Tag Archives | TV reviews

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.

TV Review: Code Black on CBS

This week, the CBS medical drama Code Black, which aired on Wednesdays, finished its first season (no word on renewal yet). An exceptional first season it is.

In retrospect, the show loses momentum with too many cast additions and a distinct shift from the doctor’s proximity to (and impact upon) the patient to mundane, internal hospital melodrama and contrived social messaging. In its current status at season’s end, it’s too much like a soap opera. Tinkering in the last episodes detracts.

But every episode up until the freeway pileup climax (“The Fog of War”), makes Code Black one of TV’s best series. The premise of a team of residents learning at the discretion of a leading doctor everyone calls ‘Daddy’ (Marcia Gay Harden) and a tough, wise nurse who goes by “Momma” (Luis Guzman) at a Los Angeles hospital that’s chronically at or over patient capacity carries the season to greatness.

CodeBlackCBSThe family-themed hierarchy helps. It sets the tone of Michael Seitzman’s show, which is based on the documentary of the same name, and casts the strangeness of working in this uniquely unhealthy, demanding environment—the American hospital in general; the emergency room in particular—in the proper perspective. In every episode, there comes a stylized dawning that illuminates the darkest corners of the rooms, instrument trays and curtain folds of a place where lives are won or lost and changed or reborn. This moment when the sun comes up means that reality exists independent of everything you’ve experienced; the new day brings new trauma.

Let’s get to it, Code Black‘s arch team seems to say every week, without the smugness of NBC’s ER, which often depicted doctors as topical mouthpieces or CBS’ Chicago Hope, which often showed docs as eccentric windbags. Here, the team is mostly led by a stern, rational physician played by the excellent Ms. Harden (Grandma, The Hoax, If I Were You), challenged, needled and backed by Guzman’s nurse, and their personalities are secondary to the medical matter at hand. They each exist to serve the medical purpose of the moment and, while each character’s background and motives for working in this place becomes clear, it never comes at the expense of fixing, tending, saving, declaring the dead and, yes, curing. Code Black at its best stings with its wholeness of purpose: the time the cocky stud learns to handle a patient’s priapism, or to grasp what he has in common with a flamboyant, dying patient or to grapple with why he’s always alone.

Nothing feels fake or forced on Code Black, though there are cliches and contrivances, as there are in matters of life and death, too. When a resident discloses a past drug addiction, death of loved ones, sexual orientation or fear of failure, it’s relatively organic to the plot, which is liberally blended with any from a wide variety of medical scenarios with ordinary or morally loaded circumstances, such as a religious parent’s preclusion against medical intervention or a patient’s self-imposed order to not resuscitate. The situations feel like another day in a high volume hospital, the patients come off as realistic and so do the staff and yet everything retains both the steady intensity of today’s impossible medical bureaucracy and life’s—and especially health care’s—fleeting intimacies that flare up in color and fade to gray or, sometimes, black.

Watch for Marcia Gay Harden’s interactions with any other character for the soul of the show. Look for Kevin Dunn as an intelligent foil who makes good points and bends rules even though he’s a hospital bureaucrat. William Allen Young as intellectual Dr. Guthrie is one of Code Black‘s best characters and one of its first victims of mid-season tinkering—when personal stuff explodes in the hospital, which starts to gain uninteresting characters (Heather, Grace, Gina) and lose its involving aspects—and the cast of residents is fine, too. Raza Jaffrey as Dr. Hudson and Benjamin Hollingsworth as Dr. Savetti are also especially strong in roles that call for wide ranges.

The first 12 episodes are the best, striking hard, fast and powerfully with larger than life themes (“The Son Rises”) that may move the audience to tears. Even when an annoying patient character played by June Squibb (Nebraska)—in the same type of irritating role Squibb always plays—dismisses Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, it’s plausible that someone like her would fail to grasp something like that. Even in lower caliber later episodes such as the season finale with Paula Newsome (Black or White) as a politician’s wife, a superior performance elevates contrived, politically correct material. Code Black deserves to get better and it ought to get a second season. Only then does it have a chance to recapture its original and incisive dramatic contemplation of what it means to be a doctor and medical practitioner in a mad, sick world in which every day might also hold something glorious and good.

