Bob Schwartz

Category: Television

Star Trek Koan

kirk-mccoy-scott

Captain Kirk faced a crisis on the Enterprise. He summoned his ship’s doctor and his ship’s engineer. Bones says, “Damn it Jim, I’m a doctor, not an engineer.” Scotty says, “I’m an engineer, Captain, not a doctor.” Who is right?

The Weird Randomness of Life

The Catcher in the Rye

I went to the gym this morning for my regular morning workout. The TV was on, but nobody was there. I saw that the remote control was gone. I climbed on a chair, pushed the power button and turned the TV off.

On further search for the remote, I discovered a handbag on the seat of stationery bike. I didn’t want to pry, but I peeked in to see if the remote had ended up there. Instead, I saw a copy of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

Are people still reading The Catcher in the Rye? They should and apparently they are. It is a great and famous novel. Once upon a time controversial, when it was published in 1951, because Salinger included the word “fuck” multiple times.

After this novel, another novel, and a book of stories, Salinger disappeared, like the remote control. He is considered the most reclusive and mysterious of contemporary fiction writers. W.P. Kinsella included a character based on Salinger in his novel Shoeless Joe, which became a character in the movie version Field of Dreams. The character in the movie is played by James Earl Jones, a big black man with a booming voice. Salinger was a white Jewish man, as far as we can tell regular size and regular voice.

In high school, I wrote a book report on The Catcher in the Rye, one that was supposed to be read aloud. The English teacher was one of those young, hip women, so I thought it would be alright. I was a little concerned about some of the quotes, specifically the ones that included the word “fuck.” In that class was a girl who was a friend, not a girlfriend, who read it before class and urged me to read it just as it was. She was a popular and cool girl, but mostly I wanted to seem cool to her because she was pretty and had really big breasts.

So I read the report out loud. This is one of the passages I read. The confused and questioning adolescent Holden Caulfield says:

I went down by a different staircase, and I saw another “Fuck you” on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn’t come off. It’s hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the “Fuck you” signs in the world. It’s impossible.

I wasn’t particularly confused, but I was punished. Someone in the class took offense and told the principal. I was called down to his office, and despite his liking me a lot and despite my record as a star student, he believed some sort of sanction for my indiscretion was necessary. The sentence was that my entry into the National Honor Society was to be delayed one year.

If I had it to do all over again, I would know that none of this mattered. I read the book, still love it, and maybe my book report led someone else to read it. If I was somebody else, then or now, I might have said something to the principal that was clever and super-meta, such as “Go fuck yourself.” I didn’t and wouldn’t.

On the other hand, if I go down to the gym tomorrow, and still can’t find it, I might say to myself—only to myself and not out loud—“Where’s the fucking remote?”

Saturday Night Political Comedy and Science Fiction

Manchurian Candidate

There were two moments of comedy from Saturday night politics, one spontaneous, one planned. And a weird science fiction scene in between.

Comedy. The chaotic opening of the Republican debate was described by Politico as a “train wreck.” But a really funny train wreck:

As Gov. Chris Christie walked out on stage, moderators David Muir and Martha Raddatz called out Dr. Ben Carson. A camera backstage showed Carson starting to walk out, but he stopped himself once he heard the moderators announce the next candidate, Ted Cruz.

Cruz walked out, and Carson stayed put as a stage manager tried to wave Carson on stage. He didn’t move. Donald Trump then walked up next to Carson as his name was called, but also stopped next to Carson.

Marco Rubio was called up next, walking past both Trump and Carson onto the stage, as did Jeb Bush. John Kasich initially didn’t make it out onto the stage at all.

The moderators thought they were done. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Republican candidates.”

But they weren’t. “Dr. Ben Carson, please come out on the stage. He’s standing there, as well. Dr. Carson.

“And Donald Trump,” they added.

Then Carson chimed in. “I can introduce Kasich?”

“Yes, yes, we’re going to introduce Ohio governor John Kasich,” the moderators said.

All that was missing from the botched introductions was the candidates colliding with each other and falling all over the stage. Keystone Cops style (that’s for you, Mitt Romney). This hilarious mess didn’t quite make the endless hours of blah blah that followed tolerable.

Then there was this bit of absolute weirdness at the debate:

Science fiction. Chris Christie attacked Marco Rubio for giving the same canned speech every time, no matter what the question. Rubio responded by giving the exact same speech he had just given. Later in the debate, Rubio did it again, word for word. And then again.

It was like a sci-fi movie where a robot is running for President and the mission is to push him to the point of meltdown. The only way we did know that Rubio was not a robot is that later on he began to sweat. Aha!

