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UNBINGED: Steampunks and Superheroes: Reviews of Joss Whedon’s ‘The Nevers,’ Netflix’s ‘Shadow and Bone’ and More

There’s a battle brewing, and it’s being fought by streaming services, cable TV, and Primetime television. If you’re too weak to resist, UnBinged is here to help, sharing what to hate, what to love, and what to love to hate.

This week’s reviews: sci-fi adventure The Nevers, dystopian drama Shadow and Bone, and Disney+ Marvel hero hit The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

The Nevers (HBO Max)

Before one can begin to tackle the ass-kicking Victorian women who populate HBO Max’s The Nevers, it is important to address the issues involving its creator Joss Whedon.

Due to accusations by several actors who’ve worked with him, the writer/director who brought us both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Avengers is problematic, to put it lightly, and his alleged actions will be an issue for many when it comes to projects bearing his name. Whedon left the show post-production but he did create it. Like a lot of entertainment out there, The Nevers is best enjoyed if one separates the artist from the art, so that is how it shall be reviewed here.

A Victorian sci-fi drama brimming with supernatural creatures, steampunk aesthetic, and badass femme fatales who can backflip in a corset, The Nevers is an interesting take on a well-worn subject. In lieu of Slayers or Dolls (remember Whedon’s short-lived Fox drama Dollhouse?), we are introduced to “the Touched”– people with extraordinary gifts ranging from extreme height to visions of the future. Society regards such individuals with either disdain or morbid curiosity, but their problems are only just beginning as they are also being hunted by a mysterious order.

The story’s central figure is Amalia True (Jenny Fraser), a prim and proper young widow on a mission to save “the Afflicted”– people with supernatural abilities. And much like Professor X, this belle in a bustle has a few afflictions of her own.

In this age of superheroes, The Nevers is nothing we haven’t seen before. X-Men, Buffy, Dollhouse, Harry Potter…all deal with aspects of everyday people with supernatural powers. However, its witty script helps elevate the material beyond the sci-fi tropes. The deadpan delivery and well-written words serve up laughs and a narrative that clicks.

A sci-fi fantasy with lofty expectations can fail to deliver the goods for a number of reasons and shabby world-building, over-complicated plot, or bad writing have taken down many a lavish production. Thanks to a whip-smart script, well-developed characters, and a talented cast bringing its material to life, The Nevers almost never feels played out, even if its creator might be.

Shadow and Bone (Netflix)

Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is yet another dystopian series in which the fate of all mankind is in the hands of a teen girl. And far as sci-fi fantasy and semi-apocalyptic young adult stories go, it hits all the right beats. There are magical orphans and an ancient prophecy regarding said orphans; CGI cryptids; evil elders and an assortment of British accents. Yes, Netflix’s latest adaptation has all of the end-of-the-world touches we have come to know and love. But is it good?  Yep. But you gotta give it a sec.

Based on Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy and The Six of Crows, the series follows the adventures of Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a soldier turned soothsayer who discovers she is the Sun Summoner– a mythical being destined to save her world. But before she can flex her newfound talents, she must defend herself and her friends from those who wish to control her.

Heavily influenced by Russian history and gunslinger mythology, the Netflix series has a lot to unpack, and the first episode unloads a whole bunch of information on the viewer. It can be a little overwhelming. The audiences must learn the rules by which this universe operates, as well as its history and its unique languages. But once Alina finds her starshine, the story picks up, allowing the audience to get to know the characters and the exotic new world they occupy.

Shadow and Bone succeeds where so many fantasy adaptations fail if you stay with it and understand that it requires a bit of patience. It takes inventive writing and great acting to really bring a world to life, and this one evolves nicely if you make yourself at home for a while. Welcome to the Grishaverse. You are gonna like it here.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Disney+)

Hot on the heels of WandaVision, Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier continued Marvel’s march into Phase Four, once again using its Avengers B-team to both focus on larger issues while setting up future films. If you still haven’t seen the Disney+ drama -which aired its season finale on April 23- it’s time to fly in.

Picking up where Avengers: Endgame left off, Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) is dealing with a dilly of a dilemma as he ponders the options left to him after the former Captain America/Steve Rogers gives him his shield. But just like WandaVision wasn’t a show about a lie, a witch, and a wardrobe change, Winter Soldier isn’t a show about a shield, but rather what people believe it represents.

While the world attempts to recover from both the loss of two of its greatest heroes and the sudden return of half the population of Earth, both Sam and Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) struggle to find their way in a Captain-less world. But the show digs much deeper than that. It is not just about rudderless heroes looking for a cause, but about the disenfranchised- be it a lost population, a reluctant superhero, a misguided teen with a taste for violence, or man-made champions made into monsters.

Winter Soldier has a job to do: it needs to expand previously unexplored characters while introducing new information that sets up the next phase of the Marvel universe. But within this chore, Winter Soldier makes itself relevant by asking difficult questions. Will the world accept a Black savior? What will happen to the previous saviors that were created to protect us? Who will protect us from them? While WandaVision was really about processing grief, Winter Soldier takes on bigger issues, such as systemic racism and a broken political power structure.

Within these serious themes, there is a message of hope and a surefire plan for box office domination. Short-sighted individuals might be rallying in protest on social media about where the show is leading, but their bellyaching should mean nothing in the larger scheme of things. Captain America is a hero of the people -all the people- and we’re excited to see how Marvel makes sure viewers get that if there’s another season.   ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES

Sitting Here in Limbaugh

Television

How to do Rush Limbaugh? It’s a serious politicomedic question, a challenge for anyone of the liberal/left persuasion who stammers in the face of right-wing-but-funny. You dread sounding shrill, so you develop a grudging respect, maybe even a winking approval for the talk show host who has the nation’s right ear. You begin casting him in a whimsical light to avoid casting yourself as someone who can’t take a joke.

Better you laugh with success than it laugh at you. Limbaugh is the nation’s No. 1 radio talk show host, with 530 stations and some 13 million listeners tuning in for his daily three-hour program. His three-month-old TV show, in which he cavorts guestless 30 min­utes a night, is syndicated in 203 markets and many weeks is the No. 3 late-night talk show, topped only by Nightline and Leno. His book, The Way Things Ought To Be, has been the No. 1 hardback bestseller for 14 weeks.

Success begets tolerance. Even reluctant libs look at Limbaugh in a new light — Shirley MacLaine, as he tells it, communed deeply with him at a star-studded Manhattan party. News stories, which invari­ably dub him a “rock and roll Republican,” tend to chuckle over the bombastic, entertainment-val­ue Rush, repeating his patented lines about “environmentalist wackos,” “feminazis,” and the boast that he has “talent on loan from God” — while they ignore the more heated moments, like his defense of Mississippi governor Kirk Fordice’s declaration that America is “a Christian nation.” Literal to a fault (when he wants to be), Rush explains that Fordice is right, because “86 percent of Americans claim to be Christian.” Liberals who act like they’re threatened with a concentration camp “need a psychiatrist.”

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Still, Rush is not a screaming hatemonger like Bob Grant or Morton Downey Jr. He’s got charm, humor (though personally I’ve yet to laugh out loud), and ideology — a combo as bedeviling to “the dominant media” as Ross Perot’s magic. (The author of the nation’s No. 1 paperback nonfiction book during the election, Ross was Rush’s one true rival and a daily target of his ridicule.) Of course, the media eventually struck back at Perot, a fate Lim­baugh evades by not running for office, though he is often asked to.

All of which may well make him, as he’s also fond of repeat­ing, “The most dangerous man in America.” That says it all: He mocks liberals who believe a fun­ny conservative is dangerous, and yet this roly-poly marshmallow, who once shied away from televi­sion because of his girth, wants the world to know he stings.

“How to do Rush?” parallels the nagging ’80s question of how to do Ronald Reagan. And that parallel bounces off another: Rea­gan’s former media consultant, Roger Ailes, is Rush’s TV execu­tive producer. With another for­mer Ailes client, George Bush, out, the Republicans scrambling, and Pat Buchanan a Party pooper, it’s reasonable to conclude: Rush Limbaugh is the country’s foremost conservative.

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If Rush has reached that prickly pinnacle, it’s because he’s deter­mined to prove that conservatives just want to have fun. Limbaugh’s real mission is to show that liber­als are a bunch of p.c. killjoys, that their web of political do’s and don’t’s restrains the natural expansiveness of man. (Which is an indi­rect way for Republicans to say, “I am not sexually repressed!”)

And so every day, millions tune into Rush to get permission to have fun. Every now and then, Rush bursts forth and bellows that he’s “having more fun than a hu­man being should be allowed to have” (a locution that contains the conservative seeds of fun’s re­pression). Recently Joan from Bir­mingham called the TV show. She’s one of Rush’s biggest fans, she assured him, but she has to say it, she just got tired of his Clinton-bashing. Rush’s response was characteristic: First he re­treated — lied, waffled, you might say — claiming that he doesn’t bash. Then he attacked: “My guy lost and I’m having a good time,” he said soon as Joan got off the phone (always polite, he stabs callers only behind their backs). “Joan’s guy won and she’s miser­able.” The point, as always, is to show that liberals are constitu­tionally crybabies.

In this, Rush is at least consis­tent. The day after the election, despite much radio caller moan­ing, he declared he wasn’t going to get depressed or blame the me­dia — that would be no better than the Democrats blaming Willie Horton for ’88. He exhorted his audience to get on with their lives, to prosper despite the economic disaster Clinton will surely bring, and “not look at whoever’s in the White House as your Daddy.”

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Perhaps his cheer is forced. It’s possible that Limbaugh is merely a creature of the Reagan-Bush era, and maybe, please please please, he’ll just fade away. If the next few years improve the economic lot of his fans — people whose in­stinct is less for Rush’s ideological conservativism than for Perot’s fed-up populism — Rush might find himself with less to say and begin feeding more and more off his media stardom, devouring his own tail. Already a promo-for-a-­promo feel courses through the broadcasts: His TV show refers to and plugs his radio show, his ra­dio plugs his TV, and both plug his newsletter (“printed on non­recycled paper”) and his book­ — shelves of which serve as back­drop on the show’s set. To top it off, he regularly reads excerpts of both rave and attack reviews (and I can’t write this without imagin­ing him reading the most flat-foot­ed parts on the air to prove me wrong wrong wrong and no fun!).

But that’s wishful thinking. Limbaugh will thrive. Sure, the shows have lost some angry oomph since the election, but then, hasn’t life? With subjects like gays in the military and Marge Schott, he’ll have plenty to play with. In fact, he’ll be a re­freshingly fearless critic of Clinton’s inevitable hypocrisies.

After the wistful question of whether his show will survive, the other query you hear most in New York — where Rush works and lives (on the Upper West Side!) but where people seem barely aware of the national legend (his TV ratings here are among the lowest, despite the recent switch from Channel 9 at 12:30 a.m. to Channel 5 at 11 a.m.) — is: He doesn’t really believe half the stuff he says, does he? Way more than half. As Limbaugh told USA To­day, his views are “honestly held and sincerely offered. But the ar­rogance is pure, 100 percent shtick — an attempt at humor.”

The big brag is his key attempt at humor. “This show is not about what you think,” he tells his audi­ence. “This show is about what I think.” The big brag simulta­neously inflates his importance and, by its obviousness, preempts audience resentment. The brag’s his free-market ideology in action, a blow-up toy version of letting the individual, not the govern­ment, do it.

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Whether or not he becomes King of the Right Wing, the daily debates over just where does Mr. Limbaugh stand play right into his self-referential media politics. Is he far right-wing? callers ask. Does he like Pat Robertson? (His disassociation from the reverend is most delicate.) In Rush’s lexi­con, he’s from “the Bennett/Kemp/Limbaugh wing of the Re­publican Party.” He also defends Pat Buchanan’s “religious war” and is antiabortion, but he’s not a prude. Soft-core blasphemy is a frequent motif: To announce his book’s reemergence at the top of the lists last month, he said, “For three weeks Madonna sat atop me [audience laughs] on The New York Times hardcover [on “hard” he squinches his face like he can’t stand the overstimulation] nonfic­tion bestseller list. But now I sit atop Madonna [oohs and boos], and she is going down.”

Other good things ab-out Rush, quickly:

• He makes ideas understandable in plain English, without talking down to the audience. In fact, un­like Reagan or Bush, Limbaugh exalts the intellect and is vaguely pro-brains: “With half my brains tied behind my back to make it even,” he says daily.

• When you agree with him — go Rush! He was ruthless on Perot, doing one of his “Updates” — ­song parodies on topical sub­jects — to the tune of “Secret Agent Man.”

• Liberal p.c. needs to be pierced.

A few sickening things about Rush:

• One of his spoof Updates is about the homeless. Only under pressure did he drop an AIDS Up­date set to “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” (Is there a Lee Atwa­ter-deathbed apology in the mak­ing here?)

• He avoids direct discussion about race, couching any talk about, say, Jesse Jackson or Spike Lee in their liberal politics. Theo­retically, that’s fair. But in actual­ity, his almost all-white audience easily fills in the cracks, which he gleefully widens: Delighted that the Colorado boycott forced May­or David Dinkins to choose be­tween two politically correct forces — gays or Denver’s black mayor, Wellington Webb, who asked him not to support the boy­cott — Limbaugh went on and on about how Dinkins and Webb were “black bros,” repeating “bro” eight times, apparently be­cause it was just so darn funny. His understanding of racism is, at best, pre-adolescent: Iman, “a black woman,” is “beauti­ful … that means I’m not racist.”

