TIME Media

Don’t Blame Social Media for Ferguson’s Troubles

The Internet is just one more way that, on nights like Monday night, the whole world is watching.

Before St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch announced that there was no grand-jury indictment against officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, he read his own list of charges–against the Internet and the media.

“The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation,” McCulloch said, “has been the 24 hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything, to talk about, following closely behind with the nonstop rumors on social media.” Some witnesses, McCulloch implied, were giving or changing their testimony to reflect what they’d heard or read in the news and social media rather than what they’d actually witnessed.

Obviously misinformation is a challenge for any criminal investigation, much less a racially charged one that becomes world news. That’s why you have a grand jury process–a lengthy and involved one in this case–to sift through the evidence.

And yes, social media can be where people go to repeat what they want to hear or are already inclined to believe, on all sides. Though McCulloch only cited cases of questionable testimony that were damaging to Wilson, we also earlier saw Wilson’s online defenders spread a report that Brown dealt him an “orbital-blowout eye socket fracture” in the confrontation, which photo evidence released from the grand jury proved false. “Social media,” like any media system, is really just a fancy description for a lot of people connected and communicating. It’s as good or bad as the people themselves are.

But we’re better off having social media, especially in situations like Ferguson’s. When the first round of protests broke out in August, it was through social media that reporters first got out the news of their arrests and tear-gassing by riot police, some of whom ordered the reporters–as well as protesters in the crowds–to “stop videotaping” with cameraphones. After the grand-jury announcement, voluminous records from the investigation went up online, for the hive mind of social media to begin poring over and analyzing.

Of course, one person’s “analyzing” is another person’s “second-guessing.” I suspect part of what’s behind the frustration of people like McCulloch is that social media makes everyone a critic. Thousands and thousands of people are watching over your shoulder to see if you slip up, checking what you missed, judging whether you were thorough enough, questioning your agenda. Good. Having everyone watch you do your job, or not do it, may be a pain, it may be stressful, but in an imperfect justice system, it’s not exactly a bad thing.

[It is also, by the way, not just those on the other side of the police line who can spread confusion in a situation like this. Monday night, a Twitter account for the Saint Louis County Police Department tweeted that police were using smoke, not tear gas, against protesters–even as we watched coughing, choking CNN reporters get hit with the gas on camera. Later the department tweeted that police were in fact using tear gas, though, the account said, they deployed smoke first.]

While McCulloch argued that social media made it harder to get to the truth in Ferguson, it was often social media that first got out the truth on the ground–and that raised questions that reporters on site were not always asking first. If prosecutors and police now have to deal with the public surveilling them on social media, so does that 24-hour news media that McCulloch described. (There was plenty of hostility toward TV on the ground in Ferguson too, with protesters yelling “Fuck CNN!” and “Fuck Fox!” on live air.)

The prying, judging eyes of social media may be a hassle for authorities–for lawyers, for law enforcement and for the media itself. But we’re all better off for it. Before social media, it was the last generation of electronic media that got blasted for showing people what authorities didn’t want them to see, like the attacks on protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which gave us a phrase–“The whole world is watching!”–that McCulloch himself echoed in his remarks. The citizens of Ferguson, he said, should be “mindful of the fact that the world is watching.”

As police and protesters again clashed brutally on Monday night, the whole world was still watching. And thanks to social media, the whole world is now also reading.

TIME Television

Homeland Got Better By Getting Smaller

Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson and Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland (Season 4, Episode 09). - Photo:  David Bloomer/SHOWTIME - Photo ID:  Homeland_409_0484.R
David Bloomer/SHOWTIME 2014

Like an arena-rock band stepping back to play club gigs, the show is stripping down to basics. So far, it's working.

This article contains spoilers. Click here to reveal them.

A couple weeks ago, when Carrie Mathison–high on the crazy pills slipped her by the weaselly Dennis Boyd–hallucinated herself in the arms of a resurrected Nicholas Brody, I thought: Oh God, please do not let this be real.

I don’t know if this was the reaction that the producers meant me to have, but it sums up my relationship with Homeland after four years. By midseason, it has recovered and remade itself well enough as a compelling intelligence thriller that I don’t need or want it to return to the whiplash-y narratives of the hero-turned-terrorist-turned-congressman-turned-fugitive-turned-junkie-turned-hero. But I’ve also been burned often enough that don’t yet trust it not to.

The opening of the season didn’t look promising. The early episodes focused on Carrie and Quinn’s trauma, as crystallized by having Carrie on the verge of drowning her own baby in the bathtub. As I wrote then, the problem with the scene wasn’t that depressed new mothers never have this impulse, but that it expressed Homeland‘s worst tendencies: 1) not trusting that a character moment was enough in itself without going over the top to shock the audience and 2) using “Carrie is craaaaazy!” as a catchall excuse to do that, whether her behavior was consistent or not.

