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The Fall Season’s 5 Best New Series and Its 5 Biggest Disappointments

There’s more television today than at any other point in the medium’s history, but there’s a good chance you’re stuck in a TiVo rut. That’s because, with a handful of exceptions, this fall has delivered a truckload of mediocrity and dead-on-arrival trends. (Goodbye, “rom-sit-coms” like the already canceled A to Z and Manhattan Love Story. Farewell, hopefully forever, comedies about women whose defining characteristic is their poor job performance, like spring’s Bad Teacher and autumn’s Bad Judge.)

Fortunately, there are a few new shows with fresh perspectives, novel conceits, encouragingly diverse casts, and/or deep emotional undercurrents worthy of your Hulu queue. And, of course, there are the season’s letdowns — not necessarily the worst the small screen has to offer, but the ones that suffer the greatest lapse between expectations and execution. Here are this fall’s five best new series — and its five biggest disappointments.

Best New Shows

Transparent
Amazon’s flagship series is hands down this season’s finest (and most binge-bait-y) show: a profoundly moving, funny, sexy, wistful, and intelligent revolution of the half-hour format. Representation issues aside, Jeffrey Tambor is flawless as Maura, a heartbreaker and an inspiration, whose late-in-life transition from man- to womanhood (“My whole life, I’ve been dressing up like a man”) sparks existential crises in her sex-obsessed, selfish-to-the-point-of-self-destructive adult children: sanctimonious mother-of-two Sarah (Amy Landecker), needy music agent Josh (Jay Duplass), and aimless perma-student Ali (Gaby Hoffman). Judith Light co-stars as Maura’s ex-wife, the other matriarch of this close but sharp-tongued family that never let their slim chances at happiness keep them from reaching for everything. (Amazon, all episodes made available for streaming on September 26)

Jane the Virgin
If Transparent is the fall’s best new show, Jane the Virgin is its most charming. Starring indie darling Gina Rodriguez (Filly Brown) as 23-year-old waitress Jane, this smart telenovela parody improves upon big sister Ugly Betty by grounding its madcap plot twists in recognizable emotions and detailed, consistent characterization. A medical mix-up lands a stranger’s sperm inside sex-averse Jane, except it’s no stranger after all, but her former flirting partner Rafael (Justin Baldoni), who also happens to be her married, now-infertile boss. Jane’s desire to do the right thing by everyone involved — she’s keenly aware this is Rafael’s last chance to have a biological child — overcomes the series’ seeming social conservatism, which fades with each new installment in favor of a rather nuanced, if not strictly progressive, sexual politics. (CW, debuted October 13)

Black-ish
One of the fall’s most popular new shows, Anthony Anderson’s Black-ish is the natural successor to Will Smith’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (And yes, it’s really taken this long for an heir to take over The Fresh Prince‘s throne.) In its best episodes, like “The Nod” (“It’s the internationally accepted yet unspoken acknowledgement of black folks around the world…to let each other know, ‘I see you, bro’ “) and “Crime and Punishment” (about intergenerational clashes about spanking), Black-ish achieves its ambitious mission: to question with thoughtfulness and humor how to raise upper-middle-class black children who are conscious of their forebears’ struggles. The show also deserves credit for allowing co-stars Tracee Ellis Ross and Laurence Fishburne to share the spotlight, respectively, as the refreshingly zany mom and the hilariously cantankerous grandpa. (ABC, debuted September 24)

Selfie
This update of Pygmalion overcame one of the worst pilots of the fall season to become a surprisingly witty look at millennial culture. Karen Gillan is dazzling as the motor-mouthed Eliza Dooley, a sales rep with thousands of social-media friends and followers but no one to take care of her when she’s laid low by the flu. Representing the anti-youth POV is prematurely grouchy Henry Higgs (the always amiable John Cho), who in turns borrows some of Eliza’s joie de vivre and tech savvy to cobble together a life outside of work. Unfortunately, the low-rated sitcom will likely be canceled soon, which will deprive us of gems like this brilliantly wry exchange at a nerdy book club Eliza attends in a Goodwill dress: “Sorry if I smell like dead people.” “That’s how you know it’s vintage!” (ABC, debuted September 30)

The Chair
Though it’s framed as a reality competition between two first-time directors, each adapting the same script according to his/her sensibilities, The Chair is really a study of artistic success and the innumerable obstacles that can get in the way thereof. This fascinating experiment in filmmaking isn’t just about the differing visions between Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci, though, but about issues concerning the future of independent cinema itself: old media versus new, questionable funding opportunities like product placement, movies as brand extension, the recurring issues of gender. The overconfident Dawson and the neurotic Martemucci make for fascinating (if not particularly likable) subjects faced with new challenges like leadership and collaboration. The competitive aspect is a foregone conclusion — Dawson’s 10 million YouTube subscribers will most certainly elect him the winner by a huge margin — but the stakes still seem sky-high, especially since Zachary Quinto, who fulfills the Tim Gunn role along with American Pie producer Chris Moore, recently declared Dawson’s film “egregiously offensive” and took his name off that film. (Starz, debuted September 6)

Most Disappointing Shows

Marry Me
The rom-com formula of keeping apart two people clearly meant for each other was translated for the small screen decades ago through the “will they or won’t they?” trope. Thus all the heraldry of the “rom-sit-com” this fall season seemed overblown — an assessment all but confirmed when Marry Me arrived last month. Boasting a more experienced cast than the other two examples of its genre, this irritating, contrived, tone-deaf mess tried to make us care about whether a long-term, cohabiting couple (Casey Wilson and Ken Marino) would walk down the aisle or not. The majority of Americans who aren’t married would agree: Let’s annul this fiasco.  (NBC, debuted October 14)

