Commentary Magazine


Topic: HBO

The Left’s Ornery Adolescents

Why are those Americans who are most distrustful of the U.S. government, and so eager to undermine it, the same ones who are most desperate to give it control over their own lives? Michael Moore has made a big P.R. show of his pledge to pay Julian Assange’s bail. “WikiLeaks, God bless them, will save lives as a result of their actions,” he writes, and puts the U.S. government on notice: “You simply can’t be trusted.” Moore offers advice to those of us who see something wrong with Assange. “[A]ll I ask is that you not be naive about how the government works when it decides to go after its prey.” Right. Instead, you should be naïve about how government works when it decides to take control of your health care, regulate your business, and spend your earnings. Moore, you may have forgotten, calls for the U.S. government to provide “free, universal health care for life” for “every resident of the United States” and demands that “pharmaceutical companies … be strictly regulated like a public utility.” That’s the old anti–Big Brother spirit.

When men like Michael Moore are not calling for the government to be undermined and defied, they’re petitioning for it to chauffeur them to the movies, cook their meals, and tuck them into bed. One news cycle finds HBO’s Bill Maher telling America not to allow the government to inject “a disease into your arm” in the form of a vaccine and that “I don’t trust the government, especially with my health.” The next, he’s calling for “Medicare for all” and lamenting the absence of a fully government-run health-care system that would operate like the U.S. postal service.

At the Nation, progressive totem Tom Hayden penned an article titled “WikiLeaks vs. The Empire,” defending Assange on the grounds that “the closed doors of power need to be open to public review” and noting that “the American people might revolt if we knew the secrets being kept from us.” Oh, and about that secretive and untrustworthy “Empire”? Hayden wants to put it in charge of the health care of all Americans, naturally.

This paradoxical political posturing resembles nothing so much as middle-class adolescent rebellion. Troubled kids protest their parents’ dangerous values, their authoritarianism, their materialism, and the moral hypocrisy that keeps the whole farcical delusion afloat. But most of all, they protest the piddling allowance on which no self-respecting 13-year-old old can be expected to keep himself in the latest combat-based video games, faddish clothes, and instantly gratifying gadgetry.

The troubled kids of the left distrust the extraordinary powers wielded by their leaders in the name of safety and well-being — but it’s also a real bummer that the government won’t assert more power to keep us safe and well.

Why are those Americans who are most distrustful of the U.S. government, and so eager to undermine it, the same ones who are most desperate to give it control over their own lives? Michael Moore has made a big P.R. show of his pledge to pay Julian Assange’s bail. “WikiLeaks, God bless them, will save lives as a result of their actions,” he writes, and puts the U.S. government on notice: “You simply can’t be trusted.” Moore offers advice to those of us who see something wrong with Assange. “[A]ll I ask is that you not be naive about how the government works when it decides to go after its prey.” Right. Instead, you should be naïve about how government works when it decides to take control of your health care, regulate your business, and spend your earnings. Moore, you may have forgotten, calls for the U.S. government to provide “free, universal health care for life” for “every resident of the United States” and demands that “pharmaceutical companies … be strictly regulated like a public utility.” That’s the old anti–Big Brother spirit.

When men like Michael Moore are not calling for the government to be undermined and defied, they’re petitioning for it to chauffeur them to the movies, cook their meals, and tuck them into bed. One news cycle finds HBO’s Bill Maher telling America not to allow the government to inject “a disease into your arm” in the form of a vaccine and that “I don’t trust the government, especially with my health.” The next, he’s calling for “Medicare for all” and lamenting the absence of a fully government-run health-care system that would operate like the U.S. postal service.

At the Nation, progressive totem Tom Hayden penned an article titled “WikiLeaks vs. The Empire,” defending Assange on the grounds that “the closed doors of power need to be open to public review” and noting that “the American people might revolt if we knew the secrets being kept from us.” Oh, and about that secretive and untrustworthy “Empire”? Hayden wants to put it in charge of the health care of all Americans, naturally.

This paradoxical political posturing resembles nothing so much as middle-class adolescent rebellion. Troubled kids protest their parents’ dangerous values, their authoritarianism, their materialism, and the moral hypocrisy that keeps the whole farcical delusion afloat. But most of all, they protest the piddling allowance on which no self-respecting 13-year-old old can be expected to keep himself in the latest combat-based video games, faddish clothes, and instantly gratifying gadgetry.

