TIME Television

black-ish Whips Up a Conversation About Spanking

MILES BROWN, ANTHONY ANDERSON
MILES BROWN, ANTHONY ANDERSON John Fleenor/ABC

A suddenly topical episode about corporal punishment is the new show's riskiest, and its best yet.

I liked the pilot of black-ish a lot. But–as often happens with sitcom pilots–I wondered how the show would sustain the premise over a series. Would it, on the one hand, be a string of variations on “Is our family black enough?” questions? Or, on the other hand, would it settle in and become another ABC family comedy, with hijinks and conflicts and special holiday episodes?

Over its first few episodes, though, black-ish has shown that at best, it can be something more nuanced and rewarding than either. “Crime and Punishment,” the show’s riskiest episode and its best yet, uses a universal parental question–how to discipline kids–to both bring out illuminate its characters’ group identity and treat them as specific individuals.

“Crime and Punishment” gets at the racial dynamics of spanking, which came up most recently in the Adrian Peterson child abuse case. The injuries that Peterson’s son received went well beyond “spanking,” of course, but the controversy also raised the charge that Peterson’s critics were imposing outside values on black parents who still favored corporal punishment.

[Note! I'm not trying to draw sweeping conclusions about how black or white parents discipline, but that's the argument people were making. And for disclosure's sake, I'm not a spanker nor was spanked--though I was told my parents spanked my older siblings, so maybe they were just worn out by the time I came around. In any case, I'm not trying to adjudicate the spanking issue here, but feel free to have at it in the comments.]

Unlike the pilot, which underlined its points about what is and isn’t “a black thing,” “Crime and Punishment” doesn’t directly identify spanking as a racial-cultural issue. It doesn’t have to–by bringing Pops into the conversation (“An ass is an ass is an ass is an ass“), it shows that André and Rainbow’s ambivalence has everything to do with the tension between how they were raised and where they are now.

But that tension isn’t simply about race–it’s about time passing and social mobility and the different boundaries of acceptable parenting in different social and economic classes. It’s not “White folks punish their kids like this, but black folks punish their kids like that!” here. With impressive concision, the episode makes the point that there isn’t one “white” or “black” position on discipline–when it comes to parenting, there are millions of opinions, each certain it’s right (and terrified it’s wrong).

When André polls his coworkers, their experiences bring in other cultures (South Asian, Korean-American), different generations (his older boss remembers spanking almost fondly), and general anxiety about the future and class security (“countries that beat their kids are beating our asses”). André and Rainbow’s own private discussions betray their own fears about Jack’s future, imagining what spanking and not spanking will do to him both ways he ends up homeless, though in one scenario he has a dog. (This too comically echoed some of the rhetoric around Peterson, who said that his own parents’ discipline kept him from being “lost on the streets.”)

What worked best about André and Rainbow’s dilemma is that “Crime and Punishment” presented it as a conversation they’d had before: André spanked Junior once, and they decided never again. (This again is an improvement on the pilot, in which the are-the-kids-black-enough questions, while funny, seemed to be suddenly hitting André for the first time, though at this point he’s the father of teenagers.)

The conversation was, for broadcast primetime, refreshingly direct: not just “spanking,” but “beating” and “whipping.” For all the parenting comedy on TV, corporal punishment rarely comes up as a question on sitcoms today–even though it certainly comes up in viewers’ homes. (The pilot of Modern Family, actually, included a subplot about Phil vowing to shoot Luke with a BB gun as punishment for shooting his sister, but it played mostly as slapstick.)

And it took its time coming up here too: according to an interview with Vulture, the episode was one of the first made, and producer Kenya Barris hoped it would air as the show’s second episode. After the Peterson scandal, ABC held off. But I hope the network gives black-ish the running room to be provocative like this in the future; there aren’t many sitcoms right now outside South Park that I could see doing a similarly funny-but-slightly-uncomfortable topical story.

And it gives me hope for black-ish as a series. “Crime and Punishment” was something different in a primetime network sitcom, in a way that wasn’t entirely about its characters race and wasn’t entirely not about race either. “Should we spank?,” it argued, is not simply a black parents’ question. But it’s also one to which these specific characters’ blackness is not irrelevant. It is–as they say–black… ish.

TIME Television

Time Is a Round Donut: The Graze-Watching Possibilities of Simpsons World

THE SIMPSONS: Join (L-R) Maggie, Marge, Lisa, Homer and Bart Simpson for the 21st season premiere episode "Homer The Whopper," of THE SIMPSONS airing Sunday, Sept. 27 (8:00 - 8:30 PM ET/PT) on FOX. THE SIMPSONS ™ and © 2009 TCFFC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
'The Simpsons' Fox

The addictive new Simpsons website proves that there's more than one way to binge on TV. Mmmm.... TV.

Make 550-some episodes of any TV show, and some unusual coincidences start to turn up. Tuesday, I was playing around with Simpsons World, the immersive website/app that allows cable subscribers access to every Simpsons episode ever made. The very first two episodes I watched–one randomly served for me by the site, the other chosen after I did a search on “Marvin Monroe”–both began with Homer wrecking his car after a toy got lodged under the brake pedal. As one does. (The episodes: season 21’s “Rednecks and Broomsticks” and season 15’s “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife.” You can check it for yourself.)