•  Almost everything he says on women is suspect. He just doesn’t know women, feminist or other­wise. He’s obviously afraid of them, as he admitted in Vanity Fair, because he felt unattractive and never had a date in high school. But the twice-divorced Rush can’t see his own projection: Women become the ugly desper­ate ones, as proven in one of his “35 undeniable truths about life”: “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easi­er access to the mainstream.” And while he railed against Gloria Steinem for calling Al D’Amato a Nazi, he’s continued to call femi­nists “feminazis.” Why, Rush is just heilarious!

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Such rabidness smoothed by a likable personality would seem to make him a TV natural. But there’s something off about the show. Maybe it’s because Rush plays himself sweeter and safer on TV, afraid his more free-wheeling radio rant will lose him his chance for TV glory.

TV glory seems important to Limbaugh and Ailes — they’ve been “using the medium” to the hilt. Viewers send in video Rush paeans; Rush regularly shows TV clips of his favorite enemies in the act of a liberal gaffe. But without guests and with only an occasional caller, the props are just a diver­sion — there’s an emptiness at the heart of the show. Oddly it’s an emptiness echoed, not countered, by the presence of a live audience.

Their laughter sounds canned. Maybe it’s because they’re trying to have more fun than a human being should be allowed to have; maybe it’s because, laughing only on Rush’s cues, their laughter is canned. Lookswise, they could pass as The Rushford Lives: 98 per cent of the men wear suits and ties.

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Ultimately, it’s Rush’s relation­ship to his audience that defines him as either dangerous man or mere media darling. The most telling Rush phrase I’ve left till last: “Dittos.” Years back, callers were wasting valuable radio time praising him before they got on to their questions. He suggested they just say “dittos” and everyone would get the point. So people be­came “dittoheads” and greet him with “megadittos” from Omaha or Dallas. The special phrases that pass between Rush and audience have become a kind of nationwide baby talk, a gurgly lingo that only the in-love understand.

Though Rush urges his audi­ence to think for themselves, like a good individualistic-minded conservative should, most every­thing in his spiel tells them to think like him. “You don’t have to think. I’ll do the thinking for you.” He’s being ironic, very­ — but many in his audience don’t get the irony and just get upset. In his own way, he wants to warn them away from followerhood­ — but he’d be a nobody without it.

The shows crackle with the con­tradiction. Never does the audi­ence challenge him more than when they think he’s deviated from the track he’s warned them to stay on. Postelection, he appar­ently said something nice on the radio about Clinton (I missed what it was, but heard the hemor­rhaging). As caller after caller be­rated him, Rush categorically de­nied that he had said the nice thing. Thus the faithful rose to their most noble, calling him, in so many words, a liar. One wom­an, after validating herself as a megadittohead, took him on, arti­culately and fearlessly, and dared him to replay the tape. OK, I thought, finally someone smart, strong, someone who “gets the joke” challenging him on his own ground. Will he finally be punc­tured, for real?

Rush charmed her, and she forgot her dare. ■

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Stop the G.O.P.! The Rise of the Counter-Constitution

I’VE BEEN WATCHING THE HOUSE Foreign Affairs hearings on television and am struck with the much­ remarked Yogi Berra sense of “déja vu all over again.” For it’s not just that current happenings bring to mind the televised Watergate spec­taculars. Dimly I recall from earlier eons, as an infant sprawled at my mother’s feet, watching yet other congressional hearings illumined on the screen. Senators were put­ting questions to their colleague, Joseph R. McCarthy. And the thought occurs that in each of the Age of Television’s three great contests over the Con­stitution, the rogues’ gallery has never really changed. Those are proud and pa­triotic Republicans sitting over there.

Gerald Holton tells the following story. Sir Peter Medawar, the British scientist, applied for a visa to America, went to the consul, and was asked if he intended to overthrow the Constitution. Sir Peter re­plied: “I would certainly not overthrow it on purpose, and I can only hope I wouldn’t do so by mistake.” The best that can be said of modern Republicanism is that three times in a generation it has nearly done so by mistake.

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Each of the three modern scandals has derived from a mania for anticommun­ism. Exactly what loosed that mania in the McCarthy era hasn’t ever, in my view, been adequately explained, and can’t be, since it has to do with the irrational. But there’s no mystery regarding the causes of the more recent scandals. In Watergate and Irangate alike, the mania got out of hand because of the big dys­function in American political affairs, which is the crisis, by now endemic, in foreign policy.

Everyone describes that crisis differ­ently, but the people to listen to are the ones who evoke it with the despairing phrase “the country has become ungov­ernable.” They mean, of course, that poli­cies acceptable to themselves no longer command automatic consensus, hence can’t be put into effect without going to a lot of bother. In the old days, from the late 1940s to the Vietnam War, things were different. There was a national poli­cy, the Truman Doctrine. The Truman Doctrine quite properly declared commu­nism a tyranny and worried about its spread. It identified Soviet tanks and machinations as principally responsible for the expansion. It pledged a stalwart American resistance. And since the doc­trine was drawn with an eye toward East­ern Europe, where its analysis was accu­rate enough, most Americans approved and in regard to Europe generally still approve, and aren’t entirely wrong to, as the trade unionists of Poland will leap to instruct us.

Unfortunately, the Truman Doctrine, having been devised for Europe, was de­ployed planet-wide. A fatal mistake: to err is Truman, as they used to say. Like all superinstitutions, the Catholic church, for instance, communism has different meanings in different places. On the banks of the Vistula it was a spearhead of Russian imperialism, but in regions far from there, in countries of the Third World, it was a spearhead of anti­colonialism. It wasn’t necessarily any more decent or democratic in these re­moter regions. Most places where com­munism led the anticolonial revolt it proved a disaster, just as Islam, Hindu­ism, and Negritude proved disasters. But like these others, the disaster that was communism didn’t lack, in one region or another, for popular support and national legitimacy. This fact turned the Truman Doctrine upside down. The same policy that led us, in countries like Poland, to champion the rights of the ordinary Poles, led us, in countries like Vietnam, to outdo the communists themselves at exterminating the peasantry. It became a monstrosity, that policy.

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The old Truman consensus split into three. Some people wanted to guide American policy along lines of realpolitik and have done with costly crusades­ — these people were the pragmatic center. Others wanted to follow a compass of humanitarianism and sympathy for whatever was sympathizable in the global anti-colonial revolt — they were the liber­als and the left. And these defections from global Trumanism placed the third group, the hard-line ultras, in a difficult spot. The ultras wanted no retreat at all from the “containment” crusade, or wanted something even tougher — active aggressions against communist move­ments and states. They wanted the sort of policy that, since it touches on mortal­ity and fate, requires, in democratic soci­eties, a consensus. But they didn’t have a consensus.

What happens when such a movement gets into power? Richard Nixon is what happens. Nixon is recalled as a man ani­mated solely by mean motives, namely the desire to be reelected. That’s unfair. Nixon’s motives ran high as well as low. His hairline was their graph. In wreaking his havoc over Indochina, be was making the usual fight for Western ideals and values. He was resisting the ruthless worldwide enemy. But he was discover­ing, too, that America was “ungovern­able.” No country can prosecute a war when TV nightly alarms the public and students riot in the streets and the oppo­sition party runs a virtual pacifist for president.

So the Republican president faced a choice. Either bend with the political winds, which some might call democracy, and lose the war that was defending Western civilization … or, what? Tell himself that necessity creates legitimacy, that the people were with him willy-nilly, that constitutions can take care of them­selves. Then summon the FBI and CIA to their miserable duties. Set up some frisky little agencies of his own. Call in a bit of California ruthlessness. Enlist those high-spirited right-wing Cubans.

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It’s said on Nixon’s behalf, hence on behalf of modern Republicanism as a whole, that Nixon did nothing that wasn’t pioneered by Franklin Roosevelt or by Truman and other presidents who stepped beyond the law, cut legal corners, swelled the powers of their office, operat­ed unconstitutionally. Well, true. When Dean Acheson was acting secretary of the treasury, Roosevelt ordered him to take the country off the gold standard. Ach­eson refused. There were laws; the laws forbade it — to which Roosevelt thun­dered, “That will do!”, promptly accepted the acting secretary’s resignation, and the gold standard was gone with the wind. So the imperial presidency is not a GOP invention.

But this argument evades a rather large point about the great Republican scandals. All government outrages aren’t alike. Every breaking of a law causes two injuries: to law itself, and to the victims at hand. The victims at Roosevelt’s hand tended to be marginal groups, tiny minor­ities, splinter factions. To oppress these people, to persecute small ethnic commu­nities, to harass the Socialist Workers Party, to torment and destroy the politi­cal groupings that champion or are sus­pected of championing one or another foreign power — that is terrible, horren­dous. Government abuses of that sort subvert democracy.

But Joe McCarthy, it will be recalled, ultimately started in on the U.S. Army. Nixon, not content with persecuting the Socialist Workers, went after the Demo­crats. The obstacle that Reagan has found ways to get around isn’t just the pesky peace movement; it is the House and Senate. There is subversion, and there is subversion. Democracies, let’s say, are governments that trample minor­ities. Despotisms are governments that trample majorities. And if, in America, the trampling of minorities has in prac­tice turned out uglier than the trampling of majorities, that’s only because Ameri­can majorities eventually notice what’s going on, and reflect on their historic rights, and then the Constitution does take care of itself, and the gates of Allen­wood prison fly open.

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CALAMITIES LIKE THAT WEREN’T supposed to happen to Ronald Reagan. The Reagan Revolution was supposed to be the modern colossus in American politics, something almost geological, a new mountain range, “the realignment.” It was the right-wing New Deal and Reagan was the new FDR, impervious to the ups and downs of political life. And if the administration was truly in tune with the moment, if it represented that great a shift in American life, what damage could a few moronic escapades inflict? New Deals don’t slip on banana peels.

Yet here are the peels, there is the slipping, and suspicion dawns that Rea­gan’s relation to the public is not like FDR’s. It is, on the crucial issues, like Nixon’s, the famous personality notwith­standing: Nixon with a human face. We haven’t really needed obscure Lebanese newspapers and down-at-heels Wisconsin mercenaries to see this. It’s been plain in the entirely open and public debate over Nicaragua. For what happens when a Reagan Revolutionary stands up to ex­hort the public on this topic? He begins with honest sentiments. Call them Rhetoric A. Global struggle between incompatible systems, says the exhorter. Ruthlessness. Western values. Strategic catastrophe. The Truman Doctrine and its militant codicil, the Reagan Doc­trine — all of this offered in justification of the administration role in Central America. Until suddenly, aghast, the Rea­gan Revolutionary espies his audience. There are canny pragmatists out there, sneers upon their lips. There are de­ranged nuns, people who have never heard of Nicaragua, readers of The Vil­lage Voice, Vietnam War widows. It is the American population. It is ungovernable.

So the Reagan Revolutionary makes a mid-breath shift, the shift we’ve been watching for six years with fascinated horror. From the speaker’s platform pours an unexpected new language, strangely left-wing in origin, of Human Rights, Resistance Movements, Demo­cratic Revolutions, Founding Fathers. It is Rhetoric B, offered in the same cause. Rhetoric A was coherent and plausible, though it makes most people duck. But Rhetoric B is preposterous. You can’t lis­ten to three words without reaching for a mental blue pencil. Nicaragua, no democ­racy, you remind yourself, still is not the human rights hellhole that El Salvador and Guatemala surely are. Somocista thugs are not the legions of the Lord. No one honestly believes in Rhetoric B, no one has ever been convinced by it. Yet it drones in our ears, and for an obvious reason. Any clever government that wished to stuff a minority policy down a majority throat would drone on like that. Who can’t convince, confuses. Who can’t lead, manipulates.

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I pick up the summer issue of Irving Kristol’s foreign affairs quarterly, The National Interest — a sectarian journal named with the right-wing hubris that has brought the country to its present fix — and flip through various disagreeable but honest celebrations of the Tru­man Doctrine, until I come to pages by Elliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state, El Maniotico of the Managua press, who is instructed with applying that Doc­trine. The assistant secretary assures his fellow ultras that from 1984 to 1986 the contras received no armaments aid, as per the congressional ban: “Thanks to the Democratic leadership in Congress, our humanitarian aid program to the resistance forces in Nicaragua has expired, and for two years we have given them no military aid whatsoever.” This from con­tra aid’s “general strategist,” in an article published at the very moment the strate­gist is now reported to have been conspir­ing with the Sultan of Brunei for the $10 million that subsequently disappeared! And if the urge to confuse and manipu­late is at work so cynically in even the soberest journals of the right, what skul­lduggery and disinformation campaigns must have been launched in less friendly terrains?

