The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 6–Bullies

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM SUNDAY’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 6 YET.

“I know what you think of this. But I really urge you to spend an hour a week faking it.”

NewsroomCharlieSloan

Give me some balance, I said in last week’s Newsroom review, and lo and behold, this week I got some. And from a most unexpected source – who’d have thought the most dignified speech in the episode would come from a committed former aide to Rick Santorum?

But we’ll come back to that. The theme this week, as less than subtly alluded to in the episode title, was bullying – and how even the most sympathetic of people have it in themselves to be bullies, as we see this week from the unlikely examples of a fuming Charlie and an overcompensating Sloan. It could be argued that Charlie at least is a bit out of character, given his previous ‘channelling-James-Stewart’ folksy adorability, but it actually made him more plausible for me. He’s a high ranking journalist in charge of a major TV news operation. You don’t get to that position just by being nice.

Of course the biggest (and least surprising) bully is Will McAvoy himself. It’s unsurprising because the character has been portrayed as crassly insensitive, along with impassioned and idealistic, from the start. Here, Will gets to put the story in perspective himself by means of that hoary old dramatic standby, the therapy session that functions as a framing narrative. I mean really, this was pretty old as a dramatic device even when being used by the mighty Sopranos, which at least subverted and abandoned it fairly early on. The tropes of the scenario were present and correct – the awkwardness, the ‘comic’ dialogue about dusty old waiting room magazines, the Freudian slips that the super-attentive therapist pounced on to reveal deeply-hidden aspects of his patient’s personality. Oh, and the bodyguard.

Yes, that last is more unusual. Turned out that Will’s been having a stressful time, hence his sudden desire to visit a therapist he’s been paying but not actually seeing for four years (hence his failure to notice that said therapist has actually died and been replaced by his son in the mean time). Will’s not sleeping, as we discover in an opening broadcast where he’s suddenly incapable of reading the autocue (“thanks for washing us”). My credulity was somewhat strained by that as a clue to Will’s mental state – isn’t he meant to be a consummate professional no matter what the stresses? Reading an autocue, even with insomnia, shouldn’t be too onerous a task.

Be that as it may, the episode was spent examining (primarily) the reasons for Will’s stress. Turns out he’s received a death threat on the internet for having the temerity to debunk criticism of the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque’ (actually a community centre) then following that up with a montage of all the nasty things done in the name of Christianity. Hence the bodyguard, a former football-playing giant named Lonnie. Terry Crews was a lot of fun as Lonnie, trading acid barbs with his unwilling client (ACN’s insurance company had forced him on Will). Sloan even popped in to check out his remarkably firm pecs.

Ah, yes, Sloan. It’s fair to say that in the show’s ensemble cast, there are some characters that could reasonably be called ‘secondary’, but Aaron Sorkin is determined to expand them with their own little subplots. Last week it was Dev Patel’s Neal, and this week the spotlight was firmly on Olivia Munn as Sloan Sabbith, a character whose ridiculously alliterative name actually rings all too true in the US news media. I didn’t know this about Olivia Munn (though I guess Sorkin did), but she’s fluent in Japanese, making her a handy candidate to explore this week’s big retroactive news story – the crumbling infrastructure of the Fukushima nuclear plant.

At this point, Tokyo power company TEPCO was still trying to downplay the severity of the crisis, but it turned out that Sloan had a friend who worked as a spokesman for the company. Off the record, she got him to admit that the problem was far worse than currently being stated.

Then, to her surprise, Don asked her to fill in for Elliot in the 10 0’clock slot (as fourth, or maybe sixth, choice). A bit daunted, she asked Will for advice on probing journalism, receiving his opinion that she didn’t challenge her interviewees’ obvious falsehoods enough.

Unfortunately, her brief stint as a main anchor saw her veer in completely the opposite direction, while interviewing her friend in Tokyo, coming across less as a truth seeker than a simple bully. Confronting him on air with his own off the record remarks was bad enough for a professional journalist, but anyone knowledgeable enough about Japanese culture to speak the language should have known what a massive loss of face it would be for a Japanese professional to be accused of lying on international TV. Obvious result – her friend felt honour-bound to resign from his job. Clearly she had Gone Too Far.

Given Will’s advice (which he admitted to his therapist was not well-put), Sloan’s sudden ferocity was reasonably convincing, as was (for reasons I mentioned earlier) Charlie’s furious tirade at her. Nevertheless, he too came over as excessively harsh, and it was left to the unlikely figure of Don to play peacemaker. As the season progresses, Don seems to be gradually evolving into a human being as he gains sensitivity; this week, he finally spotted the glaring neon signs of the chemistry between his girlfriend and Jim Harper. Shame he chose to ask Sloan about it – he’s not sensitive enough yet to work out that she has little concept of emotional empathy.

Biggest empathy vacuum this week (as every week) was, of course, Will. But the script went further than usual in examining this, and for the first time portrayed him in a genuinely unpleasant light. Up till now, he’s been shown as an asshole to work with, but a humanitarian of idealistic principle for all his (moderate) conservative politics.

This week, all that changed with his on-air bullying of a former aide to Rick Santorum. The aide was still a Santorum supporter, but Will, like an attack dog, kept aggressively pressing his point – how could he be, as a black gay man, when Santorum had described gay marriage as “a threat to marriage everywhere”, and equated it with bestiality and incest in a Congressional speech?

Tired of being ever more aggressively attacked, the aide came back with his own fierce, impassioned speech that served to make Will take a step back and look at his behaviour. “How dare you define me by my blackness or my gayness?”, he fumed, at one stroke piercing the often-patronising liberal agenda of reducing people to uncomplicated cyphers that need protecting. Turned out he still supported Santorum (even though disagreeing with him about gay rights), because he saw Santorum as the best spokesman against abortion, a position he strongly agreed with.

Sorkin didn’t use this moment to make any point about his views on abortion – it really wasn’t the point of this exchange. The point was that the liberal media can so easily simplify people into single issues, then patronise them by suggesting they are incapable of standing up for themselves. It was a very necessary moment of balance in a show that has been preachily canonising its own liberal heroes up till now – and nice to see that same preaching flung back at them from someone who doesn’t share their viewpoint.

And even in the face of that, Will couldn’t let it lie, finally just about reducing the man to tears with his last, quiet question – “Does Santorum think you’re fit to be a teacher?” Of course, he doesn’t. But by this point, winning the debate seems less of a moral victory than an unnecessary beating.

All this comes out via the medium of that framing narrative in the therapist’s office, at which point we learn something new about Will himself. His father was a violent, abusive drunk, and when Will was in the fifth grade, he had to be violent back just to protect his mother and brother. Now, in the classical style, he’s followed in his father’s footsteps and become a bully himself; he just uses words and intellectual points rather than fists. It’s not a very original dramatic observation, but unfortunately it’s a cliche because it’s too often true in reality; the bullied become bullies themselves.

To an extent, the suddenness with which we see these more unpleasant aspects of characters who have, till now, been so likeable, is a little jarring. It might have worked better if Sorkin had at least hinted previously that these ‘nice’ people could turn with such sudden ferocity. That had at least been the case with Will, but Sloan and Charlie came across as much more of a surprise, and perhaps not an entirely convincing one, as a result.

Nonetheless, it was good to see that balance I’d been wanting, even if it felt like the show had perhaps swung too far and too suddenly in the opposite direction. It continues to be a dramatic platform for Aaron Sorkin to espouse his own political views via his characters, but this episode was a good reminder that not everything is as black and white as it often seems in his ‘liberals=good, conservatives=bad’ universe.

True Blood: Season 5, Episode 8–Somebody That I Used to Know

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 8 YET.

“Praise Lilith! Praise Jesus! Praise Moses’ cock, I am born again!”

