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TV: Jack on ‘This Is Us’

This is a post about the first episode of Dan Fogelman’s drama This Is Us, the season opener, which aired this week on NBC. I bought the show’s second season on iTunes, as I did the first season (and I’m glad I did; it’s the best new show on television as far as I’m concerned, as I explained in my review). I did what I usually do with visual media. Avoiding detailed analyses and commentary, which is nearly impossible, I first watched the episode.

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Then and only then did I read some of the feedback and reviews (I typically don’t read or listen to reviews in advance of writing my own because I want to remain objective, but I made an exception in this case and this isn’t a straight episode review). The New York Times published a commentary, which is not a review, totally focused on one aspect of the episode: a plot conflict resolution or mystery solved involving the show’s guiding force: the family’s father character-in-flashback, Jack Pearson (played by Milo Ventimiglia). The Hollywood Reporter did, too, though it was rambling, unfocused and barely readable. Both writers complained about the show’s first episode for the same reason: they asserted that it needlessly or gratuitously prolongs the puzzle of Jack Pearson’s death, a plot point revealed in the first season which remains unresolved.

Fans, too, in certain instances, focus on this aspect of the show. It’s easy to see why. Jack is an integral part of the show. He’s the head of the family. He’s the moral center, driving the This Is Us theme that the good is possible to achieve here on earth. Jack, a Pittsburgh husband and father who drinks too much and almost committed armed robbery before being diverted by love at first sight of his future wife (Mandy Moore), is an optimist. Having been the son of an abusive alcoholic, he seeks in layered, selective flashback to sort through the mess of life to forge a family with love, excellence and joy. He leads by example, admits mistakes and fathers with warmth, intelligence and love. He knows that life is like a banquet. He goes for the best for his wife and three kids — if not for himself.

This is what moves the opening episode of the second season. The ways that altruism — the moral code that living for the sake of others at the expense of your self-interest is highest — sinks into man’s soul, festers and becomes like an infectious disease. How insidious is this rotten moral ideal, altruism; how it contaminates the best within us — the part that dreams of being one’s best and showcasing it for the wonderful world. Each of Jack’s children, and certainly his wife, strives to be the best. Does Jack, the hero?

This is what the new episode of This Is Us implicitly asks and consequently dramatizes.

Though the first episode of the second season of this exceptional TV drama about ordinary people in pursuit of extraordinary goals, perfection and happiness arced through the triplets’ 37th birthday milestones of progress in love, career and family, the somber theme emerges when the wife comes to her estranged husband at a doorstep.

This is the part that took my breath away. This is the show’s dramatic pivot point; the hinge that creator Dan Fogelman, who recently spoke about the violent, sudden death of his parent in an interview with a trade publication, named when discussing how the reveal of Jack’s death is a gateway to a season of discovery, alignment and joy. This is what the episode’s critics, pseudo-fans and naysayers evade or ignore — that Jack’s admission of alcoholism is part of reality, too. That the final frame’s portrait of the wreckage of their home is not intended as an ongoing tease to melodrama but as a snapshot of the harsh, horrible facts of life which sometimes rudely intrude. That it’s whether and how you respond that shapes your character and life.

Jack is not defined by how he died. Suffering is not the point of life. Healing, fixing and remedial action — so you can be happy — is.

This is what This Is Us dramatized this week: life is finite and each life is a work in progress. That life is everything. That living means being rational, which starts with going by facts, not feelings, especially when facts are harsh. Life can be rich, rewarding and exalted — if you can earn and keep it. This is what This Is Us is about. So far, as the bright spot of a darker new season, This Is Us is showing the way.

 

TV Review: ‘This Is Us’

NBC’s new hit series This Is Us, TV’s highest-rated dramatic series since Fox’s Empire, is also TV’s best new show in years. This ingenious yet simple series combines classic television storytelling with a current Hollywood trend—the time or flashback gimmick that’s so ubiquitous it’s annoying—to create a powerful vehicle for dramatizing today’s individual in the family, often at his best. This Is Us is emotionally balanced and satisfying. It’s the best show I’ve seen in decades.

