App Review: CBSN

For an excellent source of news through streaming, try CBSN, an application for CBS News for television streaming which is one of my favorite regular means of getting news. It’s free on Apple TV.

CBSN also features live streaming of CBS News. Other programming is also available, from CBS Evening News, Face the Nation and CBS Sunday Morning to 60 Minutes and Mobituaries.

Functionally, CBSN is both satisfying and accessible. For example, unlike other apps for major broadcasting news competition, such as ABC News, CNN, Fox News and NBC News, its content is both substantive and fast to use without excessive advertising, promotions and noise, graphics and fast cuts. I’ve been informed, amazed and moved by multiple reports, stories and segments, including an excellent report on an American Prisoner of War’s widow and some sense of closure during last week’s failed summit in Hanoi, Vietnam between Communist Korea’s dictator and the American president.

Leftist bias creeps in, though in smaller measure than in other quality press sources, such as National Public Radio (NPR). Wide access to CBS News archives, with archival reports, footage and material from the late Walter Cronkite and other CBS News journalists, adds value to the source. Major Garrett’s reports and podcasting (The Takeout) from Washington, DC, are especially good. That’s where I learned that Face the Nation hostess Margaret Brennan’s favorite movie is the awful hamfest The Departed starring Jack Nicholson and for no good reason, really, and that her favorite book is The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which she says made her never want to eat beef. This answer by Brennan says so much about her and helps me better judge her inquiry on Face the Nation.

But one of the best reasons I like CBSN is that it’s an intelligent news tool. Unlike the worst of these apps, such as the ABC News app, which moves too fast in bright color with lots of sound effects and seems designed for unthinking audiences, the CBS News app deals primarily in stories, in facts and, occasionally, because it is an app, in tidbits. The ads are not too distracting. The longer form features, such as 60 Minutes segments, are very well done. Generally, there’s a kind of respect for the viewer as a thinker; a benefit of the doubt that you’re a person who’s capable of exercising independence when consuming the news. Strikingly, this means CBS News is more balanced and less biased in its approach than other sources.

I watch, read and listen to other news sources. But I find that, increasingly, bias and an agenda to push me toward a certain viewpoint creeps in, whether I’m watching Fox News, listening to NPR or reading the Los Angeles Times. Or, worse, there’s a general aversion to any coherence or reporting at all in the name of neutrality, which results in a sort of burp of sensory-level material that makes no sense, like a meme or a looping video clip. CBSN isn’t perfect, but it helps me accomplish the crucial task of keeping myself informed.

TV Review: Murphy Brown (2018; CBS)

I’m surprised to find that I am enjoying the CBS comedy Murphy Brown. Say what you will to criticize the show, which is a so-called re-boot of the top-rated 1988-1998 CBS comedy starring Candice Bergen (The Wind and the Lion). Laughter is canned. Plots are simple. Some of the jokes are lame. Yet, with a few exceptions, the comedy is topical, interesting and thoughtful.

The very light, amusing show leans left, of course, as it did when it originally aired 20 years ago. However, with the title character’s son Avery having grown up to become a broadcast journalist like his single mother, whose decision to have a child out of wedlock was a controversial flashpoint in the so-called culture wars (triggering then-Vice-President Dan Quayle), Murphy Brown is less strident now than it was back then.

Consider the context of my interest in the 2018 show, which has neither been cancelled nor renewed for a second season by CBS. I’ve always thought that Ms. Bergen is a talented actress and comedienne, though I was not a fan of her TV show. Bergen as Brown was too biting for my tastes; too self-centered to be likable. The show was bombastic and showy. Once her single motherhood became a political rallying cry, I lost interest. The original Murphy Brown was too often a whiny call and response with shrill, flimsy feminist preaching.

This fall’s Murphy Brown isn’t. Even when she’s editorializing, as the character recently did about immigration during a Thanksgiving-themed episode, she’s more interesting to watch. This owes chiefly to creator Diane English’s new focus on the contrast with her son Avery (Jake McDorman, Live Free or Die Hard, American Sniper). Avery Brown, who initially appears to have no life outside of his new job hosting a show that airs against his mother’s new show, works for a Fox News Channel clone.

This makes for Murphy Brown‘s best moments. Most of the show takes place at her home, the same one she lived in for the original 10-year run. Avery comes back to Manhattan to live with his mother when he gets the rival TV job and their mother-son chemistry clicks. She’s still an activist, but she’s been seasoned by the tectonic shifts in the press, her age and her role as a mother. Murphy Brown seems more mindful of her son’s life now. The character’s more realistic for this reason.