TrueBloodBill

It was another ladle of torrid supernatural stew in the overseasoned mix of this week’s True Blood, still frantically juggling its excess of plots with surprising aplomb. The coup within the vampire Authority was less prevalent this week (although still hanging heavy over the show) and with good reason – this episode is the first to be directed by Stephen Moyer himself. Consequently, it was fairly light on the presence of Bill Compton; but when he did show up, it was for Very Important Plot Points.

After his vision of Godric last week, Eric was the first to sober up from the heady brew of Lilith-blood, recognising that he was high as a kite, and he managed to talk Bill down too – or so it seemed. Salome’s plainly eager to get back to the old ways as soon as possible, and had Steve Newlin go out and round up some unwilling human victims. But when she offered a pleading young mother to Bill for for lunch, he was less than keen. His avowal that he would not deprive a human child of its parent was obviously rooted in his own experience, but in case we missed that, we got an interesting flashback to him visiting his daughter’s deathbed in 1910.

But did the memory of his daughter’s unsuccessful pleas to be turned change his mind? It didn’t seem so at first, but the script sprung a surprise on us (and Eric) at the very end, as Bill was the one to propose the cleverest solution to converting mainstreaming vampires – destroy the source of Tru Blood itself, forcing them to feed on humans or starve. It’s an audacious plan that would likely work, hence our surprise at Bill after his generally humanitarian views up till now. Is he faking it? If so, he’s taking Eric in too – and he’s given the Sangunistas a genuinely good strategy that they hadn’t thought of themselves. It’s a measure of how successful the show is at balancing its vampires between sympathetic and genuinely threatening that I’m still wondering.

So once again, it seems that Eric Northman could be humanity’s only hope. Still, even I could tell that his attempt to reason with Nora on behalf of the spectral Godric was hardly likely to work. Religious fanatics tend to be deaf to actual reason, particularly when it conflicts with their deeply held beliefs, and so Nora proved, declaring the repentant Godric in his final days a “perversion”. The apparent tears in Alexander Skarsgard’s eyes were a nice touch – but then again, I thought vampires only cried blood?

The vampire storyline was mostly on hold this week, mainly dealt with at the beginning and end of the episode. Even Russell was comparatively subdued (well, as subdued as Denis O’Hare can be giving that performance). He seems to have taken up with the newly vamp/gay/comic relief Steve Newlin, which is fun, though I can’t see it ending well for either of them!

With the vamps in the background, we got a lot more concentration on some other plots that had been growing in importance. The hate group/lynch mob that Hoyt had fallen in with got a lot of mileage this week, as, predictably, they’d kidnapped Jessica as a little treat for him, the intent that he could kill her himself. Again, the script toyed with our expectations – surely Hoyt’s bitterness is only surface deep, and he wouldn’t kill his ex in cold blood (so to speak)? Actually I had some genuine doubts about that, particularly now we know that the otherwise sympathetic Terry Bellefleur is actually a war criminal.

But no, Hoyt couldn’t kill Jessica, even if he couldn’t forgive her either. One of the key themes this week was that of former friends/lovers/siblings finding themselves irrevocably separated by life changes, and here that was underlined by a quite sad little conversation between Hoyt and Jessica about how they’d drifted apart. It neatly echoed Eric and Nora’s argument, too.

Sam and Sheriff Andy were closing in on the hate mob from another direction, as Sam intimidated their unrepentant and uncooperative captive with the neat trick of turning into a cobra. But Sam was in for a shock of his own, as the hospitalised Luna, under heavy stress, had shifted into the shape of none other than – Sam Merlotte! Cue, the increasingly sour disbelief of the Sheriff – “I hate this goddamn town”. No wonder his predecessor retired.

We know from last year how dangerous it can be for a shape shifter to imitate another actual person, but the seriousness was mixed with humour here. Sam Trammell’s idea of playing a woman playing Sam Merlotte wasn’t particularly subtle, but his slightly camp femininity was certainly good for a laugh. As was his mopping Luna/Sam’s fevered brow while admitting, “you’re very handsome”. Sweetly, it was his kiss that brought her back to herself; but I wonder whether more will be made of this incident or if it will simply be one more thing to come back to in later years?

It looks like Lafayette’s brujo problem may be over – certainly he’s got away from Don Bartolo, with the murderous assistance of his angry wife. This left Jesus free to spectrally appear in Lafayette’s car (now an elderly Volvo Amazon – I wonder what happened to the Mercedes?). It was a nice directorial touch from Moyer to keep Jesus slightly out of focus in every shot, emphasising his nebulous reality.

But Lafayette still has problems, as Arlene and Holly have roped him in to help with Terry’s problems in his capacity as a medium. Fed up, he’s started charging for these services – well, so would I. But it’s another hair-raising seance (except for Lafayette, who doesn’t have any hair) as the murdered Iraqi woman Zafira makes an appearance, and boy, is she pissed. Turns out she will lift the curse – providing Terry kills Patrick. Or vice versa. Either way, one’s got to kill the other. Cue Patrick doing a runner – but I wonder if the show will have the balls to make Terry go through with this. Certainly won’t help with his PTSD, that’s for sure…

The Shreveport werewolves popped up to finally have that duel between buff, heroic Alcide and disreputable, V-addicted JD. After a particularly raunchy sex scene between Alcide and his hot young female trainer (which had me straining at the screen trying to see the details of Joe Manganiello’s brief, out-of-focus full frontal), the challenge was on. With the added spice of having to hunt a terrified college runner to the death. Alcide being the heroic type, he dropped out rather than try that, but fought JD anyway. He was about to have his head stove in when Martha turned up to give JD a damn good bollocking. I guess if the mythos is following genuine wolf behaviour, only a male can be pack leader. And yet Martha is so obviously the best candidate that perhaps we’re about to see a werewolf feminist revolution.

Tara was having problems with asshole customers, as a racist high school acquaintance popped up in Fangtasia to insult her all over again, under the impression that customer service rules would prevent Tara from returning fire. For a while it looked that way, especially when Pam turned up to give her a scolding and offer the spoiled prom queen a drink on the house. I was particularly sympathetic, speaking as a former store clerk who never got backing from the management when it came to dealing with awkward customers. So it was a very pleasant surprise that Pam had captured the former prom queen to be Tara’s plaything and lunch. I guess Pam would be a pretty cool boss after all, though you wouldn’t cross her – “You don’t know me that well. My mad face and my happy face are the same.”

Sookie, persuaded by an unusually eloquent Jason not to blast away all her magic, was experimenting with new fairy powers (with a little help from the local fey gang). Turns out she can project herself into the past and inhabit her mother’s experiences, to try and solve her parents’ murder. Instead, much to Claude’s surprise, she managed to project herself into the vampire that killed them. He was wearing another of the show’s convenient hats to hide his identity, and I’d assumed that it would turn out to be either Bill, or, more likely, Eric. That would be the interesting, if a bit predictable, thing to do.

But no, turns out the attacker’s name is ‘Warlow’ – at least according to Claudine, who was seen blasting him with fairy magic in the past. Sookie’s new power has aftereffects though, as a spectral ‘Warlow’ materialised out of thin air to growl threats at her. Still couldn’t make out his face though, and I’m convinced that the name is fake and it’ll be a vampire we’ve seen before. Maybe not Bill or Eric, but if it’s someone previously unknown, that would be as much of a cheat as the solution to most Agatha Christie mysteries.

It was another fun episode, charged with the usual heady mix of violence, action and supernatural sexiness. Stephen Moyer did a perfectly good, and occasionally inspired job of directing, and I’m surprised he hasn’t tried it before; though I guess being one of the leads of the show is quite a heavy workload in itself! I know no other cast members are trying it, at least this year. With all these plots being given virtually equal weight this season, I doubt any of them would have the time.