Its distinguishing quality is clarity in portraying modern life as it is and ought to be, fed by an utter lack of cynicism. It’s not about supernatural, artificial or comic book characters. There are no thrones, crowns or cartoons and there’s none of the vulgar, trashy made-you-look appeal of HBO and so-called reality TV programming. This is pure, middle class adult American fiction, so if you don’t think people can be kind, decent and complicated—while being exceptional, amazing and fallible—and live in harmony, This Is Us is not for you. For the rest of us, this show is heir to TV’s most earnest and universal family-themed series including Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Parenthood and Frasier. It is that simple, serious and good.

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Every one of its 18 episodes peels another layer in the family created by Jack and Rebecca, a young married couple in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who make their own lives and family. The first and final episodes begin and end with these two characters, played with conviction by Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore, with thoughtful surprises in every episode in between. This Is Us defies description because its inventive approach to storytelling is integrative, so each plot development folds into the rest of the characters’ arcs, though rarely in obvious, pat or predictable ways. This Is Us is created by Dan Fogelman, who wrote Disney’s Tangled, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Last Vegas and The Guilt Trip. Fogelman also created ABC’s Galavant. Besides the parenting leads, the main characters are their three children, played as adults by Chrissy Metz as an insecure and obese twin, Justin Hartley as her handsome twin brother and Sterling K. Brown as their wealthy, adopted brother.

More thematically essential to the series, which is so carefully threaded that it’s more like an extended miniseries, subplots dovetail into deeper themes. A long-lost musician father (outstanding Ron Cephas Jones) with terminal cancer returns for an elegy on the meaning of life. A doctor, played by Gerald McRaney in one of the best supporting performances on dramatic television, imparts his hard-earned wisdom in saving, delivering and coping with the loss of life. My favorite supporting character, Beth Pearson (Susan Kelechi Watson, one of the show’s best actors), is so witty, rational and soothing that, when she hurts, it sneaks up on everyone. This is the theme of This Is Us—that this is life in America, whether you’re in Pittsburgh, Memphis, New York or LA; that this is it, here and now, and what matters is that which promotes life.

This is not one of those TV dramas that begs to be taken seriously for its own sake, however. The action, pathos and jaw-dropping drama, and the season is loaded with each, isn’t excessively somber, self-important or pretentious, like thirtysomething, Hill Street Blues or other heavy shows praised by critics that often put you to sleep. It isn’t downbeat like that. Besides light touches of humor, This Is Us is rooted in its premise that humanity is good, the universe is benevolent and problems can be solved.

Don’t take this to mean that This Is Us expresses pure romanticism (it doesn’t). Naturalism with romanticist strokes best captures its style. But, from the birth of a baby to the separation of a marriage, this program is unique in that the audience is cultivated to root for its characters to succeed, flourish and be happy. Happiness is its natural state. The characters’ conflicts, flaws and idiosyncrasies are mined for drama, not implanted for permanence. The strongest impressions are made by the exhibition of those values by which these characters seek to reach new, exciting and radical improvements, achievements and the highest goals.

For example, the panic attack that strikes a trader in weather derivatives strengthens a bond with his brother and triggers a soul-searching introspection. An actor quits at the top of his game and takes a lesser role to pursue his personal best. An artist strikes out on her own only to get pregnant and have her dreams derailed while a woman goes to what she calls “fat camp” to get thin and unlocks an emotional fury that leads to a crucial catharsis. And a husband and father delays gratification so he can be a better man, which, to him, means escaping the hell of his own family and becoming one of the good guys. That this happens with alcoholism, drug addiction, unwed motherhood, sibling rivalry, racial prejudice, body shaming and more only deepens the meaning of this rich, textured show.

This Is Us is not without flaws. Period specificity, including costumes, songs, mannerisms and the way people talk lacks credibility as the show goes on, sometimes to distraction. But intelligent writing, wisdom and sincerity, which only occasionally slips into sentimentality, overcomes its problems. It is true that This Is Us touches the audience with heartbreaking scenes (don’t judge the show by its sappy Twitter feed, which disproportionately features fans measuring impact by tears). Yet it takes wrenching problems in daily life and dramatizes realistic, practical and often enlightening solutions. It renders this with serious writing, directing and acting, leaving the audience lighter, smarter and wiser and all in the halo of its main man, alpha male, father figure, Jack Pearson, whose vision of the ideal family undergirds the show.

