A politically incorrect moment with Apu

The Simpsons invited controversy last week by responding to criticisms about their Apu character and racial stereotyping. The accusations are both accurate and 30 years late. As The Simpsons has progressed, Apu’s character has, as well; He isn’t the common stereotype he was in his first appearance in February 1990.

My favorite Apu moment is the final question on his citizenship test:

That scene seems like something television couldn’t get away with today – not because of Apu, but because so many are so willing to put the same effort into historical literacy and nuance as the test taker.

Modern media doesn’t have a lot of room for nuance, which is one reason I argue The Simpsons’ producers will have trouble resolving their Apu problem.

Heroes versus role models

This week, Louis C.K. confessed and verified accusations of his inappropriate behavior from female comics and colleagues. This controversy shares its news cycle with sexual misconduct accusations against Roy Moore, a candidate for the United States Senate who was the darling of a certain strain of religious conservatives.

The chain of accusations continues to grow. It looks like Kevin Spacey, a great actor, has acted less-than-great as a human being. Harvey Weinstein, a champion of offbeat films, proved all too adherent to one of Hollywood’s longest-standing clichés. Bill Cosby, America’s Dad in the 1980s, is now America’s creepy old man who allegedly drugged and took advantage of women.

If you count yourself as a fan of C.K., or Moore, or any of the many figures having their very serious flaws exposed, you’re excused for feeling let down. Really, who can you root for anymore? It seems like any time you put your faith in someone, you’re setting yourself up to be let down.

Oddly enough, it reminds me of a chapter on role models in one of my favorite books, Success Is a Choice – written, appropriately enough, by Rick Pitino.

Pitino, one of the most successful college basketball coaches of the past 30 years, is currently on unpaid vacation thanks to his association with an alleged recruiting scheme currently under FBI investigation. It’s not the first – or even the worst – scandal during his time at Louisville. In many aspects, Pitino has become an abject disgrace.

Pitino, perhaps presciently, defined the term role model narrowly:

Role models are not necessarily people you admire or people you are fans of. … Role models are people you can emulate, people you can learn things from. And you’ll find them everywhere, from the person sitting next to you at work to someone in your family. A role model is anyone who has anything to teach you on your journey to success.

Growing up, many of us have heroes – parents, grandparents, teachers – who can do no wrong in our eyes. As we get older, we may admit actors, musicians, or athletes into our pantheon of heroes based on what we can observe of them – how they come off on screen, or how far they hit a baseball.

The definition Pitino used for Success Is a Choice, gives role models a much narrower influence. You might read stories about how Derek Jeter showed up to spring training weeks early to put more prep work into his upcoming season; that doesn’t mean you have to hold on to grudges as Jeter famously did during his playing career.

Or, you can use Pitino’s book as a blueprint for success, while still recognizing his ugly failures to follow his own plan.

Role models are useful, but you can’t extrapolate an entire personal profile from a favorable characteristic or two. This distinction becomes more important with each scandal showing that those with prominence and power don’t always behave well.



Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas?” is the worst kind of bad song

Christmas music doesn’t have to be good to be enjoyable. It’s fun to hear the mixed bag of it all. Pointless, upbeat ditties like “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” share the radio dial with the reverent “O Holy Night” and the wistful “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”

Which brings us to the song I’m picking on: Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas?” It’s a swing-and-a-miss of a Christmas song.

You’ve heard the song – in fact, you’ve probably heard it a few times just this year. It was, of course, the signature song for Ron Howard’s 2000 adaptation of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

The tune isn’t bad. The lyrics ruin what could be a great song.

The first stanza:

Where are you Christmas?
Why can’t I find you?
Why have you gone away?
Where is the laughter
You used to bring me?
Why can’t I hear music play?

Hill goes on to sing about how time has changed her as a person, and wonders if Christmas will ever bring the same enjoyment she enjoyed in her youth.

So far, so good. There could be a very resonant story in here. Hill is singing about something many people go through. As we grow up, Christmas means different things to us. It’s not a bad setup, and has the potential to be a very relevant and affirming song.

After two stanzas of that, we hear this bridge:

Christmas is here
Everywhere, oh
Christmas is here
If you care, oh

If there is love in your heart and your mind
You will feel like Christmas all the time

Okay, I guess? Surely there must be more to this journey. But no, there’s just the last stanza.

Oh, I feel you Christmas
I know I’ve found you
You never fade away…

And that’s pretty much it. To paraphrase the song’s main narrative points:

  • I don’t feel the Christmas spirit this year.
  • It’s Christmas.
  • Okay, I feel the Christmas spirit this year.

This is a Lucy Van Pelt level of holiday psychiatry.

It works a little bit better viewed a companion piece to the Grinch movie, in which the Whos down in Whoville are wrapped up in the material trappings of Christmas at the expense of the Christmas spirit.

Still, this touches a nerve. It could be a really good and unique song. Many people have a soft spot for the Christmasses they celebrated as a kid, when the magic just seemed to happen all around them. Growing to adulthood (which is to say Christmas, as in Yule…) brings the assorted stress points of the holiday season. (Sidebar: This topic was covered in another carol, “The 12 Pains of Christmas.”)