Bert and Dickie: Oars of Glory

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With the much-anticipated (and expensive) opening extravaganza due tomorrow, Olympic fever is truly in full swing. A couple of weeks ago, I was stuck in a jubilant crowd as the Olympic Torch passed through Cambridge, looking slightly insignificant after the corporate outriders of giant buses publicising Lloyds, Coca-Cola and Samsung. Now, it seems that every other show on the BBC is Olympics-related. The sitcom Twenty Twelve has been running for two series (and will presumably now have to end), documentaries about British Olympians like diving pinup Tom Daley ooze from our screens, and Ab Fab returned with an Olympic special that I haven’t seen yet, but was less than favourably received. Even the News is currently being broadcast from a studio overlooking the stadium.

It’s reached the feverish point where even the gentlest of criticism of this massively expensive, corporately-controlled sporting event is seen as unpatriotic, and anyone who says they won’t be watching is either a liar or a traitor to their country. Well, I don’t much care for sport (or corporate tax avoidance) and I’m an old curmudgeon. But I will, I suppose, be watching the diving, if only to lust after Tom Daley.

With all this going on, it was a relief to step back to the more innocent 1948 Olympics for the BBC’s heartwarming if formulaic sport drama Bert and Dickie. Centring on the British rowing duo who won gold at a time of national austerity, it was a story that felt tailor made for dramatisation, because it had so many real elements that might so easily be dismissed as heartstring tugging cliche if they weren’t actually true. Well, true-ish; the film did have a little disclaimer at the beginning saying that “some scenes and dialogue have been invented”, which might explain some of the more mawkish moments.

Still, the facts themselves would have seemed sprung from the mind of a less than imaginative screenwriter were it not for being actually true. Bert Bushnell and Dickie Burnell (true life drama often has to deal with awkwardly similar names) were chalk and cheese rowers from wildly different backgrounds. Dickie wrote for The Times, came from a very wealthy family and drove a gorgeous Mk IV Jaguar. Bert’s family were lower middle class, his father with a boat building business, and while the family owned a car, Bert himself had to get about on a bike. Dickie was a member of all the right clubs, while Bert was just an oik who couldn’t get past the doorman.

Pushed together by rowing coach (and former gold medallist) Jack Beresford, this mismatched pair had to learn to work together to beat the rest of the world to Olympic gold. That they would was never really in doubt even if you didn’t know the story; the BBC would hardly make a ‘feelbad’ drama in the runup to the Olympics in which the British team lost. To add to the reality that seems like cliche, both men had domineering fathers who were former rowers themselves, and Bert had a sweetheart whose distractions caused his pushy dad some concern, leading him to banish her back to her distant home of Dumfries.

What followed was more or less the standard stuff of sporting drama, but with the validity of truth. Bert had class-based fights with ’gentleman’ Dickie, while Dickie berated Bert for the chip on his shoulder. Both men suffered crises of confidence as they advanced through the rounds, finding solace in each other’s fathers’ advice. Along the way, Bert overheard his father telling Dickie of his own, thwarted Olympic dreams as a younger rower. Dickie’s father revealed to Bert that he himself won a gold in 1908, and if his son was successful they would be the first father and son ever to win Olympic gold in rowing. Contrived? No, again, this is absolutely true; Charles and Richard Burnell are still the only father and son to have achieved this.

The rowing was handled very well by the director, with the actors visibly doing it for real in most shots. I don’t know much about rowing, but the script didn’t talk down to the audience and we were left to work it out as best we could from the plot and dialogue. Which worked surprisingly well. I now know the difference between a rower (one oar) and a sculler (two oars), and while I could make little of the byzantine rules governing passing through to the next stage of the tournament, it was clear enough that winning would send you through. The alternative was tried, of intentionally losing to rig who our heroes would face in the next round, only for it to blow up in their faces when the expected winners of the stage also lost and would face them anyway.

Other tactical rowing strategies were tried, but it was really all about the build up to the Big Match That Would Decide It All – the Men’s Double Sculls final on August 9, 1948. This went as expected; the build up of tension as our heroes adjusted their boat, as Bert’s dad watched from the stands and his fiance watched on a tiny TV in a shop in faraway Dumfries, TVs still being mostly the province of the very rich.

They were off! And then, as expected, they pulled ahead, and everything went slow motion as swelling, inspirational music soared on the soundtrack (a convention of every sporting drama ever – think of Rocky and Chariots of Fire). Bert’s dad had left him an inspirational note: “make the boat sing”. And sing it did, as the race was intercut with Bert’s nervous mother, unable to watch, listening to Puccini on her gramophone.

Formulaic it may have been, but it was done well enough to still be tense and rather entertaining. Screenwriter William Ivory had delivered a script rich in sucrose but still occasionally barbed about class and standing to be insightful. And the cast, of course were excellent. Matt Smith was as impassioned as usual as Bert, but this was a distinctly different performance to that as the Doctor; it’s worth noting that Smith aspired to a sport career himself earlier in life, which felt like it informed his performance here. Between this and his decadent turn as Christopher Isherwood recently, I’m glad to see that he can still find a variety of roles while working on the punishing grind of Doctor Who. Mind you, when he put on the little white hat his mother had made for him, along with his round black-framed glasses, I couldn’t help being reminded of something:

MattSmith                      Gumby (2)

Sam Hoare was similarly good as Dickie, while Douglas Hodge put in a nuanced performance as Bert’s dad. But for me the best thing was the still-amazing Geoffrey Palmer as Burnell Sr, an incredible performance that was all British restraint while hinting at the passion beneath that only broke through for a moment when his son won the gold.

In order to provide a context relating to today’s Olympics, the drama also contained numerous cutaways to the offices of then Prime Minister Clement Attlee, a role Clive Merrison was surely born to play. These were, technically, a little extraneous, as Attlee and his ministers (including a young Harold Wilson) had no actual contact with the people the rest of the drama was about. But they served to remind us that an Olympics had been pulled off at a time of even worse national austerity, when food was still being rationed and half of London lay in bomb-smashed ruins. This served to let the writer make some barbed points relating to the criticism of today’s Olympics; ruminating on the surprisingly successful advertising and sponsorship, one minister commented, “that could catch on.” And while corporations had provided sponsored Y-fronts, athletes still had to supply their own shorts!

The BBC had obviously thrown a fair bit of budget at it, so the production was rich in lavish period detail, mostly accurate. Even so, I’m not sure the word ‘knackered’ would have been used so freely in gentleman’s conversation in 1948; and while there were some gorgeous cars on display, it was noticeable that they all looked brand new. Surely even in the traffic-thin streets of 1948, there still would have been a few relics of ten year old bangers, or ex-military vehicles from the war that had only ended three years earlier? Plus, the valve radio in the Bushnells’ car warmed up amazingly quickly when switched on – in less than a second, in fact!

Well, that’s just quibbling really. The rest of the details were good – the brylcreem, the bakelite television, the snobby gentleman’s clubs, the giant BBC Outside Broadcast cameras. It was an unashamedly stirring, patriotic bit of sporting drama that even an Olympic sceptic like me could enjoy, with some good direction and fine performances all round. Lucky really, as it may well be the only Olympic-related TV I watch that isn’t the diving contests…

What if God was one of us?

Some musings on the current uneasy relationship between religion and secular society…

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In recent weeks, there’s been a surge of news articles which detail religion coming into conflict with states that are, nominally at least, secular.

Religion is a thorny issue for secular liberals to get their heads around. A defining factor for liberals is our insistence on tolerance and inclusivity for all, and that usually includes religious freedom. The problem comes when the religions whose freedom we’re insisting on espouse beliefs that come into direct conflict with our own philosophy of tolerance – and while it may not be true of all who follow each faith, almost every major religion has one or more group that they are actively intolerant of. Women and homosexuals tend to come top of the list, with varying degrees of intolerance directed at them notably from the mainstream of all three Abrahamic faiths. But religious dogma has been used to discriminate against other groups throughout history – and that tends to be most focused on a dislike/hatred of religious groups other than themselves.