Or maybe it was like The Manchurian Candidate, where Christie would show Rubio the Queen of Diamonds from a deck of cards, and Rubio would walk off stage in a hypnotic trance.

Comedy. Bernie Sanders went on Saturday Night Live with his doppelganger Larry David. SNL concocted a bit in which Larry David was the captain of a Titanic-type ship that was sinking. The captain was trying to jump ahead of the women and children getting into the lifeboats. Bernie appeared on deck as a radical immigrant who had had “Enough! Enough!” of the privileged one-percent pushing ordinary people around. The happy ending is that the ship has hit not an iceberg but the Statue of Liberty. Bernie did a charming and self-effacing job of delivering his lines with comic gusto.

Hanukkah as Game of Thrones

The Hanukkah story of the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty they founded is not for children. The aftermath of the overthrow of the Seleucid overlords is for grown-ups, a history of empire, guerilla wars, massacres, alliances made and betrayed, power marriages, expansionism, hegemony, and subjugation. And of course faith—the right kind, the wrong kind, and none at all.

It is the sort of story that belongs in Game of Thrones. You won’t see that series on HBO. We want simple tales of faith and miracles, for ourselves and especially for the kids. And why not? In troubled times and a troubled world, no one can begrudge any injection of light or miracles we can find or conjure up.

For a summary of this history, see this from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: A Brief History of a Violent Epoch: Judas Maccabeus’ death would mark the end of the Maccabean revolt against the Greeks – and the start of the extremely unstable Hasmonean dynasty.

Here is a chart that outlines the chronology of the Hasmonean Dynasty:

Hasmonean Dynasty

Hanukkah has never been a major Jewish religious holiday, not on a par with Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Passover, and the rest. The events celebrated on Hanukkah do not appear in the Jewish bible. The canon of the Tanakh was closed before the Books of Maccabees could be included. Some of those books, though, can be found in Christian versions of the Old Testament.

Hanukkah was elevated, especially in America, as a seasonal companion to Christmas, for Jews living in decidedly Christian cultures. For a complete treatment of this phenomenon, see the book Hanukkah in America: A History.

The comparison to Christmas does suggest why we don’t have an epic series devoted to the Maccabees and their historical legacy.

The Christmas story has an even bigger and more significant and spectacular sequel. The newly born Jesus grows up to become the foundation of the faith and one of the great teachers in world history. The next part of his mission is told in the story of Easter. Sequels don’t get any bigger, clearer or cleaner than that.

The historical follow-up to the story of the Maccabees is more equivocal. It puts that era in Jewish history in a very real, human, political light that may clash with the simple idealized version of candles and dreidels.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t light the candles, eat the latkes, spin the dreidels, and commemorate the victory of God’s rule over the rule of the less godly. It’s just that sometime during the holiday, we might leave behind childish things and look at the history with eyes open. Not because it takes away from the holiday, but because it adds to it a fuller sense and understanding.

And because for two millennia, the exact same complexity has been unfolding in the exact same place. Not a children’s game. More like Game of Thrones. Only much more real.

Biden and Colbert

Whatever your politics, it was TV history last night on The Late Show. Joe Biden and Stephen Colbert talking, just two great guys leaning in and getting real, while millions watched, and many teared up.

It starts with Colbert. The question has been whether and how he would progress from being a character on The Colbert Report to a different character that is more himself. There was that moment on the final Daily Show when Colbert exposed his most sincere and unironic thanks to Jon Stewart, the man who gave him his chance.

But last night’s Late Show interview skipped all the midpoints of developing a Colbert talk show persona to transcending any idea of what a late-night host might be. Beyond showing himself as a man of faith, Colbert served almost as a therapist and priest. He didn’t stay away from the pain. He compassionately went right for it, not for spectacle, but for the healing truth, and to reveal the depths of Biden’s quandary.

Reflecting their shared history of family tragedy, it was like a reunion of two old souls. On top of that, Colbert wore not only his faith but his politics on his sleeve, something that just isn’t done in his position. It was clear that he was urging Biden to run not because it was a good idea, but because Colbert and the Nation needed him.

It doesn’t take much to get Biden to speak from his soul. Hello will usually do. But Colbert brought out an extra dimension of that. Where certain candidates now running make us cringe, Biden made me and plenty of others cry. Where certain candidates make us want to run the other direction, listening to Joe just made me want to be a better person.