This Is Us plays its plot points and character arcs with idealism, not cynicism, and its protagonists’ ethics are essentially egoistic. They aim to act in their self-interest and generally try to go by reason. The show’s tightly integrated plot, theme and cast of characters play as compelling. Some may prejudge and recoil from the show’s looks and arcs. Similarly, This Is Us will not satisfy feminists, multiculturalists and other egalitarians because it makes a fundamentally strong stance for being one’s best and individualism (even, in its own way, capitalism). This is why This Is Us stands out as the most serious drama on TV. It’s a show that’s aligned with reality as it is and, while not in the largest sense, ought to be. Watch for what it’s not—cynical and spewing against everything all the time—and take it for what it is. But watch (from the start), think and enjoy.

Book Review: ‘Before the Colors Fade’ by Harry Reasoner

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Before the Colors Fade (Knopf, New York, Hardcover 1981) by the late ABC News anchorman and 60 Minutes correspondent Harry Reasoner is a light, simple and rewarding tale of the media’s recent past. I came across this unique out-of-print memoir while conducting research on modern media. Instantly, I felt an affection I hadn’t experienced in years.

It’s a feeling one gets from the predominant era of that instantly familiar visual media format, television. Unlike today’s invasive visual media, which is everywhere and therefore constantly intruding upon one’s controlled experiences, such as desktop, laptop and mobile machines, TV was at once a shared and intimate kind of visual media—watching the Apollo 11 moon landing, Roots, Donahue, sports, Frasier was both very direct and easy to like, discuss and share with others—and Harry Reasoner was one of the best broadcast journalists in the later postwar 20th century.

His voice was as sonorous as Morgan Freeman’s—they shared that even-toned, slightly graveled sense of wonder at the world—his look affable yet knowing and he brought a mildly biting sense of humor to his reports. This quality, which most readers probably remember from his segments on Sunday’s CBS series 60 Minutes, is fully expressed in Before the Colors Fade. Reasoner’s memoir is peppered with refined storytelling. It’s also filled with teases, such as his mention in the introduction that he interviewed one of the world’s worst terrorists, a woman named Leila Khaled who hijacked and threatened to crash passenger jets to force the West to create a Palestinian state, unfortunately none of which he details.

In this sense, his book is a bit like wandering into the bar after the game lets out and finding a salty old pro at the corner who’s already had a few drinks and doesn’t mind holding court until it’s time to head home. Reasoner assesses his early broadcasting career with an admission that he thought he would “never make it in studio work” because he thought he had “no presence” and did not open his mouth when he talked, which was “probably the result of an adolescent reticence about showing bad teeth.”

One viewer had noticed that, too, and she wrote to tell him so. “Years later, [while] co-anchoring the ABC News with Howard K. Smith,” Reasoner writes, “I got a letter from a deaf person. Howard and I, she said, were virtually useless to her as broadcasters because we didn’t open our mouths and articulate the words in a way to help her lip-reading. “Howard is terrible,” she wrote, “and as for you, Mr. Reasoner,” she went on, “if you ever fail in the news business, you should do very well as a ventriloquist.”

Harry Reasoner, who comes across as extremely ambitious, reports that he languished for a while until a media critic gave his work a short, passing and positive notice in the New York Times:

If the individuality in Mr. Reasoner’s broadcasts … reflects a broader CBS policy to encourage members of its news staff to be themselves and not echo a corporate pear-shaped tone…”

Reasoner uses this fellow journalist’s clever compliment, which was also a dig at Big Media’s sameness, to reflect on some of his own reports and explore the industry in detail, noting with an intelligent—and predictive—thought of his own that “…news broadcasters should not be humorists … but if the news itself, viewed in a certain way, reveals wit or insight or comment, it’s all right to go ahead. So we did.”