The Affair
Also squandering its more-than-capable central pair is Showtime’s Montauk-set he-said-she-said adultery drama, which has progressed ploddingly and failed to make the most of its bifurcated format, with novelist Noah (Dominic West) recalling his side of the story and waitress Allison (Ruth Wilson) her side in a possible murder investigation. It doesn’t help that Noah is a cliché to his bones, a middle-aged father of four who sees himself as a “good guy” seduced by a blue-collar seductress, or that he comes across as such a creep in Allison’s telling that we’re rooting against the inevitable. (Showtime, debuted October 12)

Mulaney
Brilliant comic John Mulaney belongs in the history books — as a textbook example of how stand-up doesn’t necessarily translate to sitcoms. The pilot lifts many of its jokes nearly verbatim from his New in Town special, but the gags are inserted into the new scenes awkwardly, even carelessly, while the spontaneity in Mulaney’s delivery disappears completely. Nor can the comedian make up for his suddenly unfunny stories with acting chops; he could take an emoting lesson or two from Keanu Reeves. The multicultural cast, including Seaton Smith and Nasim Pedrad as a fellow comic and a “crazy” personal trainer, respectively, also inadvertently highlights how much of Mulaney’s comedy is dependent on mimicking women and people of color. That’s how bad Mulaney is: The show retroactively mars the stand-up source material. (Fox, debuted October 5)

Cristela
Also built around a comic is the Friday-night throwback Cristela, which would have fit in perfectly alongside Family Matters on ABC’s TGIF programming block of yore. Cristela Alonzo faces the opposite problem that John Mulaney does; she’s so astoundingly entertaining on her namesake show — gregarious with a hint of bite, able to take the hoariest punchlines and make them funny again with a thudding, deep-throated delivery — that the series ends up an exercise in frustration. She’s clearly above the square scripts with insult-hurling family members and wacky, barging neighbors (Gabriel Iglesias), and yet it’s obvious the TV-raised Alonzo relishes the multi-cam form. Fortunately, enough thorns (she calls cheerleading part of “the great Texas tradition where girls learn they’re not quite as important as boys”) are embedded among the hugs to stick it out on a slow night. (ABC, debuted October 10)

How to Get Away With Murder
There’s just not enough Viola Davis in the newest show from Shonda Rhimes. Davis is as magnetic as ever as law professor Annalise Keating, who discovers her husband’s affair while conducting one of her own. Too much of the running time is wasted on her student protégés, not a one of whom stands out as a compelling character, even when they’re trying to cover up a murder. The frequent flash-forwards to their struggle to burn a dead body on the busiest day on campus, combined with the already ADD-rewarding editing, take away even more screen time from Davis, and those scenes’ sense of urgency lacks the passion or the humanism to make us care. As a series with Rhimes’s name attached to it, Murder does offer thrilling moments of gender, racial, and sexual diversity, as when a male law student performs analingus on another man during a bar hookup in the pilot or when Davis removes her wig just before bed (apparently at the actress’s behest). But sometimes an hour is just too long to wait for progress, and in the era of infinite content, smart TV-watching means knowing what to catch up on via clips and memes the next morning. (ABC, debuted September 25)

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HILLARY FOR PRESIDENT?

Are we ready to have the Clintons in the White House again? According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, Democrats certainly are. The poll showed Hillary Clinton currently holds a six to one lead over anyone else in her party. HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, the new biography by Jonathan Allen (the White House bureau chief for Politico) and Amie Parnes (White House correspondent for Washington paper The Hill), explore whether she can go all the way this time, taking readers from her devastating defeat in 2008 through her transformative period as Secretary of State. Bring your most burning questions about the Clintons for what should be an insightful conversation.

Wed., Feb. 12, 7 p.m., 2014

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A Man for the (Stone) Ages

It’s been accused of crass commercialism, a lack of imagination, and even racism—and ABC’s new show Cavemen hasn’t even aired.

But before the show’s Cro-Magnon star left town last month to begin taping in Los Angeles, he gave a downright Neanderthal one-man performance at Chelsea’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

“What’s up, you cock-ass bitches?” Nick Kroll asked the packed house, playing Fabrice Fabrice, a bisexual Latino character he invented mainly to abuse audiences.

“He says the stuff I wish I could say [as myself] onstage, if that makes sense,” Kroll imparts the next day over lunch. “I wish I were as free myself as I am with Fabrice. For some reason, people like Fabrice better than they like Nick Kroll. Which I’m fine with. I like being able to walk outside after the show, and people don’t even necessarily recognize me. It’s the same way with my Cavemen character.”

Over a sandwich and iced coffee near his apartment in Union Square, Kroll—who in real life is Jewish and straight—looked downright metrosexual in light blue pants and white Vans. Having grown up in Rye, New York, the 29-year-old played with an improv group at Georgetown University called GPIG. In New York City after graduation, he had a successful run in commercials, most memorably playing Andy Roddick’s “mojo” for American Express during the 2005 U.S. Open. (As the human incarnation of Roddick’s mojo, Kroll hit the town with the tennis player’s plastic. Yeah, it was weird.) He’s also been a writer for Chappelle’s Show, and is probably best known as a snarky regular on VH1’s Best Week Ever.