This time I should have had more faith, because, so far anyway, Homeland has kept both the baby and the bathwater. Those first episodes weren’t so much a continuation of the Brody-era nuttiness as a goodbye to it. No one is still going to mistake Homeland for a documentary, but its run of Pakistan-focused episodes found it going back to its basics, like an arena-rock band going back to play stripped-down club gigs. Here’s what’s worked:

It’s focused on its best relationship. And that’s always been, Brody or no Brody, and whatever comes along down the road, Carrie and Saul. Homeland at best has been an action show about what kind of people it takes to fight covert war for years and what kind of warriors covert war produces. Carrie and Saul have a bond that goes beyond mentor and apprentice, parent and child–they’re just about the only people to know what it’s like to be each other. (The one person who would have understood Carrie’s order for the drone strike on Saul, for instance, was probably Saul.) Putting them on the two sides of Saul’s hostage-taking, showing both their love and hardheaded practicality, has given the show an earned emotional power.

Carrie’s still flawed, but she’s competent again. Too often before, Homeland has satisfied its need for story twists by making Carrie erratic and irresponsible, going rogue over and over with near-disastrous results, until it became hard to believe she would be entrusted with searching for someone’s car keys, much less terrorists. Season 4 Carrie can be ruthless and callous, she can go too far and rationalize it, but we never lose the sense that she knows what she’s doing. When she threatens Dennis in interrogation–“I am authorized to kill US citizens on the battlefield, motherfucker”–she’s terrifying and believable, simultaneously in and out of control. If she makes bad choices, it seems driven less by the need to keep the story exciting then by the fact that, as she says in what may be this season’s motto, there are only bad choices.

It picked interesting enemies. In particular, the decision to focus on the real-world frenemy relationship between the United States and Pakistan’s ISI has been productively subtle. We’ve seen so many ruthless terrorist supergeniuses that they’ve lost their effectiveness; much more interesting are the confounding betrayals of a bureaucratic organization that’s an ally, until it isn’t.

The season is about ideas. That doesn’t just mean that it’s timely, though the focus on drone strikes and their consequences certainly is. But rooting the show in the complicated politics of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and what 14 years of war has accomplished or not, is much more rich and productive than throwing a toolbox worth of wrenches into the Brody story. Homeland has always been a show about tough choices and realpolitik; what’s changed this year is that it’s started believing that in itself is enough for engaging drama.

I write all this knowing that I have no idea who, or what, or what kind of show, is going to emerge from the smoldering wreckage of Carrie and Saul’s motorcade two weeks from now. My track record with Homeland is that as soon as I decide it’s one thing, it turns into something else. I declared season 2 great just after Carrie’s brutal interrogation of Brody–and then it took the exit to crazytown. I was optimistic about the beginning of season 3, which hopscotched down a trail of absurd twists and manipulations (though it gave Brody a nice sendoff). I didn’t like season 4’s opening, and that was the show’s cue to get better and better.

So I guess you can mark this on your calendar as the first sign that Homeland was about to start to suck again, and I will fully accept the blame.

But for all our sakes, as insurance, I’m not going to get carried away here. It’s easy to get excited when a show makes a turnaround like this, but I wouldn’t call Homeland great. Instead, it’s simply tried to be good, and that’s been the show’s smartest choice of all.

TIME Television

So What Do We Do About The Cosby Show?

(Left to Right) Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Theodore 'Theo' Huxtable, Bill Cosby as Dr. Heathcliff 'Cliff' Huxtable, Keshia Knight Pulliam as Rudy Huxtable, Tempestt Bledsoe as Vanessa Huxtable on The Cosby Show.
(Left to Right) Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Theodore 'Theo' Huxtable, Bill Cosby as Dr. Heathcliff 'Cliff' Huxtable, Keshia Knight Pulliam as Rudy Huxtable, Tempestt Bledsoe as Vanessa Huxtable on The Cosby Show. NBC/Getty Images

If it's hard to "separate the art from the artist" this time, it's partly because the artist worked so hard to intertwine them.

“I don’t know what I’m doing by telling you. I guess I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns.” —Hannibal Buress

Mission accomplished. The re-examination of rape accusations against Bill Cosby that Hannibal Buress — and a growing number of women subsequently coming forward with their stories — helped trigger has changed a lot, fast. A story that had largely lain buried for years is suddenly everywhere. And that has apparently ended Cosby’s late-career comeback: NBC quashed an in-development Cosby sitcom, while Netflix pulled a standup special planned to air the day after Thanksgiving.

The most important stakes here are about justice, not TV shows. But as Buress suggested, the cultural stakes are not about Cosby’s future — they’re about his past, his legacy. On the one hand, the public is hearing that a beloved entertainer has been accused of using his power to sexually prey on women for decades. On the other, that entertainer created a long-running TV show that was a landmark not just of entertainment but of American society.

The Cosby Show is part of our history; it can’t be erased. (Even if TV Land has pulled its reruns.) It’s funny, insightful, moving, great. But it is now also — whatever you think of the allegations and the real-world consequences — weird, in a way that’s hard to shake.

To be clear, I’m not asking here whether it’s “OK” to watch The Cosby Show. The moral question of whether to support an artist financially is a different one (and, as Todd van der Werff points out at Vox, whether or not you watch reruns will make very little difference to Cosby’s bottom line now). I don’t want to police that call, and if we ejected every questionable artist from the canon — abusers, bigots, reprobates — our bookshelves and movie queues would be a lot lighter.

