Indisputable Evidence and the Existential Ref

Before the start of the NFL season, I wrote a short piece for the 2015 Eagles Almanac, in which I explored the increasing over-complication of NFL  rules. A few lines are already dated (see that last paragraph, for example), but, if anything, I’m more confused than ever by the NFL rules. So, with the season winding down, I figured I ought to post the piece in its entirety here. The images are from my short-lived Existential Ref blog on Tumblr.

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Do you know what a catch is?


This is a sincere question. Can you define, in clear terms, what constitutes a catch in the NFL? Can you be sure this definition will still be precise and true by the middle of next season?


The NFL’s simultaneously overzealous and underprepared officials have caused me to doubt the most basic of sporting actions. I think I know what a fumble is. I can correctly identify intentional grounding about sixty percent of the time. I’ve read the explanation of the tuck rule enough times that I could repeat it to you, but I don’t understand it. Roughing the passer and pass interference penalties are called with all the predictability and logic of tornados—there are circumstances more likely to produce them, but you never really know when or where they’ll strike.


On Sunday afternoon, a world-class athlete makes a superhuman catch in mid-air between two defenders and rather than cheering, we collectively sink deeper into our chairs and wait a few days until an unseen board of reviewers adjudicates the catch-worthiness of that play. Maybe sometime Wednesday afternoon, we quietly pump our fists in memory of that catch we think we saw.


Did the player catch that ball? It looks like he did. It’s in his hands. It was in his hands when he fell to the ground. It was in his hands when he stood up. But maybe it wasn’t a catch because the player failed to defy the basic laws of physics by preventing the ball from shifting after it touched his hands. Maybe he blinked too many times while falling to the turf. Maybe he failed to fill out the proper paperwork before the game announcing his intention to enact a football catch.


Incomplete pass.


Or not. Maybe it was complete. Maybe it looks like it was complete and there’s not quite enough indisputable evidence for the on-field CSI unit to determine exactly what happened. Who among us, after all, can see into the soul of the ball? If the ball itself does not consider itself to have been caught, can it be said to have been caught at all? And anyway, why should we take it for granted that the object we’re seeing is even a ball? It is an article of faith that the ball is actually a ball, but short of an on-camera dissection by a disinterested third party, we can’t know its exact nature. Furthermore, without the benefit of some kind of cosmic instant replay system, there’s very little indisputable evidence that proves we even exist.


And also: what the fuck happens if the guy catches it but then he fumbles?


When confusion mounts, the rules are clarified through the addition of a few more clauses. Mid-week, the league issues a press release telling everyone either, Don’t worry, we checked and we got it right, or, worse, Actually we screwed that up. We offer no apology and no recompense.


exref offsetting


I’ve watched thousands of hours of football in my life, and I spent a depressing amount of time in my unpopular childhood studying the NFL rulebook. If anyone should be equipped to answer NFL rules questions, it is me. But every week there is at least one play on which the ruling is utterly inexplicable. Later in the same game, there may even be an identical play which elicits the opposite ruling from the same officials.


Determining whether someone caught a ball should be one of the simplest decisions in the world, but it’s examined with such intensity and complexity, it’s like the officials are theologians tasked  with determining God’s gender. The NFL and its media partners will say things about football moves. They will offer third-rate physics lessons and they’ll keep speaking until you’re drowning in the jargon. But you know and I know: it’s a simple question. A child could answer it.


exref starevoid


I’m not talking only about catches, although that seems like the ruling that causes the most confusion for the most fans. The catch issue is just a symptom of the larger problem, which is that NFL rules are so needlessly complex and seemingly arbitrarily applied that one longs for the simplicity of the tax code.


I thought Dez Bryant caught that ball against the Packers last season. I’ve read the legal arguments against it, but that doesn’t mean I accept them. As an Eagles fan, seeing the Cowboys lose in such an unjust way was a pure delight. But as someone who desires something resembling logical consistency in the way the league is run, it was the most egregious example of the thing I hate most about the NFL: it doesn’t matter what extraordinary athletic feats the players perform unless those plays can survive the scrutiny of an inscrutable legal process. Instant replay calls into doubt our most fundamental understanding of sports. It teaches us to pause before celebrating, stripping some joy out of the game and then filling that void with Miller Lite commercials.


The NFL benefits from the Byzantine rules structures because, from commissioner down to the officials, they’ve established a precedent that they can apply nearly any penalty they want in any situation and find a way to defend it, and at least some fans will back their decisions. People complain, but nobody stops watching. The blowback from sports radio callers and ESPN debaters does no actual damage to the league and it ensures they’re the top sports story for days. In the meantime they’ve tried to make their terrible rules a feature in games via endless replays and parsing of rulebook language by shouting men in ill-fitting suits. The very worst things that have ever aired on my TV are the interminable replay reviews during which Phil Simms or Jon Gruden try to remember the rules and spew nonsense guesses to fill air time until some result is announced and then we either cheer or boo according to the whims of the official. Under the soundtrack of inane announcer blather, people in sports bars nationwide play along, leaning in like they’re in the crime lab studying blood samples under the microscope. We become participants in the farce.


These breaks frequently end with announcers saying things like, “Wow, I really don’t see how they made that decision.” Then they call in a retired official who offers a wishy-washy, garbled explanation of the rule, often concluding, “hey, it could’ve gone either way.” Although the replay system is presented as an objective measure of rightness, limited camera angles and ambiguous rules often lead to games being decided by the subjective judgment of one part-time employee staring into a tiny video screen. This does not happen because football is so difficult to understand. It happens because the rules don’t make any sense, and they don’t make any sense on purpose.


exref nofoul


The NFL makes frequent reference to its commitment to transparency, but the league is as committed to transparency as a brick wall. Sometimes they part the curtains just a bit, and they release a stream of legalese that pretends to clarify but is intended to obfuscate. They receiver your questions and then in response they bury you in words. They pummel you into fatigue.


The Roger Goodell era has been defined by a long string of seemingly arbitrary punishments handed out to players, coaches, and organizations without precedent or a clear rationale. Goodell has spent a decade fumbling through the public discussion of complex issues as he scrambles desperately to appease the next loudest voice. Nobody, especially the man in charge, seems capable of explaining the rules governing the decisions the league makes.


In 2015, the NFL opened a period of free agency called “the legal tampering period,” a phrase so obtuse it dealt a subconcussive blow to the language itself. A few days into this period, they “launched an investigation” into tampering activities that occurred during the period that the league itself had created to foster these activities. An offense occurs and then investigations are launched and committees are formed. Committees are tasked with solving the problem, but they will not solve it because this is not what committees do. They complicate problems and reframe problems, but they are the enemy of simplicity.


The best, most recent, example of this approach is the absurdly long Wells Report, which took 243 pages to come to the conclusion that it was “more probable than not” that some wrongdoing may have occurred and that Tom Brady was aware of it and this probable wrongdoing had some effect on some games. This report was a battering ram of transparency. It was designed to maintain the appearance of having said something while saying nothing at all.


While the report was being compiled, Roger Goodell said, “Whether a competitive advantage was gained is secondary, in my mind, to whether that rule was violated.” There has never been a better definition of the NFL’s legalistic bureaucracy. Bureaucracy, above all else, has an interest in sustaining itself. It is incapable of questioning itself or understanding its flaws. It exists because it exists and it continues to exist because it must necessarily continue.