TV Review: The Hunt with John Walsh

TheHuntJWCNNThe second season of CNN’s The Hunt with John Walsh premiered this week. After an extraordinary first season resulting in catching—and, in some cases, killing—criminals, it gets better.

There’s nothing else like The Hunt with John Walsh on television. The 60-minute original program hosted by anti-crime activist and America’s Most Wanted creator and ex-host Walsh, father of Adam, a child who was abducted and murdered, is a rare, non-fiction procedural program with unyielding moral judgment. Whatever legitimate criticism applies to Walsh, who appears in ads as a celebrity spokesman, too, The Hunt, like America’s Most Wanted, gets real results. The program, produced in cooperation with police detectives, who are also not above reproach on the show, has already led to the arrest, capture or killing of several of its first season criminals, who include those accused, detained or convicted of sexual assault, vehicular manslaughter, attempted murder and mass murder. Walsh tells the story of a crime from the victim’s perspective and solicits tips, assuring the viewer that “you can remain anonymous”—before each commercial break. Tastefully produced, and serious, not gratuitous, The Hunt lets each victim’s loved one or loved ones speak in their own voice.

Moral judgment extends to those who ignore, deny, evade, enable or abet crime, too, however, as is the case with the second season premiere’s episode profiling double murderer Egyptian Moslem Yaser Abdel Said, whose wife of 20 years all but brought her beautiful young daughters back from Oklahoma to Texas to be slaughtered by their father—whom they had accused of sexually abusing them—in what was apparently what’s known in Islam as an “honor killing”. More in this episode should have been reported about Said’s Arab culture and the role of his religion. But, other than John Walsh, who else on cable television, let alone broadcast TV, has the courage to call criminals “bastards” at the start of each episode, mean it to the end of seeking justice and claim this successful a track record? Unlike the predator trap show on NBC networks, The Hunt is not a sting to entice the criminal to commit the crime. Walsh deals in facts, law enforcement, crime recreations, certain victim perspectives and, in particular, the relentless pursuit of apprehending the fugitive from justice. Hence, the title The Hunt, which proceeds without an air of vigilantism. The show is relatively new—America’s Most Wanted ran for 25 seasons—so its effectiveness should be measured, scrutinized and judged, like sex offender laws, over time.

But a show predicated on getting justice for the innocent when injustice by the guilty often goes unpunished is an outstanding addition to TV programming. Walsh talks about being the victim of crime and shares insights based on what he’s experienced, learned and investigated since he lost his son in 1981 and the personal viewpoint adds to the show’s credibility. Like his predecessors in true crime television, Robert Stack and other fine hosts, Walsh deserves praise for seeking a responsible approach to solving, preventing and punishing crime. The fact that he survives a devastating, personal loss underscores the importance of his work.

The Hunt with John Walsh (go here for more info) airs on CNN Sundays at 9 pm ET/PT.

TV Review: State of the Union

220px-Jake_Tapper_at_the_White_HouseUnfortunately, Sunday’s premiere of CNN’s reconfigured State of the Union, which premiered in 2009, represents everything wrong with television, broadcast journalism and, in particular, political journalism. The one-hour Sunday morning news program, which is putting it generously, was soft, weak and incestuous. Billed as an exclusive interview with a former president, whose spouse is running for president, with another segment featuring the brother of a former president, the entire show centered upon access by the new host, who failed to disclose that he worked for the former president’s son-in-law’s mother.

One might be able to overlook such a transgression if the host were not as capable a journalist as Jake Tapper, who hosts CNN’s The Lead and does an excellent job in general, too. But, as I wrote about Megyn Kelly and Maria Bartiromo in their lackluster debuts on Fox News, one expects the best to be better than the competition. Tapper is among the best in TV’s journalism. Last month, he invited and interviewed Islamic jihadist target Pamela Geller after the Texas attack by Moslem terrorists on her free speech event; he was even-handed and respectful and asked good questions in what is one of her most passionate, articulate and persuasive interviews. He consistently asks questions that are sharp, independent and challenging, always questioning the state and showing a grasp of what it means to reduce the news to the individual. Though he’s a former Democratic Party operative and congressional Democrat’s press secretary, and his career includes jobs in both journalism and activism, he frequently asks pointed, intelligent questions like he’s in the Tea Party. Tapper’s coverage and analysis of war news, including CNN reporter Drew Griffin’s fine work exposing the Obama administration’s incompetence and conspiracy to deprive basic care to war veterans, is also very good.