I mention this not to criticize The Simpsons as repetitive–again, 550-some episodes–but as an example of the different kind of experience that this new kind of TV streaming promises. Put hundreds of hours of TV programming online in a searchable, customizable form, with 25 years of TV equally accessible, and you’re going to find yourself discovering some strange connections.

One of the major influences on TV’s current cultural glory days is “binge-watching”–the marathon viewing of a show first enabled by VHS and DVD sets, which really took off after services like Netflix made it frictionless. Bingeing allowed new audiences to discover great serials like Friday Night Lights, while turning dramas like Breaking Bad from cult shows to blockbusters as they addicted viewers between seasons.

Besides bringing in viewers, bingeing helped elevate TV’s cultural status, by underscoring its similarity to the novel. If the original airing of The Wire, week by week, recalled Dickens’ publishing serial novels in English newspapers, bingeing it several episodes at a time allowed you to go through it the way we read Dickens now.

Bingeing, however, tends to confer that prestige on a particular kind of show: the ambitious serial drama, which compels you to begin the next episode after the last ends. This is one genre that has taken advantage of the TV medium’s strength for telling linear stories, which begin at a beginning and can take much more time than movies to drive forward toward an end.

But that’s not the only kind of expansive storytelling that TV’s open-endedness makes possible. Sitcoms, in particular, don’t generally drive in a straight line from a beginning to an end–not even, necessarily, more serial recent ones like The Office. Comedies, like The Simpsons, create immersive worlds rather than propulsive narratives. You can certainly binge a sitcom as much as you can a drama–Netflix, for instance, is counting on you to do that in the new year with Friends. But you don’t need, or necessarily even want, to do it in a particular order.

If a serial drama creates its effects by driving forward along a track, like a train, something like The Simpsons expands outward, like a cloud, or maybe a spiral galaxy extending from a center. You can live inside it, jumping from point to point, discovering new corners or echoing themes, skipping from season 2 to season 23 as if through a space-time wormhole.

The Simpsons World site is still incomplete; it went live Tuesday but has yet to add features like allowing people to find and share customized clips. (You’ll know when that feature is added, because they will be everywhere on the damn Internet.) Yet you can already see that this kind of format has the potential to do for this kind of TV show what binge-watching did for serials. You can search for terms, for instance–episodes involving the inanimate carbon rod, or Hans Moleman, or gambling. You can skip around and explore the series like a character inside a massively-layer online game universe.

It’s not binge-watching, exactly, though it could be just as time-suckingly immersive. Maybe we can call it graze-watching. (Or gorge-watching, for those with more Homer-like appetites).

And while it’s not every show that could take advantage of this kind of destination viewing, it could work for more than The Simpsons. If Friends hadn’t done a streaming deal with Netflix, for instance, I could easily imagine a Friends World, letting you customize clips, search for favorite quotes and skip around through every possible permutation of who’s dating whom. It doesn’t even need to be comedy-only: imagine creating a Law and Order World, with the rights to each season and spinoff of the franchise, searchable and drilled deeply for data and themes. (I’m envisioning a vast crime map of NYC with everyone murdered by L&O plotted on a block-by-block level.)

TV is still figuring out what it’s going to do with streaming and what streaming will do to it. But one thing that excites me about Simpsons World is that it suggests that different kinds of streaming can work better to show off TV’s different strengths–and thus to celebrate different kinds of TV greatness. Not all “Golden Age” TV–or whatever you want to call it–is about stories that drive in a straight line from this thing to the next thing. Some is about world-building that allows you to skip from this thing to that thing to that thing.

One of the new patron saints of serial drama, Rust Cohle, said that time was a flat circle. In Simpsons World time is, maybe, more like a round doughnut.

TIME Television

Manhattan, the TV Season’s Secret Weapon

MANHATTAN
Greg Peters

This drama about the race for the atomic bomb showed in its first season that, just like in nuclear science, powerful forces can come from small things.

I cannot always pretend to understand this new age of television, with its surfeit of TV series from websites and tiny channels and online bookstores. But I am enjoying it.

Take Manhattan, the richly textured period drama about scientists trying to create the atomic bomb, in Los Alamos, N.M., during World War II. It comes from WGN America, the cable-broadcast “superstation” that’s trying to rebrand itself with original scripted dramas. (The first, the loopy supernatural serial Salem, debuted earlier this year.) It’s created little pop-culture buzz. (It’s apparently being recapped only at a few sites, chief among them Scientific American and Popular Mechanics.) It’s drawing live ratings well under a million, with its 18-49 advertising-demo audience practically a rounding error.

Yet it was recently picked up for a second season. How does this work? Is it a loss leader? Has WGN figured out, like the architects of nuclear fission, how to extract tremendous power from a tiny mass of viewers? I have no idea. But its season finale, “Perestroika,” left me very happy that somehow it’s working.

Manhattan began as one of those shows that seemed just good enough–one of the growing mass of competent cable series that I might watch regularly if I had 72 hours in a day. I would fall behind and catch up, but as it went on, it grew into something special. Like Masters of Sex, it used a fictionalized version of history to tell human stories at the same time, while dramatizing the excitement of scientific discovery.

Through the families of the scientists brought to the middle of nowhere for who-knows-what, it asked, what are the unintended costs of a culture of secrecy? Through the internecine competition of the bomb-race, it asked, where’s the line between necessary ambition and self-aggrandizement? And through the politics and paranoia of the project, it asks, how much individual sacrifice is acceptable in the name of a greater good?