The troubled kids of the left distrust the extraordinary powers wielded by their leaders in the name of safety and well-being — but it’s also a real bummer that the government won’t assert more power to keep us safe and well.

Read Less

Flotsam and Jetsam

Good advice to conservative pundits from Michael Gerson (in defending Karl Rove): “[A commentator] owes his readers or viewers his best judgment — which means he cannot simply be a tool of someone else’s ideological agenda. Some conservatives have adopted the Bolshevik approach to information and the media: Every personal feeling, every independent thought, every inconvenient fact, must be subordinated to the party line — the Tea Party line.” Read the whole thing.

Good time, actually, for those ferocious Rove critics to apologize. It seems she is a loon: “The story of Christine O’Donnell’s past got a little stranger Friday. Bill Maher — on whose former show, ‘Politically Incorrect,’ O’Donnell appeared repeatedly in the late 1990s — showed a previously unaired clip from Oct. 29, 1999, on his current HBO program, ‘Real Time,’ in which the GOP Senate nominee from Delaware said she ‘dabbled into witchcraft.”’

Good line from Mitt Romney at the Value Voters Summit: “Welcome to the Nancy Pelosi-Harry Reid-President Obama farewell party. This has been a pretty tough year for those three—their numbers have gone down the chute faster than a Jet Blue flight attendant.” And a good speech on Obamanomics.

Good critique of the problem(s) with Newt Gingrich: “Like the former and would-be next California governor [Jerry Brown], Gingrich talks big, but has no loyalty to his ideas. He was for tax cuts before he was against them. He supported a $35,000 congressional pay raise and leaner government. Like Brown, Gingrich’s real skill has been in seeing a trend early and jumping on it, unencumbered by any past positions. … The last time Gingrich set out to save America, he ended up burning his career. He taught a college course called ‘Renewing American Civilization.’ That would not have been a problem except that this modern-day John Adams felt the need to raise $300,000 and $450,000 to bankroll his discourses on American ‘core values.’ That’s a long pricey schlep from the log cabin.”

Good move. “Since General Petraeus took on the commander’s job in June, several aides said, the president has struck a more deferential tone toward him than he used with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, General Petraeus’s predecessor. Often during pauses in meetings, one White House official said, Mr. Obama will stop and say, ‘Dave, what do you think?’” Less Axelrod and Emanuel and more Petraeus, and we might win this.

Good golly. “Two Los Angeles departments have received $111 million in federal stimulus funds yet have created only 55 jobs so far, according to a pair of reports issued Thursday by City Controller Wendy Greuel.”

Good luck to Tom Joscelyn trying to explain to David Ignatius (and the Obami): “For the umpteenth time, Iran is not on our side in Afghanistan. They are currently allied with the Taliban, the mullahs’ one-time enemy. Iran is not going to help us ‘undermine the Taliban.’ They are working with the Taliban to undermine the U.S.-led coalition.”

Good job, Madam Speaker! Now 38 Democrats favor full extension of the Bush tax cuts. Maybe more: “Other Democrats have indicated privately that they prefer an extension instead of allowing rates to expire for top earners, and Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who heads Democratic campaign efforts, has argued behind closed doors for taking a political issue off the table by giving a short reprieve to wealthy folks before the midterm elections.”

Good for her. “A politically vulnerable Democratic lawmaker blasted her party’s House leadership as she demanded a vote to cut the salaries of lawmakers by $8,700 next year. In a letter sent Thursday afternoon, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) pressured Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to hold a vote on her bill to cut congressional pay by five percent and save taxpayers $4.7 million next year before Congress breaks for its fall recess.”

Good for him. Greg Sargent rises above partisan cheerleading: “It isn’t every day that Democrats target Latino challengers with nasty anti-immigrant ads, but these are apparently desperate times for certain embattled Dems. … [Rep. Walt] Minnick apparently sees the need to run an ad that stinks of fear and desperation. Quite a specimen.”

Good news for Republicans in the Hoosier state: “The Indiana Senate seat now held by Democrat Evan Bayh remains a likely Republican pickup on Election Day. The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Voters in Indiana finds Republican Dan Coats leading Democratic Congressman Brad Ellsworth 50% to 34% in the state’s U.S. Senate race.”