The Irangate details, what we know of them so far — the role of stupidity, in par­ticular — testify further to the uncolossal quality of the Reagan Revolution. Wash­ington is full of brand-new right-wing in­stitutions reeking with intelligence, de­scribed by Sidney Blumenthal in his brilliant and witty book, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment. They are think tanks and foundations and they account for Reaganism’s heft and deft, the eco­nomic ideas (such as they’ve been), the strategic initiatives, the administration’s ability to find ideologically suitable staff­ers. If we mention Reaganism at all in the same breath as the New Deal, it’s because of these new institutions, which were never available to Nixon and Republicans of long ago. But the right-wing counter-establishment is strangely limited. On its own it could never have captured Wash­ington. Right-wing thought hardly domi­nates the 1980s the way left-wing thought dominated the 1930s. An ordinary right­-wing politician could never have led the new organizations to spectacular double landslide triumphs. The right-wing move­ment was able to conquer only one way: by attaching itself to a miracle candidate, a once-in-history vote-getter.

Something peculiar results. The new right-wing institutions offer Reaganism an extraordinary base of power; but these same institutions depend helplessly on the one irreplaceable man. Nothing in the literature of American politics describes what such an arrangement can be like. I turn therefore to Leon Trotsky, the ex­pert. In his History of the Russian Revo­lution, Trotsky analyzed strengths of the Czarist Regime. There were powerful in­stitutions of every sort, the army, the bureaucracy, the aristocracy, the big capi­talists, who counted among them many capable and decisive people. But by the nature of their system, these people wielded power only by gathering around the throne. The regime was therefore cru­cially compromised. It was no stronger than the czar who held it together, and nothing at all could guarantee that a giv­en czar would be anything more than a royal jerk.

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As it happened, Trotsky tells us, the czar in 1917 was the sort of man who, with revolution breaking out around him, wrote in his diary: ”Walked long and killed two crows. Drank tea by daylight.” He was “a jolly, sprightly fellow in a raspberry-colored shirt.” His own aides were perplexed. “‘What is this?’ asked one of his attendant generals, ‘a gigantic, almost unbelievable self-restraint, the product of breeding, of a belief in the divine predetermination of events? Or is it inadequate consciousness?’ ”

Really, Trotsky has the last word on the Age of Reagan. “The sole paper which Nicholas read for years, and from which he derived his ideas, was a weekly published on state revenue by Meshchersky, a vile, bribed journalist of the reactionary clique, despised even in his own circle … He felt at ease only among completely mediocre and brainless people, saintly fakers, holy men, to whom he did not have to look up … He selected his ministers on a principle of continual deterioration. Men of brain and character he summoned only in extreme situations when there was no other way out, just as we call in a surgeon to save our lives. The czar was might­ily under the influence of the czarina, an influence which increased with the years and the difficulties.” She in turn was un­der the influence of “our Friend,” Raspu­tin, and complained that the country didn’t appreciate the mad monk. And this czar was actually governing.

Thus the life of the vast Republican coalition. We always knew about Rea­gan’s brain; but bamboozled by the mythology of realignment and a right-wing New Deal, we never really thought the brain was making decisions. We thought the miracle candidate was a sort of dum­my put up by the real government, the way bubbleheaded newscasters read scripts written by the real journalists. We thought George Shultz and Caspar Wein­berger were the government and Reagan their newscaster, which was, of course, reassuring, since Shultz and Weinberger appear to be moderate mullahs among the medieval fanatics, to indulge a crazed distinction. But no: Shultz and Weinber­ger were the dummies, there to project the proper image. Reagan was ruling all along. The right-wing institutions pollulating along the Potomac, the national conservative alliance, the cabals of new capital and Sun Belt entrepreneurs that we took to be the powers-that-be — none of these counted in the end. They were strong, but without the miracle man they were nothing. The miracle man therefore held the power. This we learned at Reykjavik, when the jolly, sprightly fellow went into the room all alone with Gorbachev, and not even the American press doubts Gorbachev’s version of what next occurred.

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Events have followed, then, an intelligible course. The ultras are committed to policies like overthrowing the Sandinistas that can only be accomplished with broad consensus support. They get in office and learn there is no consensus. Their own philosophy obliges them to forge on nonetheless, meaning, to connive and manipulate. And since they hold power only because they made the cynical deci­sion to back a miracle candidate, the con­nivances and manipulations necessarily take no shrewder form than the miracle man is capable of providing. Power seeps into the hands of Oliver North, the mad monk. And the path proceeds thusly: In­competence (the blowing up of the Beirut Marines and CIA station), Panic (the ef­fort to ransom Agent William Buckley after he’s instantly captured trying to re­build the CIA), Sentimentality (the effort to ransom everyone). Next comes Cupid­ity (the discovery that the Ayatollah pays cash, good for undercutting congressional bans on contra support). And finally the decision was taken, probably the weirdest move ever made by an American presi­dent: the decision to sell off half the na­tion’s foreign policy under the table in order to subsidize the other half. The popular part of the nation’s policy, ad­mired worldwide, the policy, that is, of antiterrorism: sold! The unpopular part, terrorism of our own: bought! It was a moronic thing to do. It was an action that probably thousands of Republican office­holders could have accomplished with more finesse. But in its main lines, in its ruthlessness to battle what is imagined to be the Soviet foe, in its willingness to have done with the inconveniences of de­mocracy, in its sense that now is the moment of danger and all is permitted, no matter what Congress or the people may desire — in these ways it answered perfectly to what the right has wanted of its president.

Of the members of the Nixon adminis­tration and underground, 20 were con­victed in the aftermath of Watergate. In the present affair, the pile of broken stat­utes has already grown knee-high, even without knowing what happened to the Sultan’s $10 million and the profits from the Ayatollah. There’s no way to figure, of course, who exactly will be convicted. North, the half-late William Casey, John Poindexter, Felix Rodriguez (who wears Che Guevara’s plundered watch), Luis Posada (the mass murderer), Elliot Abrams (the essayist), Richard Secord, George Bush, Robert MacFarlane, Robert Owen, Colonels Mott and Broman — these have to appear on everyone’s list of possibilities. The trials, when they come, will center on specific offenses, such as violat­ing the Arms Export Control Act (pun­ishable by two years in jail or $100,000 or both). But as always in cases like these, the real offenses will have been the “high crimes and misdemeanors” of traditional English law, meaning crimes against the essence of the state.

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THE HEARINGS SHORTLY TO radi­ate anew from every television will spread gladness and delight, of course, and for weeks and months to come, oh joy; but they will spread nonsense, too. For there is a reigning ideology in affairs like this, shared by prosecutors and legislators of both parties and the lawyer class general­ly, according to which politics is nothing and procedure is all. If only Defense and State had been consulted, as correct pro­cedural rules mandate. If only the Na­tional Security Agency was kept to size and not allowed improperly to swell. If only Oliver North’s long-ago hospitalization for “an emotional illness” had not been covered up, thus keeping the ex­-patient’s hands off the national steering wheel. If only Senator Pat Moynihan and select colleagues had been brought into the secret, as by law ought to have oc­curred. If only, then surely …

Lists of new procedures will therefore be proposed for the purpose of “saving the presidency,” as variously interpreted by conservatives and liberals, to wit: the conservatives wish the presidency saved from the liberals, and the liberals wish it saved from itself. The conservatives will seek less restraints for White House may­hem, reasoning that what really caused the Nica-Persian fiasco was a meddling press and hypocritical liberals. The liber­als will seek congressional control, rea­soning that sanity and common sense vary inversely with the geographical spread of a politician’s electorate. The liberal proposals will be vastly preferable. But what will even the most liberal of procedural reforms accomplish in the end? It can be predicted.

The year is 1995. For six years there’s been a new president. It is Jack Kemp. Why shouldn’t he be? Looks like Bob Forehead. Never been accused of selling a nuclear weapon to the Ayatollah. Ex-star. Chairman of the House Republican Con­ference. And President Kemp, a sincere man, sets about enacting his program. This program is not a secret. He outlined it on the New York Times op-ed, Decem­ber 23, 1986, under the ominous title “Trust the President’s Foreign Policy.” Key points are: support for the South African-backed mercenaries in Angola (“freedom fighters”). Support for the So­mocista cocaine traders in Nicaragua (more “freedom fighters”). Opposition to the Contadora negotiations, in spite of State Department preference for diplo­macy. No SALT II. Opposition to any congressional attempts to restrain these extremist policies (the president “must draw the line, and, if necessary, veto any reduction in his authority to conduct for­eign policy”). Also, “immediate deploy­ment” — never mind r&d, those are for sissies — of star wars. The reason: only thus can “Western ideals and values” be defended against the “ruthless, dangerous enemy.” The source of legitimacy: the Truman Doctrine, or rather, “the Roose­velt-Truman-Kennedy tradition.”

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So Kemp acts, and since his program is war-ish and produces actual corpses at the hands of U.S. proxies, he stands in need of across-the-board political back­ing, the kind of backing that the Truman Doctrine enjoyed in its early years. A large Cold War consensus is what he needs.

But there is no consensus. The scien­tists balk at star wars, hardly anyone likes the Somocista drug runners, support for South African mercenaries is confined to three counties formerly under federal occupation in Alabama. Since Kemp’s forehead is, after all, hirsute, Congress votes halfway support. But halfway mili­tarism is no use. President Kemp there­fore faces a choice. He can bend with the wind, which some might call democracy, and abandon his ultra position … or, what? Tell himself that necessity creates legitimacy, that the people are with him willy-nilly, that constitutions can take care of themselves. Then set up some frisky little agencies of his own. Hold a meeting with some aging but ever-spry Cuban-Americans. Be decisive, by God.

So it’s 1995, and the TV is on. Con­gress is holding hearings. Prosecutors prepare preliminaries. Much has gone wrong, the simplest laws have been vio­lated, and everyone is astonished. Shocked! Everybody agrees what caused this new fiasco. It was the violation of procedures; they need to be strengthened. No one will propose the other explana­tion: that political parties can go bad, traditions can turn rancid. Yet this has plainly happened to the GOP, once the party of the upright business aristocracy, now the party of plots and conspiracies, the gangster party in modem politics. ❖

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Thomas v. Hill: Days of Our Lives

TV and the Thomas Hearings

The first, unparalleled TV event of 1991 — the gulf war — was distinguished by the ab­sence of what Orrin Hatch, during the sec­ond unparalleled TV event of 1991 — the Thomas confirmation hearings — kept refer­ring to as “raw data.” As spectacle, the gulf war was completely controlled. Mediated by the administration, information was de­livered by newspeople who abdicated their autonomy to become flacks and floor man­agers. The narrative was as simplistic as Top Gun, the images as diagrammatic as a corporate stockholders’ report. Among the reasons that the Hill/Thomas confrontation “played” so well is that it provided a chaot­ic, violent immediacy absent from the war coverage. Caught off guard, the TV people could do little more than set up their cam­eras and roll tape, while the White House was forced to improvise damage-control tactics that shifted daily.

It might be overkill to claim that the Hill/Thomas confrontation is the return of the repressed, but it certainly provided some libidinal compensation. Put it this way: How many of you would have watched another four-day TV marathon if you felt that once again it was being spoon­fed from the top?

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Different as the two debacles were, they had one striking element in common. Like game shows, talk shows, and sitcoms, they involved a dynamic even more basic to TV than the exploitation of violence and sex — ­that of humiliation. For Saddam Hussein, the price of remaining in power was to be publicly thrashed by George Bush and com­pany. For Clarence Thomas, the price for his ascension to the Supreme Court was not a “high-tech lynching,” but something more like a symbolic castration.

To listen, as a friend remarked, to Hatch leading Thomas through a point-by-point denial of Anita Hill’s testimony — “No sen­ator, I never …” talked dirty, read pornog­raphy, mentioned pubic hairs in Coke — ­was to hear the echo of “Yes, Massa, I’m a good boy. I keep my dick in my pocket.” It was the excruciating sound of a black man forced to deny his sexual identity in front of millions.

Indeed, the image of Thomas facing his 14 white male judges, rocking in his chair as if he were going to run amok any minute, suggests an answer to the oft-repeated ques­tion of why Hill — who remained to the last a reluctant witness — had not come forward sooner. As a black woman she would not have wanted to call that image into being, regardless of his aggression against her. An­other explanation is that she suspected she’d be treated as abusively as we saw her­being treated on the TV screen.

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As a spectacle, the hearings were as hallu­cinatory as Alice’s Adventures in Wonder­land. The psychological terrors of sex and race were compounded by the fact that three kinds of events — a fact-finding hear­ing, a sexual harassment trial, and a TV show — were superimposed. The rules were up for grabs: Specter could decide to play the Queen of Hearts, shouting perjury, per­jury, rather than “off with her head,” and no one knew how to stop it. That the Re­publicans prevailed amidst this craziness was the result of two principle factors. First, Hill had both institutionalized misog­yny and institutionalized racism operating against her while Thomas suffered from only the latter. Second, in his dramatic closing speech, Chair Joe Biden ironically awarded Thomas the “benefit of the doubt” slogan that eventually got him over. Then again, Hatch, Simpson, and the behind-the­-scenes White House knew a few things about TV that the Democrats didn’t: turn everything into a story, and tell it between 8 and 11 p.m.

