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Why the Supreme Court was right to uphold a terrible law

Full disclosure: I am totally opposed to the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare). It is a well-intended but horribly executed law that harms patients, health care providers, and the economy (the job losses will be significant), and benefits no one other than insurance companies. The law has noble intent: to expand health coverage for more Americans. But the law is a ramshackle dunghill of poorly conceived ideas that lacks reason, coherence, and efficacy. It is a gross expansion of federal power with very little tangible benefit from said expansion. I completely support its repeal, and believe it is the single most important issue in the November elections.

Yet as bad as the law is and as much as I wanted to see the Supreme Court strike it down today, after reading the opinions (yes, I actually read them), I cannot disagree with Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion in upholding the law. The reason I can’t disagree is based on understanding the role of the Court. The Supreme Court does not make law or policy – that is the job of Congress and the President. According to Article III of the Constitution, the Supreme Court rules in disputes about the interpretation of laws, treaties, and the Constitution. Part of that role includes Judicial Review: determining if a law passed by Congress is Constitutional. Thus the purpose of the Court’s decision today was not to decide if Obamacare is a wise, good, or effective law, but to determine if there is any way that it passes “Constitutional muster.”

The core issue of this case – and the reason 26 states sued to block the law – is the idea that a federal mandate to purchase insurance (or any product) is beyond the powers granted to Congress in the Constitution. The states argued that there is no legal right for Congress to force people to purchase something they may not want to purchase, and therefore is exercising a power it is not granted in the Constitution. The government (ie, President Obama’s lawyers) argued that the law is permissible because Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution expressly allows Congress to “regulate…commerce among the several states,” and to pass laws that are “necessary and proper” according the powers they are granted. Their case centered around the notion that everyone is a participant in the health care market, whether or not they have insurance, and therefore Congress can regulate that market and force people to purchase insurance. They also argued, secondarily, that if not a mandate then the law is effectively a tax, and Article I, Section 8 expressly allows taxation.

The states (ie, the law’s opponents) responded to these arguments by stating that the Commerce Clause allows only the regulation of commerce, not the creation of commerce. The core of their argument was that if Congress can regulate an “activity” that exists merely by virtue of being alive, then the government has truly limitless power. They also argued that the tax is really a penalty, not truly a tax, based on the wording of the law itself. What’s more, President Obama was emphatic that the new law was not a tax. In his now infamous interview with George Stephanopoulos, the President was unambiguous that Obamacare was not a tax. In an act of either flagrant hypocrisy or outright deceit, his lawyers argued that it was a tax while the President himself argued that it was not a tax!

In his well-written opinion, Chief Justice Roberts makes the compelling case that the states were mostly correct: Congress CANNOT mandate the purchase of a good or product. The Chief devotes almost the entire first half of his opinion to explaining this concept. He wisely points out that the Constitution does allow for the creation of certain things in Section 8 of Article I, but commerce is not one of them. So he agreed with the opponents of the law in that regard:

Construing the Commerce Clause to permit Congress to regulate individuals precisely because they are doing nothing would open a new and potentially vast domain to congressional authority. Congress already possesses expansive power to regulate what people do. Upholding the Affordable Care Act under the Commerce Clause would give Congress the same license to regulate what people do not do. The Framers knew the difference between doing something and doing nothing. They gave Congress the power to regulate commerce, not to compel it. Ignoring that distinction would undermine the principle that the Federal Government is a government of limited and enumerated powers.

I agree with this completely. Congress does not have the power to force people to purchase a good or service that they do not want to purchase. To allow such an action would give virtually limitless powers to Congress, as the Chief Justice implies. Likewise, the “Necessary and Proper” clause does not apply because such a mandate is not proper according the logic above. Thus the core argument of Obamacare’s proponents was eviscerated by the 5-4 majority opinion.

But it doesn’t end there. As Chief Justice Roberts noted – and as all the justices agreed – when the Court determines if a law is Constitutional, it must make every effort to read the law in a way so as to make it Constitutional. In other words, it should look for every way to uphold it, not strike it down. This is appropriate and correct: Congress makes and passes laws, the Courts rule on those laws. It would be wrong to try to find any way to overturn a law passed by the legislature – laws must be presumed to be Constitutional, unless there are glaring problems that cannot be resolved.

