The Word, Performance, and Performer of the Decade

On October 15, 2005, on the pilot episode of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert introduced a segment called “The Word.”  That first night his first word was something he called “truthiness.”  Colbert defined this term, not actually a word at the time, as something that a person knows to be a truth, even without evidence, logic, facts, or engaged thinking.  It was a truth, he said, that one knows in his gut.

Colbert’s reference to “gut” thinking that night and later when he used the term made clear that this word was meant to apply to a type of thinking that was valorized in the Bush Administration from 2000-2008. In his campaign for president in 2000 and during his administration, George W. Bush repeatedly referred to the value of thinking from his gut and proclaimed the worth of his instincts.  (Who can forget how he said that Vladimir Putin, longtime leader of Russia, was someone he could work with, someone who was a good man, because he had looked into Putin’s eyes and seen his soul?  Yikes.)

Colbert’s “truthiness” seemed most linked to the war in Iraq.  Whereas the war in Afghanistan was clearly connected to the Taliban’s support of Al Qaeda and the attack on 9/11, the war in Iraq never had a clearly articulated logic for why it should occur.  The Bush Administration offered an ever-revolving series of reasons for why we should invade – Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, a link between Irag and Al Qaeda and Hussein’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks, Iraq’s stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, and other reasons.  Although the administration never offered concrete evidence of the link to 9/11, for instance, members of the administration repeatedly asserted a connection between planners of the attack and member of the Iraqi administration. When it comes to WMDs, of course, we’re still looking for those and the “evidence” that Colin Powell presented to the United Nations in argument for invasion seems a bit sketchy, to put it gently.

The power of “truthiness” was in its resonance with current events and it announced The Colbert Report‘s intentions to be fully engaged with the world of politics and to take on the hypocrisy, the falsifications, the mismanagement, and the hubris of those in power.  The show, in other words, was a worthy follow-up to The Daily Show.  But whereas Jon Stewart had been hosting The Daily Show, with its take on daily political stories, with a not-very-repressed air of “Are you shitting me?” wonderment, Colbert built on the persona he had created in his appearances on The Daily Show.  In those appearances, Colbert had increasingly taken to producing knee-jerk responses to questions and events and a refusal to back down from those responses even in the face of factual evidence that demonstrated that his responses were overly partisan, wrong-headed, or just plain wrong.  When Colbert moved to his own show, this persona was the one he brought with him and the one he has stayed in for over four years.  “Truthiness,” then did not only refer to the Bush Administration, but also was meant to refer to Colbert’s persona itself, and indeed to the very ethos of The Colbert Report.  And that was part of the genius of the satire.  The show mocks the very thing that it refuses to ever abandon in terms of its representation.  Colbert does not go out of character.  Ever.  But the satire of that character is ever clear, and the satire of the type of thinking that this character embodies is just as clear.  And biting.

Which brings me to what I would call the performance of the decade.  This was not a musical performance, nor a stellar bit of acting, nor a dramatic reading of a poem or novel.  It was Colbert’s performance at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner on April 26, 2006.  At this dinner, at the invitation of the correspondents, Colbert gave a 16-minute speech and screened a 7-minute video for the guests at the dinner and a television audience.  Here is the performance:

There are a number of things that are amazing about this performance.  The president is two seats away from him as he presents this truly devastating critique.  Most of the media there don’t seem to get that this is a) really really funny and b) really really devastating.  Colbert never cracks character, he never leaves the persona, which makes the reading of the satire a bit more difficult I suppose, but doesn’t ever change its bite.  It is a brave and bravura performance.  He calls the president to task as he sits just feet away, but does it in such a way that the audience is left doubly uncomfortable.  They’re not sure whether to laugh or cringe.  Because they are also under attack in the performance, for their refusal or negligence in actually engaging with the Administrations lies and obfuscations and lack of evidence, the correspondents don’t seem to know whether it is okay for them to laugh or whether they should be insulted (they should feel both).  Colbert was out on the plank by himself but he never stopped or slowed down.  He kept going on.