But his fame will reach new heights as a Cavemen lead. The show—which will air Tuesday nights at 8 beginning October 2—is based on the ubiquitous Geico auto-insurance ads, in which modern-day Cro-Magnon men complain about the company’s “So easy, even a caveman can do it” slogan. Kroll read for the part in March and immediately recognized a fit. “I was like, ‘Oh, his name is Nick and he’s a deadpan, sarcastic asshole. It’s going to be a real reach for me.” (The actors from the commercials don’t star in the show.)

Shortly thereafter, Kroll was suffering through 19-hour days and horrific costume sessions. “It was literally like someone was rubbing fiberglass on my face every time,” he says. “They glue this silicone mask to your face, and they would glue my arms and legs and put wig hair on top of them. It was awful.” He says more recently, the make-up team has begun to use less-abrasive materials.

Under the guidance of writer Joe Lawson—who also created the commercials—Cavemen went from concept to pilot to the fall lineup very quickly. Skeptics said this spoke to ABC’s desperation for a hit, and Amy Poehler joked on Saturday Night Live that NBC would counter with its own new drama, 1-800-Mattress.

“Listen, I completely understand that—and if I wasn’t attached, I might be like, ‘That’s bullshit,'” Kroll says. “But Geico is never mentioned, and as far as I know, there isn’t the ‘car insurance’ episode.”

Kroll notes that Cavemen isn’t the first television show inspired by a commercial or product. (Max Headroom
or Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears, anyone?) He adds that television is full of more egregious suck-ups.

“I love The Office, but you’ll see someone say, ‘I’m using my Staples shredder to shred lettuce,’ and then it cuts to the commercial for the Staples shredder. It doesn’t make The Office any less good—I think The Office is amazing. But the idea that any art is sacred from product placement or corporate involvement is bullshit.”

By late July, reporters had sharpened their swords and were back with another charge: The show was racist. “By depicting the Cro-Magnons as good dancers, great athletes and grand sexual partners, the show’s detractors argued, Cavemen was using black stereotypes for cheap racist laughs,” wrote Glenn Garvin in the Miami Herald, reporting on a television critics’ press tour in Los Angeles.

In fairness to the show, its characters are stereotyped more as bratty white people than African-Americans. But racial (er, anthropological) struggle is a central theme. Think of it as Alien Nation with a sense of humor. “They’ve been oppressing our people for 750,000 years,” Kroll’s character says in the pilot, referring to modern types. “When you watch TV, it’s all politically correct, but they air The Flintstones six times a day.”

The episode doesn’t boast consistent laughs, but most series need some time to find their footing. The concept seems at least as sustainable as, say, a fat deliveryman from Queens with a skinny wife. But Kroll won’t be devastated if the show gets canceled. “There’s this idea of getting discovered, or a break, but in reality [my career] is more like a slow freight train carrying a lot of emotional baggage,” he says.

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Ratty Cool

On Grey’s Anatomy, the ABC hospital drama about professionally and personally harried young surgery interns, life unfolds to new new wave. The series is set in a dank, woolly, feelings-mad Seattle that the script hypes over the Law and Order objectivity of New York. The possibility that anyone on the show hears—or even knows—Black Sabbath or Stravinsky usually appears remote. Instead, the Grey’s people eat and fight and work and sleep to smartly refurbished U.S. songs faithful to the original late-’70s/early-’80s new wave’s slurpy hooks and big rides. The cornerstone stylistic reference is the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” uncut 2003 synthpop bold enough to start a movement.

On the show it does, what with tunes such as Maria Taylor’s “Song Beneath the Song,” where she (one-half of the duo Azure Ray) and Conor Oberst mate the rare subgenre of indie-soul to Heaven 17 and insist, throughout a sweet tune about subtext, that what they’re singing about is “not a love song.” In fact, as the Grey’s Anatomy: Original Soundtrack collection proves, most of the show’s new new wave songs are love songs, even though they emerge as professionally and personally harried as the series’ young surgery interns themselves.

When, voicing cocked emotions worthy of X-Ray Spex, Tegan and Sara demand, “Look me in the eye/And tell me you don’t find me attractive” in their genius “Where Does the Good Go,” the narrative and tonal bleed into the show’s docs talking in the halls about last night’s mercy sex is exact. And when Psaap do “Cosy in the Rocket” (the show’s glam theme music), mixing rainwear existentialism and Duran Duran programming, you hear possibly the sharpest marriage of pop and TV ever. Or is it a blueprint for a new nationwide radio format? Probably not. The Grey’s Anatomy tunes—again, exactly like the docs on the show—seem so gone on their own slightly ratty cool that pursuing real superstardom would be moot.

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Bush Had No Choice on Torture Ban

George Bush’s retreat on torture—as shown by his agreeing yesterday not to veto a measure backed by Senator John McCain that would ban U.S. interrogators from engaging in it—comes less because he checked his conscience, than because he had no other choice.

For one, as the Washington Post reports this morning, Bush desperately needs to get on with the defense spending bills, to which the measure was attached, in order to fund the continuing war in Iraq.

And then, as Nat Hentoff reported this week, there was the little matter of so much evidence piling up that the U.S. was in fact engaging in torture, no matter what the president said.


CIA War Crimes
CIA has documented every use of its exclusive ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’

by Nat Hentoff
December 9th, 2005 6:20 PM

Nothing in the [Geneva] Conventions [on the treatment of prisoners of war] precludes directed interrogations. They do, however, prohibit torture and humiliation of detainees, whether or not they are deemed P.O.W.’s. These are standards that are never obsolete—they cut to the heart of how moral people must treat other human beings. John McCain , in Torture: A Human Rights Perspective, edited by Kenneth Roth and Minky Worden (The New Press)

In a November 21 USA Today interview with Porter Goss, the head of the CIA “declined to describe interrogation methods exclusive to the CIA.” He thereby confirmed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s statement during his confirmation hearings that the CIA has “special powers.” Where did the CIA get permission to overrule the rule of law? The word came from a classified directive by President George W. Bush soon after 9-11, and was confirmed by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. (Emphases added.)