It’s more than luck that Thomas had the advantage of appearing in prime time. And when his Friday evening grandstanding­ — claiming he hadn’t bothered to watch Hill’s testimony, exploiting race to divert atten­tion from sexual harassment — got the equivalent of a “gee-whiz” from the Dems, the Repubs knew their script had been, as they say in L.A., green-lighted. (It was Sen­ator Byrd in the prevote Senate debates, rather than anyone on the committee, who finally argued that Thomas’s refusal to watch Hill’s testimony betrayed a certain lack of ”judicial temperament.” Not to mention megalomania, considering Thom­as also moaned that he had been “wracking his brains” to think of what he could have said to her. I guess if it wasn’t in his head, it didn’t count.)

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Understanding that TV is nothing if not narrative, the Republicans got to work like hack writers from Troma Films, tossing out one high concept after another. Friday’s script — with Hill the dupe of a satanic, left-­wing conspiracy — developed second-act problems when they couldn’t work her sup­port for Bork into the story line. Saturday was the spurned woman scenario; with the mention of Fatal Attraction, 11 courtesy calls became proof of erotomania. By Sunday, the scorned woman had developed delusions — possibly to cancel any weight that Hill’s successful polygraph test might carry.

“Character is plot.” Perhaps the Dems had never heard this fundamental rule of screen writing. If they had, they would have realized that their script had more potential than the Republicans’. Thomas had a clear-­cut motive for lying: He was an ambitious man who wanted to get on the Supreme Court. But no one on the committee had the guts to say that flat out.

The Republicans were also aware that, on TV, it matters not what you say but how many times you say it — the law of sound­bites and commercials. The mystery of why she followed him from the Department of Education to EEOC was solved by Hill sim­ply saying she thought the harassing behav­ior had stopped after the initial episode. No matter. “Why did she follow him?” was repeated again and again. (I gave up count­ing after 47.) Hatch did his Is-it-believable-­that-anyone-asking-a-woman-for-a-date­-would-talk-to-her-about-Long-Dong-Silver? routine almost as often. No one challenged it as a misleading question. He wouldn’t have talked dirty to her in order to get a date. He would have talked dirty to her after she refused him, as a way of proving that, even if she wouldn’t go to bed with him, he still had the power to fuck her over.

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Despite the adept use of TV by the Re­pubs, there was something they didn’t an­ticipate and couldn’t co-opt — a runaway script. The eruption of women’s anger that surprised the establishment, derailing gov­ernment “process” and network TV sched­uling, was fueled by what happened at the hearing and by the outcome of the vote. Hill, as the catalyst for that anger, deserves our gratitude and admiration.

Women — not all women, but significant numbers of them — are furious, not only at the way Hill was abused, but also at the failure of the men on the tribunal to grasp that the personal is political. Thomas’s al­leged invasion of Hill’s psyche — with words alone — is as political an action as the inva­sion of Iraq. The description of such an abuse of power isn’t dirt; it’s sexual politics. That’s what the men didn’t get.

The danger now is that the anger will be repressed, transformed once again into the kind of depression that’s characterized the women’s movement for over 10 years. Quicker than you can say “wham barn, thank you, ma’am,” the networks took up Thomas’s call for “healing.”

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The night following the Senate vote, Ted Koppel hosted an expanded Nightline, an open forum on “A Process Run Amok.” Among those speaking from the audience was Nina Totenberg, who broke Hill’s story on NPR. Senator Simpson, who like many committee members mixed up the identi­ties of Hill and Thomas, switching names and confusing titles with increasing fre­quency as the days wore on, here managed to call Nina, “Anita.” Thomas and Hill, by obstructing white male business as usual, had been fused into a single, irritating Oth­er. Now Anita and Nina were united in Simpson’s mind as the new “bluestock­ings” — women who use their education to destroy men.

After an hour of challenges by black women, white women, and black men to a process that excludes them, Koppel handed the mike to two Reaganauts who suggested that in the future all this trouble could be avoided if the White House consulted with a few senators before announcing his nomi­nations. Faced with such tunnel vision, women mustn’t lose sight of how much was accomplished in a short time. Not only was support for Thomas reduced but the Senate was forced to deal openly with something it never intended to get into.

The day of the vote, women crowded the steps of the Capitol chanting, “We’ll re­member in November,” a dispassionate statement of fact. For senators who voted for Thomas it probably sounded unnecessar­ily vengeful. I myself prefer something with more bite. Vagina dentata, gentlemen? ❖

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Would You Give These Kids $150 Million to Start a TV Network? Rupert Murdoch Did

Little Rascals: The Kids Behind America’s Fourth Network

The young man about to address the TV camera looks grim. Sitting behind a table, wearing a navy ­blue blazer with four brass buttons, an Oxford blue shirt, a brick-colored tie, he could pass for an anchorman about to re­port a national tragedy. A very tired anchorman: his tan has gone sallow under the camera lights, the circles under his eyes beg for pancake. His back tensing up, he scans his notes: “Good evening, Dayton.”

Some older Fox Broadcasting execu­tives in the Los Angeles studio are watch­ing him, murmuring out of earshot. The young man, Garth Ancier, is taping a message to an affiliate station that will be holding a promotional party that night. “I’d like to welcome the Miami Valley and all of southwestern Ohio to the Fox family,” announces Garth. He looks mis­erable. Take two.

Just about 51 weeks ago, Garth Ancier was the subject of an extraordinary bidding war between Goliath and Goliath. The losers were his employers, Grant Tinker and Brandon Turtikoff, former chairman and current president respec­tively of NBC, where Garth had risen to vice-president of the network’s comedy division. The winners were Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch, chairman and shop owner respectively of Fox Broadcasting Company (FBC). They wanted Garth, now 29, to take charge of all program­ming on what they hope will become America’s fourth network. His contract began April Fools’ Day, 1986.

FBC made its headline-grabbing debut back in October with its contender for the weeknight 11 p.m. slot, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. On Sunday, April 5, FBC will launch its attack on the Big Three’s primetime programs. Its strategy is to establish beachheads one night at a time, beginning with Sundays (Saturdays are targeted for late spring). So far, 105 affiliates are standing by, schedules cleared away, waiting for the results of a year’s worth of apocalyptic rumors, 16-hour days, many millions of dollars, and Garth’s own highly touted instincts. Will Fort Wayne switch to Channel 55? Is America ready for FBC?

Is FBC ready for America?

Garth puts on his glasses, scans his notes again, removes his glasses. A slen­der six-footer, with dark brown hair and eyes, he radiates intensity as he squares off for another go-round with the camera. This time he appears to have lowered his narrow shoulders a full quarter of an inch. One older Fox executive mutters, “It’s okay to laugh and smile, Garth. This is for a party.”

His comrade, another executive, re­torts, “You wouldn’t be laughing either, if you had only a month to live.”

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It’s been 39 years since America last witnessed the birth of a network (ABC, April 19, 1948). The moment still doesn’t seem propitious for a fourth network. Advertising rates are soft, budget cuts merciless. Since the late ’70s, the networks’ share of viewers has declined 15 per cent — not only because of competition from VCRs and cable, but because the networks are clones of one another. The industry quip is that there’s scarcely enough programming for two and a half networks.

Although 637 stations still pledge alle­giance to the networks, the number of independents has nearly doubled in the last few years, to 275. And the indies are product-hungry. They’ve turned increas­ingly toward “first-run syndication”­ — new, independently produced shows like Entertainment Tonight and Wheel of Fortune, which compete well against the Big Three in non-primetime slots.

Enter Rupert Murdoch, former owner of this newspaper, present owner of 20th Century-Fox and sundry other empires. Last year he purchased Metromedia’s seven independent stations (including New York’s Channel 5) for $2 billion. Together with 20th Century’s Barry Diller, former studio head of Paramount and perhaps the last man in Hollywood you’d want to spill your drink on, they’ve created the Fox Broadcasting Company, an “alternative programming service,” fourth force,” or as some potential sponsors have nicknamed it, the ‘Tweenie” — between a network and a first-run syndication company.

Fox has sunk $150 million into first­-year start-up costs and doesn’t expect to turn a profit for three to five years. In contrast to the network behemoths, FBC runs lean with 62 employees — they have no plans for such costly undertakings as regular news or sports coverage (though they did bid against ABC for next sea­son’s Monday Night Football). So far, 98 independent stations and five ABC affiliates, plus Murdochs seven, carry The Late Show, and FBC claims it reaches 80 per cent of American households. But most of the Fox indie affiliates are on the weaker-signal UHF band — that never-never land beyond Channel 13. So far, the “network” is more of a buzzword than a broadcasting venture.

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On this Monday morning in March, 33 days before launch, the phones in the FBC Century City offices ring persistent­ly, vice-presidents drop whatever they’re doing and rush down the halls preparing explanations… defenses… excuses for the Grand Inquisitor. Mr. Diller is not pleased. Simply put, the problem is that America has not yet been made to feel that Fox Broadcasting should be the most important thing in their lives.

The FBC logo has not yet been settled on. The Show Status Report, a weekly update on publicity campaigns, is stud­ded with “TBDs” (To Be Determined). In some cities at least 45 per cent of the viewers surveyed didn’t know which sta­tion carried The Late Show. And about Miss Rivers — her ratings are sliding, her show is over budget, her program an em­barrassment. The promos for the new shows aren’t ready. The new shows aren’t ready. And who sent a work-in-progress cassette to the Washington Post for review?

In Garth Ancier’s office, the week does not begin fresh at 7 a.m. on this same Monday morning — it merely continues from the night and day before. He operates out of an innocuous but spacious room with two leather couches, Museum of Broadcasting posters, a brass dish filled with Gummi Bears, an oval desk, no books, two TVs — at least one alway on, sound off, a visual pacifier — and a wall­-sized, party-colored chart of the networks’ primetime schedule that looks like a gameboard.

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Most of the blocks under the FBC heading are blank. Throughout April and May, perhaps into June, FBC will roll out nine weekend shows. But with only 12 projects — two of which are just pilots — it has virtually no backup programming. By traditional, pilot-heavy network standards, that makes as much sense as doing high-wire act during an earthquake.

With just a month to go, most of its scripts are still in various stages of doo­dling, rewriting, casting, recasting, shooting and reshooting. One, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, is living up to its name. And will the Household Name Actress please get on the exercycle? Will the Hip­ Name Actor behave himself, or will his character meet an early, mid-season death? What are the chances TV Guide will hold up its program-schedule deadlines until Fox gets its act together?

Just to make sure America has no ex­cuse not to tune in, FBC will air the premieres of two half-hour programs three times each, between 7 and 10 p.m. on April 5. The sitcom Married… With Children, though, is in the grip of a censorship battle with the network, the sponsors, and the executive producers­ — as Garth put it, “The whole company is split on ‘Pummel Men’s Scrotums.’ ” And the producers of a comedy-variety show­case called The Tracey Ullman Show, scheduled for a preliminary run-through, are so unsure about it that, as Fox liaison Michael Lansbury reported, “They, uh, don’t want us network fascist types to make their presence felt.”

At least 12 projects, each its own soap opera of complaints and demands, phone in to Garth regularly. But this morning’s major migraine is the show FBC has scheduled for April 12, a $10-million se­ries now entitled 21 Jump Street, from the creator of The Rockford Files and The A-Team but also Stingray and Hunt­er, the pipe-smoking man who signs off every show by whipping a page from a typewriter and tossing it in the air: Ste­phen J. Cannell. Garth has just taken his third look at the two-hour Jump Street premiere and made copious notes. Character credibility, holes in the plot, objec­tionable language — from behind his closed door can be heard muffled sounds of high-pitched, fast-talking voices. Garth deputizes Kevin Wendle, second in command of the five-member program­ming staff, to speak to Cannell.

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Kevin returns that night, looking haggard: some disagreements over the pre­miere have been resolved — “shmuck” is out — others loom, and he’s brought a rough cut of another episode. 21 Jump Street, which kicks off the lineup, is cru­cial to FBC’s Sunday night counter-programming: “At seven o’clock there’s a real opportunity for getting kids and teens,” explains Kevin, 28, FBC’s vice­-president of primetime and late-night programming. “Our House is real soft—”

“—Soft, soft, like watching paint dry,” says Garth, rolling his eyes.

“—Sixty Minutes is sophisticated, ur­ban, older. The Disney Movie is a glossy view of how adults think kids look at the world. We went in for a calculated ap­proach: four young cops undercover in high schools. The idea is to root out bad kids before they become bad adults. You can’t make the cops narcs — kids would resent you. So we make them exciting, likable leads. There’s no greater social purpose here. If it was a realistic script, it wouldn’t be entertaining.”

We watch the rough cut. Among the memorable lines: Teacher—“You lied to me!” Young Cop—“No. I misled you.”

Afterwards, looking boyish and wide­-eyed, they ask my reaction. I have jet lag, I am lunchless. I cannot summon the grace to be opaque. I hate the show. They listen without flinching. “I was starting to feel really depressed by what you said,” Garth says later. He is removing his glasses, rubbing his eyes, “But then I remembered: you don’t watch a lot of television.”