Goodbye, Charlie: “Gov. Charlie Crist and the disgraced former chairman of the Florida Republican Party took family vacations on party money, an audit released Friday shows. The two men and their families vacationed at Disney World in June 2009 and put the $13,435.99 bill on the party’s American Express credit card, the audit found. Greer also took three personal vacations to fashionable Fisher Island near Miami Beach, one including Crist, at a cost of $10,992.17, auditors reported.”

Good advice to conservative pundits from Michael Gerson (in defending Karl Rove): “[A commentator] owes his readers or viewers his best judgment — which means he cannot simply be a tool of someone else’s ideological agenda. Some conservatives have adopted the Bolshevik approach to information and the media: Every personal feeling, every independent thought, every inconvenient fact, must be subordinated to the party line — the Tea Party line.” Read the whole thing.

Good time, actually, for those ferocious Rove critics to apologize. It seems she is a loon: “The story of Christine O’Donnell’s past got a little stranger Friday. Bill Maher — on whose former show, ‘Politically Incorrect,’ O’Donnell appeared repeatedly in the late 1990s — showed a previously unaired clip from Oct. 29, 1999, on his current HBO program, ‘Real Time,’ in which the GOP Senate nominee from Delaware said she ‘dabbled into witchcraft.”’

Good line from Mitt Romney at the Value Voters Summit: “Welcome to the Nancy Pelosi-Harry Reid-President Obama farewell party. This has been a pretty tough year for those three—their numbers have gone down the chute faster than a Jet Blue flight attendant.” And a good speech on Obamanomics.

Good critique of the problem(s) with Newt Gingrich: “Like the former and would-be next California governor [Jerry Brown], Gingrich talks big, but has no loyalty to his ideas. He was for tax cuts before he was against them. He supported a $35,000 congressional pay raise and leaner government. Like Brown, Gingrich’s real skill has been in seeing a trend early and jumping on it, unencumbered by any past positions. … The last time Gingrich set out to save America, he ended up burning his career. He taught a college course called ‘Renewing American Civilization.’ That would not have been a problem except that this modern-day John Adams felt the need to raise $300,000 and $450,000 to bankroll his discourses on American ‘core values.’ That’s a long pricey schlep from the log cabin.”

Good move. “Since General Petraeus took on the commander’s job in June, several aides said, the president has struck a more deferential tone toward him than he used with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, General Petraeus’s predecessor. Often during pauses in meetings, one White House official said, Mr. Obama will stop and say, ‘Dave, what do you think?’” Less Axelrod and Emanuel and more Petraeus, and we might win this.

Good golly. “Two Los Angeles departments have received $111 million in federal stimulus funds yet have created only 55 jobs so far, according to a pair of reports issued Thursday by City Controller Wendy Greuel.”

Good luck to Tom Joscelyn trying to explain to David Ignatius (and the Obami): “For the umpteenth time, Iran is not on our side in Afghanistan. They are currently allied with the Taliban, the mullahs’ one-time enemy. Iran is not going to help us ‘undermine the Taliban.’ They are working with the Taliban to undermine the U.S.-led coalition.”

Good job, Madam Speaker! Now 38 Democrats favor full extension of the Bush tax cuts. Maybe more: “Other Democrats have indicated privately that they prefer an extension instead of allowing rates to expire for top earners, and Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who heads Democratic campaign efforts, has argued behind closed doors for taking a political issue off the table by giving a short reprieve to wealthy folks before the midterm elections.”

Good for her. “A politically vulnerable Democratic lawmaker blasted her party’s House leadership as she demanded a vote to cut the salaries of lawmakers by $8,700 next year. In a letter sent Thursday afternoon, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) pressured Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to hold a vote on her bill to cut congressional pay by five percent and save taxpayers $4.7 million next year before Congress breaks for its fall recess.”

Good for him. Greg Sargent rises above partisan cheerleading: “It isn’t every day that Democrats target Latino challengers with nasty anti-immigrant ads, but these are apparently desperate times for certain embattled Dems. … [Rep. Walt] Minnick apparently sees the need to run an ad that stinks of fear and desperation. Quite a specimen.”