So what do we secular, inclusive liberals do when faced with the problem of tolerance for groups who tend towards intolerance? There’s a tendency towards contorted doublethink, but it’s a hard one to address without coming across as hypocritical. At this point, it’s worth noting that objections to a religious philosophy don’t (or shouldn’t) encompass all those who follow it. I know both Christians and Muslims, and not one has a problem with either my atheism or my homosexuality. Neither do I have a problem with them having beliefs that I don’t share.

No, our objections to religion (if we have them) should be directed at religious orthodoxy – those who come up with the mainstream positions of each faith on issues that might seem reactionary in a secular, inclusive country. Even here, this is far from a clear issue. Within each major faith are any number of factions, large or small, whose feelings on such issues vary wildly. Beyond the obvious division of Christians into Catholics and Protestants, there’s a variety of smaller subsets, while Islam’s notable division into Sunni and Shiah also embraces a multitude of factions within each. Indeed, Islam is difficult to ascribe any overriding, definitive philosophy to, in the absence of a central governing body like the Anglican Synod or the Catholic Vatican.

Compounding the problem is that the lines between religious faith, culture, politics and ethnicity are extremely blurred. And if there’s anything we liberals hate, it’s racial prejudice and bigoted stereotyping. But it’s not that simple. Judaism in particular is associated with a specific ethnicity, which is to ignore the wide variety of Jewish racial and cultural characteristics. Islam tends to be associated with Arabic peoples, due to its area of origin, but encompasses huge swathes of other races in the West, Asia and Africa. Nonetheless, criticism of these religions tends to be simplified into a debate which generalises any objectors to them as racists, in a way that tends not to happen with Christianity (stereotypically, and inaccurately, viewed as a faith dominated by Caucasians).

The gold standard for this is, of course, the Holocaust, which still casts such a long shadow over history that it’s the standard reductio ad absurdum response in any debate, particularly online. Adolf Hitler, ironically, made no distinction between the boundaries of faith, culture or race in his persecution of the Jews – if you had any trace of Judaism in you, whether it be genetic or cultural, off to the camps you would go. It’s still a massively emotive historical event, as evidenced by the slightly cynical manipulation inherent in the articles by Owen Jones and Jonathan Freedland which invite you to substitute “Jew” for “Muslim” in criticism of Islam “and be shocked”. As though Judaism should, somehow, be above criticism because of its long history of pogroms and persecution.

The irony is that in reducing all criticism of religion to the accusation of racism, those commentators who most strenuously oppose interference in religion tend to be guilty of the same kind of generalisation. The current wave of articles decrying the UK’s ‘Islamophobia’ is a perfect example. There undoubtedly is an excessive media fixation on Muslims in the UK (and the US, for that matter). It’s been argued (with some validity) that Islam seems more socially acceptable to criticise than other faiths. And it is utterly ridiculous that anyone writing about Islam should be required to state their positions on the faith’s more contentious philosophies in order to be taken seriously.

But to sweep all objections to Islam into the gross generalisation of ‘Islamophobia’ is similarly bigoted. There is, I think, a wide variety of people and motives in this slew of criticism. Some, like the EDL and a disturbing number of ‘neo-Nazi’ groups in Europe, genuinely do seem to be motivated by racism, or at the very least xenophobia – the irrational fear of ‘others’ that seems hardwired into the human psyche, which civilisation strives to overcome.

Then there are those who object to all religion on principle – these tend to be militant atheists of the Richard Dawkins school, who fail to notice the irony that they are constantly proselytising for their own belief system just as much as any religion does. In fact, this kind of atheism seems blind to its own illiberal prejudices, flinging insulting terms like “sky fairy”, “invisible friend” and “childlike nonsense” at believers. I tend towards atheism myself, but I realise that it’s a belief system as much as any religious philosophy, and that we atheists would find it unacceptable for devout believers to be as insulting as we often are.

However, any religion should be able to bear criticism (in much the same way as I’ve just criticised atheists), and it’s right and fair that Islam or Judaism should not be exempted from this in secular societies. Most nominally secular Western states evolved from overtly Christian ones, and liberal commentators certainly don’t shy away from pointing out Christianity’s failings.

Islam over the last few decades has been conspicuously resistant to criticism, which ironically has probably spurred more to fixate on its perceived failings than they otherwise might have. The September 11 attacks were obviously the work of a small group of fanatical extremists (which every religion has), but even before those we had the Iranian-issued fatwa on author Salman Rushdie for his perceived blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses. And more recently, the admittedly childish provocation of the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten resulted in a hysterical outcry from some Muslims across the world, which encompassed death threats, violence and arson. This despite the fact the proscription on depicting the Prophet is a comparatively recent ruling in Islam, and not a specific commandment in the Qu’ran but an interpretation of the general antipathy towards icons in Islam.

Islam is also the only major religion to still rule over states as actual theocracies, and where it does, the leaders’ interpretation of their faith is massively intolerant in its treatment of those old bugbears, non-believers, women and homosexuals. Saudi Arabia has policies directed at its female population that would be considered repressive and totalitarian in secular states, while Iran’s treatment (frequently execution) of homosexuals would be considered barbaric in the West (except perhaps by the Westboro Baptist Church). In Pakistan, the draconian anti-blasphemy laws (ironically derived from colonial rules established by the British) make its religion almost totalitarian in nature.

But those are sovereign states with their own cultures, and despite Tony Blair’s fervent wishes, we don’t have a moral high ground to change their practices by force. All we can do is try to influence them by other means. We should, however, resist any pressure to exempt their beliefs from the rules of our own secular societies, and firmly refute any attempt to influence the law of the land in the name of those beliefs. That goes for fundamentalist Christians too, whose virtual hijacking of the Republican Party in America is abhorrent to the freedoms espoused in its Constitution.  Anyone should be free to believe whatever they like, and to practise whatever rites their faith demands – up to and until the point where those practices have a negative impact on others.

So, I would defend to the death Cardinal O’Brien’s right to believe that I am an abomination and bound for Hell. It’s when he starts using that belief to try and influence the laws of the land that he becomes fair game for criticism. I am not ‘racist’ against Celtic Catholics for objecting. Neither am I being anti-Semitic if I object to the partially secular state of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, nor rabidly Zionist when I assert Israel’s right to exist.

There’s a common consensus in most secular societies that religions have had to adapt to as their political power became less all-pervading. Christianity survived being told that it could no longer burn heretics, prohibit English translations of the Bible, or stone adulterers to death, and it will survive equal marriage. Islam as a philosophy seems to be adapting more slowly when in secular states, but it has adapted. There’s no reason to assume it won’t continue to do so (although trying to hurry it along can be tempting).

But what about that German ruling on infant circumcision? That’s an example of how none of this is clear cut or simple, as usual. Speaking from my own cultural perspective, it seems an act of irreversible bodily alteration carried out without consent (ie a negative impact), and should be resisted (though whether a state ban is the best way to resist it is a complex debate in itself). Muddying the waters is the fact that a great deal of infant circumcision has no religious motivation at all (notably in the US, where it’s more of a cultural norm, though this appears to be declining).

Defenders of the practice produce convincing scientific studies alluding to health and hygiene benefits, while opponents produce equally convincing studies arguing precisely the opposite. A wealth of data supporting both positions means that neither is conclusively convincing, and in the end it boils down to a question of cultural tradition. Tradition is a very hard thing to change, whether religious or not, and in the case of Judaism circumcision is so fundamentally bound up with Jewish identity that it’s virtually impossible. The statement on Abraham’s covenant with God, and its foreskin-removal requirement at the age of eight days, is pretty unequivocal.

