A Review of Designated Survivor

“The biggest terrorist attack since 9/11.” That’s how the new ABC show Designated Survivor describes the attack that sets up the premise of the show and it’s illustrative of the weaknesses of the show.

(There are only minor spoilers in this review, but read at your own discretion.)

First, I want to make it clear that I do want to like this show. Melanie and I always have one show at least that we watch together and now that Person of Interest is over we’ve picked DS.1 As for that line? In this fictional attack, a bomb in the Capitol Building during the State of the Union kills the President, the Cabinet, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Joint Chiefs in one fell swoop… except the designated survivors of Sutherland’s character, Kirkman, who was the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and a congresswoman. They say in the show that about 1,000 people died, which in absolute numbers is smaller than 9/11’s 3,000, but we’re talking about the decapitation of the governments of the world’s hyperpower. I think that qualifies as bigger.

This sort of small thinking is endemic to the show. An FBI agent says they have 50 agents working through the rubble of the Capitol looking for clues. Fifty? In reality there would hundreds, maybe even thousands. Everything they have the president doing and dealing with sometimes feels like he’s a small town mayor, not leader of the free world. Meanwhile, there’s one general who seems to speak for the entire military, who is himself a caricature of a hawk who is demanding Kirkman nuke everyone in sight, conveniently shifting from one bogeyman to the next. Last week, he was demanding Kirkman nuke Iran, until Kirkman found out they weren’t involved, and rather than act chastened, General Fire-up-his-butt shifts to some made-up al Quaeda analog the next week.

And then there’s the plainly unrealistic stuff. Kirkman’s family includes his wife, his grammar school age daughter, and the requisite long-haired and rebellious teenage son, who it turns out was dealing drugs on the side. In the midst of this national crisis in which an unknown enemy is targeting the leaders of our nation, the First Son, Emo Boy, apparently has the run of Washington, DC, wandering around the city with a couple of Secret Service bodyguards. Yeah, no, in reality he’d be locked down in the White House.

That’s the other thing. We know that this incredibly tragic and scary event that may signal a new World War has just happened in the last couple of days, but everyone is acting as if things are just a little unsettled. The new “fish-out-of-water” president feels regretful he missed dinner at 6:30 with his family, never mind he was dealing with the biggest crisis in history. The deputy chief of staff and Kirkman’s old assistant from HUD jockey for position so each one can become the new chief of staff.

In the second episode, we’re already holding the memorial service for the dead president, but what’s the hurry? It’s been a couple of days. Maybe we should wait until the dust settles and we’ve started to rebuild the government before we begin the state funerals. And then more unreality. After the service, the president and first lady wander out the front doors to their waiting cars in the midst of the crowd of other people leaving, having casual conversations with them along the way. In reality, everyone stays put at the end of the service while the first couple are whisked outside to waiting vehicles and the motorcade rushes off with the sirens blaring. Only then is the crowd released.

Plus what’s your hurry? This is a series that will presumably unfold over a few years. Why not let it do so slowly? It feels like the creators wanted to do a show along the lines of: “What about a guy who isn’t a politician and is essentially a good guy suddenly finds himself president and in control of recreating the government?2 Okay, now how do we do that? A terrorist attack!”

I guess this all sounds like I don’t like the show. That’s not true. I haven’t made up my mind yet and the six-episode rule is in effect.3 I do like Kiefer Sutherland’s president and I do like the basic question of how does the country rebuild after such a loss (if only they can stay away from the cheesy primetime drama plot lines). I can suspend my disbelief for some of the rest of the laughable devices and tropes for the next four episodes. Here’s hoping they improve by then.

  1. She was a West Wing fan and Chris Jackson at the Secret Service agent appeals to Hamilton fandom. As for me, well, it’s Kiefer Sutherland.
  2. We’ve seen this movie starring Kevin Kline.
  3. If I’m interested in a new show I will give it six episodes for the writers and actors to get their feet under them and gel together. This rule began with Star Trek The Next Generation and had its most relevant application with Fringe.