With every added layer of complexity, the NFL is able to present a relatively simple sport as if it’s advanced calculus. It reaffirms the notions of genius coaches and athletic savants. It tells you that the head coach’s 20-hour work days were totally necessary, rather than a weird affectation of sociopathic hard-workiness that equates sleep deprivation with productivity. It presents a façade of extreme, sciency precision that distracts from the fact that most years the champion is decided largely by luck.


exref noending


A scene from the future: on 3rd & 10, Darren Sproles makes a catch in the backfield and evades two Cowboys defenders on his way to skittering for nine yards, but it looks like he drops the ball at the end of the play. As this is happening, a sixty-year-old, man scrambles to keep up and from five yards away, he flings a little blue bean bag at the spot where Sproles may have dropped the ball. In the ensuing pile, men commit war crimes against one another and eventually Sean Lee runs away with the ball. Whistles blow. Hats are thrown. The officials stand in a circle and talk a while before signaling that it was not a fumble. Sproles celebrates like a man who has just been acquitted of a felony on a technicality. Jason Garrett tosses a red flag onto the field. There is more talking. In the booth, the announcers make wild guesses. They say it’s a great challenge by Garrett, because even if he’s wrong, “you have to take that chance,” implicitly noting that the outcome of the review is arbitrary. The replay runs on a loop until you’ve seen it enough times that you remember it more clearly than your mother’s face. It looks like he probably lost the ball just before his knee hit the ground, but it’s hard to tell even after two dozen replays. Because the officials initially said it wasn’t a fumble, they are therefore barred from now calling it a fumble unless King Solomon himself rises from his grave and announces that the ball has been fumbled. The officials determine that it probably was a fumble but because their first guess was wrong and the camera angles don’t show a panoramic view of the entire world and the DNA evidence won’t be back from the lab until next week, then it can’t be a fumble. Garrett is now criticized for having wasted a timeout. Chip Kelly pumps his fist in celebration of impenetrable legalese. Now, two elderly men on the sideline holding a pair of sticks attached by a chain are called onto the field to determine whether Sproles picked up a first down before his non-fumble. They stretch the chains out and the official bends down with a magnifying glass and tries to determine how many angels can dance on the link of a chain. He stands and presents the evidence. Holding his hands apart like an amateur carpenter measuring boards by eye, he indicates: it’s, like, this much. About. Kelly holds his own hands slightly closer together, almost in prayer, indicating: nah. More like this much. Fans sitting a thousand feet away boo angrily because they’re sure the ball was actually slightly closer to the stick on the end of the chain.


As an entertainment product, this is terrible. As an exercise in logic, it is infuriating. As a way to determine the fates of the careers of elite athletes, it is insane. But it is all buttressed by a bloated rulebook that requires more interpretive work than the Bill of Rights.


Any number of variables well outside the control of the people on the field could change everything about that play. Random luck and guessing is the difference between the Cowboys forcing a game-changing turnover and the Eagles either punting or going for it on fourth and short. Everyone knows luck is a factor in football—if Byron Maxwell pulls his hamstring at the wrong time, he can get beat for a deep touchdown that costs the team a game and maybe more—but if fans come to believe that luck is the primary factor in determining the outcome of games, then it all becomes as pointless as feeding your life savings into a slot machine. The NFL, more than any other American sports league, is invested in presenting the ideal of the most righteous and hardest working winning in battle. They need merit and virtue to be tied to the win. But so often, games, seasons, and careers are dictated by an untimely defensive penalty, a disputed catch, a cold front freezing up a great offense, a batted ball falling into the hands of an out-of-position lineman, a heedless desire for indisputable evidence


The 2015 Eagles are led by one of the league’s Anointed Genius Coaches. Many Eagles fans have embraced the notion that they have The Smartest Guy In The Room leading their favorite team. He is unconventional and brash and unafraid of taking chances. He has great conviction in his own intelligence, and the charisma to earn the fealty of many fans. This is a time of great faith in the leader. The Eagles will be able to overcome their personnel weaknesses because he will outsmart the other coaches and he will put those players in the right position and his scheme will be the true star and if something goes wrong he will have the wisdom to correct it, Amen. He may indeed be smarter than the average coach, but the unpleasant truth is that the biggest factor in determining the fate of the Eagles may be the whim of an impenetrable, inexplicable set of rules whose primary function is to enforce randomness while pretending that it does not exist.

exref god is dead

Some things I’ve been doing

A quick round-up of various things I’ve written over year-plus during which I haven’t updated this (and, really, your best bet for keeping up with this stuff is to follow me on Twitter):


This post will not end with me vowing to post more regularly. But maybe sometimes? My main goal is to dramatically redesign this site soon, because I know it’s really dated and please just be aware that I am already aware of this.

The Trouble Area You Never Knew You Had

The Viewpoints series of daytime TV reviews that I’ve been writing has been moved to the recently redesigned Barrelhouse website. If you’ve been keeping up with these posts, just bookmark this page, and keep reading as usual.



Today’s post is about the CBS show The Doctors, fear, mass public shootings, and how to feel ok about it all.

The Sound of Two Hands Clapping

NOTE: This post is part 8 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows. See the rest here and check back Tuesday and Fridays for future installments.


What is applause? What does it mean? What is laughter? What does it mean? What does applause sound like? What does laughter sound like? You think you know but you don’t know. You think you’ve applauded and you think you’ve laughed but you haven’t laughed. If you want to truly applaud, if you want to know the essence of applause, to hear applause in your sleep and to feel it creeping up behind you and then surrounding you, squeezing you like a cheery chokehold, then you need to spend a month immersed in the chaotic circus of daytime TV.


What is applause? Applause is the sound of two hands clapping. Applause is two hands being slapped together in an attempt to convey a message of approval or congratulations. Applause is a bad name for a cat or a dog or a child. Applause is spontaneous except when it’s not. Applause is directed and rehearsed. Applause is a big sign that flashes when a producer wants it to flash. Applause is polite. Applause is doing what you’re told. Applause is motivation and certification. Applause is affirmation of the status quo. Applause is If You’re Happy And You Know it. Applause is the sound of ocean waves crashing on the beach of mediocrity. Applause is an opiate. Applause anesthetizes. Applause comforts. Applause is ubiquitous. Applause passes the time. Applause moves product. Applause shapes narratives. Applause is assent. Applause is a request to be sold something. Applause is a promise not to worry about what it all means. Applause is Live Laugh Loving your way to nothingness. Applause is buying a sign that reminds you to dance like nobody’s watching. Applause short-circuits critical thought. Applause is white noise. Applause is the sound of one hand clapping against the sound of another hand clapping. Applause is the cultural toilet flushing. Applause is empty calories and hydrogenated oils and political rallies and indestructible unrecyclable composite plastics. Applause is an avalanche. Applause is infectious and there is no cure. Applause is the sound you hear when you hold your head underwater and count off the seconds until you can’t hear anything ever again. Applause is the endpoint; there is nothing else beyond applause. Applause is the Fifth Horseman. Applause is the last thing you hear when you die, and in Hell there are thousands of people applauding nothing, clapping for nothing, they are cheering for nothing at all.


You can earn applause by:


Being named Annie.

Being from New York City.

Knowing that Heidi Klum is from Germany.

Suggesting people find a sunscreen they love.

Saying you don’t want wrinkles.

Getting Walmart gift cards.

Being pregnant.

Loving your babies.

Having children.

Saying you love children.

Apologizing for having gained weight during pregnancy.

Saying you like to spend time with your children.

Being the Los Angeles Clippers and winning a basketball game.

Banning Donald Sterling from the NBA for life.

Referring to “karma.”

Boycotting the sultan of Brunei.

Saying we have to learn to live together.

Saying we need to love each other.

Saying princesses need to be stoic.

Thinking princesses are beautiful.

Having seven dogs.

Being from Wisconsin.

Making Youtube videos.

Embracing getting older.

Not using botox.

Adopting kids.

Learning to love yourself.

Liking fennel.

Being a civil rights pioneer.

Pantomiming as if drinking wine.

Drinking wine.

Opening a bakery.

Saying “if you want something go get it.”

Being Puerto Rican.

Initiating sex.

Calling for more equality for women.

Disliking drama.

