Category Archives: TV Shows

Space Seed (1967)


While people sometimes remark that the first interracial kiss on American television took place between William Shatner as Captain James Kirk and Michelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura on November 22, 1968, it’s not even the first interracial kiss on Star Trek. Whether or not Ricardo Montalbán would have been considered “white” in 1967 — and he probably would have since he had a long career in Hollywood as a “Latin Lover” unaffected by California’s anti-miscegenation laws — is beside the point. His character in the classic Season 1 episode Space Seed, the genetically modified superman Khan Noonien Singh, is certainly a man of color. More than that, he does more than kiss Lieutenant Marla McGivers, a “ship’s historian” played by Madlyn Rhue. It’s clear that before they lead a mutiny against Captain Kirk and briefly take over the Enterprise, they fuck each other’s brains out.

Nevertheless Space Seed is not socially progressive. In fact, it’s probably the most reactionary episode in the whole series. “Every woman adores a Fascist,” Sylvia Plath remarked in her poem Daddy, and Marla McGivers is no exception. After Khan Noonien Singh, a Twentieth Century fascist dictator with the seductive powers of an Adolf Hitler, wakes up from his two hundred year hibernation, he quickly begins to plot his coup. Like all fascists, he takes advantage of the openness of a liberal democratic society. Kirk gives him access to the ship’s technical manuals without thinking and welcomes him as a guest, not as a potentially dangerous criminal. Yet the key to Khan’s takeover of the Enterprise, the weakest link in the utopian society of Federation of Planets, is Marla McGivers, the silly woman with a soft spot for the “bad boy.” Mr. Spock, by contrast, the unemotional intellectual, is the only member of the Enterprise’s crew completely unaffected by Khan’s “charm.”

The idea that women, and womanly sexual desire, are the key to understanding fascism, is, of course, nonsense. There were no women involved in Hitler’s takeover of Germany or Mussolini’s takeover of Italy, and Franco was a very traditional, patriarchal Catholic. Gene Roddenberry was simply an MRA decades before his time, the male geek who feared that the abusive jocks were getting all the girls. Nevertheless, the decision to cast the Latin Montalbán as the fascist Don Juan instead of a blond, blue eyed Aryan, as the shows producers had originally intended, was a stroke of genius. Space Seed expresses a very real anxiety many white liberals felt during the 1960s. Until William Shatner’s stunt double beats the crap out of Ricardo Montalbán’s stunt double at the very end of the episode, the usually dominant Kirk, a liberal alpha male in the style of John F. Kennedy, simply fades into the background. He seems dull, insignificant, “inferior” as Khan remarks. He doesn’t get the girl as he does in so many other episodes. He doesn’t even come close.

1967 was the very height of the counterculture, the year that the liberalism of the early 1960s was giving way to the radicalism of the late 1960s. Khan’s character is a tyrant who physically abuses his lover Marla McGivers, and uses torture against Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura, but I don’t think the screenwriters Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilbur are afraid of another Hitler. The source of their anxiety is the rising third world, the idea that people of color might not be inferior but superior to white men, and that white liberals in the form of James T. Kirk might simply become irrelevant. The fear underlying Space Seed was not so much a fear of tyranny, but, rather, the fear of a brown planet.

Ricardo Montalbán would return in the The Wrath of Khan. Though it’s usually considered the best of the Star Trek movies, The Wrath of Khan loses all of the political nuance and sexual politics of Space Seed. Montalbán is no longer a sexually menacing South Asian, but, rather, a white haired maniac in command of a crew that looks like they had just been pulled off their surfboards on a beach in Southern California. Marla McGivers is nowhere to be seen. She’s been replaced by Kirstie Alley as a young female vulcan and Bibi Besch as Kirk’s ex lover Carol Marcus, a scientist who surely would have found the original, bronzed, black haired Khan ridiculous.Women in 1982 were a lot more liberated than they were in 1967, and that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily make for better science fiction.

In Praise of The Gong Show

Chuck Barris, the creator of The Gong Show, has died at the age of 87.

As an early Gen Xer, I remember watching The Gong Show on television when I come home for lunch from school. But, as readers of Writers Without Money know from Daniel Levine’s great appreciation of The Gong Show last year, Chuck Barris also touched the millennial generation.

RIP Chuck. I won’t use that silly “Rest in Power” sendoff the left uses whenever a beloved celebrity dies, but I will say “rest with a paper bag over your head.” We all know you were really the Unknown Comic.

Writers Without Money

As the time spent with the screen approaches or surpasses the time spent outside it, so the parables, overt or otherwise, of men trapped in their own creations or those of others, of individuals trapped in the television pile up in increasing quantities. They pile up without our noticing and the more obvious examples of this phenomena like The Truman Show become less interesting. The Truman Show bores me because its coming at the realization that TV has impacted social relations from the tired and, at the present moment, irrelevant parable of the person seeing their life was a lie and coming to the truth. Ho hum. Very reassuring because it dodges the real issue at hand-there is no escape.

The art that best explores the horror and glee of being trapped in the reflection of the screen is not that which consciously approaches the question as such; as the…

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Homeless (1989)


Homeless, just the sound of word is often enough to make us shudder. We walk past the mentally ill living on the streets of New York or San Francisco. Sometimes we reach into our wallets and drop a dollar or two into someone’s cup. Other times we just look up and keep walking, pretending not to notice what’s right in front of our eyes. There is no precise definition of a “homeless person.” Does it mean sleeping on a friend’s couch? Living with family members? Depending on the good will of another? If it does, then most children would qualify as “homeless.” Does it mean “not owning property?” People who live in homeless shelters and welfare hotels have roofs over their head, and are usually considered to be “homeless,” but how about people living in illegal sublets, or people on month to month leases? In the United States, if you don’t own your own property, you can never be quite sure that someone won’t put you out in the streets. Even if you do, however, you can still be evicted from your house if you don’t pay your property taxes. Insecurity, like Calvinist original sin, is part of capitalism. The people who rule over us wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Homeless,” directed by McCarthyite blacklist victim Lee Grant, is not only one of the great moments of American television. It’s one of the best movies of the 1980s. Don’t look for it on any of the “ten best lists” put out by film critics. Homeless is a brutally realistic glimpse into the life of the working class we rarely, if ever, see at the movies, let alone on television. All Lee Grant – who won an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1986 – has to do is get out of the way, and let the Darwinian reality of American capitalism speak for itself. I first saw Homeless on television in 1989, and it chilled me to the bone. I put it out of my mind as soon as I could, but I never quite forgot about it. I looked for it occasionally in the 1990s, but I don’t think it ever came out on VHS or DVD. Finally, when I noticed that Amazon put it up on their streaming service a few years ago, I decided to rent it. I saw it again last night after 27 years. It’s lost none of its power.

