Category Archives: Television Shows

Tin-pot Dictator

 

We all know that Donald Trump has consistently acted like a ‘wanna be’ tin-pot dictator and no one was surprised. He frequently made it clear that he admires authoritarians such Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and Kim Jong-un of North Korea, among others. Trump likes dictators. Democratic leaders not so much. He has tried to twist the arms of Ukrainian political leaders to dig up dirt on his political rival (at the time) Joe Biden. He has used the Department of Justice as his personal law firm against all protocols, and has done much else to make it clear to most that he is an authoritarian at heart.

 

More recently Trump has painted himself as a “law and order president” read to urge on the police to smash all resistance and get tough will all protesters that he characterized as supporters of “toe-tally-terry-tism” as he called them while encouraging authorities to treat them harshly. Trump called rebels opposed to him “domestic terrorists” while asking his racist thug supporters to “stand back and stand by.”

Trump frequently characterized the members of the press that are a bulwark against tyranny as “enemies of the state.” As Allan Levine a University of Winnipeg Political Scientist said,

“Moreover, like a classic dictator, he and his attorney general William Barr, who sees almost no limits on executive power, have manipulated the justice department to do Trump’s bidding. On the pretext of defending federal property, Trump, in a transparent ploy to boost his faltering re-election campaign, has dispatched — without being asked to do so by state or city officials — heavily armed federal Department of Homeland Security agents to Portland, Ore.”

 

At the same time Trump dismisses any media criticism of him as “fake news” thus doing everything he can to convince his supporters that the press, a vital cornerstone of democracy, is actually their enemy. At the same time, he has invented stories about a “radical left mob” that are bent on scaring people off the streets of America while also being engaged, as Levine said, in a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.”

Perhaps the clearest evidence of his authoritarian wishes was his promulgation of bizarre and obviously false conspiracy theories to back his war on truth. The death of truth is the foundation of authoritarianism and on which Trump has built a massive edifice designed to cow his opponents and bolster his supporters, all to his own eternal glory. As Levine said, “And he has lied nearly every day of his presidency, adhering to the well-known fascist dictum that the bigger the lie and the more you repeat it, the greater the likelihood that it will be believed as the truth.”

Novelist Phillip Roth was amazingly prescient in his novel, the Plot Against America, written 15 years ago before most of us heard of Donald Trump. In the book on which the television series was based a foreign power, Germany in that case interfered in the American presidential election like Russia did to help Trump. Journalists were the target of violence as anti-Semitism rose sharply. Exactly what has been happening. In the TV series right wing mobs on the streets looked exactly like the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville who marched with torches chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” The president campaigned in the TV series, with the slogan of “America First,” echoing that of Trump.

Less than 2 days before the play based on the book opened in New York, a real domestic terrorist with an AR-15 and three handguns murdered 11 people during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Later he told a police officer “all these Jews need to die.” The parallels were to the TV series were stunning. And disturbing.

we have all seen the  tendency of the many of the Trump supporters to take comfort from his racist tropes. This is dangerous and Trump did nothing to stop or even deflect that support. Instead, he bathed in it.

In the drama Herman Levin explains that with Lindbergh as president and  his sly comments about Jews, “Anti-Semites have permission because Charles Lindbergh is a heroic leader.” After hearing an election speech by Lindbergh his friend says, “the goyim are sharpening their knives.” Another character remarks, “win or lose there is a lot of hate out there and he knows how to tap into it.”

Like Trump, Lindbergh runs on a campaign of fear mongering. His campaign motto is, “The choice is simple, ‘Lindbergh or war’.” In the drama, Herman criticizes his friend Monty who supports Lindbergh because he thinks he is good for the economy. He is willing to look the other way: “Not long ago you couldn’t bear our Nazi loving president, but now profits are up, stock market is up, business is booming, everything else about Lindbergh, what he stands for is forgotten? What else matters to you business man?” Does this remind anyone of current Trump supporters?