“Perestroika” brought those themes to crisis while setting up the series strongly for a second season–in particular, through Frank Winter’s decision about whether to let Charlie twist in the wind, accused of espionage, rather than spill about the breach of compartmentalization. With the Thin Man project now over–and Reed fatally out of the way–his implosion program is the only game in town. He’s won, and all he needs to do to keep winning is to cut Charlie loose, one more unfortunate case of collateral damage, like Sid Liao.

Why he doesn’t, but rather arranges to be “caught” telling Liza what they’re really doing out in the desert, is an intriguing question. It may simply be human guilt. But there may be a larger recognition that once you accept the win-at-all-costs mentality and let it go unchallenged, there’s no telling whom it will claim. It’s understandable that people like Frank would develop a Messiah complex; after all, they’re being treated like messiahs, with the individual power to stop the slaughter of millions and save the free world. As Babbit (an excellent Daniel Stern) tells Frank, “It doesn’t matter that you’re a good man. Maybe a good man couldn’t have made implosion work.”

But their power is also terrifying to those who rely on them. Having to place so much faith in these inscrutable eggheads creates suspicion and resentment in the powerful, from the menacing Occam to the Secretary of War (Gerald McRaney), who bellows at Oppenheimer for selling the President “a Buck Rogers fantasy.” (In real life, after all, Oppenheimer was dogged by red-baiting accusations.) The godlike power of these physicists makes them invaluable and suspect at the same time. It may be that the prospect of unleashing such a tremendous power had led Frank to realize that win-at-all-costs is not longer a sustainable doctrine. Maybe we do still need good men.

Manhattan‘s first season hasn’t been flawless; its themes and exposition can be clumsy, and the production seems a little threadbare. But it’s been a fascinating twist on the disparate-soldiers-thrown-together-in-a-foxhole war story, following people whose wisdom doesn’t always match their intelligence. Even Frank, in his revelation to Liza, suggests a kind of sad-in-retrospect naivete, predicts that thanks to their work, “There will never be another war.” If there’s one thing Manhattan‘s first season showed us, people will always find reason to fight–even when they’re on the same side.

TIME Television

The Good Wife Watch: The So-Bad-She’s-Good Wife

"Oppo Research"
Jeff Neumann/CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

As Alicia's political ambition grows, a show that started out saying that it's no easy thing to be a wife is now exploring how it's no simple thing to be good.

Brief spoilers for Sunday’s The Good Wife follow:

The Good Wife began its run, just over five years ago, as a political legal drama that dealt heavily with the “Wife” half of its title: would Alicia Florrick stand by her ambitious politician husband, about to mount a return run for state’s attorney, after he’d been disgraced in a sex scandal? The show has covered a lot of ground since then, but with “Oppo Research,” the best episode yet of the young new season, it’s come around to being a different kind of political drama, concerned with whether Alicia can stand her own run for state’s attorney.

And even more fascinating, it’s increasingly interested in investigating the “Good” half of its title.

The Good Wife has long been a morally complex series, dealing with the ethical gymnastics of characters we identify with but can’t always completely support. But the spectacular opening act of “Oppo,” with Alicia’s known and unknown secrets laid out by Steven Pasquale’s consultant, framed this in a new way. First, it asked, going point by point: how would Alicia’s personal and professional life look as viewed, not by sympathetic fans who have followed her story for years, but by an outside audience of voters?

Paced at the show’s typical double-time–with Grace’s friends singing Jesus hymns in the background–the interrogation crisply ran down Alicia’s political vulnerabilities, some she knew about (but maybe underestimated), some she was clueless of. (Say, Zach’s girlfriend’s abortion. Oh, that’s right: The Good Wife just dropped a teen-abortion storyline right into a primetime network drama, like it wasn’t even a thing.) And then of course there are the many professional conflicts we’re aware of, starting with Lemond Bishop, still very much a factor in this season.

The public, we’re told, sees her as “Saint Alicia.” And we the audience–maybe “Saint” is too strong a word, but the perspective of the show pushes us to empathize with her, to see her decisions in a better light. The first thing the oppo scene did was to shock us into a sense of perspective, to remind us that, all along, we’ve been watching the story of a complicated woman who’s motivated by power and security at least as much as by ideals.

The second thing it does is set in motion the rest of the episode, in which Alicia, now taking her potential run seriously, looks to set her house in order. It’s not pretty: her phone call with Zach goes from understandable anger to a brutal cutting-off, and her managing the situation with her brother may be practical, but it’s also callous. None of her actions are totally without justification, nor are they out of character; we’ve seen Alicia turn cold and massage the truth when she needs to in her legal work.

But “Oppo Research” suggests that politics may push her to be even more baldly Machiavellian–to do ugly things for the right reasons, or kinda-ugly things for the kinda-right reasons. To preserve the viability of Saint Alicia, she may need to unleash Sinner Alicia, even if we know that neither is the full picture of her.

A show that started out saying that it’s no easy thing to be a wife is now exploring how it’s no simple thing to be good. And that could just make it better than ever.