Prince of Outcasts

This is a book review for those who have read the previous 12 books of S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse series of apocalyptic fiction, but haven’t read the 13th book in the series, The Prince of Outcasts. If you have not read the series, stop right now and go buy the first novel Dies the Fire or better yet, go buy the 11-volume bundle and get the discount now. You’ll end up reading the whole thing anyway.

As for the current book, we pick up where The Desert and the Blade left off, on the coast of southern California, a great storm suddenly sweeping one of our protagonists off to the West, leaving our other protagonist on shore, trying to figure out what she’s going to tell their Mother.

Like the fourth through 12th novels of the series, this 13th installment isn’t a single contained story. The first three books of the Emberverse were a trilogy, telling a complete story about the first generation of those who survived the Change. The next three told a classic “beginning/middle/end” quest story of the next generation, but they’re not the whole of that story.

The next four after that continue the tale of the second generation, but the pacing and plot shift. No longer are we moving forward in quest-style story, but we’re jumping around in time and place, back and forth across the continent. The pace of the action slows to a crawl. And that’s the sticking point for some fans. They’re so used to a different pace that this feels too slow. In fact, one of the books feels like it’s all about just a single battle!

Finally in the 10th book, the enemy that has been the focus of the previous six is confronted. What’s next?
Read More and Comment

What’s Old Is New (and Unoriginal) Again on TV This Fall

It’s a cliché to say that Hollywood is bereft of new ideas, but I don’t think it’s ever been more true than in this Fall’s TV season. Here are all the shows that are either spinoffs or reboots or “modern, reimaginings” of old shows or movies:

  • 24: Legacy is 24 with a new Jack Bauer.
  • The Blacklist: Redemption is a spinoff of The Blacklist with one regular character and a new one introduced last season. But without James Spader, The Blacklist wouldn’t be any good and so I don’t this one to be.
  • Chicago Justice is a spinoff of the whole Chicago franchise, after Fire, PD, and DPW, I think.
  • Emerald City is a “modern re-imagining” or reboot of The Wizard of Oz, as in changing everything about the original story except the barest framework.
  • The Exorcist is a reboot of the movie. I wonder if the titular exorcists are even priests any more.
  • Frequency is a reboot of the 2000 movie that starred Jim Caviezel.
  • Lethal Weapon is a reboot of the Mel Gibson movie although the starting premise sounds completely different.
  • MacGyver is a reboot of the 80s series, complete with the bad hair.
  • Prison Break isn’t exactly a reboot, so much as it’s a restart from where it left off in 2009, with the same stars playing the same roles.
  • Archie is a live-action “modern, reimagining” or reboot of the “Archie” comic books. Yes, really. And in all the modern, reimagining shows, they mean taking what was originally hopeful and pure and making it gritty and depressing and “real”.
  • Taken is a prequel to the movies, in which Brian Mills isn’t a vengeful dad, but a young CIA agent. But confusingly set today. And without the Irish accent.
  • Time After Time is a “modern, reimagining” of Jack the Ripper.
  • Training Day is a reboot of the 2001 movie.

And that doesn’t count all the other new shows that are just new versions of old concepts. Network TV is a vast wasteland. Yes, there a few good nuggets, but really, the innovative stuff is now on certain cable channels and streaming.

So what am I interested in this season? I might try an episode of 24: Legacy and see if it captures the old 24 glory days. Speaking of Jack Bauer, I am interested in the new Kiefer Sutherland series Designated Survivor. The previews for the new sitcoms The Great Indoors and Kevin Can Wait were funny and worth a try. Plus, the handful of old shows I watch that are coming back.

Remembering the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon

It’s a great shame that Millennials and later generations, including my kids, will never experience the heyday of the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon because I doubt its like will ever be seen again.

You can get a quick summary of the event from this AV Club article, but like a lot of internet journalism it has a profoundly cynical take on it, dismissing the telethon as mawkish and sentimental and highlighting the criticisms and awkward moments over its 5 decade run.

But the Labor Day event was a cultural touchpoint for the whole country. For 24 hours over this holiday, the entire nation would stop and pay attention and work together to raise enough money to beat last year’s amazing total. Over the length of the event, heads of major corporations and beneficiary organizations would parade out to meet Jerry and hand over giant checks: “On behalf of 15,000 7-11 employees and our customers, I would like to give you this check for 1 million dollars,” one would say and Jerry would gratefully accept, visibly moved on behalf of “his” kids and shake hands or give hugs.