Reasoner’s balance of the sacred and the profane was a key component in his outstanding success and popularity; what made Harry Reasoner light and enjoyable was the sense that he took the news, ideas and life seriously, as he did in one of his best TV broadcasts, his report of a deadly plane crash. He told viewers about Captain Charles White, “an Eastern Airlines pilot and former combat pilot, who died in the Constellation crash yesterday…” explaining that, “after the collision, the plane was unflyable. But he flew it.” Knowing that viewers must have been both horrified and gripped by news of the commercial aviation disaster, Reasoner went on: “As a result, some fifty people are alive who might logically be expected to be dead.”

The newsman described reports of the damaged passenger plane’s “crazy motion”, adding that Captain White’s

alternately powering engines on one side and then another, warning his passengers, and then picking out a field and coming in as softly as you can with that many tons at that kind of speed with no control—coming in flat and uphill—so that before the airplane burned up, almost everyone got out alive. And, now, tonight, Eastern Airlines tells us something else about Captain White: his body was found in the passenger cabin. Eastern’s conclusion is that he could have gotten out, but that he died because he went back to see to the safe evacuation of his passengers.”

Harry Reasoner goes on with a perspective that’s rarely on display among today’s anchors—in an act of decency that’s unthinkable to the generic put-down artists posing at TV desks delivering what passes for the news: “The pride in a man like this radiates out in lessening circles of intimacy—from his family to his fellow employees at Eastern, to all pilots, to all his countrymen, and finally the pride you have in just being a member of the same species. That’s the news. This is Harry Reasoner. Goodnight.”

Not that he couldn’t be arch and knowing, too, as when he reported on one of Elizabeth Taylor‘s weddings to Richard Burton, noting that the couple “were married today in Montreal. They met two years ago while working on the movie Cleopatra in Rome and have been good friends ever since. That’s the news. This is Harry Reasoner. Goodnight.”

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His breezy Before the Colors Fade glides from witty career notes to commentary on the press, TV and behind the scenes at CBS News, grazing history with Reasoner’s thoughts on “the night East Germany built the wall…”, “very sexy and trivial and irresponsible network news…” and how “[a]n argument with Betty Friedan” may have gotten him the job he wanted. These make for interesting snippets and they are precisely that and not more than that, so read Reasoner’s account for its facts, lessons and glimpses of a better media, not for his deep insights, though he does have them.

For instance, writing about his job, Harry Reasoner argues that “…even though the most important quality a reporter can have is detachment, you have to be able to love, too.” Though it’s true that he doesn’t go deeper and point out that to love is to value, etc., honestly, what journalist of Reasoner’s stature today would dare make such an assertion?

Some of the most penetrating parts are thoughts on his reporting from Gio Linh, Vietnam. “He was not a bad man, or a war-lover,” Reasoner writes about a Green Beret who commanded troops with whom Reasoner was embedded on a combat mission: “He was a professional. The worst casualty of the Vietnam War may have been the spirit and confidence of men like that. They are as yet, in an imperfect world, indispensable. We just asked them to do things for us that we should not have asked.”

Good writing makes reading Before the Colors Fade a treat. The author covers encounters, thoughts or bits on Phil Donahue, Fred Friendly, Lyndon Johnson (whom he describes as a “big, ebullient, manic-depressive Texan”), David Halberstam, Salvador Dali and Peter O’Toole, whom Reasoner writes he’d declined to interview, observing that the star of Lawrence of Arabia “had been out all night and was disorganized.” About one of his favorite 60 Minutes journalists, he writes: “Andy Rooney is my best friend. We just don’t talk to each other much. Well, that’s my essay on Andy Rooney. That would be his ending to that paragraph. Mine would be that he, like Don Hewitt, changed the face and course of American non-fiction television.”

This is how I remember Harry Reasoner as an anchorman and as a correspondent; straightforward, accessible yet judgmental in the best sense. In that example, he doesn’t explain why he thinks Hewitt changed TV, and, while reading Before the Colors Fade, I found myself wishing more than a few times that Harry Reasoner had gone deeper in his analysis. I certainly would have welcomed an opportunity to have interviewed him. He goes by facts, and this is what the best newsmen did and do, though too often he declines to examine facts and their implications, particularly on issues such as the existence of God, religion and ethics. But reading a book by a journalist who goes by facts is surprisingly refreshing and another reminder that the lights have dimmed and grow dimmer, to paraphrase Leonard Peikoff. Harry Reasoner appeared braced for this possibility, judging by his book’s title.