Mike Cooper (a young Jeff Daniels) and Zan Cooper (Christine Lahti) are a working-class couple in their early 30s. They have two children, ten-year-old David and his younger sister Tina. Mike, who worked in a steel mill through his 20s – it closed down during the now forgotten deindustrialization of the Midwest during the Reagan years – is a live-in superintendent in a Pittsburgh apartment building. Mike is studying at a trade school, hoping to get his electrician’s license. Zan works in a donut shop. Both hope to work their way into the middle-class before the end of the year. Sadly, it never happens. After a contentious visit to Mike’s older brother Eddie, they come home to find that they’ve been burned out of house and home. I suppose that Lee Grant spent most of her budget on the fire that engulfs Mike and Zan’s building – we never learn the cause but can’t help wondering if it had anything to do with Mike’s inexperience as an electrician – but she gets her money’s worth. The flames that quite literally explode out of the windows while the anguished Cooper family look on have a malevolence that’s hard to express unless you’ve seen the film. The fire almost seems to be the devil himself himself taunting the young, and now homeless family.

“Watch me now. I will show you the cold, heartless inferno that is American capitalism. I will destroy the hopes and dreams of both your innocent children. I will persecute you onto death.”

The devil, whether its the mythological fallen angel of the Christian tradition or the heartless, Darwinian logic of American capitalism, cannot succeed in destroying you without your cooperation. Pride, one of the seven deadly sins, is the beginning of the Cooper family’s downfall. Zan wisely insists that they take up Eddie on his offer to put them up at his house while they get back on their feet, but Mike, who already owes his older brother $1200 dollars, won’t hear of it, and insists on staying at a motel. Soon, their money runs out and they end up at Eddie’s anyway. Enter Eddie’s pride. Zan, who very wisely signed up for food stamps, foolishly uses them a the local market, where it soon gets back back to Eddie that is brother and sister in law are “welfare bums.”

Mike, his pride wounded, but not quite enough to stand up for his wife against his contemptuous older brother, grabs his family and drags them out the door, and they spend the next few weeks living in their car. When they’ve finally had enough — ever try living in a car with two kids? – Mike drives to the steel mill where he had worked for twelve years, and lets out a primal scream of despair. “I’m a worker,” he shouts at the grim industrial ruin. “I’m not a welfare bum. I’m a worker.” The next deadly sin, we now understand, is not Mike’s or Eddie’s but society’s. To be more specific, it’s the false consciousness of the white, middle-American “working” class for you can’t but help interpret Mike’s passionate declaration that he’s a “worker not a welfare bum” as a subconscious cry of despair that he’s white and not black. Mike is not a racist, and Zan, as we later see, is certainly not a racist, but their petty-bourgeois, individualist solution to the deindustrialization of the American Midwest in the 1980s – Mike decided to retrain as an electrician but made no attempts to organize collectively with his fellow laid off steelworkers – has put them in a hell they do not entirely understand.

The Cooper family’s next stop is a homeless shelter and a welfare hotel. Zan, not surprisingly copes better than Michael. She quickly becomes good friends with Prue, a black single mother on the run from her physically abusive ex-husband. Mike, who’s quickly becoming delusional, resents the friendship. “We’re not on welfare,” he insists, reluctant to see his wife become friends with a black woman. “Yes we are,” Zan reminds him, demonstrating that she, unlike her husband, is beginning to work her way out of the kind of petty-bourgeois, individualist false consciousness that keeps the white American working-class from rebelling. Prue, who’s been on the list for public housing for over a year, has survival skills Mike and Zan don’t, showing them how to get around the restrictions against cooking in their rooms, pulling Zan away from the television and making her go outside. But Prue is only a single mother, powerless against the forces conspiring for the Cooper family’s destruction. Zan has put David and Tina into a local public school, a public institution that should have been a place of refuge, but of course, it’s anything but. The Vice Principal goes out of his way to humiliate David and Tina, segregating them int a separate area of the lunch room with Prue’s kids and the rest of the “welfare hotel rats.”

If descending into the underclass has a bad effect on two adults in their 30s, it has a decisively bad effect on two children. Indeed, the most agonizing part of Homeless is watching all of David’s boyish enthusiasm destroyed. He and his littler sister have lost their innocence a decade before they should have. Their childhood has been prematurely and brutally murdered by the logic of downward mobility. Soon David turns to panhandling, then petty crime, putting their status at the hotel – where all the residents live under the close watch of a pair of unethical, predatory security guards – in danger. Then Mike decides to abandon his family and go south. That’s about it. Mike fails. His excuse, that he’s lost his part time job and that employment opportunities are better in Florida, rings hollow. When Zan pleads with him not to go, and he insists on leaving them anyway, we can’t help but agree with his older brother that he’s a loser, or David, who chases after his father’s car, throwing rocks and yelling “you’re a liar.” Mike has failed as a man. Because his pride has made him unable to face his wife and two children, he decides to abandon them to their fate.

That fate quickly reveals itself to be the two hotel security guards, both of whom have decided that Zan, now without the protection of her husband and made even more vulnerable by her son’s foolish decision to become a drug runner, can be raped without any consequences. Of course she can, something she knows all too well. If she stays in the hotel and refuses to sleep with either of the guards, they’ll call children’s services and have both her kids taken away. If she leaves the hotel, she not only risks losing all contact with her husband, who’s promised to call her every week at a pay phone in the lobby – there was no e-mail or Facebook in 1989 – but has to drag both her kids into the streets, to wash up at the train station, to ride city buses all night in the rain, to sleep in a vacant, abandoned house on the outskirts of town.

If the last half hour of Homeless scarred me emotionally at the age of 24 when I first saw it on TV, it scarred me even more last night at age 51, when I streamed it off of Amazon. Back in 1989, under the kinder gentler capitalism of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, I suppose it might have been possible for a homeless woman and her two kids to wash up in a public restroom, or ride the buses all night without being shooed away by security. The two police officers who surprise them in Eddie’s house, where they break in to spend the night, might have let them go without arresting them. In 2016, under the neoliberal capitalism of Barack Obama, Zan’s journey into the heart of Pittsburgh’s urban darkness now seems almost Utopian. It almost feels as if Lee Grant didn’t go quite deep enough. I’ve seen the homeless try to wash up in Penn Station in New York. Most of them get ten or twenty seconds. These days, with the kind of shock and awe techniques the typical big city police department uses, Zan would get pepper sprayed, handcuffed, and processed through central booking before the kids are sent to foster homes. Their reunion with Mike, who fails to find a real job in the south as completely as he failed in Pittsburgh, would never happen.

Yet Grant, who lost the the prime years of her acting career to the House Un-American Activities Committee because she refused to be coerced into testifying against her husband, in the end doesn’t pull any punches. Mike returns to find his wife and two small children living in a squat. Zan, whether out of forgiveness or because of the sheer terror of living alone on the streets, takes him back. “The system just wants people like us to disappear,” Mike says to Zan, who agrees then adds “but we’re not going to go away.” Whether or not they ever get off the streets is left to our imagination. We suspect they won’t since Mike, whether Grant realizes it or not, hasn’t changed. He also gets what he’s always wanted. When he hears a group of fellow homeless men outside their squat yelling at one another, he grabs a heavy copper pipe – which of course these days would have long been stripped out of any abandoned building — savagely beats one, and sends the rest of them fleeing in terror. “Get away from my house,” Mike screams, finally getting what he wanted. He’s a real man now, the king of his castle, the king of nothing.