Kevin Wendle describes Garth, his boss, as his best friend. They are constantly running into each other’s offices, jabbering, putting out fires all day long. While driving on the freeway, Kevin calls up Garth, and plays audition cassettes for Jump Street’s theme music over the car phone. Public­ly, they present a united corporate front — always the brass-buttoned blazer, tie, and loafers. But Garth detests Silly; his latest example of sitcom nadir is ALF. Kevin doesn’t mind a talking car or two “if the concept is well executed.” Kevin drives a snappy white Alfa Romeo, Garth a garden-variety gray 560 SL Mercedes convertible. Kevin, who is slim, has been known to eat actual meals; Garth, who is slimmer still, is a world-class weight neurotic who’ll sit down to a 300-calorie Lean Cuisine dinner at 10:30 p.m. and not eat for another 24 hours. Kevin owns a house-with-pool in a fashionable part of town. Garth? A condo in north Holly­wood, practically in the Valley. When Ke­vin asked him why, he said, “Because that’s where the audience lives.”

One morning, hours after his 5:30 a.m. workout at the Fox gym, Kevin walks familiarly into the Bel-Air Hotel, L.A.’s power breakfast room of the moment. He’s led to a see-and-be-seen table by the window, and orders granola with fruit, skim milk, decaf. Kevin has been working in radio and television for half of his entire life.

Fourteen years ago, New York’s WINS news radio was led to believe its new production assistant on the four-to-mid­night shift was 17; he was actually a 14-year-old high school sophomore from northern New Jersey: “Every night my mother would go to sleep, set her alarm, and drive to the bus stop in her pajamas to pick me up at 1:30 a.m.” After a year, he jumped to WPIX-TV and by the time he did turn 17, Kevin was producing PIX’s Midday News. He skipped the rest of his senior year and enrolled in NYU, choosing the easiest degree program he could find — journalism. When he was a 19-year-old associate producer, the show won the first Emmy awarded to an inde­pendent station for a newscast.

Kevin’s dream in those days was to produce the top-rated newscast in New York, but there were only three such jobs in the city. Then ABC in Chicago called: “I dropped out of college, read a few books about Chicago. It was pretty funny: I had braces, and I was 20 — not old enough to drink there — and I was pro­ducer of the six o’clock news.

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“I loved television so much. I was a news junkie in the Eyewitness news fash­ion — providing information in a provocative way can be fun. I still get the New York Post here.”

Finally Channel 7, ABC’s New York affiliate, summoned. “I produced Roger and Bill — it was the era of Roseanne, Snyder, Ernie, Bob Lape. We went to number one. Two and a half years later I decided to leave news and go into pro­gramming. I was 24, and I’d just OD’d on studying the world.”

Kevin’s face is unlined, but his light brown hair is shot with gray. Likable and easy to be around, he’s at once calm and alert, gracious. His comments are all the more stunning because of his affectless delivery. “I’ll be working for a month, more, and I’ll realize I should take a day off, go to the beach, fall in love or some­thing, because you have to experience things so you can think, wouldn’t that be nice to get on television?'”

Kevin’s first programming success for ABC was 1983’s New York Hot Tracks, the black music show shot in the city’s dance clubs; his first failure was New York Style, Regis Philbin’s ill-fated after­noon show. Bored, restless, Kevin quit ABC. Real television, he decided, was be­ing made in Hollywood.

NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff offered to start him as manager in NBC’s drama development. Kevin, who’d been sports-­ignorant when he started writing about it at WPIX, who’d been Chicago-ignorant before he produced its newscast, who didn’t have a clue about black music be­fore he put it on TV, felt that perhaps he should tell Tartikoff he knew absolutely nothing about hour-long action shows. “Brandon said, ‘Just listen and learn. In a year you’ll be running the place.’ ”

Kevin also spent the year “learning the town”: memorizing hundreds of career paths, becoming fluent in the machine­-gun language of the industry, socializing aggressively, manipulating rumors — skills critical for a young job-jumper. After 14 months’ experience in network program­ming, Kevin was invited to dine with Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch. Several days later he was phoned by Jamie Kellner, the new president of Fox Broad­casting Company: “Barry thinks you’re a name with a bullet.”

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Even Kevin didn’t have the back­ground to run all the programming for the new network. “I didn’t think they could get Garth — Garth was Brandon’s right-hand man.” But they did, and on the last Friday morning in March, 1986, Garth resigned at 9:30, Kevin an hour later. NBC strongly advised their former fair-haired boys to be out by noon.

“We were kids in a candy store. We packed Garth’s car with every book on TV we could find — writers books, lists of writers, greatest TV movies — we wanted to study the history of TV. We spent the weekend in Palm Springs plotting the networks, examining their cycles.

“We studied the face of television and took apart the seven nights: which ones lost audience and why? Men, teens, and kids were down 20 share points on Satur­day night — there’s nothing for them to watch. That’s why we’ve got Werewolf.” (And, for female viewers home on Satur­day nights, Karen’s Song, a dramatic sit­com about an affair between a 40-year-­old divorced, working woman and a 28- year-old aspiring caterer.)

“The networks have always pro­grammed by saying, ‘What’s on TV?’ So Garth said, ‘What’s not on TV? How can we counterprogram?’ We’re a threat to the way they do business, the going to lunch, the favors, the relationships with people, the hours spent on projects every­one agrees beforehand won’t fly. I don’t like us to be called a network. Networks are dinosaurs.”

Rather grandly, he says that at 50 he should put himself to pasture, and open a restaurant. Later in the week, he listens to project proposals from a silver-haired, former high-ranking NBC executive. The ideas, Kevin and a staff member con­clude, are “too ’70s.”

A new show called Beans Baxter may be Kevin’s favorite in the FBC lineup. With spies who hide in toaster ovens and mail boxes, it certainly approaches Silly. But Kevin — who describes the show as “Hey Wally, can I borrow your Howit­zer?” — believes it could develop a cult following.

Wearing a nondescript blazer, politely requesting a phone for the table, Kevin doesn’t look like a guy who’d know a cult hit if it introduced itself to him. Even so: Beans Baxter’s premiere includes Elinor Donohue (of Father Knows Best) as Mom and chainsaw queen Wendy O. Williams as a dominatrix-type bad girl. “Garth and I aren’t hip,” Kevin says, as he finishes his granola, “but hopefully we know peo­ple who are.”

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When word got out that there was now a fourth market for televi­sion programming, Hollywood, pitchpersons stampeded Garth’s door. The Pitch is the traditional first step to a primetime slot: a flatter-­tease-and-grovel session of approximately 26 minutes performed by a writer, producer, and two agents for a stone-faced network executive. The tales brought back by the first survivors of the Fox sessions were chilling: Garth did not suffer pitches gladly. And he almost cate­gorically refused to take risks with unknowns.

How different did Fox need to be to romance viewers away from the Big Three? How different could Fox afford to be, and still romance sponsors? FBC’s programming, management decided, would strive for freshness by “network” standards. Garth wanted to lure proven talent; it was not his job to polish diamonds in the rough, he said. That was the responsibility of the production studios.

FBC pays comparable network prices — $300,000 to $500,000 for a half-­hour episode. Even so, why would a top producer in television — whose prestige is roughly analogous to a top director’s in film and who can virtually have his way with any of the Big Three — consider signing with a phantom network whose shows would be watched by about 35 peo­ple in the whole country?

This is a partial roster of producers and writers working with FBC: Jim Brooks (Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, Lou Grant, Terms of Endearment), Ed Wein­berger (M.A.S.H.), Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties), Margie Peters and Linda Marsh (Family Ties, Valerie), and Ste­phen J. Cannell. Disney Studios has a project with them. And so does New York’s radio madman, Howard Stern.

Garth never intended to reinvent net­work television, but he did reinvent how it is developed. Instead of waiting for pitches, he did the pitching. Producers for FBC would have two things that are almost unheard of: job security in the form of a guaranteed 13 episodes (no make-it-or-break-it pilot) and creative freedom.

It’s time for the generals’ address to the troops — the weekly update that FBC management telecasts to its affiliates. On this Tuesday morning, headquarter’s mission is particularly tricky: convince affiliates that the folks in Century City know exactly what they’re doing, plans are right on schedule, and so how about a little enthusiasm out there?

Five FBC executives, Garth among them, sit behind a table in a studio at KTTV, the Fox-owned station in Los Angeles. In the politest terms, an execu­tive scolds some affiliates for being chick­enshit and airing The Late Show after Johnny Carson. (The affiliates have to know, Barry Diller has instructed his generals, that the 11 o’clock franchise is “destiny.”) Next, a message from Our Whiz Kid: programming is moving along nicely, now let’s take a look at a two-minute test from Karen’s Song, “un­sweetened,” apologizes Garth, by music or laugh tracks. Then FBC’s April debut strategy explained: to avoid the heavy pounding by the networks during the March and May sweeps. Questions?

Amarillo. Seattle. Norfolk. From around the country, inquiring station managers want to know: “Programming from the network ends at 10 p.m. What do you suggest we follow it with?” Garth?

A. “We offer young, upscale, urban­-oriented programming. On Sundays, try an adult sitcom like Taxi or Barney Miller, since there are no sitcoms on CBS and NBC then.”

Another executive adds with some ur­gency, “If someone is trying to get you to program religion, please think about it carefully.”

Oklahoma City. Davenport. Chatta­nooga. “Garth, can you confirm the title of Werewolf [a new show]?”

A. “Yes I can.” Pause. Hearty smile. “We’ve spent a half-million bucks to pay for his transformation from man into wolf!”

Raleigh, North Carolina, wants to know if the stars of the shows will be making appearances for publicity interviews.

A. Er. Uh. Maximum impact, major cities, so “not in Raleigh.”

Green Bay has heard rumors that FBC may be signing up a station in Milwaukee, which borders the Green Bay sta­tion’s Area of Dominant Influence (ADI). Say it ain’t so, Fox.

A. At the moment there is no Fox station in Milwaukee. But it’s likely there will be by the end of the week.

Savannah. Salt Lake City. Little Rock. “What will FBC do if other networks put up blockbuster movies during their de­but?” Garth?

He laughs confidently, with a touch of disdain. “NBC putting on a 7-to-10 mov­ie? They’re stuck with Rags to Riches [a new show] and with only two weeks on the air, they wouldn’t pull it. Besides, they’re well aware that if they did, we’d use it as a publicity stunt.”

No more questions? See you next week then, and remember (a billboard flashes on the monitors): 33 DAYS UNTIL PRIME TIME LAUNCH!

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These days, FBC’s young programming staff runs on caffeine, Gummi Bears, excitement, and dread. No one has time to wait for the elevator, no one has time to speak in complete sentences. Garth, who does so much of his work over the phone, throws his legs up on his desk and talks the fastest of them all: “Cheers may go to Wednesday at 9? Oblivion!… Yeah, I hear he’s looking — you going after him?… The studio thinks it’s a great made-for. Now I really wonder about their judgment. They’re supposed to be doing something with us, you know.”

One night he agrees to be wrested from the office for an hour or so. In the vesti­bule of a crowded Westwood restaurant (Kevin’s recommendation), one of Ameri­ca’s most powerful television executives turns into just another guy who’s daunted by a maitre d’. All the tables in the lounge are taken, and Garth isn’t allowed to sit upstairs, because of course he does not want to order food. He gazes longingly at the TV over the bar, which happens to be tuned to Fox’s KTIV. “Do you think they’d give me a table if I threatened to yank that show off their set?” he says, half kidding.

Edging up to the bar, he orders a spar­kling water and inhales basketfuls of pop­corn (“very low in calories”). He is starting to unwind. In the office, he’s perceived as a mysterious work ma­chine — coolheaded, efficient, tireless. Outside the office, he’s a young 29, gawky, high-spirited, recounting war sto­ries that are “unbeleeevable!” Like the one about how he was talked into leaving NBC.

“I had my first meeting with [FBC president] Jamie Kellner on Friday night, then Sunday morning at Barry’s house. That night I went to a black-tie function­al and sat at a table with [RCA chairman Thornton] Bradshaw, Grant Tinker, and Brandon. I felt like such a turncoat. FBC’s offer came Monday morning at 7:30. Tuesday, Brandon counteroffered. Grant called me and said that a fourth network would never work — NBC tried to make me feel like I was one of three people in the entire world. I called Fox to pass. Wednesday night Barry said, ‘Don’t pass, have drinks with Rupert.’ Rupert was charismatic. He didn’t make a hard sell. He just said he’d like to meet the man who was going to spend his money.”

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Garth left because the challenge was gone — NBC had been number one for over a year, in part because of the come­dies he’d helped develop. He was tanta­lized by the prospect of a new venture and by going head-to-head with his mentors. But his greatest challenge would be Barry Diller, a man who clearly enjoys stoking his reputation as Hollywood’s Vlad the Impaler. “Barry tolerates no bullshit. When you’re in a big company like NBC there’s so much wasted time, so much hidden agenda. Here, it’s like a precept at Princeton. Rupert and Barry want total truth. Barry and I fight a lot. I like to win, and I win a lot. But Barry makes me work for everything I get.”

When Garth was growing up in Law­renceville, New Jersey, his parents would lock him out of the house to make him play with other kids. Garth, who still considers himself a loner, preferred TV: “If you don’t like the people, you can change the channel.” Some of his fondest memories from the Lawrenceville School and Princeton, be says, are of sitting around with friends, watching TV.

At 12 he interned at a public television station; at 14 he was running the control board of a beautiful-music radio station. To fulfill FCC requirements, it needed a public affairs program. Garth, then 16, developed the Sunday morning show that has come to be known as American Focus and is carried by 400 stations. The first person he interviewed was the state’s traffic safety coordinator. “Then we interviewed Katharine Graham, because she had just bought the Trenton Times. I was a cocky kid.”