But it seems hard to hear what we’ve been hearing and not feel anything different when watching Cliff Huxtable making faces and dispensing wisdom. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a standard for the courts, for good reason. But it’s not a standard for life. If what you know or hear about an artist affects the way you see their work, you can no more will yourself to feel otherwise than you can force yourself not to blink.

Of course, bad people can create great works. People are complicated. Art is complicated. And so is the question of whether you can separate the art from the artist — the answer is different for every creator and every audience member. Whatever you think of the disturbing allegations against Woody Allen, for instance, there’s a good argument that although his movies have often relied on his persona, they don’t depend on your considering him a morally upstanding person. (Even if some, like Crimes and Misdemeanors, turn on issues of morality.)

With The Cosby Show, though, Bill Cosby the person is throughly and intentionally baked into it— his identity, his persona, his claimed authority. It’s not a show made as if it wants us to separate the art from the artist, and not just because “Cosby” is in the name.

Cliff Huxtable isn’t — like “Jerry Seinfeld” in Seinfeld — a carbon copy of his creator. But Cosby invested himself in Cliff in ways that were deeper and more binding. He drew on his own life, patterning Theo’s struggles in school, for instance, on his own son Ennis’ diagnosis of dyslexia. Cliff and the show shared Cosby’s interests in African American high culture, especially jazz.

Cliff liked what Cosby liked, felt what he felt, argued what he argued. He may have had a different job, but more important, he had Cosby’s sensibility and sense of didactic purpose. As Mark Whitaker pointed out in his biography — which ignored the rape accusations but delved deep into Cosby’s creative life — the comedian mingled his real and fictional lives so thoroughly that during the first season that “the producers and director started to notice something telling. When they were discussing scripts, he would sometimes slip and refer to his character as Bill instead of Cliff.”

That was part of the power of The Cosby Show: people’s affection for Cosby transferred to Cliff, and their respect for Cliff rebounded to Cosby (who at the height of the show’s popularity wrote the best-selling Fatherhood). Everything about this relationship between artist and creation said: Cliff speaks for me. And what Cliff had to say was also, deliberately, instructive: about how parents should speak to children, how white Americans should see their African American neighbors, how men should regard women. (See, for instance, the running jokes spoofing the clueless chauvinism of Sondra’s husband Elvin.)

I’ve rewatched those episodes a lot lately, especially in the last few years as my kids have discovered the reruns on Hulu. They’re still funny and powerful. They stand up, and they stand on their own. But they’re also designed to work, in part, by drawing on the moral authority of Cliff and, by extension, Cosby.

We shouldn’t erase The Cosby Show‘s place in TV history — the way it changed comedy, represented the unrepresented and reframed African Americans in pop culture — even if it were possible to do so. No one owes it to the rest of the world to stop liking The Cosby Show. But it’s also understandable if, this time, you can’t easily “separate the art from the artist,” when the artist worked so hard and so effectively, for so long, to meld them together.

The Cosby Show is a great, important, transformational piece of American culture. Nothing Bill Cosby does or has done in real life can ever change that; nor can that ever excuse anything Bill Cosby does or has done in real life.

But will it ever, entirely not be weird? There is no statute of limitations on that.

Read next: Bill Cosby, Camille Cosby and the Oppressive Power of Silence

Read next: Ask an Ethicist: Can I Still Watch The Cosby Show?

TIME Television

REVIEW: An Amazon Kids’ Show Far Better Than Normal

Justice, Siegel and Boettcher in Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street. Amazon

Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street brings back the magic to older-kids' TV.

The rise of streaming TV has been a gift for fans of ambitious scripted shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black. Still, it’s odd that this new video medium has got the most attention for giving us more of what we already have a lot of–comedies, dramas and dramedies for adults.

TV, of course, is a lot more than that–and, in fact, people who use streaming services use them for a lot more. Families, for instance, use the archives of classic TV shows and movies to fill in the gaps of new entertainment. (In my house, we’ve been having a mini film festival of ’70s and ’80s flicks like Breaking Away, which are simultaneously adult and kid-accessible, without being saccharine, in a way that doesn’t exist as much now.) And kids, who’ve grown up accustomed to a grazer’s buffet bar of media, are naturals for streaming: they watch what they want on their schedule, while their parents don’t need to worry what they’ll come across flipping channels. “Flipping channels,” really, is one of those experiences–like searching for a pay phone–that my children only encounter now when watching the aforementioned ’70s and ’80s movies.

Amazon Prime Video has been the streamer that’s most focused on original kids’ shows, including the delightful, science-and-tech focused Annedroids, which premiered this summer and was quietly radical for advancing the idea that girls could get excited about robots. It also earlier this year debuted the preschool-focused Creative Galaxy and Tumble Leaf. Each of those shows was winsome in its own way, but they didn’t fill a dire need; there’s a surfeit of sharp TV for younger kids both on commercial and public TV. It’s when kids get a little older that the quality choices dry up, the Disney Channel sitcoms multiply, and you find yourself searching for reruns of Malcolm in the Middle.

But Amazon’s newest debut finally aims at that niche of original, non-obnoxious TV for tweens that used to be filled by series like Nickelodeon’s Adventures of Pete and Pete, back in my younger days when nickels used to have bumblebees on them.

Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street, premiering its first season Nov. 21, is a kind of off-kilter, magic-realist hangout comedy. Amazon says it’s aimed at children 6 to 11–which, in kids’ aspirational math, means the lead characters are around 13–but this adult found himself gobbling the four episodes Amazon sent as if I were raiding my kids’ Halloween candy.

The title character (Sloane Morgan Siegel) and his two best friends, Mel (Ashley Boettcher) and Ranger (Drew Justice) live in a neighborhood that is both totally boring and unpredictably enchanted. The summer days drag slowly, the fall days are a string of school projects–and then they’re interrupted by the discovery of a mysterious pencil that has the power to erase memories or a menacing toad that has apparently placed a curse on an elderly neighbor (Fionnula Flanagan). Well-meaning Gortimer, brainy Mel and overenthusiastic Ranger throw themselves into the mysteries thrust upon them with the spirit of early teenagers, for whom the discovery that the world is profoundly weird is entirely unsurprising.

Normal Street‘s like a pleasant throwback, both in its attitude and its style. The stories, many of which involve eccentric but sympathetic adults, call back to a time when kid and adult culture wasn’t so strictly segregated (as in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, recently re-released on home video). The humor is sophisticated, but with kid’s-eye detail; describing a favorite luridly colored frozen treat, Gortimer remarks in a voiceover: “It’s said that the peculiar sounds that the machine makes when birthing an Arctic Sludgie are the laws of physics screaming in protest.” There’s also a kind of indie-film gestalt to the show, down to the soundtrack music, which recalls Mark Mothersbaugh’s for Wes Anderson’s Rushmore.

The dream of the ’90s is truly alive on Normal Street, and yes, that does make me wonder a little if this is a series designed to appeal more to nostalgic former kids like me than actual kids of the moment. But I have to believe there’s a cross-generational appeal to the quirky stories from creator (and preschool teacher) David Anaxagoras as well as the instantly appealing characters.

The first episode, available on Amazon before the series premiere, is charming but a little sluggishly paced, but the following episodes only get better. A particular standout centers on Mel, the high-strung daughter of successful parents, who builds an artificially intelligent robot for a school science contest and finds her high-strung competitive attitude transferring to the machine. The story is far-fetched; the theme of early-onset stress is real. But above all it’s inventive and funny, as when the robot shows up for the science fair dressed in a T-shirt that reads Wiñata: “A person or thing,” the machine explains with deadpan cockiness, “that is stuffed so full of win that if hit with a stick it would spill win all over the floor.”

Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street is exploding with treasures like that line. And regardless of your age, I defy you to take a crack at it and not end up getting win all over yourself.

TIME Television

Enough With the British Remakes, American TV!

LUTHER Series 3
Idris Elba plays John Luther in BBC America's Luther Robert Viglasky—BBC

Fox, a Luther adaptation and the Teletubbies school of TV-making.

Over the decades, Americans have learned many a thing from British TV. The UK import Teletubbies, for instance, showed us a truth about how toddlers enjoy stories. You show them something they like, they shout, “Again! Again!” Play it back, verbatim, and it’s as delightful to them as the very first time.

You could say that Fox’s decision to make an American adaptation of the moody British cop show Luther, produced by creator Neil Cross and original star Idris Elba, is an example of the Teletubby school of TV development. As with Fox’s Gracepoint, adapted extremely faithfully from the British Broadchurch–down to star David Tennant reprising the lead role with an American accent–the network found a striking, original work, already widely available to U.S. viewers, and shouted, “Again! Again!”

Sure, anyone with the slightest awareness of TV history knows that great US series have been adapted from UK originals. There were Norman Lear’s All in the Family and Sanford and Son, for instance, even if they were made at a time when Americans couldn’t press a button and stream Till Death Us Do Part or Steptoe and Son. It’s all about the execution–finding a new voice for the new series, and giving it its own specific sense of culture and of place. You may or may not think NBC’s The Office equalled the original, but it was its own thing, its tone adapted both to American office culture and its characters built for the longer-run format of an American network series. These shows, at their best, throw something new into the American TV melting pot.

But a story about a brooding, rough-edged, antihero cop? Do we have any other kind? Nothing against the original Luther, but going abroad to import that trope is like scouring the British Isles to find a Philly cheesesteak to adapt. Between this, Gracepoint, and its various Brit-import reality shows—and following last season’s failed remake of the Australian Rake—Fox will have as many replicas of overseas creations as the Vegas Strip.

Cross and Elba are very talented, and I don’t blame Fox for wanting to be in business with them. But talented people do their best work when they’re creating new things that they’re passionate about. If Fox must make its own Luther, I hope it finds a way to distinguish it both from the British original and the many similarly themed American crime dramas.

As American history teaches us, there’s nothing wrong with borrowing from the British. But you only come into your own after you’ve declared independence.

TIME Television

Unfortunately, John Oliver, You Are a Journalist

Oliver, at right, interviews Stephen Hawking HBO

But who can blame him for not wanting to say so?