Now a quick hail of bullets:

* It’s hard to discuss the antiheroine aspects of The Good Wife without mentioning the return of the Darkness at Noon parody show-within-a-show. I’m probably in a minority among Good Wife fans, but I’ve never been a fan of them. The parody of the widely panned Low Winter Sun by one of TV’s best dramas is punching down, and like most Emperor’s New Clothes arguments–here, the Emperor’s New Dark Antihero Cable Drama–it feels self-congratulatory. But I can’t lie: I laughed at the Talking Dead parody (complete with cameo from The Americans‘ producer Joe Weisberg) and especially the Mystical Elk. Sometimes funny is its own best argument.

* The oppo-research opening scene was so structurally playful and captivating that I originally thought it would take up the entire hour, bottle-episode style–and not to knock the rest of the episode at all, but I kind of wish it had.

* Mrs. Tuned In and I know the casting patterns of The Good Wife well enough by now that, before Eli opened the door to introduce Alicia’s potential campaign manager, we played a quick round of: “What NYC stage actor will it be?” Sure enough, though you and I might know Pasquale better from Rescue Me (or, sadly, Do No Harm), he’s a Broadway veteran, most recently of The Bridges of Madison County.

* With Homeland and The Good Wife both on the air is fall, both the white- and red-wine protagonist contingents are well-represented. If Madame Secretary wants to stand out, it should give Tea Leoni’s character a taste for rosé.

TIME review

Review: The Affair: More Than Meets the “I”

Craig Blankenhorn/Showtime

In this fascinating adultery thriller, everyone's story changes the closer you look at it.

This article contains spoilers. Click here to reveal them.

Meet Noah Solloway (Dominic West), a terrific, terrific guy. We first meet him swimming laps in a pool, which he’s gotten up at the crack of dawn to do–no doubt it’s one reason this middle-aged Brooklynite has maintained his rockin’ bod. That’s not lost on a young woman who flirts with him after his workout–but nope! See that ring on his finger? Noah’s married and loyal, headed home to his wife Helen (Maura Tierney), whom he’s going to wake with a mug of steaming coffee and a round of steamy lovin’.

Did I mention he lives in a fantastic, expensive-looking brownstone? Did I mention that he’s a published novelist? Did I mention that he’s an involved, attentive father? Would you doubt, as he describes it himself later in the pilot, that his life is “pretty fucking perfect”?

You would? Well, you are correct, as you’d soon begin to see even if you didn’t take note of the title of Showtime’s captivating, slow-burn emotional mystery The Affair (first episode premieres Sunday, Oct. 12, though it’s already streaming online).

As Noah and Helen pack up the kids for a summer trip at her father’s house in the Hamptons, we see that he barely has a handle on his kids, especially his pouty teen son and daughter. His novel was middlingly successful–reviews called it “derivative”–and Noah didn’t buy that townhouse on his public school teacher’s salary. It comes courtesy of his father-in-law Bruce (John Doman), a famous author whose books regularly become movies and who doesn’t miss a chance to lord his success over Noah. “Everybody has one novel in them,” Bruce casually tells him. “Almost nobody has two.”

Oh, and we know all about this because he’s telling this story to the police.

Why? We don’t know–there’s much we don’t know yet. But Noah’s tense family getaway takes a turn when the Solloway clan, cranky from the road, drag themselves into a diner and are served by local waitress Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson). After Noah’s daughter nearly chokes–he saves her with quick-thinking action–he and Alison share a moment of connection, which flames into something more that night, when he runs into her during a walk alone on the beach. She’s playful, spunky and flirtatious; Noah’s family-man resolve is starting to crumble. It’s only the beginning of summer, but you can feel the mercury steadily rising.

Then the story takes a turn–one that’s essential to the appeal of this fascinating pilot, but that you might want to be surprised by. I knew about it going in, and had no regrets, but I’m the spoiler-friendly type; I’ll leave the choice up to you (or come back and read this after you’ve watched):

There’s a cut to black, and the word “Alison” on the screen. We’re with her the same morning, in bed with her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson). It’s the same Alison we met, but different: moody, pensive, meek. It’s a special day for her: what would have been the birthday of her son, who died as a toddler under yet-unknown circumstances. Whatever happened, it seems to have damaged her marriage in ways she and Cole are still trying, flailingly, to fix.

Then we’re in the diner as the Solloways pull in. She still takes their order; the little girl still chokes. But it plays differently in telling ways. Noah and Helen squabble frantically as the girl gasps for air–“Helen, I need your help!”–until Alison steps in and saves her.

It’s different, and not just because we now see why nearly watching a girl die, on her own child’s birthday, is devastating to her. The Noah here is different too–still handsome, but more self-involved, less noble. When they meet on the beach, events play out as in Noah’s version, more or less, but he’s the assertive one, coming off pretentious, shady, even a touch stalkery. That is, if her version is the truth. Maybe his is. Maybe neither is, or both in some combination. Despite the infidelity and (apparent) crime, this doesn’t seem like Gone Girl, where the second half of the Rashomon upends the lie created by the first, so much as a recognition that each of us is the hero or heroine of our own story.

The Affair is created by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, who worked together on HBO’s therapy drama In Treatment. Like that drama, The Affair is a story in which much of the action takes place in conversation; it’s minutely attuned to how the inflections and back-and-forth of a conversation can sketch character, suggest entire relationship histories and create productive doubt in the viewer. And the camera is just as perceptive, belying Noah’s family-man front by sharing his furtive gazes at Alison’s hips and thighs.