Harry Reasoner thought for himself and it’s clear that he saw himself as a whole man. Reading what were his thoughts about life in its everyday ordinariness, especially in retrospect now that he’s no longer alive, contains key clues about what was then the future, and offers lessons for the future now, despite and due to today’s media-savvy and media-saturated culture:

I wish readers would be a little less herdlike. If there is one rule I would recommend to any reader not specifically engaged in studying for an examination, it would be to read only what you like. It doesn’t matter what it is: if you don’t like it, don’t read it. Reading is a pleasure or it is nothing. Following this rule will mean you are left out in the cold in a lot of literary discussions, where the basic standard for a book seems to be that it be unpleasant, but you can always go in the next room and pick up your copy of Ian Fleming or Richard Hughes or Rex Stout or Ernest Hemingway or Loren Eiseley and improve on most conversation anyway.”

Or consider his take on cigarette smoking. After referring to smoking as one of “life’s most rewarding pleasures”, he writes that

The idea of trying to outguess life, to avoid everything that might conceivably ever injure your life, is a peculiarly dangerous one, I think; pretty soon you are existing in a morass of fear and you have given up not only cigarettes, prime beef, good butter, fine whiskey, spinach, tennis, sleeping on your side, riding without seat belts, air travel, train travel, your chiropractor — maybe, next month, love.”

Harry Reasoner’s most credible thoughts center upon his profession: the press. He warns against what came true throughout this light, slender book, observing its practitioners’ pompous and pretentious tendencies and transgressions and concluding: “I blame the colleges, partly; so many of them took broadcast journalism out of journalism and put in something called a “Communications” major, turning out people who knew all about how but not what to communicate.” He correctly describes the premise of the phenomenally successful 60 Minutes as holding to its tagline “that “all of reality is the grist of news.”

Long before media critics noticed the revolving doors, the cronyism, the concealed biases and the cozying up to power-lusters of state, Reasoner wrote that “too many of us interview the people we have had dinner with the night before. I think journalists and subjects can be mutually respectful friends, but when you are close enough so that you are no longer adversaries, our profession or craft or racket—craft, I think we decided—is in trouble.”

Yes it was, which led to distrust among the public, which is leading to faster acceptance of censorship. Conservatives often ignore that the freedom of the press they find so fashionable to doubt or denounce is part of the freedom of speech that they claim to support. Leftists do the same in reverse, ditching freedom of speech (by calling it “hate speech” for instance) while purporting to recognize freedom of the press, which is impossible without absolute recognition of the former. That’s unfortunate for many reasons, one of which is the disengagement or disenfranchisement of thoughtful journalists such as Harry Reasoner, who exercised his absolute right to free speech with Before the Colors Fade including commentary on the media’s complicity in Big Government, which of course he doesn’t describe that way. He gets at the corruption which was to come with breaking down the press-state distinction:

Knowing people, being on first-name terms or even privy to diminutives, has some advantages. But it is also very dangerous. Maybe we have been too successful, which is why we are, I’m afraid, a bit prematurely old. We have lost some strange and invigorating sense of being outsiders.”

He goes on, however, and this is what the best journalists do, noting the withering away of America’s innocence, as he softly applies this idea to universals, such as the state of the nation’s underlying sense of life…

Because along with the justified cynicism, and the justified feeling that everything seems to be going to hell, we retain our basic optimism, and some inside feeling that man as a whole and Americans in particular don’t have to be like the whispering curlew. We ought to be able to make some sense out of what we’re doing, and stop the worst of it, and limp along…We have on some precious occasions, like July 4, 1976, held each other’s hands and said I love you.”

Harry Reasoner doesn’t stop there. Rather than be accused with some justification of being overly sentimental, he refers to that above excerpt and adds that: “Journalism cannot and should not foster this sort of thing; it should, however, report it. It should be human without being maudlin, aware of sentiment while shying from sentimentalism. It should be awake.”

