The “Life of Brian” debate, nearly 40 years later

Having spent a day on the soccer fields and being ready to think about anything other than soccer, I watched something I’ve been meaning to watch for years — a legendary BBC program in which John Cleese and Michael Palin of Monty Python defend the film Life of Brian in a debate with satirist and Christian convert Malcolm Muggeridge and Anglican bishop Mervyn Stockwood.

I watched it in four parts, then found that someone else posted the whole hour intact:

It’s equal parts fascinating and irritating.

Fascinating in the sense that it’s the sort of the discussion we simply can’t imagine having today. The participants are given plenty of time to speak. For the most part, it’s a genteel discussion that seems utterly foreign to anyone who has watched modern cable “news” for five minutes.

Irritating in the sense that the “Christian” guys are virtually caricatures. They make smug comments about the “10th-rate” film, and they insist on a rather narrow interpretation of the film. When Palin insists that they are not ridiculing Christ, their idea of a response is “humbug.”


What I love about Life of Brian is the same thing I love about a lot of my favorite comedies, including most of my favorite Simpsons episodes. It’s about the absurdity of the mob. It’s about groups that yell, “Yes, we are all individuals!” It’s about the splintering between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea.

It’s about us. Not Jesus.

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Every recap of The Americans, ever

I watched the first couple of episodes of The Americans and was quite impressed. But it’s a little too intense for me, especially given what happened to these families in real life.

But I’m interested in what happens. My hope is that the finale addresses the reckoning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but my guess is that they just kill off Paige.

To keep up, I’ve read recaps of the show over the years. I’ve detected a trend.

And so this is, as the headline says, every Americans recap ever.


It’s soooooooo good.

Elizabeth is sooooooo good in this episode.

Hey, remember that character they wrote off the show two seasons ago? She was soooooo good.

The wigs were soooooo good.

Everything is soooooooooooooooooooooooooo good.

So I really have no idea what’s happening in the show. But I hope the finale is good.

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Review: “Last Days of Knight” is flawed but essential

Cross-posting at 

ESPN is gambling these days.

The new “30 for 30” documentary, Last Days of Knight, gambles on three levels:

  1. It’s being shown exclusively on ESPN+, the company’s new pay service, a good way to draw attention to it but not the best way to get this film the wide audience that many previous 30 for 30 entries have found.
  2. It tells the story of a journalist, CNN’s Robert Abbott, who pursued the story for months. As an Awful Announcing review says, the film attempts to tell Abbott’s story and Knight’s, and it sometimes falls between the two stools.
  3. A lot of people still maintain loyalty to Bobby Knight after all these years.

Others can debate No. 1. The questions here are No. 2 and No. 3, and the disappointment of Last Days of Knight is that we get too much of No. 2 and not enough exploration of No. 3.

Like all 30 for 30 films, LDON is a slick presentation. And the story is compelling, even with the unusual focus on Abbott. CNN’s reporting became part of the story itself, for better or for worse, and you don’t have to be a journalism junkie to appreciate the insights on how everyone involved interacted with the media — Knight as one of several bullies, players and staffers afraid to speak, administrators being weasels, etc. Abbott’s reflections and the nitty-gritty at CNN, including some clumsy threats by people working on Knight’s behalf, provide a new angle to an old story.

But that story bogs down with an extended, guilt-ridden take on the post-scandal life and death of Neil Reed, the player Knight assaulted in a video that hastened his downfall. It’s a sad and yet sweet story of someone who reclaimed his own life and was clearly loved before his untimely death from a heart attack, but its placement in this film is odd, as if it’s suggesting Reed’s death was somehow collateral damage from Knight’s antics and/or the media coverage. Abbott regrets making Reed uncomfortable in his pursuit of the story, but it seems a bit much for him to interpose himself in the family’s mourning process.

And we’re left wanting something more. Abbott and some of his colleagues are seeing the old story in a new light. Anyone else?

Perhaps it’s me — I wrote about irrational mobs in my review of Jesus Christ Superstar — but I really wanted to see some reflection from the people who defended Knight when he was quite clearly indefensible. Knight, predictably, wasn’t interested in participating. But what about the students? Former players? Now that the heat has died down, what would they do differently?

But even if we don’t see such reflection on camera, we have to hope it’s happening elsewhere. It’s not happening in this dismissive review from The Daily Hoosier.