Islamic circumcision is a more recent tradition, but still of very long standing. It does have the get out clause of not being mentioned in the Qu’ran itself, but the obligation is spelled out in Sunnah and is unlikely to find much appetite for abandonment. Christians, of course, manage to sidestep the whole issue via Christ’s New Covenant, which renders a number of Old Testament conventions obsolete.

A slightly less draconian regulation of the proposed German ban was tried in Sweden in 2001, and has had little effect on its frequency. Like all of the subjects touched on here, this is by no means a straightforward issue – what may seem a negative impact to me may seem quite the opposite to those inside a religious community. Obviously if we had deranged mohelim going around trying to circumcise the secular, that would be unacceptable. But we don’t – it’s a rite which affects Jews, and many would say positively.

And yet, we have legislated against other practices which religious communities would like to carry out internally – for example, forced marriage or female genital mutilation. Secular states have been able to do this because of an overriding consensus that these are ‘negative impacts’ (to put it mildly), a state of affairs we’ve yet to reach with circumcision, which is less demonstrably harmful. Given all of that, I’d say we need to work towards making the tradition less generally acceptable via education rather than the blunt tool of a state ban.

This lies at the heart of the problem with our acceptance (or not) of religious rites and influence on general society. These are practices which have become so deeply entrenched because of centuries, sometimes millennia, of tradition that they are rarely questioned – and yet, were they to be introduced now, many would be unfathomable and unacceptable. Obviously, this will always be the viewpoint of those outside religious communities.

The more longstanding the tradition, the less it’s questioned, hence the numerous exemptions from social rules that the Abrahamic faiths in particular benefit from. The First Amendment of the US Constitution has the balance about right – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – and yet the incoming President still swears the Inauguration oath with one hand on the Bible.  More recently established religions find less reverence from outsiders; Mormonism (founded in the 1820s) had to abandon its cherished practice of polygamy due to US law, and a Supreme Court ruling held that the right to “free exercise” of religion did not extend to religious practices that conflict with the law of the land.

And yet so many secular states (the UK may have an established church, but its government is nominally secular) still extend freedoms to longstanding religions that would seem distinctly peculiar if they were asked for in the present day. And in order to ensure fairness, these then have to be extended to any officially recognised religion, however bizarre it may seem (hello, Scientology).

I’d contend that in a secular society (as the US First Amendment states), we should be tolerant of religion but allow it no role in governing a populace, and further that a secular government should be able to criticise, and in some cases outlaw, traditional practices if they are judged (by majority consensus) to be unacceptable. In the UK, we should not have 26 seats in the House of Lords reserved for bishops. We should not allow religious organisations to practise outright discrimination because of their beliefs. We should not be giving state funding to faith schools whose primary raison d’etre is to perpetuate the beliefs of some of the richest organisations on Earth. And for the same reason, religious property, institutions and personnel should not be exempt from taxation (estimated to be depriving the US Treasury alone of some $71 billion a year).

Obviously I’d prefer it if everyone shared my belief system (atheism), but believers of all other stripes must feel the same, and let’s face it, it isn’t going to happen. Religions may die out – some have, over the course of history – but none of the currently prominent ones are in any danger of that. But if we are to respect them, they must respect us – and I’m not restricting that to any but ALL of them. Yes, including the Jedi.

The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 5 – Amen

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 5 YET.

“I’m just a middle aged man who never lived up to his potential. You don’t want to be on the wrong end of me if I ever do.”

NewsroomNealMackenzie

After last week’s character heavy episode, it should perhaps have been a relief to find the focus of this week’s The Newsroom more thoroughly on actual news. And yet, Mr Sorkin’s skill with characters means that I’ve come to enjoy the ‘soap opera’ aspects of the show too. This week, the show managed to balance that with its critique of news and politics, together with its ongoing narrative, just about right. For this viewer at least, it lurched a little too far into Sorkin’s frequent mawkish sentimentality at its climax, but the rest was strong enough for me to forgive it that.

The big news topics covered this week were as important as ever (Will McAvoy might be aware of Justin Bieber, but you’ll never see him treated as news) – the emergent Arab Spring and the aftermath of President Mubarak’s resignation in Egypt, along with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s undemocratic public sector union-busting bill with the spurious justification of balancing the state budget. As we now know, neither of these stories ended well, at least if you’re of the political leaning shared by Sorkin and myself. The Egyptian people managed to topple a dictator and end up with a military junta that dissolved an uncooperative Parliament, while an attempt to recall Governor Walker recently met with defeat. As usual, the slightly unfair advantage of ACN news in being written from a year into the future allowed the show to cast a few notes of caution on both stories.

Along the way, the script, as cleverly constructed as usual, allowed for musings on journalistic integrity and courage, particularly when it comes to journalists putting themselves in harm’s way to report the facts. Will’s former colleague Elliot was reporting from Cairo, but stuck in his hotel room and unable to see the hell breaking loose in Tahrir Square below, much to Don’s frustration. After generally behaving like an asshole in the control room (his signature move), Don disappeared only to re-emerge later with the news that Elliot had after all ventured outside and got himself seriously beaten as a result.

It didn’t take a genius to work out that this must have been on Don’s instructions – as Will pointed out when Don finally confessed, everybody had known already. But it allowed Don to once again make amends for behaving like an asshole by overcompensating with acts of contrition throughout. I may have been wrong in my earlier assessments of Don as a one-dimensional asshole; at least he’s learning. And to be fair, his flaws here probably make him a more realistic character than half the staff – who hasn’t screwed something up at work and then tried to justify it afterwards?

The difference here being that screwing up can get people killed, an echo of similar storylines in The West Wing about shouldering responsibility for sending people into danger. As a former war correspondent, Mackenzie presumably knows all about that, but it was Neal’s turn to learn the lesson when he made contact with an underground Egyptian blogger and suggested they use him as a correspondent in the injured Elliot’s place.

After being reduced to stereotypical nerd comic relief with last week’s Bigfoot obsession, this week saw Neal restored as one of my favourite characters by giving him some truly meaty dialogue and storylines. We learned some of his news background as an amateur cameraman caught up in the 2005 London bombings, giving Dev Patel the chance to expertly deliver some well-crafted dialogue that truly captured the horror of that situation. It also gave him every reason to draw parallels between himself and the Egyptian blogger calling himself ‘Amen’ – as Neal pointed out, not the Christian blessing, but an Egyptian word meaning ‘hidden one’ (deriving from the god Amun, the ‘hidden’ form of Amun-Ra).

But Neal’s experiences in London hadn’t been in the context of a state in anarchy, and he soon came to realise the danger ‘Amen’ was putting himself in – especially when Mackenzie apologetically insisted that, for his reports to have validity, he’d have to reveal his real name and his face. So off came the bandanna to reveal a handsome young guy called Kahlid Salim (Amin El Gamal), and from then on it was pretty predictable that he was going to find himself in some danger – if not actually killed.

Predictable it may have been, but it was well played when Kahlid inevitably disappeared after being sent to military HQ chasing a story. Dev Patel was so good at showing Neal’s anguish that I just wanted to give him a hug. And his mounting anger at a clip of right wing pundit/moron Rush Limbaugh making light of the situation led him to punch the monitor with Rush’s visage so hard that he broke two fingers, adding him to the ever-growing list of injured ACN staff.

