is CBS' The Good Wife airing the last hour of prime time each Tuesday night. It is clearly the best scripted, the best acted and the best produced hour of drama -- and on that, we're leaving "new" and pitting it against all dramas.


It has many things going for it, chief among them the amazing Julianna Margulies in the lead role of Alicia Florrick. Alicia has two problems, two joined problems. The problems should allow for viewer identification.

First of all, Alicia has had to leave her fabulous home in a posh neighborhood and move to an apartment in the city. It's a nice apartment but it is a step down for her. And the step down also involves her children leaving their private school and going to public schools, her returning to work (as a lawyer) and facing other economic realities that may allow for identification on the part of many viewers struggling with an economy that just will not recover.

Whatever you have, imagine losing it? What would your chief fears be? Did you wonder if you'd lose friends over it? Alicia has lost all her posh friends. In the third episode (which aired last week), a teenage boy shows up at the law firm asking for help. His mother used to be Alicia's best friend. Before the fall. Alicia takes the case and ends up clearing the young man of a murder charge. His mother thanks her and says she'll call and they'll get together. Alicia smiles, looks her in the eye and replies she won't call, that they both know it, and that it's okay.

It's a powerful moment and Julianna handles it beautifully. But why the moment? What was the downfall for Alice?

Like many a woman, her downfall had little to do with her own actions. She placed her faith in a man. She married him, she had children with him and he moved up and up in his profession but he couldn't keep it in his pants and a sex tape surfaces forcing him out of his State Attorney job and into a prison sentence.

His crimes land him behind bars. Alice 'crime' was placing her faith in an undeserving man.

Did someone say Barack?

Last week ended on a hilarious note: Barack was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and people are still trying to figure out what Barack did to win the prize? Not us.

We've never had to wonder.

We've been singing along with Stevie Nicks on "Paper Doll" since 2007 whenever Barack walks into view.

You love a man with a future

You love a woman with a past

Well do you really believe that

She said to faces in the crowd

-- written by Stevie Nicks, Rick Vito and John Heron, first appears on Fleetwood Mac's The Chain boxed set.

You love a man with a future. A woman? Never.

Barack didn't win for what he did. He won for being a man. He won for what he might do but mostly he won for being a man. We honestly think, considering the scant number of women awarded the prize, it should change its name to the Nobel Penis Prize.

Barry O won the Nobel Peace Prize for doing nothing.

What a proud moment.

And two Saturdays ago, a Saturday Night Live skit was pointing out that Barack had done nothing. Fred Armisen, who we've praised many times before, played Barack. How could we have missed that, the multitude wondered and pondered in various e-mails to this site and The Common Ills?

In the skit, Fred as Barack reflects on the 'accomplishments' since being sworn in: "When you look at my record it's very clear what I've done so far -- and that is nothing. Nada. Almost one year and nothing to show for it." He concluded with, "So looking at this list, I’m seeing two big accomplishments: jack and squat. And remember I can do whatever I want. I have a majority in both houses of Congress. I could make it mandatory for all gays to marry and require all cars to run on marijuana. But do I? No." The skit quickly went viral online.

We didn't miss it. And we always planned to tackle the topic.

But what interested us was not the skit itself but the response to it. And Saturday night/Sunday morning, that was impossible to gauge. We expected the response to be a lot of nervous Nells insisting it was unfair. We expected to see a lot of derangement.

As it turned out, we were not mistaken.

It's hard to figure out who was the most ridiculous so let's just start with CNN. CNN decided to fact-check the skit. Wow. CNN never fact-checked George W. Bush's claims in the run-up to the Iraq War but damned if they don't have the time to fact-check a skit on a TV show. Never fail to grasp that when Ted Turner was muscled out of CNN, all the integrity the network had left with him. Greg Marx (CJR) observed that even sadder than the fact that CNN was fact- checking SNL was the fact that CNN wasn't: They had to farm the fact-check out to Politifact. That left Marx to wonder if the news network didn't "think it has enough authority, on its own, to fact-check a comedy skit?"

At CBS, the news division disagreed with the opinion commentator (John Dickerson). Politico lined up a bevy of opinions. We'll note Rory Cooper, of the Heritage Foundation, in full:

More Cowbell! SNL has a school girl crush on Obama. If all that I knew about President Obama, I got from SNL or the Daily Show, even I would be his biggest supporter. It took the crew at SNL weeks to come up with one little sketch that parodied the President and even then he was a cool guy who we shouldn't be so concerned about.

And it's too bad, because SNL's presidential parodies are a classic staple of Americana. From Phil Hartman's Reagan in the Oval with the girl scouts, to Dana Carvey's Bush (especially the debate against Dukakis), to Hartman's classic Bill Clinton in a McDonald's. Heck, Will Ferrell is still drawing a paycheck on his 'George W. Bush is dumb' bit. But the past year, they have really had kid gloves and clearly an agenda. Too bad too, because there is some great material from his teleprompter, to Van Jones, to his predictable lines like "Let me be clear," "Some will say," and "As I've said before…" I hope SNL sets aside their love affair and gives us more laughs at Obama's expense, which I'm sure even the President would appreciate. A great cast right now, so I expect more. Armisen, Forte, Hader, Meyers, Samberg, Sudeikis and the amazing Kristin Wiig have high expectations.

