Ok, fine, get excited for Star Wars

“You know,” I told friends up until a few weeks ago, “this new Star Wars movie is probably going to suck.”

Here was my reasoning: viewed outside the lens of nostalgia, many of the Star Wars movies aren’t particularly great. The entire franchise rests on the excellence of The Empire Strikes BackStar Wars itself captures the imagination, but one wonders if it would have held up as a stand-alone movie. Return of the Jedi ties everything up nicely – but has its weak moments, too. Obviously, the prequels left a horrible taste in everyone’s mouth.

Since the franchise is really built on one excellent movie and a handful of flicks that hold up better in your memory than on screen, I figured a new, Disneyfied Star Wars movie would prove to be a shallow, thinly-plotted, poorly-acted money grab – just like the prequels.

Then the trailers started coming out. And three big reasons to get excited became clear:

  1. J.J. Abrams. There’s been plenty of excitement about the focus on practical effects over the CGI that made the prequel trilogy look like cartoons. The real value of Abrams, though, comes through in his work directing Super 8. If you’re a fan of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you’ll appreciate the way Super 8 uses light and sound to create a mood. Abrams understood what made those older movies special and adapted those elements in a modern film. He mixed a fan’s appreciation with a filmmaker’s expertise. That’s something George Lucas couldn’t do with the prequels; the storyteller can never see his or her own tale through the same lens as the audience.
  2. It looks like a good, new story. The first trailers banked on  familiar imagery – a downed Star Destroyer, lightsabers, Han and Chewie returning home. But look at this one, and seems clear there’s an well-thought-out story that intertwines the fates of several new characters. While the prequels were attempting to tell more of a story wehad already heard, this is uncharted territory.
  3. Prequels are, by nature, a disappointment. The problem with prequels is that, if a story is sufficiently interesting and addictive, fans will write their own prequels in their heads. Everyone who watched Star Wars had an idea of what Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker’s friendship must have been like, how the Old Republic fell, how the Empire rose. The mystery allowed each person to have their own image in their mind. Even if they had been good, the prequels couldn’t match the mythology each Star Wars fan had built in their own minds. (By the way, remember this in a few years when the Hunger Games folks cash in on a prequel showing how Panem was started.)

Early returns are good, so maybe there’s a new hope after all.

September 12

It has been 14 years since the September 11 terrorist attacks. It’s the day each year when Americans share the answer to a very simple, basic question: “Where were you?” The question begs no further clarification needed, at least not today. Those who were alive and cognizant at the time remember just where they were.

For all the sadness, heartbreak, ugliness, and terror of September 11, something amazing happened on September 12. It’s a bit tough to talk about because of the gravity and the horror of the attacks themselves. It manifested itself in different ways, not all of them good. There was patriotism, and love of country. There was a resolve to fight the forces behind the attacks.

But in the days after September 11, we had more than blind patriotism. We had community. We had each other.

It’s easy now to write that off as a fad of the time, to point to the catchy post-9/11 country ballads, the now-onerous airport security, and most of all the unpopular wars that sprang from the attacks. Listening to today’s political rhetoric makes it easy to forget the unity America felt.

You can see the continuation of that each year on Facebook, when people share tributes to their lost friends and loved ones or simply relive the emotions and experiences of the day.

But as we remember the grief each year, so too should we remember that feeling of togetherness that outweighed our disagreements back then – because there’s nothing more singularly American, nor more human, than getting up after falling down.

We should remember that when we hear Lee Greenwood sing “God Bless the U.S.A.,” the very first thing he sings about – the very first thing! – is getting knocked down and getting back up.

We should remember that our national anthem isn’t a song about purple mountains and fruited plains. No, our national anthem is adapted from a poem about taking a bombardment from the dominant military power in the world at the time – and standing strong. (And we used one of their old drinking songs for the tune. Cheers, mates.)

And you know what happens when you sing the national anthem publicly, and get nervous, and mess it up? This:

We should remember that no matter how loosely stitched our seems appear, the thread that holds us together is strong. That no matter how horrible and scary a day September 11, on September 12 we were family.