The performance itself came under attack in the media as not funny, irresponsible, disrespectful, and inappropriate.  But it caught on virally through word of mouth and rather quickly became a sensation. It was the embodiment of speaking truth to power, as the saying goes.  Not “truthiness.”  Truth.  The performance had everything to do with truthiness, with thinking from and by the gut, with trusting your instincts even in the face of evidence to the contrary.  And the performance was, I believe, central in the turn again Bush.  Stephen Colbert became one of the most central political players on the national stage because he called “bullshit” when the media that was responsible for this refused to do the thinking or legwork required to do so.

That’s why “truthiness” is the word of the decade, and why Colbert is the performer of the decade.

(How To Grow Up) To Be a Famous American

In the past year, my son has had occasion to read a few selections from a series of books called the “Childhood of Famous Americans.”  He has read four of them – on Harriet Tubman, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, and Jim Thorpe – and enjoys them enough, but I’ve come to realize that he likes the focus on childhood more than the overall story of the person’s life.  In fact, as the title of the series makes evident, these books are centered on the subject’s childhood almost more than their overall lives.  While this is fine and good, I suppose, it’s also kind of odd considering their great achievements came later in life.  Well, I should say it’s odd until you recognize the ideological underpinning of the series and its indebtedness to core American mythology.

The roster of subjects for the collection includes many figures you’d expect: George Washington, the Wright Brothers, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Edison, etc.  There are also some wild cards: John Muir, Harry Houdini, Jim Henson, Disney, and Roberto Clemente.  It’s not these people are not worthy of inclusion or didn’t lead outstanding lives; it’s just not really clear what the criteria for selection into this pantheon are or how the choices are made.  Plus, I’m not sure Clemente would have identified as American!

What does seem essential for individuals to be included – or at least essential for their stories to have been, is some semblance of the American Dream to be at play in their path to success – especially in relation to their ability to overcome hardship.

The back-cover copy of my son’s Jim Thorpe: Olympic Champon, the latest one he finished, claims that the series offers “lively, inspiring, fictionalized biographies” for readers to enjoy.  These three adjectives are quite revealing, if we take a moment to consider them.  Certainly readers will hope that the stories are lively and engaging – most books seek to be so, if only as a way to keep the reader reading, and hopefully to come back for another book in the collection.  But why inspiring?  And inspiring how?  Moreover, why the need to fictionalize?  Aren’t these lives dramatic and inspiring enough?  Aren’t their achievements worthy enough of inclusion?  What exactly is being fictionalized in these biographies, and to what end?

All of which goes to say (or ask): what’s the function of these texts?  Each of them seems to have at its core some fundamental dramatization of the American Dream.  Central to each story seems to be that the path to success must include overcoming adversity or suffering.  Great things can happen for those who locate ways to not only survive but who can actually locate their central character in the battle over suffering and adversity.  The series, much like the Dream itself, argues that struggling through the hard times enables you – in fact is virtually essential to your ability – to achieve success.

There’s a long history to the series. There are over fifty of them, and if you scroll through Amazon you’ll find lots of different editions, let alone different subjects.  But all the books seem to be set on the same narrative arc.  Each subject’s childhood tends to be the time where his/her character is determined – either through the good example of parents/teachers/mentors or through the ability to overcome marginalization, danger, or suffering.  The choices one makes as an adult, in other words, are determined by the crucible of our experience in our childhood.

(By the way, the formula obviously works – the series gets quite a spread in our local Barnes and Noble, and as I said, Amazon is rampant with these books!)