Here we are, two leftist feminists, and we're agreeing with a guy at the Heritage Foundation. But he is correct and an e-mail exchange with him (Ty did the first e-mail for us -- we're on the road speaking out against the Iraq War so if you get an e-mail from Ty speaking for us, it's for real, we just don't have the time) revealed him to be highly knowledgeable about SNL.

His favorite SNL skit is "President Reagan Mastermind," followed by Phil Hartman's Bill Clinton at McDonald's and he also enjoys the "lockbox" debate between Bush and Gore. He was so nice and knowledgeable that we'll even give a link to his organization despite the fact that it's far, far to the right of us. (Or we're far, far to the left of the Heritage Foundation. Take your pick.)

We're not attempting to suggest that his opinion was the only thing worthwhile about the Politico piece. For example, a quick study of a photo of an adult-child will allow you to immediately grasp why the parent would have so much plastic surgery. You can also marvel over how stupid professors can be.

Take, for example, Joshua Tucker of NYU. He tosses out a stream of words that are as meaningless as his final thoughts: "would be interesting to know how much other presidents 'accomplished' in their first 8 months in office . . ." He has to wonder that because he knows nothing about domestic politics or campaign politics. He studied Russia, folks. He studied Russia.

That might explain why the moron's whining about a skit that aired in October critiquing Barack's "first 8 months in office". Poor little Josh, so confused by the ways of the United States where January is the month presidents are sworn in. Meaning, it's nine months, going on ten, for Barack. Poor little Tucker, he thinks the way to defend his crush is to attack someone else so he goes after Bill Clinton: "Bill Clinton, on the other hand, couldn't 'accomplish' his way out his supposed fondness for Big Macs." Hey, Josh, spend at least nine months on Jenny Craig before you attempt to knock anyone else's weight. Okay?

Then there's the professor we corresponded with who thinks 'logic' and debate is declaring, "Most people seemed to agree with me; you guys notwithstanding." And you wonder about the sorry state of academics? We didn't realize that the art of criticism was a popularity contest but then we didn't realize we were "you guys." For the professor who can't debate and can't distinguish male from female, we offer up this from the Chicago Tribune's Clarence Page, "Even the gifted Fred Armisen, who could pull off an Obama imitation almost good enough to fool the Secret Service, found jokes at Obama's expense fell flat." Look, it's one more person who thinks Fred does an amazingly dead-on spoof of Barack and, look, it's from a person with a penis. That last detail will, of course, allow the opinion to carry more weight with our unnamed professor. (Read the Politico article, you should be able to figure out who he is.)

As foolish as he was, he and CNN get trumped by the Supreme Drama Queen, the online world's own Mary Wilson, ladies and gentlemen, Brett Michael Dykes. Monday morning, BMD took to Yahoo blog to ask "Is SNL right that Obama's accomplished 'nothing'?" and we believe reading his post out loud would take up more time than the actual skit did. Yes, BMD is a member of the Cult of St. Barack. Remember that, to keep the faith, the followers have to give up the facts. Which is how Brett ends up writing:

Pull all troops out of Iraq: In February, Obama told congressional leaders that he wanted all troops out of Iraq by August 2010. On June 30th of this year, a large number of troops were pulled out of the country, a move that was understated here in the U.S., but was met by dancing in the streets in some parts of Iraq. At the time of the withdrawal, the American military leadership refused to put a number on how many troops remained, though some have estimated that number remains as high as 124,000.

"On June 30th of this year," Brett maintains, "a large number of troops were pulled out of the country". Are you laughing yet? If not, grasp that Yahoo pays Brett to write. Now laugh. He goes on to insist in the sentence that there was "dancing in the streets" but 'forgets' to link to evidence of that. Ourselves, we saw no dancing in the street videos June 30th or July 1st. We'd give Brett the benefit of the doubt but, honestly, it would appear far too many already have.

"A large number of [US] troops were pulled out of" Iraq on June 30th? Silly Brett, they didn't leave Iraq. Now we know it can be hard when someone insults your boyfriend. We know that. We grasp it. But you really need to stick to the facts. On June 30th, some US troops pulled out of Iraqi cities and went to bases (not in Iraqi cities -- some went to bases in Iraqi cities). There was no departure from the country itself.

So far, Alicia hasn't followed Brett's lead. Like Barack's inability to act, her husband's inability to keep it in his pants is known far and wide. And she's not defending him, she's not covering for him. She's getting on with her life and is not really sure what, if any, part her husband will play in it if he's released. (Chris North plays her husband Peter -- what an apt name.)