Wearing designer shoes.

Insisting that dreams do come true.

Telling people to follow their dreams.

Being Mark Harmon.

Asking for more applause.

Getting a free trip to Las Vegas.

Making shrimp étouffée.

Believing in yourself.

Identifying sluts.

Disliking sluts.

Losing weight.

Keeping the weight off.

Shedding extra pounds.

Dropping that baby weight.

Losing the ugly fat.


Having dreams come true.


Referring to the existence of sexual intercourse.

Giving away free cosmetics.

Giving away free copies of a magazine.

Giving away free copies of Boy George’s new album

Valuing every day.

Taking a bite out of life.

Living each day like it’s your last.

Sticking together.

Just being so over it.



Coming Friday: measles, obesity, and maybe a little bit of Patti Labelle. 

Viewpoints – Pseudoscience and Flexible Face Joints

NOTE: This post is part 7 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows. See the rest here and check back Tuesday and Fridays for future installments.

America’s Latent Oedipus Complex


Rachael Ray, by any measure, is one of the most successful brands in daytime TV. She has adoring fans. She has somewhere between 15 and 30 other TV shows, all of which co-star Guy Fieri’s goatee. She has her own line of kitchenware and “lifestyle” products. She has her own magazine, which is still somehow a sign of prestige even though people don’t buy or read magazines anymore. A decade ago, she briefly got to be the personification of America’s latent Oedipus complex when she turned into an unlikely sex symbol. She seems nice. She probably is nice. Or not; I have no idea. But she seems that way.


Her daytime show isn’t all that much different from the competition. It has the same determined cheeriness, the bright décor, the vapid chatter with celebrities, the beauty tips, the cooking segments. The cooking segments are more informative than they are on other shows, where they are disposable and useless; Rachael Ray at least explains what she’s doing and tells you what all the ingredients are and why she’s using them. She seems, if not particularly smart, then at least not aggressively stupid, which is a real virtue in the daytime landscape.


Instead of trying to offer a comprehensive overview of her show, I’d like to narrow the focus and concentrate on a fifteen minute block of Rachael Ray that aired May 16th.

Not Just Frightening, But Scary


The guest: Dr. Oz, a daytime titan in his own right, profiled in more depth here than I can ever hope to achieve. He is here to talk about himself.


He’s good at TV, Dr. Oz. He’s smart and charismatic and does an excellent job of dumbing medical terminology down for a lay audience. He has 80s hair that seems like it’s just on the verge of coming back in style. He constantly refers to his education and hospital experience to establish his ethos. He is aware of the concept of humor and is capable of laughter. But today he is here as a Very Serious Man to talk about a Very Serious Topic.


Specifically: misappropriation. A company that makes bogus nutritional supplements has been using his image in their promotional materials, claiming he endorses the product, and so he’s been on a crusade to shut them down. He’s already covered this issue on his own show in a hilariously overwrought “Dr. Oz Investigates” special, where he acted like a gumshoe and chased the frauds down the street and snooped around mysterious buildings and got phone calls with “tips” from his “anonymous sources.” But he’s making the rounds to warn people about the fraud. He’s legitimately angry about the deception, and I would be too; he has every right to expect to control his own likeness and brand. And in the end, it serves a good if he can dissuade people from wasting money and time on nonsense products.



Rachael has had similar problems herself—fly-by-night companies using her image without permission, selling products to consumers under false pretenses, etc. She says she has a full-time employee whose only job is to identify and police these frauds. They don’t need my sympathy, but they have it here. Being famous has always seemed awful to me, and this is just another manifestation of the awfulness: people steal your face and your words and your name and use them for whatever they want. Rachael says it’s frightening, and Doctor Oz adds, “Not only is it frightening, but it’s scary.”


Turkey-neck Avoidance


Five minutes later, they welcome a third guest, a woman named Sue Hitzmann, who has pioneered the MELT Method of self-care, which promises to reverse the aging process and keep you pain-free for life. She knows everyone hates getting older and wants to feel younger and look younger, and they especially want to “avoid that turkey neck,” a fear she must hold deeply because she mentions turkey neck six times in five minutes and also, unprompted, says she hates her mother’s turkey neck, an unnecessary comment to make unless her mother is, in fact, a turkey or has been vivisected with a turkey. Otherwise it just seems kind of mean.


Sue is specifically here to demonstrate the patented MELT Method 50-second face lift. Everyone in the audience has been given a bag of bullshit that they’re going to use to achieve what is obviously—it needs to be stressed—pseudoscientific bullshit. The MELT website itself looks nice and and the ad copy is comprised of multiple layers of impenetrable bullshit with sciency-sounding words, like promises to help you “assess your body’s stability system,” and “enhancing body awareness, rehydrating connective tissue, and decreasing stuck stress that accumulates from daily living.” Her name on the site is followed by a veritable alphabet of degrees and certifications, none of which seem to mean much of anything. She is a “somatic-movement educator and manual therapist.” She talks like this too, because like Rachael and Dr. Oz, she is excellent at staying on-brand.

But I want to say it again: this method is bullshit and it’s obvious bullshit, and anyone who thinks about it for a few seconds will realize it’s bullshit, but we in the audience have to pretend it’s not because I don’t know why.


Do you know what is happening while you’re working through your anti-aging regimen? You are aging. You are deteriorating. Your organs and muscles and bones are inching toward uselessness. You can fight the good fight, but you will lose. I don’t like it any more than you do. But you’re going to die and I’m going to die, no matter how many creams we rub into our face or how many supplements we ingest. When someone promises to solve that problem, that person is lying to you.


I realize I’m taking this too literally. I realize it’s about eliminating wrinkles and bags under your eyes and turkey neck and it’s about feeling refreshed and so forth.


Supportive Face Joints


Sue H. walks the audience through the 50-second face lift. Everyone opens their free bag of bullshit and removes something that looks like a blue stress ball, or a softer version of a racquetball. She instructs them to hold the ball in their hand for a moment, and instead of throwing it in the trash because it is useless, you’re supposed to get a good feel for the ball. Then you rub it on your face.


What? Yes. You rub the stress ball on your face.


Start behind your ear, which is one of the areas where “aging toxins” build up, in I guess the same way soot builds up inside a chimney. Rubbing the ball gently will “stimulate your tissue” and “create a fluid exchange.” She warns not to press too hard or too soft or to move too fast or too slow, and throughout the brief demonstration she refers to the importance of learning “the secret” to correctly rubbing this ball on your face, all of which is an admittedly clever way to attribute her product’s inevitable failure to user error. Next, you rub the ball on your cheek and then again on your temple, because you want to make the joints in your face more supportive.


Read that sentence again. Feel the joints in your face contorting in disgust. Or maybe rage. I don’t know how flexible your face joints are.


Finally, you kind of randomly press your fingers against parts of your face to “stimulate the lymphatic system in your face cells.” When she’s finished, she turns to the camera and says, “do you see how much better I look already?” And Dr. Oz says, “your lips look bigger!” Then he and Rachael applaud and everyone is happy.


In my notes, I write: FUCK YOU, DR. OZ.


Superstitious Magical Thinking


Here’s the problem: even before Jenny McCarthy—who, as we know, has the blood of hundreds of children on her hands—joined The View, daytime TV was a haven for pseudoscience and non-science. It has long been a place that exalts homespun wisdom and home remedies over actual empirical evidence. This is a place where you can sell miracle elixirs and magical potions to people who desperately want to live forever or at least leave a wrinkle-free corpse behind when they die.