The first episode (all critics have seen, unfortunately) is mostly talk, yet that talk is its own kind of action. It helps that the cast is up to this fine-scalpel work. West’s brownstone intellectual is as convincing as his rowhouse detective McNulty on The Wire; Wilson, meanwhile, covers tremendous emotional ground in one hour as Alison’s backstory unfolds. (Tierney and Joshua Jackson as Alison’s husband have less to do in the first hour, but their roles are promising.)

The Affair may become absorbing as a detective story. It may be titillating as an adultery story. But its theme is already compelling: The more you know about people, the more complicated their truth becomes. And sometimes the more you know about people, the less you find that you actually know them.

TIME review

Steven Pinker’s Ultimate Writing Guide

Class is in session—and it's one you'll enjoy
Class is in session—and it's one you'll enjoy

You wouldn't ordinarily take literary advice from a neuroscientist—but Pinker's new book will make you think otherwise

Sometime during middle school, I showed my father something I’d written for a class assignment. About halfway through reading, he stopped, pointed and said “that’s grammatically incorrect. You wrote ‘I will now describe.’ The correct wording is ‘I shall describe.'” The word “will”, he told me, implies defiance and determination. But if your sentence starts with the pronouns he, she, we, you or they, the rule is reversed.

It sounded nutty, to say nothing of pointlessly precise, but that was evidently what he’d learned in grade school back in the 1930’s. As far as he was concerned, that made it an eternal truth. For decades now, I’ve just assumed that the rule had gone out of style—but on reading Steven Pinker’s charming and erudite new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, I’ve learned that there never was such a rule, in the sense of something that was universally agreed on by language experts.

If anyone should know, it’s Pinker. Not only is he an extraordinarily stylish and prolific writer himself—he’s written on the history of violence, why words don’t mean what they mean, the mystery of consciousness, the role of genes in shaping character, how the mind works and more—but he’s also got the intellectual chops to back up what he says, what with his being a psycholinguist and neuroscientist at Harvard and all.

With that backing him up, it’s no surprise that while The Sense of Style is very much a practical guide to clear and compelling writing, it’s also far more. Pinker dives deep into the neuroscience of language to explain why some writing is clear, some murky and some sublime.

Style has all the fun stuff that makes usage guides so popular. For example, he lambastes the language scolds who wag their fingers over such evils as split infinitives—absurdly, Pinker says, because the rule against them is based on the fact that infinitives such as “to go” are single, unsplittable words in Latin and other languages that arose from it. Our two-word infinitives should not be governed by the old one-word rule—meaning that Captain Kirk was just fine, when he said “to boldly go.” Pinker pooh-poohs the idea that words must always stick to their original meaning: “decimate” means “to cut by ten percent” in Latin; now people use it to mean “more or less destroy,” and that’s fine with him.

Sometimes Pinker works a little too hard at this debunking campaign. He informs us that while “ain’t” is generally incorrect, it’s fine when used in expressions like as “it ain’t over till it’s over.” But since nobody has thought otherwise since the Herbert Hoover administration, it’s a point that hardly needs to be made.

Pinker then steps back from talking about excessively fussy rules to talk about something he calls “classic style”—a concept he attributes to the scholars Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas. The basic rule here is “write clearly,” and Pinker’s advice on how to do so is pretty standard, albeit written with great clarity.

Among his suggestions: read your prose out loud to yourself in order to pick up on awkwardnesses that might not be evident when you’re reading silently; avoid jargon; keep your sentences short; jettison superfluous and unnecessary words—like, say, using both “superfluous” and “unnecessary” when just one will do. In one of the many tables of good versus bad that appear in the book he shows how phrases such as “for the purpose of” or “in view of the fact that” can be replaced simply by “to” or “since” with no loss of meaning.

Finally, Pinker plunges into what really sets this book apart: the neuroscientific underpinnings of what makes some writing good and some bad, based on how our brains process language. Classic style or not, this bit takes a fair amount of work to get through. Pinker acknowledges that many very good writers get by purely on intuition, but, he says:

Just below the surface of these inchoate intuitions, I believe, is a tacit awareness that the writer’s goal is to encode a web of ideas into a string of words using a tree of phrases. Aspiring wordsmiths would do well to cultivate this awareness.”

Well, maybe. But the chapter that covers these ideas is filled with sentence diagrams and technical language that runs the risk of making aspiring wordsmiths run screaming from the room. Here’s a passage in which Pinker tries to move the awareness-cultivation process along, talking about a set of words he calls “determiners.”

A determiner answers the question “Which one?” or “How Many?” Here [i.e., in a passage about a play by Sophocles] the determiner role is filled by what is traditionally called a possessive noun (though it is really a noun marked for genitive case, as I will explain).

There’s lots more of this sort of thing, which Pinker thinks “can take the fear and boredom out of grammar.” I’m not entirely sure about that. For experienced writers, however, it’s pretty fascinating stuff—the unconscious mechanics that underlie the instincts they’ve developed through experience.