She still wisecracks, she’s still a recovering alcoholic and she’s still an icon in the media. She’s also still competitive, which leads to some sparring with her son, whom she needles about working for a conservative cable channel. But she’s also a better parent that she was in her heyday. Murphy Brown listens to her son. She tries to understand his perspective. Not that he’s a conservative. In fact, his politics are neither left-wing nor right-wing, which makes Avery Brown less explicitly political and therefore more compelling, which puts pressure on his mother to be sharper.

This makes Avery and Murphy more dimensional. Their relationship makes her character, her work (same cast has returned and some new cast members, too) and her journey more aligned with reality and less contingent on topical agendas. And, while Murphy Brown lacks bite, which is not a criticism, some of the funniest moments involve her clashes with President Trump.

For example, her fascination with Twitter, which her son Avery warns her against misusing due to her hot-headed personality, foreshadows her striking resemblance to the childishly ranting president of the United States. Indeed, that Murphy Brown’s just as shallow and vapid, though not quite because she becomes self-aware of her deficiency, as the 45th president is one of the more hilariously written episode arcs.

This is a character that, thanks to her having made mistakes and raised a child, has grown out her self-centeredness to some degree. The beleaguered career woman still oversimplifies certain issues, such as sexual misconduct, which comes up during an episode on the Me, Too movement, and she can still be as cutting as ever, though she appreciates the role of idealism, too, as she does in a good exchange with Faith Ford’s character.

Candice Bergen plays Murphy Brown straight up. The TV news hostess is fiercely independent, wiser and older (in the pilot, she’s depicted as having fallen asleep during the 2016 presidential election TV coverage), which gives her character, and the new show, an opportunity to depict a fuller, clearer perspective with a sense of humor, grace and, at its best, harmony.

TV Review: Waco (Paramount)

For the 25th anniversary of the 51-day showdown between Christian fundamentalists and federal government police in Waco, Texas, before it was known for a home makeover TV show couple, Paramount aired a six-part miniseries titled Waco.

Whether you know the story of the standoff, which was one of several high profile paramilitary sieges that came to define the Clinton administration and its trigger-happy attorney general, Janet Reno, and was preceded by a government siege against a family compound at Ruby Ridge in Idaho, Waco is thoroughly engrossing. The program, created by brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle (originally for the maligned Weinstein Company), is based upon two books on the showdown, A Place Called Waco by David Thibodeau and Leon Whiteson and Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator by Gary Noesner. I reviewed the series on AppleTV.

With sufficient pretext and a solid reconstruction based on certain facts about the events, Waco dramatizes the religious compound where David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) congregated with his Branch Davidian followers, multiple wives and children while stockpiling weapons in anticipation of fulfilling a biblical prophecy in 1993.

The drama captures the layered nature of trying to find meaning in modern life.

On the one hand, rock and roll musician David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin in a breakthrough role and performance) finds the peace and harmony his life’s been lacking when he accepts Koresh’s seemingly innocuous invitation to bunk at the compound for a few weeks. As with Charles Manson and his cult, the Rev. Jim Jones and his People’s Temple religion and other men of faith and their flocks, the superficial charm of the mystic is as undeniable as the promise of a simpler life. As with Manson and Jones, one sees the appeal of a believer supposedly offering sanctuary from the pressures and tension of modern problems.

On the other hand, Koresh sermonizes about a prophecy of an oncoming assault and makes it abundantly clear to all that he does not hold himself accountable to reality.

By the Nineties, America had gone from a burgeoning welfare state of post-Medicare 1969 and the doldrum days of 1978 to culturally depraved, politically correct days of Ninety-Three. This was when Americans evaded and ignored the clear implications of Islamic terrorist attacks and were prone to fall for Bill Clinton’s wrong and premature declaration that “the era of big government [was] over”. Indeed, as Waco demonstrates with good writing and strong performances, America’s emergent militarized authoritarianism was well under way.

Enter the author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, the FBI’s special agent in charge of negotiations, Gary Noesner, played with perfection by Michael Shannon (Mud, Midnight Special, The Shape of Water). Shannon’s character represents the series’ only voice of reason, like the boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, who dares to doubt, question and challenge the blank minds on both sides of the faith-based confrontation. This man, as depicted, is alone in going by facts and trusting his own judgment. As such, he is doomed to be reduced to the full impact of his complicity with the militarized state.

Drawing upon the Waco siege archives at Baylor University, which houses the topic’s largest collection, Waco, directed by John Erick Dowdle and Dennie Gordon, essentially shows adherents to these two faith-based notions  belief without evidence in militarism and belief without evidence in God and religion — as they meet, converge and become one, flaming mass death. Waco evokes Spahn Ranch and Jonestown but it engagingly captures the rise of Americans’ faith in the military state. Child refugee Elian Gonzalez would be seized at gunpoint within seven years and be forced to return to a slave state while bloodthirsty religionists for Islam schemed a diabolical plot to destroy our tallest towers and military defense center.

