Sometimes You Can’t Go Home Again

It feels like the new television season has started but, well, are there even seasons anymore?  Not only on television but, in general?

How about movies?  Isn’t late September/early October when we begin ushering in the prestige films?  Yet it’s Shang-Chi and Venom 2 for the fall, 2021 box-office win. 

Next….

Not a bad outcome if you’re a theatre owner, since there is very little “prestige” Covid box-office business to be had.  In fact, doing any business at all right now could be considered prestigious.

It was in this spirit that I approached my personal, potentially exciting entertainment choices this week.  And, in fact, it could account for my choices. 

It does not escape me that the three new offerings I was most looking forward to – the new Apple+ series, The Problem with Jon Stewart; the debut of the long-awaited big screen prequel to television’s legendary The Sopranos HBO series, The Many Saints of Newark; as well as the return of Saturday Night Live for SEASON 47, were all subconscious attempts to recapture my past.

Live from LA it’s 2005!

This was a time when the excitement and potential of new seasons seemed infinite.

A time when being snide and being a cynic did not necessarily go hand in hand.

As I recall.

But let’s not quite go there, as the kids say (Note: Or once said!).  Even though Going There is the title of Katie Couric’s new memoir where she dishes former morning show competitor Diane Sawyer as her complete opposite – tall and blonde, with a voice full of money.

Katie is shady and we all know it!

Yes, I’m sidetracking, but interestingly, even my choice of sidetrack subject harkens back to a time of what was rather than who is now.  (Note: And if you don’t relate to that, let enough years go by and, trust me, if you’re lucky enough, one day you will).

As for my choices, let’s say they all have their charms, even as they all, at times, felt a bit charmless and disappointing.  Which probably says more about me than it does about them. 

After all, when you go to a party expecting to recapture the perceived halcyon days of your past, you have concocted a recipe for disappointment.  It’s self-sabotage to the nth degree, and colossally unfair to blame all your troubles on the party you’re standing in.  Which is not to say this present party is entirely blameless.

But home is in 2021…. I don’t want to!!

I’ve loved Jon Stewart a bunch of years before he took over a not very much watched Comedy Central series in 1999 called the Daily Show, revamped it, added his name into the title and in the process changed the face of political social satire and the way young people, in particular, forever perceived the news.

I saw the makings of this back in 1996 in his solo comedy special Unleavened.  That was when this fellow Jewish kid from the east coast took on the then VERY rabidly homophobic Republican Party politics and joked that presidential candidate Pat Buchanan blamed gays for so much of the country’s problems because, of course how can you concentrate on anything with the constant sound of all that butt f—-g going on in your ears.   

This is why it particularly disappointed me at how much I was disappointed in his new bi-weekly Apple+ series.  After all his achievements in re-setting political humor and taking on establishment politics, it seems only natural that the next step would be for him to be less jokey and more proactive in trying to shine a light on the serious issues he’s been mining over the years.

Certainly, Stewart’s time as an advocate for 9/11 responders would lead to him being an advocate for thousands of wounded Iraq War veterans not receiving medical coverage for various forms of cancer and other serious diseases they came down with years after their service due to their exposure to toxic chemicals. So wasn’t the latter a more than a worthy subject for show #1?

Welp, there’s definitely a problem

See, it’s his idea now that in each episode in his new series he takes on an issue – nee PROBLEM, hence the show’s title – introduce the topic with his writers and others, give reportorial examples by interviewing and discussing those it affects; and then look for solutions in a third segment by reaching out to experts and powerbrokers who could effect change.

There’s some humor in there amid all the journalistic talk as well as some satire and commentary.  And it’s a worthy undertaking. But it’s not a laugh riot – nor should it be expected to be.  And yet I suspect a show with as much potential as this could likely begin to drown in a sea of expectations of what we all so desperately want from Mr. Stewart at this point in time and what we actually believe we’re entitled to given the last 18 months.

Right on Chairy!

He seems more than aware of this too since he closed out the premiere episode joking to his writers that once the new show airs and he returns to a table full of comics backstage at a local comedy club he’s dreading lines like, ‘oh look who’s here, Mother Theresa.

Of course, he’s several steps ahead of his audience as usual, looking forward instead of back, even if we (okay, me) are right now unable to do the same.

The Many Saints of Newark is all about looking back because it literally gives us the origin story of HBO’s Sopranos.  Interestingly enough, that series debuted the same year Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show and over eight years became the first cable TV series to EVER break into the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings, essentially catapulting HBO past all of the major networks in television excellence.

It’s all vintage now!

To say that it changed the face of what could be tackled in a one-hour television drama critically and commercially doesn’t quite do justice to the impact it has had on the business model for series TV and on what was possible for all creative teams artistically if they broke out of the constraints imposed on them by the four major television networks.

With that in mind, it’s difficult to not appreciate the joys offered by The Many Saints even though most of us are indeed still watching this new Sopranos FEATURE FILM story on TELEVISION via HBO Max, rather than on the big screen its creator David Chase intended it for.