He talked New York’s WNBC into air­ing the show; then 16 NBC affiliates car­ried it. When he was graduated, barely, from Princeton in 1979, the show had become a campus institution and had been written up in the national press. “I was traveling across the country, meeting stars, world leaders, having a great time,” says Garth, rather bemused by himself­. “When you’re on your second CIA director…”

After graduation, he thought he’d like to go into network programming. He was in Los Angeles to interview Jimmy Stew­art for the radio show, but he didn’t have a résumé with him. So he walked into Brandon Tartikoff’s office and handed him a People profile. “Brandon looked at it and said, ‘Oh, you went to Lawrence­ville, too?’ ”

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Garth watched an awful lot of televi­sion over the next seven years. “Most network shows are poorly executed. You can see the jokes coming a mile away. NBC always went for the jokes first. I always look for the story-telling, the emo­tion, the characters first, then the jokes.” Designing Women, he thinks, is terrible: “one character, split four ways.” He admires Murder She Wrote, 60 Minutes, Kate and Allie, Who’s the Boss, Newhart “most of the time.” Moonlighting, “but they can’t afford to make a lot of Moon­lightings at three and a half million an episode.” Cagney and Lacey? “A little dark, a little depressing.” Hill Street? “Well done, but I don’t enjoy it.” At home, Garth owns a 46-inch screen and four monitors.

“The writer-producers are my heroes — ­they did the shows I watched in college. At NBC I’d worked with Jim Brooks on Taxi. I was totally in awe of this guy, I mean, you’re talking God. He’s so talent­ed I’m scared to death of him. When I heard that he wanted to do something with us [The Tracey Ullman Show] I was too shy to call him up and say thank you, so I sent him a hand-written note.”

Nevertheless, Garth says, it’s been dif­ficult to inspire people. “I’ve been telling them ‘Please be more adventurous.’ They’ve been so beaten down they’re afraid to take chances.” Like the time the Buffalo Bill people wanted to do a show on abortion, and Garth had to negotiate between writers and censors, line by line. The haggling over language, never mind ideas. Sleazeball yes, scumbag no?

It’s 8:30, long past time to phone in to the office. The staff is waiting for him — the hour-long premiere of Duet has just arrived. He gets into the Mercedes, and dials as he drives. “Kevin, you ordered pizza?” A smile crosses his face.

As he’s heading back to work, Garth insists he really is a rebel, given to flashes of spontaneity. Once, he says, he was supposed to be in Aspen for a meeting, but he’d heard the flight was nervous­-making. Abruptly, he decided to make the 20-hour drive alone. In the middle of the night his car broke down in a desert town near Las Vegas.

“Everybody was stopping at the gas station. People on their way to gamble. To get married. Get divorced. Husbands and wives yelling at each other. Ameri­cans acting just like Americans, you know?” He is beaming, as he replays the memory. “And I thought, ‘Unbelievable! This is just like a comedy series!’ ”

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In a middle-class American living room, a boy wearing Rambo-style camouflage garrots his older sister, screaming, “DIE, COMMIE BIMBO!”

His mother is irked. “Remember the effect it had on Gramma?”

So begins the premiere of Married… With Children, the FBC sitcom that is Garth Ancier’s pride and joy, The show is about the 15-year-old marriage between Peggy, a housewife, and Al, a shoe sales­man, and their newlywed neighbors, Steve, a bank teller, and Marcy, his boss. It’s open warfare between the sexes: Peg­gy puts a cactus where Al’s alarm clock used to be; he wipes the blood off his hand with her slip. Steve and Al, com­plete opposites, discover a common ene­my — P.M.S., which they define as “Pummel Men’s Scrotums.”

“Imagine Sam Kinison married to Roseanne Barr,” says Garth.”This is offensive. It’s supposed to break through the blandness of the medium. TV is too… nice—”

“—In an age of nice for niceness’ sake, it’s an original,” finishes Kevin. “It’s a good working-man’s comedy.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the cast is doing a timed run-through in a cavernous rehearsal hall. The observers, industry guests and the ubiquitous Foxies, sit al­most in the actors’ laps. Watching a hyperventilated TV sitcom performed life­-size is unsettling: without the screen to reduce and frame them, the performances seem grotesque. But the writing is full of surprises, the characters raunchy and af­fable, and soon the room is hooting with laughter; even the actors break up. Garth’s face is the most animated it’s been in three days: glowing with pleasure, hanging on every line, he is watching TV.

Afterwards, two wild men assail him. One is talking rapid Jewish-Brooklynese, chomping gum, and chain-smoking, dressed in no-name jeans and a sweat­stained T-shirt delineating bulk that wishes it could pass for muscle. The in­stant he pauses to wheeze, the other, a short, stocky black guy dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, finishes the sentence and barrels ahead. They’re the 22-min­ute-and-10-second champs, Ron Leavitt and Michael Moye. One or both of them have left boot prints on Laverne and Shirley, Happy Days, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons. Now they’re executive producers of Married… With Children.

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Garth rushes off to another meeting, and Leavitt and Moye reconvene in an office that looks like an X-rated Romper Room. Toy guns, bows and arrows, a life­-sized dummy, and a hip-high cardboard box filled with food for thought: Ding Dongs, Suzie Qs, a gourmet selection of Entenmann’s and… Twinkies?

“If Twinkies can get someone off for murder, they can certainly get us on the air,” asserts Ron.

“Garth told us: ‘Anything you want to do, we’ll leave you alone,’ ” says Michael. “Now, we’ve heard that before from the networks, but usually there’s an aster­isk — ‘see below’ — and then we get all those footnotes. Poor Garth! Look what we gave him. At least he knew we were bizarre enough not to be trusted.”

Ron and Michael play hip, talk irrever­ent, but their dirty little secret is that they’re workaholics and perfectionists. They may work until 3 a.m., but they’ll take their staff out drinking and bowling for the rest of the night. But on this show, there’s even more at stake than usual. Michael’s rage is only slightly clos­er to the surface than Ron’s. “It’s my rebuttal to all the crap in the family shows. Kids don’t want advice. They want money.”

Ron: “If you want to see that plastic facade shit, you got the networks. We wanted to show a more… realistic 15-year-old marriage. The ugly stuff comes from our lives and we just take it to a ridiculous extreme. Our lives were boring, we have no friends, we’re beaten by our wives, and we wash dishes.

“Garth knew this was a calculated risk. We’re not coming out of the starting gate saying please love us. The show is for people who think, ‘I just wish Cosby had my kids for five minutes.’ ”

Michael: “They’re calling our show a comic version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. We just want America to sit back with a beer and say, ‘Holy shit! Now that’s writin’!’ ”

“—And then go pee,” finishes Ron. “Every sitcom has to have a ‘mes­sage,’ ” says Michael.

“—Ours doesn’t,” says Ron. “Yeah! It’s about time somebody had nothing to say,” finishes Michael.

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The possibility that women viewers might resent female characters portrayed as castrators while their men are long-suffering victims eludes Ron and Mi­chael. “We have a lot of women on our staff [directors, writers, crew], and we set out to do a show that was sexist on both sides. Naturally, being guys, we’re more brutal on women. We can’t find anything wrong with guys,” says Ron. “Look, Al is no dream, he’s not that smart. But make a woman stupid on television and you’ve just fucked with God.”

It’s difficult to imagine Married… With Children getting an air date on a Big Three network. “If we did get on the networks and were a hit, they’d leave us alone,” says Michael. “But if we were mediocre, they’d say, ‘Make Peggy more saintly, make Al more likable, have them say I love you four times a show.’ If the kids have problems, the parents should catch them quickly and crush them.”

Ron: “If FBC says that to us, I hope we have the nerve to say no. I hope instead they’ll say, ‘Please guys, just get the fuck off our network.’ ”

Unlike the other networks, FBC does not have an in-house censor. The day after their bold talk, Leavitt and Moye received memos from Bristol-Meyers, Clorox, Johnson & Johnson, and Kraft expressing their unwillingness to sponsor a show with the line “Pommel Men’s Scrotums.”

“Now we’ll see which way the testicles are swinging — or if they’re just going to pull ’em up,” said Michael. Would FBC bleep on debut night?

As of last week, Leavitt and Moye were refusing to rewrite the line. “Poor Garth,” said Ron. “This is really gonna wrinkle his shirt.”

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On Friday night, Southern Califor­nia fraternity kids swarm into a Fox studio, hired to yuck it up during the first taping of producer Jim Brooks’s new project, The Tracey Ullman Show. The autograph­ hounds leap on Danny De Vito (a Brooks Taxi alum) and Rhea Perlman, the room’s best-known stars.

In the middle of the row behind the couple, a flamboyant L.A. cockatoo keeps leaving his seat, bored by the deadly pace of the taping. He apologizes distractedly each time he crunches on four pairs of corporate-proper shoes, trips over eight conservatively clad knees. He is unaware they belong to the room’s most powerful stars: Kevin Wendle, Garth Ancier, Barry Diller, and Rupert Murdoch.

Brooks’s new show is an energetic showcase of comedy skits, animation, and variety acts, done on an intimate, anti-­glitter scale with two revolving sets. As Garth is fond of saying, there’s nothing on TV like it. So far, the show’s pace, tone, and appearance still exist largely in the minds of Brooks and his comedy writers — Garth knows he may well not see the finished product until a minute before the final deadline.

British pop star Tracey Ullman and sidekick Julie Kavner struggle through the first act. “I’m changing the channel back to Who’s the Boss,” groans a frat kid. Take two. Take three. It is difficult to laugh at a strained joke the fourth time around. One camera breaks. Then another.

Diller and Garth chat up Murdoch.

Act two. Suddenly Ullman pulls out a bravura comic performance, and the au­dience explodes. Rupert is applauding. Next, the variety act — juggler Daniel Ro­sen — dazzles everyone, even Diller but es­pecially Rupert. They’ve seen enough, they get the idea. They leave, happy net­work executives.

The show inches toward its goal: TV that’s hot and cool. Kavner wheeled in as a survivor of a terrible car accident; Ull­man as her maddeningly chirpy neighbor, who has been stabbed on a bus with a penknife 32 times. Take four. This half-­hour program has been taping for three hours.

Then Ullman, now a modem single woman, hires a band and records a mes­sage into her phone answering machine. Throwing her red curls around, parody­ing rock performers, she brings down the house. “Now, that’s more like it,” rates the fraternity kid.

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After a gray, chilly week, the South­ern California climate finally comes out with it: sun, blue skies, gentle breeze, the whole bit. A per­fect Saturday to go to the beach.

Garth and Kevin, frayed by the march of 7 a.m.-to-midnight hours, head for the ’burbs. The rural bedroom community of Calabasas, California, is about as close to American heartland sensibility as can be found in a morning’s drive from Los An­geles. And Saturday afternoon is the only time you can get a bunch of teens and college kids together to watch a little TV. After months of fine-tuning the counter­programming strategy, endless hours of fighting and rewriting and second-guess­ing, FBC is presenting 21 Jump Street (once called The Undercover Kid, then Jump Street Chapel) to its most influen­tial critics — the target audience.

Garth doesn’t like to test pilots before they air, and partly blames the blanding of TV on the practice. The pilots of All in the Family and Miami Vice, he points out, did terribly. “Research only tells you what people are comfortable with, not if it can be a breakout show.” But today he’s making an exception to his own rule. FBC and the Cannell people have reached an impasse on the premiere of 21 Jump Street. The series, the foundation of FBC’s entire Sunday night schedule, has Garth so worried that he’s turning to viewer focus groups for reassurance. Even if, God forbid, they don’t like the show, he hopes their criticisms will persuade Cannell to make the changes — such as rehauling the epilogue — that FBC has been urging.

The official bio for Stephen J. Cannell trumpets him as “one of the most prolific and successful writer/producers working in the television industry today… a trendsetter.” His independent production company, in the STEPHEN J. CAN­NELL building at La Brea and Hollywood, bas created a record number of pilots that have gone to series. Cannell’s 1986 gross revenues from the shows, sales of soundtracks, and licensing of merchan­dise, from Rambo dolls to A-Team lunch boxes, was about $150 million.

The day before the Calabasas focus group, Cannell remained publicly unperturbed. “The Fox guys are at their most tense moment — they’re a little white­-knuckled. They have a tendency to go to the pilot [premiere show] and fix things and I say, ‘Guys, we gotta go on! If we play with this for the next three weeks we’re in trouble! I mean, it’s just 30 sec­onds of film!’ ”

A fire crackles in the fireplace at one end of Cannell’s sixth-floor office, which is decorated in what he describes as “En­glish hunting colors” and looks over Hol­lywood. If Ron Leavitt and Michael Moye are determined not to look like writers, then Cannell is Writer from cen­tral casting — a tanned, lithe 45-year-old whose signature style is windbreaker and pipe. He eschews a desk for the informal­ity of a face-to-face chat. His publicist is also in the room.

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“I thought Jump Street was a real good idea — I could have sold it to CBS. With the exception of Mod Squad, there’s nothing like it on TV. You got murder in high school, you got drugs. So let ’em OD and die but don’t be a snitch? That’s the moral position?”