Therefore, whatever is increasingly revealed about how the CIA uses its grant of cruel and unusual exclusivity in dealing with prisoners makes George W. Bush directly accountable for any crimes committed.

This president is not going to be impeached, except by history. However, historians will find reams of evidence against him and other members of his administration in such books as The Torture Papers, edited by Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel (Cambridge University Press), and Torture and Truth, by Mark Danner (a New York Review of Books
volume).

Also contributing to the immutable record are such journalists as Dana Priest of The Washington Post and Brian Ross of ABC News. Revealing why the ratings of network television newscasts continue to drop is the disgraceful decision by the producers of ABC’s World News Tonight to give only three and a half minutes to the Brian Ross investigation of some of the interrogation techniques Porter Goss will not describe.

But Ross and Richard Esposito detailed them at length on abcnews.com on November 18. (I believe the late Peter Jennings would have given much more than three and a half minutes to this breakthrough story on World News Tonight.)

Last week, I quoted what Brian Ross had found from present and former CIA officers and supervisors about extracting confessions from “water boarding.” Ross also cited a description of that “exclusive” CIA technique by John Sifton of Human Rights Watch: “The person[s] believe they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law.”

Indeed, what we are learning about the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” are also violations of our own War Crimes Act (Section 2441 of the federal criminal code). This statute also provides that:

“Whoever, whether inside or outside the United States, commits a war crime . . . shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for life, or any term of years, or both, and if death results to the victim, shall also be subject to the penalty of death.”

Our War Crimes Act criminalizes as a “war crime” a “grave breach” of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which this country ratified.

As page 1160 of The Torture Papers explains: “With respect to interrogation in armed conflict, Common Article 3 requires humane treatment generally, and specifically forbids ‘cruel treatment and torture’ or ‘outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.’ ”

From CIA sources, Brian Ross has cited six of the “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Among them is “Long Time Standing”: “This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt on the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.”

Another technique is “The Cold Cell”: “The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.”

Now, here is a smoking gun from the Ross report:

“According to CIA sources, Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi, after two weeks of enhanced interrogation, made statements that were designed to tell the interrogators what they wanted to hear . . . al Libbi had been subjected to each of the progressively harsher techniques in turn and finally broke after being water boarded and then left to stand naked in his cold cell overnight where he was doused with cold water at regular intervals.

His statements became part of the basis for the Bush administration claims that Iraq trained Al Qaeda members to use biochemical weapons. Sources tell ABC that it was later established that al Libbi had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment.” (Emphasis added.)

Since these war crimes, including torture as defined in international and American law, are being done in our name, the following Brian Ross discovery should lead to a congressional investigation with subpoena powers all the way to the top of the chain of command:

“According to the sources, when an interrogator wishes to use a particular technique on a prisoner, the policy at the CIA is that each step of the interrogation process must be signed off at the highest level—by the deputy director of operations for the CIA. A cable must be sent and a reply received each time a progres- sively harsher technique is used . . . there are few known instances when an approval has not been granted. Still, even the toughest critics of the techniques say they are relatively well monitored and limited in use.”

How “limited in use”? And what about those of the techniques that are war crimes under the definitions in law that I have cited? The CIA has all the information about their use. Meanwhile, around the world, and not only among our enemies, this country is increasingly seen as a habitual, egregious violator of human rights. Let’s finally put the CIA under the rule of law.

We can only begin to redeem ourselves in the war on terrorism by holding publicly accountable those who have authorized, as well as committed, these “enhanced interrogation techniques.” But the Democratic Party leadership appears to be afraid to make this a centerpiece of its opposition to the Bush administration.

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CIA War Crimes

Nothing in the [Geneva] Conventions [on the treatment of prisoners of war] precludes directed interrogations. They do, however, prohibit torture and humiliation of detainees, whether or not they are deemed P.O.W.’s. These are standards that are never obsolete—they cut to the heart of how moral people must treat other human beings. John McCain , in Torture: A Human Rights Perspective, edited by Kenneth Roth and Minky Worden (The New Press)

In a November 21 USA Today interview with Porter Goss, the head of the CIA “declined to describe interrogation methods exclusive to the CIA.” He thereby confirmed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s statement during his confirmation hearings that the CIA has “special powers.” Where did the CIA get permission to overrule the rule of law? The word came from a classified directive by President George W. Bush soon after 9-11, and was confirmed by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. (Emphases added.)

Therefore, whatever is increasingly revealed about how the CIA uses its grant of cruel and unusual exclusivity in dealing with prisoners makes George W. Bush directly accountable for any crimes committed.

This president is not going to be impeached, except by history. However, historians will find reams of evidence against him and other members of his administration in such books as The Torture Papers, edited by Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel (Cambridge University Press), and Torture and Truth, by Mark Danner (a New York Review of Books
volume).

Also contributing to the immutable record are such journalists as Dana Priest of The Washington Post and Brian Ross of ABC News. Revealing why the ratings of network television newscasts continue to drop is the disgraceful decision by the producers of ABC’s World News Tonight to give only three and a half minutes to the Brian Ross investigation of some of the interrogation techniques Porter Goss will not describe.