The payoff for being an adult at Christmas is getting to be the magician who makes the Christmas season wonderful for others. Being a musical soliloquy, the song doesn’t tackle that. At the beginning and end of the song , Hill sings about feelings the audience can identify with, but she skips the viable transition.

There’s a story in there, one that audiences would hear and identify with. The songwriters should have had Hill sing about watching her kids at Christmas, or about bringing joy to others. They could have created something with depth that spoke to contemporary audiences. The potential was there to create a true modern classic in the tradition of The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” or Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Auld Lang Syne.

Instead, they skipped the depth and crapped out a shallow, schmaltzy song to promote a mediocre movie. Like a half-assed Christmas gift, it leaves you wishing they just wouldn’t have bothered in the first place.




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.)

Fearless Forecast: American Sniper will NOT win for Best Picture

If you’re laying down money on the Oscars… well, you might have a problem. But since we’re this far, my gambling advice would be to take the field against American Sniper. (Just remember: gambling advice is easy when it’s someone else’s money.)

We’d like to believe that the Academy Awards are only about excellence, but that’s a ridiculous expectation. There’s a vote on each award, which means a human element that’s susceptible to the winds of Zeitgeist. (Sidebar: Winds of Zeitgeist sounds like it should be a dime-store novel.) That’s why Michael Moore’s non-criticism criticism of American Sniper back in January damaged the movie’s chances. By injecting his opinions, the once-relevant documentarian Moore predictably drew a response. Conservatives praised the movie loudly while bashing Hollywood liberals.

The result was plenty of chatter about leftist Michael Moore and troop-supporting conservatives – but little about the film’s portrayal of war and the effects of military service on families back on the home front. Given the fact that Chris Kyle’s real-life alleged murderer is on trial right now, the film could have been recognized for making an important statement about post traumatic stress disorder. Instead, Newsmax is banging the drum for a Best Picture Oscar.

If liberals really do control Hollywood, would those who are Academy voters want to cast a vote for a movie that would validate the red-meat conservatives who have so vocally opposed Moore for nearly two months? If you’re looking at two or three movies and wondering who gets your nod, does the idea of controversy steer you away from Sniper?

Michael Moore clearly didn’t hurt the film at the box office, but the controversy over his comments made it tougher for American Sniper to pull off a win on Sunday night.

In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t see American Sniper, so these arguments aren’t on the merits of the films. (One of the joys of parenthood is that you can critically review every film you go see with, “While the storyline was somewhat derivative of earlier works, but sweet mother of jellybeans it was nice to get out of the house for two hours.”)  Maybe the other movies are actually better; maybe they aren’t. But clearly, thanks to the backlash against Moore, Sniper has a brand beyond being among the five-to-ten best movies of 2014.

Interesting Reading: The Ballot Box Office

This is a two-month-old article that’s worth the read: Sean B. Hood, one of the screenwriters for last summer’s Conan the Barbarian, talks pretty candidly about what it’s like to watch a movie you’ve worked on flop at the box office.  Specifically, Hood compares it to working on a political race:

The Friday night of the release is like the Tuesday night of an election. “Exit polls”are taken of people leaving the theater, and estimated box office numbers start leaking out in the afternoon, like early ballot returns. You are glued to your computer, clicking wildly over websites, chatting nonstop with peers, and calling anyone and everyone to find out what they’ve heard. Have any numbers come back yet? That’s when your stomach starts to drop.

Check out the full post here.

Our Violent National Anthem

No one who has spent much time reading about America’s college campuses (campi?) will be surprised to learn that an institution has banned the singing or playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” before sporting contests.

Who was behind it? The anti-American crowd?  The Marxists?   The hippies?  The greens?  Cornel West?

Try the Mennonites:  Goshen College in Indiana, the school which banned the tune, is a Mennonite school with the motto “Healing the World, Peace by Peace.”  The rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air are too violent.

The anthem is being replaced at Goshen sporting events by “America the Beautiful,” so we can assume this isn’t really a commentary on the nation we all call home being a haven for imperialist capitalist pigs.  Part of what makes America beautiful is that each person has the right to express their patriotism as they see fit.  If the students and administrators at Goshen don’t want to play the national anthem before their Division 8 field hockey games, that’s fine.  Those of us who have never donated to or attended Goshen have no right to tell them otherwise.

On the other hand, as an educational institution, so one would hope Goshen’s choice is educated.  And the idea that the anthem is a violent song is a bit misguided.

Of course, the “Star-Spangled Banner” does use military imagery, because it was famously written during the War of 1812 as a poem by Francis Scott Key – specifically, during the bombardment of Baltimore.  That was a fight that was brought to American shores by then-mortal foe England; we were on defense for that one.

Though set during a battle scene, the theme of the poem – especially the part used for the national anthem – is perseverance through difficulty.  Turbulence and war may come, Key writes (much more eloquently), but American ideals of freedom and peace endure.