Yet despite acknowledging such glaring problems, the Chief Justice ultimately concluded that the law could be considered Constitutional – but only narrowly – as a tax. While acknowledging that the intent is to coerce people to purchase insurance, Chief Justice Roberts notes that the law essentially levies a tax against those without health insurance, and since Congress has the ability to levy taxes, this allows the law to stand. But again, he notes that Congress cannot mandate the purchase of a good, they can only collect the tax from individuals who do not purchase the good. Therefore it cannot be illegal not to purchase health insurance, but it can be illegal not to pay the tax.

The 4-justice minority – possibly at one point the majority – argues that interpreting the mandate as a tax is wrong because the law itself doesn’t consider it a tax, and wasn’t strongly argued as tax before the Court. As this portion of the dissent reads (likely authored by Justice Antonin Scalia):

The Government’s opening brief did not even address the question — perhaps because, until today, no federal court has accepted the implausible argument that §5000A is an exercise of the tax power. And once respondents raised the issue, the Government devoted a mere 21 lines of its reply brief to the issue. Petitioners’ Minimum Coverage Reply Brief 25. At oral argument, the most prolonged statement about the issue was just over 50 words.  One would expect this Court to demand more than fly-by-night briefing and argument before deciding a difficult constitutional question of first impression.

In determining whether, in fact, the law imposes a “tax” or a “penalty,” he also says:

We never have classified as a tax an exaction imposed for violation of the law, and so too, we never have classified as a tax an exaction described in the legislation itself as a penalty. To be sure, we have sometimes treated as a tax a statutory exaction (imposed for something other than a violation of law) which bore an agnostic label that does not entail the significant constitutional consequences of a penalty — such as “license” (License Tax Cases, 5 Wall. 462 (1867)) or “surcharge” (New York v. United States,supra.). But we have never — never — treated as a tax an exaction which faces up to the critical difference between a tax and a penalty, and explicitly denominates the exaction a “penalty.” Eighteen times in §5000A itself and elsewhere throughout the Act, Congress called the exaction in §5000A(b) a “penalty.”

The Chief Justice answers this charge, however, by noting that at this point the main objection is simply over how the exaction is labeled:

The joint dissenters argue that we cannot uphold §5000A as a tax because Congress did not “frame” it as such. In effect, they contend that even if the Constitution permits Congress to do exactly what we interpret this statute to do, the law must be struck down because Congress used the wrong labels….Interpreting such a law to be a tax would hardly “[i]mpos[e] a tax through judicial legislation.” Rather, it would give practical effect to the Legislature’s enactment. Our precedent demonstrates that Congress had the power to impose the exaction in §5000A under the taxing power, and that §5000A need not be read to do more than impose a tax. That is sufficient to sustain it.

In other words, even if poorly “labeled,” the tax is still fundamentally a tax, does not force people to purchase insurance, and therefore is within the enumerated powers of the Constitution. So the law is upheld, but not for the reasons the President and his lawyers argued.

The current justices of the Supreme Court.

While I can certainly see the dissent’s argument – and it is a compelling one – I can’t really fault the Chief for his ruling. Remember, his job is not to determine if the law is good or if it was “sold” to the American people honestly, only to determine if it passes Constitutional muster by any means, and in his view it does. Furthermore, he drew a clear, bright line limiting the federal government’s power under the Commerce Clause. It is abundantly clear from his opinion that Congress cannot mandate people to purchase a good or service: in that sense the reality is that the “mandate” was struck down, but the law was able to stand. I’ve read some opponents of the law blast the Supreme Court ruling and the Chief’s opinion. While I would have been happy to see it go, I can’t find fault with this ruling.

As for President Obama, this will likely turn out to be the ultimate Pyrrhic victory. While his signature legislative accomplishment is allowed to stand, it is forever labeled a tax – something he vociferously denied on multiple occasions.  Americans don’t like taxes, and in an election year it will be extremely difficult for the President to defend an already unpopular bill, especially now that it is undoubtedly a major tax increase. The Republican base will be extremely motivated, and many others (a clear national majority) who are opposed to the bill will see it as a major reason to not only vote for Mitt Romney (who has pledged to repeal the law entirely), but also Republican Congressmen as well. Furthermore, it takes away the core principle on which the law is based: that the government can force individuals to buy health insurance. That notion is gone. So now the President is left with an unpopular law that can only be viewed as a tax increase. It could be a classic case of winning the battle but losing the war.

