Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day ...

Thank you ... for everything. And that includes you, Dad.

Barack Obama, the first second fifth African-American President of the United States ...

A week after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States - yeah, it's still pretty damn cool to consider that a black man is about to move into the White House, and that he isn't going to be the butler. But let's not fool ourselves that Obama's victory is that much of a breakthrough. Indeed, this country's history contains more than one example of a person of Negro persuasion making it to the highest office in the land. You just have to know where to look - in your local video store, of course.

1972: Before he was Darth Vader or the voice of CNN, James Earl Jones held the job of commander-in-chief in The Man, a heavy melodrama based on the Irving Wallace political thriller and adapted for the screen by no less than Rod Serling. Jones played Douglass Dillman, the President pro tempe of the Senate who reached the Oval Office when the sitting Chief Executive and Speaker of the House were killed in a building collapse in West Germany (!) and the dying Vice President declined the promotion on the grounds that America didn't need to bury another grand poobah in six months. Needless to say, this being the early '70s, the idea of Jones in the White House doesn't sit well with, oh, just about everyone surrounding him, and before long President Dillman has to contend not only with white racist politicians (including a Southern-dipped Burgess Meredith), but also with African-Americans, including his own radical daughter, who want him to take more of a stand on their issues. Nevertheless, Dillman navigates the treacherous waters with skill and aplomb, and of course has the best president voice ever. This movie actually isn't available on DVD as of now, but Obama's real-life ascendance to the top spot may speed things up in terms of home availability for The Man.

1998: Morgan Freeman was the next man to break the White House color barrier in Deep Impact, which also began a mini-tradition of America having a black president just in time to deal with The End of the World - in this case, a comet (co-discovered by future Hobbit Elijah Wood) on its way for a mid-air collision with the Earth. As Tom Beck, Freeman doesn't have much to do but stay stoic and keep convincing his constituents that "we will prevail," even if he doesn't really believe it. But he looks so good behind the Oval Office desk, you think about drafting him for the next election.

2001: The action-thriller series 24 debuts, and with it a new hero in David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), the African-American senator from Maryland who is running for the highest office in the land during the inaugural season, which takes place entirely on the day before the California primary. Palmer manages to survive not only an attempted assassination, but also the machinations of his Lady MacBeth-like wife, Sherry, and by the second season Palmer was indeed the president, though his days didn't get much easier. Indeed, each of the first three seasons was devoted to Palmer dealing with threats against his life, his country and/or his administration. But Palmer himself always came out on top, or at least alive - that is, until the opening moments of Season Five, when he is shot through the throat while writing his memoirs, proving that a lot of good deeds do not go unpunished. Still, Palmer's death was the opening salvo in what was probably the best 24 season to date, so there's that.

2007: In a move that would make the Kennedy kids beam with pride, Palmer's brother Wayne (D.B. Woodside) assumed the reigns of power for 24's sixth season. Unfortunately for Wayne, though, things didn't get much easier for the sitting President - especially when he was blown up and seriously injured by a bomb in an inside job meant to frame an alleged Muslim terrorist. What's worse than nearly being killed by a would-be assassin? Watching Vice-President Powers Boothe ham it up as your square-jawed replacement.

And, yeah, while all of these instances of a black president are fiction, there are some who indeed feel that Obama is not the first of his ethnicity to become the main man of the U.S. There were rumors about Warren G. Harding, the 29th President, concerning his heritage that circulated during his successful 1920 run for the White House. Reports that Harding had a little color in his background were rebuffed by his campaign manager, who maintained that the candidate was of "the finest pioneer blood," and they were quickly forgotten, though there was no DNA test at the time to prove things one way or another. (Another celebrity of the age who had to deal with such rumors? Babe Ruth.) And, of course, there are those who say, with tongue embedded in cheek, that one William Jefferson Clinton, with his soulful style and empathy for the regular guy, was the true first black president - though I would assume that Bill will defer that title to the soon-to-be occupant.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

All things are possible ...



America, in large part, is a nation of dates. This is in part thanks to our schooling in history class, and partly a trait that comes from the facts that dates are easier to remember. Unfortunately, as is the nature of things, many of those dates that mark the time of the history of this country tend to be of a traumatic nature, when bad things happened to us. April 14, 1865. December 7, 1941. November 22, 1963. September 11, 2001.

So you can forgive me and many of my compatriots in the coming days and weeks for indulging ourselves a bit. For now, to go along with dates like July 4, 1776 and July 20, 1969 - American days when something good and great and beautiful occurred - we now have a new entry.

November 4, 2008.

Whether you agreed with the final decision of the voters or not, you can tell your grandkids that you witnessed history. The type of history that didn't involved carnage or violence of sadness. We all have reason to be proud today. Let's remember this feeling and allow it to sustain us in the coming months and years - because we're going to need it. But for now, even if just for a bit, let us also celebrate what has been accomplished and what this means in the tapestry of our history.

And, of course, wait for the inevitable books about it.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Gay plague at ABC?

Like any other business, television is one filled with risks. It takes millions of dollars and a small army to put together a TV series, and that kind of investment automatically means, for better or (often) worse, that the networks who hosts these shows get a large say into what does or doesn't happen on said series. It's the rare show that gets by without a lot of network input (interference?), and it's safe to say that even in those cases, it's just that we don't hear about the notes that are passed along from executive suite to writers' room. But, as is often the case with many lines of work, we tend to hear about the messy stuff more than the clean. And this appears to be the case with one of the more popular series on TV today, the medical dramedy Grey's Anatomy, now in its fifth season on ABC.