Good news for Republicans in the Hoosier state: “The Indiana Senate seat now held by Democrat Evan Bayh remains a likely Republican pickup on Election Day. The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Voters in Indiana finds Republican Dan Coats leading Democratic Congressman Brad Ellsworth 50% to 34% in the state’s U.S. Senate race.”

Goodbye, Charlie: “Gov. Charlie Crist and the disgraced former chairman of the Florida Republican Party took family vacations on party money, an audit released Friday shows. The two men and their families vacationed at Disney World in June 2009 and put the $13,435.99 bill on the party’s American Express credit card, the audit found. Greer also took three personal vacations to fashionable Fisher Island near Miami Beach, one including Crist, at a cost of $10,992.17, auditors reported.”

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Does South Africa’s “Big Love” President Have a Lesson for Liberal America?

You have to hand it to the Republic of South Africa. That continent’s richest country may have a lot of problems, but there’s no obsessing about the sexual escapades of its political leaders in the way we prudish Americans obsess about ours. South Africans appear to believe in marriage and lots of it. In fact, in a story that didn’t make it into the pages of most American newspapers on Monday, Britain’s Guardian reports that South African President Jacob Zuma reaped the congratulations of his countrymen by marrying his third wife today in a traditional Zulu ceremony. The only hitch in the proceedings occurred when the 67-year-old president slipped and fell backward while performing a traditional solo dance throughout which he wore animal pelts and white tennis shoes. He is believed to be uninjured.

According to a different report about the event from the AP, South Africa’s new first (or should I say third) lady, 38-year-old Tobeka Madiba, has actually already been married to the president under civil law (he paid her family the bride price back in 2007) and has given birth to three of Zuma’s 19 children.

But three isn’t enough for the popular Zuma, who revels in his reputation as a representative of Zulu traditionalism. The Guardian says he is planning on marrying a fourth woman, Gloria Bongi Ngema, who has also already given birth to one of his children. His other wives are Sizakele Khumalo, whom he married in 1973, and Nompumelelo Ntuli, who became his wife in 2008. Another marriage ended in divorce (though that wife is now South Africa’s home-affairs minister). Yet another wife killed herself reportedly after describing her marriage as “24 years of hell.”

For those wondering how South African women feel toward a polygamist president, a better question would be to wonder how they feel toward a president who was tried for rape in 2006. Zuma was acquitted of raping the daughter of a family friend. His defense consisted of stating that he believed that the woman’s decision to see him alone was an invitation to consensual intercourse. The following year, the victim was granted asylum in the Netherlands.

While all this may seem either revolting or ridiculous to Western sensibilities, it does raise the question of whether or not polygamy is compatible with genuine democracy. Back in 2006, Stanley Kurtz penned a fascinating piece in the Weekly Standard, which insisted: “Polygamy in all its forms is a recipe for social structures that inhibit and ultimately undermine social freedom and democracy. A hard-won lesson of Western history is that genuine democratic self-rule begins at the hearth of the monogamous family.”

However, as Kurtz noted then, in the era we live in, a growing number of Americans, including the majority of some courts and legislatures, appear to believe that it is not only permissible but also mandatory to redefine our traditional concepts of marriage to allow gay unions. But it isn’t clear what legal — as opposed to religious — principle would mandate that same-sex marriage be labeled kosher while plural marriage still be treated as beyond the pale.

As HBO’s “Big Love” series about Mormon fundamentalists gears up for the premiere of its fourth season this week, Zuma’s shenanigans provide a version of reality TV that makes Bill Hendrickson, the show’s embattled home-improvement entrepreneur with three very different women to deal with at home, look pretty tame. But as Kurtz wrote in 2006, the impetus for the premise of the series may come from a liberal Hollywood mindset that seeks “to highlight the analogy between same-sex unions and polygamy.” The point is, if your libertarian instincts tell you that it’s none of your business if two men or two women marry each other, then why is it the state’s business if one man marries two, three, or four women, so long as they are all consenting adults? Kurtz’s answer, dictated in no small measure by his concern about the spread of polygamy in the West as a result of tolerance for the Muslim practice of plural marriage, was that “stable, monogamous, parenthood-focused marriage” is part of the foundation of a society in which freedom can thrive. There is little question that, as Zuma’s preeminence in South Africa proves, polygamy can lead to a society ruled by men, not laws. That’s a sobering thought that ought to worry even the most ardent libertarians on such issues.