But what the article misses is that it was also a very local event too. Local TV stations would participate in not just showing the telethon, but hosting local versions of it, cutting in to the national show from time to time with their own hosts and phone banks and businesses and organizations raising money. Communities would band together to raise money to bring down to the local station and drop it in a big bucket or hand over a check.

Our neighborhood kids one year organized a carnival in our backyard, where people could pay some pittance for one of the teens to tell your fortune (she was dressed up like a gypsy and sitting in a large camping tent) or play some contrived carnival game. I don’t know how much we raised—probably not a lot—but it was a memorable event for all of us.

One of my bucket list desires as a kid was to stay up for the entire show one year, all 21 and a half hours and see every act. Of course, my mom would not let me sit in front of the TV for an entire revolution of the planet and so when I could sneak back in after required breaks for food, bathroom, and fresh air, I’d gnash my teeth over missing Frank Sinatra or worse, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.1

The last time we had such a national focus in which Hollywood and corporations and communities came together was for the 9/11 Telethon 15 years ago now. Of course, that was not fun or sentimental. We were all still in shock and grieving and reeling from the tragedy.

I can’t imagine anyone ever being able to pull off something like Jerry Lewis’ Telethon today. The culture has changed, the legal environment has changed. Our society is much more cynical. And we don’t do “gather around the TV” events like we did. Which is a shame, because for all its heartstring-pulling sentimentality and awkward celebrity moments, the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon was something for all Americans to rally around and a unifying touchstone and we don’t have many of those anymore.

  1. I don’t know if the Star Wars actors were ever on, but my recollection is that people important to me in that way were always on when I wasn’t watching.

The Danger of Animal Rights

I just finished reading the science fiction novella, “The Vital Abyss”, by James S.A. Corey, which takes place in their “Expanse” milieu1. The story revolves around the fate of some scientists who engaged in the most horrific act of scientific malpractice in history, sacrificing millions of men, women, and children to an experiment.

At one point in the story, we see the main character, a scientists, as he undergoes intake processing for the project and through some kind of biological manipulation has his sense of morality removed. Essentially he and all the scientists are turned into psychopaths. The recruiter tries to explain to the protagonist through the lens of whether animal testing is okay:

“The idea that animal suffering is less important that human suffering is a religious one. It assumes a special creation, and that we—you and I—are different in kind than other animals. We are morally separate from rats or horses or chimps, not based on any particular physical difference between us, but just because we claim that we’re sacred by our nature and have dominion over them. It’s a story we tell that lets us do what we do. Consider the question without that filter, and it looks very different.

“You said there’s an ethical obligation to avoid unnecessary suffering. I agree. That’s why getting good data is our primary responsibility. Good experimental design, deep datasets, parallel studies whenever they don’t interfere. Bad data is just another way of saying needless suffering. And torturing rats to see how humans would respond? It’s terrible data because rats aren’t humans any more than pigeons are horses.”

“Wait, so you’re… are you saying that skipping animal testing entirely and going straight to human trials is… is more ethical?” “We are the animal we’re trying to build a protocol for. It’s where we’d get the best data. And better data means less suffering in the long run. More human suffering, maybe, but less suffering overall. And we wouldn’t have to labor under the hypocrisy of understanding evolution and also pretending there’s some kind of firewall between us and other mammals. That sounds restful, don’t you think?”

I realized as I read this that here is what’s fundamentally wrong with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and all the other animal rights groups out there.

What they all miss is that when you erase the distinction between humans and animals, you aren’t elevating animals so they can be treated like humans.

What would inevitably happen if the distinction between human and animal was erased is that humans would be treated like animals. Again. Like too often in history.

  1. Which has been made into a hit TV series on SyFy.

What about Luke Skywalker?

One year ago, Entertainment Weekly printed an interview with Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams four months ahead of the movies release, and asked him why he decided to make this film. Here’s my summary of what he said at the time:

One question was enough to overcome J.J. Abrams reluctance to do Star Wars: Who is Luke Skywalker? Who did he become? Was there more to him in the original trilogy than we saw?

Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote the script and wrote Empire and Jedi, said writing for these characters who’ve aged the same 30 years he has, revealed to him that age doesn’t bring wisdom necessarily, just experience.

This should be good.

”But those four words — Who is Luke Skywalker? — created a disturbance in the Force for Abrams. After all these years, we thought we knew him, but what if there was more to that Tatooine farmboy? Or… what if there was less? The answer could alter not just how audiences look at the original trilogy, but the arc of a planned universe that now tallies at least five more upcoming films.”

Having seen the film, we all know now that Luke was in it for a total of about 30 seconds at the very end and didn’t say a word. And we know that J.J. isn’t directing the next movie in the trilogy. So, in what way did The Force Awakens answer those questions?

Perhaps the answer comes in what TFA has set up for the next two movies and in the characters we meet for the first time: Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo. Perhaps one or more of those characters have already begun to reveal the “more to that Tatooine farmboy”, a revelation that will become very obvious in the films to come.

Why Can’t We Let Go?

The Verge asks why we have such a hard time letting go of our pop culture, demanding that each beloved book, movie or TV series continue in a new form, never letting the characters go:

The problem isn’t simply that we’re getting more of something we love. The problem is that there’s no conclusion, no definitive ending, because these new objects aren’t designed to be complete. So Albus Potter, Scorpius Malfoy, and Rose Granger-Weasley will always have space for more adventures down the line. The Avengers and the Justice League must fight the even bigger threat lurking in a shadowy post-credit sequence. And we get movies like The Force Awakens, which ended in a literal hand-off to the upcoming Episode VIII.

I’m not as pessimistic about the Star Wars sequels, but I understand the point and agree for the most part. We’re stuck in a rut of pop culture, where the machine continues to churn out content, as opposed to artists creating aesthetic works. I’m not being snobbish as even as summer blockbuster can be a form of art. But there’s almost a fear of originality. Or is it a fear of abandonment, of losing beloved characters and places? Is there some national mood that wants to believe the escapist worlds are truly places we could escape to?

There are a few bright spots, like Netflix’s new Stranger Things, set in the 1980s and feeling like a cross between The Goonies and The X-Files. But even here we see the phenomenon. The eight episodes gave a complete story that left a few interesting questions at the end, as any good thriller of its type should. But fans are clamoring and Netflix is planning and a second season is probably in the offing.

The art of the out-of-office reply

You never know when some pedestrian piece of writing is going to go viral. Sometimes it’s benign like this ambitious out-of-office autoreply. Hopefully it’s not a career-ending tweet. But in this case, a Dallas News editor’s attempt to create a better response to people’s emails when he’s on vacation ended up attracting nationwide attention.

The actual point of all this, though, is that it reinforces something I picked up some time ago. I wish I could remember where. But the lesson was: When you write, everything is literature. Your grocery list. The note to your wife. The email to your mom. Your out-of-office reply. If it’s going to be read by someone, you owe it to them to make it worth their time.

You should also keep in mind that it can come back to embarrass you. I remember Howie Carr’s old maxim: “Never write when you can speak, never speak when you can nod. Don’t leave a paper trail.”

Knight Club

Were I a younger man and relatively fit and healthy, this is something I would be interested in doing. There is a Knights Hall in Nashua, NH, a gym decked out for medieval martial arts, including armored combat, and they call their workouts KnightFit.

Their sport, armored medieval combat, is no Renaissance fair, live-action role play. It also puts to lie the battles one sees on “Game of Thrones” and the “Lord of the Rings” movies, in which lithesome swordsmen twirl their weapons like batons, dancing and slashing with choreographed precision as they cut apart less-skilled opponents and dodge the strikes of more accomplished foes.

The weapons the combatants of The Knights Hall wield are real, carefully crafted to replicate the arming swords, axes, dussacks, falchions and faussarts wielded by knights of the late Middle Ages. Though dulled to prevent bloodshed, the swords and axes can lop off unprotected limbs if swung with enough force, and produce sparks when they strike cold steel.

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