The Alliance Wore Gray, Joss Wore Brown

I probably became disenchanted with scifi(/fantasy/horror) TV in 1997, when Chris Carter began his serious neglect of The X-Files with a very unsatisfying cop-out resolution of the 4th-season cliffhanger.  I have long been dissatisfied with the episodic, itinerant nature of TV writing that results in discontinuities and inconsistent quality.  I am not insensitive to the pleasures of following beloved characters through the misadventure of the week; indeed, this has been my only reason for keeping up my investment in the various Star Trek series.  I guess I just want TV to be smarter, and it appears that the only way to ensure that is to concentrate creative control, i.e., get an auteur.

1997 also marked the debut of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, notably created, coddled, and championed by Joss Whedon.  I didn’t know who Whedon was at the time, so I couldn’t appreciate that he had written the Buffy film and was trying to achieve with the series what he could not with the film (the idea that a TV show could be cooler than a movie was unknown in the 20th century).  I don’t apologize for taking one look at Whedon’s series, carried by UPN (of camp-fantasy Hercules and Xena fame) and populated with beautiful twenty-nothings posing as high schoolers, and dismissing it as probably funny but not worth my time.

Later, as the series stretched its legs and Whedon subjected his characters to ever sharper twists, I became aware of critical praise for Buffy, both from the media and personal acquaintances.  Of course, if Buffy were in fact a series of such dramatic integrity as to reward an investment of my time, I should like to have viewed it whole, from start to finish, and boxed DVD sets of complete series were (and remain) financially intimidating to the casual viewer.  When the series finally concluded in 2003, a more avid advocate obtained the DVDs and extracted a vague pledge from me to watch them, but by then I had become a parent, reducing my leisure time by a factor of twenty.

Since then, my leisure time has become more flexible, and NetFlix and BitTorrent have combined to make catching up on TV and movies much more quick, convenient, and cheap.  I still haven’t taken the plunge on Buffy, but I have been prodded by influences even more convenient and cheap to invest my time in Whedon’s most recent series Firefly, as well as the "re-imagined" Battlestar Galactica series.  The writing on both shows is impeccably consistent, and the "off-key" character moments are tolerably low.  The actors are still dishy, but at my age that’s no longer an obstacle.

What I find fascinating is the evolution of the relationship between television creators, distributors, and consumers.  Ten years ago, when the bulk of online fandom was restricted to Usenet, I remember the fans of Northern Exposure (another series marred by the creators’ refusal to honor the integrity of their vision and wrap the series up when Fleishmann departed Cicely) struggling to convince CBS to renew the show with a "grass-roots" letter-writing campaign.  I was struck by the organizers’ then-novel suggestion that fans volunteer consumer-demographic information along with their pleas to support the artistic merit of the show.

But even as television has gotten inarguably smarter and creators have achieved greater autonomy, competition has become even fiercer.  Whereas Buffy suffered a cancellation by one network only to be picked up by another, it had a multi-season run before the suits got cold feet.  Firefly, launched just five years later, was broadcast on differing nights and out of sequence, resulting in a disappointing 13-episode run before being cancelled.  In both cases, disciplined fan response to cancellation has met with success—Buffy was picked up by another network, and Whedon was allowed to resolve some open questions from Firefly when he made Serenity.  It no longer suffices to write letters; the Firefly producers cited cash offers towards hypothetical "futures" in DVD releases as evidence of the fan support necessary to solicit the studio backing for Serenity.

I was still plowing through the first season and a half of Battlestar Galactica when Serenity hit the theaters, and I (correctly, it turns out) resolved to watch all of Firefly first, and so it was that I had to see Serenity at the last theater in the county still showing it on the same day that everyone (who doesn’t work for Microsoft) was queueing for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  My spoiler-ridden comments on can be found here.


There Are Many Copies

I guess this explains my fondness for full-length mirrors:
You scored as Lt. Sharon Valerii (Boomer). You forget things. Are they important? You think you might be a Cylon, but does that make you a machine? Who are you? Who am I?