You have to hand it to the Republic of South Africa. That continent’s richest country may have a lot of problems, but there’s no obsessing about the sexual escapades of its political leaders in the way we prudish Americans obsess about ours. South Africans appear to believe in marriage and lots of it. In fact, in a story that didn’t make it into the pages of most American newspapers on Monday, Britain’s Guardian reports that South African President Jacob Zuma reaped the congratulations of his countrymen by marrying his third wife today in a traditional Zulu ceremony. The only hitch in the proceedings occurred when the 67-year-old president slipped and fell backward while performing a traditional solo dance throughout which he wore animal pelts and white tennis shoes. He is believed to be uninjured.

According to a different report about the event from the AP, South Africa’s new first (or should I say third) lady, 38-year-old Tobeka Madiba, has actually already been married to the president under civil law (he paid her family the bride price back in 2007) and has given birth to three of Zuma’s 19 children.

But three isn’t enough for the popular Zuma, who revels in his reputation as a representative of Zulu traditionalism. The Guardian says he is planning on marrying a fourth woman, Gloria Bongi Ngema, who has also already given birth to one of his children. His other wives are Sizakele Khumalo, whom he married in 1973, and Nompumelelo Ntuli, who became his wife in 2008. Another marriage ended in divorce (though that wife is now South Africa’s home-affairs minister). Yet another wife killed herself reportedly after describing her marriage as “24 years of hell.”

For those wondering how South African women feel toward a polygamist president, a better question would be to wonder how they feel toward a president who was tried for rape in 2006. Zuma was acquitted of raping the daughter of a family friend. His defense consisted of stating that he believed that the woman’s decision to see him alone was an invitation to consensual intercourse. The following year, the victim was granted asylum in the Netherlands.

While all this may seem either revolting or ridiculous to Western sensibilities, it does raise the question of whether or not polygamy is compatible with genuine democracy. Back in 2006, Stanley Kurtz penned a fascinating piece in the Weekly Standard, which insisted: “Polygamy in all its forms is a recipe for social structures that inhibit and ultimately undermine social freedom and democracy. A hard-won lesson of Western history is that genuine democratic self-rule begins at the hearth of the monogamous family.”

However, as Kurtz noted then, in the era we live in, a growing number of Americans, including the majority of some courts and legislatures, appear to believe that it is not only permissible but also mandatory to redefine our traditional concepts of marriage to allow gay unions. But it isn’t clear what legal — as opposed to religious — principle would mandate that same-sex marriage be labeled kosher while plural marriage still be treated as beyond the pale.

As HBO’s “Big Love” series about Mormon fundamentalists gears up for the premiere of its fourth season this week, Zuma’s shenanigans provide a version of reality TV that makes Bill Hendrickson, the show’s embattled home-improvement entrepreneur with three very different women to deal with at home, look pretty tame. But as Kurtz wrote in 2006, the impetus for the premise of the series may come from a liberal Hollywood mindset that seeks “to highlight the analogy between same-sex unions and polygamy.” The point is, if your libertarian instincts tell you that it’s none of your business if two men or two women marry each other, then why is it the state’s business if one man marries two, three, or four women, so long as they are all consenting adults? Kurtz’s answer, dictated in no small measure by his concern about the spread of polygamy in the West as a result of tolerance for the Muslim practice of plural marriage, was that “stable, monogamous, parenthood-focused marriage” is part of the foundation of a society in which freedom can thrive. There is little question that, as Zuma’s preeminence in South Africa proves, polygamy can lead to a society ruled by men, not laws. That’s a sobering thought that ought to worry even the most ardent libertarians on such issues.

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Coitus Uninterruptus (and Endless)

You may have heard about the impending release of the movie version of Sex and the City, the long-running HBO show about the travails of four women on the prowl in New York City. The show was actually quite inventive for a half-hour sitcom, since every episode managed to tell four separate stories in the course of 27 minutes, which is actually no small task (most sitcoms have one major plot and one minor plot per half hour). Sex and the City was compressed and therefore seemed to move like a freight train.