Note: Although the film is still available on Amazon under the name “Homeless,” on IMDB the title has been changed to the kinder and gentler “There’s No Place Like Home.”

The Sopranos (1999-2007)

People who write for TV shows, like Victorian novelists, get paid by the word. As long as the show gets ratings and makes money, it will go on. The Sopranos, like the loaf of bread Karl Marx famously talks about in the first volume of Das Kapital, contains almost as much sawdust as it does nutritious grain. The series, which ran for almost eight years, follows commercial, not dramatic logic. The story of Tony and Carmela Soprano, mostly played out after two or three seasons, had to be stretched out into six. At some point it makes more sense to read The Sopranos not as a novel, but as a collection of short stories, David Chase’s “New Jerseyans” to James Joyce’s Dubliners. The infamous final episode, where the screen simply goes black, and which has inspired so much debate, is simply Chase realizing he doesn’t have it in him to write anything as compelling as The Dead. So he closes out the series with a whimper instead with the “bang” that we expected.

The core idea of The Sopranos is the hostility of the elderly to the middle-aged, the dread people in their forties and fifties feel as their parents decline into senility and death. As the series opens, Tony Soprano, a portly New Jersey mob boss played by James Gandolfini, would seem to embody the American Dream. Not only does he have a mansion in North Caldwell, a devoted wife, and an Ivy League bound daughter, younger women fall into his lap like ripe apples from a tree. Unlike a stock broker, a dentist, or any other normal member of the suburban upper-middle-class, he gets to act out on his aggression with little or no consequences. If someone pisses him off, he can just have him killed. Yet Tony Soprano is not a happy man. His mother Livia and his Uncle Corrado, “Uncle Junior,” may be declining physically, but they have no intention of giving way gracefully to the next generation. In fact, they want him dead.

Nancy Marchand, who plays Livia Soprano, died in 2000 along with her character. Her performance as an emotionally withholding Italian American mother is the heart and soul of the series. Every scene between Marchand and Gandolfini rings true. James Gandolfini was a physically imposing man, well over six feet tall and just shy of three hundred pounds. Nancy Marchand was a frail old woman dying of lung cancer. The power dynamic between Livia and Tony Soprano is one sided. Tony is determined to have his mother’s approval. She’s just as determined to deny him. Watching Tony bring a box of Italian pastries to the nursing home where he has very reluctantly confined Livia and observing how she rejects the offering is a master class in good acting. Gandolfini swaggers in like a cat with a bird its mouth. Marchand’s initial expression is one of pure joy. They’re very good pastries, but Livia can’t allow Tony to see that he has pleased her in any way. Marchand turns off her smile like a light switch. Her body language becomes hard, domineering. Gandolfini, in turn, is deflated. You observe the forty-year-old man become a twelve-year-old boy. You can almost see the air leak out of his body.

The Sopranos never quite recovers from Marchand’s death, but it’s the dread of the declining, elderly parent that keeps it going for the next five years. Dominic Chianese, who plays Uncle Junior, isn’t quite on the same level as Gandolfini and Marchand, but he’s close. As Uncle Junior succumbs to Alzheimer’s Disease, we like Tony Soprano, wonder just how much of it is real, and just how much he’s faking. Modeled on the real life Vincent Louis Gigante, Corrado Soprano attempts to avoid a long jail sentence by feigning mental illness. Unlike Gigante, he is successful, but almost as if cursed by the gods for his deception, the play becomes reality. Shortly after pretending to lose his mind, he actually does lose his mind. He begins to wander through his neighborhood in his bathrobe. He forgets where he has hidden an enormous sum of money. Finally, he shoots his nephew in the gut, almost killing him.

If David Chase is a master at portraying the middle-aged and the elderly, he has little or no ability to write about people under thirty. Tony’s daughter Meadow is a kind of teenage girl who became drearily familiar in the 1990s, the wise beyond her years, straight-A student who serves as a hip foil to her square parents. Meadow’s character doesn’t develop so much as it fades from the series. The longer The Sopranos goes on, the less we see of her. Her boyfriends, in turn, are plot devices, not actual flesh and blood human beings. Noah Tannenbaum, who’s half black, half Jewish, and all privileged, Ivy League douchebag, exists mainly to demonstrate that Tony Soprano doesn’t want his daughter dating a “moulinyan.” Meadow’s next boyfriend, Jackie Aprile Jr. is a dim pretty boy. The man after that, Finn DeTrolio, a Columbia student and a “Wonder Bread Wop,” as Tony refers derisively refers to to overly assimilate Italian Americans, is the most sympathetic and complex of the three, but in the end, he remains a cipher. Finn casually “outs” Vito, a gay mobster, a betrayal that eventually leads to Vito’s torture and murder, but the show never considers the act on a moral or a dramatic level. Finn is never portrayed as a rat. He’s afraid of Vito. He thinks Vito wants to fuck him. That seems to be enough. As politically correct as Meadow can be, it doesn’t even lead to a fight. Their breakup is off screen. We never learn the reason why.

Anthony Jr. or “AJ,” Meadow’s younger brother, is as much of a 1990s cliché as his sister. Chase has no interest in getting inside his head or portraying him as an individual. AJ simply reflects what Chase can glean from popular culture about what young men born in the mid-1980s are supposed to be like. First he’s the bratty younger brother, Bart Simpson to Lisa Simpson. Then, like a grunge-era slacker, he grows his hair long, gets a job at a Blockbuster Video, and goes to parties he can’t afford. After 9/11, he becomes a wannabe patriot. When he gets dumped by his Hispanic girlfriend – we have absolutely no idea why she’s dating him in the first place so we have absolutely no idea why she dumps him –and he becomes suicidal, Chase writes what’s probably the worst and yet most representative scene in the entire series. AJ goes out to the family pool. He ties a plastic bag over his head and a cinder block to his leg. He jumps in the water. At long last, we think, this tedious bore of a character is going to die a horrible death, but no. He changes his mind. He pulls the plastic bag off his head, and tries to swim to dry ground. Then Chase himself seems to change his mind. AJ can’t get out of the pool with the cinder block around his ankle. Maybe he’ll die after all. Finally, however, just as AJ is about to draw his last breath, Tony Soprano pulls into the driveway, hears his son’s cries for help, dives into the pool, and pulls him out of the water.

In other words, AJ is so uninteresting, we really don’t care if he lives or dies, and Chase knows it. Like the infamous “fade to black” ending, AJ’s suicide, then change of heart, then rescue, expresses absolutely nothing about his character. All it means is that Chase can write literally anything he wants, and his loyal fans will still talk about it on the Internet. The show has abandoned dramatic, narrative logic altogether. We, the viewers, have been completely subordinated to the marketplace. If you want to see what it looks like when a TV writer has lost all respect for his audience, you could do worse then Anthony Soprano Junior’s little dip in the family pool.