In the moment, it didn’t matter that Colbert was in only the third show of his widely-covered new TV venture. Or that Biden was in the final weeks of the will-he-or-won’t-he candidacy drama. It just was what it was, and what it was was good and human, so humbly and nobly human. Something we don’t see much on TV. Or in politics.

Mad Men: This Is the Way the World Ends

The Real Thing

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot
The Hollow Men

Readers and viewers know whether they like or are satisfied with the way a novel or movie ends. But they may not recognize the burden of creating those endings, not just to short forms, but to sagas and epics, where possibilities are exponential, and where those dutifully following the tale and trail may be looking for those elusive treasures: resolution and meaning.

It is not surprising that the final episode of Mad Men was written and directed by the show’s creator Matthew Weiner. How could it have been otherwise?

Mad Men is a work of literature disguised as a television show. There are a number of hallmarks of literature and art, including the engagement of those who see and hear. But maybe even above that is coherence, holding together as a work, from one corner of the canvas to another, from the first to last note of the symphony.

Mad Men doesn’t fit it into any particular artistic category: impressionistic or expressionistic, realistic or fantastic, Freudian or Jungian. If anything, it delves into magical realism, where ghosts are real and real people are ghosts and anything can happen and make sense.

Or not make sense. The story of Mad Men in essence begins with the death of the original Don Draper in Korea. Over time, others die, couples come together and apart, people have sex, families are raised, business are started and bought and sold, jobs are lost and found, money is made and spent, some are miserable while others are happy, some grow and all just grow older.

All of it makes just enough sense to be a story. None of it makes enough sense to defy reality, gravity, or time. What more could you ask for? Meaning? What more were you expecting? It’s just the real thing.

Ghosts of Mad Men

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, Don Draper has come unstuck in time. Again.

In the first episode of the last half season of Mad Men, Don as always walks among ghosts. Because, of course, he is a ghost himself, literally the embodiment of a dead man.

He may sense that he will be happiest when he is whole and most present, but that difficult state is looking ever less possible. His most complete moments were with Anna Draper, the widow of the dead man whose identity he stole. As she was dying, he painted her house, stripped down to t-shirt and work pants, no costume, no pretense. Just love for and from one of the few people who knew him fully and unconditionally.

Don Draper, the real one, is dead. Dick Whitman, the real one, is dead. Anna Draper is dead. Lane Pryce is dead. Rachel Menken is dead. Others are alive but dead to Don.

The ghosts are coming, as they will for those who unwittingly seek and invite them.

Discovering Rachel’s death, Don visits the apartment where her family is sitting shiva, the Jewish mourning tradition. He brings cake, an appropriate gesture of respect and regard. But he admits that he doesn’t know exactly why he came, especially because Rachel’s sister begrudges him his relationship with Rachel when Don was still married. Don weakly explains that he is no longer married to that wife, and almost unmarried to his second wife. He looks over to Rachel’s husband and children, as the minyan recites Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.

Don is beyond wanting a do-over or indulging in what ifs. He wants the ghosts to help him make sense of the years and of the present, which they can’t or won’t do.

Coming Out: How Cosmetic Surgery Is Like Being Gay

South Park - Tom Cruise

In case you haven’t noticed, the noise surrounding Renee Zellweger’s about face sounds just like the conversations we have about celebrities being gay: did she or didn’t she, is he or isn’t he?

There are three kinds of cosmetic surgery: the public kind that can be explained as the result of exercise and nutrition (body shaping and toning), the public kind that is hard to explain that way (obviously enhanced breasts), and the private kind that is (sort of) meant to be private (vagina rejuvenation, penis enhancement).

Questions about the public kinds can be met with a variety of replies, all of them valid:

Yes.
No.
No comment.
It’s none of your business.

This remarkably parallels the situation of those who are “suspected” of being gay. Sometimes it is made public, sometimes it is kept private, sometimes it is treated matter-of-factly: it is what it is, it’s my life, take it or leave it, so what?

Admitting to plastic surgery is in many contexts (including and especially entertainment) as delicate as admitting to being gay—even if the fact is relatively obvious. One of the many reasons the late Joan Rivers was so beloved, why what was obnoxious in others was endearing in her, is that the fact of her many plastic surgeries was a prime subject of her own bits. As with other topics, she just gave you the finger, laughed, and had you laughing too.

In the scheme of all but the tiniest matters, Renee Zellweger’s face is inconsequential. But as with all the tongue wagging about the sexual preferences of some celebrity, it exposes unanswered and mostly unspoken questions about how people feel about certain things. Many people still don’t know exactly what they think about major or minor voluntary body mod, any more than they may have totally resolved their deepest puzzlement about homosexuality, no matter how genuinely progressive and tolerant they are.