The Supreme Court is my favorite part of government. Located in a shimmering white neoclassical building across from the Capitol, with an elegant chamber ringed with beautiful friezes, it projects an almost divine, or mystical aura. While the Court certainly makes bad mistakes (see Dred Scott vs. Sandford), in general it seeks to ensure justice. Nine wise individuals with impeccable knowledge of Constitutional law come to reasoned, thoughtful decisions. I like the formality, the reserve, the tradition, the lack of video coverage, the mysterious ways the Court reaches its decisions – it provides such a nice contrast to the bombast of Congress. Even if I do not always agree with the Supreme Court, I can always revere it.

In the end, as much as I detest the ACA, I can’t argue with the Supreme Court’s decision in light of the way they reached that decision. They clearly reinforced the concept of the enumerated powers and crystal clear limits on the power of government in the lives of its citizens. But rather than simply tossing out a bad law, they found a way to uphold it. Now it’s up to the people to determine the fate of Obamacare. Election day is just months away – the people will have the ultimate say on the fate of the law, which is just what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

M. MANDY SCRIPSIT

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Filed under Miscellany and Tomfoolery, Reviews

Best of the Boob Tube, Part 2

As promised, here are my favorite current TV shows – those I look forward to watching most each week, in no particular order:

The Good Wife. (CBS) This legal/political drama is the best show on network television, and one of the programs I look forward to most every week. It is the only network show that comes close to the premium shows in terms of thematic complexity and character development. Unlike most legal dramas, the central law firm is often wrong, and frequently on the right side only because of expediency or the promise of financial gain. The internal politics of the firm are nasty and underhanded, matching the external political atmosphere of the corrupt Chicago machine.

The title character of the show is Alicia Florrick, played by Juliana Margulies (a veteran of ER and The Sopranos). The premise of The Good Wife is based on the extra-marital affair of her husband – the Illinois Attorney General –  and her reaction to it. She remains married to him, though their relationship is irrevocably harmed. In addition to his philandering, he is sentenced to prison for alleged corruption; he is eventually acquitted, though it’s unclear whether or not he is actually guilty. Alicia starts work at a prestigious law firm in the aftermath of her husband’s conviction, though she has not worked anywhere since her teenage children were born. As a lawyer Alicia is shrewd, clever, diligent, and perceptive, though by no means the best attorney on the show. Yet her character is a very likable one, often quiet and demure, struggling to keep up in a tough, competitive firm. She is not a hard-charging go-getter – she simply wants to do her part and do it well.

Kalinda Sharma, the firm's investigator, helps Alicia find her way at the law firm.

The show succeeds because it advances the intertwining narrative arcs of the series while at the same time allowing each episode to intrigue in its own rite. Alicia is constantly juggling her topsy-turvy home life, which inevitably impacts and is impacted by her husband’s political career into which she is reluctantly drawn, which in turn has ramifications for her law firm and thus her career. Now in the middle of the second season, each episode consists of a court-room mystery with side-plots focusing on the Florrick family, the dirty Chicago politics, and the other lawyers at the firm and their office politics – often all of these elements are intimately related. The Good Wife blurs the lines of the the good characters and the bad. Alicia remains married, but her motives aren’t entirely clear: love and devotion? Expediency? Financial gain? Career advancement? External pressure? And while she has not had an affair with an office co-worker, is it due to her morality and marital loyalty, or to lack of opportunity? And her sometime faithful sidekick, Kalinda Sharma, is effective but ruthless and unprincipled as the firm’s investigator – perhaps the most interesting character on the show. The courtroom scenes are easy to follow and not overly dramatic, and I like the unique personality of each judge. But above all I like that Alicia and the firm lose cases now and then – rarely do legal dramas allow their heroes to lose

True Blood. (HBO) Yes, this is a vampire show, but it is a far cry from the weepy, light, teen angst-driven contemporary melodramas such as the Twilight films. Instead True Blood is a gory and violent supernatural drama set in modern day Louisiana.

HBO used a clever ad campaign for True Blood.