She's focused on her kids and she's focused on her job. Her kids are struggling to adjust to the new neighborhood, the new school, the gossip that never ends, the money that's no longer there and more. At work, she's struggling to keep her job. Cary (Matt Czuchry) has already revealed to Alicia that only one of them will be hired by the firm after the trial period. He thinks it will be him. Cary is every bit the pisher James Spader's character was in Baby Boom if not more. He not only attempts to undermine Alicia, he takes credit for her wins.

Eager to assist him in that is the show's resident bitch Diane Lockhart who, in a bit of typecasting, is played by Christine Baranski. Baranski's role in season two will be decided by viewer reaction -- so far she's already pissed off the crew and a good portion of the cast. Regardless of her antics, never let it be said that Baranski couldn't convincingly play the woman you love to hate. And then some.

Josh Charles plays the character everyone will love and that's a problem because you end up fearing they're going to pair Will and Alicia. The two are friends from college and anything more not only changes the show but feeds into Cary's simplistic mind which believes that Will only brought Alicia in to get into bed with her. Charles is certainly sexy enough to be paired with Margulies -- having burned off all the boyishness that doomed so much of his 90s work. But an office romance really isn't where the show needs to be heading at present.

The most complex office relationship is the one between Alicia and Kalinda (Archie Panjabj) who is the firm's investigator. The two are from completely different worlds and their differences spill over in the scenes easily and freely while at the same time their bonding usually allows for a way to look at a case in a fresh manner.

The writing needs to be praised because for all that Panjabj brings to the role (a tremendous amount), even on the page, Kalinda is different from Alicia (and the other characters). At a time when most TV scrips require you repeatedly look at the name of the character to find out who is speaking, The Good Wife has worked very hard at providing each character with their own way of speaking on the page.

These strong scripts are then turned over to strong actors. Chief among them Julianna Margulies. Face-to-face with the man who released her husband's sex tape to the press, Glenn Childs played by Titus Welliver, Alicia levels him with, "You're worried about my husband, Mr. Childs? You've obviously never made a woman angry." There's never any doubt that, indeed, Alicia's the one he better worry about.

We worry about Julianna. Carol on ER wasn't the one you were supposed to notice. But she was the one you noticed and they had to do a major rewrite on the character because the audiences embraced her. It was an amazing performance, an Emmy award winning one. And there aren't a lot of roles in film or TV that an actress like Julianna can really go to town with. She found one in Canterbury's Law last spring. She was an attorney in that one as well but far less noble and she was just amazing.

We were attempting to juggle several different shows and a suit at Fox swore to us that the network knew what they had and they would be standing by the show. So with other things to grab, we put it on hold and, next thing we knew, the show was cancelled. (Who makes the decisions at Fox? The execs we know are always clueless. We noted the cancellation of one show . . . and Fox brought it back.) So in early August, we began charting out the shows we needed to immediately cover. We always try to alert you to what you must watch and what you must avoid in our first reviews. We knew ABC was iffy on Cougar Town. We knew it was strong and in danger of being watered down or, worse, cancelled quickly. So that was our lead for the season. We also knew Jenna Elfman's show had stunk on paper but that they had worked really hard to fix it and had fixed it. It's a hilarious show and check out Monday's episode on CBS if you don't believe us on that. But what to do with Julianna?

We'd already hailed it as the best new drama here. Could we wait or not? CBS suits (two) told us we could wait. They swore that CBS knew what it had with this show. A part of us believed that and another part of us thought, "Wait, mere months ago, Fox was telling us the same thing." No, really, they swore, we get that this is a quality show and one that viewers are going to love.

But this is the world where, last week, Fringe had two guest stars. Leonard Nimoy returned in his role and got all the publicity -- for what were basically flashback scenes. Meanwhile, same episode saw Theresa Russell give a strong and touching performance as a woman from Walter's past and no one in the Water Cooler Set seemed to even notice. Their loss.

No one does loss like Julianna. No one can make you feel that loss and no one on television can make you as happy as one of her characters because they're haunted and lived in and you just wait for them to get a moment of joy, a moment of happiness. And Julianna works through these characters with so much skill and so much talent that you wish they'd just build an entire network for her to showcase her in one role after another. She doesn't play a character, she inhabits one.

And Alicia and all of her sideways glances and delicate touches is a full bodied woman completely unlike Carol and unlike Elizabeth (Cantebury's Law) and unlike anything Julianna's played before.

And we're going to miss having the chance to praise the work she's doing?

No, not happening. Which is how Julianna's show ended up being the first drama we reviewed for the fall season and the third show. This is a program that you want to catch and that you want to catch regularly. It's an intelligent drama and there's so much talent going into each episode. We weren't going to live with the regret of twice not being able to weigh in and urge you to catch the magic while it was onscreen.

However, turns out CBS friends weren't lying and weren't misinformed. The show does have (at least currently) the support of the network: It's already been given a full season order. And if you wonder why CBS has so much faith in the series, tune in Tuesday night as the show explores jury tampering. Tuesday nights, last hour of prime time, CBS. And to catch up on past episodes, visit and CBS (at least for now -- CBS doesn't like broadcasting online for free).
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