Ultimately, the link between pedagogy and ideology goes beyond the limitations of political party or even a liberal/conservative split.  At the heart of these narratives is a belief in two things.  The first of these is that our childhood determines who we will become; moreover, our ability to negotiate the travails of our childhood successfully helps determine who we will be.  There’s a hint of determinism in this, in that what happens early in life controls what happens later, but ultimately our circumstances don’t determine who we will be.  Rather, it is how we respond as individuals to those circumstances that will determine who we will be.  We have free will, agency, the ability to shape our future, based on the choices we make.  In America, we believe that we make choices freely and independently and that these choices determine what happens for us.  This adds up to a core belief in individualism triumphing over determinism.

The second belief that is fundamental to these stories is that those people whose stories are worth telling are those who have gone down this path.  Aren’t there stories of great and wonderful and successful Americans who didn’t have to travel down this path?  Which presidents were left out?  Which captains of industry?  Technological innovators?  I don’t think Bill Gates would make the cut, not with his upbringing.  But there aren’t many more famous Americans living today, or those whose global reach has touched as many people – either in terms of his business or his philanthropy.  Bill Clinton?  Sure. Jack Welch?  Sergey Brin?  Hmm.  And where are the artists?  The writers?  Other than certain types of musicians, few contributors to the arts are even on the list.

All in all, it’s worth checking out what publishers are selling to our kids – not just in terms of who is included, but the underlying logic for why they are included.  I’m not even fully against what they’re selling here, though as a parent I must say that I’m not looking to create adversity or struggle for my children.  Maybe it’s because I don’t care if they’re famous or not or because I think of success based on a different set of criteria than implied in these books.  Or maybe it’s because I have a sense of balance and proportion and can recognize a bunch of hogwash when I see it.  That’s why it’s called the American Dream, not the American fact-based narrative.

I’m all for believing in core mythology as a construct, but as a foundation of how I live my life or teach my kids to live theirs?  That’s just crazy.

Fibs, Prevarications, Falsifications, Misrepresentations

Lie to Me, on Fox Monday nights at 9:00 pm, seemed to me to begin as a show that I would sum up with this representative bit of dialogue:

Good guy: “You’re lying.”

Bad Guy: “No, I’m not.”

Good Guy:  “You are. I can tell.  The lines of your mouth are moving just so and your eyes crinkle a bit when you lie.”

Bad Guy: “My God!  You’ve got me – I admit everything!”

In other words, the show didn’t seem particularly sophisticated in its approach to storytelling, nor to its approach to thinking about detection.

But having watched a number of episodes this year, I must say that the show is starting to grow on me and evolve nicely in its complexity.  It has a main storyline that drives each plot, but the show’s development of its secondary characters – especially Loker (played by Brendan Hines), Torres (Monica Raymund), and Agent Reynolds (Mekhi Phifer) – has done much to enrich these storylines with secondary arcs.  Tim Roth has been extraordinary as lead character Cal Lightman – his acting has been as good as anyone I’ve seen on television in a long time (and I say that as avowed devotee of Gabriel Byrne in In Treatment).  Roth’s ever-shifting facial expressions, his shrugging of his shoulders, his slouch and dragging of his feet – rarely do we get to see an actor on television use all of his body as effectively as he does.  Every week is another revelation.

I’d love to see more of Jennifer Beals as Lightman’s ex-wife (who wouldn’t?  Even my wife loves her!), but she’s only on rarely.  Hayley McFarland does fine as Lightman’s put-upon daughter who is something of a do-gooder.  The weak link right now is Kelli Williams as Lightman’s partner Gillian Foster.  Her role is very poorly defined and she’s somewhat flailing in the role, apparently looking to ramp up the drama, but seemingly only because she doesn’t have very many useful lines, let alone a useful part to play in any of the episodes.

Roth is the reason to watch the show, for sure, at this point.  But it has been nice to see the program improve from its beginning as a crime show wherein some “scientist” kept insisting to the bad guys that they were lying and them confessing for no good reason in the face of his barrage.  It’s at least serviceable now, if not great watching.