The premise of the show is the development of synthetic blood, Tru Blood, that allows vampires to survive without feasting on humans. In theory they can integrate and function in normal human society, but their integration is anything but smooth. The series focuses on a handful of characters in a small town called Bon Temps – the central character is Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress who can read minds. She falls in love with a vampire named Bill Compton precisely because she cannot read his mind. Now in between the 3rd and 4th seasons, the show has introduced the audience to an array of vampire characters and a host of other magical creatures, including werewolves, fairies, shape-shifters, and my personal favorite, the maenad. The maenad is the chief villain of the second season, made powerful by her ability to channel a person’s greatest desires into overwhelming self-destructive obsession.

The show has an addictive story-line, but its main appeal lies in the richness of the characters and the complexity of their motivations. There are no “good” vampires per se – all have the strong desire to kill and exploit humans (and all do so to varying degrees), but some are more self-controlled than others. Ultimately their society is archaic and uncivilized, yet humans on the show are just as bad in many ways; the vampires are honest in their evil intentions, while the humans try to disguise theirs. True Blood has plenty of humor, and isn’t afraid of poking fun at itself with some obvious campiness: the main vampire bar is called Fangtasia, and humans can become addicted to the supernatural effects of vampire blood, terming it an “addiction to V.”

True Blood‘s main flaw is that it goes overboard with its use of vampire paranoia as a metaphor for minority persecution, particularly homosexuals. Not only is it transparent and repetitive at times, but it seems misplaced: many vampires advocate the destruction of the human race – isn’t that a legitimate reason for fear? But overall it is a fun, fascinating hour of entertainment during the summer months, which are usually devoid of original programming.

Boardwalk Empire. (HBO) Upon making it’s long awaited premier last fall, Boardwalk Empire was considered a remake of The Sopranos set in Prohibition era Atlantic City. Certainly the series focuses on organized crime, but otherwise it is very different in terms of characters and scope. The plot centers around Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the corrupt Atlantic City Treasurer who effectively runs the town (both politically and criminally) just as it comes into prominence at the beginning of Prohibition. Outlawing alcohol only makes business boom for organized crime, which now has the monopoly on a very desirable product. Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, is crafty and devious. As a slick politician, he knows how to manipulate, coerce, and bribe the right people in order to advance Atlantic City’s  – and thus his own – best interests.

Boardwalk Empire is set in one of my favorite times in American history: the Jazz Age. With the rise of the bright lights, swanky restaurants, and lavish entertainment, the era certainly seems like a grand one. The show highlights this grandeur as well as the underlying corruption that supports it. It also touches on the prominent mafia figures of the day, including Arthur Rothstein, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, “Diamond Jim” Colosimo, and a young Al Capone. These are intriguing characters, and their intermingling with Nucky Thompson drives much of the plot. The show’s other characters are just as compelling, including an Irish widow who seems innocent on the surface but is just as manipulative and debauched as the others when push comes to shove. A World War I veteran who attempts to break into Thompson’s organization is ruthless and savage, and his counterpart, an upstanding Prohibition agent, actually drowns a man while baptizing him. One of the most fascinating characters is a relatively minor one – a disfigured WWI sniper who wears a mask on the right side of his disfigured face, painted to match the left. He is quiet and yearns for a family, but children are instinctively frightened by him. He is gentle around women and children, but murders Nucky’s enemies without compunction.

The show’s first season was enjoyable but a bit slow in places, and with its heavy, serious tone I think they need more humor and a lighter touch at times to provide balance. Boardwalk Empire isn’t as popular as The Sopranos, and I think the main reason is because its lack of relatability: Tony Soprano was a modern figure, the father of a typical American family in a typical American suburb, struggling with problems involving his children and spouse; Nucky Thompson is a childless widower in a very different era. Even so, Boardwalk Empire is a great show, one I find compelling and, at times, moving. The second season is slated for Fall of next year.

Glee. (Fox) As a married male in his 30s with very little musical talent or sense of connection to pop culture, I’m not exactly the target audience of Glee. But the Fox musical series is the most unabashedly fun show on television, combining catchy musical numbers, exuberant and over-the-top dancing, and a parody of modern high school culture. Its thematic elements and character complexity fall considerably short of every other show on this list, but what it lacks in sophistication is makes up for in purely fun, escapist entertainment and creative originality.