A few seasons back, Brooke Smith, a respected New York-based actress known mostly for her work in the Big Apple theater scene and in some interesting film roles (Buffalo Bill's last victim in the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs; a pregnant, gun-toting reality star in the satirical Series 7; Naomi Watts' jugdmental best friend in Woody Allen's Melinda & Melinda), did a guest-star arc on Grey's as Erica Hahn, a skilled but abrasive cardiac surgeon who was a rival to Isaiah Washington's Preston Burke. During the middle of last season, Smith became a regular as Hahn replaced Burke on the staff of Seattle Grace Hospital. What followed was an intriguing storyline when Erica started a relationship with orthopedic specialist Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez), marked in large part by a kiss shared between the two in May's finale. Prior to this, neither character had identified as gay or even bisexual, but the couple conitnued on as this fall's batch of new shows started. Tentatively, with humor and charm and poignancy and, yes, some missteps (including a few from the writers), Erica and Callie forged ahead, eventually going to bed together in a sequence that was marked by a great piece of acting from Smith in last week's episode, when Erica frightened Callie and maybe herself with the post-coital realization that, after all these years, she was indeed a lesbian. Many critics praised how Grey's writers, including creator Shonda Rhimes, were handling the plot, and much was made of the fact that this wasn't another "lesbian guest-star" situation, that this may have been the first time in network TV history that an ongoing lesbian romance consisted of two established regulars, neither of whom was going to just disappear one day.

Well, strike that, because today the news broke that Smith has been fired from the series, her last episode to air on Thursday. What's more, Erica in fact will just disappear, as the character has no departure story per se. As Smith told Entertainment Weekly in an exclusive online story, Erica just gets in her car and drives away, most likely never to be seen again.

But wait, it gets better. Despite a late-evening statement released by Rhimes in which she seems to take the bullet for Smith's abrupt pink slip (citing a lack of "magic and chemistry"), it seems that the decision was out of her hands - that ABC decreed that the Hahn character be removed from the Grey's equation. And, according to E! Online, a new bisexual character to be played by Melissa George (Alias) has been changed. George will still be on the show, but her character will no longer be bisexual.

TV is no stranger to characters who simply don't end up fitting into the mix of an established show, and if either Rhimes or ABC had felt that Smith's chemistry wasn't right on Grey's, that would have been seen as somewhat legitimate. But the subsequent alteration of another out character, George's, makes this developing quite troubling. Let us not forget that ABC was the network that was airing Ellen DeGeneres' eponymous series when both DeGeneres and her TV doppelgänger came out of the closet. ABC reaped the rating benefits of that whirlwind, but when Ellen's ratings declined and even gays though the show was "too gay," they bailed on the series the following year. Now, that was almost 10 years ago, but it may not be too hard for some to see a trend here. Of course, both ABC and Rhimes can say that Grey's still has the bisexual Callie in the cast, but how much will we see that side of her from now on? And one also has to consider what happened to another popular ABC series, Ugly Betty, where openly gay co-executive producer Marco Pennette was fired last season at around the time that Rebecca Romijn, who played a transsexual on the comedy series, was demoted to recurring status. Some interpreted that as an attempt by the network to "de-gay" the series. To be fair, it's important to note that gay characters remain on Ugly Betty, along with other ABC shows such as Desperate Housewives and Brothers and Sisters (though that series' openly gay executive producer departed under hinky conditions last season). But is there a trend here?

Meanwhile, there's Smith, who this summer told TV reporters, myself included, how excited she was about the opportunity of being on Grey's, and on doing some possibly groundbreaking television. The native New Yorker had moved her husband and two kids cross-country for the part, and the family had just purchased a house on the West Coast. Being an actor for most of her adult life, Smith no doubt is used to professional disappointment, and she's more than talented enough to bounce back from this setback. But it's a shame that what may be perceived, fairly or otherwise, as a bad case of network homophobia has such collateral damage.

Oh, and I can't what to see what GLAAD and other organizations have to say about this Tuesday morning. Or maybe Wednesday morning, since there are some bigger fish to fry tomorrow.

Vote or become cranky ...

As if you needed a reason to vote tomorrow ... here's a very good one for the caffeinated ones out there ... now you have no excuses! Do your duty!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Studs ...

Studs Terkel didn't live to see the Chicago Cubs win the World Series. And he won't find out who will win the most important presidential election in a generation on Tuesday. (Then again, he'll probably know who will win before any of us will.) But if those are the only really depressing points about the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, historian and raconteur's passing yesterday - other than the selfish fact that everyone who knew him, or knew of him, will miss him tremendously - then this really isn't a time to mourn, but a time to celebrate the life well lived. And how. Beloved by an entire city and a world of readers, known as the virtual creator of the modern genre of oral history, married to the same woman for 60 years - you can't beat that with a stick. Roger Ebert, who's way better at this stuff than I am, wrote eloquently about his friend within hours of Terkel's death. Go read his essay, and then do yourself a favor and check out some of Terkel's work. He's the kind of writer and interviewer I hope to grow up to be someday.