In the end, Pinker’s formula for good writing is pretty basic: write clearly, try to follow the rules most of the time—but only the when they make sense. It’s neither rocket science nor brain surgery. But the wit and insight and clarity he brings to that simple formula is what makes this book such a gem.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME review

Review: Freaks and Shrieks on American Horror Story: Freak Show

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW -- Pictured: Sarah Paulson as Bette and Dot Tattler. CR: Frank Ockenfels/FX
Frank Ockenfels/FX

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's spooky anthology raises the curtain on a lurid, luscious roadside attraction

This article contains spoilers. Click here to reveal them.

Of all the premises of all the seasons of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, the fourth–American Horror Story: Freak Show (Wednesdays on FX)–is the Ryan Murphiest. Much of Murphy’s work (Popular, Glee) involves sympathy for the outcast and alienated. And it’s hard to render that much more literal than in a season among the misshapen, multi-appendaged, chicken-head-biting denizens of Fräulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities.

We find the show having pitched its tents in Jupiter, Fla., in 1952, amid bad times that are about to get worse. The young medium of TV is leaching away the audience from roadside attractions. (Goodbye, Human Skeleton–hello, Red Skelton!) On top of that, bodies are turning up dead, the work–at least most of them–of a serial killer, a hulking, shabby, silent clown (John Carroll Lynch) wearing a mask with a leering smile. He’s unconnected with the freak show (so far as we can tell), but the carnies–mistrusted under the best of circumstances–are automatic suspects, leaving ringmistress Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) under pressure of money and the law.

We should all only hope that someone, someday, loves us as much as AHS loves Lange. Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk have again cast her as an imperious, jealous, yet somehow sympathetic diva, this time with a Teutonic twist. (Whether doing a southern drawl on Coven, a Yankee rasp on Asylum or her Weimar cabaret-croon here, too much accent is never enough for her.) When a local hospital comes across conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler (Sarah Paulson and Sarah Paulson), two heads and spines sharing a torso and limbs, Elsa sees her new headliner–or doubleheadliner–and her own ticket to fame.

Lange is both star and muse for AHS, which has used her over and again as a glamorous, tragic villain. She’s is fearsome and motherly here, plotting and dreaming of fame, controlling but also protective of the performers she calls her “monsters”–like a German Lady Gaga with a touch of Marlene Dietrich and John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig. (The premiere sells the latter parallel by giving her a show-stopping climactic performance–David Bowie’s glam-rock classic “Life on Mars”–whose anachronism is justified, beyond the play on Elsa’s surname, by the simple fact that it is awesome.)

It’s Paulson, though, who gets the show’s killer role(s). Bringing her to walking, talking two-headed life is achievement enough. In the rough cut screened for critics, there’s an uncanny-valley effect to the CGI that it’s possible the final air version will smooth out. But the real special effect is Paulson, who invests the two sisters with such distinct personalities–Dot suspicious and rigid, Bette naive and starstruck–that I quickly forgot about the wizardry and saw them as people joined in an unhappy partnership. (They even have different opinions on the morality of masturbation, a bit of a problem when you share both hands and genitalia.) The way the two Paulsons carry themselves and react to each other–even argue–is a triumph of both editing and performance. She’s her own best co-star, playing her own worst enemy.

Like many an AHS season, the early going of Freak Show is a stew of ideas about identity and desire, plus a lot of things that appear to come up because they’re weird or provocative or look cool. There’s a theme of how the majority society is repulsed by alterna-bodies but also finds them intoxicating, even erotic; Jimmy “Lobster Boy” Darling (Evan Peters), for instance, finds that his large, fused fingers make him popular with the ladies behind closed doors, even if he can’t order in a diner without trouble.

Peters is one of several returnees from the AHS Repertory Players. We’re also re-introduced to Angela Bassett, Frances Conroy, and Kathy Bates, as Jimmy’s protective mother the bearded lady, whose heavy accent, if I’m hearing correctly, I place somewhere in the greater Philadelphia area with a couple of detours to the south. Newcomers to the troupe include Michael Chiklis, playing strongman Dell Toledo–someone had a lot of fun with the names this season–who emerges in the second episode as Elsa’s business rival.

But who are the monsters here? The show finds itself both critiquing the fear of the Other and–what with its murderous clown and various other bloody twists–feeding that same fear. This may be the old message that if you tell someone they’re a threat long enough, they eventually become one. But we’re also talking American Horror Story, which has a history of simply going for the most intense choice in any given moment, emotional or narrative consistency be damned. It works better more on the level of a dream than an essay. In AHS: Asylum, that grew into a stunning story of totalitarian control; in last year’s Coven, it slopped formlessly everywhere like a cauldron bubbling over. But no refunds! That’s the kind of show you bought yer ticket for.

And it’s a damned fine-looking one. From the premiere (directed by Murphy), its palette is more luscious and vibrant than past AHS seasons; the animated opening credits–sprightly deformed skeletons capering about–are ghastly and terrific. The show has a vintage-collector’s delight in the details of this specific brand of horror. (Among the nods to the 1932 horror classic Freaks, the first episode uses the signature phrase “one of us” two times.)

I’d be lying if I said I had any idea where this is going; after the two episodes screened for critics, despite all the accumulated bodies, Freak Show is more style than story. (The killer-clown plot, for instance, is terrifying without really being engaging. The early scenes in which he abducts and terrorizes a young woman and a small boy are tough to take, but he’s more monster than character so far.) But there’s enough talent and intensity here for me to step behind the tent flap, to see if all this can cohere into something super freaky.