It’s not fair to limit this proclivity toward pseudoscience to daytime TV, of course. Culturally, we pay lip service to the importance of science and deductive reasoning, fetishize it with weird porny depictions of DNA analysis on shows like CSI, but I contend that when it comes down to it, most people don’t actually trust science. Most people trust their gut first, at least on issues that directly affect them. Most people view themselves as the exception to the science. Skepticism is good—it’s essential to good science, even—but I think we’ve moved well beyond skepticism into a state of superstitious magical thinking that is at once understandable and indefensible. There are enough  horrifying poll results to underscore this point, and there are enough extraordinarily wealthy and powerful people who know how to exploit this mindset to their benefit.


So how do you combat the problem? It requires a recalibration of cultural values. It requires intelligent people with a platform to be fierce advocates for reason. It requires Dr. Oz to refuse to rub the stupid ball on his face and instead say, “wait—none of this makes sense.” As he constantly reminds us, he’s been a practicing doctor for decades. He knows this is bullshit. He knows that if you want to live longer and healthier, you should exercise and change your diet and make regular doctor’s appointments and hope to avoid freak accidents. He had the opportunity to say just about anything besides “your lips look bigger!” even though her lips didn’t look bigger and also because there is absolutely no way rubbing a stress ball on one’s face will make one’s lips bigger, and why would her lips being bigger even matter? What if she’s just allergic to stress balls?


Doctor Oz is the representative of science on that stage, and just minutes before this demonstration, he was bemoaning the use of his image to endorse bullshit products; hundreds of thousands of people trust him and that trust was violated by the company that used his image without permission. But by tacitly endorsing the MELT method, he made a clear choice to compromise his moral stance for the sake of profit.


So then it becomes clear that it’s not that Dr. Oz has a problem with bullshit products that sell false solutions. He just has a problem with not being paid for endorsing them.


Check back Tuesday for… something. Maybe about The Doctors? Or Steve Harvey? 

The Queen Latifah Show – Organ-deep Pain

NOTE: This post is part 6 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows. See the rest here and check back Tuesday and Fridays for future installments. 

A partial transcript of Bling In a Box, the first segment of The Queen Latifah Show that I ever watched:


QUEEN LATIFAH: Ok, let’s meet our contestants… Annie, what do you do?


CONTESTANT ONE: Hi, I’m Annie. I’m 24 years old, originally from Washington State, and I make Youtube videos and do headshot photography.


QL: You make Youtube videos? Wow! What do you do on these Youtube videos?


CO: I mean… randomness, but a lot of the times, my friends, when I have blond hair, they use me as Taylor Swift on their parody videos.


QL: I can see that!


I rewound this scene and rewatched it three times (twice with captions) so I could confirm that I was actually hearing the things I thought I was hearing. Daytime TV, in its determined march toward blandness and product placement, has a way of inducing boredom so extreme that I’m afraid at some point in this project I’m going to have a psychotic break and my mind will start filling in the frequent dead spaces with bizarre visions in an effort to save itself. (It’s possible this exact issue did occur when I saw a man with a flat affect, wearing an outfit best described as clerical, tell Florence Henderson during a dating game segment that he wanted to put her in a taco and eat her; I was so unsettled by his weird, emotionless performance that I couldn’t bear to rewatch it).


But I rewatched that initial conversation with Annie and rewatched again and then I showed it to my wife and I can assure you: that conversation happened. It happened and I watched it happen. It was the first time since embarking on this project that I began to doubt my ability to persevere.


*          *          *

It took me four tries to get through a full episode of The Queen Latifah Show. The first two episodes I watched were among the worst things I’ve ever seen on TV. The low point was when Latifah launched into a pre-scripted bit where she introduced Mark Harmon, the boring-looking guy from NCIS, by launching into a Shaft-style slow jam wherein she breathily repeated the phrase “There’s no harm… in… Harmon.” There were more lyrics, but I accidentally deleted the recording from my DVR in self-defense. In my memory, this bit lasted approximately forty-three hours and there were a hundred verses and they were all so brutally uncomfortable to watch that I felt organ-deep pain for Latifah, who three times broke character—I swear I am not projecting here—and shrugged, flashed a plaintive look at the camera to apologize for what was happening, and then continued, because she is a professional and professionals do the job even when the job is terrible.


Every episode includes some deeply unfunny comedy bits that cannot be salvaged Queen Latifah’s natural charisma and sense of humor. There is Latifah as a teenage movie reviewer, Latifah doing a sketch as an old grandma alongside Vicki Lawrence’s Mama character, George Lopez delivering the worst Cinco de Mayo jokes in history, and some other stuff it’s best for us to never discuss.


As I trudged through four episodes, I was deeply saddened by how bad they were, not just because the existence of something so thoroughly unentertaining is toxic for the universe, but because Queen Latifah is imprisoned on this disastrous show. She’s a pioneer! She has legitimate, well-documented talent! She is better than this, I kept reminding myself. I felt guilty watching, complicit in stripping away her dignity while she mugged through sub-Vilanchian comedy bits and scripted interview questions shallower than a bird bath (So, Mark Harmon, do you have any nicknames? Tell me, Ricky Martin, do you still enjoy dancing?).


Because I like Queen Latifah, I was prepared to write the angriest, most venomous thing I’ve ever written on my website. I was prepared to lament the sad fate of public life; that at some point, there is a second act and maybe even a third act, but each time you return it becomes more degrading and less creatively fulfilling and exists only to destroy you.


*          *          *


The grim spectacle of a creative icon reduced to starring in something so vacuous and profoundly bad transported me to a familiar dark place, a place where I sometimes find myself, driven by existential despair, retreating when the realities of the world become too much for me to handle. In this place I was alone and I felt convinced of the ultimate meaninglessness of everything we do, of the futility in believing in things. I was haunted for most of a week by the nagging sense that every act is destined to fail, that the story of our lives is the steady stripping away of our last vestiges of dignity. I was thinking about how the only writing I’ve done for months is evaluating the worst products of our culture. I was dwelling on a semester’s worth of failures in the classroom after a frustrating semester. I was aware of every unrealized ambition in my life hanging off me like phantom limbs. I was afraid to get off the couch and go upstairs to shower because I was sure I would fall down the steps and my wife would return from work and find my body, and when she looked at the laptop to see my last thoughts they would be transcribing quotes from a woman who makes Youtube videos, a woman who sometimes has blond hair, a woman who likes randomness. I was thinking about rising tides and tornado warnings and imminent earthquakes and falling trees and an earth turned inside out.


*          *          *


I didn’t feel great.


*          *          *


But then something happened that didn’t solve everything but at least lifted the fog and helped me find my way out of that lonely place. What happened was Queen Latifah staged a legitimately very good episode. It wasn’t great art, but it was so much better than the others that it looked like a totally different show. If I were stuck in a waiting room watching that episode, I would be not angry at all to be watching it. I’d be even sort of not-unhappy.


The episode was a tribute to women, which in the pandering daytime landscape is not all the unique, but here it was conducted thoughtfully and quietly and intelligently. Gloria Steinem was the first guest. They discussed the challenges of growing up female in a culture that defines you as second-class, the importance of teaching girls that they’re not stupid or less capable even if the culture seems designed to tell them they are. They unapologetically used big words. They had an actual dialogue. They did not ever spout a canned cliché of an empowerment slogan. They never stopped for applause breaks. It was two smart, accomplished women talking about a complex issue in a relatively complex way.


Naturally, I worried this progress would be undermined by something dumb like one of the show’s trademark “instant dance parties,” in which some music starts playing and Latifah gets up and gyrates for exactly 14 seconds before sitting down and telling everyone how much fun that was. But there were no interruptions. There were just more guests.


Rita Moreno, Arianna Huffington, and Melissa Harris-Perry all sat together and discussed a range of issues facing women. They again did so in relatively measured, nuanced terms. Huffington seemed most interested than the others in cheap applause points, but mainly they all acted as if the audience wasn’t there. Queen Latifah talked about how language can be used to alienate and victimize people, how when she was growing up it hurt and confused her to be called a tomboy all the time, and how her father helped her overcome the alienation. She and Harris-Perry discussed the duality of a word like “bitch” which can be reclaimed as empowering or can be used as a weapon. They all reflected on moments in their own lives when they’ve both challenged and abided by gender norms.