We should remember all that – and never forget.

Harry Shearer and the future of Springfield

It looks like “The Simpsons” is parting ways with one of six main cast members, Harry Shearer. The prolific Shearer voices several characters, including Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and both Messrs. Burns and Smithers.

Since the show relies so heavily on a small cast – most of the main characters have come from one of eight voice actors – that a departure, or firing, or someone getting hit by a bus was inevitable. Given how outspoken he has been, it’s not surprising it’s Shearer – who also clashed with both Lorne Michaels and Dick Ebersol during separate tenures at Saturday Night Live.

From an operational perspective, the producers should be able to replace him in the near term. The characters Shearer has helped create have become so recognized and ingrained in the culture that just about any mid-sized city has someone who can do a spot-on Mr. Burns impersonation, or a dead-ringer Ned Flanders. If the audiences start to leave, it shouldn’t be due to voices sounding different.

In fact, forcing the writers to downplay Shearer’s former characters might remove  some of the crutches that recent writing generations have leaned on. Could the current batch of writers bring new characters that freshen up the series?

Think about the side characters that have made “The Simpson’s” so great (many voiced by Shearer. Many are cultural relics. Flanders is a wacky neighbor, pulled straight out of the old-time family sitcoms “The Simpsons” was created to satirize. Burns runs the biggest company in town, but the big bad boss just isn’t as threatening in an era where workers change jobs as frequently. Kent Brockman is the smug evening news anchor on an over-the-air local network affiliate; Krusty the Clown hosts an afternoon kids’ TV show. In a modern Springfield, neither of these types of people would exist. Brockman would be younger and pushing to latch on with a station in Capital City. Krusty’s time slot would be filled with Steve Harvey while kids watched their cartoons on the Disney Channel.

(Bumblebee Man? He might still be ok.)

At a quarter-century, “The Simpsons” has over-stayed its welcome as groundbreaking TV and evolved into Sunday-night background noise.  Future media critics may point to Shearer’s departure as the catalyst for the beginning of the end. But if the current crop of writers are up to the challenge, it could be a new beginning.

Nostalgia takes 20 years

ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat isn’t what I would call appointment television, but it’s kind of interesting because of when it’s set: the mid-1990’s. The sitcom is set in the past and told through modern-day narration (like The Wonder Years and The Goldbergs); and following an Asian-American family that had just moved to Orlando.

“Wait – the mid-1990’s? For a nostalgia sitcom? Surely,the world has gone mad.”

I thought the same thing too when I first tuned in. But then I thought some more and it actually makes perfect sense.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Happy Days took us back to the 1950s and 1960s. The Wonder Years aired from 1988-1993, with the events of the show happening exactly 20 years prior. The early 1990s years of The Simpsons evoked images of the 1970s such as Homer and Marge’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” Prom (you can make your point about Artie Ziff in the comments, Comic Book Guy). That 70s Show premiered later in the decade. In the 2000s, Family Guy’s 1980s cutaway references ranged from The Transformers to  The Facts of Life.

It looks like the rule is that nostalgia is fondly remembering the past, so long as the past was at least 20 years ago.

Happy Non-Commercial Holiday

Easter isn’t Christmas. The Easter Bunny will never match Santa Claus’s marketing clout, and despite aisles of candy in Target and Wal-Mart, there’s no Easter Shopping Season. For that matter, even holidays whose roots are in religion – Halloween and Thanksgiving come to mind – have evolved to be more secular and have more cultural awareness than Easter.

There are no classic Easter TV specials on the level of “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.” It’s hard to place The Ten Commandments and The Passion of the Christ in the same “seasonal movie” category as Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

It seems odd that a culture that does all it can to commercialize and secularize holidays has largely left Easter untouched.

Perhaps this is because the Easter season is much more profound than the others. Christmas celebrates a birthday, and there’s no downside to that. It’s easy enough to turn Christmas into a party. But to celebrate the resurrection, one necessarily has to acknowledge that a death precedes it. No amount of painted eggs or chocolate-distributing bunnies can gloss over that. There are also very clearly “bad guys” in the story of Easter. That makes for a better, more interesting narrative, but it doesn’t help market the day.