Set in a typical mid-American high school, the series centers around the members of the glee club, a group mostly composed of social outcasts: the mousy, obnoxiously ambitious aspiring Broadway actress, the overweight black diva, the effeminate gay male, a disabled kid in a wheel chair, and a punk Asian girl. They are joined – reluctantly – by the star quarterback, a juvenile delinquent, and several members of the cheerleading squad who are there as spies for their conniving coach. Like the students, the teachers are caricatures, from the Indian principal who addresses the students as “children” at assemblies to the manly female football coach (aptly named Coach Biest), along with the well-meaning but effete glee club director, who divorces his wife because she pretends to be pregnant. This group of teachers is antagonized by Sue Sylvester, the loud, sweat-suit wearing cheerleading coach whose goal in life is to end the glee club so her cheerleading squad can subsume their budget.

All of these characters provide plenty of laughs, though Glee does take a serious turn when it demonstrates the ways in which the outcasts of the glee club face ridicule and bullying in the school halls. Such portrayals can be powerful and moving, but they comes across as preachy and heavy-handed at times, especially this season with the significant time devoted to Kurt’s struggles with his open homosexuality. Glee is at its best when its’s being gleeful, and too many dark turns easily steer it far off path. As long as it provides fun, unique entertainment (how many other musical TV shows do you know?), Glee will continue to hold a place on my must-see list.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand/Gods of the Arena. (Starz) Spartacus was a real person, a gladiator in the Roman Republic who led a slave revolt and army that out-dueled the mighty Roman army for years. This series is a fictional account of his life, starting with his time as a gladiator in Capua. This period occupies a few sentences in the history books, but the first season of Spartacus: Blood and Sand is a 13-episode narrative of his time as a gladiator, beginning with the enslavement of Spartacus and his wife. So confident were they of its success, Starz boldly ordered a second season of Spartacus before the first one ever debuted. Their confidence was well-placed: Spartacus more than doubled its viewers throughout the first season, giving Starz its highest ratings ever, and allowing the network to compete with Showtime and HBO in terms of original programming. That trend continued when the prequel to the first season (Gods of the Arena), debuted in January with record numbers for a Starz premier.

The computer-generated sets make for some beautiful scenery in Spartacus.

The appeal lies partly in its pure entertainment value: that Spartacus is a cross between the films Gladiator and 300 is so glaringly obvious it is almost cliche to mention it. The entire first season and prequel series (6 episodes) take place in a ludus, or training school for Roman gladiators. Thus every episode contains at least one gladiatorial fight, in the ludus or arena or both. The set is highly innovative for television, almost entirely CGI-driven with stylized violence and effects that give it a graphic novel feel. Usually that style isn’t to my liking, but Spartacus blends realism with stylized effects very well, even if the excessive amounts of blood are cartoonish, especially in the first few episodes. The show warns of graphic violence before every episode, and with good reason: there is plenty of death and mutilation, including the gruesome crucifixion of a dismembered man.

Gladiators are often reduced to novelties for the nobles.

The violence can be excessive, but Spartacus powerfully depicts a historical reality and poignantly illustrates its central theme of man as slave and master. A man is crucified because he attempts to kill Spartacus, also a gladiator. The punishment isn’t for attempted murder in itself, but because Spartacus is the property of Quintus Batiatus, the owner of the ludus. And the motivation for the murder is freedom, which he is promised by his owner (a rival of Batiatus) if he kills Spartacus. In the end not only does he fail to secure his release, but also suffers the worst kind of execution. The gladiators, while cheered and adored in the arena, are treated as mere commodities by their owners. They are used as propaganda for political gain, as street thugs, hit men (one gladiator is ordered to kill a 6 year old boy), sex objects, and in perhaps the most emotionally wrenching scene of the season, Spartacus is forced to kill his best friend on the whim of a teenage boy.

Spartacus' motivation for fighting is the release of his slave wife.