Just like Trump, Lindbergh is able to unleash hate without actually calling for it. Both are sly. But their supporters know better. They “know” the Jews are not real Americans and they “know” their president agrees with them. On the streets, the America Firsters demonstrate against the Jews. They are empowered and energized by their leader.

When the rioting starts the hate catches fire. As Herman says, “I can’t believe how fast it spreads to other cities. When the hate is there it’s like dry leaves waiting on a spark.” Some how the America Firsters are on the wrong side. Herman says, “They call us “others.” They’re the others. Lindbergh is the other. That man is unfit. He should not be the president. It’s as simple as that.” Yes it’s as simple as that, but that’s not simple at all.

In the series, there is second term election, just like the US experienced recently,  and similarly, the second election results are not very clear. Lindbergh seems to lose. But does he? The results are conflicting. Wow is that familiar.

Then eerily there is trepidation. Where does this leave the American people? On shaky ground I submit. That is the real problem. Even if Trump leaves the White House, he will leave behind more than 70 million supporters who voted for him even after they saw him on TV every day for 4 years. They know what they voted for. These issues have not died. America needs to transform itself. Can it do that? It won’t be easy.

The Plot Against America

 

Philip Roth was a brilliant America writer. He understood the American tendency towards fascism long before any one had ever head of Donald Trump. He wrote a book about it in 2004 called, The Plot Against America. It was a lifetime ago in other words. This year a limited television series was shown based on that book. It was well worth seeing. It really demonstrated how easily America could be tipped into fascism. I would add that Canada is not all that different.

If you think fascism could never come to America or Canada this is a series worth watching and thinking about. The series asks us to consider what life in the United States would be like if Charles Lindberg a famous aviator and racist pundit had defeated Franklin Roosevelt in a presidential election in 1940. Remember, in real life, America had a lot of Nazi supporters at the time. Fro example, there was a political rally in New York that filled Madison Square Gardens with Nazi supporters. Is that hard to believe? In the series Roth Imagined the president signing a treaty of neutrality with Adolf Hitler as a significant number of Americans actually advocated. Then president Lindbergh slowly unleashed his anti-Semitic views, though often his words that were emitted by dog whistles that his supporters understood and many other Americans took as innocent. How would that turn out?

The New York Times described the series this way:

“In other words, as James Poniewozik of the New York Times wrote when the show debuted in March, “HBO asks the audience to imagine the outlandish idea that the presidency might have been won by a celebrity demagogue new to politics who appeals to bigotry and fear, who ran on the slogan of ‘America First,’ who boasts of having ‘taken our country back,’ who sees fine people on the most reprehensible side of history, who cosies up to despots and behaves as if he were their puppet.”

 Can you think of anyone this might describe?

Even when Trump is no longer the president, whenever that happens, as Allen Levine University of Winnipeg professor of politics and Winnipeg Free columnist opined, “It is not surprising that many political commentators are wondering if the country is veering toward fascism and authoritarianism.”

Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, not exactly a flaming radical though tinged deeply with leftist tendencies, said  in a tweet on June 2, 2020, Trump is a fascist, and he is promoting fascism in America.” I keep repeating this but I am not concerned so much about Trump. I am more concerned about the fact that more than 70 million Americans voted for him in the 2020 election. That is deeply troubling to me.

Actually, I agree with Levine , that 

“In truth, Trump is not so much a fascist as an authoritarian; or more accurately, a would-be tin-pot dictator: “An autocratic ruler with little political credibility and delusions of grandeur.” He declared last year that article II of the U.S. constitution — which defines the powers of the president — gives him the right “to do whatever I want.”

In an interview a few months ago, he claimed that as president his “authority is total.” It is not, but by his impulsive actions Trump has shown time and again that he has no understanding or will not abide by the “checks and balances” system of American government if he can help it. This has become even more blatant after he saw how loyal to him his supporters remained after the impeachment trial earlier this year.

The television series shows how with such leaders the country could slide toward fascism. With the prospect of the current president refusing to leave the White House, we are now seeing evidence of that all around us. I don’t think it is wise to assume that this could not happen. Watch the series because it might disturb your sleep.