These last four words are the essence of everything decent and good about his old, tattered, out-of-print memoir Before the Colors Fade, which I found in a used bookstore for a few dollars, like a yard sale treasure. And the last two words are his straight, upbeat and dead serious warning to you, the reader, about navigating what was only starting to become the information glut at the peak of the broadcast media age. So, definitely read Before the Colors Fade if you do as a kind of warning. But revel, too, in Harry Reasoner’s flinty moments of bright writing, such as this diversion, a marvelous affirmation of the benevolent universe:

In case we have another day of it, the thing to do is to be outside, or by a big window, at just about 6:15 in the morning, in this longitude at least. Position yourself on high ground, with the ground sloping away from you sharply to the east and then climbing again; the west bank of a ravine does nicely. Right then you’re looking at the black and white of the world: the other side of the ravine is absolutely black — there could a city or a pride of lions or seven houses of neighbors hidden there—and the sky above the line of the hill is a bright, silvered white—no color at all. And then, before you get too cold to watch, the pink and orange of the sun comes, and the black of the hillside rolls down from the top, down to the river, and there are no lions there at all, but the empty branches of the trees are so clear you think you’ve never seen a tree before. And then you go milk the cows or catch a train or cook the cocoa or whatever it is you do at 6:25 in the morning. And whatever it is you do, it’s easier.”

Neither Harry Reasoner’s grit nor gleam fully makes and completes this conversational memoir, which is frosted by his fabulous sense of humor. At one point in Before the Colors Fade, the late, great Harry Reasoner, who embodied the American sense of life, capsulizes his distinguished career in a few beats that, on the surface, seem to herald the attention-deficit age but don’t, not really, and very much on the contrary if you catch the writer’s drift:

You will notice in these chronicles how often I have been a co-something. A surrogate for Cronkite. Me and Mike Wallace. Me and Mary Fickett. Me and Andy Rooney. Me and Howard K. Smith. And, briefly, me and Barbara Walters. I have gotten over worrying about what all this means and whether I should have inferiority feelings about it: things seem to work better that way. But I would like to note that this book is all mine (unless we decide to treat it as a pilot, recall it, and get a co-author).”

I get it, accept it and miss journalists like Walter Cronkite, Edwin Newman and Harry Reasoner. This is all his, catchy, clever title and all, and thankfully none of it reads like a perfunctory thank you list. If only there were more books like Before the Colors Fade and funny, thoughtful and factual reporters like Harry Reasoner, the world would be a better place and stand a better chance.


Buy Before the Colors Fade by Harry Reasoner

Factoring Bill O’Reilly

Combative, finger-waving cable television host Bill O’Reilly parted ways with Fox News Channel a few weeks after the New York Times published claims of sexual harassment and large sums for settlements. Is the downfall of America’s top cable TV host a negative or positive for free speech, the culture and the country? I think the answer depends on the facts, which we don’t know. That the relevant facts are not known is why I think O’Reilly’s downfall is ominous.

I’m not a fan of the show. I rarely watched The O’Reilly Factor, which ran for 21 years and was top-rated, commercially successful and highly influential. What I’ve written about O’Reilly since he went on Fox News following his work on the lurid Inside Edition is almost entirely negative. In my media commentary, I’ve opposed sensationalism and consistently named O’Reilly as one of the worst practitioners.

Bill O’Reilly on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News

But it’s worth thinking about why he stayed at the top of TV ratings for so long. His show was topical, entertaining and consistent on its own terms. Watch The O’Reilly Factor for the full hour and you’d get a general idea of news and culture from a certain, often neglected, perspective. O’Reilly’s viewpoint is a mixture of pragmatism, traditionalism and Puritanism. Bursting with anger, humor or pathos and never taking a position on principle, O’Reilly goes by the “gut” with no coherent philosophy. He sees himself as an advocate for “the folks” next door, not for the Constitution, liberty or capitalism; he was never for individual rights. O’Reilly sees himself as a common man who’s “looking out for you“, presumably a fellow commoner, but he’s never been an advocate for an idea.

In fact, O’Reilly is contemptuous of seriously thinking about ideas.