While the characters are not as fleshed out as they are in other premium series (the fight scenes take away from that), the key figures are interesting: Spartacus is initially motivated to victory to win his wife’s freedom from a Syrian harem, but after she dies Spartacus continues to fight, motivated for a time by the glory of the arena – what he initially abhors he comes to embrace. Crixus is the “true believer” gladiator, motivated by the honor of fighting and dying in the arena. Batiatus is the owner of the ludus, vengeful and violent, while simultaneously villain and victim. And Doctore is the lead trainer of the gladiators, loyal to Batiatus but sympathetic to his fellow slaves. With some unexpected plot twists, fascinating characters, and excellent acting, Spartacus is far more than a mere testosterone-driven sword and sandal epic.

House. (Fox) As a physician, this is the one medical drama I can stomach. It’s not because House is particularly realistic, mind you: there is no such thing as a “Diagnostics” department, an attending like House would never be forced to work in a clinic, fellows don’t process MRIs lab results themselves, and treatment usually occurs after a diagnosis is made. But they make an effort at portraying realistic conditions and presentations, and the interaction between the different specialists is often spot on.

But House is really about the cantankerous title character, Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie. House is a cynical, bitter pessimist who assumes the worst of intentions in others. Patients are never altruistic in his paradigm: when a man saves a stranger from being hit by a train, House claims it is due to desire for recognition and acceptance rather than selflessness. His team of fellows generally disagrees with his cynical world view, and over the course of a given episode we find out which of them is right about the specific patient. Moral dilemmas are a mainstay of the show, and often it is apparent there is no “right” answer. But the team members are more than mere foils for House’s peculiarities, and each has a very nicely developed character.

Yet the highlight of the show is his interaction with two other characters: his girlfriend and medical director, Lisa Cuddy, and chief oncologist and best friend, James Wilson. The ongoing banter and series of intellectual duels between House and Wilson are crucial elements of the show and the ongoing development of House as a character. His relationship with Cuddy is solid but somehow based on the acceptance of a degree of dysfunction. When it comes to moral decision-making House fails constantly, and has no problem lying to and deceiving his friends. He remains likable in part because his intentions are (mostly) good, and in part because of his boyish audacity and brazenness.

The biggest flaw in House is its repetitiveness: in every episode there is an interesting case, a series of pranks and/or banter with his staff, and a “lightbulb” moment toward the end when he finally figures out the diagnosis. But somehow House never gets boring, largely because we buy in to the fact that House’s team accepts and tolerates his crankiness and hijinks. Wouldn’t we all?

So there they are – my favorite current shows. I’m looking forward to a few new series debuting this Fall: Chicago Code on Fox, The Borgia on Showtime, Camelot on Starz, and Game of Thrones on HBO. What do you think? Are my favorite programs worthy, or do you have others you like? Looking forward to some interesting comments…

Signed,

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Best of the Boob Tube, Part 1

Before Melissa and I were married, I watched very little television. Various sporting events comprised the vast majority of my TV viewing palette, along with a few select shows on HBO. Network television might as well not have existed: I never watched scripted shows on the major broadcast networks or cable channels. My belief was that most of the shows were boring and predictable, and by and large that was true at the time. But things have changed, and as Melissa and I introduced each other to our favorite shows and tried some new programs along the way I found myself enjoying multiple shows, some of them on the broadcast networks. We watch some reality shows like American Idol, but I like quite a few of the dramas and comedies on a variety of different channels. Some serials are better than others of course, so I decided to put together a list of my favorite scripted TV programs currently on air. There are good shows we haven’t yet watched (eg, Mad Men), and Melissa and I have shows we like together and some we like individually. Below is my personal list, and to be sure she has no desire to watch several of them, just as I have no desire to watch Grey’s Anatomy.  Thankfully there is high quality programming in just about every genre, but it was not always so.

For most of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s television was in a creative slump. There were very few good shows, and most of the regular programming was packed with cookie cutter sit-coms or night-time soap operas. There were good programs like CheersSeinfeld, and ER, but for the most part Americans did not have a compelling reason to tune in to the networks in prime time.  Most of the comedies were light, trite, repetitive bilge, and most dramas were predictable and contrived. Up until 2005 I watched virtually no network television other than Seinfeld and ER, and even ER got old after its 7th season.