The Sopranos might just be the most violent TV show in history. After awhile, you begin to lose track of who gets his head bashed in, who gets whacked, who gets chopped up and who doesn’t. Just about the only thing we notice is that graying, overweight, middle-aged men always seem to win fights. Above all, The Sopranos is a middle-aged, white guy’s power fantasy. Two deaths, however, do matter. Christopher Molisanti, played by Michael Imperioli – Spider from Goodfellas – is Tony Soprano’s younger protégé, Jesse Pinkman to his Walter White. Adriana La Cerva, Drea De Matteo, is his fiancée. While neither of them is particularly interesting as an individual – Chase can’t write characters in their late 20s much better than he can write teenagers – they are key to the resolution of the series as a whole. When the FBI bullies Adriana into becoming an informant, it’s the closest The Sopranos, which ran during the worst years of the second Bush administration, comes to criticizing the United States of the Patriot Act. Adriana is engaged to a mobster but other than managing a mob controlled night-club, she’s not particularly involved in the world of organized crime. She doesn’t have much much to tell the government, and her FBI handlers know it. It’s all a big sadistic power game.

Molisanti’s decision to turn over his fiancée to Tony Soprano – her murder is by far the most horrifying one in the series – is a key moral choice. He has chosen his spiritual father figure, the patriarchy, over the woman he supposedly loves, but Tony, like Livia, can’t pass things off to the next generation. An aspiring screenwriter, and perhaps very loosely fictionalized stand in for Chase himself, Molisanti had become addicted to drugs and alcohol, and had very slowly and painfully managed to recover. A seemingly trivial incident – Molisanti sleeps with a woman Soprano once had his designs on – pushes the two men apart. Once Tony marks a piece of property it’s his, so he isolates Molisanti by publicly taunting him about his painfully won sobriety. How can you be a real man, let alone a “made” man, if you can’t handle your alcohol? After Molisanti relapses, Soprano uses it as an excuse to murder him. All throughout The Sopranos, the FBI has been most successful in flipping alcoholics and addicts. After a convenient car crash – car crashes become a tediously predictable plot device in The Sopranos – even more conveniently crushes Molisanti’s rib cage but leaves Soprano almost unscathed, Soprano blocks his one time protégé’s nostrils and lets him down in his own blood. Tony, like his mother, wants to kill his son. Unlike his mother, he succeeds.

A Very British Coup (1988)

What would happen if Jeremy Corbyn were elected Prime Minister? Would he be allowed to govern? Or would the corporate media, the United States government and the ruling class in the United Kingdom do everything they could to sabotage his government short of a coup?

In 1982, when both Margaret Thatcher, and left-wing discontent with her government were at their height, an activist in the British Labor Party named Chris Mullin published a novel asking pretty much the same question. What would happen if Tony Benn, a veteran socialist politician, and the leader of the Labor Party’s left-wing, rode into 10 Downing Street on a landslide? Moreover, what would happen if he actually tried to keep his promises to the voters, if he rejected neoliberal austerity, demanded that the United States remove its military bases from British soil, and tried to dismantle the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal? Mullin’s novel, A Very British Coup, was made into a TV mini-series in 1988, and shown in the United States the next year. I was very impressed with it during its first run, but since I hadn’t seen it in 25 years, I decided to watch it again, and see how well it’s aged. You can see it on Hulu, but you need a subscription.

It hasn’t aged at all. In fact, I was surprised at just how good it is. It’s a well-acted, crisply-written, brilliantly directed little move about how the “deep state,” the intelligence agencies and permanent bureaucracy of the British government, team up with the United States government and the big media to bring down a democratically elected politician. It’s like John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May, if Frankenheimer had not been afraid to talk about class. It’s like Oliver Stone’s JFK, if Stone had any idea how to properly edit and pace one of his movies. A Very British Coup doesn’t have a boring moment. It really doesn’t. It’s over two hours long but it feels like it goes by in 15 minutes. It makes its point and gets right to the point. It’s also great leftist propaganda. You don’t come out of A Very British Coup wanting to have a drink. Unless you’re a reactionary or a complete fool, you come out of A Very British coup wanting to storm the Bastille and set up a guillotine in the middle of Times Square. Fuck the rich. Fuck their deep state and above all fuck their bloody newspapers.

Harry Perkins, the novel’s Jeremy Corbyn, is an ex-steelworker from Sheffield with a coarse north of England accent. Perkins is no John F. Kennedy. He’s a man of the working class, for the working class, and from the working class. After he rides into office in the wake of a banking scandal – yes I said banking scandal – with an overwhelming landslide, the ruling classes dismiss him as a fool. Maybe he’ll just turn out to be like every other Labor Party politician, a half-hearted socialist willing to compromise his principles as soon as he begins to get little taste of power. But Harry Perkins is no fool, and he’s not easily compromised. In fact, he plays Lawrence Wainwright, the Oxbridge educed leader of the centrist wing of the party, like a violin, sending him on a wild-goose chase to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund, even while he’s got his foreign minister, a leftist ex-schoolteacher named Tom Newsome, negotiating a better deal with a Russian bank in Stockholm.

These days, Russian banks lend money to fascists like Marine Le Pen, but in Mullin’s novel and in the mini-series they lend money to the socialist Harry Perkins, money that doesn’t come with an austerity program attached to it. When Perkins announces the deal on national TV, both Wainwright, and Sir Percy Brown – think of him as Allen Dulles with a British accent – realize they’ve lost the first round. Steelworker from Sheffield 1. British ruling class 0. But the British ruling class is only getting started. They now turn to the media. Tom Newsome may be a brilliant negotiator who speaks four languages, a leftist who’s utterly loyal to Harry Perkins, but he’s also a man who’s gotten into the habit of “thinking with the wrong head.” After the newspapers publish photos of him kissing a woman not his wife – and one with tenuous ties to the IRA – Perkins asks for his resignation. The score is now tied.

If the British ruling class has MI-5 and the CIA, Harry Perkins has his own intelligences service in Frederick Thompson, his press secretary, and Liz Fain, a computer programmer and Thompson’s upper-class girlfriend. It was Liz, Julian Assange before his time, who had originally rooted out the smoking gun for the bank scandal that put the Labor Party back into power. Thompson and Liz prove indispensable when the deep state make its next play, Smith, a bought and paid for labor union president who’s been making lecture tours in the United States over the past few years. Yes, apparently they bribed people with speaker’s fees back then too. After Smith teams up with Wainwright to call a strike that brings down the electrical power grid, Liz Fain and Jerry Thompson discover that both have connections to a shady American diplomat named Chambers, and through her to the CIA. Perkins takes the information to Wainwright and Smith, and promises to expose them if they don’t put the power back up. Smith goes back to his union, and Perkins transfers Wainwright from the treasury department to an obscure post in Northern Ireland.

