Game of Thrones

Why I Love Game of Thrones

You know those people who ask a lot of questions while you’re watching television with them?
Questions like: “what just happened?” “who is that again?” “how are those two related?” “who just got killed?”
If you know somebody like this – somebody who needs to understand exactly what is going on 100% of the time – do NOT watch “Game of Thrones” with him.
“Game of Thrones” is the most imaginative and intellectually challenging program on television.
I just finished watching the third season on DVD. I still don’t claim to understand the show completely. But that doesn’t change the fact that I find it completely engrossing. I’m addicted and obsessed.
The premise of “Game of Thrones” is simple: a handful of royal contenders are fighting to the death. The winner will sit on the Iron Throne and rule the fictional land of Westeros (which looks and sounds a lot like medieval England).
The reason why the show is so complicated is the same reason why the show is uniquely great: there are dozens of interesting main characters. And none of them is simply heroic or villainous. Every single one can be loved or hated depending on your point of view.
Many viewers root for Jon Snow. Female viewers, anyway. I’m guess that it is mostly due to his good looks but perhaps they also appreciate his earnest desire to the right thing.
I loathe Jon Snow. He’s the kind of joyless jerk who will break a vow, reluctantly do something he thinks is wrong, take no pleasure in the illicit act, and then feel guilty about it. A good man either sticks to his vows or breaks a vow with confidence and pride. Jon Snow is always indecisive and in between.
The actor who plays him – Kit Harrington – was clearly hired for his hair rather than his talent. In the books, Jon Snow is a perfectly admirable and likable kid. Harrington transformed him into a loathsome chump.
Most viewers root against Jamie Lannister. There are darn good reasons to hate him. He’s a cocky pretty boy from a rich family. In the very first episode, he slept with his twin sister and tried to kill a kid who accidentally caught them in the act.
Jamie isn’t a saint, obviously. But I’ve come to appreciate his virtues: stoicism, bravery, and a true loyalty that Jon Snow can never match. I’ve also come to understand the burden that comes with being the golden child of a powerful family. Jamie handles the heavy responsibility with quiet grace and selfless family pride.
I concede that it is possible to dislike the beautiful Mother of Dragons: Daenerys Targaryen (Dany). One can argue that she is irresponsibly single-minded and that her ambition for power borders on mental illness.
But the heck with that. I’ll always root for Dany to become queen. Her decision-making is unilateral and reckless; but it is confident and usually correct. She expects a lot from her subjects but she genuinely loves them in return. Not only is she best suited to sit on the Iron Throne in the show, I wish there was a politician in real life who possesses Dany’s level of motivational leadership and decisiveness.
Don’t just watch “Game of Thrones” because it’s the best show on television. Watch it because a generation of smart young people are watching it, too. Watch it to stay entertained and stay hip. Just don’t ask a bunch of questions to the person sitting next to you while you watch it.

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House Of Cards

 

Why I Love House of Cards

“Congressman Max Abrams: hopelessly conservative. Abrams voted to increase Medicare copays for people most in need. And Abrams co-sponsored a bill that would have raised the minimum age for Social Security recipients. Max Abrams: Bad for seniors. Bad for Vermont. (Paid for by Ted Wilkins for Congress 2014).”
If I were a politician, I’d have to watch nasty television ads like this during campaign season. And I’d have to read nastier editorials and social media posts about me every day.
I’d be pressured by rich, influential people to vote for laws that I know are flawed, corrupt, or just plain wrong.
These are just a few of the reasons why being a Washington politician is a pressure-filled nightmare that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
So, why on earth does a smart person choose to run for Congress, anyway? The addictive Netflix original series “House of Cards” makes the answer clear: POWER.
Kevin Spacey is mesmerizing as Rep. Frank Underwood (D, South Carolina). When we meet him, he is already Majority Whip of the House and he’s moving up in the world.
Frank worked to get the new President elected. And, in return, newly inaugurated President Walker has promised Frank an important cabinet position. But the President breaks his promise to Frank.
Frank Underwood doesn’t get mad, he gets even. The Congressman hatches an outlandish, complex, and diabolical scheme to destroy his new enemies and enrich himself in the process.
For the lead character of a serious TV drama, Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is surprisingly simple. He’s like a shark, always swimming forward toward the next kill.
While Frank isn’t very complex, he is always interesting; interesting to the extent that he might be the most evil lead character in television history. You can count the decent things he does on one hand. But acts of dishonesty and betrayal just keep piling up.
Frank views everyone in his life as pawns to be manipulated, used, and then discarded. Everyone except his wife Claire (Robin Wright). Frank neither loves his spouse nor is he attracted to her. But in Claire, Frank has found a life partner who shares the same goals. The Underwoods are like two snakes in the Garden of Eden, working together to seduce Eve to eat the apple.
The creator of “House of Cards” – Beau Willimon – faced a serious challenge: How do you get the audience to watch a villainous, murderous, soulless protagonist without hating him? Willimon’s splendid solution was to have Kevin Spacey turn to the camera sometimes and explain his feelings and motivations directly to us.
That technique somehow makes us the audience feel like we are in on Frank’s schemes; it somehow makes us root for him. Watching “House of Cards” from Frank’s perspective is like watching “Star Wars” from the point of view of the Emperor.
Though “House of Cards” makes us root for Frank, it definitely doesn’t glorify him. The awful thing about power is that achieving it never makes you happy; it only makes you want more. Ted Wilkins can have that Congressional seat. I truly don’t want it.