This was a peculiar little running plot point, perhaps meant to (hamfistedly) indicate that being in the studio can be just as dangerous as being in the field. Since this is plainly not true, I can only hope it wasn’t the intent, but that was how it came across. Still, it did allow for some blackly comic moments as a mounting number of ACN staff found themselves bandaged, splinted or in slings (or some combination of all of these). It started with Maggie tripping up (a slapstick character trait I’d hoped we’d left behind), and bashing Jim on the head with a door, which later required stitches. Elliot returned from the field looking pretty battered, and Don managed to sprain his shoulder trying unwisely to break into Reese Lansing’s office (in another attempt to assuage his guilt by trying to secure ransom money for Kahlid). By the end of the episode, the newsroom was starting to resemble a hospital emergency room, there were so many bandages and slings in evidence.

While all this was unfolding, Will and co were doing some digging into Gov Walker’s reasons for trying to shut down public sector unions in Wisconsin, coming up with an interesting conspiracy theory I hadn’t come across before. Will noted the involvement of conservative lobby group Citizens United in the Walker campaign, along with some carefully circumspect speculation about the alleged funding for the organisation from the billionaire Koch brothers (yep, them again).

He followed that up with some more carefully circumspect theorising about the 2008 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United’s favour, which for the purposes of free speech gave corporations the same rights to fund political campaigns as individuals. It has been alleged that Supreme Court justices Thomas and Scalia had a conflict of interest in ruling on the case, particularly Thomas, whose wife Virginia’s own political group was apparently in receipt of significant donations from the Tea Party, and by implication the Kochs. Having secured a judgement that would allow corporations the same freedoms as individuals, the only thorn in the corporate side was the fact that it gave the same freedoms to unions. Unions like those Walker was trying to drive into the ground, for reasons that now seemed obvious.

This had no real bearing on the story per se (and the Walker story wasn’t given as much prominence as the Egypt one anyway). But it was an interesting collection of information to have, whether or not you accept the conspiracy theory (and I’m inclined to). Yes, it was Aaron Sorkin once again using the show as a political platform, but it still worked as drama, I thought, in much the same way as similar scenes of speculation in Oliver Stone’s JFK.

This was some heavy stuff, but the tangled love lives of the characters at least provided some light relief. Maggie is still, bizarrely, trying to salvage her relationship with Don, shooting herself in the foot by trying to set up the much nicer Jim with her roommate Lisa instead. This week, this manifested itself in a somewhat contrived plot of Maggie determinedly trying to set up a date between Jim and Lisa so Lisa wouldn’t spoil her own night with Don. Inevitably, in sitcom style, it didn’t work out because Jim was so busy working he forgot to meet Lisa. But not to worry, the storyline can be strung out further yet, because Lisa’s initial fury soon melted with her confession that she was wearing edible underwear. Perhaps I’m beginning to see some reason behind those criticisms of Sorkin’s female characters…

Mackenzie wasn’t helping much there either, as it turned out her boyfriend, who she’d had on the show repeatedly as a guest, was running for Congress, leading to inevitable speculation as to her political bias and corruption. This fed into the running plotline of ACN’s attempts to discredit News Night and Will by using their own, vicious, gossip columnists. Charlie stepped in with a voice like thunder in the earpiece of a smarmy daytime show presenter when he repeated these allegations on air, but the damage was done – so badly, in fact, that Will was considering the option of actually paying the columnist in question to buy her off the story.

This led to another of those scenes in which Will confronts hypocrisy with the cheerable but improbable eloquence of a signature Sorkin character. On the point of paying the woman, he balked when she referred to herself as a journalist, going on a long rant about how real journalists (ie his staff) were honest and altruistic (possibly not true of all journalists in reality).

It was another wish-fulfilling moment, common on Sorkin shows, of being able to batter your opponent down with your intellect and your moral integrity; realistic it may not be, but satisfying it most definitely is. Mackenzie, of course, realised she’d been had and told the boyfriend to “go to Hell”, while Will made better use of his money to pay the ransom for the captive Kahlid.

This was where the schmaltz came in, rather too heavily for my taste. Earlier in the story, much had been made of Will’s fondness for a tearjerking sport movie called Rudy. Sorkin’s use of sport and sporting drama as reference/metaphor is always rather lost on me for a variety of reasons. I don’t really like sport, most American sporting dramas are about sports we know little of in the UK (baseball, American football), and the vast majority of sport movies are mawkishly sentimental in the extreme (Rocky, Jerry Maguire, A League of Their Own).

So I was unfortunately completely unmoved at what I presume to be a recreation of the heartstring-tugging ending of Rudy – staffer after staffer came in to Will’s office to pay what they could towards the $250,000 Will had paid to secure Kahlid’s release. To be fair to Sorkin, it felt less contrived when it was revealed that Mackenzie (knowing Will’s fondness for the movie) had orchestrated the stunt as a Valentine’s present. It still felt unpalatably sickly though.

Still, as usual there was enough good stuff for me to forgive the comparatively infrequent Sorkin excesses of sentiment. I can understand the objection that the show is “too preachy”, but for me that’s a huge part of its appeal. Yes, Sorkin is using the drama as a political platform, but he’s also using the drama to inform, to debunk widely held conservative myths using facts rather than ill-informed rhetoric – the very mantra of the show within the show, News Night. Of course, your tolerance for this is probably in direct proportion to your agreement with Sorkin’s leanings, and I fear he’s preaching to the choir and unlikely to change the minds of any watching conservatives. But for liberals like me, there’s something very entertaining in seeing your views borne out with actual research, and that polemic is at least half of the show’s appeal. With February 2011 out of the way, I’m looking forward to seeing what issues will be addressed next.

True Blood: Season 5, Episode 7–In the Beginning

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 7 YET.

“I have been born again. Made again, in my new Maker’s image.”

TrueBloodRussell

After the glut of action last week, it was back mostly to intrigue and plotting in this week’s True Blood. Hardly a surprise, as the season’s only halfway through – I really don’t think they could have maintained (and stepped up) that level of madness for the next six episodes!

Foremost in the intrigue was the ongoing backstabbing in the vampire Authority. After his deliciously feral rampage last week, Russell Edgington was contained surprisingly easily by Authority security, though not before amusingly hanging Eric from a nearby pillar. Given the sheer power Russell had displayed and his apparent madness, it seemed odd that he should be so easily overpowered. But as usual, there was a reason. As speculated last week, the whole thing had been deliberately orchestrated by Salome as a kind of palace coup. With Roman out of the way, Salome was free to let her Sanguinista beliefs all hang out. Escorted to her chamber, Bill and Eric found her luxuriating in her newfound power, along with the now freed Nora. And – surprise, surprise – a newly contrite, ‘born again’ Russell.

I was as sceptical as Bill and Eric about Russell’s claim to have turned over a new leaf, but I needn’t have been. Whatever Russell’s true intentions, the Sanguinistas’ agenda of subjugating humanity is pretty much in line with what he’s always wanted anyway. As a consequence, we got to see Denis O’Hare back to his sinister, manipulative turn as the deceptively friendly Russell, all laid-back charm and convincing Southern manners. He’s still the best villain the show’s come up with, and it’s nice to be reminded that his evil encompasses far more than just unrestrained ferocity.

Russell may or may not be a believer in the Sanguinistas’ fundamentalist religious beliefs, but he’s certainly playing along convincingly enough. As Salome assembled what was left of the Council to commit the ultimate heresy of drinking Lilith’s long-preserved blood, Dieter was the only dissenter; and for his pains, he got a lightning fast decapitation at Russell’s hands. The Authority are falling like dominoes – Roman last week, and now Dieter. I shall miss actor Christopher Heyerdahl in the part; he does this sort of thing so well that he’s pretty much typecast (see also his bloody terrifying turn as the demon Alastair in Supernatural).

After that demonstration of the rewards dissenters can expect, it was no surprise that the remaining Council members were jumping over themselves to join Salome in her ‘heresy’. Of course, Bill and Eric aren’t ‘believers’, but don’t see the harm in playing along. After all, as Eric says, “it’s just vampire blood. What could happen?”