So it is horrifying to learn that the movie version of Sex and the City runs — get this — 2 hours and 25 minutes. That’s a whole lot of Kim Cattrall acting more like a drag queen than a woman. Way too much. Which reminds me of the comedian Mort Sahl’s line at the premiere of Otto Preminger’s movie version of Exodus, the story of Israel’s founding. As the movie hit the three-hour mark with no end in sight, Sahl stood up and shouted, “Otto! Let my people go!”

Sarah Jessica Parker! Let the women of America go!

You may have heard about the impending release of the movie version of Sex and the City, the long-running HBO show about the travails of four women on the prowl in New York City. The show was actually quite inventive for a half-hour sitcom, since every episode managed to tell four separate stories in the course of 27 minutes, which is actually no small task (most sitcoms have one major plot and one minor plot per half hour). Sex and the City was compressed and therefore seemed to move like a freight train.

So it is horrifying to learn that the movie version of Sex and the City runs — get this — 2 hours and 25 minutes. That’s a whole lot of Kim Cattrall acting more like a drag queen than a woman. Way too much. Which reminds me of the comedian Mort Sahl’s line at the premiere of Otto Preminger’s movie version of Exodus, the story of Israel’s founding. As the movie hit the three-hour mark with no end in sight, Sahl stood up and shouted, “Otto! Let my people go!”

Sarah Jessica Parker! Let the women of America go!

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The Adams Family

I’ll leave judgments about the historical veracity of HBO’s new miniseries, John Adams, to those with some expertise in the field (at least one historian seems to think it’s not perfect, but not bad either). The real question is: Is it worth watching? And judging from the two episodes that aired this week, the series is (slightly) less than the sum of its parts. The good news, however, is that the parts are generally excellent.

Strong performances anchor the series. Paul Giamatti plays the title character, a lumpy, bald Boston lawyer who finds his way to greatness after successfully defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston massacre. Giamatti is characteristically frumpy here, but he lends Adams an interesting blend of arrogance and anxiety as well. He’s a patriot, yes, concerned for his country, but also about his own family, life, and legacy. It’s a showcase for Giamatti, but Tom Wilkinson (as Ben Franklin), Laura Linney (as Abigail Adams), David Morse (as George Washington) and Stephane Dillane (as Thomas Jefferson) also make quite the impression as well.

Meanwhile, from the costumes to the extravagant sets, everything on the production side is superb, but the standout element is the photography, which looks positively stunning in HD. Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto is a longtime Hollywood hand (I first recall noticing his work in 1991′s The Silence of the Lambs), and his visual trademarks are evident in nearly every scene.

He’s got two main modes behind the lens—the participant and the voyeur. The first mode is primarily used in the larger setpieces, most notably in the series’ opening sequence, which depicts the Boston Massacre; a handheld camera follows Adams as he stumbles through the streets and into the bloody scene, running side-by-side with the man as if his partner. It puts viewers inside the scene, makes them part of it. The more intimate scenes, mostly between Adams and his wife Abigail, are typically shot in low light, and often from another room, or behind an object. The effect is of peering in on history from the outside, watching an American founder from the outside.

The series’ weaknesses come mostly in the script by Kirk Ellis, which, at least at this point, has failed to bring the many other fine elements together. There are many strong moments, especially between John and Abigail (a nighttime monologue in which Adams, laying next to his silent wife, thinks through his dilemma—and those of the country—is particularly touching). But too many scenes feel overly scripted, as if the characters were simply spouting miniature editorials. I have no doubt they were eloquent men, but surely they stumbled once in a while? And in both of the inaugural episodes, there is far too much reliance on courtroom-style drama, as the series would really rather be Law & Order: American Revolution. Still, it’s by far the best thing on TV right now, and anyone with even a passing interest in the subject would do well to check it out.

I’ll leave judgments about the historical veracity of HBO’s new miniseries, John Adams, to those with some expertise in the field (at least one historian seems to think it’s not perfect, but not bad either). The real question is: Is it worth watching? And judging from the two episodes that aired this week, the series is (slightly) less than the sum of its parts. The good news, however, is that the parts are generally excellent.

Strong performances anchor the series. Paul Giamatti plays the title character, a lumpy, bald Boston lawyer who finds his way to greatness after successfully defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston massacre. Giamatti is characteristically frumpy here, but he lends Adams an interesting blend of arrogance and anxiety as well. He’s a patriot, yes, concerned for his country, but also about his own family, life, and legacy. It’s a showcase for Giamatti, but Tom Wilkinson (as Ben Franklin), Laura Linney (as Abigail Adams), David Morse (as George Washington) and Stephane Dillane (as Thomas Jefferson) also make quite the impression as well.