The latest sign that John Oliver has become the peer of his old boss Jon Stewart is that he now has to spend time declining honorifics that other people want to hang on him. In an interview with the New York Times’ David Carr, he laughed off the suggestion that he was pursuing “a kind of new journalism”:

We are making jokes about the news and sometimes we need to research things deeply to understand them, but it’s always in service of a joke. If you make jokes about animals, that does not make you a zoologist. We certainly hold ourselves to a high standard and fact-check everything, but the correct term for what we do is “comedy.”

Strictly on the basis of language, I have to applaud Oliver for rejecting the label of “journalism.” Though I’ve often used it myself for lack of a better catchall word, it’s a stupid word, used to lend an air of professional respectability to jobs that we should just describe directly: writing, reporting, analysis, criticism, opinion and so on.

There’s a kind of protesting-too-much, this-is-so-a-real-job overtone to the word. There’s also an element of judgment: journalism is not just reporting, but reporting of which I approve; not just non-fiction writing or speaking, but nonfiction writing or speaking that I deem worthy of respect. That’s probably, as with Jon Stewart in the past, the popular reading of the term that Oliver balks at. If he accepts the label journalist, he sounds full of himself, and that’s the death of comedy.

But if we’re going to use the term journalism at all, I don’t see how it doesn’t apply to the work done by Oliver and Last Week Tonight. (Which, incidentally, is produced by onetime magazine writer Tim Carvell, who years ago edited some pieces of mine at Fortune.) There’s far more to news and nonfiction today than who-what-where-when-why reporting. One of the biggest growth fields is “explainer journalism”–analyzing data and walking an audience through complex issues, often done with a distinct point-of-view, at outlets like Vox and FiveThirtyEight. [Update: For an in-depth comparison of Oliver’s work with that of people who actually call themselves journalists, see The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng.]

That’s journalism; a news analysis is journalism; an editorial is journalism. The chief difference between these and what Oliver does, if anything, is that he’s entertaining, so that, when he spends fifteen minutes arguing the stakes of net neutrality, people actually pay attention and even act on it. If that makes it “not journalism,” then it’s journalism that has the problem.

Not that I blame Oliver for avoiding the label. When someone calls Oliver, Stewart or Colbert a journalist, it’s often because that person wants something–for the hosts to commit themselves to a certain cause or to declare neutrality; for them to commit to a certain seriousness of purpose; for them to accept their “responsibility,” however the labeler defines it; for them to fit into some one-size definition of how a journalist should behave and what they should care about. That would definitely kill Oliver’s comedy, and along with it his–well, analysis or advocacy or whatever you want to call it.

So yes, John Oliver is a “journalist” as much as anyone in this business is. But I can understand why he needs to stay undercover.

TIME Television

Suffer the Children: Saying “No Thanks” to TV’s Child-in-Peril Stories

The Missing 2014
James Nesbitt, Oliver Hunt, and Frances O'Connor in The Missing. Liam Daniel

There's nothing wrong with a good story portraying terrible things. But there's no obligation to watch it over and over, either.

Early in the first episode of the Starz miniseries The Missing (premieres Nov. 15), the worst happens, as it does so often on TV these days.

Tony and Emily Hughes (James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor) are on holiday in a rural French town in 2006 when their five-year-old son, Oliver (Oliver Hunt), disappears in a crowd. He is, apparently, abducted; as the story flashes forward to 2014, they have never seen him again.

In between, they’ve lived eight years of agony. After the investigation goes cold, they’re left to torment themselves, wondering if Oliver is dead, and if so how, and if not–what might their baby have gone through for eight years, what might he be going through now? It’s hard to say which would be the mercy, but in their present, mercy is a remote concept.

I’ve watched the five episodes that Starz sent me of The Missing (there will be eight in total), and it’s very good, a swift-moving crime thriller that also takes the time to measure the effects of the crime on Tony and Emily’s marriage, their state of mind, and the lives of the French townspeople who were drawn into the investigation and may be again. Tony, who’s become a walking open wound, aching and refusing comfort, has returned to France, chasing another in a series of leads he’s been obsessively pursuing for eight years–only this one seems to pan out.

As he joins with Julien, the now-retired investigator on the original case (Tchéky Karyo), they begin to unravel a timeline and a chain of secrets, drawing closer, but to what, exactly? As the revelations mount, you itch for an answer, and dread it. We’ve trod this grim ground in a lot of British and European crime series lately, but The Missing is adept at showing the wear on the Hugheses and the disorienting nightmare of searching for a lost child in a foreign country. The Missing isn’t great, entirely original, or indispensible, but–I want to be clear and fair here–it’s very good.

And yet. Would I have watched it if it weren’t my job? Hell no.

This is not The Missing‘s fault so much as it is mine. We all have our not-for-me markers with fiction: mine is kids in peril. It’s not that I can’t appreciate, even enjoy a series based on it; Broadchurch, about the aftermath of a child’s murder, was one of the best things I saw on TV last year. But when I’m off the TV-critic clock, these shows need to clear a much higher bar for me. (Which is why I didn’t continue with Broadchurch‘s perfectly decent adaption Gracepoint; once was enough.)