Lt. Sharon Valerii (Boomer)
Lt. Kara Thrace (Starbuck)
CPO Galen Tyrol
President Laura Roslin
Dr Gaius Baltar
Number 6
Capt. Lee Adama (Apollo)
Col. Saul Tigh
Tom Zarek
Commander William Adama
What New Battlestar Galactica character are you?
created with QuizFarm.com

Of course, Baltar is my hero; he’s the perfect narcissist.  He and Six hit the post-feminist Sadean dynamic spot-on.


President Hastert

My son Oscar turns four tomorrow, and I’m up to my chin in preparations for Saturday’s party.  In all seriousness, however, I cannot imagine a more joyous birthday present for anyone of Oscar’s generation than this.


Smiley Of The B.D.A.

Probably only readers of John le Carré will appreciate the odd juxtaposition that bit me in a comment thread over at Henley’s and prevented me from working on anything else until I had purged it.  Updates, if any, will be posted to the Archival entry.


If You Can Keep It

Mark Schmitt brilliantly captures the unique threat that the Bushies pose to our democracy.  All Americans would do well to remember that while there is much to admire in our Constitution, laws, and democratic traditions, they alone are insufficient to guarantee incorrupt government.

I just completed The Secret Man, Bob Woodward’s memoir of his relationship with W. Mark Felt, the granddaddy of all anonymous sources, Deep Throat.  The book provides the final refutation of the myth of the investigative reporter as guardian of democracy; Felt was just another Washington player (with anti-Constitutional hobbies of his own) who used Woodward to damage a White House that Felt regarded as a rival and usurper of the prerogatives of Hoover’s FBI.  Following the Watergate resignations, convictions and pardons, Woodward never again exposed a source to as much peril as he did Felt, nor did he write anything that would have jeopardized the access to power that flowed from his newfound celebrity.

The domination of the American political scene by two large parties is an artifact of our first-past-the-post electoral system.  Ostensibly, the intent of this system is to encourage candidates and parties to moderated their positions to appeal to as large a majority as possible.  Two "big-tent" parties also permit crossover votes in Congress, including the ballyhooed "collegiality" of the Senate, where the longer election cycle results in greater bipartisan cooperation.

The Rove Republicans, however, are no longer playing by these unwritten rules, and they have changed many of the written rules.  By scorning and, indeed, actively suppressing the swing vote while relying on a perpetually outraged and energized base, the Bushies are rejecting decades- if not centuries-old American democratic tradition.  In fact, they are behaving precisely like a party in a democracy governed by proportional representation.

If we cannot rely on either an independent press or the (small-r) republican spirit of our representatives to preserve our pluralistic democracy, perhaps we should change the rules to accommodate the Bushies’ monolithic partisanship.  Let’s toss out the Electoral Collage, as well as the 435 congressional districts.  The president/vice-president shall be elected by a straight plurality of all national votes, and the seats in the House of Representatives shall be apportioned by proportional representation (the states can keep the Senate as is).  Then let the Bushies try to build a coalition without an over-represented FatherHomeland or their beloved Southern strategy.


Are You Ready For The Summer (To End)?

Our retrospective on the career of Bill Murray continues with a look at Meatballs.  With Oscar heading off to school and our camping gear slowly disappearing into the attic, I was easy prey when I spotted the DVD for $10.

Meatballs was the second entry in a series of Ivan Reitman-Harold Ramis collaborations, including Animal House, Stripes, and Ghostbusters.  It was also the first Bill Murray vehicle, yet it transcends the type-casting that dogged Murray over his first decade in filmmaking.  Murray’s early characters were typically slackers/scoundrels that hammed it up and then redeemed themselves in the final act.  While Murray’s Tripper in Meatballs has many clownish moments, he is in no need of redemption; for everyone around him, he is the source of wisdom (although he needs to humbly and happily earn the favors of the formidable Roxanne).  The film focuses on Tripper’s patronage of Wudy the Wabbit*, but in fact Tripper is responsible for the welfare of everyone at Camp NorthStar; he is the most grown-up person in the film.