The value of a story like Knight’s is that it holds up a mirror to us. How much are we willing to excuse if a guy wins some basketball games? Can a man impart military-style discipline and behavioral values if he doesn’t live up to it himself or hold himself accountable?

We see hints of these questions in Last Days of Knight. Just not quite enough.


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Jenna Fischer’s wonderful new show … and why it won’t last

I checked out the first episode of Splitting Up Together today, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

That said, I’m not sure I’m interested in watching another episode.

Of course, I’m *rooting* for it because I just love Jenna Fischer. She was wonderful on The Office, and I enjoyed her WTF podcast interview talking about her book. And she is, as you’d expect, absolutely terrific in this. Maybe TOO terrific. There are times you want to reach through the screen and slap Oliver Hudson for taking her for granted. What were you THINKING, dude?

But Hudson is good, too. While things may seem a little stereotypical — Mom fastidiously assembles every ingredient for the kids’ breakfasts and lunches, while Dad gives them some lunch money and lets them fend for themselves — it’s not that Hudson is a neglectful jerk. It’s the “free-range vs. helicopter” parenting dilemma at play here, and it’s done with both earnestness and good humor. Fischer’s character really thinks parents can and should solve everything for their kids; Hudson’s character sees reasonable limits for that concept.

So if this were a short-run series — one of those British shows designed to run six episodes — it would surely be worth watching.

The problem: There is no way they can drag this out to a full sitcom for multiple seasons.

Some of the reviews I’ve seen pick up on the issue. It’s an unrealistic long-term premise. Money is part of it — we can understand why a newly divorced couple in the era of overpriced real estate can’t afford separate places, but some reviewers have pointed out that both parents have lax attitudes toward employment and financial restraint, undermining the “financial necessity” point.

The other part is that we’re going to like both of these characters, and we’re not going to wish a divorce on either of them. Even in the first episode, we see Hudson starting to realize what a great life he has thrown away. What will we see in episode 45?

Even in The Simpsons, where they can create and then destroy an alternate reality in each 22-minute episode, they’ve gone to the “Homer and Marge split up” well far too many times over the years. Imagine if Homer was living in the garage, pining for a reunion with Marge for 10 seasons.

It’s a pity, because the first episode is certainly worth watching. The scene in which they inform family and friends over dinner is priceless. I like the supporting cast, too, especially the guy who worships his wife and can’t comprehend why Hudson didn’t do the same. (But again — he makes such a convincing case that the writers are going to have to contrive ways to make Hudson not listen.)

They could surely get about six good episodes out of this, ending either with a reconciliation or one of the parents finally moving all the way out. But we’re probably not even going to get six good episodes out of it because they’re going to have stretch things out and rely on sitcom cliches (oh, no — a misunderstanding and jealousy!) to keep this couple apart long enough to make a second season.

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Sinclair and muddled media-ownership rules

Deadspin is not one of my favorite media outlets. They tend to favor snark over substance, and they intentionally cover sports without getting to know any of the people involved so they don’t have to think about the consequences of their words.

But let’s give credit where it’s due. This piece on Sinclair Broadcast Group forcing its member stations to read a subtle propaganda script on “fake news” (cleverly worded to sow doubt on all “other” media while giving the appearance of transparency) is worth checking out, if only for the video showing the absurdity of scores of “news” anchors all reading the same script.

The definitive word on Sinclair, though, still belongs to John Oliver:

The Nation, itself an erratic publication I wouldn’t cite on every topic, digs in a bit to point out that the issue isn’t editorial bias per se. It’s media consolidation.

I’ve worked in the belly of the media consolidation a couple of times, and it’s funny to Sinclair doing the things — particularly central editorial control — that readers often thought my old papers were doing. In Wilmington, a lot of readers seemed convinced that our owners at The New York Times were micromanaging every page we printed. The truth was that we could pick from several wire services (including the NYT service) for national/world content (my job on many days), and the NYT rarely noticed anything we wrote locally. The actual problem with non-local corporate ownership in Wilmington was far duller — due to geography, we had a monopoly over several fast-growing counties, and we were not coincidentally severely understaffed. I’d love to see the Star-News profit margin for the 1990s.

So to quibble with The Nation, it’s both media consolidation and irresponsible use of that consolidation. As the John Oliver piece notes, Sinclair is essentially spreading fake news while subtly discrediting other media.