Waco shows why this became possible. With standout turns by John Leguizamo as one who warned, Camryn Mannheim as a mother and, especially, Paul Sparks as the man most emasculated by faith in Koresh and Branch Davidianism, the six-part series leads to its widely known outcome with taut precision. One may quibble with this scene or that, including the tendency to oversimplify life at a religious compound, especially its impact on children, which is all but ignored, really. And do not look for any serious philosophical examination of the rights of man, including the right to keep and bear arms, which is not, as Leonard Peikoff has observed, the same as having a right to stockpile rocket launchers and other military weapons.

But Waco shows what happened and why in scathing detail and, 25 years after it went up in flames, makes the viewer think, perhaps for the first time, about the whole horror scene as a mass congregation and extermination of Americans who insist on just following orders.

Megyn Kelly, FilmStruck and Media

The recent cancellation of Megyn Kelly Today demonstrates the folly of putting popularity above good business principles. When NBC, which is owned by NBCUniversal (which is owned by cable corporation Comcast), recently signed the Fox News personality to a reported $69 million contract, the broadcasting unit severely overestimated Kelly’s value.

NBC’s executives should’ve read my review of her debut on Fox News. Kelly’s hard, self-centered manner may have been suited to the Fox News cable television brand, but her brand is defective. It’s not surprising that audience reception and ratings have been mediocre at best.

The astronomical price tag for such a vapid hostess, or, if you insist, “celebrity journalist”, underscores the media industry’s fixation on ratings, metrics and short-term gain to the detriment of quality and credibility, proper standards and practices and long-term profit and progress.

Megyn Kelly, an intelligent lawyer who has more in common with the president and other vulgar, showboating sensationalists than she does with able-minded journalists, has never been serious (read my comparison of Kelly and NBC’s other overpaid darling, Trump, here). By hiring Megyn Kelly as it did, NBC showed its desperation and a willingness to do anything for a hit as a presumably non-leftist counterpoint to its leftist brand. Unfortunately, NBC’s supposed goal to gain intellectual balance probably will be abandoned, as against the network’s fixation on getting up fast hits.

While NBC backtracks on Megyn Kelly, with whom it’s apparently still negotiating, for dubious reasons, Comast’s competitor AT&T has made the call to cancel its Turner-branded streaming service for independent films, FilmStruck. This service, affiliated with the Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies (TCM), represented a real commitment to streaming thoughtful, harder-to-find motion pictures. AT&T terminated FilmStruck, which was part of Turner’s parent WarnerMedia company, for FilmStruck’s lack of a wider audience. WarnerMedia may launch its own streaming service to compete with Disney’s proprietary streaming service and outlets such as Netflix.

The termination is another AT&T mistake. As Comcast fails to grasp why metrics and popularity alone are not proper tools for forecasting success, AT&T’s decision to nix FilmStruck shows the media corporation’s failure to understand the same idea. While FilmStruck, which for full disclosure I wrote scripts for last season, was too focused on intellectuals and with an ivory tower slant, as a brand FilmStruck showed potential for appealing to wider audiences.

Experimenting with new ideas is crucial for media success. AT&T, which, in my experience is mostly incompetent at delivering goods and services, doesn’t know how to cultivate its assets any better than NBC knows how to apply better judgment to the business of earning its television, streaming or media customers’ trust (i.e., NBC News, especially MSNBC).

FilmStruck ends its operations in America and the world late next month. I think that, in the current cultural context, it’s unlikely that WarnerMedia will replace it with a classic movie streaming service or brand, though the company, with its vast Warner Bros. archive of great movies, should do exactly that. Cynical Megyn Kelly, on the other hand (or more empty vessels like her), is unfortunately likely to return to media in some other program or format.

Both cancellations, with Kelly’s cancellation coming in the aftermath of her controversial comments — further eroding the media industry’s commitment to defending the freedom of speech — are a sign that the culture’s plunging down. Ditching Megyn Kelly for being controversial — her problem is lack of coherence, consistency and authenticity, not any among her ginned up controversies — and abandoning movie streaming for being intellectual portend more of the anti-intellectualism already spreading fast in American culture.

America is already besieged by increasingly bloodthirsty irrationalists, from assaults on softball diamonds and gay nightclubs to mass shootings at the nation’s churches and synagogues. The United States needs more serious, controversial and thoughtful programming, not fewer choices among the status quo.