Quite a lot, as it turns out. As the mother of all vampires, Lilith’s blood plainly has quite a kick. Hence the immediate jump cut to the whole fang gang stumbling through the party thronged streets of New Orleans, plainly in a trippy/drunken state, and eager for confrontation with the ‘”cattle” of humanity. Russell seems to have found a new soulmate in ‘gay vampire American’ Steve Newlin, who admires his Blues Brothers-style disguise.

Bill and Eric were just as affected as the rest, joining in as they terrified an impatient cab driver who dared to sound his horn at them. The cabbie got off lightly though. In a darkly comic scene, the vampires showed up to slaughter a pretty nauseating wedding party at a nearby bar, their appearance heralded by Russell suddenly joining the bride in singing ‘You Light Up My Life’. Frankly, after that I’d have been tempted to slaughter them.

And it seems the slaughter has been capable of actually summoning up Lilith from beyond the grave, as she formed herself from a pool of blood and stepped out full-frontal nude to join her subjects. It wasn’t clear whether this was real, or a hallucination brought on by her powerful blood. But Eric had a different vision, as a spectral Godric popped up to tell him that what was happening was wrong. It seems ironic that Eric, previously shown as pretty amoral, is now becoming the conscience for other vampires. But it was nice to see Allan Hyde as Godric again; being as natively Swedish as Alexander Skarsgard meant that they could carry on a fluent conversation in that language.

So, perhaps unexpectedly, Eric’s conscience may be humanity’s only hope. It’s a measure of how well done True Blood is that I really don’t mind seeing the plot of vampires trying to subjugate humanity yet again – even this show has been there before, with Russell’s plans in the third season. Strategically though, it looks a bit dodgy. After all, humanity all know about vampires now, and they outnumber them millions to one. Surely even with their powers, those are odds the vampires can’t beat? Stay tuned, I guess, and we shall see…

If the Sangunistas’ plans seemed rather familiar, so too did one of this week’s other main narratives, as Hoyt became increasingly caught up with the gang of good ol’ boys going around shooting supernaturals while wearing Obama masks. They may be a bit more amateurish, but this surprisingly diverse hate group are basically a rerun of season two’s Christian hate group (and Steve Newlin’s old outfit) the Fellowship of the Sun.

Still, the show’s having some fun with them – they got some laugh out loud dialogue as Hoyt proclaimed “I’ve felt more love and affection in this hate group than I have anywhere else”, to which their leader passionately replied, “that’s right, hate groups are about so much more than just hate!” They may be pretty dense, and the dialogue may be pretty funny, but there’s a good underlying point there about the feeling of community and shared identity that presumably holds hate groups together. Perhaps it will be developed further in later episodes.

Sam and Sheriff Andy got their fair share of this plotline too, as they continued their investigation into the shooters. So we got treated to the spectacle of Sam writhing around sniffing at the floor to track them while a deputy looked on in some surprise, and Andy paying a visit to his crusty predecessor as Sheriff, Bud Dearborne, for a bit of professional reassurance. It was nice to see the ever excellent William Sanderson back for a cameo as Bud, who was none too sympathetic at being interrupted by Andy when he had a hot tub appointment with his fancy woman in his wife’s absence!

Lafayette’s brujo demon problem also got some prominence this week, as he travelled down to see Jesus’ uncle Don Bartolo, unsurprisingly the one behind the whole thing. As nasty as ever, Bartolo promptly clobbered Lafayette, sewed his lips shut and prepared to sacrifice him to retake the ‘magic’ that Jesus had given him. I expected Lafayette to be last minute saved by Jesus’ ghost, but in the event it was Don Bartolo’s abused wife who stepped up and stabbed him from behind. Like the Master said in Doctor Who after a similar plot development, “it’s always the women”. But are Lafayette’s problems over? Somehow, I rather doubt that…

There was also time to pay quick visits to some of the other plotlines, just to keep them bubbling along. Tara and Pam got one significant scene, as Tara’s reformed alcoholic Christian mom turned up at Fangtasia to disown her while she was pole dancing. A comforting chat with Pam showed how she’s mellowed as a character, despite trying to hide it; she now thinks of herself as Tara’s real mother. It was a nicely played little exchange, though I kept being distracted by Pam’s new frizzy hairstyle – I don’t like it. Nice to know I’m paying attention to the dramatic details that really matter.

After a scene of Arlene watching her and Terry’s wedding video (presumably a new recording, as it was clear this happened during Sookie’s absence in fairyland), we got to see a quick look at the man himself as he waited resignedly for death at the hands of the fiery Ifrit. But as it turns out, the Ifrit isn’t ready to kill him or Patrick – yet. It popped up, laughed at them, and buggered off. I’m guessing they’ve made a strategic miscalculation here – the curse was that “you and all you love will burn”. I think Arlene and the kids are probably next on the charbroiling list, and Terry had better get back to Bon Temps pronto.

And finally, Jason and Sookie were dealing with the revelations from their fairy cousins. Jason, trying to reconcile his friendship with Jessica with the newfound knowledge that vampires killed his parents, ended up in an almighty fight with her at Bill’s mansion. Only in True Blood could a domestic tiff end with one of the participants being shot in the head after having tried to drink the blood of the other, with both able to come back for round two at a later date!

Sookie, meanwhile, had been told by Claude (more of Claude, please) that, being only half-fairy, her magic was finite and could be exhausted. Leaving her, basically, as normal and human as anyone else (which isn’t many people in this show). It was an interesting dilemma, summed up in a conversation with Sam – if you’re in a minority group trying to fight prejudice from ‘normals’, would it count as giving up to simply succumb to the temptation to join their number?

Given the show’s recurring subtexts, it was hard not to see this as another comment on real life outsiders like homosexuals, particularly with the myriad, usually religiously-backed, ‘ex-gay’ therapies so common in the US. Sookie maintained that even as a ‘normal’ she could continue her fight against prejudice and injustice, but even so it was disappointing to see her decision to try and exhaust her fairy magic and give up her identity. Jason was rushing off to investigate, so perhaps he’ll talk her out of it…

It would be easy to criticise the show this season for a few things – primarily, redoing plots it seems to have done before, retreading past glories by bringing back previous villains, and cramming so many plots in that it’s hard to keep up with them. But True Blood does it all with such gusto that it’s still hugely enjoyable, a mad, OTT supernatural soap whose excesses are hard not to love. There may be little here that’s new, but I’m still enjoying it immensely.

The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 4–I’ll Try to Fix You

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM SUNDAY’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 4 YET.

“What you do is a really bad form of pollution, that makes us dumber, and meaner, and is destroying civilisation. I’m saying, with all possible respect, that I would have more respect for you if you were a heroin dealer.”

NewsroomWill

After being pushed very much to the background last week, the soap opera aspects of The Newsroom pretty much dominated this week’s episode. And you know what? It was actually very entertaining, and as ever, the character drama came to have a real bearing on the points Aaron Sorkin was trying to make, and the larger issues of the plot as a whole.

For most of the episode, the actual news reporting was fairly thin on the ground, eclipsed for the first time by the drama/comedy surrounding the characters. But the Sorkin sermonising (not necessarily a bad thing) was very much in evidence both in these occasional flashes of the news and in the drama throughout.

Targeted again this week was the extreme right, and particularly its outspoken mouthpieces in the media. Hence, Will had a pop at the media narrative that Obama is fanatical about gun control, debunking that myth and adding that those who propagate it benefit by gaining viewers and a massive upswing in gun sales. The point was not to take a stance about gun control (though later events in the story made Sorkin’s views on that pretty clear) but to highlight the media lies about it from many hyperbolic rightwing institutions. Considering that the show is primarily about media integrity, this was an important distinction to make, one that was hammered home repeatedly by characters within the show not ‘getting it’ themselves.