Line of Duty

 

If you want to know the difference between American crime series and English crime series watch Line of Duty. It is like comparing a fine red wine and a bottle of cheap moonshine whiskey. You will taste the difference.

This English series revolves around a group of British anti-corruption police officers in a unit called AC-12. They work relentlessly and smartly to seek out corruption among fellow police officers. So they are frequently unpopular with their fellows. The British series is done without all the “pretty people,” as a friend of mine once said. It has real people instead. People with warts. Nasty people; good people and always some people with a lot of good and bad. The cases are never simple. They never follow tired formulas. The series is filled with surprises. Take nothing for granted. Expect a ride. Rather don’t expect anything. Just enjoy. Like a very fine wine.

 

Intelligence Matters: Homeland Season 8

 

A few years ago a friend of mine said this was the golden age of television. He was one of the most well read people I know. He said he spends a lot less time reading and a lot more time watching television. I was stunned to hear that. How could it be? The answer is he was right.

In the last 10 years or more, television has grown up. There is a lot of good television out there. One of the series that is among the best is Homeland. I look forward to each season with great anticipation. Now they have announced the current season, the eighth, will be its last. What a dreadful pity. But all good things come to an end. It is a greater pity when good shows run out of gas. It is pitiful to see shows lose their creative vigour and go through the motions. Well that does not happen in Season 8 of this series.

Along with The Wire, this is one of my all time favourite television series. TV as good as it gets. It has only sporadic physical action, unlike most thrillers. The thrills are cerebral. It shows that thinking is action! Thinking is exciting.

What I really like about this series involving intelligence officers from many different countries is that none of them have all the answers. Though some claim to. The series hinges on intelligence in both senses of that term. Intelligence gathering and intelligent people. Fighting mainly with their wits. That is the action adventure. Not car chases, knock down fights, or shoot-em ups. These are intelligent men and women not super heroes. Much more interesting than that.

The background for Season 8 is very real. It is actually what happened. The Americans and the Taliban try to negotiate a peace agreement to end the war in Afghanistan  after 18 years. This is precisely what happened until Trump pulled the plug on those negotiations because he got mad at the Taliban. So the war continues.

 

In the TV series, Saul Berenson, the current Security Advisor to the American President, is trying to negotiate that messy peace agreement and he   makes comment that rings home. In Episode 1 he says, “This war has lasted 18 years, cost trillions of dollars, and resulted in nearly 2,000 American soldiers dying.” Of course even more Afghans died but no one seems to care about that. Actually Saul does care. He leaves us thinking (and that is the key—thinking) for what end?

In the final season,  the Americans eavesdrop on a conversation between a Taliban leader and his son who can stand up to him. The leader says, “We don’t want to end this war; we’re winning.” Saul, who overhears this, says to his associate, “That’s what we said for 18 years.”

In the series, Saul has been involved in these wars of the Middle East for decades. He knows the cost. He is weary of war. He wants the killing to end. As a result Saul sends a personal letter to a Taliban leader he personally knows and with whom he once fought on the same side. This is what it says:

“It seems like a lifetime since you and I met in the mountains. Then we fought on the same side. Now we fight as enemies using every weapon we have. Drones, suicide bombers. Killing families. Children. We are like two madmen hands around each other’s throats, unable to let go, spilling each other’s blood and treasure for 18 years. No one can win such a war. I’ve come to believe that and I think in your heart you believe that too. So I invite you to come talk to me face to face, because you and I know it is only the men with guns who can make peace. Let’s meet without guns, drones, or guards. It’s time to stop sending our young men and women to die.”

 

Wise words from a war-weary veteran. But of course, they must battle the extremists. They are everywhere.

All sides (there are always more than 2 in these stories) have extremists that must be controlled by intelligence. Again in both senses. It is much easier to start a war than end one. Why do extremists always seem so strong and moderates so namby-pamby? Those thirsting for revenge seem so smart, but are so far from truth. Haqqani an Afghan and Saul have a conversation:

Saul: “You’re innocent (of murdering 2 Presidents)

Haqqani:   After 40 years of war no one is innocent.