Survivor and Feminism

Feminism and CBS’s Survivor

I am a feminist.
I am a feminist because:
A. I believe that women and men are intellectual equals. And that everyone should be allowed to choose the career that they want, even if the job is traditionally done by the other sex.
and
B. I think about women’s issues and women’s points of view more than the average guy.

This season of “Survivor” (Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty) has introduced me to some fascinating, flawed women.
First there’s Kass McQuillen. Kass had all the tools to win the game: she’s smart, she’s tough, and she’s level-headed.
Kass is a trial lawyer. And, unsurprisingly, she is exceptionally good at coming up with reasonable arguments about strategy and presenting them to her tribemates.
About halfway through the season, Kass had put herself in a perfect position. She was one of the most influential people in a majority alliance that was in control of the game.
But then she was undone by her (and many women’s) fatal flaw: her primal hated of other women.
Reason, strategy, and self-preservation went out the window when Kass developed a grudge against one her tribemates, Sarah. As so often happens in real life, a minor spark of disagreement exploded into an unstoppable wildfire of anger. And before long, Kass had voted this poor girl out and torpedoed her own game in the process.
I have absolutely no idea why women are so quick to turn on each other and become enemies. But the phenomenon is real. And frightening.

This season of “Survivor” also introduced me to Morgan McCloud and the plight of attractive young women.
I know that looks are subjective, but Morgan from the Beauty Tribe is unarguably the best looking girl on television. And beauty is taking its toll on her.
Morgan got voted off a few weeks ago because she wasn’t playing the game very hard and because she was lounging around and letting other people do all the work around camp.
But this isn’t really her fault. As she explained as she was leaving, the guys on her tribe started serving her and doing her work from day one. And this has been happening since she went through puberty. Morgan’s great looks have made it so men are eager to do her work for her.
As for her decision not to participate too much in the intellectual strategy aspect of the game; her beauty dictated that, too. Morgan, like most hot teenage girls, probably had a busier social life than average. And less time to study.
Also, sadly, if Morgan was naturally smart, she would have learned rather quickly that there is a disturbing tendency for people to resent smart girls. A smart, pretty girl who wants to be well-liked has to learn to act less smart or risk being hated by her classmates.
Morgan’s beauty is making her life easier now. But it the long run, she’ll discover that it is a curse. When she loses her looks, she’ll find that life is very difficult for a woman with below-average intelligence, unimpressive character, and a lousy work-ethic.

If you’re interested in Sociology, “Survivor” (CBS, Wednesday nights at 8pm) is the most intellectually stimulating show on television. There certainly aren’t any other shows on network TV that inspire me to write a column about feminism.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Why You Should Watch

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

 

Most people are content to remain almost completely ignorant about history, geography, and science.

And even though I find history and geography super interesting, I can’t argue that they are important to learn.

Is my life richer and fuller because I know more about the 30 Years War than you? No. Are you a better person because you can find Indonesia on a globe and the average person on the street can’t? No.

But science really is valuable. Because if you don’t possess a basic knowledge about how the world works, you can easily get duped.