It’s easy to say this and sound sanctimonious. But this isn’t a moral judgment. My squeamishness doesn’t make me a more sensitive soul or a kinder person or a better parent than anyone else. And though I hate shows that use the child-in-peril for easy dramatic stakes, this isn’t a moral judgment on The Missing. This show isn’t cheaply exploitative; just the opposite, it’s highly conscious of what losing a child does to a parent, how it never stops doing damage, even after years. The Missing is well aware of the consequences of its central crime, which is the right thing for the story but all the tougher to take.

In the grand scheme, TV is more authentic, not to mention compelling, when you know that there’s no artificial safety net around topics like endangering children. But Jesus–lately, TV has practically replaced the safety net with a trap door. For a bad crime show, killing or harming a kid can be a lazy way to show that you’re willing to “go there.” But even very good series are now going there, over and over and over.

Kids were collateral damage in Breaking Bad. True Detective led to a ghastly story of ritual child abuse, and it was haunted by the long-ago death of Rust Cohle’s toddler daughter. In Netflix’s excellent British import Happy Valley, the protagonist, who has never recovered from the rape and suicide of her daughter, investigates a grim case that puts other people’s children in mortal danger. In Showtime’s The Affair, not only is Ruth Wilson’s Alison mourning her child, who drowned as a toddler, but in the pilot Dominic West’s Noah witnesses his son’s (simulated) suicide and his daughter’s near-death by choking (which we see twice). Game of Thrones chucked a child out a window in its first episode. The Walking Dead–if you don’t know, don’t ask.

Harming children in a story is never a gentle nudge. It pushes an audience to extreme reactions. The death of a child upends a sense of natural order, it makes the world feel broken. The rage and helplessness it causes makes you want to find someone to blame–the creators who protray the violence, the audiences who enjoy the show. I could probably get more attention for this essay, and plenty of likes, if I gave it one of those finger-wagging headlines that social media loves: “Hey TV, Stop Killing Kids!” or “Sorry, Fans, the Death of a Child is Not Entertainment.”

TV doesn’t owe me that, though. It’s one of fiction’s jobs to face the worst of experience, not to leave an unexplained hole in place of terrible crimes, illnesses and accidents that–would that it were otherwise–do happen. Stories that handle the material with respect and awareness of its lasting consequence do a service; beyond the general role of art to reflect human experience, they provide a kind of emotional disaster preparedness.

But it’s also not anyone’s job as a viewer, or as a human, to face the worst in fiction, much less repeatedly. Again, I get why someone might make this argument. Like real-life violence–see the debate over watching terrorist beheading videos–the outrage that a fictional atrocity provokes makes people want to react morally one way or another. Either it must be a violation to portray this thing, and to watch it; or it must be an obligation, a mark of bravery, to bear witness. The counter-moralizing response to the one I talked about above is: you owe it to others–to real people who suffer and die–to confront this stuff. If you avoid certain kinds of dark material, you’re avoiding life, you’re in denial, you’re a wimp.

I have to side with the wimps here. Earlier this year, after watching a run of particularly unsettling stuff–maybe murders, maybe rapes, who can keep track now–I tweeted, “I watch a lot of disturbing TV. But I totally get ‘I’m tired of [unpleasant thing TK]. TV’s not a chili-pepper-eating contest.” There is no shame in saying: you know what, tonight I think I’ll just have the ice cream.

As for The Missing: if you’re up for an emotionally raw crime story that never lets its thrills hide its emotional repercussions, I can recommend it. And I hope you’re satisfied with the ending, which I will probably not stick around for. Every once in a while, I have to decide that my own nightmares are enough without borrowing someone else’s.

TIME Television

10 TV Series Besides Duck Dynasty That Should Be Musicals

Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson and Numan Acar as Haissam Haqqani in Homeland (Season 4, Episode 6). - Photo:  David Bloomer/SHOWTIME - Photo ID:  Homeland_406_0527.R
David Bloome/Showtime

Sing, Saul Berenson, sing!

So Duck Dynasty is becoming a musical. Others may scoff, but I say why not! There’s an illustrious history of mixing TV and music; South Park sang its way to the movie screen years ago; and if Jerry Springer can be the basis of an opera, who are we to say the Robinsons can’t pull it off?

Of course, if TV has taught us anything, it’s that success will breed imitators. So producers, let me humbly suggest your next season’s worth of screen-to-stage adaptations:

Homeland. Nothing against his performance as Saul Berenson, but you cast Mandy Patinkin in something and don’t have him sing? Now that’s a crime against the state.

The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Teresa Giudice brings down the house with Chicago‘s “Cell Block Tango.”

Marvel’s Agents of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. An action-packed, danger-filled thrill ride starring, to hold down costs and not interfere with the storylines of future movies, all of Spider-Man’s non-superpowered peripheral characters. When it comes down to it, wasn’t the story really always about J. Jonah Jameson?

Firefly. Creator Joss Whedon wrote a musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Why not continue the story of the Serenity crew in song? Or it could just be a non-musical play if he prefers. Or it could be on TV, really, whatever works for him. A movie? Web video? God, I just want Firefly back.

Girls. Flushed with gotta-sing-gotta-dance fever after starring in NBC’s Peter Pan Live, Alison Williams headlines Broadway’s favorite hipster musical since Rent! Book by Lena Dunham, score by Edie Brickell.