 

Carrie Matheson is the disturbed protagonist, an American spy. Constantly fighting her own mental problems trying to balance  her duty to her daughter (she is a single mom with a young daughter) and her duty to her country. One has to give. It is an uncomfortable dilemma. She is an incredibly fierce defender of her country, and her daughter at great personal risk to herself. For those goals she takes insane chances and makes insane choices.

Both Saul and Carrie have impossible choices to make. Can one betray the other to save the country? Or give up a hidden spy?

This series has the colour of truth. But it is a murky truth. There is ample corruption and chicanery on all sides. No one has a monopoly on morality or fault. There are good people and bad people but never entirely good or bad. They are seeking each other out in a world of desperation. Often truth and heaven are found in the most unlikely of places.

Evgeny the Russian spy is smart. He tells his American counterpart, “every time the Americans bomb a bunch of civilians it’s an opportunity for us. We help them rebuild.”

The American protagonists also must navigate their way through that dark  world where truth is hidden and morality is as camouflaged as the soldiers. As Carries says, “I will never betray my country. I won’t do that. But between the black and white there is a lot of gray.” That is the way it is. It’s complicated. Simple answers wont’ do. Ideology cannot cut it. Intelligence is what is needed, but hard to find.

One of the finest TV series is over. I loved this series. I will miss it a lot.

Religion in the After life

 

After Life is one of the funniest TV series ever. I mean that. This is British comedy at its quiet best. One of the episodes dealt with religion. A dangerous topic in other words.

Tony the prince of curmudgeons and his co-worker Kath have a discussion about religion. You have to pity Kath for agreeing to this, as it cannot end well.

Kath:  You’re an atheist?

Tony: Right.

Kath:  If you don’t believe in heaven and hell and all that, why don’t you go around raping and murdering as much as you want?

Tony: I do. I do go around raping and murdering as much as I want which is not at all.

George buts in:      Because he’s got a conscience.

Kath:  If death is just the end then what is the point?

Tony: What’s the point of what?

Kath:  Why not just kill yourself? (this is exactly what he has been planning to do actually)

Tony: so if you’re watching a movie and you’re really enjoying it and someone points out to you its going to end eventually do you just then say ‘well what’s the point then and turn it off?’

Kath:  No because I can watch it again.

Tony: Well I think life is precious because you can’t watch it again. I mean you can believe in an after life if that makes you feel better, but once you realize you’re not going to be around forever, I think that’s what makes life so magical. One day you’ll eat your last meal. Smell your last flower. Hug your friend for the very last time. So that’s why you should do everything you love with passion. Treasure the few years you’ve got, because that’s all there is.

Kath:  I do. I watch Kevin Hart. I love everything about him and his films.

Tony: That’s good. You’re doing it!

Yup she got it all right. Watch this show and get filled with the spirit.

After Life

 

This is comedy at its most serene and absurd. How is that possible?

The series was created, written, and directed by Ricky Gervais who also stars as the leading character Tony. Tony had a perfect life. As he said, “I won at life.” Nothing else he ever did was worth it. His life was perfect because of his wife Lisa. She had only imperfection and it was a big one—she got cancer and died too young. She is dead before the series starts. But Lisa left Tony instructions on her computer—a video of her talking combined with videos of her and Tony while married before she got sick. Often he is watching the videos alone at night with a glass of wine. This is their after life.

After she died Tony decided the only way he could carry on would be to say and do whatever he wanted. He would give no thought to anyone else. He would not care about anyone else. If all else failed he can always commit suicide. That is what he can always fall back on. He thinks of that as his superpower. In time Tony realizes this is not such a great superpower. “You can’t not  care about something you actually care about. You can’t fool yourself.” His superpower fizzles out. So you care and that ruins everything. But thank goodness it does not ruin the comedy.