Thematically, it was the same stuff many of these shows purport to cover, but this was like the grown-up version of that conversation. It wasn’t boring; there were still jokes and laughs and passionate comments, but they were real and unscripted and it was so strange to see this happening on a show sandwiched between The Talk and Dr. Phil.


I don’t want to overstate the impact of the episode; the conversation still had its limits due to the constraints of TV, but it was so vastly superior to everything else I’ve watched so far that that one hour justified the existence of this whole show to me. It was an actual valuable contribution to our culture; it seemed like the show Queen Latifah probably aspires to make, but probably can’t afford to because she’d be off the air after three weeks. It just wouldn’t be fun enough. It just wouldn’t have enough wacky distractions.


And so maybe the terrible episodes are the toll she has to pay in order to occasionally make the good ones. Maybe Queen Latifah understood this all along and is ok with the bad comedy bits and the Mark Harmon-izing as long as it means now and then she gets to trick the people into watching something with substance. Maybe one can’t expect to be great all the time, but needs to understand the limitations imposed upon them, subvert them when possible, and seize the few opportunities they get to make something that matters.


Check back Friday for the next installment, which will probably be about The Doctors, or maybe Rachael Ray but I don’t know I’m not sure yet. 

Bethenny (Part 2) – The relationship torture wheel

NOTE: This post is part 5 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows. See the rest here and check back Tuesday and Fridays for future installments.

Because most daytime TV shows target women—specifically heterosexual women in their mid-20s or older, women who either have or want children, who are married or are very interested in being married—these shows all devote at least some time to the ways in which women can identify their flaws, hide their flaws, and make themselves more desirable to men in general. Nearly every show will devote some time during the week to talking about how to get into relationships, how to fix bad relationships, how to spice up bland relationships, and how to avoid common relationship mistakes.


Still, even in this landscape, Bethenny is singularly obsessed with relationships. Every episode I watched included at least one segment on relationship issues, and these segments frequently consumed thirty to forty-five minutes of air time. Each segment has a different name—one is a Relationship Roundtable, another is Top 10 Common Relationships Mistakes, another is the Relationship Torture Wheel— but they are all the same. A panel of people will discuss pretty generic issues of trust, loyalty, sexual incompatibility, and communication. According to my wife and various internet sources, I’ve learned that Bethenny is well-known for having experienced a number of high-profile of relationship failures, which either makes her an expert on these issues or it makes her uniquely unqualified to dispense relationship advice five days a week.


It’s hard to tell whether she keeps returning to this topic because the producers have determined it’s entertaining or because of the more practical matter that this show is incapable of drawing good guests. More than the host or the slick production values, quality guests are essential to a daytime show thriving. If Clooney is there, people are watching. But nobody is tuning in to see third-rate comedian Chuck Nice, who appears so frequently on Bethenny that he must live in the studio attic. Certainly nobody is tuning in to see fifth-rate comedian Mike Cannon who is so unfunny his jokes are like humor antimatter. Nobody is programming a reminder into their phone to watch Bethenny because some person from Jerseylicious is there, ready to opine. More than any other factor, this dearth of remotely interesting guests is probably why the show was canceled, and surely the cancellation made it even harder to book guests for the remainder of the season.


At this point, Bethenny is reduced to booking an endless parade of bad comedians and “outrageous” types from Bravo reality shows whose entire lives are devoted to debasing themselves on TV. Because none of them is talented, interesting, or accomplished enough to carry a segment themselves, they’re assembled into discussion panels and asked to cover a thousand permutations on the same basic question: what’s the deal with how men and women are different?


Nobody, as a rule, says anything that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before.



Maybe this is naïve, but I doubt most viewers are hoping to glean any insight from one of the stars of Mob Wives w/r/t building a functional human relationship. Maybe I’m too optimistic when I say nobody is sitting in the waiting room at Pep Boys and saying, Yes, Vinny from Jersey Shore makes a great point about compromise. If I’m right, if I’m not giving people too much credit, then I don’t know what function these relationship roundtables serve except to repeat an endless litany of received wisdom about how women are different from men. Men are from Mars. Women are from some other place that’s not Mars but also not Earth. They all revolve around the sun and the sun hates them all.


*          *          *


An abridged list of relationship advice delivered on Bethenny during the period of 4/30/14-5/13/14, presented without editorial comment:


  • When a man is on a date with a woman, he needs to believe that she is a virgin. He needs to know he’s “her first”
  • As a woman, you need to set up your house and take care of it so your man never wants to leave
  • When a man cheats it’s because his woman isn’t taking care of business at home
  • A ho is a ho and slut is a slut and you don’t want to be a ho or a slut
  • Everybody in every relationship cheats, but women are better at lying about it
  • It’s a modern world. Women earn as much money as men.
  • Go with your gut
  • Believe in yourself
  • It’s exhausting being a good man, so men deserve credit for at least trying. When you don’t praise your man for being good, he doesn’t know to keep doing it
  • Men should be in charge of some things and women should be in charge of other things and one of those things men should be in charge of is making reservations and another is determining when, where, and how sexual intercourse is going to occur
  • Snooping is ok if you’re a woman, because women have a biological need to snoop on their partners
  • You gotta fertilize that flower every day
  • Some women like bad boys
  • Not all women like bad boys
  • Most women like bad boys
  • If you tell a woman she’s beautiful every morning she’ll never leave you
  • When a man does things a woman should do, or when a woman does things a man should do, a relationship can’t function.
  • It is emasculating for a man to work from home
  • Women always have The Power of The V to help them win arguments
  • It’s easy for women to say no to men.
  • It’s about compromise
  • It’s about balance
  • It’s about different personality types
  • It’s about finding that compromise
  • It’s about finding the person who’s right for you
  • It’s all about making compromises
  • You need to think about women in terms of pets. If you don’t feed your animal, someone else will.



*          *          *


I have two more pages of those.


*          *          *

To Bethenny’s credit, she actually challenges the most hackneyed comments—why, after all, should women have to acquiesce every time their man wants sex? Why is it so wrong for a woman to ask a man out on a date? Why is it bad for women to earn more money than men? She does a decent job of pointing out that everything they’re saying is an absurd generalization. But her panelists are undeterred in their mission to say infuriatingly stupid things as long as the camera is trained on them.


Still, the cringiest comment of any segment comes from Bethenny herself, who asks Lance Bass how he determines his responsibilities in a homosexual relationship, since it’s a man and a man instead of a man and a woman, so who does the woman’s jobs? From someone who otherwise seems pretty progressive in her social views, this is an ugly misstep, the sort of thing you learn not to ask the first time you ever interact with a gay person. Lance takes it in stride and says something about compromise, and everybody applauds because who doesn’t like compromise?


*          *          *


You gotta compromise. I’m telling you.


*          *          *


I don’t think it’s a major insight for me to note that there is a cultural cost to repeating bullshit conventional wisdom about restrictive gender roles, especially since traditional patriarchal gender roles restrict women to positions of weakness and passivity, of reacting, of being portrayed as crazy or unstable when they demand more from their partners.


But I would add that beyond the gender issues, there is a cost to treating banal observations like “you need to compromise” as trenchant insight, because even though, yes, it’s true that compromise is good for relationships, we spend too much time applauding people for saying obvious things. We have developed an entire media industry in which people are revered and handsomely rewarded for saying stuff that everybody in the world already knows and has known for centuries. Which means then the media demands “balance” by providing idiots who are willing to offer counterpoints against obvious concepts. We lower the bar for discourse, because when you can be applauded for saying, during a political campaign, that you love America and also, P.S., you love freedom too, then there is no pressure on you to say something of substance. When we don’t apply some standards—any standards at all!— to the messages we’re delivering and receiving, it becomes easier to gloss over complex issues with vapid talking points. It becomes harder to shift into serious mode when something important happens. It becomes difficult for us to talk to one another like grownups because our sense of being grown up was long ago washed away in a sea of mindless applause.