It Might Be Time to Say Farewell to The Closer

The Closer began its fifth season the other night and I watched, out of habit more than out of desire.  The show has had a great deal of commercial success for TNT in its run, but I’m not sure I’d call it much of a critical success.

The show began with a “fish out of water” premise: Assistant Chief Will Pope (played by veteran character actor J.K. Simmons) brought to Los Angeles as his Deputy Chief in Major Crimes an associate he had known in Atlanta, Brenda Leigh Johnson.  As portrayed by Kyra Sedgwick, Brenda was a heavily accented transplant who had trouble negotiating her way around Los Angeles, in terms of the geography as well as the police department.  She seemed to have a lot of quirks, and was something of the offspring of Tony Shalhoub’s Monk and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Robert Goren (from Law and Order: Criminal Intent) in her combination of perspicacity as an investigator with her deep social ineptitude.  Although most of the Major Crimes unit quickly could recognize her ability to close out a case once she got the suspect in the interview room, at first, few in the department trusted her or respected her, which was reinforced by her past romantic relationship with Will Pope, which eventually helped lead to the breakup of his marriage.

While she seemed to have moved on from that relationship, it was clear in the beginning of the show that he was still interested.  She, however, quickly formed a liking for Agent Fritz Howard of the Los Angeles FBI branch, and there was some tension in the first few seasons as these romantic rivals vied for Brenda’s affections.  But that narrative tension was pretty much always ameliorated by the obviousness of Brenda’s preference for Fritz.

After about the second season, as her relationship with Fritz solidified, so did Brenda as a character.  She started to lose some of her quirks and became rather normalized.  At the same time, the show started to emphasize the members of her team to greater effect and these characters evolved into the ones driving the overriding plot arcs of the show: Sergeant Gabriel, Lieutenant Provenza, Lieutenant Flynn, Lieutenant Tao, and Detective Sanchez.  As the actors playing these roles got the chance to command more of the camera, the show became less of a star vehicle for Sedgwick and more of an ensemble.  In many ways, that element still dominates and is probably the strength of the show.  Brenda is less and less of a quirky fish out of water and more of a neurotic and not always very pleasant boss who is very good at her job.  Another way of writing that sentence might be that Brenda isn’t very fun to watch.  Her costars are, though.  While the beginning of the show posed her as something like Monk and the show has having the comic elements of that show, that dynamic has changed in that now Brenda has little comedy to her character but her co-stars have lots.  They get all the good lines.  Brenda is something of a bore.

As the depth of the ensemble grew, The Closer also added other characters to continue the sense of “color” that Brenda had originally brought to the narrative.  Sometimes the criminals have provided this – Jason O’Mara was especially compelling as a killer in an early episode and he got away, and the show brought him back for another appearance in a later season.  Last summer Billy Burke made for an especially ingenious defense attorney who also happens to be an especially ingenious murderer.  He too got away, and Brenda started to keep a photo of him on her desk because the case seemed to haunt her.  I’d be shocked if his character doesn’t return.

But the two characters who now provide the comic element of the show are Brenda’s parents, Clay and Willie Ray Johnson, played by Barry Corbin and Frances Sternhagen.  These two, with their Southern accents and their smalltown ways, embody the continuation of the “fish out of water” narrative that Brenda originated but which she grew out of as she acclimated to Los Angeles.  Clay and Willie Ray are not going to acclimate and they are not going to evolve.  As comic figures they are not supposed to, and their comedy derives from their very steadfastness.  They appear for visits every season and lighten the narrative while serving to remind Brenda of her roots and her family obligations in the face of her dedication to her job.  They’re not actually particularly interesting characters, in that they serve only narrative purposes and aren’t really drawn as compelling three-dimensional characters in their own right.  In a way, they are a good example of what is wrong with the show – the characters serve as little more than pawns in the plots.  Presenting and solving the crime are all that matter – the characters don’t.