This is why his failure to ask Bill Clinton even one question about his dreadful war and military record in the aftermath of the debacle of Iraq is so disappointing. It’s bad enough that Tapper failed to disclose the interview nature, agreement and audience terms and conditions involved with President Clinton, let alone his professional affiliation with the Clintons’ daughter’s husband’s mother or the fact that he dated the president’s mistress, an intern whose relationship with the president led to testimony which led to impeachment. Tapper’s exclusive interview with Clinton, packed with an audience of questionable origin and totally predicated on questions pertaining to Clinton’s dubious organization, amount to an infomercial for Clinton’s group. The connections among Monica Lewinsky, bombing and refusing to annihilate Islamic terrorists that would launch an attack on 9/11, Hillary Clinton, the jihadists’ Benghazi slaughter of Americans and Mrs. Clinton’s subsequent attack on free speech, are a thinking journalist’s dream. Whatever the ground rules for Tapper’s interview with the ex-president, he didn’t ask about any of those issues. This despite the attack on CNN by the president’s wife’s administration when she was secretary of state.

There is too much cronyism in Washington and Jake Tapper’s Bill Clinton interview reeks of it. This was underscored in a sidebar on another Bush presidential candidate, affectionately referred to here the entire time in subtitle as “Jeb”. The Jeb tag is presumably in accordance with the Jeb Bush for President campaign’s instructions to CNN to reduce and nearly eliminate any reference to that shriek-inducing last name. That the Jeb piece was conducted by the ultimate Washington toadying type, Dana Bash, an imperiously vacuous reporter whose Jeb Bush interview would have been more revealing if done by a high school student, just made the whole show worse.

“Dynastic” is the word Jake Tapper used in opening comments to describe the state of the union in State of the Union, 2015 version. This was before the soft, adoring, obsequious Clinton and Bush interviews and more of the same middling pundits chimed in. If only Jake Tapper had led with his mind the way he does on The Lead, if only he had really delved into the state of the union, not the state of the status quo. I had been looking forward to this program and had anticipated hard-hitting, radical challenges and questions and discourse from the reporter from Philadelphia. Judging by the first new show, Tapper merely strives for more of the same. The opposite is what viewers deserve.

TV Review: American Ballet Theatre (PBS)

Class-1American Ballet Theatre: A History premieres tonight on PBS (check local listings). It is not to be missed. In fact, it’s the most informative and enriching non-fiction television programming I’ve seen in years.

The new, 90-minute documentary by Ric Burns is a fascinating condensation of ballet’s essential history fused with this particular company’s story, culminating in an elevated theme about man, his art and his history. The program is really driven by Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet author and dance historian Jennifer Homans, the most knowledgeable, objective and philosophical among the film’s many strong voices and interviewed participants.

Homans is one of several dancers, former dancers or company experts to assert that ballet is both transcendent and ephemeral and this is foremost a precise, thoughtful and gentle study of this uniquely fine art. But it is Homans who articulates that ballet is both an integration of traditional or classical art forms and a radical advancement of the arts.

Consider that ballet originated, as she explains, in France as an expression of masculinity, both as a radical new art form in the 18th century and based on certain rules, spun from the Renaissance, framed by aristocracy and taking measure of man in pursuit of his excellence and nobility. Yes, the body’s movements in precision were created, Homans says, as a living representation of the whole man, with the male dancer not reviled or subsidiary as he is today. Only after the French Revolution, when the will of the collective replaced the rule of the king did woman takes precedence in ballet. “The male dancer is really hated by the time you get to the 19th century,” Homans contends. The ballerina emerged, she explained, citing the ghost Giselle among others, as a symbol of the irrational and the supernatural. American Ballet Theatre: A History really delves into the essential ideas and evolution of the ballet.