And maybe Easter is still religious because the celebrants would rather have it that way. Attempts to overly commercialize Eater may simply meet with deaf ears from those who want to spend quiet time with family reflecting on what has been given up on their behalf.

If you’re a Christian, Happy Easter. (If not, I hope the day I call Easter is still happy for you and you enjoy the half price candy on Monday. I know I will.)

Leon Wolf is right: Benghazi has been over for months.

This week, RedState’s Leon Wolf opined that Benghazi investigations had run their course. He’s right – regardless of how important the scandal is or isn’t, it simply hasn’t stuck to Hillary Clinton.

What’s more, this should have been obvious a month and a half ago, when we were all getting ready for the Super Bowl. Remember the dust-up over whether the Patriots improperly deflated footballs?

All scandals need a name, and most called this one “Deflategate.” But some called it “Ballghazi.” Anecdotally, I heard that version most from New Englanders, who complained that the whole thing was a non-story.  The Washington Post noticed:

This could, of course, be a semantic weakness of “-ghazi” as an scandal label — it suggests a would-be scandal, not an actual one… In that sense, said [Dartmouth Professor Brendan] Nyhan, “-ghazi” functions in the same way as “-gate” — ironically, as a way to mock high-profile controversies as manufactured pseudo-scandals.

It was obvious early on that the -ghazi suffix had the same potential as the -gate suffix, but it hasn’t come to pass. Patriots’ likely cheating exposed that there isn’t a consensus that Benghazi is a legitimate scandal – or at least, what exactly the scandal is. There are apparently other albatrosses to hang around Hillary Clinton’s neck (or so I read), but this isn’t one of them.

Gov. Jindal likes Jesus. So what?

Reason – which I usually like – is upset with 2016 GOP hopeful Bobby Jindal for urging people “to turn back to God.” Jindal is quoted saying, “America’s in desperate need of a spiritual revival… We have tried everything and now it is time to turn back to God.”

As a libertarian, Reason’s Nick Gillespie reasons that Jindal’s perceived preaching is distracting from the real demons which vex our lovely nation:

No, it’s not time to “turn back to God,” especially when it comes to politics and public policy. What ails the government is not a surplus of religiosity but a nearly complete failure to deal with practical issues of spending versus revenue, creating a simple and fair tax system, reforming entitlements, and getting real about the limits of America’s ability to control every corner of the globe. God has nothing to do with any of that.

First, that Jindal was speaking to a group of religious leaders makes the Governor’s comments slightly more relevant. Jindal was not making his case to a broad audience, but trying to incite action among people who care deeply about their faith and who lead others who care deeply about their faith. For an audience like this, Jindal has to make the discussion religious; why else should these people care about politics?

More importantly, it’s worth taking a look at what roles religious institutions can play in society. Congregations socialize people. They coordinate an economic and emotional safety net which society has deemed necessary. In the absence of religious participation, where have those duties rested? It’s been the government, which was enacted less effective social welfare programs – entitlements funded directly or indirectly by a combination of complex taxes and reckless deficits.

These are the exact problems which Gillespie puts front and center, minus foreign policy. Perhaps he is correct that “God has nothing to do with any of that,” but overlooking religious participation as a part of the solution misses the point. One of the really good things that came out of the more recent Bush administration was the concept of faith-based solutions to social problems. If you have a strong group of people who want to help cure social ills, and the government doesn’t have to spend tax dollars on it, why would you try to quench that desire?

Gillespie is correct that Jindal – or any Republican – does need to be mindful of the way they talk about such things. Political rallies cannot sound like a revival meeting, and the American people – religious or not – generally don’t like being preached at outside of church (and sometimes not even inside). Yet churchgoing voters are out there, their views are important and, ultimately, that their altruistic tendencies can create alternatives to lessen the strain on the social safety net.

