TV variety shows were pretty popular on American networks around the time Johnny Cash got his own in the late 1960s. It didn’t last long, as in Cash’s view he and the network execs just didn’t see eye-to-eye. Cash wanting to do a lot of christian material was a big source of friction, supposedly. The “rural purge” by TV networks also played a significant role. Anyway, some material from the show had been released on The Johnny Cash Show (1970). Though the title may be a bit misleading, The Best of The Johnny Cash TV Show: 1969-1971 is entirely different from the earlier album and contains material never before released on record — apparently recorded by Cash and tucked away only to be discovered and restored after his death (something that seems irrelevant given that the TV network’s tapes still exist; the origins of this album seem tied up in licensing disputes between ABC and CBS of no substantive interest to music listeners). Only a few of the performances are by Cash. Most are popular artists doing their hits or covering popular country songs. The performances can be a bit rough, with Cash coughing or other singers just not being miked well. And Waylon Jennings doing Chuck Berry‘s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is cringe worthy (this is the worst of his performances on the episode it was drawn from). But there are a few nice moments, like Ray Charles doing “Ring of Fire” (though the bass player is a bit off and Ray’s breathy whispered vocals sound like they weren’t captured well). The best things here though are a duet between Cash and Joni Mitchell backed by strings and piano on Bob Dylan‘s “Girl From the North Country” and James Taylor doing his signature song “Fire and Rain.” The earlier album from the TV show was better, but this is still enjoyable enough. This one, however, captures more thoroughly (and however awkwardly) the rural-urban exchange that Cash’s show embodied. Dylan gave an interview where he said, “I think of rock ’n’ roll as a combination of country blues and swing band music, not Chicago blues, and modern pop. Real rock ’n’ roll hasn’t existed since when? 1961, 1962?” He also said, “And that was extremely threatening for the city fathers, I would think. When they finally recognized what it was, they had to dismantle it, which they did, starting with payola scandals and things like that. The black element was turned into soul music and the white element was turned into English pop. They separated it.” In a way, Cash’s show brought some of these elements back together, across the music industry’s lines of segregation, maybe not always into an inseparable combination like rock ‘n’ roll but at least in the same nationally televised stage.
NOVA: The Great Math Mystery (April 2015)
“The Great Math Mystery,” an episode of the long-running PBS science show, is in essence an analysis of mathematics and analytic philosophy. In the program, about 99% of the show consists of people from the analytic philosophical school talking about math, plus one token representative from the Continental Philosophy school (Stephen Wolfram) and a few comments by analytic philosophy people about the Continental Philosophy view. What this show desperately needed was a dose of the “fairness doctrine” by giving something closer to 50% of the airtime to the Continental view. Ideally, Alain Badiou would have been featured, because he is perhaps the most well-known living philosopher to argue about the nature of mathematics from outside the caste of “working mathematicians”. Count this episode among the many that PBS airs that is a polemic disguised as an even-handed treatment.
Link to an article about Star Trek by Matthew Yglesias:
Bonus link: Chaos on the Bridge
Director: Ken Burns
Ken Burn’s documentary of the Roosevelt family, focusing on Teddy, Franklin Delano, and Eleanor, is for the most part the same sort of pablum found in almost all of his films. It posits the Roosevelts as the greatest political family America has ever seen, and probably ever will see, and the protectors and masters of liberal politics. If you want a film that questions political dynasties at a fundamental level, or any such critiques, you are watching the wrong sort of film. As Mason Williams has written, the documentary focuses on the personal somewhat to the detriment on the public aspects of the Roosevelts. In that sense, it is a film built on a very reductionist, essentialist worldview, not far off from biological determinism.
The film is organized chronologically, beginning with the family’s move to America and their success in business, and then leads into Teddy Roosevelt’s political ascent. This is followed by Franklin’s political ascent, and then Eleanor’s widow years.
Commentary on Burns’ Jazz still applies:
“By now his technique is as predictable as the plot of an episode of ‘Friends’: the zoom shot on a still photo, followed by a slow pan, a pull back, then a portentous pause — all the while a monotonous narration explains the obvious at length.” Serpents in the Garden
One quirk in this film is the casting for voice actors. Paul Giamatti portrays Teddy, and he’s a hilariously poor choice. Nick Offerman seems more apropos. It may seem like a minor issue, but it sheds light on a problem with the entire project. The film seems like it fits the facts to the people working on it, rather than the other way around.