TIME Television

Homeland Watch: Baby Mama Drama

Joe Alblas/Showtime

The Claire Danes drama gets a clean slate after some past missteps--and makes some brand-new ones.

Spoilers for the season 4 premiere of Homeland below:

It was a good thing that Showtime gave Homeland a two-hour season premiere, if maybe not for the reason the network intended. Scheduling two episodes in a row was probably meant to make the series’ return–or relaunch, really, after the death of Nicholas Brody last season–a programming event.

But we ended up with a cautionary tale. We saw, first, Homeland rebooting itself, focusing on its strengths and moving past its craziness and mistakes. But then we saw the show fall right back into its over-the-top habits, finding brand-new mistakes to make.

Had I seen only the first hour, I’d have ended the night guardedly optimistic about Homeland getting another chance to be what it can be at best, a realpolitik thriller about the dangers of pursuing security in a world of real threats and imperfect intelligence. Carrie’s in South Asia, but not in Islamabad–instead, she’s interrogating prisoners and overseeing airstrikes, in including one that, presumably setting up the season’s storyline, takes out a wedding party. (Attended by Life of Pi‘s Suraj Sharma as Aayan, whom I hope later episodes develop beyond a one-dimensional “moderate Muslim representative” character.)

But that’s not the only party going on! It’s also Carrie’s birthday, which she celebrates Carrie-style–white wine and pills, plus a cake from her colleagues frosted with “The Drone Queen.” Drone strikes and their moral implications are pretty much required subject matter for a Global War on Terror Drama in 2014–see Homeland‘s spiritual parent, 24, which brought them all the way to jolly old London. (That the wedding-party bombing was not actually hit by a drone is a complication, though it’s not clear if there’s any greater significance to that.)

And Carrie Mathison is an especially interesting character through whom to approach drone warfare, whose appeal is that it makes military strikes low-risk (for the striker) but whose critics argue makes it too easy to treat bombing runs like Ender’s Game and detach from the consequences of war. You wouldn’t necessarily put “Carrie Mathison” and “detached” in the same sentence–not after three seasons’ worth of impulsively going rogue out of attachment to Brody. On the other hand, she’s also shown the ability to be cold and all-business when she needs to.

So: has the post-Brody Carrie become a Drone Queen? Is the bombing creating more enemies than it’s killing? How will Saul engineer his way back into the action? And what was Bachman up to that got him such good intel, then got him killed? (Side note: if only Corey Stoll had kept his giant wig from The Strain! He’d still be alive today!) All reasonable premises on which to rebuild Homeland as a cooler, slower international thriller. One hour–so far, so good.

But that second episode: Good Lord, where to start?

Well, you have to begin with the baby and the bathwater. Carrie returns home, seemingly unshaken (unlike Quinn, about whom more in a minute). Until sis hands her her own baby, whom Carrie handles like a live grenade.

It’s an uncomfortable storyline to begin with, since it plays into a history of stories in which a female character who’s tough and forceful in her job must be unwomanned in her personal life. But it at least makes sense for Carrie’s character that she might have a hard time adjusting to parenthood–whether it’s because of the painful memories of Brody, or simply Carrie’s own difficulty making personal connections.

It’s one thing to feel you’re not cut out for parenthood. It’s another thing entirely to have homicidal ideations about drowning your own baby–and then actually start to do it. But that’s exactly where Homeland goes. Which leaves us, essentially, with two ways to see Carrie: either as so damaged and mentally ill that she probably has no business in the field (or anywhere other than receiving immediate care) or as simply despicable.

I know better after three seasons than to get into the “This would/wouldn’t ever happen” game with Homeland. I’m not a psychiatrist. Obviously postpartum depression is a real thing, as is homicidal ideation. But this just feels, once again, like Homeland dropping an emotional bunker-buster bomb where a pinprick strike would have done.

It would have been powerful enough, and a challenging complication of the character, to have Carrie come home and realize she’s not ready to be a hands-on mother, that she needs to be out somewhere running missions and selecting targets, because it’s the only place she can function. (I’d even accept her driving by the old Brody homestead, even if it reawakened my terror that, somehow, the writers will figure out a way to write the Brody family back into the story–Dana as a nanny, maybe?)

But instead Homeland went there–because it always goes there, wherever there is, because it doesn’t trust that we’ll stay involved if it doesn’t, and that hasn’t changed now that Brody’s gone. And this time it feels like one there too far.

Meanwhile, with the once-cold-hearted assassin Quinn, there’s a stark reversal: if Carrie’s having a hard time feeling anything, Quinn is suddenly feeling everything. Here again, that’s a potentially strong enough story, complicated by his striking up a relationship with his apartment manager. I actually thought, at one point, that it’s unusual on TV to have a male lead hook up with a plus-sized love interest, and that it would be very cool for Homeland to simply do that and not make an issue of it.

But again: this is Homeland! So in fact, her size turns out to be more or less the whole point of the subplot; the first time they step out in public, some idiot makes fun of her weight, allowing Quinn’s PTSD rage to come out of him in one cathartic, martial-arts burst. It’s probably meant to make Quinn more sympathetic, but it makes the show itself less so, as it condescendingly makes her weight her single defining characteristic. (“No one ever fought for me before.” Eyeroll.)