But Ross and Richard Esposito detailed them at length on abcnews.com on November 18. (I believe the late Peter Jennings would have given much more than three and a half minutes to this breakthrough story on World News Tonight.)

Last week, I quoted what Brian Ross had found from present and former CIA officers and supervisors about extracting confessions from “water boarding.” Ross also cited a description of that “exclusive” CIA technique by John Sifton of Human Rights Watch: “The person[s] believe they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law.”

Indeed, what we are learning about the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” are also violations of our own War Crimes Act (Section 2441 of the federal criminal code). This statute also provides that:

“Whoever, whether inside or outside the United States, commits a war crime . . . shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for life, or any term of years, or both, and if death results to the victim, shall also be subject to the penalty of death.”

Our War Crimes Act criminalizes as a “war crime” a “grave breach” of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which this country ratified.

As page 1160 of The Torture Papers explains: “With respect to interrogation in armed conflict, Common Article 3 requires humane treatment generally, and specifically forbids ‘cruel treatment and torture’ or ‘outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.’ ”

From CIA sources, Brian Ross has cited six of the “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Among them is “Long Time Standing”: “This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt on the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.”

Another technique is “The Cold Cell”: “The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.”

Now, here is a smoking gun from the Ross report:

“According to CIA sources, Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi, after two weeks of enhanced interrogation, made statements that were designed to tell the interrogators what they wanted to hear . . . al Libbi had been subjected to each of the progressively harsher techniques in turn and finally broke after being water boarded and then left to stand naked in his cold cell overnight where he was doused with cold water at regular intervals.

His statements became part of the basis for the Bush administration claims that Iraq trained Al Qaeda members to use biochemical weapons. Sources tell ABC that it was later established that al Libbi had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment.” (Emphasis added.)

Since these war crimes, including torture as defined in international and American law, are being done in our name, the following Brian Ross discovery should lead to a congressional investigation with subpoena powers all the way to the top of the chain of command:

“According to the sources, when an interrogator wishes to use a particular technique on a prisoner, the policy at the CIA is that each step of the interrogation process must be signed off at the highest level—by the deputy director of operations for the CIA. A cable must be sent and a reply received each time a progres- sively harsher technique is used . . . there are few known instances when an approval has not been granted. Still, even the toughest critics of the techniques say they are relatively well monitored and limited in use.”

How “limited in use”? And what about those of the techniques that are war crimes under the definitions in law that I have cited? The CIA has all the information about their use. Meanwhile, around the world, and not only among our enemies, this country is increasingly seen as a habitual, egregious violator of human rights. Let’s finally put the CIA under the rule of law.

We can only begin to redeem ourselves in the war on terrorism by holding publicly accountable those who have authorized, as well as committed, these “enhanced interrogation techniques.” But the Democratic Party leadership appears to be afraid to make this a centerpiece of its opposition to the Bush administration.

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Prisons of Darkness

Terrorism suspects need to be prosecuted not tortured. Headline, Financial Times, November 23


Harsh interrogation techniques authorized by top officials of the CIA have led to questionable confessions and the death of a detainee since the techniques were first authorized in mid-March 2002, ABC News has been told by former and current intelligence officers and super-visors. . . . Robert Baer (former CIA case officer): You can get anyone to confess to anything if the torture’s bad enough. ABC News, November 18, Brian Ross and Richard Esposito


If you torture, what you get is a mixed bag of intelligence. And when you don’t know what’s real and what’s false, how do you use it? Melissa Boyle Mahle, former CIA covert agent handling spies, CNN, November 20


In the November 21 USA Today—much revitalized by its relatively new editor, Ken Paulson, formerly of constitutional watchdog Freedom Forum—CIA chief Porter Goss revealed more than he intended in an interview with John Diamond. After the obligatory snake oil pitch (“This agency does not do torture [which] doesn’t work”), Goss said the CIA’s mission requires “putting a lot of judgment in the hands of individuals overseas.”

Moreover, since several European governments professing to be shocked at CIA kidnappings by these “individuals” in their countries are investigating these CIA torture “renditions,” Goss “is pressing for the CIA to improve its ability to operate on its own overseas.” (Emphasis added.)

That’s why the CIA’s champion in the Bush administration, Dick Cheney, is working so hard to officially give the CIA an exception to treaties we have signed and to our own laws forbidding inhumane treatment, including torture. In the USA Today interview, Porter Goss let slip his hope for the CIA to have no limits anywhere in the world to its “enhanced interrogation techniques”:

“Sometimes other sovereign nations have somewhat divergent views or opinions, and so it’s a good idea—even with your best friends—to have a secret.” (Just as the CIA keeps so many secrets from us Americans, acting as a rogue nation in the name of this nation.)

By unleashing the CIA, the Bush administration—having steadily cut down our constitutional rights and liberties at home—keeps striving to export its lawlessness abroad in this crucial war on terrorism. As facts on the ground documenting our use of torture keep mounting, Bush’s repeated incantation of the democratic values we want to support around the world become increasingly hypocritical in what is obviously and ultimately a war of ideas.

Meanwhile, as USA Today reports, Porter Goss “is directing an unprecedented 50 percent expansion in the agency’s analyst and field officer ranks and coping with new missions.” Goss equates the CIA with “being a very efficient submarine going alone in a hurricane. We are doing very well.”

Keep that truly frightening submarine image in mind as I quote from a far too under-reported November 14 follow- up report by the bipartisan independent commission that investigated the 9-11 attacks. This follow-up, USA Today wrote on November 15, declared that “the U.S. policy on treating detainees is undermining the war on terrorism by tarnishing America’s reputation as a moral leader.”