We are to believe that the Roosevelts were great due to the individual greatness of people like Teddy, a favored son of a wealthy family with opportunities most would never dream of. As a portrait of his personality, largely irrelevant to his public legacy, it probably is fair. There is some treatment of his activism against business — this was the only president to give a speech railing against the “malefactors of great wealth” and back it up with some action. Though Burns’ stops well short of adopting historian Gabriel Kolko‘s position that Teddy’s administration actual helped big business (to achieve stability) rather than constrain it. His hubris following his presidency is his undoing, and the film does thankfully look askance at Teddy’s racism and imperialism.
The story of FDR’s life is most interesting in describing the time before he contracted polio. He was a dandy and a mamma’s boy. And he was insufferable. After contracting polio, the narrative shifts to his overcoming the effects of the disease to forge his political career. It certainly was an achievement. There is discussion of how his medical condition was concealed from the public with the assistance of the media. There is, however, a clear bias in favor of FDR, in that the filmmakers clearly see FDR as knowing what is best for the public more than the public does for itself, thereby justifying this media complicity. One historian after another lines up to emphasize how the media of today wouldn’t do that, and someone like FDR, or Teddy even, would never win a major office as a result. But they don’t talk about a media “propaganda” model, or campaign financing. Instead, it is a matter as simple as tabloid journalism focusing on personal ailments and the like rather than the “real issues”.
The coverage of FDR’s presidency is mostly fawning, uncritical gushing. Ken Burns has always forged a sort of suburban liberalism in his films. This one is no different. FDR is presented as the president of the people, the most leftist. Anyone to the left of FDR is simply ignored. This is problematic. There is little to no mention of FDR’s “brain trust” and the assortment of advisors who urged more leftist policies than FDR was willing to accept, often to the detriment of lasting outcomes. FDR’s programs are praised, criticized for tactical errors but not for being inadequate at a theoretical level. FDR’s VP Henry Wallace is marginalized, to Eleanor’s chagrin, and Harry Truman is unleashed on the world. Negotiations during WWII are the most curious part of the film. Burns’ view of the war is unreliable, and clings to Cold War paranoia. For instance, there is constant suspicion of Josef Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s concern about Western encroachment is dismissed as paranoia. And yet, history has shown Stalin’s concerns to be entirely justified. As Burns’ film aired on TV, the U.S. was actively involved in fomenting a coup in Ukraine, to move NATO closer to Moscow and implement a financial takeover.
FDR and Winston Churchill are portrayed as the saviors of the world who defeated the Nazis. This, again, isn’t particularly accurate. The Nazis were defeated primarily by the Soviets, in what they called the Great Patriotic War, as the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa. Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, violating a non-aggression pact with the Soviets, with the largest invasion force ever assembled in the history of warfare. Over four million Axis troops participated in the invasion. Over five million Soviet citizens died repelling the invasion. You won’t hear any of this from the Ken Burns film (details are available, for instance, in Harrison Salisbury‘s The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad). Instead, Stalin is a skeptic holding back Churchill and FDR. D-Day turns the tide of the war (really, it barely worked, and then, only because of failures of the Axis powers during Barbarossa).
FDR gets very much a pass on his support for the Manhattan project. Robert Oppenheimer ran the program, and later famously commented that it should have bee shut down “the day after Trinity,” in reference to the test explosion code-named Trinity. Sure, Truman ordered the bombs dropped not FDR, but he was just carrying to conclusion an FDR program created for that purpose.
Burns is yet another of those “liberals” who asserts that politics should go a certain amount to the center-left and not one step further, with no justification whatsoever for where that line in the sand is drawn. There are no leftist critics of FDR featured. The late historian Howard Zinn noted how much of FDR’s presidency can be explained through simple imperialist ambitions. He also wrote “The Limits of the New Deal” in New Deal Thought (1965):
“When the reform energies of the New Deal began to wane around 1939 and the depression was over, the nation was back to its normal state: a permanent army of unemployed; twenty or thirty million poverty-ridden people effectively blocked from public view by a huge, prosperous, and fervently consuming middle class; a tremendously efficient yet wastefully productive apparatus that was efficient because it could produce limitless supplies of what it decided to produce, and wasteful because what it decided to produce was not based on what was most needed by society but on what was most profitable to business.”