With the score Harry Perkins 2, and the ruling class 1, Perkins decides to go on the offensive. The Americans can hardly believe it when they realize he’s serious about his demand that they remove their military bases from British soil. Perkins also turns to Sir Montague Kowalsky, a nuclear scientist and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, to carry out his plan for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Kowalsky, a Holocaust survivor, and man who understands the horror of war, not only supports Perkins, he’s also got a spotless past. Neither Sir Percy nor the media can find anything on him. After a trial run dismantling a nuclear warhead on national TV proves to be a great success, Sir Percy and his friends in the American government decide they’ve fooled around long enough. The time for propaganda and media smears is over. They’ve got no dirt on Kowalsky. He’s got nothing to lose. He’s two years away from retirement age. They can’t talk him out of his support for unilateral nuclear disarmament. They can’t scare the people with the big bad Soviet Union– one of Perkins’ cabinet members points out that since the United Kingdom is on an island and the French have nukes anyway the British military really doesn’t need their own – so they have him killed. Harry Perkins 2. Ruling class 2.

With the score tied, Sir Percy and the media decide to move in for the kill. It’s time to get rid of Harry Perkins once and for all. For the past few weeks before Kowalsky’s death, the newspapers have been running stories about Perkins’ health. Perkins is in perfect health, but since when has truth ever stopped the newspapers from writing a story? It’s really only background noise anyway designed to prepare the ground for Sir Percy’s final move. A decade before, Harry Perkins had had an affair with a woman named Helen Jarvis. Perkins is unmarried but he’s clearly not gay. The newspapers would have obviously run with that story had he been. Helen Jarvis, however, is married to the head of the financial services company that had arranged the loan from the Russians. There was nothing illegal, or even improper, about their participation in the deal, but it does create the appearance of impropriety, as do the forged bank notes proving that Jarvis’ company had deposited 300,000 pounds in a Swiss bank under the name Harry Perkins. The final scene of A Very British Coup is riveting. Sir Percy comes to 10 Downing Street to blackmail Harry Perkins. Resign for “health reasons,” he tells the Prime Minister, and he’ll bury the story about the alleged bribes. Sir Percy is an excellent villain. He’s also terrified of Perkins, seeing in him the man who just might destroy the British ruling class forever. He’s doing it for his ancestors, “yea all the way back to the Middle Ages.”

A Very British Coup ends with the score still tied at Harry Perkins 2. Ruling class 2. Perkins appears to take Sir Percy’s deal but it’s a ruse. Harry Perkins has ancestors too, specifically a grandfather who was killed in an industrial accident and left his family in poverty, uncompensated by the insurance companies. Harry Perkins is a real class warrior who’s not going down without a fight. Instead of announcing his resignation, he takes to the TV airwaves, and, like Charles de Gaulle in 1962, calls the people into the streets. Well, actually he calls for a general election. “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Sir Percy says out loud to a British Army general, echoing Henry II’s suggestion that his knights murder Thomas Becket. We flash ahead to the day of the election. The TV stations talk of a “constitutional crises.” We hear the sound of helicopters. There’s a report about an earthquake in Chile, a country where another socialist politician had been taken out by a coup d’etat 15 years before. In his attempt to blackmail Harry Perkins, Sir Percy talked about a bloodless coup by media, a “very British coup,” as he phrased it. As the credits role we wonder whether or not Sir Percy managed to organize the real thing.

Why Did Adult Swim Pass on Pretzels 2016? The WWM Exclusive Interview


Popular nighttime programming block Adult Swim has shut down yet another promising program before it hit the pilot stage. The program, Pretzels 2016 was attached to well known producers who’ve had numerous hits with the station in the past.

The network’s summer programming block is in serious jeopardy as a result. “We’re in a bind,” reported Cartoon Network head of programming Jeff Wayblebibble at Comic Con. Summer is key for the cable networks because the big networks don’t air many new shows between May and September.

This is a shame. It looked like a fun time. The proposed show runner only goes by the enigmatic handle Scratch Corwood and he’s hard to get in touch with. Writers Without Money was granted a rare interview over Skype and got to ask about the genesis of the idea that never was. His voice sounds like a shoe stepping on gravel.

WWM: Thanks for talking with us. We know you’re a busy man.

SC: My pleasure. I’m a big fan of Writers Without Money.

WWM: Plugs already! *laughs*

SC: *laughs*…So what was it you wanted to talk about?

WWM: We were hoping to get some information for our readers about what happened to your project Pretzels 2016.

SC: Well, it just got thrown in production hell again.

WWM: We heard. So let’s start at the beginning. What inspired you to make a…wait, let me find the promotional materials we were sent…this is right off the press kit: A political drama exploring truth, justice, and what it’s like to be eaten by a bear.”

SC: It was one of those things sitting in the back of my head for a while, you know. I was on a camping trip with a friend, and he tells me he got a better job and it paid more money (than his old job). He had big plans for the future. And chief among these was his intention to buy a large wild black bear and teach it to watch bad television and live on nothing but Doritos, Hot Pockets, and cheap beer. He’d dress it up in the XXXL “#1 Grandpa” t-shirts that Wal-Mart always has on clearance. The bear’s name was to be Pretzels.

WWM: Did he ever go through with this?

SC: His girlfriend is on board. Now all they need to do is find a reputable dealer of wild black bears. *laughs*. It’ll happen.

The same week he told me this, I’d had an idea for how to fix the national electoral system. I wrote this summary of it on a napkin.

WWM: Do you still have the napkin?

SC: Yeah, lemme find it. (He digs around what sounds like a messy apartment. I hear several pots clanging and things falling down.) Ok, I found it. Want me to just read it to you directly?

WWM: Sure.

SC: Ok, it says: “Put all the candidates-both parties-into a big beach bungalow like they do on Celebrity Big Brother. Have them all give speeches once a week on what they’d like to do with the country. America votes by phone once a week to kick one of them out of the house. Last one left is leader of the free world. All actual political decisions are made by direct ballot measure.”

WWM: When did these ideas cohere into what the show was going to be?

SC: Well, I had a dream the next night, the details of which I cannot remember outside that Pretzels was involved. And I had an idea for a show. Do my election idea, except feed the losers to Pretzels. Have a different sponsor every week feed Pretzels when Pretzels isn’t eating the losing candidates. So like…when Olive Garden was doing its unlimited bread sticks thing, like feed Pretzels actual unlimited bread sticks and put an Olive Garden logo in the corner while he does it. And like..a different sponsor every week. And put a giant flat screen TV in the bungalow that plays…it just plays this video of Pretzels in this dirty t-shirt devouring bread sticks.

WWM: And the candidates know that if the viewers vote them off, they’ll be fed to Pretzels?

SC: Oh yeah. That’s why it’s hilarious. One second. (Corwood runs away from the computer for a second. I hear a small crackling noise.) So the candidates are all watching this giant TV, sweating it out. And Pretzels is all chill, just wolfing down bread sticks or whatever, watching Maury. And it says “Today’s Pretzel chow is courtesy of the Olive Garden.” And we were gonna have these segments…they’d be like-

WWM: I’m sorry, what’s that noise in the background?