Responding to Dick Cheney’s relentless drive to make the CIA the only intelligence agency to not be accountable for its interrogation techniques, 9-11 commissioner Tim Roemer said this exception would not only result in flawed intelligence but would also give the terrorists a valuable recruiting lift by further worsening the worldwide perception of the United States as its own kind of unchecked human rights abuser.

As word gets out that there are no constraints on the CIA, the terrorists’ propaganda engineers will be “lining up the next generation of jihadists on a conveyer belt.”

Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the 9-11 Commission, makes a blunt point that eludes Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.: “The United States must define itself in the Islamic world. Otherwise, the extremists will gladly do the job for us.”


Next week: Harsh sunlight on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” by one of the most penetrating investigative reporters in all of journalism, Brian Ross of ABC News. It ran for a scant three and a half minutes on television, but fortunately there is an extended version by Ross and Richard Esposito on abcnews.com.

If we had an intelligent leadership of the opposition Democratic Party, Brian Ross’s findings and those of an array of human rights organizations would be a continuing part of a national dialogue on how the Bush administration is so recklessly and stupidly—to quote a headline from the November 19 The Economist—”reaching for the moral low ground.”

A preview of the Brian Ross report: “Waterboarding [which Goss says is an approved technique]: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt. According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves [in training] to the waterboarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said Al Qaeda’s toughest [captured] prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.”

Again, Porter Goss says publicly: “This agency does not do torture. Torture does not work.” This gives you an idea of how he and the CIA define “torture.” It takes place in what detainees call “prisons of darkness.”

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Pilot Trouble

A TV critic sometimes finds herself assuming the role of confessor. Friends and strangers alike blurt out tawdry information about their viewing habits: how they slump into a heap after work to watch CSI repeats or binge on home makeover shows. But mostly people are looking for guidance. Beseechingly they ask the same thing: Is there anything new worth watching this fall? Now that cable channels premiere new series all year round, fall is mostly reserved for the deluge of new broadcast network shows. With HBO, Showtime, and FX growing ever more adventurous, the new network lineups look ever more retarded in comparison. Leaving aside the smattering of inventive and idiosyncratic shows I’ll review in weeks to come (including My Name Is Earl, Everybody Hates Chris, and Twins), the bulk of pilots tumble all too easily into three yawnsome and overcrowded categories.


With family like this…

Every season there’s a surge of family sitcoms competing to be the new
Everybody Loves Raymond
. The latest contestant in the blue-collar-clan sweepstakes is The War at Home (Sundays at 8:30 on Fox starting September 11), a template of clichés the writers don’t even bother to fill in. Michael Rapaport plays the requisite macho, befuddled dad stranded in a household that refuses to acknowledge him as patriarch. The show’s gimmicky format breaks the third wall, allowing Michael to complain directly to the audience about how screwed up the contemporary family unit is—a situation he blames on Mary Tyler Moore and her darn women’s lib. “Bitch,” he sneers. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the show’s intended demographic, there’s also wife Vicky, who doesn’t mind her husband’s porn use because “it gives me one less thing to do.” Add to that a brainy son who dad insists must be gay, and a sexy teenage daughter determined to infuriate pops by bringing home a black boy named Tay (short for Boo-tay). You know it’s just one long setup for that inevitable black penis joke. The sad thing is that
The War at Home follows a show that set the bar for dysfunctional family comedy: The Simpsons.

On paper, Out of Practice (Mondays at 9:30 on CBS starting September 19) sounds like a no-brainer, what with its pedigreed crew (the producers of
Frasier) and cast. The charismatic Christopher Gorham (of the ill-fated drama Jake 2.0) plays Ben Chase, a couples therapist
unlucky enough to have Henry Winkler and Stockard Channing as his bickering, divorced parents. Just to add more pathos, Ben’s own marriage to a fervent animal rights activist is on the rocks. The family only comes together to make jokes at her expense. “Remember when she made us watch the movie about slaughterhouses?” asks Ben’s brother. “Aside from that,” Dad comments, “it was a very nice wedding.” At least Out of Practice has a few funny lines, which is more than you can say about Freddie (Wednesdays at 8:30 on ABC starting October 5). Disguised as a Latino family sitcom, it’s a transparent, if lame, vehicle for Freddie Prinze Jr., who shambles through his role as a womanizer forced to share his slick Chicago bachelor pad with a bossy sister, old-world grandma, and niece. Just to make sure we understand the character’s pussy-whipped dilemma, his doltish best friend quips, “You should follow your heart—to wherever it is they’re keeping your manhood.”

Shooting blanks

This year’s strangest televisual mini-trend is the sperm subgenre: one drama and one comedy that each riff on the problem of infertility. Set in a clinic headed by a sexy, megalomaniac doctor along the lines of Nip/Tuck‘s Dr. Christian Troy, Inconceivable (Fridays at 10 on NBC starting September 23) is the more plausible of the two, although it’s not clear yet how well the show will balance the fertility doctor’s high jinks with patient scenarios, like an obsessive gay dad-to-be who stalks the surrogate mom carrying his baby to make sure she’s eating properly. On the other hand, there’s no hope of improvement for Misconceptions, a midseason replacement comedy about a snooty museum curator (Jane Leeves of Frasier) whose daughter wants to meet her sperm donor daddy—supposedly an Ivy League genius who (surprise!) turns out to be the slackest of slackers. This is one of the broadest sitcoms of the bunch, crammed with vacuous double takes and open-mouth reaction shots.