Check back Tuesday for, I don’t know, discussion of some show that I hope won’t make me sad. 

Bethenny (part 1): Why does this thing exist?

NOTE: This post is part 4 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows. See the rest here and check back Tuesday and Fridays for future installments.

I can tell you many things about Bethenny Frankel’s eponymous talk show but I cannot tell you why it exists.

I know Bethenny herself thinks it exists to fulfill some purpose of inspiration and empowerment and helping people achieve their dreams and so forth. In her premier episode, she delivered this opening monologue:


This show is not about me, it’s about us. It’s about the next step in the journey. About the journey not the destination. About me inspiring you and you inspiring me and us   inspiring other people… And I want to help you to accomplish all your dreams and pay it forward… I speak to women every day every day, and I listen to what they’re going through. It’s amazing how strong we are. It’s amazing what we can accomplish.


Even though that speech reads like Daytime TV Madlibs, I get the sense she actually believes it, at least more so than some of her competitors do when they make similar pronouncements. She’s not a good enough actress to fake the sincerity evident in that speech, and during her frequent references to the rags-to-riches narrative of her career, it’s clear that she feels incredibly lucky to have ever achieved the life she now gets to live. And even though I don’t at all understand her life dream of just being a person on TV regardless of context, and even if I find her Skinnygirl line of drinks to be awful-tasting and at least a little problematic in its branding, she’s had legitimate business success with a product people seem to like. She has discernible life skills, is what I’m saying, and although her show is never actually interesting, one never gets the sense that she’s faking a persona the way so many of her counterparts have obviously crafted self-consciously “outrageous” characters in a desperate bid to stay on TV and in tabloids.

Although most of Bethenny’s celebrity was earned doing things that I normally avoid, I still had some peripheral knowledge of her before I watched the show. I knew, for example, that she was from the Bravo stable of reality stars. I knew that I hated the name of her show, Bethenny Ever After, in the way I hate all of the not-quite-punny titles for reality shows, the ones where producers just shove the star’s name into a well-known saying without regard to logic, grammar, or even clarity. I reject this degradation of our culture to the point that we’re too lazy to even come up with good puns; I reject the sloppy decision to just find a cliché and cram it together with a non-pun and pretend it’s clever. I reject the entities who are complicit in maintaining this ruse of cleverness by reprinting the titles of these shows and never ever questioning them or demanding that they be changed for the good of humanity, because, listen, we need to keep saying this over and over again until it makes some kind of difference in the world: a culture is its language and when we stop even pretending to care about the language, when we go out of our way to degrade it and make a mockery of it, when we decide the language itself is worthless, then we cease being a culture and instead become nothing but a mass of nameless consumers. We negate ourselves.

*          *          *

 This  show doesn’t do any of the things Bethenny wants it to do. It fills up some time in the morning before lunch (it airs at 11 on my Fox affiliate). It says some things that are not novel or compelling or even shocking. It passes on endless bits of received wisdom about relationships (more on this Friday). And then it’s over. Why does it exist? Because TV needs to find some noise to string between the commercials so we don’t look away. Because background noise fills the empty spaces. Because people who are home with their toddlers need something to do besides asking the toddler what does the cow say and what does the dog say and what does the cat say and oh my god what did you do and why would you put that in your mouth?

And I guess there’s value in that. Sort of.

If we accept that we need shows like this in general, I also can’t tell you why it this particular one shouldn’t exist. Bethenny was cancelled earlier this year. It only survived one season, and is burning off the already-recorded episodes. I’m not going to say it’s a good, or even particularly watchable, show, but, measured against the low bar of daytime television, begrudgingly accepting the lowered standards inherent in all of these evaluations, this show is adequate.

The problem is, when you shoot for the middle, when your goal is to be part of the sloppy morass that is daytime TV, it’s easy to be overlooked. You’re just part of the noise. The noise itself isn’t replaceable, but the noisemakers are.


*          *          *


A word about adequacy:

I teach composition to college freshmen. One of our departmental goals in First Year Writing is to emphasize revision, to teach writing as a process. Fundamental to that goal is not grading drafts of essays, because the letter grade makes all your other comments invisible. English teachers know that you could write seven paragraphs of thoughtful analysis of the essay, but if it ends with B+, the student will not see those other words and will never think about them again. In theory, at least, we force the students to read the comments because they want to have a sense of how their essay measures up, and they don’t have that letter grade to cling to. Still, this is an enormously frustrating approach for anxious students, who just want to know: am I going to pass? Am I going to be able to get into dental school? And they won’t really know until their final portfolio grade is turned in.

So, like most other professors in the department, I try to offer a compromise: I won’t leave a grade, but I’ll leave a faux-grade that at least gives you an idea of where you stand. Every essay draft I mark ends with a couple paragraphs of comments and one of these non-grades:







Frequently, students will misinterpret those bottom two grades, either reading “unsatisfactory” without the crucial prefix, or assuming “adequate” means good, when it definitively does not. “So,” they might say, “It says adequate, which is pretty good, right?” Partly this is a vocabulary issue: I learned a few semesters ago that a number of students had no idea what the word itself meant (and never bothered to look it up even thought it was directly tied to their grade and even though they carry supercomputers in their pockets). But I think it’s something else too, something about the inflation of grades and deflation of expectations. I tell them that if someone described my work as adequate, I’d be miserable about it, it would gnaw at me for weeks and fill me with spite and make me want to write something so good that person would choke on it. I continue that if you’re happy with being described as mediocre, with being the type of person who elicits shrugs, then you’re wasting a lot of money on college classes because it’s easier and cheaper to be an ambitionless mediocrity without spending five or six years in pursuit of an expensive degree you don’t care about. I insist that adequate is the baseline above which we’re all expected to rise and the whole point of the process is to challenge yourself to exceed that. I want to impress upon them is that adequate is in itself inadequate, that a life lived shooting for inoffensive isn’t a life at all, and that there is much more dignity in grand failure than there is in quietly stumbling along for five to eight decades, consuming oxygen and fresh water and free-range chickens and energy drinks for no reason at all.

Most of us will eventually find our way to mediocrity, if it doesn’t find us first, but I don’t at all understand the mindset that drives one to aspire toward mediocrity, to embrace it, to somehow achieve record high levels of self-esteem and to feel entitled to opining on issues of grave national importance while simultaneously expecting nothing of yourself but performing the basic functions of life.

I suspect during these speeches, many students want me to just shut up and tell them how to get a B. But I hope that  someday, when they’re twenty-two and thinking, Ok that’s it, I’m done, best years of my life are over and whaddyagonnado, no more learning or growth for me, that they hear me. I hope it prevents them from giving up even in the face of the endless indignities of work. I hope it prevents them from just shrugging their way into a grave sometime in the future without having even tried.


*          *          *

The show opens with what seems like a parody of Daytime TV themes, a bright cheery song that plays over highlights of Bethenny dancing and looking wacky. The lyrics of the opening theme:


Callin’ all my girls,
Get it Real
We can ChaChaCha
it’s your day celebrate
Callin all my girls

Then Bethenny emerges from backstage, walking past a giant glowing sign that say YES. The audience greets her with wild applause and she does an uncomfortable shimmy, because daytime talk hosts are all required to dance. After a brief greeting, she introduces the day’s guest(s).