Yet he accepted Roone Arledge’s idea to mix news and entertainment. Similarly, O’Reilly accepted professional political influencer Roger Ailes’ idea to build an entire cable TV brand on Arledge’s hybrid “infotainment” and narrowly cast it to the oldest Americans, whose pragmatism, traditionalism and Puritanism is threatened by what’s regarded as libertarianism, liberalism and secularism. O’Reilly put together a nightly, primetime program intended not to inform and enlighten, but, chiefly, to soothe, rationalize and reaffirm viewer beliefs. Curmudgeon O’Reilly sat on his lead for years with a clever, carefully produced sprinkling of light features and news coupled with emotional outbursts of opinion by overgroomed people who are always overruled by the host. The result is a kind of kabuki theater.

The O’Reilly Factor‘s worst histrionics were reserved for displays of its underlying ethos: cynicism. The closest the 21-year-old program comes to having a philosophical point is an airy, annual campaign against “secular progressives” waging “war on Christmas”, a tiny symptom of a much wider war on reason. So, O’Reilly became both a lightning rod for those too lazy to think—really think—about what’s wrong with the world and for those who are angry, and rightly so, over the assault on Americanism. Audiences could safely tune in without the necessity of having to think. This is most evident in his exchanges with guest Leonard Peikoff, whose appearances painfully demonstrate that O’Reilly—who treated his guests as antagonists—is hostile to philosophy. He rose to the top strictly on the fact that Americans do not take news—or ideas that make the news—seriously.

O’Reilly’s basic value proposition was time spent with a misanthrope sneering, shrugging or chuckling at any one or anything that shows passion for reason. Whether considering lives crippled by acts of war or economic despair, O’Reilly always pushed Americans to lighten up, stop thinking and just go along with his superficially jovial, insidiously toxic blend of anti-intellectualism. He typically started the show with a warning—”Caution!!!”—of its toxicity and ended with a condescending smirk. This was his appeal: viewers found his nightly Howard Beale-style rants and raves, ups and downs, irresistibly comforting. He was like a boozy uncle who rants for an hour, pats you on the head for letting him ramble and then spins around the bar stool before he tries to make his way to the door.

In this way, Bill O’Reilly represents the current and combustible mixture of everything wrong and right with America—its basic goodness and decency, unthinking stoicism and pragmatism and America’s fast-spreading cynicism. An O’Reilly Factor segment on the law oversimplifying complex cases and brushing up against crucial issues but never getting too deep would invariably be followed by vulgarity and cynicism; every seven seconds of outrage preceded three minutes of Gutfeld and McGuirk, forced laughter from Dennis Miller, a talented comedian reduced to calling the host “Billy”, or another asinine video segment dubbed “Watters World” produced to make viewers feel superior by mocking everything gone wrong with the world—the flipside of the way NPR strives to make listeners feel superior by tearing down everything right with the world. O’Reilly on The O’Reilly Factor was more like the circus ringmaster.

Megyn Kelly at Fox News

He often put on a good show, covering, if barely, essential news, often with a fresh perspective neglected or diminished by the “mainstream media”. He aired programs and segments that brought attention to important issues, such as mistreated war veterans, various injustices and thoughtful discourse. Though he rarely broke news—it was CNN’s Drew Griffin, for instance, who reported the VA’s abuse of veterans—his common man theme occasionally challenged the status quo. He took urban black crime and despair more seriously than many of his detractors. The careers of Juan Williams, Mary Katherine Ham, John Stossel, Marc Lamont Hill, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Tavis Smiley, Megyn Kelly and Kirsten Powers, who represent a range of views by skilled or capable columnists, scholars and intellectuals, were advanced by Bill O’Reilly.

Ironically, it was Powers, an anti-abortion Democrat and longtime Fox News pundit until recently when she went to CNN, whose attack on O’Reilly yesterday underscores the downside of his being let go from Fox News. While she made a point on Anderson Cooper’s program to say that, in all her time working with O’Reilly, she never experienced sexual harassment from O’Reilly, she charged him with what she termed “sexual discrimination”. Her evidence? O’Reilly’s closing comment after a segment with Margaret Hoover thanking them for their “blondeness”. This came, Powers said, after he got Margaret’s name wrong and blamed it on there being so many blondes at Fox News. For this apparent transgression, Powers claimed, she went to a producer and, eventually, Roger Ailes, and demanded that O’Reilly apologize, which he allegedly refused to do, and so she boycotted The O’Reilly Factor for two years.