There are dozens of companies selling weight loss pills, supplements, and cleanses. They are banking on the fact that many people don’t understand even the most basic concept of caloric intake vs. output. These poor people will harbor hope that a cleanse will make them skinny even if they continue to eat the same amount.

There are millions who have been duped into believing that evolution isn’t happening. And that’s simply because they never learned how natural selection works so they are willing to believe that species do not change over time.

But don’t get too smug, liberals. There are plenty of left-wing groups that prey on our lack of scientific knowledge, too.

There are alarmists who urge you to save endangered species because, supposedly, their fragile ecosystems will be irrevocably destroyed if species disappear. They are banking on the fact that you don’t know that the vast majority of species that existed in world history have already gone extinct. And then their niche was simply taken over by new species. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

There are alarmists who urge you to combat global warming at the cost of capitalism and human progress. They are banking on the fact that you don’t know that the earth has, at times, been much warmer in the past. And much cooler. If global warming raises the earth’s temperature by five degrees, it won’t be unprecedented. And it might not even be bad.

I hope I can convince you that science is important. I can’t convince you that it is interesting. But Neil deGrasse Tyson can. He’s the charismatic host of the 13 episode mini-series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.”

It’s an incredibly ambitious show. Tyson is trying nothing less than to tell the entire history of the universe: from the big bang, to the creation of the first galaxies, to the formation of our solar system from the remnants of stars that died billions of years ago.

“Cosmos” is also a history of science itself. Tyson is proud and passionate about his profession. He spends a lot of time telling the stories of history’s greatest scientific pioneers (Isaac Newton, Giordano Bruno, Edmund Halley) and how they toiled and sacrificed so that we could all understand our world a little bit better.

The goal of the program isn’t just to entertain and educate older viewers like us; it is to inspire young people to join Tyson and become scientists themselves.

Since science is so important, it is fortunate that there is a TV show that makes learning about it so fun. I hope you check it out.

 

“Cosmos” is on Fox, Sunday nights at 9pm.

 

South Park Is Still Great

South Park is Still Great

 

After more than ten years on the air, “South Park” is better than ever. It consistently delivers intelligent satire and sophisticated analysis of our culture.

What makes the show different from other cartoon comedies is the outsider attitude of creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They’re from rural Colorado. “South Park” reflects their spirit of freedom, personal responsibility and mountain-west libertarianism.

Parker and Stone never tire of attacking liberal Hollywood celebrities for arrogantly assuming that they know better than common folks about the way we should live our lives.

“South Park” has the best musical numbers this side of “Family Guy.” Sometimes there are Weird Al-style parodies of popular songs, like the brilliantly silly Kanye West send-up called “Gay Fish” (look it up on Youtube.com if you have a free minute).

Sometimes the show features songs just because Parker and Stone love music, like last season when Eric Cartman performed a no-frills cover of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” There wasn’t anything satiric or even funny about it. It was just a terrific, sincere karaoke cover of a great pop song sung by an 8 year old boy. It made me smile.

That brings me to third key element of the show’s greatness: Eric Cartman. Cartman is the ultimate anti-hero. He is selfish, manipulative, crass, and completely bigoted.

But he’s also smart, ambitious, and single-minded in his pursuit of what he wants. And when he does achieve what he wants, he takes a pure joy in success that is enviable. I can’t help but root for the little monster.

 

Here are a few classic episodes that illustrate what makes “South Park” unique:

 

“The China Problem,” (2008) – Based on their superb pro-war film “Team America: World Police,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone have a reasonable, nuanced view of American foreign policy.

They argue that we are safer due to the actions of the military and they definitely have no tolerance for people who argue that the United States is the bad guy in the war on terror. However, Parker and Stone do not turn a blind eye to American mistakes and abuses of power.

In this episode, Cartman is convinced that the Chinese are plotting to take over the United States. He and his friend Butters decide that the best chance they have to stop the nefarious plot is to hold up the local PF Chang’s restaurant.

During the stand-off with police, Butters shoots a number of cops in the groin. Cartman scolds his friend, angrily proclaiming that there isn’t anything funny about pointing a gun at a man’s groin.

Cartman eventually loses his motivation to fight the terrorists if those methods are going to be used.

Without ever even mentioning the words Abu Ghraib, Parker and Stone make a powerful argument that the United States military needs to be careful about the way it behaves abroad or it risks losing popular support and the moral upper hand.