The series has a host of off beat characters. Lenny his photographer best buddy who says little but makes Tony realize there is beauty in the ordinary. Roxy the prostitute who prefers to be called a sex worker. His colleague Sandy who just wants him to be happy. The mailman is a lunatic.  Simple not? No! His demented father who usually sits in his room staring and doing nothing but occasionally making a profound statement. At least so it seems. Postman Pat who wants Tony to find a bird (woman) no matter how undesirable he appears. The drug addict who Tony helps to O.D. What kind of help is that? There are others from the sublime to the ridiculous, in particular the people Tony meets, with Lenny, as they prepare vignettes about locals for their newspaper. Each of them in their own way is trying to find a place where they belong.

All in all, it makes you realize that Tony was right when he says “we’re all screwed up in one way or another. It’s what makes us normal.”

Sitting on a bench talking to Anne who has also lost a spouse Tony realizes that even though he is in pain, “it is worth sticking around to maybe make my little corner of the world a slightly better place.” A modest goal, but one with profound consequences for Tony. As another friend  Anne says,

“That’s all there is. Happiness is amazing. It’s so amazing it doesn’t matter if it’s yours or not.” It’s that lovely thing. A society grows great when old men plant trees the shade of which they know they will never sit in. Good people do things for other people. That’s it. The end. And you’re good Tony. You have so much to give. Smart funny. Lovely.”

And that really is it. You don’t need grand designs. We don’t need huge ambition. We can do a lot with a little. A little kindness goes a long way.

This is my kind of afterlife.

 

*

Unbelievable

Chris and I watched an interesting television series on Netflix. Not bad; not great. In odd way I liked the low production values. It made the story real.  Or should I say believable? It was called Unbelievable. It is the story of a number of women–some young, some old–all raped in their own bed by a brutal intruder. It tells the story of the investigations by 2 outstanding police officers and 2 less than outstanding. It concentrates in particular on one of the victims a very young girl Marie who is not believed and raises the very interesting question of why it is that sexual assault victims are often not believed, unlike most other victims of crime. Why is that? As well, why does the victim have to relive the experience over and over again? Do other victims of other crimes face the same problems? As a result is it surprising that most victims of sexual assault choose not to report the crimes? What does this tell us about our society? Interesting questions. Worth seeing.

 

Our Boys: Judgement

 

One of the most interesting parts of the television series Our Boys, created by a Palestinian and Israeli team,   was the judgement of the court. It was read by an elderly Justice with stern cadences of belief in its truth. Yet, “the truth” was not endorsed by either side.

The judge noted that the days in Jerusalem after the kidnapping of the 3 Israeli boys had been tense. People gathered in frenzied crowds yelling “Death to Arabs.” 3 Jewish boys took this literally.  They were good boys from fine families. They were deeply religious.  The judge did not say it, but I will, they were “Our boys.” Though so was the young Palestinian victim and the 3 Jewish boys that had been kidnapped.

As the judge did say, “This was the shaft through which the 3 plunged into the dark tunnel of hatred and racism from which they emerged that night, yet the troubling thought persists from what well did the 3 drink such quantities of hatred and racism that blinded them so terribly that bashing and suffocating the head, and burning a human being created in God’s image, seemed to make sense? What did the defendants learn and internalize  at the various stages of their education and upbringing that enabled the unbearable lightness with which they took the life of a young Arab boy?” These are profound thoughts. But there is little evidence anyone paid attention. They were too consumed by hatred. Not long afterwards the country was plunged  into war—again.

At the end of the film we do not see justice. We do not see revenge? We don’t see the majesty of the law. Guilt is not important. The sentence is not significant. The mathematics of crime and punishment is false. All we see is a mother’s pain. Her son is dead and he was killed horribly. Nothing else matters. The mother’s pain is real and it endures. Nothing else endures. Nothing at all.

Our Boys: the Quest

 

 

I saw an amazing television series this year. It is powerful, disturbing, difficult to watch, and profoundly important. It is called Our Boys and is the fruit of an astonishing collaboration between Israeli writers, and Israeli and Palestinian co-directors. That brings a unique perspective that enriches this film. It is a perspective that is very difficult to find in the Middle East, where typically vicious certainties destroy  each other. That perspective is different from any other I have ever seen. I urge you to watch.