Powers added that she returned to The O’Reilly Factor (apparently, she initiated the return) without rancor, discord or O’Reilly’s having apologized and said they maintained a good relationship. If this is the most damning evidence of O’Reilly’s wrongdoing Kirsten Powers could muster, it’s not exactly convincing.

But it’s the fact of Kirsten Powers’ insinuation that’s disturbing about O’Reilly’s takedown by Fox News‘ parent company, 21st Century Fox. Not a single charge of sexual harassment against O’Reilly has been confirmed by the press. Not a single charge has been proven in court. Much less is known about the claims against O’Reilly than was alleged or known and, in some cases, proven and convicted or adjudicated in court, about similar or worse allegations against rich, powerful men favored by the orthodoxy that seeks to silence dissent, including Kobe Bryant, Marlon Brando, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby. That a major media voice is silenced without a single, proven assertion of wrongdoing—without Bill O’Reilly even being interviewed by internal investigators, according to Michael Wolff in the Hollywood Reporter—is alarming.

“O’Reilly’s ouster is yet another reminder that the profit motive can itself be an agent of change,” writes cultural commentator Megan Garber, arguing that firing O’Reilly serves the company’s long-term interest, in her O’Reilly piece in The Atlantic. Maybe so, and certainly advertising revenue was declining after the report was published and it’s 21st Century Fox’s right to run their business. They may have reason to think Bill O’Reilly, who built the brand for 21 years, may have done wrong. But if not, and they fired a journalist based on insinuation without regard to facts, it is an injustice that ought to concern everyone. Because if a top TV host can be smeared and brought down in America without evidence, without going to court, with not a single confirmed assertion of wrongdoing, so can you and me. Mass mobilization of public opinion to pressure a company to fire top talent, whether Bill O’Reilly or Brian Williams, has potential to silence the free press.

If you value freedom of speech, you should consider the possibility that Bill O’Reilly is an innocent man who has been unjustly maligned.

Preview: TCM Classic Film Festival 2017

Comedy’s the theme for this year’s classic film festival from Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which TCM is dedicating to its late host Robert Osborne. With movies screening this week in Hollywood, and guests ranging from Joel McCrea‘s grandson to film scholars Donald Bogle, Leonard Maltin and, on opening night, director Norman Jewison with 90-year-old Sidney Poitier for a 50th anniversary tribute to In the Heat of the Night (1967), the “Make ’em Laugh” theme is likely to be delivered with the brand’s unique ability to take movies, including those laced with humor, seriously.

That said, TCM’s movie picks include the dark (1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Harold and Maude) and asinine (The Jerk) and film comedy’s modern godfather Mel Brooks is scheduled for an appearance. I’m looking forward to having an opportunity to see, meet or cover pictures and guests such as King of Hearts (one of my first theatrical movies) with Genevieve Bujold (Coma, Anne of the Thousand Days), a wonderful actress whom I’ve had the pleasure to interview.

Some of my favorite directors, Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch, are represented with America America, Rear Window, Red River and So This is Paris. A restored version of Mike NicholsThe Graduate will be screened. Bob Newhart will comment on his 1962 motion picture debut. Stanley Kramer’s 1963 It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World will screen at the Cinerama Dome. Speakers, guests and filmmakers include Peter Bogdanovich (She’s Funny That Way, Mask, The Last Picture Show), Dick Cavett, Quincy Jones, Lee Grant, Walter Mirisch, Buck Henry, Rob Reiner and his father, Carl, Fred Willard and Alex Trebek.

This is my third TCM festival. Last year’s festival included an interview with Faye Dunaway (read my exclusive report here) and, as usual, thoughtful introductions to movies by Leonard Maltin (read my exclusive 2015 interview with him about TCM and classic movies here). Gathering with people who love movies is a wonderful bonus for this movie fan, journalist and storyteller. Being among those who think about movies, and seek to know why they love ’em, is the best.


Related Links

TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

TCM Classic Film Festival 2015

Robert Osborne

Interview: Leonard Maltin on TCM and Classic Movies (2015)

Faye Dunaway on Turner Classic Movies (2016)