 

“Manbearpig,” (2006) – People on the right foolishly combat environmental extremists by arguing with them over the facts. The truth is that no one knows how much climate change is taking place, how much of it is caused by man, or how destructive it is.

In this inventive episode, Parker and Stone manage to ruthlessly lampoon Al Gore without making any argument about global warming.

Al Gore comes to South Park on the hunt for the deadliest threat humanity has ever faced: Manbearpig. It’s half man, half bear, half pig, and only the former Vice President stands in its way.

In his ridiculous quest to save us all from Manbearpig and become a hero, he puts the lives of children at risk.

Throughout Western history, there have always been men who are kooky enough to think that the end of the world is coming, and arrogant enough to think they are the only ones who know how and when. Al Gore is such a man. “South Park” is the only show that is clever enough to call him out for it.

 

There are new episodes of “South Park” every Wednesday night at 10pm on Comedy Central.

 

Mad Men is the new Sopranos

Mad Men is the new Sopranos

 

You know that one TV show that you should be watching but never have? That show that critics rave about and your friend swears by but you just haven’t found the time to check out?

For me, it was “Mad Men.”

But no longer! Inspired by Laura – the editor of this newspaper – I finally gave it a chance. Now I’m completely hooked.

I was unsurprised to discover that the creator of “Mad Men” – Matthew Weiner – used to write for “The Sopranos.”

“Mad Men” isn’t all about corporate advertising any more than “Sopranos” was all about the Mafia. Both programs are about relationships, love, and the entire human condition.

Like “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” is a colorful, complex ensemble drama.

And like “Sopranos,” “Mad Men” is anchored by a wealthy, powerful, dynamic leading man. Jon Hamm’s Don Draper earns the admiration of male viewers and the hopeless crushes of female viewers.

He’s a man’s man. But he’s also a deeply flawed human being.

The show insightfully explores Don’s issues with identity, pride, anger, and infidelity. One of the key plot points of this season is the unraveling of his third marriage.

Human nature never changes. Human culture definitely does. “Mad Men” helps us understand our own 21st Century society by contrasting it with the 1960s.

The show reminds me of how grateful I should be that I grew up during an era where the sexes are equal in the workplace. I like having a female boss and I am proud that my wife makes more money than I do.

“Mad Men” shows us how different things were just a few generations ago. In a recent episode, the firm’s top young copywriter was forced to leave the company because she couldn’t put up with the unequal pay and marginalization anymore.

In the same episode, the company named a long-time employee as its first female partner. However, she was promoted as compensation for sleeping with an auto executive in order to land the Jaguar account. Yikes.

While women have been making enormous gains in dignity and respect in the American workplace, smokers have been experiencing similarly huge losses.

Nearly all of the “Mad Men” characters smoke in the office. Some just occasionally to deal with stress; some have a cigarette in their hand in every scene.

People in the 60s understood – like us – that smoking a pack a day is a bad habit and a serious health risk. But they also understood – unlike us – that merely being in the same room as a smoker is not a serious health risk and that it is impolite to make snide comments to a smoker’s face.

With all of the heavy smoking going on, I imagine that somebody on “Mad Men” is going to develop emphysema one of these days. And, unfortunately, it isn’t going to be weaselly, contemptible Pete Campbell. He’s the only one who doesn’t light up.

“Mad Men” is the best drama on TV and the best soap opera. It has the best writing and the best cinematography. It is all things to all people. But only if you watch it. Join us!

The Tudors

 

The Tudors

 

One of the reasons I enjoy Showtime’s original series “The Tudors” is because it takes place during a fascinating time period: The Renaissance.

The Renaissance was not just about Italian artists and rediscovering old ideas. The early 16th century was an intellectually vibrant period, where the dark ages met the modern world head on and every dogma was up for debate.

The conquest of the Americas opened many minds to the enormous power that European men had to change the world. The invention of the printing press made it so new ideas could spread quickly; soon every literate person had easy access to the news of the day whether the authorities liked it or not. Bold reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin were even able to successfully challenge the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church.

It was a brave new world, and King Henry VIII of England was a new kind of prince. His arrogance, lust, and bloodthirsty nature was old-fashioned enough. But Henry was no barbarian. He was cultured and educated. He read and published books. He surrounded himself with the best and brightest advisors.