Ballet moved to Russia during the period when Czarist Russia embraced French culture and ballet came back to the West following the Communist takeover of Russia. Therefore, Homans tells the audience, in stark, soothing lines interspersed with pictures, archival footage and breathtaking pictures of dancers from the dance, the roots of American ballet lie in the collapse of the Russian Empire and what she calls “the phenomenon of exile” with dancers such as prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, for instance, who fled Russia and brought ballet to venues across America.

This Homans describes as a diaspora of Russian teachers who seed ballet in America. Indeed, she points out that the story of ballet in the 20th century is the story of the confrontation between the United States of America and Communist Russia. Choreographers such as Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille were trying to redefine a Russian tradition in American terms. Robbins and De Mille are two of the four main choreographers figured into the American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) history. With the other two, Antony Tudor and George Balanchine, they defined ABT’s objective.

mBT0659-150x150Each segment on the four choreographers is interesting for its own reasons. For example, Tudor had a dark side as ABT’s artistic conscience; his primary achievement is that he wanted to make a ballet not about fairies, birds and elves but about real people. The company grew organically with its artistic progress, according to those interviewed, including the intellectuals. Among the artists who are pivotal to the company’s formation, Alicia Alonso (pictured here at left) is interviewed, contributing some insightful thoughts on the art of dance, recreating what it feels like in poetic, evocative words. Others featured or addressed in ABT’s remarkable story include the late Donald Saddler and Frederic Franklin, dancers Susan Jaffe and Julie Kent, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and artistic director Kevin McKenzie, Misty Copeland, Gillian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes and Hee Seo and dance critics Anna Kisselgoff and the late Clive Barnes. Notably absent is the company’s former dancer and director Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose defection in Toronto from Soviet Russia in 1974 “led to an incubation of talent”. On the other hand, founding member and co-director (1945-1980) Lucia Chase, who is somewhat victimized here at the expense of Mr. Baryshnikov, is fully chronicled.

That ABT began simply as Ballet Theatre elicits the interesting fact that the word American preceded the company’s title in 1950 during the State Department’s sponsorship of a postwar tour through Europe; the dancers wore parachutes in the summer of 1950, according to one dancer, as they traveled as cargo in Air Force planes. As Stalin’s murderous Soviet regime, neither named nor addressed here, cracked down on liberty, America took the cultural lead in ballet. ABT’s worldwide reputation became legendary. This is thanks in no small measure to defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose discipline and emphasis on the ballet corps while ABT director greatly advanced American Ballet Theatre when he took over in 1980.

If the politics of ballet are slightly obscured or sidestepped, the art of the dance is not. Ballet is described and depicted admiringly and even reverently, especially by Ms. Homans, as an expression of goodness and happiness and one commentator observes that ballet is a metaphysical reassurance that “there’s something beautiful and good and worthwhile inside all of us”.

This is true, as evidenced by Buddy Squires’ exquisite slow motion capture photography, and the cinematography of the dancers, while not a recreation of ballet as it is intended to be seen live to music, is simply stunning and jaw-dropping. The film matches the well-chosen words by Alonso, Homan and others. “Transporting dance is so direct that everything else falls away for those moments and the audience enters that and mirrors the dancer,” someone says. Such transference between dancer and audience is exalted for both and that is partly captured, examined and contemplated here.

Encapsulating this extraordinary experience, Jennifer Homans concludes: “[Ballet is dance] as the arc of a life; it has a beginning, a middle and end and then it’s gone. It marks the passage of time.” Tonight’s American Ballet Theatre: A History, like an expertly conducted, choreographed and danced ballet, skillfully expresses, and also rediscovers, such grand moments in dance.

American Ballet Theatre: A History, a production of Ric Burns’ Steeplechase Films and Thirteen Productions for WNET, is part of the Emmy-winning American Masters series, which explores themes, stories and personalities of masters past and present. The film will be available on DVD July 14.