Although there’s no semen explicitly traded in Hot Properties (Fridays at 9:30 on ABC starting October 7), it feels right to place this romantic comedy about horny female real estate brokers in this category, since nearly all the repartee hinges on the possibility of mating and procreating. One realtor dreams of getting big boobs so she can distract guys from how neurotic she is; another lies about her age to her 25-year-old husband. (‘He can do the math on my tombstone,’ she cracks.) The first episode pivots around the idea that both women slept with their client’s fiancé. What are the odds? “Pretty good,” says their Latina assistant in her impossibly overdone Spanish accent. “You two are pretty slutty.”

The truth is out there

Kicked into overdrive by the recent success of Lost and The 4400, a swarm of spooky, supernatural dramas arrives en masse. As if we hadn’t seen enough plots about young women acting as spiritual bike messengers (think Tru Calling, Medium, Joan of Arcadia), Jennifer Love Hewitt stars as The Ghost Whisperer (Fridays at 8 on CBS starting September 23), aimed at anyone out there still pining for Highway to Heaven. Although it’s much less hokey, Night Stalker (Thursdays at 9 on ABC starting September 29) treads equally well-worn territory with its Mulder-wannabe crime reporter dedicated to seeking out crimes of mysterious origin. The only arresting thing about the series is its striking visual sensibility, with inventive camerawork catching the eerie light reflected from an unwatched TV or motes of blood floating in bathwater after a murder. There’s also a bizarre cluster of new thrillers—Threshold, Invasion, Surface, Supernatural—based on aliens or beings from the mystical beyond. But I’ve disqualified them from this anti-guide; at least a few of them are just about worth watching.

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‘Terror’ Against the Press

BOSTON — It looks like the FBI’s Boston field office faked a threat of domestic terrorism just before the start of the Democratic National Convention by leaking “unconfirmed” reports of white supremacist groups readying an attack against media vehicles in Boston. Fox News, for one, reportedly was wildly trying to disguise its trucks by covering up its logos.

The effect of this probably was to make the press even more suspicious of anti-war demonstrators than it already is — to even view them as possible terrorists, and if not actual terrorists, then a crowd within which terrorists could operate.

All of this is taking place in an atmosphere of fear and tension whipped up by the Bush administration, with its reports of Al Qaeda “sleeping cells” preparing to strike against America in the midst of the presidential campaign. (See my July 6 article on a chilling Election Day scenario.)

The white supremacists on the far right have never shown any great interest in the war on terror, and they usually try to use the press, not attack it. Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, which tracks the far right, told Glynn Wilson of the serious-minded Southerner Daily News blog, “We have had no indication whatsoever, not an inkling, that there is any kind of violent action planned by the radical right in Boston. We follow these groups quite closely.”

ABC News said last week (basing its report on anonymous sources) that, just before the convention opened on July 23, statements by a domestic group of college-age people in the Midwest triggered the FBI warning, according to Wilson. The ABC report said the group’s members had not gone to Boston, Wilson noted. Other warnings of “a very real concern” about impending “violent action by white supremacists” emanated from the Secret Service, the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force, and Boston police, Wilson said.

CNN reported July 23 that “authorities fear that some protesters are preparing to target the media” and that the “Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating.” According to the CNN story, the FBI’s Boston office issued a statement saying it had “unconfirmed information” that, as CNN put it, “a domestic group plans to attack media vehicles, possibly with ‘explosives or incendiary devices.’ ”

Special Agent Gail A. Marcinkiewicz, the public affairs coordinator for the Boston FBI office, told the Southerner that the report of a “radical domestic terrorist group” planning an attack on media trucks in Boston was “unconfirmed.”

Wilson noted that Boston authorities, according to ABC, were worried about two right-wing white supremacist groups in particular: Volksfront and White Revolution. Potok told Wilson that some members of Volksfront pleaded guilty last year in the beating death of a homeless black man, and the Volksfront online bulletin board recently carried a posting urging members to go to Boston and “rally.”

“But there was no suggestion whatsoever of any violence,” Potok told Wilson, “let alone violence against media trucks… I find it extremely difficult to believe that White Revolution or Volksfront would be involved in an action like this.”

Overall, the racist far-right would just love to get some publicity from the war on terror, but these people are stuck in the Stone Age when it comes to weaponry and ideas, and they are definitely not into suicide bombings. Such groups have always tried to manipulate the press, not attack it — except for such rare cases as the neo-Nazis’ murder of Denver talk-radio host Alan Berg in 1984.

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Mauling Michael Moore

In just one weekend, Fahrenheit 9/11 earned more money than any feature-length documentary in history. This despite a campaign against the film by the White House and its surrogates. Everyone expected George Bush’s media shills to go after Moore, but who would have thought Fox News would keep its attack dogs relatively muzzled while ABC and NBC launched remarkably unbalanced attacks.

So far, Fox’s main complaint is that Moore won’t give them an interview. However, he did allow himself to be interrogated by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week. During that chat, he addressed his critics’ major points. Take the fact that Saudi nationals, including members of the bin Laden family, were allowed to leave the United States after 9-11 even though all commercial flights were grounded. Moore implies that the president cleared those flights because of family business ties to the Saudis. But Richard Clarke, the former security adviser—and prominent Bush critic—insists it was he who authorized the flights. When Stephanopoulos brought this up, Moore replied that Clarke’s decision had been an error, adding that Clarke has admitted making mistakes “and he apologized to the 9-11 families for those mistakes.”