Economist Alan Nasser has written about how FDR worked to undermine Social Security and preserve business profit interests. FDR was a committed fiscal conservative. He was not a supporter of social programs. He was forced to adopt them by popular pressure and unrest. Burns’ film makes a particularly egregious mischaracterization of the Bonus Army. These were WWI veterans who protested outside the White house to receive a promised bonus early, in view of the dire circumstances of the Great Depression. The film mentions them being a problem of the Hoover administration. This is true, as far as it goes, but the Bonus Army marched again during FDR’s presidency. The film does not mention this fact. FDR opposed their demands, and congress overrode FDR’s veto to pay the veterans their bonuses early.
Eleanor emerges as the best of the Roosevelts. Not only as the lead author of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also as a voice of conscience against FDR’s crass political machinations. It is too bad she wasn’t president, or at least that FDR had listened to her and made Henry Wallace his final running mate instead of Truman. Like the others, her public accomplishments take a back seat to personal details of her life.
So, at the end of the many, many hours of this film, one is left knowing rather little about what the Roosevelts accomplished politically, and is instead given more of a portrait of the lifestyles of the rich and famous who like to dabble in politics.
Drunk History Comedy Central (2013- )
There is a silly television show called “Drunk History” on a cable network in which comedians consume alcohol to the point of drunkenness and then re-tell the story of some historical incident or personality. Well-known actors reenact the story and lip-sync to the narration of the drunken storyteller, with absolutely meticulous fidelity to the words of the storyteller, belches and all. There is a hidden secret as to what makes the premise of the show intriguing. The reenactments are not faithful to “historical fact”. Instead, they are faithful to the inebriated ramblings of the storyteller. The historical accounts are like myths. The drunk storytellers clearly have some sort of script in hand, and have done some amount of research beforehand. But they act (or maybe really are) too drunk to tell the story in an articulate and nuanced manner. So the show dramatizes the myth in a way that makes the act of mythologization evident–that’s the funny part. This is like the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It also makes the show a “pragmatic reflective history,” according the G.W.F. Hegel in Reason in History (1837), because it “nullifies the past and makes the event present.”
Louie FX Networks (2010- )
Louis C.K.’s current show Louie may well be one of the best things on TV right now. There are plenty of other worthy shows today — Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time with Finn & Jake merits a nod, as do the likes of IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang and Fox’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, for starters. But Louie makes its mark by trying to go a little deeper than the standard sitcom fare. Take the 9 June 2014, Season 4 episode “In the Woods.” Like much of season 4, the episode, stretching to a full 90 minute timeslot, meanders and jumps unexpectedly to flashbacks. But like some earlier episodes, Louis C.K., not only the lead actor (playing a fictional version of himself) but also the writer and director, explores the significance of cross-generational social ills. In this case, it is teen entry-level drug use. But supporting that general theme there are cycles of physical abuse manifested through burnouts and bullies, and adolescent angst reflected upon by an aging, then middle-aged man. What clicks is the sensitivity of looking back upon school teachers and administrators who seem to really want kids to have opportunities, parents who care, or don’t, the kids, making angry stands against a parent, not because they know they are right but because they don’t and can’t see anyone else who seems right either. But regardless of intent, there’s an attempt to look back and analyze what was done, what failed, and make stupid best-intention attempts at something that might work better. The most basic and fundamental quality of the show, particularly across season 4, is a pervasive sense of trying to do better, of breaking out of negative cycles and downward spirals and not taking the “old ways” as a given. There is a strangely “scientific” quality to it. But of course, this is still Louie C.K. So the show makes a funny spectacle of failure. There is a Whitmanesque celebration of mistakes, which is deftly played off as a crumbling aspect of American society when it appears most strongly in flashbacks. Thankfully, the weakest aspect of his comedy, the Catholic guilt sex jokes, are kept to a relative minimum this season. Instead, one of the strongest aspects of his comedy, that of kids and trying to comprehend being a parent, has occupied center stage. Occasionally that makes the show feel like a present-day counterpart to The Cosby Show. Louie remains Louie, though. There is still a fair amount of sentimental flotsam and jetsam. But a desire for lone individuals to desperately pull off the little things in life in a society where greatness isn’t anything great gives the show some heart that puts Louie ahead of most TV shows with a dramatic element. No, the show doesn’t tackle big issues. But at least it deals with interpersonal and family relationships in a way that emphasizes a constant struggle to attempt, err and correct that seems a lot like a precursor to tackling bigger issues.