As a formula, there is nothing inherently wrong with this – hello, Law and Order! – but the problem for The Closer is that it seems to try to be too many things at once – a serious crime show, a workplace drama with its tensions between the home and the office in terms of what Brenda pays attention to and who she ultimately sees as her “family,” and a bit of a comedy too.  The show is at its best when it dramatizes the tensions between Brenda and Fritz and her team in the office.  The comedy is enjoyable but doesn’t have much legs, and the mysteries are never really all that good, with the few notable exceptions mentioned above – and those were driven by the actors’ performances as much as by the writing of the show.

In fact, last season the show introduced a new character, Charlie, Brenda’s niece, who brought some valuable new elements to the program.  Charlie was a bit of trouble and the work of parenting her that Fritz and Brenda had to do brought out elements of their relationship that were new and revealed greater depth to each of them.  At the same time, Brenda couldn’t help herself in more than once getting Charlie involved in some of her cases – clearly an irresponsible thing to do, but again yielding some valuable dramatic elements.  I’m not sure we’ll see Charlie again, but her character was the best thing on The Closer last season.  This season has just begun, and I don’t see a lot of promise in it, I must say, unless the show can figure what it wants to be and gets down to the business of being it.

If Tony Shaloub Won Three Emmys, Then Why is His First Name Tony?

Monk ended last night, and while the two-part finale was not really a great one, that mediocrity certainly seemed appropriate.  The show itself was never really that good and the mysteries were of the type wherein close observation of the details of the case revealed the solution to the crime – all very Poe’s Dupin in terms of style and substance.  But that’s not to say that the show wasn’t important.  That, I believe, it certainly was.

Monk followed a formula most episodes, as the eccentric detective Monk – who operated as a consultant tot he police – would notice those details that escaped the police and tie together the pieces that others just weren’t able to.  His abilities were presented as a type of genius, but his eccentricities seemed to be the thing holding him back from integrating into the rest of society, let alone holding him back from reinstatement back onto the police force which he once had been part of.

Those eccentricities, of course, were the result of his wife’s murder, which sent him off the deep end and led to all manner of neuroses.  Through the seven years of the show he was never able to solve the mystery of her death, though he tried many times to do so.  The finale brought closure to the case, and to the show, even if it was somewhat unsatisfying as a narrative.

I’m not particularly looking to get into the details of the finale, though, nor of the feelings of closure, nor what happened with all of the supporting members of the show.  I’ll leave that to others.  I’m more interested in the show’s legacy.

Two things come to mind, the first of which was Tony Shaloub winning three Emmys for lead actor in a comedy while playing a detective.  I haven’t done one iota of research about this, I must admit, but I’m guessing that there haven’t been any other award-winning performances by an actor playing a detective, at least in the comedy category.  But since then, all sorts of detectives have been showing up on tv, and not just in the absurd category (there have been plenty of those, for a long while now).  The leads on Bones and House, while not exactly detectives are both essentially doing detective work and while these shows are drama, comedy is a central element in each of these shows.  Overall, the movement of detectives into the comedy category is a compelling one in terms of the genre, and I’m wondering where it will go over time (God, I’m hoping it extends beyond Psych).  There’s room for exploration in the merging of detective and comedy categories.

While James Gandolfini and The Sopranos were winning all sorts of winning Emmy awards and bringing HBO into the mainstream, Shalhoub and Monk were doing the same for USA.  Which brings me to the second legacy of the show: what it did for the USA network.  In my mind, it was Monk that really helped this network into a much broader viewing audience and critical acceptability (remember those late-night detective series they used to run in the 90s: a combination of mysteries and sex?  Weird.  And not good.)

Because of Monk, people check out USA.  There’s lots of reasons that people watch HBO, and reasons better than The Sopranos – hey The Wire! – but there haven’t been that many good shows on USA.  But people check it out.  And I keep looking for comic detectives who don’t have to overrely on neurotic tics to be a “character.”