SC: Just a small kitchen fire, I get them all the time. One sec. (Corwood runs off again, I hear in the background: “Bad! No! Get away from that.”) Are you a cat person?

WWM: Not particularly.

SC: Good, they’re awful, the bane of my existence. Never get one. Anyway, where were we…

WWM: The show.

SC: Right, so the show would have these five minute segments every week where it cuts away from the drama in the house and we see these little clips like they play as filler about athletes during the Olympics and it’s Pretzels walking around on a beach with this really Howard Cosell kinda narration. GET OFF OF THAT! STUPID CAT! Sorry, anyway so it’d be this soft-lit stuff of Pretzels walking alone on a beach and the narrator would say stuff like: “Pretzels spent his college years immersed in the classics. By 19 he had read through the complete works of Anthony Trollope. But his true love was always show business.”

WWM: What was that loud clanging noise?

SC: That was the cat again, I think it just knocked the pan off the stove top. The one that was…something’s on fire. Oh shit.

WWM: Do you want to continue the interview some other time?

SC: No, no, just…can I put you on hold for a second GET OFF THAT YOU STUPID CAT! AND NOW YOU’RE ON FIRE? THAT’S WHAT YOU GET!!!…

At this point the phone conversation abruptly cut out. Corwood reached me on Skype an hour later.

SC: Can you hear me?

WWM: Yeah.

SC: I was just on the phone with the fire department, they’re here now. But my wi-fi is still working, so what were the rest of your questions?

WWM: Is your house alright?

SC: I’ve got insurance. I’ll be alright. I thought we were gonna talk TV.

WWM: Yes, yes…well I was just about to ask you about your show that’s currently airing on FX, You’re Almost the Worst.

SC: Right, I lucked out on that one. I pitched it to FX as a cost-saving bit of extra original programming.

WWM: It’s a novel trick, I’m surprised the other networks haven’t picked it up yet.

SC: Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are. When I walked in their office and said “Well, just take that show you have, You’re the Worst, and while the characters are like…arguing about cocaine and parties and white people shit, take out the background digitally and replace it with a giant photo of Adolph Hitler,” well…I thought they were gonna kick me out of their office. But to their credit, they put it on the air. And I was right, it saved them a lot of money. And the Twitter reception has been fantastic.

WWM: What kinds of things do fans Tweet at you?

SC: I get a lot of Tweet mentions when the show’s airing, mostly like “@scratch Compared to Hitler, these hipsters is almost the worst. #yourealmosttheworst”.

WWM: It must be gratifying.

SC: Yeah, it’s good to know you’ve accomplished something. Paid for my house. Well, what was my house.

WWM: What changes can fans expect to see in season 2 of You’re Almost the Worst?

SC: Changes? No changes…just the same old show but with pictures of Hitler. Can I call you back? The EMT guys are coming over with a buncha charred shit in a pile, I think they want me to identify the cat…

At this point, Corwood’s connection went bad and we were unable to ask the rest of the questions by print time this morning. Corwood’s hit show You’re Almost the Worst begins its new season Monday.

In Praise of The Gong Show

As the time spent with the screen approaches or surpasses the time spent outside it, so the parables, overt or otherwise, of men trapped in their own creations or those of others, of individuals trapped in the television pile up in increasing quantities. They pile up without our noticing and the more obvious examples of this phenomena like The Truman Show become less interesting. The Truman Show bores me because its coming at the realization that TV has impacted social relations from the tired and, at the present moment, irrelevant parable of the person seeing their life was a lie and coming to the truth. Ho hum. Very reassuring because it dodges the real issue at hand-there is no escape.

The art that best explores the horror and glee of being trapped in the reflection of the screen is not that which consciously approaches the question as such; as the question at hand is one of immersion, they evade the issue by confronting it. The greatest lens developed to explore life within what Adorno and Horkheimer called “the culture industry” is the TV game show. The greatest practitioner of the form is Chuck Barris. Its crowning masterwork is The Gong Show.

The Gong Show was a joyous, raucous, all inclusive vision of hell. Contestants would be chosen for whatever strangeness they might offer the program; Barris always seemed drunk and/or on quaaludes, stumbling around the stage, sometimes barely audible, in a marching band outfit carrying a hockey stick. The judges were no less grotesque and ridiculous, a menagerie of over the hill lounge singers and random D-list celebrities who were also usually drunk. A stagehand was brought in as recurring character Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and eventually acted as a judge on several episodes. “The Unknown Comic”, Murray Langston with a paper bag over his head, would burst in telling horrible one liners and harassing Barris until Barris would chase him off the stage. The “good” performers were less than an afterthought-you watch the show to see things go wrong.

The self-seriousness of an American Idol, claiming to be for the benefit of the performers, is in fact just the arbitrary savagery of the capitalist selection process of what constitutes “success” asserting that its real and we should all participate in its mawkish carrot dangling that any of what goes on on it is “good”. These shows seem stupid and cruel because they are, in the same way as screenwriting workshops. A perfect example of this tendency was the one season Fox game show On the Lot. In this show, a group of aspiring commercial filmmakers jockeyed for the favor of Carrie Fisher, who wrote a bunch of middle brow literature about herself during the 80s, and Garry Marshall, director of both The Princess Diaries and the sequel to The Princess Diaries. Clearly people fit to judge these things. But they’re celebrities, they’ve got a lot of money, and a $1 million development deal was dangled at the end. So people played along. They all took it seriously. Like any game show, it was a long job interview done in public. That the audience could vote on favorites was the actual vicarious thrill; they weren’t fantasizing about the possibility of “making it” but to dream the more insidious fantasy of being the power broker pulling the strings to hire or fire applicants. Apparently the cost of taking these things very seriously is the possibility of $1 million.

The Gong Show was more honest. The prize money for the winner was the SAG minimum fee for a day’s work, there was never any pretense the judges or Barris knew anything about anything. “Constructive advice” was pulled out of no one’s ass. The Gong Show was anti-aspirational. The audience at home didn’t watch in order to vicariously imagine themselves as these peoples’ potential employers. They watched to revel in the glorious multiplicity of failure. They wanted to see the various ways people could get gonged. The gong itself, the symbol of ultimate power over expression, was put in the hands of nobodies. The tyranny of the gatekeeper was reduced to its ultimate ridiculousness. The amateurishness of the performers, a grotesquery that likely mirrored the inner desires of the viewers at home if they’d had the exhibitionist instinct to go on The Gong Show was handled with neither the condescending “polite” pity of an American Idol audition episode, nor the savagery of a Simon Cowell verbal undressing. It was just a thing that was there and all the weird dreaminess of regional oddities was allowed to express itself. A carnival of the things and people that were never supposed to make it on the TV. No one was fooled that Chuck Barris or the judges were above the contestants, least of all Chuck Barris.