To follow that up, Will took an indepth look at the media myth current at the time that Obama was spending $2 billion of taxpayer money on a trade negotiating trip to India. Again, this was thoroughly debunked with actual facts rather than rumour (“travelling with 34 warships, or 14% of the US Navy?!”). These retorts were aimed at actual clips of hard right pundits such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, which intrigued me a little. Do these guys need to give permission for footage of them to be used on a drama show, I wonder? If so, it seems remarkably magnanimous of them to allow that use in such a damning context on such a liberal-leaning script! Mind you (and again, I’m not too clear on the state law here), I spent a while early in the episode marvelling that Will McAvoy can so freely smoke in the workplace. Having been to New York City, I know that smoking is banned in most such places…

I must say though, that the show’s consistent focus on debunking the myths of the right is in danger of making Will McAvoy and co seem as partisan as those whose work they’re decrying. OK, Will is employing facts rather than rhetoric or opinion, but the repeated target of his (admittedly well-constructed) arguments seems quite one-sided. Is the US liberal media (small though it may be) not guilty of any similar transgressions? I’m no rightwinger, but I’ve seen plenty of left wing polemic that could equally easily be demolished by the use of actual facts. Sorkin has the getout clause that Will is a centrist, moderate Republican, but thus far we’ve seen scant evidence that he holds much in the way of conservative views. I suppose it’s fair to say that the liberal media play a far smaller part in shaping the American political narrative as a whole, making them less of a viable target. Still, some balance would be welcome.

Having said all that, the politics seemingly took second place this week in an episode primarily devoted to advancing the character drama. This it did very well, and I’m warming to this aspect of the show more than I did at the beginning, when the characters seemed little more than cyphers.

It all began at a typically awkward workplace New Year’s Eve party, which at least means the story has now advanced to 2011. Much relationship-based skulduggery was unfolding, as Don (still, at this point, being an unperceptive asshole) tried to set Maggie’s roommate Lisa up with Jim, while Neal was functioning as the comic relief nerd, in his overly earnest attempts to convince his workmates that Bigfoot is actually real. I thought this thread, returned to throughout the episode, did his character something of a disservice after having skewed the stereotypical perception of ‘nerds’ last week. But aside from giving a few cheap laughs, it did ultimately have a payoff at the end of the show.

As did Will’s comically hilarious attempts to date various women, with the dubious advice of the none too helpful Sloan (The Daily Show’s Olivia Munn). “This is not my area of expertise”, she commented – a reference to fellow Daily Show alumnus John Hodgman’s book The Areas of My Expertise, perhaps? In any case, a slight degree of contrivance, that put Will in social situations with women he was bound to disagree with, allowed us to see how his forthright principles make him a pretty lousy Don Juan. Each encounter started well, developed into an argument, and ended with Will having a drink thrown in his face. A bit forced maybe, but done so well by Jeff Daniels that it was hard not to laugh while simultaneously nodding in agreement with him.

Significantly, the first of these ill-advised pickup attempts was a gossip columnist for ACN’s own parent company, and it was she who held the key to the theme of the whole cleverly constructed script – the disturbing rise of the celebrity gossip culture, and its increasing precedence over news that that actually has any real import. As the episode progressed, Will found himself at the centre of a suspiciously well-informed campaign of gossip attack that had details of each and every one of his failed conquests.

Again, Will’s diatribes made Aaron Sorkin’s stance on this culture fairly clear – why, Will kept arguing, is a ‘celebrity’ personal life somehow fair game for the kind of invasion of privacy that most people would find monstrous? And why, when so many genuinely important things are happening in the world, do so many choose to focus on this instead? The whole ironic “guilty pleasure” thing was dismissed summarily (shortly before its exponent, Will’s second date of the week, threw the requisite drink in his face).

In the UK, we’re familiar with such arguments from the interminably long Leveson Inquiry into press standards, which despite its length seems to throw up new horrors every week. And yet, while I tend to share Sorkin’s views, I found his contempt for that public appetite for gossip a little difficult to deal with. It’s one thing to condone the tapping of a public figure’s private phone message, but quite another (and far less serious) to enjoy the glut of reality shows that came in for so much withering criticism from Will. I too think they’re asinine nonsense (as I wrote in a VERY ranting blog post once), but I’ve realised that I have no right to deny other people’s enjoyment of this stuff whatever my opinion of it. People have different tastes. And if enjoying the panem et circenses of reality shows is a choice freely taken (without underhand exploitation of their ‘stars’), who am I to deny it?

Still, the gossip campaign against Will continued to mount until, finally, it became clear that it was the advancement of a vital plot thread whose apparent abandonment I was ready to be critical about this week. Charlie suddenly realised that, given some of the information, the gossip had to be coming from inside their own organisation. And suddenly it became clear that this was the ‘context’ Leona Lansing had talked about manufacturing last week, the climate by which it would be seen as righteous for ACN to sack Will. This was a very clever way of both advancing the story and addressing the theme of invasive celebrity gossip, and it was at this point that I marvelled somewhat at Sorkin’s clever construction of the narrative.

The Maggie/Don/Jim romcom plot was also heavy throughout, but actually seemed more plausible than in previous instalments. Maggie is still inexplicably intent on salvaging her relationship with Don, but obviously hasn’t come to terms with her feelings for Jim yet. And plainly, despite his altruism in trying to salve her relationship, neither has Jim, hence feeling the need to lie about how well his date with her roommate went and whether he’d be seeing her again. Unfortunately for Maggie, Don chose this point to demonstrate that he’s still an asshole by underhandedly revealing to her that Jim was again with Lisa late at night (“she really should change that ringtone”). This led to an almighty slanging match in the newsroom which severely disrupted Neal’s latest attempt to promote the reality of Bigfoot in the meeting room (“this isn’t soundproof glass!”).

This may seem like pretty light stuff, but it was genuinely enjoyable to watch. And the show managed to pull an eleventh hour ‘serious’ plot thread from its sleeve with the sudden news of the January 2011 Tucson shootings at a rally for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Suddenly we were again into one of those electrifying, action-packed ‘breaking news’ moments that the show does so well. And along the way came another chance to reaffirm our heroes’ atypical integrity, as they refused to bow to corporate pressure to follow other news organisations’ lines in pronouncing Giffords dead without official confirmation.

Here again, the show’s setting in the recent past perhaps allowed too much perfection in Will and co’s reporting, but it also gave Don the chance to unexpectedly reveal that he’s not a complete asshole after all. In the face of corporate lackey Reece’s furious insistence that Will pronounce Giffords dead, Don spoke up to say, “doctors pronounce people dead, not the news”. It was an unabashed ‘punch the air’ moment, made more resonant by the sentiment being put forward by the show’s resident dickhead, and made Don finally seem like less of a cardboard cutout asshole. Mind you, I had to wonder at the time why Will couldn’t have commented with something like “some news outlets are reporting the Congresswoman’s death, however there is no confirmation for this at this time and we will update you when we have an official statement either way”.

It was another great set piece of reportage, but I did have one criticism. I really wish Sorkin would refrain from employing what’s by now a massively overused cliche of US drama – the climactic montage soundtracked by a ‘profound’ emotional song. In this case, it was Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’, which Sorkin obviously likes well enough to quote in the episode title. While it might work as dramatic shorthand, it’s such an overused trope by now that you’d think a dramatist of Sorkin’s skill wouldn’t fall back on it so easily.

Criticisms aside, this was another enjoyable episode of a show that, for me, is improving week by week from an already promising start. I’m glad to see that The Newsroom has definitely been renewed for a second season, as given time it might even rival the venerated West Wing in viewers’ affections.