Henry was ambitious and resourceful in the ways he used his power. He is most famous for beheading his wives, but the most remarkable aspect of his reign was the audacious, cynical way he established the Church of England.

When “The Tudors” began last year, Henry (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) was basically a happy, childish young man. He liked his buddies, sports, and girls. Henry was married to the boring, pious, older Spaniard Catherine of Aragon, but that certainly didn’t stop him from sleeping with every pretty lady he could get his royal hands on.

The situation got complicated when an ambitious young woman named Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer) stole Henry’s heart and refused to be a common mistress. The Church didn’t allow divorce and Rome steadfastly refused to annul Henry and Catherine’s marriage.

When the pope speaks – it’s case closed, right? Not this time. As season two of “The Tudors” begins, Henry is starting to recognize that a king who is secure in his power can pretty much do whatever he wants within his own realm.

Right now Henry is well on his way to severing ties with Rome and creating the Church of England, with the King himself as the head. This gutsy gambit has the added bonus of moving the vast wealth of the English monasteries into his own coffers.

All of this for the love of a woman who will only be Queen for three years. It’s a remarkable true story and “The Tudors” is telling it well. The series features gorgeous sets, costumes and actors (it’s definitely worth seeing in HD), but it never skimps on dialogue and substance.

Perhaps the most interesting character is Sir Thomas More (Jeremy Northam), another uniquely 16th Century man. On one hand, he was incredibly well educated and brilliant. His novel “Utopia” is still thought-provoking and a good read.

But as Chancellor of England, More did not hesitate to use horrifying medieval methods to punish those who dared to act against his beloved Catholic Church. More is a great tragic figure of history and I am looking forward to watching his inevitable downfall this season.

With its engrossing story and beautiful HD cinematography, “The Tudors” is one of the most consistently entertaining programs on television.

Why I Love Homeland

Why I Love Homeland

If there is suspicion that a person might be a terrorist, are you okay with the government spying on him? Are you okay with the CIA tapping his phone, setting up tiny cameras all over his house, and even hauling him in for forced interrogation?

Before 9/11, I would have said heck no! That sounds like East German secret police tactics. That’s not the way we are supposed to do things here in the land of the free.

Well, after 9/11 I am not sure anymore.

Part of me still sides with the ACLU and wants to protect liberty at all costs.

But now part of me sides with Dick Cheney. I suppose that’s the same part of me that does not like the idea of being on the 100th floor of a burning skyscraper and being compelled to jump out the window because some monster just flew a plane into the building.

“Homeland” is a brave, original, and suspenseful drama series about terrorists who are committed to attacking the United States and the CIA agents who are working tirelessly to stop them.

Most TV shows center around a likable lead character who the audience can relate to. “Homeland” doesn’t.

The star of “Homeland” is Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis): a US Marine who was captured in Iraq and tortured. At some point during his time as prisoner, Brody converted to Islam and befriended Abu-Nazir – the world’s most notorious terrorist mastermind.

When a Drone strike kills Abu-Nazir’s young son, Brody vows to exact bloody revenge.

But revenge is best served cold. Brody returns home an American hero, reunites with his wife and children, and quietly bides his time before Abu-Nazir calls on him to strike.

The only one who recognizes the truth about Brody is CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). Nobody in the CIA shares her suspicions. So Carrie goes it alone, flouts the Constitution, and plants cameras in the Marine’s house so she can obsessively watch him 24/7.

Carrie is literally crazy. When she is tracking down terrorists, she is focused and insightful. When Carrie is off-duty, she’s manic and miserable.

The only thing Carrie enjoys doing is – get this! – hanging out with Brody.

Carrie truly thinks Brody is a terrorist. And she truly is falling in love with him.

And the feeling is mutual. Brody is nearly as messed up as Carrie. His family is falling apart, he has terribly mixed feelings about America, and the stress of being a double agent is eating him alive.

The only thing that brings him peace is hanging out with Carrie.

Carrie is simultaneously saving Brody and destroying him. It’s a unique love story. Completely preposterous, but utterly compelling.

The writers of “Homeland” are so good at crafting addictively suspenseful plot-lines that you hardly notice the controversial observations that they make about politics along the way.

“Homeland” is a true American original. It’s not the best show on TV (that’s still “Mad Men”), but it’s the most entertaining.