After the end of the Chuck Barris run of The Gong Show, the only one I’m willing to acknowledge as existing, the thematic and narrative threads of the show were explored and resolved in The Gong Show Movie. In this film, Barris comes to terms with a much more troubling question than The Truman Show was willing to consider-what if you knew you were on a TV show, your existence revolved around this TV show, bled into the reality and left a thing that was ostensibly real but looked more like an endless marathon of The Gong Show. Barris and his girlfriend go through their daily routine and are constantly bombarded by people breaking into Gong Show auditions, up to and including Barris’s therapist. Barris is a terrible actor, which, in a film dealing with the borders of what constitutes what’s “good” in performance, is an asset. His “real life” as a California based celebrity grows to seem more grotesque and off-putting than the parade of characters seemingly escaped from a Fellini film that surround him. He keeps trying to escape into “reality” but the specter of The Gong Show repeatedly ruptures any pretense to such.

At the film’s climax, Barris takes a plane to a nondescript desert half a world away, ostensibly Morrocco, sure that this is the final desperate measure he needs to take to escape and be the no one he thinks he desires to be. As Baudrillard then Zizek put it, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” Wandering this empty expanse, a helicopter comes out of nowhere filled with Gong Show regulars. They sing a song telling Barris they need him to come back and run The Gong Show. The genius in this ending being the irony that they charmingly offer him the chance to reconcile in terms of coming back; he was never able to leave in the first place. The Gong Show is a part of himself, not an externality. The only escape is to not be Chuck Barris.

The actual specter haunting Chuck Barris in The Gong Show Movie is the fake possibility of being respectable.

The Sound of (No) One (Not) Listening

A common complaint is that not enough people listen to serious programs. Is there a method for studying non-listening?
-Paul Lazarsfeld, “Introduction”, Radio Research 1942-1943

The abiding rule of thumb when it comes to the gross people of the world is to just ignore them. It’s not like they’re capable of rational, respectful dialogue. It’s not like pointing out that they’re gross is going to make them be not gross…the Calgary police add, “It violates section 175(1)(A) of the Criminal Code: ‘a disturbance in or near a public place, (1) by fighting, screaming, shouting, swearing, singing or using insulting or obscene language.’” Normally, I am a firm supporter of the right to drop F-bombs whenever and wherever, but if the only thing these clowns understand is the fear of real consequences, then I’m down for it.

A scotsman who can’t watch a movie without shouting…
-Youtube clip title

According to Baudrillard, the territory of reality no longer precedes the map of representation…In the past, a “real” moment occurred when a person experienced another person’s presence and speech, or observed something that was happening in the neighborhood or across the street. Today what we experience more and more are spectacles…

It is with severe difficulty that we measure the strangeness of the present; it might in fact be said that the only means of defining the present is in its strangeness. With this strangeness we differentiate it from the past. By riding this feeling of the present’s strangeness we make our claims to the future, a forever uninhabited wilderness where theorists of all sorts set up claims and some strike gold. Sometimes this gold is found around their less than fresh corpse. The gold is fought over, the speculator at that point is dead, not much can be done for them. The gold may not even be gold. But then, like Schroedinger’s cat, gold only becomes “gold” insofar as we observe it as being such. Tooth fillings work similarly.

When Schroedinger opened his speculative box, had the cat died in a position to suggest it was chasing its tail?

What exactly is the sound of nothing being not-listened to? Traditionally: a tree falling in the forrest, a pin dropping, crickets, sneezing, the audience talking over the performer, “talk to the hand”, the audience heckling in an attempt to break down the imagined wall between audience and performer.

The inertia of a set of relations that in their proper placement create the performer and audience, that create the magical fourth wall, are multi-tiered, their allegiances scattered, flexible and frequently redrawn. The audience recreate their communicative end of the relationship in different forms that have a surprising level of complexity given the limit to their variety; the clap comes to be the sign of polite impatience, an “other” category for that which can’t comfortably be fit in the space of the laugh shout or boo, the acknowledgment of appreciation, and the impetus for an extension of performance. To invert the snow clone, if the eskimos have 50 words for snow, the audience has one clap correspond to 50 responses.

The theatergoers’ etiquette, always a tenuous treaty between two parties in conflict, reproduces itself in the relation passersby take to the production of moving images. While traveling around the country making a film about the US, I found that when I would take urban landscape shots hoping for people to walk through them, I would need to usher them, Moses-like, parting the sea of the image before they felt comfortable walking through. Successful long-running TV shows have worked on usually disingenuous flirtations of a new sort of relation between the audience and the performers; the Today Show’s famous police-style barricade surrounding crowds of eager TV viewers, the constant casting call on late night and daytime talk shows to “Be in our audience!”, the voting structure of talent competition shows, and in journalism the necessarily misleading “man on the street” interview.

The promise of performance is two-sided. The performer seeks a variable relation to the audience, the audience seeks the temporary feeling of community in their shared identity as the spectator. The uneasy elements of performance art and stand-up comedy are that they blur this line; the comic will attack a hostile audience, the performance artist will designate unusual and unrehearsed performance from the audience. The television on the other hand, despite the broad range of response it can elicit, safely contains both the space of the performer and that of the audience through what I guess could be called a two-state solution. Yet the hostilities on both sides remain, and the borders keep getting redrawn.

Yesterday’s shooting of two reporters on the air by a colleague who had been demoted (in his own mind, which is the primary space from which to analyze the spectator, who exists in communal interiority) from the space of performer to that of audience member has elicited two days of front page coverage in several international papers because, while the news usually is meant to be understood as allegory by the reader, this incident has extreme allegorical implications for the journalists themselves. The racial and gender components provide a means through which to explore unconsciously the incident’s dimension as a breach of trust between the set social relations in the production of news.

These relations and their once seemingly set qualities of course have been repeatedly questioned in the last several months. When activists claiming to be with Black Lives Matter took over the stage at a Bernie Sanders rally, decentralized discourse on the internet immediately began grappling with the question of what interpretation to use as a frame. Were the activists attempting to create a news story themselves, were they in the employ of the Clinton campaign, could they even be properly considered to be emissaries of Black Lives Matter at all, could Sanders’ followers in fact be racists? This swamp of confusion showed its spirit in the interchangeability of descriptions of Black Lives Matter as being a “movement” or a “hashtag”.

The reporting on the presidential campaign that reaches a broad saturation point is similarly defined by performative ruptures of identities-any Donald Trump “gaff” and the coverage following could suffice to prove my point here. In these spaces the viewer and journalist can explore the only partially conscious realization that the boundaries have shifted or possibly even collapsed between consumer and producer. With a TV or a radio, I can’t produce TV and consume unless I’m within the industry (outside small strongholds like public access and college stations, which still regiment the production of images in time and space in a manner the internet and its two-way delivery systems such as the computer, phone, or tablet, don’t.) CNN will often do stories on viral videos, in part to sustain the illusion they’re still monolithic curators of the image, in part a peacemaking concession to the rupture of TV communications, the way human interest stories worked for years and years.