Delve a little further into the story behind the poem, and it becomes even more apparent that it is hardly a call to arms.  Remember that Key saw the flag over Fort McHenry from a British ship; he was aboard on a peaceful mission to argue for the release of a popular Maryland doctor.  To make his case, Key presented letters from British soldiers lauding the care they received from American doctors (and this was before the current mess that passes for a British health care system).  The British acquiesced, but held Key and the doctor on the prison ship because the bombing of Baltimore was about to begin; they didn’t want to release a prisoner only to blow them up minutes later.  In the midst of war, both Key and the British officers demonstrated some level of civility and mutual respect.

The fact most worth noting is that the folks America was fighting in the background of Key’s poem, the British, are our closest allies today.  Despite fighting two wars within  30 years, Americans and Britons are fast friends.  (Heck, we can’t even launch a television show without swiping the concept from them, and they have, what, four channels?)

So in an educated historical context, the “Star Spangled Banner” is a song about perseverance through adversity and, after your business on the battlefield is over, making peace with your enemies.

Hey, that sounds like a pretty good song to play before an amateur sporting contest.

Cross-posted at PunditLeague.us.

3 Rules for Message-Driven Media

Unsurprisingly, my prediction that Atlas Shrugged would suck proved to be true.

Scathing review notwithstanding, the filmmakers deserve plaudits for the ambitious attempt.  The movie might have been a swing-and-miss, but you have to hand it to John Aglialaro, who ponied up the cash to get the picture made, and the team who put the thing together quickly.

The truth is that Atlas Shrugged falls into the trap so many attempts at “conservative entertainment” fall into.  It is reminiscent of 2004-2005, when several documentarians from the center-right grabbed a camera to answer left-wing movies like Supersize Me and Farenheit 9/11. Just about anyone who put something mildly amusing on videotape was labeled “the conservative Michael Moore.”  In the years since, others have followed in various media.  Fox News Channel’s “1/2 Hour News Hour” was supposed to be the conservative answer to the Daily Show.  Websites spoofing the news as a conservative answer to the Onion spring up every now and then.

Being “the conservative version of [INSERT ANYTHING HERE]” is pretty much an epitaph, defining a project by its political views rather than its quality.  And unfortunately, that’s what happened to Atlas Shrugged.

This is, however, a teachable moment for those on the center-right who want to entertain people with a good message.


1.  Be entertaining first.

A major problem with Atlas Shrugged (the movie) was that its commitment to libertarian philosophy led to an unhealthy reliance on the book.  Plot points and even dialog were almost directly lifted from Ayn Rand’s text.  The result was muddled, outdated, and difficult to follow with characters and characterizations that were difficult for audiences to identify with.   With a plot that’s hard to follow and characters who are difficult to warm up to, philosophy becomes the most recognizable element of the film.


2.  Give the people someone to identify with. 

Speaking of characters, another common mistake of politically tainted entertainment is the lack of attention paid to character development.

Not to continue picking on Atlas Shrugged, but business moguls do not fall into the “warm fuzz” category.  That problem isn’t as pronounced in the book, which gives fuller portraits of the characters and allows the readers a peek into their thoughts.  In the movie, the titans of industry are simply business executives who happen to be in the story.  With the financial problems of 2007-2009 still close in the rear view mirror, that does not make for especially sympathetic characters. (Sure, there are many reasons it’s easier to create compelling characters in a book – dialog doesn’t have to be quite as sharp, and the body language of the actors isn’t as important.  But if you take on the task of producing visual media, accounting for that goes with the territory.)

More to the point, though, is the fact that the most memorable stories work on emotion, and having identifiable characters allows the audience to share in that emotion.  Star Wars is still celebrated because a generation of kids grew up pretending to be Luke Skywalker (and occasionally fighting with their brothers over who got to be Luke Skywalker even though, you know, you’d think the oldest would get first pick).  Everyone thinks of themselves, at times, as the orphan living under the stairs, so we all share in Harry Potter’s elevation from forgotten one to chosen one.  We all wish we could spend the day bowling and drinking like Jeffrey Lebowski (or like Luke Skywalker in Episode VIII: Man, It Sure Is Boring Without the Empire).


3.  Have respect for your audience.

The show goes on because of the folks in the seats.  Politically-motivated entertainers who use the stage as a pulpit to advance messages that are important to them may do so at the expense of what’s important to the audience.

That isn’t a problem for those tuning into overtly political entertainment, where strong views are expected – for instance, dialing up Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann.  The people tuning into those types of shows are doing so because they want to hear the entertainer’s views.  But the audiences in most movie theaters (regardless of the individual audience members’ personal philosophies) are going for something completely different.  Ditto for the family that sits down to watch a sitcom together.  (Do people even actually do that anymore?)

In that respect, there’s a sort of arrogance and rudeness in coming to the stage to push a message; it prioritizes the entertainer’s goals over the audience’s.  Unless you’re Don Rickles, nothing turns off a crowd faster than disrespect.  A little subtlety goes a long way.