The Good Wife. Advantage: Already employs Alan Cumming, Stockard Channing, and half the New York City theater community. Plus: Book of Mormon-style subplot involving Grace and her church group. Minus: Will probably have to include that chicken song.

The Walking Dead. How much can it cost to get the rights to “Thriller”?

AfterMad: The Bert Cooper Musical. He may have shuffled off Mad Men to the tune of “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” but now Broadway vet Robert Morse brings Bert’s loveable Japanophilia and Ayn Randianism to the afterlife!

Game of Thrones. Not the dragon-filled, special-effect-laden spectacle you were expecting, but instead an interactive, intimate dinner-theater event along the lines of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. How interactive? Just wait ’til they lock the exits and start playing “The Rains of Castamere”!

Smash. Just kidding! Not Smash. Never, ever Smash.

TIME streaming

REVIEW: High Maintenance Deserves Its Buzz

Blichfeld and Sinclair, creators of High Maintenance. Janky Clown Productions

This gemlike anthology, about a Brooklyn pot dealer and his clients, is one of the best things you can watch online.

When you tell people the subject of High Maintenance–the stories of a Brooklyn pot dealer and his clients–they can get the wrong impression. This fantastic online series, debuting three new episodes on Vimeo Nov. 11, is a comedy involving pot, but it’s not a pot comedy. It’s not stoner humor, like Harold and Kumar or even its closer analog, the choom-heavy Broad City. The stories tangentially involve marijuana, but marijuana is rarely the story itself.

Instead, the gemlike little tales anthologized in High Maintenance are about the reasons a character might smoke pot, which are myriad. Stress. Boredom. Illness. A date. Sadness. Celebration. Loneliness. Too much togetherness.

Or, let’s say, the end of the world. In the first episode of the new season–is “batch” the better word? “stash”? “crop”?–a young couple are going through the typical motions of white-collar urban life (work, barbecues with friends, lots of web surfing in their Fort Greene apartment) when one of them develops an obsession with survivalism. Maybe it’s the aftermath of Sandy, maybe it’s the zeitgeist, maybe it’s a way of feeling in control in his life. But one way or another, meal rations are purchased, survivalism lessons are taken, nerves are eventually frayed, and the couple decide to place a call to The Guy.

The Guy–the small-time pot dealer played by Ben Sinclair–is the one constant between High Maintenance episodes. Sinclair plays him with deceptively chill goofiness, but he also has a sneaky emotional intelligence that allows him to serve as kind of low-key confidante/bartender/therapist to his clients. (Sinclair writes, directs and edits each episode together with his wife, Katja Blichfeld, in an appropriately small-batch DIY artisanal enterprise. About which: the new videos are on demand for $1.99 each, or $7.99 for a bundle that will include three more earlier next year. Like The Guy, High Maintenance prefers to distribute in small quantities.)

Beyond that setup, every episode of High Maintenance can be what it needs to: there’s a new story each episode, which vary from six or seven minutes to around nineteen. (You can find older episodes, made before the show’s on-demand deal, for free on Vimeo.) A few characters recur, others disappear, but there is always The Guy, summoned on speed-dial, to help them maintain their high–or simply to help them maintain.

You’re probably sick of hearing about how a new show is “unlike anything else,” but the only close comparison to High Maintenance in series TV is Louie–whose “Fat Girl” monologue gets an on-point shoutout in the second episode–at least, in Louie’s self-contained, short-film-like segments. Like Louie, this is a series in sardonic love with New York City, but a different one: brownstone Brooklyn, which it shoots in vibrant color, and the freelancers and thought-industry workers who fill it, like Portlandia characters taken more seriously.

Despite the brief running time, each episode has a leisurely, languorous feel, which echoes the unhurried lives of its characters. They’re young and relatively unburdened, or older and unattached, working odd hours, adults with time to adopt intense hobbies (magic, birdwatching), watch TV online and nurse neuroses. (Emphasis on the latter; these people are, adjectivally, high-maintenance.) If High Maintenance were a person, it would be hanging out at Gorilla Coffee on a weekday afternoon, and if its characters were real people, they would watch High Maintenance. Their conversation topics are demographically GPS-precise–arguments about Vice News and Scandal, comparing vacation notes on Tulum, Mexico.

I don’t want to spoil too much story in the new episodes, partly because there’s less than an hour’s worth of them, partly because (again like Louie) their pleasure derives from how they amble along flâneur-like, taking side trips and conversational detours, until a plot develops almost without your noticing it. And yet each episode is tightly, often ingeniously plotted; they range from sweet romance to urban satire to comedies of manners, and each delivers more depth of character than TV episodes three times as long.

To blow one tiny detail, the third episode opens with a woman in a self-defense class, fighting off an “attacker” in a padded armor suit. She’s foregrounded, you can see the potential for a story developing about security and the city–why is she taking the class?–until the scene changes and you realize the episode is, in fact, not about her but about the guy in the padded suit.

It could have gone either way, I’m sure. (Indeed, some of the new episodes involve peripheral characters from previous seasons.) Part of the beauty of High Maintenance’s richness of detail and its specific sense of even the smallest character is that it makes you believe that any character in any scene could be the star of the story.