I’m being harsh on the show, but I wouldn’t even be continuing to watch Homeland, much less writing this review, if I didn’t feel it could be–and has been–much better. When the show is on target, it’s both a compelling espionage serial and an astute story about the toll that this ugly job takes on the people who do it. The relationship between Saul and Carrie, over three years, has been one of the most compelling on TV. I want to see more of that. I want to see what kind of blowback the wedding-party strike creates on the ground. I want to see how Carrie deals with murderous enemies abroad and cynical bosses at home.

That’s the stuff of a strong, smart, emotionally charged thriller in itself. But I don’t feel like Homeland, even a rebooted version, believes that’s enough. And if it doesn’t, why should I?

TIME Television

Bob’s Burgers: Die Hard, Laugh Harder

FOX

Forget the Simpsons / Family Guy crossover. This Sunday, Fox's funniest animated show crosses two '80s movies--to music.

The Internet expended a lot of energy last weekend over the Simpsons / Family Guy crossover. Was it a travesty? Was it an embarrassing stunt? Is Peter Griffin not fit to carry Homer’s Squishee cup? Yes, yes and yes! But there’s really little to add to that debate that South Park didn’t say perfectly years ago.

The insult that really stuck with me, though, had nothing to do with The Simpsons. Homer and Peter are flying in an airplane–because some Family Guy writers wanted to do a joke involving an airplane–and Homer notices another passenger: Bob Belcher of Bob’s Burgers. “We gotta carry him because he can’t fly on his own,” Peter says.

The joke, I guess, is that Bob’s Burgers coasts on the ratings strength of the other two Fox animation shows. (To be fair, the same bit zinged Seth MacFarlane’s late The Cleveland Show.) If you can’t argue the facts, argue the law, they say; and if you can’t argue quality, argue ratings. Bob’s Burgers wasn’t on the air last week to make the case for itself, but it’s back this Sunday. And while I would never argue The Simpsons‘ overall place atop TV Mountain–Family Guy, you’re on your own–its season 5 premiere proves that, right now, Bob’s is the best animated show on Fox.

True, this greasy-spoon family comedy has flown, well, under the radar for most of its four years on the air. But it’s become the reward I save on my TiVo season pass, the show I want to watch when I’ve finished all the shows I have to watch, thanks to its inspired weirdness, expressive voice casting (including H. Jon Benjamin, Eugene Mirman and Kristin Schaal), odd but fully realized characters–and some of the best musical comedy bits on TV.

Every one of those qualities shines in the premiere, “Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl,” which involves, of course, elaborately staged musical adaptations of Die Hard and Working Girl (the Bruce Willis movie’s “sassy sister”). I could spill the details–middle child Gene (Mirman), with more enthusiasm than talent, competes with a rival to write the school musical–but I would hope I had you at “musical adaptations of Die Hard and Working Girl.”

If you’re already watching Bob’s, the premiere will not disappoint. If you haven’t yet, don’t worry–you can jump into this episode with no problem. Let The Simpsons and Family Guy dogfight all they want. Bob’s Burgers has wings, and it sings.

TIME Television

The West Wing at 15: Walking, Talking — And Preaching

The West Wing
Martin Sheen as President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet on 'The West Wing' NBC/Getty Images

Fifteen years after writing a so-so review of 'The West Wing,' TIME's critic reflects

[Aaron Sorkin's] ambitious new presidential drama, The West Wing (NBC, Wednesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.), like an ambitious presidency, swings wildly from the impressive to the insufferable.

Sorkin’s tendency toward the dramatic is exacerbated by casting serial over-emoter Martin Sheen as Democratic President Josiah Bartlet, who makes his first appearance speaking in the voice of God. Bursting into a showdown with religious conservatives, Sheen quotes the First Commandment, then unburdens himself of a pair of minute-and-a-half speeches while Coplandesque music swells and the camera cuts to admiring staff members, in case we’ve failed to notice how darned inspiring he is. There will be no curtains left in this Oval Office once Sheen has finished chewing the scenery.

From James Poniewozik’s review of the first season of West Wing, from the Oct. 4, 1999, issue of TIME

A couple of years ago, when I and some of my fellow critics lambasted Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom as being speechy and sanctimonious, one defense I heard was: “Why didn’t they say the same things about The West Wing?” Answer: I pretty much did, as you can read in my initial review, based on the series pilot, from fall 1999.

The West Wing was and remains a far, far better show than the two Sorkin dramas that followed it, The Newsroom and 2006’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: its characters were better drawn, it had a sophisticated sense for making wonky policy topics lively and–though Sorkin can always make a sentence skip rope–he was never more rapid-fire brilliant than the four seasons that he essentially wrote the show single-handed. In 2007, I put the show on my list of the All-Time 100 TV Shows, and I’d probably do that again. When the show was at top form (“Two Cathedrals,” e.g.) it could be red-white-and-blue magic. (And all right—I was a little rough on Martin Sheen, who turned out to have a wry touch as Jed Bartlet.)

But I was never as devoted to the show as some of my fellow critics; I groused repeatedly during the run of years that it beat out The Sopranos for the Best Drama Emmy, and I’m pretty comfortable with that judgment. The show embodied the best of Aaron Sorkin’s work and showed signs of its worst excesses. But as with most original voices, you can’t have the one without the other. Nothing walk-and-talked quite like it.

Read the full 1999 review, free of charge, here in TIME’s archives: Capital Ideas

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