He maintains that if the audience saw his version of Jump Street and then the one with Fox’s changes, “they’d say, ‘What’s the difference?’ That’s the posi­tion I take. Of course, you do have to care about what you’re doing. Im not in it for the money. Writing is still what’s most important to me. I’m proud of this show — it’s about as good as I get.”

Ten white teens and young adults from Calabasas are watching the best Stephen J. Cannell has to offer. The two-hour premiere of 21 Jump Street introduces a mini-UN of rookie cops, so young-looking (so cute, so potential teen idol) that they “lack authority on the street,” as the show puts it. A long-haired, sour, ex­-hippie cop captain trains them to pose as students in different high schools. In this episode, a well-to-do white student serves as a drug runner for two black student dealers who park their (stolen and unreported) Ferraris in the school lot. Follow­ing a scuffle, the vice-principal gives the black guys two-week’s detention. Chase scene, cliff-hanger, rescue. In the epilogue, sour ex-hippie cop captain hangs out with garage band buddies, blissfully lip-synching to the Grateful Dead.

As Kevin and Garth observe behind the one-way window, the researcher probes the group for an hour.

John, 21: You’re watching a detective show and a band comes on?

Scott, 18: And that music they were playing was kinda outdated, from the ’70s.

James, 19: But it’s the only show on TV that has kids our age taking on the bad guys.

David, 20: Yeah, it came down to our level. I think it’s very educational.

But one viewer has trouble believing (a) that a high school student would have a Ferrari and (b) same student would be so calm after it was deliberately scratched. Jamie, 18, however, thinks (a) and (b) are realistic.

Certain characters they just don’t get at all. Jamie doesn’t see a lot of hippies around these days, much less hippie cops. Sophia, 21, has never seen students talk back to teachers that way, “but I went to a private high school.” And Morgan can’t figure the black rookie — “You just don’t see a lot of black lady cops.” Others com­plain she’s too dainty. How come when she got into trouble, everybody looked worried, like she couldn’t take care of herself’?

What about the writing? “If they can keep it up to this caliber, it’s pretty good.” (From the observation room, snickers.)

Violence? “Compared to Miami Vice, this is grammar school.” Message? “It won’t stop kids from dealing. But it will make them more careful about who they deal to.”

How do they feel about narcs in high school? They don’t like them, but “these guys are nice. They want to stop crime and help kids.”

How many would watch Jump Street (“Oh God, here it comes,” murmurs Garth) instead of: Our House? All 10 raise their hands. Miami Vice? Five (“Vice is getting old,” says James). Mur­der, She Wrote? Eight. Disney Movie? Gales of laughter. Sixty Minutes? Seven.

“Welcome,” says Kevin, “to middle America.”

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The researcher steps into the observa­tion room and translates the session for Kevin and Garth. “They’re picking holes in the the plot. Did you hear them though? The first word they said is ‘ac­tion.’ They like most of the characters — ­they’re seeing teenagers, and it’s a show on their level. When they say it’s ‘differ­ent,’ they mean you have a good idea. But this age group didn’t buy that ’60s stuff. The ’60s to them is like the ’40s to us.”

“Our specific concerns were the top of the show, the hospital scene, and the entry into the chapel [the rookies’ head­quarters],” says Garth. The viewers ques­tioned those scenes, too. “They really didn’t buy the chapel,” replies the re­searcher. “If you spend a lot of time in it, you’re in trouble.”

But, he adds, “I was surprised they were so positive. They picked it apart, but I’ve seen groups destroy shows. As for the black cop, all she has to do is put one person in his place and it’ll establish her character. Remember, though, you can’t make a living off this age group.”

Kevin says, “We’re mostly interested in just building a big audience for that hour.” The researcher nods. “They did say there’s nothing else on for them to watch. And they all said they felt com­fortable watching it with their parents. What you have to do is send up heat around the show — create a campaign that will form their attitude that it’s hip to watch Jump Street. And then, I’d say, you’ve got yourselves a hit.”

Kevin requests that a transcript be sent to the producers right away. Armed with more paperwork, Garth and Kevin will fight the good fight with Cannell. The viewers have indeed backed up their contentions: taken swipes at certain roles, laughed off entire scenes. (In fact, within weeks a drunk driver will kill off the ex-hippie captain — so much for “that ’60s stuff.”) But the viewers have also born out Cannell: they approve of under­cover cops moving among them. A quib­ble here and there, but the whole is just fine with them. And, as every good televi­sion programmer knows, all that matters is whether the audience will swallow the concept. Blinking as they step into the bright California afternoon, Garth and Kevin look deeply pleased. FBC may not yet be ready for America, but America is ready for FBC. ❖

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Wolcott Went to War on Oscar War Movies

In his Medium Cool column in the December 12, 1977, Village Voice, James Wolcott ruminated on the man many might still want to see as the fifth face on Mount Rushmore: John Wayne. The Voice television critic pulled no punches in his review of Oscar Presents the War Movies and John Wayne:

On the surface the special — written by Charles Champlin, film critic for the Los Angeles Times — was just another star-struck salute, full of noise and confetti. The show was hosted by Wayne…and several guest stars were on hand to pay homage, one even toasting Wayne for being “as American as a Rocky Mountain.” From the fawning deference shown to him it was evident that the Yahooism of the Vietnam years was now forgiven, forgotten. Okay, fine. But what’s not okay is the way the show plundered our movie past to make war seem a glorious, glamorous adventure. In its celebration of militarism, Oscar Presents… was the most nakedly propagandistic show I’ve ever seen on network television.

Film clips from over a hundred World War II-era films whizzed by like shrapnel. One moment Andy Hardy was whining, “Dad, I don’t understand these modern girls,” and the next, Japanese planes were strafing the cast of From Here to Eternity. If you leapt up to take a quick piss you might have missed Bob Hope arriving at boot camp in Caught in the Draft, or Donald Duck talking to a radio, or Irene Dunne singing up a storm to an insipidly granitic Spencer Tracy in A Guy Named Joe. As flag-waving propaganda, the montages were often rousing — at one point I was ready to attach a bayonet to a broomhandle and patrol the war-torn streets of Greenwich Village.

The show tried to make light of the racism directed at the Japanese in World War II–era films, but Wolcott pointed out the ways in which propaganda robs the “other” of their humanity: “In their depiction of Japanese as slant-eyed sadists, Hollywood war movies contributed immeasurably to the sort of racist hysteria that lasted long after the war ended.”

“Those of us born after Hiroshima were offered a counter-cultural spokesman,” Wolcott notes. “Jeff Bridges, who looked as if he had just sauntered out of a Doonesbury cartoon, introduced passages from Hollywood’s more cynical war movies, none starring Wayne. But the cynicism was all on the surface: Mister Roberts is pure popcorn; Stalag 17 and The Caine Mutiny have twist endings that soften their daringness; and Catch-22 is so hysterically incoherent that even General Jack D. Ripper would find it inoffensive.”

Although Wolcott copped to liking many of these films, he worried that programs like Oscar Presents present “propaganda as if it were historical truth.”

And so it goes.

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Tinseltown’s Self-Love — and Loathing: Wolcott Covers the Oscars

Oscar party, smoshcar party — who cares?

Well, according to the Times, not nearly as many people consider a ticket to Vanity Fair’s Oscar party to be the huge deal it was only a few short years ago. It would appear that the magazine, with a new editor, was not pleased with the Times’s assessment, and so the newspaper was disinvited from the shindig.

This seems to be a trend at Vanity Fair — the glossy also recently disinvited one of its most storied writers from its pages (though we don’t know if he’s still invited to the party):

Well, here at the Voice, we have fond memories of James Wolcott’s coverage of Tinseltown’s annual self-love-fest, and below we give you just one of the pop culture explicator’s excursions across our pages.

In 1982 (not long before he left for Vanity Fair’s no doubt bigger payday), Wolcott, in his column covering all things on the idiot box, checked in on which film critics were handicapping the Oscars — who was going to win big, who would go home in tears: “Just as movie moguls while away the hours trying to divine the whims and desires of the Public, movie critics have increasingly begun wasting time and space delving into the collective mind of the Academy, wrestling with such brawny questions as ‘Will Warren Beatty’s rakishness hurt him with the Academy’s older members?’ and ‘Is Diane Keaton too bohemian to score with the West Coast neatniks?’ ”

Wolcott was having none of it. “You can’t help but realize how belittling it is to fritter away brain cells on something as insignificant as Henry Fonda’s Oscar prospects. But for those with a bit more on their minds, Oscarmania is a party in which the streamers droop like limp macaroni.”

When Wolcott was finished skewering Oscar, he honed in on a televised version of Working: “Studs Terkel’s lump-in-the-throat socialism has become something to flee. In Working, Terkel nods gravely and sagely as a troupe of Hollywood actors pour out their hopes and peeves into his endlessly whirring tape recorder. He’s a barstool Walt Whitman, listening to the downtrodden of America rattle their multitudinous chains.”

Wolcott does, however, approve of fellow commentator Clive James’s prose: “some of the sharpest, funniest writing about television on either side of the Atlantic.” The Voice critic relates that he’d learned a lot from James’s television column in the Sunday edition of London’s Observer, having “stolen from it left and right,” and then goes on to lament that the Australian-born essayist-poet was calling it quits — having decided to “hang up his rabbit ears.”

“I’m going to regret losing his lethal parodies of tangled diction and his pop-nourished insights into American dreck,” Wolcott tells us, adding, “Reviewing Star Trek, for example, James noticed that all of the planets Captain Kirk beamed down to were reassuringly familiar. ‘The planet always turns out to be the same square mile of rocky Californian scrubland long ago overexposed in the Sam Katzman serials: Brick Bradford was there, and Captain Video — not to mention Batman, Superman, Jungle Jim, and the Black Commando. I mean like this place has been worn smooth, friends.’ ”

Wolcott’s column was titled Medium Cool, but it was the subtitle, Television and Its Discontents, that let you know what you were in for.

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Mean Driveways: Even Mobsters Get the Blahs

The best stroke in HBO’s 13-part series The Sopranos, premiering January 10, is that it isn’t conceived as farce. The premise is inherently satiric, with a successful mafioso (James Gandolfini as waste-management kingpin Tony Soprano) presented as your typical, demoralized, middle-aged suburbanite — unfulfilled by his privileges, nagged by troubles at home and business associates who don’t appreciate a great tradition, and leaking nostalgia for the “golden age” he thinks he’s missed out on. The Godfather equated gangsterism with American capitalism at a lordly level; this is the middle-management version, making a troubled, doleful thug the mouthpiece for the white bourgeoisie’s sense of loss. The forlorn way Gandolfini plays Tony, he’s like a bear who’s discovered Kierkegaard — and can’t see what to do about it, because he’s still a bear. But what makes the joke resonant is that the treatment is sympathetic, inviting us to identify with a hero whose plight we find poignant only to find ourselves complicit in what he does for a living. At its best, the show is audacious — Mario Puzo rewritten by John Cheever.

Then again, David Chase also has a surfeit of readymades to build on — and the paradox is that I like his series better than most of the stuff it’s in hock to. Like vampires, mobsters have become a universal pop trope; our familiarity with the lore makes irony automatic. The Mafia has already been domesticated in Married to the Mob and deglamorized — supposedly — in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. But Scorsese has always equated the ordinary with the banal; his trademark excitability valorized his hoodlums’ murderous prowess while condemning their vulgar manners and crummy taste in home decor. Inevitably, The Sopranos is full of nods to Scorsese — who turns up as himself for a droll cameo in the January 17 episode, entering a nightclub like a rock star while the show’s real-life goodfellas goggle behind a velvet rope. But the series strikes notes that he’s never bothered with, and its lack of hyperbole is refreshing; for all it’s tricky mix of tones, it’s appealingly straightforward. The excellent photography serves the material without indulging in look-ma-no-head razzmatazz, and the performances pass up all sorts of chances for lurid shtick to keep the characters grounded in plausibility.

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Predictably, the other hand-me-downs on display come from Quentin Tarantino’s fakebook — an influence that shows up most archly in baroquely waggish moments like one goon bemusedly opining, “Sadness accrues.” All the same, I’ve never understood what Tarantino thinks he’s being a smartass about, and in some ways, a style as extravagant as his is less objectionable once its innovations percolate down to journeyman level. Inadequate as a sensibility, it’s peachy as a source of riffs. Unlike his exemplar, Chase — whose last series was the unimpeachably virtuous I’ll Fly Away — isn’t a flagrant wiseacre; he’s assimilated these post–Pulp Fiction moves into his own taste for humane naturalism, adding dimension to one and no less welcome snap to the other. Derivative or not, the badinage he’s devised is plenty flavorful: when Tony considers ditching waste disposal for an HMO scam, one minion protests, “Hey, garbage is our bread and butter.”