Americans in media, producers and consumers alike, should ease up on the asinine pictures, memes and clips and focus instead on producing and consuming more intelligent, radical material and make and watch it faster than ever. Comcast and AT&T, through whomever remains subversive at NBC, Universal, Turner and Warner Bros., and I know you’re out there, should take note: replace Kelly and FilmStruck with more rational programs, discourse and ideas, not more pap. There’s value to gain. There’s little value, such as credibility, left to lose.

TV Review: Dynasty (The CW)

The first season of the CW’s Dynasty is salacious. It is also surprisingly sharp, even surpassing the original 1981-1989 ABC series in the caliber of its writing. Several key original characters, created by Richard and Esther Shapiro, are re-conceived. Several original costume motifs, plot lines and themes appear in this version, too. But the show’s first season (season two debuts on October 12) is its own combination of brisk, biting and usually interesting melodrama.

Buy the Season

The first major switch is from the original’s Colorado-based Denver Carrington business empire to the South’s Atlanta-based Carrington Atlantic. This allows for an engaging twist and the second major change from the old to the new Dynasty: Blake Carrington’s rival family the Colbys (and other characters such as the chauffeur) are black. Other flipping includes Sammy Jo (Heather Locklear in the original), a trailer trash tramp in the Eighties, as Sammy Jo the gay South American hustler.

Both characters bear familial connection to the second Mrs. Blake Carrington, Krystle (Linda Evans) who’s now Cristal (Nathalie Kelley). There’s a clever tie-in to almost every original character. This includes Matthew and Claudia Blaisdell, the middle class oil rig couple, butler Joseph and his mentally unstable daughter Kirby, hunky driver Michael Culhane and both Fallon and Alexis Carrington, formerly brunettes and now blondes who are each more diabolical.

But they’re bad in a more realistic way. All the Carrington mayhem, scheming and manipulation unfolds through the lens of plausible betrayal, family and business. The larger than life mythology remains. Steven Carrington’s still gay in the new Dynasty, though he’s less the strong, silent type that Al Corley portrayed and more like a modern version of Oscar Wilde with left-leaning politics. Also look for Ted Dinard.

The plot follows its own course, with some thematic and specific rebooting for fans of the original and plenty of sexual, interracial, intercultural points. With more socially and politically pointed, sometimes astute, commentary and snappy, often realistic lines and consistent characterization, this new Dynasty is worth checking out for “escapist” type entertainment, nothing more.

Production values include stunningly, beautifully shot scenes. I especially like that the show begins many episodes with rich, elegant details of the inner workings of the Carrington home, which adds a degree of authenticity to the more ridiculous plots.

The cast is generally outstanding, even Nicollette Sheridan as Alexis (not appearing until later episodes), playing the character with more humor than the iconic Joan Collins portrayal. Veteran actor Grant Show (Swingtown, Melrose Place) is excellent as Blake Carrington. Show makes the industrialist more human and believable in one season than John Forsythe did during the entire original series’ run.

Kelley’s Cristal is more convincing as the second wife than as the executive type but she’s fine. Rafael de la Fuente as Sammy Jo adds camp. Elizabeth Gillies as Fallon, a dominant character in the first season, carries quite a plot load and mostly pulls it off. James Mackay as Steven is also spot on. Sam Adegoke as Jeff Colby brings his own flair and stands opposite of John James’ original benevolence, Alan Dale as Joseph makes the butler a full-fledged character with distinction and Robert Christopher Riley as Michael steals every scene.

Three Summer Movies

Buy the Movie

One of my favorite summer movie experiences was seeing Grease when I was a kid in 1978. I think the Paramount film was my first major theatrical motion picture musical. I’d seen movie musicals on television. But Grease, which cast two major 1970s stars, a pop star whose songs I enjoyed on radio and a TV sitcom star, unleashed its sexual energy in a lush, bright but somewhat raunchy, colorful movie musical. It was extremely entertaining and not merely in a frivolous or mindless way. I write about why in a new, in-depth analysis of the 40-year-old film (read the article here).

Besides spring’s Love, Simon, which is still the year’s best movie I’ve seen, documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? merits 2018’s best movie consideration. The film impresses with an intelligent and poignant approach to its subject, the late Pittsburgh children’s television host Fred Rogers. His family and associates grant the moviemaker unprecedented access in what amounts to a timely, relevant and important, not flawless, non-fictional movie. Read my extensive new review of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? here.

Pixar’s satisfactory sequel, The Incredibles 2, also entertains, if by a lower standard than the forementioned movie. With a brief appearance by the designer character Edna Mode, who’s a kind of Q from the James Bond pictures in terms of gearing up the superhero, a role reversal and a subtle dig at Hollywood’s dogma du jour, this mostly manic, action-packed followup to a hit movie released 14 years ago fits the bill. Read my thoughts on The Incredibles 2, which opens this weekend, here.