What even is TV? #deepthoughts

It would also be dishonest to say that by the end of this film one didn’t feel they were now once again ready to revisit the next chapter of the Sopranos family that picks up exactly where THIS FILM leaves off.  Because it’s only by the very end of this film that we fully get where the filmmakers were going with this somewhat generalized, episodic prequel.

Sure, it’s well acted, well made and psychologically cringe-worthy in all the best ways at various points.  But what makes it special, and what makes it tick, is all the knowledge we bring from its six seasons over eight years on HBO.  That was a time when America willingly embraced a larger than life guy running a huge criminal enterprise and family business more deadly and corrupt than anyone could fathom from the outside (Note: Sound familiar?). 

Yet for all their faults, this family, The Sopranos, have always been more inherently conflicted, and scarily human than any of its real-life present day political dynasties.  Which is what makes them all the more riveting and thought provoking in these particular times.

… and then there’s Livia

And to answer the lingering question – yes, Michael Galdolfini is often terrific playing the young version of the title role that his late father James Galdolfini, made famous.   But he doesn’t enter until halfway through the film and by the end we want more of him.  At least an HBO miniseries?  Think of it as the Jersey, or even Jersey Shore, version of The Crown.  Something that doesn’t so much try to capitalize on the past, but instead deepen our understanding of it so as not to want to repeat it.

Which brings us to Saturday Night Live.  In its 45+ years, SNL has covered about the same amount of time as The Crown has covered Queen Elizabeth’s reign.  And overall it has probably been just as effective as a series in its way.  Indeed, both have deservedly won lots of Emmys, delivered high ratings and won all kinds of other accolades even if some episodes or years wound up not delivering, and even disappointing, more often than not.

Unfortunately, this SNL opener this past weekend hosted by Owen Wilson, was much more in the latter category.

I mean.. the suit was good.

Its spoof of female hosts of The View/The Talk, Wilson lambasting Jeff Bezos in space, the show’s take on a local school board meeting with several dozen crazies testifying about government controlled nonsense, and even Wilson spoofing himself voicing a new Cars movie simply felt tired and forced. 

The new SNL cast member portraying Joe Biden – TikTok star James Austin Johnson – showed some promise.  And Pete Davidson on Weekend Update saying the outfit he wore to the Met Ball last week made him look like Tilda Swinton on casual Friday was clever.  But, oy vey, as my Grandma, used to say.  Is that all they got???? 

SAVE US KATE!

Well, next week Kim Kardashian West is the host so how much worse can it get? 

That was both snide and cynical for those keeping score.

Adele – “When We Were Young”

Now… It’s Over

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 11.37.09 AM

Some idiot at MSNBC cancelled Now with Alex Wagner and I’m pissed off. Can one be angry at an idiot who doesn’t know any better? Or is it more appropriate to be p.o.’d at an amorphous thing like a network that doesn’t have any feelings? How much of an effect will that have? Of course, I’ve met a lot of idiots who don’t have feelings so perhaps I’d be better off going with the individual just to make it all feel more personal to me. At least there is some satisfaction in that.

Yes, I realize most of you don’t know who Alex Wagner is or have anything invested in Now. Make of the last part of that last statement what you will. And know that I will explain more about both AW and Now in a bit.   For now, just be aware it’s a mid-afternoon news/talk/opinion show – one of a block of three such programs MSNBC has axed in order to mainstream itself with a CNN-type breaking news kind of strategery. Yes, strategery.

STRATEGERY, my friends

STRATEGERY, my friends

Apropos of that — back to the idiots.

I’ve read this monumentally stupid decision was the brainchild of new NBC News chairman Andrew Lack, who is anything but new. Or news. He actually presided over NBC in its news heyday of the nineties when he helped take its anchor Tom Brokaw from #3 to #1 in the nightly race for ratings among the three major broadcast networks’ Nightly News programs. But does anyone you know watch the Nightly News anymore? (Note: Jon Stewart doesn’t count and in another week he’ll be gone too – waaaaa). Certainly no one reading these words. Or writing them.

No love for Davey?

No love for Davey?

Someone should tell the 68-year-old Mr. Lack that his plan to insert recently deposed NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (Note: Yeah, the guy who was put on “leave” for fictionalizing portions of at least a few more than several news stories he reported on) into the slots occupied by the brilliant and effervescent Ms. Wagner (and others) is akin to me ordering my current film students to sit down in a room and watch Barbra Streisand movies from the 60s and 70s on a loop. Or replacing Jon Stewart with Bryant Gumbel. Well, now I fear I’ve really lost the under 25 crowd. My first instinct was to use the Olivia Newton John or Elton John or even Jimmy Stewart comparison but I doubt any of those would have fared any better.