In hindsight, it is clear that Murray had always been instinctively aware of the delicate balance between comedy and gravity, and that his more recent triumphs are best understood as the fruition of his talents.  But it neither Murray’s performance nor his transcendence of the limitations of the (pre-)teen comedy genre that endears Meatballs to me.  Proximally, while I never saw it in the theaters (my family moved from Tucson to Seattle in the summer of 1979, a rather traumatic displacement for me), I must have seen it a couple dozen times on Showtime, surpassed perhaps only by my uncounted viewings of Star Trek II: The Wrath of (Sili)Khan.

Despite not having seen the film in Tucson, for me Meatballs very specifically evokes what it was like to be ten years old and alone, whether away at camp, attending a new school, or moving to a new city.  Ten is an age when one learns that there are different kinds of friends, and that it pays to be selective.  For many kids, it is also when they are first exposed to older teenagers who are not simply surrogate parents but confidants who will give them the inside skinny on growing up.  For all their foibles, heedless hair, and unfortunate clothing, the counselors-in-training at Camp NorthStar look exactly like the teenagers I looked up to in 1978-9.  The film is also severely dated by the wretched montage-ballads, but I must confess that these days, when confronted by images of plastic aviator glasses and Castro-district-shorts set to swoony lyrics, there is no other word to describe my reaction than nostalgia.

Of course, I never attended anything like Camp NorthStar; who sends their kids away for the entire summer?  These are supposed to be the poor kids?  I went to camp a week at a time, both in the Chiricahua Mountains and on the shores of Puget Sound, at most twice but usually once in a single summer.  It was church camp, but that didn’t seem to make a large difference to either the campers or the counselors appointed to watch over us.  Even after such a short duration, there were always tears on the last day (which returned unbidden last month when we picked Oscar up from his day care for the last time).

I suppose I’m obliged to make the Old Fart™ observation that they don’t make movies like Meatballs anymore.  A year after it was released, Jason Vorhees hit the theaters and forever changed the way cinema regards summer camp.  More significantly, teen comedies are now either too ironic or too gross to pause to celebrate the fleeting fellowship between 17-year-olds who give up part of their precious summer to adjudicate pillow fights between 8-year-olds.  "If you make one good friend a summer, you’re doing pretty well."  How’d you make out this summer?

Meatballs also inaugurated my ill-starred identification with Chris Makepeace, as I can trace my habit of early rising to Rudy’s magical discovery of Tripper’s jogging regimen.  This fascination would result in a latent anti-urbanism after My Bodyguard, and end in temple-pounding tears with Mazes and Monsters.


Aren't They Cute?

While I’m sure some would argue that I’ve already filled my niche for Quirky Obscure Sport Familiarity, I have to admit to being frequently tempted to follow the CFL; it's like college ball without the recruiting scandals.



The appalling spectacle in the wake of Hurricane Katrina has exposed many unpleasant realities about our nation, few of which should surprise anyone.  But perhaps the most alarming revelation is the stunningly poor response by FEMA and the Department of Defence Against the Dark Arts Homeland Security.  From the cronyism of Michael D. Brown to the inattention of Michael Chertoff, the Federal agencies charged with catastrophe prevention, mitigation, and relief were woefully unprepared for a large-scale emergency that not only could have been but in fact was predictedMultiple times.

As even the press have realized, this failure goes beyond extreme conditions, incompetence, and red tape.  Some may be inclined to attribute it to the institutionalization of our national, "I got mine, fuck you and yours" ethos.  Others see the fruition of the campaign of hostility towards government itself.  But it is clear to me that the images and sounds of last week most strikingly revealed the great fraud that the Bush Administration has perpetrated upon the American public: that after 9/11, whatever else you might think of George W. Bush and his policies, he will use all the powers and resources of the government to protect the American people.  The fear and chaos of 9/11 drove many Americans to suspend their judgment of Bush for the promise that he put their security first and would not suffer it to be compromised for any reason.  For those who care to look, this promise can now be seen to have been a base, venal lie.