Maybe this was an evasion, maybe not; but it certainly constituted a response, and ABC could easily have included it in subsequent news stories about Fahrenheit 9/11. Instead, the network launched a two-pronged attack on the film’s accuracy—one that advanced from Good Morning America to World News Tonight—without giving Moore a fair chance to respond to the most damaging claims. Both segments began with the graphic “Fact or Fiction?”—the journalistic equivalent of asking a defendant when he stopped beating his wife. Both relied heavily on Clarke’s statements and let them go unanswered.

“My feeling is that ABC News gave Michael Moore a fair chance to respond,” says Bridgette Maney, the publicist for Good Morning America. ABC News spokesperson Cathie Levine noted that World News Tonight had run a clip from the Stephanopoulos interview after airing Clarke’s statement. But that clip did not contain Moore’s response to Clarke’s comments.

NBC ran highly negative assessments of the film on both its Nightly News and its cable channel MSNBC. The network referred to its coverage as a “truth squad report.” As part of this exposé, senior correspondent Lisa Myers targeted the hilarious moment in Fahrenheit 9/11 when Moore asks legislators to sign up their children to fight in Iraq. Myers noted that Moore had failed to include comments by Republican congressmember Mark Kennedy, who appears in that scene looking baffled. “My nephew had just gotten called into service and was told he’s heading for Afghanistan,” Kennedy told Myers. “He [Moore] didn’t like that answer, so he didn’t include it.” Moore had addressed this allegation in the Stephanopoulos interview: “When we interviewed [Kennedy], he didn’t have any family members in Afghanistan. . . . We released the transcript and put it on our website.” But NBC made no mention of these readily available rebuttals. (A network spokesman declined to comment.)

Note that none of the facts in Fahrenheit 9/11 are in dispute. What ABC and NBC called into question is Moore’s extrapolation and interpretation of information; in other words, his slant. But by using loaded phrases like “truth squad” and “fact or fiction,” and by omitting Moore’s answers to key questions, these networks did the very thing they accuse him of doing. I would argue that this sort of distortion is far more dangerous in the context of a news broadcast than in a clearly opinionated film.

Why did NBC and ABC take the administration’s line? Well, NBC is owned by General Electric, a prime defense contractor. ABC is owned by Disney, which has no need of Pentagon largesse—but Disney is dependent on the kindness of federal regulators, and to the Bush administration those mouse ears have a lot to answer for. After all, it was Disney subsidiary Miramax that initially planned to distribute Fahrenheit 9/11, and even after the studio pulled out under pressure from the parent company, Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein formed a consortium of companies to release the film. Last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal reported that Disney may sever its ties with Miramax next year. And Disney is about to release a feel-good documentary called America’s Heart and Soul. With its theme parks under siege for allowing desecrations of family values, such as Gay Day, Disney has much to gain by joining the attack on Moore’s movie, which is regarded in certain congregations as the Great R-Rated Satan.

But how to account for Fox’s relatively merciful coverage (or the exceedingly odd editorial in Monday’s New York Post defending Moore from the Federal Election Commission’s attempt to muzzle his ads)? Here’s my explanation: Rupert Murdoch is covering his ass in case John Kerry wins. For that matter, his news machine doesn’t have to prove itself to the Bushies—and besides, an attack from Fox would have easily been dismissed as partisan. Better to let NBC and ABC lend the imprimatur of their “objectivity.” I’m not saying these networks acted in cahoots; they merely expressed their interests.

That may explain why CNN, whose audience skews slightly leftward, took a careful pro-and-con approach to Fahrenheit 9/11, as did CBS News. Was CBS’s neutrality a reflection of its traditional resistance to the right; was it part of a bid for the sizable anti-Bush audience; or is the network’s owner, Viacom, banking on an advantage in a Kerry administration? Maybe all of the above.

When you consider how well the film is doing despite this pile-on, you have to conclude that most people haven’t been affected by the media’s negative spin. They want to see what all the fuss is about. Of course, the real question is whether audiences will leave the cineplex arguing about Moore’s truthfulness or his insights into Bush. If the film turns out to have an impact on the fall election, we’ll learn something about the limits of the media’s power to shape perceptions. Since this is a recurring theme of mine, I hope Fahrenheit 9/11 affirms my conviction that the press distorts but we decide.


Y Tu Mamá También

In the printosphere, the line on Fahrenheit 9/11 was mixed. The film garnered overwhelmingly favorable reviews and mostly negative reactions from media pros with Washington connections. Michael Isikoff’s Newsweek feature was typical: a point-by-point rebuttal accompanied by a photo of Moore captioned “Problem with authority.” But the most florid outrage was expressed by George Orwell’s demon seed, Christopher Hitchens.

It’s never enough for Hitchens to condemn an enemy. He must enlist every epithet in the English language. Here’s a partial list of the imprecations Hitchens hurled at Fahrenheit 9/11 in just one piece posted on Slate:

“Dishonest . . . demagogic . . . a piece of crap . . . an exercise in facile crowd pleasing . . . a sinister exercise in moral frivolity . . . a spectacle of abject political cowardice . . . a big lie [sustained] by a dizzying succession of smaller falsehoods beefed up by wilder and (if possible) yet more contradictory claims . . . loaded bias against the work of the mind . . . so flat-out phony that ‘fact-checking’ is beside the point.” As for Moore himself, Hitchens calls him “a silly and shady man” and “one of the great soggy blimps of our sorry, mediocre, celeb-rotten culture.”

When someone is attacked with such operatic ferocity, one thing is certain: That person is successful.


Research: Matthew Phillp

Deconstructions: rgoldstein@villagevoice.com