The featured guest in the first episode I watch is  Jeff Lewis, some house-flipping guy from a Bravo show about house-flipping. I’m led to believe that he is notorious for acting like a huge asshole all the time, which is natural because that’s the reality TV niche Bravo has chosen to occupy. He seems basically fine, except for the gross and dismissive way he talks about his Nicaraguan housekeeper.

Even though he warrants no more than 90 seconds of content, he remains on the couch with Bethenny for 45 minutes. At one point, a woman in the audience, almost in tears, her hands shaking, is handed the mic and she announces that she’s so inspired by Bethenny every day, so she and her husband are here to celebrate her birthday. Coincidentally, it’s her husband’s dream to one day be insulted by Jeff Lewis. The audience applauds the world’s saddest dream. But then something excruciating happens: Lewis doesn’t even insult him. He barely acknowledges his petitioner.

The husband’s moment of failure overshadowed the rest of the show for me. This was his dream. You spend your whole life dreaming and too often falling short and settling into the grooves of the many failures who have preceded you, and then one day, despite all the frustrations and stresses and losses, you have your chance. You bring your wife to the talk show so she can achieve her dream of meeting the host, and now it’s your turn. For years you’ve dreamed of being insulted by the house-flipper, and then, at the moment when everything should turn around for you, you find yourself uninsultable. You wait, hoping maybe he’s coming up with a great zinger, maybe after the commercial break, but know in your gut it’s not coming. You know that you have failed and will have to somehow find the energy to come up with a new dream. Afterward, you go out to a local café for lunch with your wife and try to share in her joy, and scroll through the pictures she took on her phone, and even though you smile and tell her you’re happy for her, you just keep thinking: what did I do wrong? You just keep thinking: I’m not good enough and I’m not bad enough, and all I wanted was to be something. You slurp on your french onion soup, avoiding eye contact with your wife, and you think: I am adequate. That’s it.


Check in Friday for more Bethenny, thoughts on relationship roundtables, and the dating wisdom of daytime

The Talk (part 2): Get Empowered, Stupid

NOTE: This post is part 3 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows. See the rest here and check back Tuesday and Fridays for future installments.

Despite its obvious flaws, The Talk makes a decent first impression because Julie Chen, who does most of the talking, is competent, which goes a long way in this genre. But also I hold general goodwill toward co-host and former Roseanne star Sara Gilbert, who has actual talent and is politically active in support of a variety of causes I support and who has a cool musician wife and who never shouts or mugs desperately at the camera when she thinks it’s been too long since her last comment. She seems like an interesting, self-aware person who is just trying to make a living; she won me over with the unmistakable expression of quiet contempt on her face when Cedric the Entertainer joked that he’d like to “change her” from being a lesbian and everyone laughed uproariously. I’d like to think that if I somehow ended up at a hellish cocktail party for the stars of daytime TV, she and I would at some point find ourselves sitting in a corner, drinking cheap wine and making fun of all the other people in the room.


In the opening segment of the first episode I watched, Gilbert and Chen were the dominant presences, and so I briefly thought I would be reporting to you that the show is innocuous and pleasant enough (if not exactly interesting), but I cannot report that. The thing is: although at first it seems to be innocuous and pleasant enough (if not exactly interesting), after repeated viewings, The Talk transforms into something much more insidious than that. It’s like that first friend you made at college, the guy who sat next to you at orientation and happened to live on the same floor as you in the dorms and knew a couple guys who could get you into a party. He seemed cool, he seemed kind of funny, he had some quirks but you could overlook them because you just needed someone to spend time with while you acclimated to a new world, but once you were acclimated and realized how annoying he was, he just kept show just kept hanging around, letting himself into your room at all hours and drinking your beer and playing video games in your dorm room until four AM and talking about how awesome it would be if you guys started your own frat or opened a bar someday and eventually you kind of hate him but don’t know how to cut the relationship off, and so then you hunker down for four decades of spending happy hours and couples’ weekends and ski trips with some idiot you only bonded with because he was the first person you met.


The Talk doesn’t drink your beer or play your video games, so it’s maybe not a perfect analogy. But it does quickly overstay its welcome and begin actively making your life worse.


One obvious problem with the show, aside from its abuse of the language, is the presence of Sharon Osbourne, who has no discernible talents or interests beyond her interest in staying on TV.[1] Like the world’s overly affectionate crazy aunt, she touches the guests too often; when Paul Stanley was the guest, she held both of his hands throughout the interview. It needs to be stated plainly: this level of touching is not ok. It is never ok. She has said exactly zero useful things during the episodes I’ve watched, and when she has to go off-script, you can see her calculating what the zany, rock-chick thing to say would be. Often, she simply resorts to yelling and clapping.


Ultimately, though, the show’s greatest sin is its false message of empowerment. Some variation of the words “empower” and “inspire” is uttered in nearly every segment of every episode, so that after a week you will feel like you should have been empowered but you will not actually feel empowered in any way.[2] When speaking to the skin cancer expert, for example, Osbourne says, “I know one of your goals is to empower women through the use of sunscreen.” TV Personality Debbie Matenopoulous  is inspiring women with her low-fat Greek cooking. Paul Stanley thinks everyone should find their passion in life.


But then, like any good women’s magazine, the show juxtaposes its faux-empowerment with constant reminders to women that they aren’t good enough. It’s a show, in fact, that is actively hostile to women, and acts as a Trojan Horse concealing anxiety-ridden messages beneath the façade of empowerment. The list of things women are doing wrong is endless. Your cell phone is giving you wrinkles. Your diet is making your cheeks sag. You need to give your breakfast a beauty boost by eating “the Brangelina of vegetables,” a term that so angered me I forgot my windows were open and so my neighbors heard me yelling No, That is not a thing. You need get “bangtox” to look younger.[3] You need to rub an ice cube on your face every 12 hours to “wipe away toxins” (and sure you might be skeptical, but doesn’t that explain why polar bears have such nice skin)? If you’re not being sexually harassed by men on the street, then you are probably too old. You need to not be needy, because men hate needy women, and Osbourne wants to smack needy women. She wants to hit women who are needy, and as she pantomimes hitting a needy woman in the face, the audience cheers. Chen says it’s ok to be needy as long as you just internalize all your anxieties and never, ever let your husband see them, because, as her husband conveniently said to her that morning, “Julie, I love you so much because it’s like you don’t even need me ever.” But, she confesses, “on the inside I was falling apart.”

After their obligatory condemnations of Donald Sterling (Underwood, quite possibly overstating the case: “he’s one of the biggest racist nutjobs in the world.”), the women mainly reserved their invective for his mistress Vanessa Stiviano. They spend a lot of time on her, but in short: she’s a ho, a bitch, a hot mess, totally crazy, and a skank. She dubiously claims to be Sterling’s archivist, and Aisha Tyler suggests her job is “archivist for semen.”

I don’t love using Stiviano as an example here, because she seems self-evidently terrible, but the tone of the Stiviano talk and the enthusiasm with which the women (on stage and in the audience) condemn her is a pretty good illustration of the show’s hostility toward women. It’s not that I’m saying women shouldn’t ever be critical of other women, exactly; this isn’t an issue of breaking ranks and ruining gender-wide solidarity. It’s more about the general atmosphere of the show which feels depressingly anti-woman, or more accurately, designed to cultivate, at the expense of all diversity and the full spectrum of human expression, one specific kind of woman, the type of woman who spends a lot of money on beauty products and designer clothes concealing flaws she didn’t even know she had. It’s about a culture in which we repeat platitudes about self-esteem and loving ourselves and then use those same platitudes to sell a pair of shoes or  cream that magically erases skin-based toxifiers. It’s about how we create an extraordinarily narrow image of The Perfect Woman, make that image unattainable to all but the relative handful lucky enough to be rich and genetically gifted enough to achieve it, and then condemn those who can’t pull it off. It’s about the ways we turn the language into a jackhammer that creates holes within us that can only be filled by buying more and more and more shit until we feel a little less lonely, a little less like failures.