Now here’s the question …

Why is Sinclair allowed to do this shit (and why is Facebook allowed to reap the revenue off journalism), but your local newspaper can’t combine ownership with a local TV station?

Yeah, we’re still talking about that. Oddly enough, it’s the Republicans who want to roll back the restriction on such things, while the Democrats are suspicious of more media consolidation.

I get the suspicion. If Sinclair were to start buying up local newspapers to run the same crap they’re running on local TV, that’d be pathetic.

But consider two trends:

  1. Local newspapers continue to put out vital journalism while their staffs shrink like the demand for carbon paper.
  2. Local TV stations rarely have online content worth visiting. It’s usually a few pictures of the on-air personalities and bad rewrites of stories from the local paper. That reality tends to throw some cold water on any concerns over “media consolidation.” If your local TV station (and often your local radio news outlet) is just ripping and reading, you might as well let them make it official.

Surely we’d all benefit if a local TV station and local newspaper could combine news-gathering organizations. An enterprising local TV station could dominate the news market with the best and biggest journalism shop in the region. A newspaper wouldn’t have to keep struggling to move into video.

We’d need rules in place to keep Sinclair from buying everything. But allowing a TV/newspaper combo might actually open the door to some more competition. Maybe when one local TV station combines with a newspaper, another TV station hires more journalists to create online content to compete. And then you’ll have the diversity of voices we need.

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Neil Peart through the ages

Observe how Neil Peart plays a particularly tricky passage of Tom Sawyer around the 3:05 mark in this video from the early 80s:

Now see how he did it in 2011:

Looks like he’s using two hands to do what he used to do with one.

My guess is that’s a pretty impressive adaptation to a natural decline in hand speed. Or maybe just more ergonomically correct.

(Yes, I know I need to be blogging at MMM more. I still love this blog.)

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When to ask the tough questions and when not to

Had a legitimately interesting conversation on Twitter yesterday, starting here:

Journalists have indeed been far too passive in recent years. We covered Trump because he was entertaining, and then we were shocked to find people actually believed anything he said. Maybe he couldn’t kill a bunch of people in Times Square and still keep his whole base, but he could tell people Hillary Clinton killed a bunch of people in Times Square, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if a bunch of MAGA-bots on Twitter piled on in agreement.

But in this case? I wasn’t so sure.

So I replied:

My friend and colleague Andrea Canales responded:

I’d recommend the whole discussion. Andrea raised a lot of good points, and I had to stop and think about them overnight. In the general sense, I absolutely agree with her.

And yet, I still think there’s some truth to the idea that the best way to expose a narcissist who has lost touch with reality is to just stick a microphone up to his face and let him speak. It’s the only reason I can see for keeping Trump’s Twitter account active, for one thing.

As a Duke trustee said in a controversy over The Chronicle publishing something incendiary: “Gotta flush a snake out of the grass in order to kill it.”

So in this case, I’m assuming the Times had a limited interview window. They couldn’t just stay there all day and confront Trump with every falsehood. (Granted, that would take more than one day.) He’d eventually hop back in the golf cart.

By racing through a set of questions with limited follow-ups, the Times got Trump to race through several falsehoods. They count 10. The Post counted 24 (some of them iffy). CNN added “outrageous lines” to falsehoods and came up with 47.

If the Times reporter had pressed one topic, we’d only have one topic to dissect. Now we have many.

Another aspect of this interview: Sometimes, the best way to get good quotes in an interview is to make people feel comfortable. They’ll be more candid. Indeed, this interview tactic just played out in the soccer world, where Grant Wahl basically just let an aging state association president dig his own hole with a series of outrageous comments about his endorsement of U.S. Soccer presidential candidate Kathy Carter — or, as this state president calls her, “the girl.” When the soccer public’s jaw dropped, someone took to the state association’s Twitter feed to rip into Grant for not expressing any opinion about how outrageous those comments were during the interview. (Those tweets have since been deleted.)

In other words: This guy is pissed off because he was quoted accurately, and then everyone pointed out how out of touch he was.

So I’m still of two minds about this Trump interview. As Andrea says, Trump already provides a scattershot look at his delusions on Twitter each day, so perhaps the Times didn’t need to do that. Maybe I would’ve asked a follow-up or two. Then again, I’m not sure I would’ve had the data in front of me to show Trump that he was wrong, and I still think there’s some news value in seeing the president of the United States stumbling his way through an alternate reality in person, not just behind a computer keyboard.

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