... and good luck to the over 40 crowd in recognizing this guy

… and good luck to the over 40 crowd in recognizing this guy

I have an unhealthy addiction to what used to be MSNBC and Ms. Wagner in particular because like me they are smart, sarcastic and liberal yet also managed to be surprisingly fair and balanced. Again, make of that last statement what you will but, no, it is not an oxymoron in our current cable news landscape. Also, in Ms. Wagner’s case I suspect she’s a lot nicer than I am. Certainly, she’s more modest. As for MSNBC, up until now they have been one of the few news sources with commentators who are not constantly dumbing down the issues of the day for the “masses,” blanding it down to the point of snoredom or amping it up to the tenor of the Donald Trump parade hosted by Fox News. I was going to say Sarah Palin parade on Fox because I hate to give Trump any more ink at all. But then I realized that evoking Sarah Palin was as relevant as hiring Brian Williams to be the new face of change for a floundering cable outlet. Or giving zzz’s inducing Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd four more hours of daytime programming chores as your second new hosting face.  Kill me now.

Welp... it's about time for my mid morning nap  #snooze

Welp… it’s about time for my mid morning nap #snooze

What did/do I love about Alex Wagner? Well, for one thing she often referred to the 2012 Republican presidential nominee as Willard “Mitt” Romney (Note: His real name) and Donald Trump as the “Teflon Don” (Note: Too nice to be his real name). She could also speak as eloquently about Jay-Z as she could on Zero Based Budgeting, while on that very same show interview everyone from Ron Paul to RNC Chairman Reince Priebus (Note: Imagine being fair with him???) to any bleeding heart liberal on the block with a combination of tough-minded accuracy and good-natured aplomb.

News goddess

News goddess

Oh, and did I mention she’s 37, of mixed race origin and is married to former Obama White House chef, close First Family friend, and now NBC’s newest Today show contributor Sam Kass? Not to be mercenary, but why would you want someone like that anchoring an afternoon chat show on your network in 2015? Instead, let’s contract with more straight, deep-voiced or doughy-looking white men because, god knows, they are the wave of the future. What’s an Obama Coalition, anyway?

I'll have what she's having

I’ll have what she’s having

One might surmise this is less about Ms. Wagner and MSNBC and more about the fact that… the Chair does not adapt to change very well. Hmm, that could be at least partially correct. One strategy to overcome one’s anger – aside from just letting it go – is to welcome change as an opportunity for something better. I mean, the chief message of Pres. Obama to the Obama Coalition was something like: We are the change we have been waiting for. Remember?

Well, that’s a nice thought but in this case it would seem to indicate that the answer to all of this would be for me to start my own network, find another program or, as a last resort, try to figure out a way to hang out with Ms. Wagner on my own. I’m not entirely sure which one is the most doable. Though certainly I could guarantee the one of the three that would be the most fun.

Oh, do not start your own network, honey.

Oh, do not start your own network, honey.

That is, I suspect, the real issue. There is not a heck of a lot of fun in media these days. Or – there is too much of it. It’s entertaining when it’s supposed to be serious/serious when it’s supposed to be entertaining. Is Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly or even Fox News itself meant to be taken seriously? Have you ever tried to watch Fox and Friends? Every so often I tune in to the latter, one of several bizarre series on the top-rated cable network. Last week, when speaking of the surfer who got attacked and nearly eaten by a shark during a competition, one of the geniuses on that show wondered out loud why the surfing area wasn’t automatically cleared of sharks when there was a sporting event going on.

#Dowager4ever

#Dowager4ever

Yet on Ms. Wagner’s final program the Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart got it exactly right when asked about Thursday’s first Republican nominee presidential debate and the emergence of Donald Trump as its inevitable centerpiece. Mr. Capehart offered that the ratings would be high not because of a resurgence in political interest or a worry about the direction of the country. No, he said, it was mainly because it was a great potential entertainment event where you could sit in front of TV with a bowl of popcorn, a group of friends and play the drinking game of your choice as you watched Donald Trump eviscerate a stage full of – well, take your choice on what you want to call them, no partisanship here.

#srsly

#srsly

It is this kind of truth-telling that one seems to only get on shows like Ms. Wagner’s that I will miss. And yeah, I know I might be able to get it elsewhere. And it may even be better. Or it might not and I might be inspired to spend less time nodding my head at the television to people that I already know agree with me and being more productive in my life as a writer, teacher, husband and general citizen of the world.

As Gandhi once famously said – and perhaps this is where Pres. Obama got it from – Be the change that you wish to see in the world. In other words, don’t fight it.

#preach

#preach

Well, that’s a nice thought. But I’m still pissed off at MSNBC, Lack and the whole cabal for their misguided corporate stupidity. As such, in this situation I quite prefer the prose of Dorothy Parker, who many, many decades ago once wrote:

In my youth, it was a way I had,

To do my best to please.

And change, with every passing lad

To suit his theories.

 But now I know the things I know

And do the things I do,

And if you do not like me so,

To hell, my love, with you.

Or, in 2015 vernacular: Bite me, MSNBC.