Needless to say, this being HBO, tits accrue too — with a few scenes too many set in a topless joint whose name I didn’t catch, but suspect is the Casaba. Yet the second episode’s fade-out redeems even that; in a lovely shot, the strippers come together like a mute Greek chorus to contemplate Tony’s tragedy, then shrug it off and start wiggling again. Overall, the sense of milieu is richer than the TV norm — even when you can’t sort out the skulduggeries being plotted, the atmospheric grace notes keep you engrossed. While the series abounds in pop allusions, they’re usually organic; after all, it makes perfect sense that these mobsters would know the Godfather movies by heart, and — except for Part III, of course, which left them as dejected as everybody else — see the Corleones’ saga as the ideal that their lives fail to live up to. It’s typical of Chase’s gift for particularizing detail that Tony’s wife Carmela (Edie Falco) not only laughs about her husband watching Godfather II over and over, but offhandedly adds, “He likes the part where Vito goes back to Sicily” — the part where businesslike, practical-minded Vito reverts to the primitive satisfaction of revenge. And even a viewer as tired as I am of vintage rock songs trotted out as satiric commentary got a giggle out of the second episode’s kickoff tune — the Kinks doing “Where Have All the Good Times Gone.”

In the debut, Tony spends most of his time being harassed — by peevish Carmela, their contemptuous daughter (Jamie Lynn Sigler), and the querulous mother who, just like many another boomer, this dutiful son guiltily hopes to coax into a nursing home. As baleful, intimidating Mom, Nancy Marchand goes at her harridan role with such alarming energy that you suspect she’s grown as bored as the audience with the refined dowagers she usually plays. (Disconcertingly, she’s also — can this possibly be deliberate — a dead ringer for Pauline Kael.) In an affecting, nicely Cheeverish touch, Tony’s only consolation is the flock of wild ducks that has taken to visiting his swimming pool; whenever they appear, he splashes around delightedly, while his family looks on stone-faced. It’s when the ducks vanish for good that Tony goes into a tailspin, suffering the anxiety attacks that land him, on his doctor’s orders, in the office of psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).

This couch gimmick may have you groaning, since the list of movies where it’s been treated facetiously vies only with the list of movies where it deserves to be. But the device works better than you’d expect. For one thing, unless I’m getting soft in the head, Bracco isn’t that bad; her career as the Lucy Ricardo of the gangster genre may make her presence here both inevitable and ominous, but she’s underplaying her own brassiness for once. For another, Tony’s blustering laments about our vanished greatness are often funny. “Gary Cooper!” he bursts out. “Now that was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings! He just did what he had to do. What they didn’t know was that once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings, he wouldn’t be able to shut up!” I even like the dumb joke when Tony admits that he’s worried about RICO, and the psychiatrist asks, “Is he your brother?” You also don’t need much more of a tip-off to the hero’s Oedipal hang-ups than the moment when, pleased that his new shrink’s a paisan, he beams, “My mother woulda loved it if you and I got together” — and you realize that’s his idea of a come-on.

Gandolfini’s performance is one of the best reasons to tune in. He’s wonderful at conveying Tony’s confusion — the way he finds his own emotions bizarre, and tries to accommodate them to his swaggering view of himself. (When he’s distraught, he doesn’t wring his hands; he wrings his fists.) Wife Carmela greets the news that her husband’s on medication with such delight that it turns Tony grumpy — “You’d think I was Hannibal Lecter before, or something.” His bamboozled face is the key to a double-edged tone I wonder whether Chase can possibly keep up; if this series turns into straight burlesque, it’ll be tiresome, but if it goes maudlin on us it’ll just be gaga. A wistful mobster on Prozac as the incarnation of middle-class America was a metaphor that was waiting to happen.

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Is Murphy Brown Coming Back Just in Time?

“I better warn you up front, I’m not gonna be like other mothers,” the sitcom character Murphy Brown told her newborn son, Avery, at the end of the series’ fourth season in 1992.

Since Candice Bergen’s fictional news anchor was planning to raise the baby in the absence of his father, that particular Murphy Brown episode was shortly dragged into the presidential election when Vice President Dan Quayle, in a major policy speech, attacked it on moral grounds: “It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.’ I know it is not fashionable to talk about moral values, but we need to do it. Even though our cultural leaders in Hollywood, network TV, the national newspapers routinely jeer at them, I think that most of us in this room know that some things are good, and other things are wrong. Now it’s time to make the discussion public.”

With Murphy Brown returning to the airwaves amid an even more volatile culture war, we turn to the first drafts of criticism to see how the show was initially received.

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In the October 25, 1988, edition, Laurie Stone reviewed the show and two other debuting sitcoms, Roseanne and Baby Boom, noting, “Based on the pilots, the shows are not equally well-crafted or amusing, but in all the central female mind is sharper than its surround.” Stone reports that “sentimentality is the price [Roseanne] pays for her smart mouth,” while the neurosis of the Murphy Brown character “is allowed to linger and trouble. It’s not instantly drained of threat, as it was on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show.”

A year later, as the show settled into the culture, media critic Elvis Mitchell wondered in print about the show’s star: “After all, this is Candice Bergen, who has shown an ability to make fun of herself that’s quite engaging. But Murphy Brown is so ingeniously structured, and the press surrounding the show focuses on so many extraneous things — like Bergen’s being a real person (proof: standing around and passing out donuts and plasma to the crew when they’re tired) — that one thing doesn’t ever really come up. Which is — just between you and me — what Bergen does isn’t really acting, is it?”

By December of 1990, the popular Murphy Brown rated its own supposedly learned study, which the ever-animated Mim Udovitch reviewed in the Voice Literary Supplement. Murphy Brown: Anatomy of a Sitcom was a slight enough volume that Udovitch also critiqued studies of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and a book titled Sweethearts of ’60s TV in the same article. “The most interesting (by which I mean the only interesting) observation in any of the three works under review,” Udovitch writes, “occurs on page eight of Murphy Brown: ‘One seldom-noted fact about the sitcoms was the preponderance of women in lead roles. Indeed, most of the popular series of the fifties carried female names in the title.’ Since it’s outside their Murphocentric focus [authors Robert S. Alley and Irby B. Brown] do not add, as they might, that there is still a somewhat equitable proportion of lead female characters on sitcoms, particularly relative to other media, such as film. Nor do they explore the deeper-than-face-value reason for this explosion of comparable worth, since to do so would run contrary to their entire thesis that Murphy Brown is a force for social good. It is possible, for example, that television is a medium unique in its ability to simultaneously glorify and reduce, making it the most efficient instrument available for the dissemination of a male view of tiny, empedestaled women, sort of an electronic dollhouse for the masses.”

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Finally, Marc Cooper weighs in on Dan Quayle’s 1992 campaign, pointing out that the fundraising breakfast where the veep attacked Brown’s morals was held in a “San Fernando Valley neighborhood only a stone’s throw from the soundstages of the feared Murphy Brown.” Quayle — who famously could not spell potato — was every bit as ham-fisted a demagogue as President Trump, only prettier and less overtly savage. Cooper reports on the “entertainment values” at the heart of the vacuous senator from Indiana’s campaign: “[The mention of Quayle’s name] evokes no association with previous thinkers, legislators, or statesmen, but only with TV images: part Michael J. Fox, part Doogie Howser, a little Dobie Gillis, and a whole lot of Gilligan.”

Little did we know, half a century ago, just how awful having a TV personality for president would turn out to be.

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“The Deuce” Dives Even Deeper Into the Roots of the American Pornscape

In the second season premiere of The Deuce, airing on HBO next Sunday, sex worker–turned–porn director Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) shows a cut of her latest film to her collaborator, Harvey (David Krumholtz). The film shows a man penetrating a woman, who lies on her back, her eyes closed in ecstasy. There’s a quick cut to a ceiling fan; then, the face of a different man; then back to the woman. The cuts come faster and faster — in between the sex itself, there are shots of wild animals sprinting across plains, a pot boiling over, a hand squeezing the juice from an orange. “It’s the road to an orgasm,” Eileen explains to a baffled Harvey; this is what it feels like from a woman’s perspective. But Harvey reminds Eileen that they’re making porn, not art, and they’re making it for men: “They don’t want to be in a woman’s head.”

The first season of The Deuce, created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, was set among the world of pimps and prostitutes, massage parlors and peep shows, in Times Square at the dawn of the 1970s. The second, which jumps forward to 1977, explores the burgeoning pornographic film industry. Like Netflix’s GLOW, about a 1980s cable wrestling show, The Deuce is, at its best, about women creating art in a system that requires endless compromise — juicing what they can from an industry that sees them as means to an often sticky end.

Again, Gyllenhaal is the main draw here, turning in a career-best performance, though the emphasis on film makes The Deuce’s sophomore season more self-reflexive, and more focused, than the first. For some, the idea of directing fuck films might not inspire awe. But for Eileen, a/k/a Candy, her nom de porn, it means calling the shots. For once, she gets to dictate the terms of desire. It’s not a tawdry exercise in debasement; it’s a glimpse into a whole new world, and acceptance into a new kind of community. “Who would have thought the most boring part is the fucking?” she muses.

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This season, we learn how the, ahem, sausage is made. For a woman who used to walk the streets, the show suggests, making these films might even be better than sex: In the season premiere, the camera cuts between bar owner Vincent (James Franco) and his activist girlfriend, Abby (Margarita Levieva), having sex in bed, and Eileen watching a new cut of her latest film. When the couple is finished, Vincent reaches for a cigarette; when Eileen’s movie is done, she does the same.

Simon created The Wire and co-created Treme and Show Me a Hero, shows about the Baltimore drug trade, post-Katrina New Orleans, and a public-housing crisis in Yonkers.The Deuce, too, makes a study of a sprawling system — how it functions (or doesn’t), who benefits, and who is exploited. In the second season, some of these power dynamics begin to shift. Sex workers like Lori (Emily Meade) have more clout on film than on the streets, and her growing celebrity threatens the authority of her domineering pimp, C.C. (Gary Carr). Darlene (Dominique Fishback) also finds a measure of independence in her film work, even as this new scene gives her more common ground with her pimp, Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe), who decides he wants to be in pictures, too. When she tells Larry the white girls on set make more money than she does, he confronts the director — who informs Larry that there’s simply less demand for black performers in porn. “It’s not racism,” the director claims, with a fairy-tale excuse that the non-porn industry has also been using basically up until Black Panther took a sledgehammer to it. “It’s economics.”

As porn seeps closer to mainstream society, it becomes a bigger problem for the police. Luke Kirby plays Gene Goldman, an official from Mayor-elect Ed Koch’s office attempting to work with the NYPD to clean up the Deuce, the seedy strip of 42nd Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues. Officer Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) views Gene’s quest with skepticism — half the cops on the beat are taking a cut from the mob, which owns most of the bars and massage parlors in Times Square — but Alston’s boss, Captain McDonagh (Ed Moran), explains that the administration has reason to be serious about the crackdown: Koch wants to eradicate all those cash businesses that don’t report their income. “It’s not morals,” McDonagh says, echoing the porn director. “It’s money.”

Still, The Deuce’s writers and directors aren’t just interested in pornography’s economic effects. The new season tracks the mounting pornification of everything — a process spurred by the relaxing, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, of state and federal obscenity laws — not least of all, the mind. When Officer Alston picks up his nurse girlfriend from work, he admits he just wanted the chance to see her in uniform. She asks if he’s been reading Penthouse, but he admits that what did it for him was the hospital scene in Foxy Brown. Eileen tells Harvey she’s not “doing any more daddy-knows-best scenes,” to which Harvey replies, “It’s someone’s fantasy.” Later, she decides to make a feature-length sex film based on “Little Red Riding Hood” — an adult, “urban” version of the fairy tale, set in New York City. When Larry shows up on set to observe one of Darlene’s film shoots, he assumes “D.P.” refers to the director of photography, until an actor corrects him: It means double penetration. “So you fuck her twice?” Larry asks, confused. Porn is going places even a pimp can’t picture.

The Deuce carefully walks the line between condoning and condemning much of what it depicts; its writers are less interested in preaching than in creating believable characters and showing viewers what it feels like to live in their world. Some of those characters, like a stripper who comes to Abby for help with a labor dispute issue, find liberation in the blatant expression of their sexuality; others find only violence and denigration. And of course, the people who really profit off this brave new world are white men in suits.

Like GLOW — and Mad Men The Deuce is a show about how things used to be, but it’s also, inadvertently, a show about how little things have changed. The number of women directors working in Hollywood today compared to men continues to be dismal; exploiting or harassing women at work continues to yield few consequences for men. (Including James Franco, an executive producer of The Deuce, whom five women accused of “inappropriate or sexually exploitative behavior,” as reported by the Los Angeles Times back in January.)

And, like those other series, The Deuce suggests that systemic barriers keeping women from achieving their full potential at work are relics of the past. The show’s writers are not totally blind to this irony; in one scene, at a porn awards ceremony in L.A., the camera catches a woman describing a film to her companion: “It’s a parody of Westworld, but instead of cowboys and Indians, it’s sex robots.” She’s referring to the 1973 movie Westworld, but this porn version suggests the series you can catch on Sunday nights on HBO. It’s fitting that just a couple of weeks before The Deuce’s new season is set to premiere, HBO has gutted its late-night division, home to softcore porn docuseries like Real Sex and Taxicab Confessions. “There hasn’t been a strong demand for this kind of adult programming,” an HBO rep told IndieWire, “perhaps because it’s easily available elsewhere.” The Deuce immerses us in the question of how we got here.

The Deuce premieres Sunday, September 9, at 9 p.m. on HBO.