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by Andrew Grossman

21 Aug 2015

Classicists consider satire the highest level of comedy because it engages an intellectual paradox few can deftly negotiate: the satirist must make hatred joyful and still project the ghost of optimism, reminding the audience that behind acid ridicule reside nobler motives of social reform. The satirist is misanthropic, but his distaste for humanity stems from disappointment, not spite. The satirist is furthermore oddly sanguine because he somehow believes that language can turn disappointment into enlightenment, progress, or at least reflection. With the recent exit of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher becomes (perhaps) American TV’s last “pure”, sanguine satirist, a mock-heroic figure who somehow finds himself trapped within the format of a weekly commercial talk show.

I’ve followed Maher’s career for a few decades, from the occasionally witty Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death through his standup routines and Politically Incorrect, which was unjustly cancelled (in 2002) because Maher questioned the courage of American pilots who drop bombs from a safe height onto brown-skinned people. (The comment could only be controversial for network television, which kowtows to advertising—George Carlin once mocked America’s “Nintendo pilots” and no one batted an eye.) The talk show format doesn’t always do Maher justice, however; his ideal genre is the righteously indignant monologue (with which he ends each show), rather than the chatty roundtable, which can descend into triviality and irrelevance.

If Maher sees himself as a lone bulwark of reason in a puritanical country still balking at Enlightenment values, the talk-show format of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher tends to gravitate toward unenlightened left-right binaries. After an opening standup routine and a more or less “straight” interview with a newsmaker, the show settles into a “panel” format that pits Maher’s antireligious, Voltairean hero against a trio of politicians, elite journalists, or political hacks who engage in partisan bickering. With few exceptions, Maher commands most of the show, trying to play off the binaries without becoming entangled within them. As if confessing that the left-right stalemate inhibits a true dialectic, a socially progressive entertainer or celebrity is brought out at halftime to sit by Maher’s side (sitting in opposition to the political hacks) to provide moral instruction. In the episode of 14 August, the progressives were activist and musician Talib Kweli and social justice nun Helen Prejean (Dead Man Walking), whose selfless motives indeed make the trio of politicians and hacks look like politicians and hacks.

I have no idea how guests are booked on the show, and I suspect Maher tires of giving platforms to witless technocrats and political insiders who need to push their latest, bromidic trade books. Usually, the token Republican panelist frustrates most egregiously. I can recall no episode of Real Time with a Republican guest who was worthwhile, insightful, surprising, or challenging (“enlightening” is too much to ask). Admittedly, Republicans are short of fascination: even those invited on the show, and who presumably have time to prepare, are little more than matted haircuts and rehearsed talking points.

The 14 August episode featured Doug Heye, a former RNC Communications Director and Eric Cantor crony who now does god-knows-what at the Harvard Institute of Politics (Harvard and especially Princeton often warehouse political insiders and Congressional retirees). Unsurprisingly, he had nothing to say, but his form—that is, his very presence—is his primary meaning. Nearly reasonable conservatives like Heye or regular Steve Schmidt (also a ubiquitous talking head on MSNBC) must regularly appear to remind liberals that Republicans are indeed performing the “autopsy” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus claimed was needed after the Romney debacle.

Notably, the Republicans, amateurishly straining in their political rhetoric, stumbled upon metaphors of death to describe their own predicament. In addition to “autopsy”, one continually hears that Republicans are conducting a “post-mortem”—an unfortunate choice of metaphor considering that a dead body can never be resurrected, even if one “enlarges the tent”, “changes the narrative”, “reaches out to communities of color”, “listens actively to disenfranchised voting blocs”, or does whatever various catchphrases suggest. At least a “Republican vivisection” would hold out hope that the conservative body might leap off the operating table in a last-ditch display of protest. Perhaps they believe their corpse can be reanimated by artificial means, which would explain the domination of gameshow host Donald Trump, who now prowls TV’s countryside as a rampaging, Frankensteinian fabrication, cobbled together from the ideas of old, failed campaigns. 

But the “autopsy” metaphor doesn’t merely lack the optimism the satirist takes for granted. It’s also an incorrect metaphor on its face, the product of bad spin doctors. Literally, an autopsy is the act of seeing with one’s own eyes (“auto” plus “optic”), but Republicans, always short on empathy, need to see themselves through others’ eyes. They’ve far too long seen the body politic blankly, trusting their own perceptions of themselves, just as they’ve trusted in feel-good nationalism and the deified, Alzheimer’s-addled Reagan. Swift, one of Maher’s inspirations, once described satire as “a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” I am not sure if this always holds true—Maher, often striving for objectivity, verily points out his own biases and limitations—but Swift’s definition of satire certainly has the ring of the Republican autopsy, which explains why Republicans have become walking caricatures, no longer needing satirists to point out their lifelessness.

by Sean Fennell

21 Aug 2015

“You’re going to make me say it aren’t you? I am Mr. Robot”
—Elliot Alderson

Last week I made readers wait until the end to discuss Mr. Robot’s biggest twist of the season; this week I will not be so withholding. As has actually been prophesied by many since the opening episode, Mr. Robot, is in fact a figment of Elliot’s (Rami Malek) wild and clearly fractured imagination.

by Sean Fennell

14 Aug 2015

We officially have it, the moment that most of season one of Mr. Robot has led to: the twist. We may have had some awesome moments up to this point — the heists, the hacks, the reveal — but they all pale in comparison to last night’s landscape shaking twist. Most of the episode revolves around the first meeting between the head of the “dark army”, the only collective more secretive that F Society, and Elliot (Rami Malek). Mr. Robot and team hope to convince the army to help them finally take down Evil Corp.

by Anthony Merino

11 Aug 2015

This season of True Detective maddens the viewer with its baroque inconsistency. Writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto has thus far created a slew of compelling characters, clichés, conveniences, complications, and schmaltz, with the final episode, directed by John Crowley, including more of the same.

At its best, mixing these contradictory elements created compelling television. In one scene, a major character is stabbed and left to die in the dessert. Pizzalotto puts a nice spin on the classic “my life passed before my eyes” cliché by having the character walk by a series of hallucinations. Ghosts of the character’s past pop up, ending with a final mirage of the victim’s partner. There is a nice little detail whereupon seeing the second character, the first goes from walking with a limp to his signature confident stride—tipping the viewer off that it’s not just a vision, but that even the walking was a dream. The character turns to look at the corpse and then the camera cuts to a wide shot of the body falling and then disappearing.

by Sean Fennell

6 Aug 2015

Last week’s Mr. Robot episode, “br4ve-trave1er.asf” ended with the most “Game of Thronesian” moment of the show’s first season. It was the kind of episode that, if the show was more popular, would have lit up the Twittersphere with analysis and insight within moments of its conclusion. However you break down last week’s many twists and turns one thing is for sure; Shayla is dead and it was largely, if not completely, Elliot’s fault.

//Mixed media

Marina and the Diamonds Wrap Up U.S. Tour at Terminal 5 (Photos)

// Notes from the Road

"Marina's star shines bright and her iridescent pop shines brighter. Froot is her most solid album yet. Her tour continues into the new year throughout Europe.

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