In the weeks after 9/11, the public was cautioned against scam artists posing as charitable organizations, soliciting donations that would never reach the victims and their families.  From the criminal neglect of FEMA to the Kafkaesque reorganization of Homeland Security to the hostile indifference to post-invasion planning for Iraq, the Bushies have made a big pitch for security while hastily erecting the thinnest possible scrim between the American people and whatever peril awaits them.  Meanwhile, the national debt has exploded, the middle class has shrunk, and now we’re repealing the estate tax.  As political grifters go, Rove, Bush, and Cheney are masters of the long con.


Governing Best, Governing Least

Critics of the Global War On Terror™ have often chided Bush for squandering post-9/11 national unity by not asking Americans to make sacrifices.  I hope such critics are happy now.


The Last Worst Hope

While some might be tempted to derive churlish pleasure from the sight of President Bush chased out of Texas for the only state that could possibly be redder, I don’t find the Cindy Sheehan story to be anything other than depressing.  A woman, driven by an unknowable combination of grief and narcissism, is nevertheless canny enough to capitalize on Bush’s Louis XIV-esque vacation habits and captures the attention of an August-neglected press corps, who then squirt out self-congratulatory maunderings on the redoundingly obtuse question, "Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all, was it?"

Some lefties have dared hope that Sheehan’s vigil will snowball into a widespread peace movement that will compel an American withdrawal from Iraq, a triumph of inarticulate moral clarity à la Amazing Grace and Chuck.  I surely sympathize with holders of such hope; one of the most dismaying effects of the 2004 election was the false impression that Bush opponents were in the gross minority, and it would sure be nice to feel a rush of righteous solidarity.

It would also be nice to hope for something positive again.  For over four years now I have been of the opinion that the Bush Administration is an opportunistic cabal of kleptocrats and bullies who have studied the Atwater-Rove school of exploiting fear, rage, racism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and religious bigotry to preserve and expand their political power, and who would think nothing of jeopardizing the strength of America’s reputation, the health of the American economy, or the lives of American servicemen if it meant winning another election.  Before the 2004 election, I had hoped the catastrophic incompetence and malfeasance of the Bush Administration would become apparent to the American electorate, but for the sake of my country I had difficulty with how that hope might be fulfilled.

This is the fundamental dilemma of our executive war powers; once war is approved by Congress (and make no mistake: they approved this war), there is no check on the president short of electoral defeat.  Certain terrible things are inevitable in war: innocent civilians will be tortured and killed; patriotic citizens will repeat and defend governmental lies; brave servicemen will suffer disabling wounds and death.  Our only hope that our war aims justify such atrocities lies in the wisdom and honor of the president.  Recognition of this reality, and that in 2004 a majority of American voters approved of Bush’s job performance, left one feeling very cold.

Nevertheless, for two reasons I cannot indulge in the hope that the "moral authority" of Cindy Sheehan and other bereaved families will succeed in turning public opinion against the war.  The first reason is one of perception.  If the decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq becomes primarily identified with "peaceniks," giant-puppet-protesters, and the casualty-averse, then supporters of the war will have all they need to peddle their "stab-in-the-back" theory (and don’t fool yourself; they’ve got it all ready to go).  I know that in democracy one often has to take allies where one finds them, but some allies do more harm than good.  It’s to maintain this rhetorical distance that Democrats need to tread firmly but precisely.

The more fundamental reason to fear the Sheehanization of the anti-war argument is that it is bad policy.  The logical conclusion of Sheehan’s position is that Bush’s war would have been acceptable had it resulted in fewer American casualties.  There were a host of conceptual flaws to the invasion of Iraq, but the risk to American servicemen was not one of them (indeed, the hyper-aggressive security policies and rules of engagement intended to minimize risk to American troops have almost certainly contributed to Iraqi discontent with the occupation).  The lesson that the Bushies seem to have drawn from Vietnam is that as long as the American body count is kept low, no other rationale for war is required.  Sheehan’s position validates that lesson.  By appealing to Sheehan’s putative "moral authority," opponents of the war abdicate their responsibility to make a rational argument against the war.  Exploiting such sentimental demagoguery has been the modus operandi for the Bushies from stem cells to 9/11 to gay marriage to Terry Schaivo, and for the left to indulge in it would be no less despicable.