First I will give a caveat. Most of the film contains English Subtitles.  I don’t usually enjoy watching films with subtitles as I find them very distracting, but in this 10 series of shows the effort is well worth it. The series is based on a  true series of events in Israel and Palestine  in 2014 that led to a war in Gaza.

The series is based on 2 horrible real events. The first was the kidnapping of 3 Jewish boys whose plight ignited Israel, first in hopes and prayers for their survival, then when those hopes were dashed,  and the bodies of the boys were found, and then came the thirst for the nectar of the Middle East—revenge . after that revenge followed as inevitably as pee rolls down porcelain.

That of course called for more revenge. That’s how things work in the Middle East. Soon a 16-year old Palestinian boy was beat up and then gasoline was poured down his throat and he was burned alive.  It was a horrifying murder that mercifully was not depicted  in the series. Could good Jews have retaliated so gruesomely? The Israelis did not want to believe it. As one Jew tells the Simon the Jewish detective, “That’s part of the problem; that you think a Jew is incapable of cruelty to an enemy.”

The series included an actual recording of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a speech at the funeral for the 3 boys.  He  boldly declared at the funeral, “A deep moral abyss separates us from our enemies. They sanctify death, while we sanctify compassion.” Is that true? Or a comfortable illusion? As Emily Nussbaum in her New Yorker review of the series aptly put it: “At its heart, this is a show about the brutal economics of empathy in a time of war: who gets it, who deserves it, who is denied it.”

A Rabbi was convinced that to fight the Palestinians they must retaliate in kin. After all they will do anything: blow up children, babies, and buses filled with innocent people, .The Rabbi said,  if one side is crazy the other side  must be irrational too. “It’s like mathematics. If one side is irrational and the other side not, strength does not matter. If the Jew operates irrationally and the Arab doe not, the Jew has power. If it’s the other way around the Jew loses. That is why 1 burned Arab boy is mathematically very good for the Jews.”  The Middle East is transfused with exactly such mathematical fanaticism.

An Israelis detective, Simon, was charged with responsibility to solve these crimes as soon as possible. The detective was relentless and brilliant, but his tenacity was not always appreciated by his fellow Israelis. Some of them did not want him to carry his torch to the back of the cave, particularly where religious and political zealots reside. The light is not always flattering.

The film focused on various groups from both sides in Palestinian and Israeli territory where citizens turn to fury soaked in religion that led to ugly and violent protest. In both cities, religious and political hatreds were fuelled by dehumanizing rhetoric that has horrible effects on young minds sadly open to toxic influence.  As Simon said, “You start arresting people for spewing hate and pretty soon half the country is in jail.”

The killers prayed to their god to send them a victim and praised God when he did. The young boy was a “gift from God.” After all if the young boy is not killed he will turn into a terrorist. Better to kill him first. In the mathematical logic of tit for tat it does not matter that the victim is innocent.

Unlike most American films which employ the simplicity of good versus evil, this series embraces complexity and eschews simple answers. Everyone should see this series available now on HBO. It is worth the effort.

E pluribus unum

 

 

Ken Burns has produced some magnificent television documentaries for Public Broadcasting in the US. Burns likes the traditional Latin motto of the United States E pluribus unumwhich means  “Out of many, one.” I like it too.  It appears on the Great Seal of the United Sates. Arthur Schlesinger complained that the United States suffered from too much pluralism and not enough one. It was adopted in 1782 but since then another motto has been more popular: “In God we Trust.”  I don’t like that one quite as much. In 1956 Congress adopted it as the official motto of the country. What ever happened to separation of church and state?

Ken Burns said that too often we think we connected and we are actually disconnected from each other. There are no more town greens. PBS is part of the commons. It is part of the public square. Burns says it is one place where we can have rational discourse in difficult times when the tapestry of the commons is frayed. Times like these. I think that is a pretty good motto.