The “digital age” made me do it

The New York Times ran an interesting story this weekend under the headline, “Lines on Plagiarism Blur for Students in the Digital Age.”   The gist is that that the prevalence of content on the internet has actually devalued the concept of original work – and given a generation of schoolgoers the impression that ideas can be plucked out of the air and included in their term papers:

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

The article cites students who copy whole passages from Wikipedia or unabashedly swipe from articles without attribution or citation.

Blaming the internet for changing behavior is one thing, but it doesn’t change human nature.

The concept of cheating a plagiarizing has been around since one cavekid copied another cavekid’s cave wall drawings to get a better cave-grade.  (You can bet your saber-tooth tiger pelt that Thag would have based his drawing on cave-Wikipedia if such a thing had existed.)  To see an even clearer example, look at music piracy: recording mixes on cassettes and sharing songs with friends was a common practice, file sharing services just made it easier and digital.

Take the computers and internet connections away from every dorm room and class room, and some students will still cheat.  So, you can look at the advent of the so-called digital age in two ways.  Sure, it’s easier than ever for some students to take the easy way out and try to get by without putting in the work.

On the other hand, has it ever been easier to catch them doing it?

South Park at 201 (and counting)

South Park got everyone talking last week, but not for the right reasons.

Now thirteen years old, the show celebrated its 200th episode a few weeks ago.  This milestone should have received some more attention than it did: aside from basic longevity, South Park was and is the signature show that put Comedy Central on the cable map.

More significant than that, though, is the unique social commentary South Park offers up from a center-right perspective – and the fact that no other show does that as well.

One episode called out hybrid enthusiasts as presumptuous yuppies who enjoy the smell of their own farts.  Two episodes made the point (using thinly veiled surrogates for Starbucks and Wal-Mart) that big businesses are big because people want their products, not because of some evil corporate trick. A sixth season episode managed to mock lawsuit abuse, political correctness, and draw a line between tolerance and acceptance.  A two-part episode glimpsed into a future without religion and found devout atheists arguing over whose scientific logic was superior.

South Park has been a turn-of-the-20th-century incarnation of an Ayn Rand novel – telling a compelling story while making important and uncommon cultural points.  In fact, a 2005 book about the rise of media-savvy conservative activists was titled South Park Conservatives.

But calling South Park a political show is a misnomer.  Other efforts to become conservative or libertarian alternatives to left-leaning television shows, movies, or other media outlets have failed because those outlets put politics before content; South Park is a funny show that happens to be made by people with a libertarian-oriented worldview.  It would be hilarious either way; the leanings of creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone just make it different.

If you want to learn more about smaller government and individual freedom, Hayek and Bastiat are better philosophers than Parker and Stone.  But it you want entertainment that comes from a different perspective than most of the stuff out there – and that is, despite some shock value jokes and toilet humor, pretty smart – go on down to South Park and have yourself a time.


The official logo of Conan O’Brien’s upcoming Legally Prohibited from Being Funny On Television tour is based on the now-familiar illustration of a stoic O’Brien standing against the American flag, gray but for the bold orange pompadour rising from his head like a mighty wave rising from the ocean.  It may be the icon of Team CoCo, but it didn’t come from Team CoCo: the graphic was created by Mike Mitchell, an enthusiastic artist who had nothing to do with O’Brien other than being an avid fan with an idea and some spare time.

Largely on the back of the massive outpouring of support he enjoyed in the final weeks of his Tonight Show run, O’Brien stands to make a lot of money wherever he lands this fall.  O’Brien will be rewarded for embracing that organic excitement.  It’s similar to the smart moves made by the 2008 Obama Campaign, which enjoyed the creation of a similar iconic image created by Shepherd Fairey – an enthusiastic artist who had nothing to do with the campaign, but had an idea and some spare time.

A technical term for this is “advocate-generated content.”  Even that mouthful is easier said than done.  You can’t force people to identify with a cause, let alone feel so strongly about it that they are willing to make art.  Both Team CoCo and Obama 2008 benefited from a simple, direct, and resonant message.  The fancy artwork was just a symptom.