Meanwhile, from the costumes to the extravagant sets, everything on the production side is superb, but the standout element is the photography, which looks positively stunning in HD. Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto is a longtime Hollywood hand (I first recall noticing his work in 1991′s The Silence of the Lambs), and his visual trademarks are evident in nearly every scene.

He’s got two main modes behind the lens—the participant and the voyeur. The first mode is primarily used in the larger setpieces, most notably in the series’ opening sequence, which depicts the Boston Massacre; a handheld camera follows Adams as he stumbles through the streets and into the bloody scene, running side-by-side with the man as if his partner. It puts viewers inside the scene, makes them part of it. The more intimate scenes, mostly between Adams and his wife Abigail, are typically shot in low light, and often from another room, or behind an object. The effect is of peering in on history from the outside, watching an American founder from the outside.

The series’ weaknesses come mostly in the script by Kirk Ellis, which, at least at this point, has failed to bring the many other fine elements together. There are many strong moments, especially between John and Abigail (a nighttime monologue in which Adams, laying next to his silent wife, thinks through his dilemma—and those of the country—is particularly touching). But too many scenes feel overly scripted, as if the characters were simply spouting miniature editorials. I have no doubt they were eloquent men, but surely they stumbled once in a while? And in both of the inaugural episodes, there is far too much reliance on courtroom-style drama, as the series would really rather be Law & Order: American Revolution. Still, it’s by far the best thing on TV right now, and anyone with even a passing interest in the subject would do well to check it out.

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Farewell, Mean Streets

If everyone at the Manhattan Institute suddenly became raving socialists and decamped to Baltimore to concoct a sprawling, five-year missive on urban decay and the failures of public institutions in story form, you might end up with something resembling The Wire. Never before has any television series been so deeply and smartly concerned with the interplay between public policy, local institutions, and individual lives. What happens when teachers’ unions threaten the mayor’s office in a bid to get more funding and the police department budget is shorted? The Wire shows us. And not just at the political level–but also on the streets, in the lives of cops, kids, teachers, and drug dealers, as well as the politicos at city hall.

The HBO series–as far as I’m concerned, the best that television’s ever seen–ended last night with an episode that managed to be both satisfying and appropriately open-ended (Andrew Johnston has a great write-up on the finale over at The House Next Door). Sopranos creator David Chase should take note: As much as I enjoyed and defended the non-ending ending to his show, this is how to end a major series. Major plot points were largely resolved, but the intractable problems of social organization and human fallibility were not. That’s one of the marks of a genuinely great series-that it feels as if there is something outside the confines of the hours we see on screen. In that respect, no other show comes close to what Wire-creator David Simon has accomplished over the last five seasons. These stories come to an end, but for everyone in the show who survives–and, in this case, that means much of the city of Baltimore–life will go on.

If everyone at the Manhattan Institute suddenly became raving socialists and decamped to Baltimore to concoct a sprawling, five-year missive on urban decay and the failures of public institutions in story form, you might end up with something resembling The Wire. Never before has any television series been so deeply and smartly concerned with the interplay between public policy, local institutions, and individual lives. What happens when teachers’ unions threaten the mayor’s office in a bid to get more funding and the police department budget is shorted? The Wire shows us. And not just at the political level–but also on the streets, in the lives of cops, kids, teachers, and drug dealers, as well as the politicos at city hall.

The HBO series–as far as I’m concerned, the best that television’s ever seen–ended last night with an episode that managed to be both satisfying and appropriately open-ended (Andrew Johnston has a great write-up on the finale over at The House Next Door). Sopranos creator David Chase should take note: As much as I enjoyed and defended the non-ending ending to his show, this is how to end a major series. Major plot points were largely resolved, but the intractable problems of social organization and human fallibility were not. That’s one of the marks of a genuinely great series-that it feels as if there is something outside the confines of the hours we see on screen. In that respect, no other show comes close to what Wire-creator David Simon has accomplished over the last five seasons. These stories come to an end, but for everyone in the show who survives–and, in this case, that means much of the city of Baltimore–life will go on.

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