After all, as far as each of us is concerned, we’re all protagonists. Each of us has something we’re trying to escape, which ultimately is what The Guy sells. The genius of this show is how it uses its high-concept–so to speak–premise to get at something universal. If High Maintenance is aware of one thing, it’s this: The high is easy. It’s maintaining that’s tough.

TIME Media

Can the Republicans Save MSNBC?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel and Senator Rand Paul wave to supporters at a Republican Party of Kentucky election night party in Louisville on Nov. 4, 2014.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Rand Paul wave to supporters at a Republican Party of Kentucky election night party in Louisville on Nov. 4, 2014. Luke Sharrett—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The news channel and its left-leaning talkers are in a ratings slump. Maybe they need a better enemy.

If American liberals need one more thing to feel bad about after the midterm elections, Michael Wolff, writing in USA Today, has a suggestion: MSNBC’s ratings are in the dumps. The network, which Leaned Forward to become a kinda-sorta analog to Fox News on the progressive side during the early Obama era, has seen its numbers decline like the Democrats’ in the Senate:

The Democrats’ sinking fortunes have been pretty accurately charted in the declining ratings at MSNBC, the party’s house network, which culminated, on election night, in a 22% fall from the last midterm election in the all-important 25-to-54 age group.

By my read, Wolff is not so much arguing that viewers are voting against MSNBC in a political sense as saying that, with the Obama administration six years old, under attack and in its lame duck phase, there’s no excitement anymore in the Obamaism of Rachel Maddow and company. And with the thrill, the energy, the sense of forward momentum, goes the desire to watch. Its progressive audience may not be changing their views, but some are demonstrably changing the channel.

I don’t find much to disagree with in Wolff’s analysis so far as it goes. But I am surprised that Wolff, a scholar of all things Fox and Murdoch, doesn’t point out the analog to MSNBC’s slump: Fox News, at pretty much exactly the same point in the George W. Bush presidency.

Around this time in 2006, Fox’s ratings were down, while CNN and MSNBC’s were rising. And there were plenty of analyses–I wrote some of them–that in part, this may have been because the Fox lineup, ascendent on the early post-9/11 era, was feeling tired and malaised. It couldn’t have been that much fun for conservative hosts to defend Bush after Katrina and around the punishing midterms. Nor, it seemed, was it as much fun for the conservative fanbase to watch. As I wrote in early 2008:

Its primary-night coverage has felt staid and listless. Sometimes it has gone tabloid with celebrity-news, true-crime and scandal stories (WEBSITES POSTING SEXY PICS LIFTED FROM FACEBOOK). At other times it has retreated into a kind of war-on-terrorism news-talgia, playing up threatening chatter and new missives from al-Qaeda leaders while its rivals are doing the election 24/7; flipping to Fox can feel like time-traveling to 2002.

And then came one of the best things ever to happen to Fox News: Barack Obama. With the election and Obama’s rise, there was a new topic, a new dynamic–a new antagonist. The Republicans were losing, but losing too can be exciting in political TV, if you have a compelling enough Big Bad. Soon enough, Fox’s ratings were rising again like one of Glenn Beck’s Jenga towers.

Here’s the problem for MSNBC right now: the Obama administration is an old story, and not an especially fun one. But with 2016 starting in 2014, like Christmas in July, comes the potential for something equally as good for a politically-driven network’s ratings: a compelling adversary. Negative energy is energy nonetheless.

And with GOP primary season coming up, there is at least the chance that MSNBC’s talkers can array their energy against a truly motivating opponent, or opponents. A Ted Cruz or a Rand Paul threatening to shrink government to the size of a thimble. A Chris Christie, willing to explode on viral video on command and give lefty viewers the fight they want. Or even, God willing, yet another Bush.

Note that I said “there’s a chance.” There is also the chance that none of this will make a difference for MSNBC.

As Wolff points out, Fox had the advantage of being run by a genuine political operative, Roger Ailes, who wants the fight for its own sake and whose palate is keenly attuned to the cuts of red meat that the right prefers at any given moment. MSNBC, despite its outspoken hosts, is run by TV people, who don’t necessarily have that gut sense of what will get the base moving. (A lefty true believer, for instance, would not have Joe Scarborough as MSNBC’s morning host.) The network is programmed for ratings–which, ironically, may not be the best way to get ratings in ideology-driven cable news.

Then too, Fox News has been around for several turns of the wheel. It’s thrived under Democrats and Republicans, up and down times, Clinton through Obama. It has found how to stoke a sense of insurgent, aggrieved outsiderdom among its audience even when its politicians are in office. MSNBC–or rather, the current Lean Forward iteration–has really existed only while Democrats were rising (or at least in charge of the White House). We don’t now yet if it can make programming out of being the feisty down-and-outs–or if its audience will be invigorated or depressed by the approach.

And then there’s this: Hillary could win. And while that might be good news for MSNBC’s faithful, it won’t necessarily make a good new narrative for MSNBC the channel. If Hillary rolls to the nomination and then the Presidency–and doesn’t create some reason to see her as a marked departure from Obama–that doesn’t create a changed dynamic. Which means that any sugar rush that MSNBC’s opinion-driven shows get from the election could be short-lived.

A Hillary win could make MSNBC’s commentators happy, in other words, but the channel itself might be left to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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