For better or worse, we are actually seeing a bit of that in the Renee Zellweger situation: along with an avalanche of typically mindless chatter, there has been some useful discussion about the nature of celebrity, privacy, aging, feminism, and health. It is unfortunate that this has to fall on a single individual’s shoulders, with so much collateral and gratuitous hurt. But if we are careful, we might just learn something, mostly about ourselves. How rare and valuable an opportunity is that?

Illustration: The obvious illustration for this post would be yet another photo of Renee Zellweger, which neither the world nor she need. Instead, above is a frame from South Park, the 2005 episode called Trapped in the Closet. It is widely considered the show’s most controversial episode, which is saying something. In it, the fearless and brilliant and culturally incorrect Parker and Stone managed to skewer (eviscerate?) both Scientology and the rumored homosexuality of Hollywood stars. In this scene, Tom Cruise won’t come out of the closet (where he will ultimately be joined by John Travolta). Nicole Kidman, his then-wife, is trying to talk him out. As I said, culturally incorrect, and probably intolerant and spiteful in light of all that’s written above. But it is funny, and not surprisingly, it is the equally fearless and funny Joan Rivers who also took on the very same subject. Laughing and thinking. What a combo.

The iBrain and gBrain Devices

My Favorite Martian

With the release of the iWatch, both Apple and Google realize a challenge they face. There has been a bit of pushback to Google Glass, and there will no doubt be a similar issue for the iWatch. Even the most avant garde people may have second thoughts about just how cool they don’t look wearing and using those devices.

Which is why Apple and Google are working on devices that are innovatively powerful but completely inconspicuous. These are brain implants that will function as smartphones—and more. Working names for these devices might be iBrain and gBrain. No one will know you are wearing them. No more pulling your smartphone out of your pocket, or putting on a pair of glasses, or bringing your wrist up to your face.

Ironically, the problem that Apple and Google have is precisely that: nobody will know you are using it. That is, there is no badge. Which is why, on a parallel track, marketers are working on an actual badge that tells the world that you are wearing an iBrain or gBrain. Another thought that marketers have is to encourage jewelry or tattoos that bring attention to the implant site. One product manager has even suggested a non-working antenna that could attach to the implant, giving the user the look of an old-fashioned Martian. Futuristic glasses and watches might not be cool, but that sure would be.

We Need a Doctor: Who Hasn’t Seen Jennifer Lawrence’s Breasts or Why We Need Social Therapy

Bohemian Paris of Today

One of the biggest stories of the weekend was the posting of nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebs, apparently stolen from their cloud storage accounts. The search activity for these photos almost brought the Internet down.

So in the immediate aftermath, with more to be revealed, what might we learn, besides how these beautiful strangers look without their clothes?

We are no closer than ever to figuring out what we think about privacy, or even what privacy means, especially now.

Digital didn’t create the issue, just heightened it exponentially. Inquiring minds have always wanted to know, and see. Celebrities, some though not all, have used degrees of exposure for publicity—or in some cases to put curious fans off the trail of the truth. Now we have an entire industry of programs about the “real” lives of unknowns, used-to-be-knowns, just-a-little-knowns, and soon-to-be-knowns because they are on a reality show.

Then there is the willingness of many people to chronicle everything. Twitter long ago dropped its signature question, but the most important phrase of the century so far may be “What are you doing?”, which was supposed to be answered in 100 characters or less. It turns out that people are more than willing to talk about what they are doing, what they are thinking, how they are looking, and anything else.

This doesn’t mean people don’t deserve privacy, morally and legally. It’s that line-drawing is now so hard for so many, and that goes along with a certain amount of confusion or even hypocrisy. The same people who searched for these photos or others like it in the past would be fuming if anyone stole their private shots and published them. They might try to rationalize the distinction, but it would be pretty feeble. Yet, not to forgive their double-standard, it is not surprising under the circumstances.

When we are confused about anything, and have difficulty drawing a line, sex makes it worse, clouding our judgment and our actions. Private parts are signifiers of sex, and if the private parts of loved ones or of strangers are arousing, the private parts of the quasi-strangers who are celebrities are positively crazy-making. So it is understandable, if not acceptable. People are only human, or so we say. But that doesn’t mean a little help and discussion—about privacy, about the cloud, about celebrity—might not be valuable. Maybe a little social therapy is in order.

We need a doctor, call us a doctor
We need a doctor, doctor to bring us back to life

(apologies to Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Skylar Gray)