New etiquettes are being created and smashed several times a day; the seemingly all encompassing space of the norm has enough cracks where the chaotic forces lurking behind it in shadows for all this time can be seen more clearly than the normatives.

The Symbolic Construction of Mass Shootings

(Check out my previous two pieces relating to this subject here and here.)

Much of the internet has evolved into a mutated form of the famous New Yorker cartoon caption contest; except in the internet the cartoon is not a cartoon but the rapid procession of events that constitute the enterprise we monolithically dub “the news”. Twitter and Facebook exist to arbitrate these acts of framing and declare quantitative winners. Twitter in particular pushes the form of discourse toward the framing caption; as in The New Yorker a vast quantity of captions are submitted, unlike in The New Yorker their voluminous quantity is regulated in a decentralized fashion.

The traumatic event being read into as a form of literature is hardly a new thing. Thomas Carlyle’s account of the French Revolution is structured as a novel, and similar exercises exist in such a staggering multitude that to begin listing them would rapidly derail this article. However, the form of the novel suggests a different sort of interpretation of events than a tweet, an online news article, or a blog post such as this one does. There are certain grammatical structures that are favored; a novel composed entirely of declarative generalizations would be rather rough reading, but a Twitter feed composed of little else has been several people’s ticket to influence.

Soon after the Virginia Tech shooting, a package was delivered to NBC containing what could be considered promotional materials for the shooting by the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho. It would seem, given the frequency with which mass shooters are delusional and prone to fantasizing, that the medium of the redemptive fantasy, the advertisement, would give tons of insight into what would cause a shooting. The police officials and a psychologist seemed to disagree despite a telling detail being right at the end of the statement. From Wikipedia:

“Police officials, who reviewed the video, pictures and manifesto, concluded that the contents of the media package had marginal value in helping them learn and understand why Cho committed the killings.[123][124] Dr. Michael Welner, who also reviewed the materials, believed that Cho’s rantings offer little insight into the mental illness that may have triggered his rampage.[125][126][127] Dr. Welner stated that “These videos do not help us understand Cho. They distort him. He was meek. He was quiet. This is a PR tape of him trying to turn himself into a Quentin Tarantino character.”[126]

Their roots seem to be fairly simple-some combination of major depressive disorder/severe anxiety/schizophrenia and an attraction to the aesthetics of a prior example of violence. These are, of course, far too broad as precursor symptoms to be of much use in rooting out shootings before they occur. Semiotic democracy, the decentralized readings of a shared text, will sometimes produce horrific outliers.

The almost daily occurrence and discussion of these sorts of shootings does not push the public into a state of enhanced sensitivity to them, nor does it get us any closer to figuring out their roots. It does, however, force the reader to start distinguishing them into categories mentally or to develop strategies of not engaging with the articles/events when they encounter them if they’d like to continue reading the national newspapers regularly.


This dilemma of internal media environment ecology has been dramatized in the NBC show Hannibal. The show, in its first season anyhow, exists as an unusual but still recognizable police procedural-serial killer is on the loose, brilliant investigator and his loyal crew of coworkers figure out how to catch him with the centerpiece of each episode being the virtuoso aria of an explanation provided by the brilliant investigator. The grand hero of any procedural, from House to Monk to Shark to…well you get the picture, is the character who can consistently pull off the magic trick of pulling sense from an overwhelming pile of seemingly contradictory information.

What sets Hannibal‘s Will Graham apart is the tone this procedural investigator-as-secular rationalist-mystic takes and the self-reflexive quality of the show. Graham, taken from Thomas Harris’s novels, is a freelance psychological profiling consultant for the FBI who specializes in serial killers. He has a form of “radical empathy” wherein he can enter the mind of the killers by looking at their crime scenes. The show recognizes Graham’s position as a mystic; the cops have to leave the crime scene for a brief period in order for Graham to channel the interior psychology of the serial killer. The crime scenes are very much gruesome art pieces and Graham treats them like an extremely astute art critic who focuses on the place of the “artist” in the piece.

Part of the reason for Hannibal’s steep ratings decline and cancellation is possibly a product of its hitting the point of procedurals too squarely on the nose. The primary comfort of the procedural, like that of the mystery novel, is the eventual catharsis of a mysterious world coming to clear coherence through the medium of the investigator. The increasingly prolonged periods of rather questionable but very calm and rationalistic explanation that always concludes popular programs in this mold such as  CSI in its various incarnations is a response to increased desire for explanations; the money shot. Hannibal meanwhile explores the ramifications of the procedural mentality and its aftershocks; Graham is frequently on the brink of madness and his knowledge is very much a grounds for suspicions that in his ability to read the killers he isn’t that far removed from them in his mental workings.

The distorted Krazy Kat triangle between Hannibal Lecter, Will Graham, and Jack Crawford on the show is a subject that will require its own essay. It’ll suffice for now to take away the lesson that the contemplation of crimes does not produce a unified response by any standard and that the desire to understand these events, if pursued in good faith, does not always lead to especially comforting conclusions. Much of the public is willing to write killers off as monolithic totems of “insanity”, an ill-defined category used mostly for gerrymandering the border of acceptable behaviors and thought processes.

This isn’t necessarily an unhealthy response, though it leads to the production of articles, news reports, and pop psychology books that frame these events as indictments of specific social trends in a binary that usually favors the agenda of the writer while fetishizing the less familiar detail. Columbine was a problem of “video games”, as though video games exist simply in a vacuum. The influence of video games probably played some small role in the manifestation of the shooting, but then so did a million other things.


In his suicide note, Williams positions himself in the cultural genealogy presented above going from Timothy McVeigh to the Columbine shooter to the V-Tech shooting. CBS reports on the suicide note:

“Flanagan (Williams) also said in the note that Virginia Tech shooter, Seung Hui Cho, was ‘his boy’ and mentioned the Columbine High School shooting.

‘Also, I was influenced by Seung-Hui Cho. That’s my boy right there. He got NEARLY double the amount that Eric Harris and Dylann Klebold got….just sayin,’ he wrote.”

More interestingly, he sets up his shooting as a response to the Dylann Roof shooting earlier this year. He writes “The church shooting was the tipping point…but my anger has been building steadily…I’ve been a human powder keg for a while…just waiting to go BOOM!!!!” There is a discourse of mass shootings, and among the isolated shooters a strange and horrible tradition with controversy over what belongs in the cannon.

The symbolic components of the shooting as its been reported seem to have been set-up, knowingly or otherwise, by Williams so as to make the news articles become self-reflexive exercises in examining the place of journalism itself. He shot the reporter and cameraman as they were in the process of shooting a news segment, creating the possibility the murders could have been broadcast live. At the same time, he also filmed the shooting himself and uploaded it to Facebook and Twitter while broadcasting his personal justifications for carrying out the shooting. It was calculated, like the others, as a performance meant for broadcast.

The place of the media in the emergence of copycat killers is not well understood.

Maybe the FBI ought to hire some theater critics.