[1] She does accidentally sum up the show’s problem with empty language when Chen rolls some clip from a goofy local newscast and asks her co-hosts for reactions; Osbourne says, “There is nothing to say about this person!” but one suspects she doesn’t realize the full implications of this comment.

[2] It’s worth exploring whether that word actually means anything anymore, or whether it’s just like lit students calling everything they read “relatable” [LINK]

[3] You also need to smile and tolerate a person who uses the term “bangtox,” which refers to “a painless, non-surgical method of reversing your aging,” and then explains that bangtox is—are you ready for this? Because I think you’re probably not ready—growing out your bangs. Or you can buy “bang implants,” which are exactly what you think they are.

The Talk (part 1): talking about talking about talking

NOTE: This post is part 2 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows. See the rest here and check back Tuesday and Fridays for future installments

The Talk, CBS’s answer to The View, is accurately, if not very creatively, named. There are five regular hosts, plus the occasional guest host like Boy George or Marie Osmond. They gather for an hour and use their faces to create words and other word-like sounds (including YAY, which several of the hosts are prone to yelling during frequent applause breaks). These sounds, combined with a variety of spastic gestures and facial contortions, more or less replicate the rhythms of human speech and are presented to the world as The Talk.


To the show’s (minor) credit, it promises nothing beyond talking, and never pretends to be more than a series of English words strung together in a somewhat specific order in order to fill the air with noise. A product like this may perform a powerful function for lonely shut-ins, for people still learning the English language, for the intoxicated, and for dogs whose owners leave the TV on during the day to keep them company. It performs few other functions, aside from creating enough insecurities in the audience to sell them beauty products.


I need to stress this: the show is not about conversation. It is about creating Talk. The show’s website, for example, seems to have been created by a random text generator. Littered with sub-Hallmark level inspiration, it includes profiles of each host. This month, Julie Chen is excited about four things: coconut jelly beans, pastel nail polish, flowers, and Easter. Her current favorite quote is by Susan J. Bissonette: “An optimist is the human personification of spring.” Sharon Osbourne’s current favorite quote is, naturally, by Sharon Osbourne: “What could be better than Spring? It’s such a great time of year.”


Indeed, what could be better than Spring?


It’s such a great time of year.


Anyway, each episode generally follows this formula:

SEGMENT 1: “hard news,” during which Chen (the “serious one”) introduces the day’s Big Issue. Chen is good at reading from the teleprompter, which sounds like light praise, but she is noticeably better at it than many of her daytime TV counterparts. If you can overlook the nearly unoverlookable gymnastics of her right eyebrow while she reads from the prompter, you can be fooled into thinking you are about to hear about some serious news. All this week, the big story was L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s meltdown. After reading the news details—which prompts plenty of oohing from the crowd—Chen throws to the group, sort of, not with any specific question but by finishing her reading and then looking away from camera in anticipation of one of the other women’s comments. Then someone makes a comment that is tangentially related to what Chen said. Then someone else makes a comment that may or may not be related to the previous comment. Eventually all of the hosts say one thing. Usually each comment elicits applause and/or guffaws from the crowd. Then Chen moves to the next part of the story. The pattern repeats. It is unclear whether any of these women is capable of extemporaneous conversation. It is unclear whether anyone cares. They are all there to provide one quip or non sequitur. For five women who insist frequently on how much fun they have together (guest host Marie Osmond spent the first five minutes of her episode reassuring doubters that, yes, this is real, and yes, they’re like this all the time!), their fumbling attempts at conversation are painfully stilted.


A partial transcript of a recent talk:


Chen: Now for the latest on Sterling-gate. Despite everything, Donald Sterling was out and about last night. Take a look at what happens when TMZ catches him at a fancy restaurant


[Execrable TMZ guy yells some things at him]

[nothing happens]


Chen:  So, what do you think about Donald Sterling being out and about??


Sara Gilbert: I think it just shows his continued arrogance.


Sharon Osbourne: He’s clueless!


Marie Osmond: It looked like he was eating strawberries. You know, I’m allergic to strawberries so I only eat them on Sundays when I don’t have to sing.


Sheryl Underwood: You know what I’m allergic to? Cheap men with tiny penises!


[raucous applause]


I swear to you this happened.


Two notes before we move on:


1) I have no idea, still, who Sheryl Underwood is, but I know who she’s supposed to be, and since she’s clearly designed to be a word-delivery device, it doesn’t really matter who she is. She has abdicated her personhood. She is the one who makes bawdy jokes. She is “edgy.” She is the one who shouts.


2) I’m not even clear why Sterling—terrible a person as he is—shouldn’t go out to eat. I mean, I don’t sympathize with him exactly, but I think it says something about the way our culture responds to scandal that the moment someone does something we find offensive, we just expect him to disappear.


SEGMENT 2: Sometimes called the “top talker” segment. Seems to alternate between the hosts offering more hot takes on a trending topic or talking to some celebrity gossip person. The celebrity gossip person achieves Top Talker status by delivering a piece of meaningless gossip about Prince Harry or somebody. The hosts react. One of them, usually Underwood, says something salacious. People applaud. People yell YAY. People say words. The Top Talker delivers a question in a tone that indicates he’s saying something important but he’s not saying something important. One Top Talker asked, “Question for the ladies: have you ever changed your mind about somebody you’ve met?” Another asked, “Ladies, now my question for you is: have you ever turned a negative into a positive?” Like literally all human beings in the history of humanity, they have. The segment ends in less than 3 minutes.


SEGMENT 3: Somebody arrives on set to sell beauty or skin care products. During one episode I learn that there are more cases of skin cancer on the left sides of American’s bodies due to sun damage incurred while driving. I am happy to learn a thing. The woman who shares this information seems well-spoken and intelligent and overall too good for this show. More about this in Friday’s post.


SEGMENT 4: Celebrity interview. Despite the best efforts of Jane Kaczmarek to be charming and interesting, the hosts do not engage with her and instead interrupt her stories to ask their scripted questions. In the middle of discussion her relationship with Bryan Cranston, Jane K. is interrupted by Sara Gilbert, who says, “Ok, I need you to tell me about your guest starring role on USA, which sounds amazing.” Jane K. complies. Chen interrupts again with another question unrelated to the discussion. These segments drag badly; halfway through Katherine Heigl’s interview, I type in my notes file: OH MY GOD HOW LONG IS AN HOUR.


SEGMENT 5: I am watching during food festival week, so every episode ends on a cooking segment. The segments begin with an enormous spread of food, which is named but then never described, distributed, consumed, or discussed in any other way. Food is there to provide words for talking. The chef hustles through an abridged version of a recipe, while Julie Chen, who is singularly unqualified to operate kitchen tools, tries to help, and spends most of her time physically recoiling from oil with such fear that one suspects she is part-duck and once had duck relatives in the Gulf. I realize I’m making it sound like a lot of things happen in the show, but very few things happen, and the non-Chen women, on average, do not utter more than six or seven sentences per episode.


SEGMENT 6: The show is over. You sit quietly for a few minutes hating yourself.


Recently, J. Robert Lennon wrote about how cliché is not just representative of lazy thought, but can be a political act that “disrespects the integrity of the individual.” The Talk is not just a cliché-friendly environment, but in its determined emptiness it is cliché exclusive; one never gets any sense that the show intends to say anything you haven’t heard before. Throughout, applause happens. Smiles happen. Lifelike laughter happens. Words happen. A ticker on the bottom of the screen scrolls tweets from women repeating platitudes like, “we have to learn to live together,” and “no parent should outlive there [sic] children” and everywhere there are words but none of them mean anything and nobody cares.


Check back Friday for further discussion of The Talk, empowerment, inspiration, and the economy of  insecurity.