So, for believers in reasoned, democratic discourse, it’s pretty much hopeless.  Indulging in petty Schadenfreude only emphasizes that once the troops went "over the berm," there have been no good solutions.  I’m not even above suspecting that Rove has also provided for a foolproof exit scenario.  What’s truly depressing is that, given the Bushies’ penchant for energizing their base by categorically opposing anything supported by Democrats, it may be our only hope.



I suppose this means I’ll have to dig out my old Eva Gabor LP from 1970 now.  You’ll never look at a bloodhound the same way again. (via Colby Cosh)


I Guess We're 11 And 2 Now

As the upgrade of our video library to DVD continues its inexorable march, I picked up Stripes - The Extended Cut.  As is typical of such warmed-over editions, the extra footage doesn’t really add anything to the original movie; they were right to cut it.  The commentary track does highlight the misbegotten pitch behind the film ("Cheech & Chong join the army") and wrestles (sorry) with the potentially fatal problem of why would two ostensibly intelligent guys enlist in the first place.

The "legendary" South American scene is completely dispensable from a plot perspective, but Harold Ramis acting stoned is eerily entrancing somehow.  P.J. Soles finally has a good topless scene, for those who have been feeling that particular void for the past couple of decades.

On a demographic note: repeated viewing of the army barber scene may prove helpful in helping my three-year-old son overcome his terror of hair clippers.  He has already become enamored of Bill Murray’s esprit de corps, which should come in handy when we’re setting up the New Model Army that we’ll be needing pretty soon now.


Don't Bring The Boys Back Home

Jim Henley nicely nicely summarizes why I have little patience with those who advocate unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.  What’s particularly demoralizing about this is that was depressingly obvious before the war, yet no one in either the pro- or anti-war camps wanted to consider it at the time.


King Of The Shaggy Dogs

Eric reads all three volumes of Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, and then proceeds to spoil it.


The Bomber Always Gets Through

It took less than 24 hours after the London bombings last week for me to get so tired of Edward R. Murrow impersonations that I was ready to report the next violator to Gregg Easterbrook.  Then on Sunday I was listening to NPR’s Weekend Edition interviewing Charles Wheeler, a BBC correspondent who lived through the Blitz, and I decided that we could learn something from the comparison after all:

Well, I was very young—I was about seventeen, eighteen—and to be honest with you, I quite enjoyed it.  It was exciting.  The main thing about it was we expected bombing; we’d been told for years that the bomber always gets through.

What was true for easily-identified Luftwaffe planes is as least as true for domestic terrorists, as the British population learned in the 1970s.  Andrew Sullivan waxed Churchillian in his praise of the British response to the recent attacks, but (perhaps it would sound flat coming on the heels of his annual Independence Day bathos) he stopped short of judging the British attitude toward terrorism superior to that of Americans.  Such restraint is polite but misplaced.

It has been nearly four years since 9/11, and the American government has shown much more interest in keeping its population in a state of paranoid narcissism than in instilling public resolve.  We’ve added two hours to everyone’s air travel time and confiscated a landfill of nail-clippers, even though it’s an open secret that baggage screeners are under-trained and over-worked.  We’ve declared open season on harassing, detaining, and extraordinarily rendering immigrants and foreign students, despite the fact that welcoming such pilgrims has always the best way to spread the modernity meme/virus that so threatens the jihadists.  We’ve made it politically feasible to discuss extra-Constitutional incarceration of U.S. citizens, as if this weren’t the gravest possible insult to every serviceman who gave his life defending "The Land of the Free."  And we’re conditioning ourselves to accept an ever greater level of militarization and fear-mongering in every area of our lives, even though it in no way decreases the likelihood of a terrorist attack.  This is not how you win a war.  It is, apparently, how you win elections.

At the end of this month, I’m taking my three-year-old son for a weekend trip from Seattle to Portland via Amtrak.  As an urban resident in the 21st century, I fully expect to observe plenty of unattended packages and suspicious behavior, but I do not expect to notify the authorities of anything more threatening than an unsanitary restroom.  I owe my son what we as a free society owe ourselves: the dignity to live our lives unbowed and unfettered by either the solipsistic fantasies of our enemies or the paternalistic bullying of our government.