The premium channels (HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, etc) – led by HBO – offered a reprieve in the late 1990s and early 2000s by producing high quality shows like Sex and the City and The Sopranos, both of which were immensely popular and enjoyed widespread critical favor. Both shows were profoundly influential, adding a depth and complexity to television that hadn’t been realized in the past. The Sopranos is widely considered the greatest television show of all time – it’s certainly one of my favorites. It has spawned the proliferation of numerous cable and premium channel dramas, which attract big-name casts, sophisticated  writing, high quality production, and ever-increasing viewers. Indeed, there are so many good shows on cable and premium channels today it is literally impossible to watch – much less follow – all of them, even with the help of DVR. Cable productions like Mad Men – which I have never seen – were not possible before The Sopranos.

The trend has trickled down to the networks, which have greatly improved the overall quality of their shows. Dramas like The Good Wife and Parenthood were non-existent a decade ago, but now there is at least one high quality drama every night of the week on network television. Comedies have been completely transformed, morphing from the cheap set, canned laughter, and slapstick tripe that existed through early 2000s to complex intelligent humor exemplified by Modern Family, 30 Rock, The Office, and hour long “dramedies” like Ugly Betty, Glee, and Chuck. And action-adventures like 24 also received an upgrade. With across the board enhancement of their productions of all genres, the networks are offering the best programming in television history.

Not everyone is a fan of FCC regulation.

Yet in writing a list of my favorite shows, I cannot claim intellectual consistency without acknowledging the difference between network and cable programming, and the even greater different difference between cable programming and premium channel programming. Network programming (as seen on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC)  is limited by strict content rules, along with need for a broad-based appeal. The networks are the most widely viewed and widely available media for scripted programming, which means they have great er legal restrictions, sponsor-mandated restrictions, and public restrictions. The FCC regulates the public networks much more carefully than cable channels, a circumstance that limits the amount of profanity, violence, and sex that can be broadcast. In addition, the networks are limited by sponsor proclivities. Taking extreme positions or advocating widely unpopular ideas can lead to fewer sponsors and less money. And of course the sponsors are driven by public appeal – a network show can’t take risks in terms of controversial political or religious commentary. In the same vein, network shows are much more prosaic, standard, and formulaic than their cable and premium counterparts. They often lack the complexity and sophistication of the cable shows, largely because they have fewer resources and executives are not willing to stray far from the standard fare.

Cable shows have more latitude, both in terms of FCC regulation and sponsorship tolerance. They are allowed more leeway in taking political stands, and can provide edgier themes that might not be feasible on a public network; a show like Nip/Tuck could never air on ABC or CBS. Content is still regulated because cable channels are part of public programming; they are bundled in with a group of channels and are not purchased independently the way premium channels are. Thus they are still considered public broadcasts, and while they have more freedom to push the envelope and develop broader themes and characters, they cannot match the premium channels in terms of creativity or content.

Premium channels have the best original scripted shows by a comfortable margin. They are not constrained by content, sponsor limitations, and they can take significant risks with their programming. Plus they have far greater budgets, investing many more millions on a given show than cable or network channels could ever spend. In terms of content, the premium channels can show virtually anything short of pornography. The violence is graphic: in last year’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand a victorious gladiator cuts the face off a vanquished opponent and wears it like a mask in his next fight. Sex and nudity are common, language is completely unlimited. While this freedom of content leads to plenty of gratuitous sex and violence (a nod goes to Big Love for keeping this to a minimum), it can also lead to more realistic portrayals – anyone who has lived in New York knows the profanity-laden dialog of The Sopranos is far from gratuitous.

But what really separates the premium shows from the rest is their quality and sophistication. Unlike network and cable shows, premium dramas offer much richer character development: Tony Soprano is a hero and villain, thinker and thug, cold-hearted killer and tender-hearted animal lover, often all in the same episode, if not the same scene. Network shows tend to have clear good guys and bad guys: cops chasing criminals, doctors fighting disease, spies beating up bad guys, etc. The line between the good guys and the bad guys is clear; the central characters are rarely anything more than mildly flawed, and when they do make mistakes apologies and reconciliation are common. Contrast this with the heroine of Showtime’s Weeds (Nancy Botwin, played by Mary Louise Parker) who is a drug dealing widow, a refugee, astoundingly selfish, and above all a terrible mother – there is little “good” about her. In Big Love the central polygamist family members are the protagonists in many ways, yet we are sympathetic to those who reject their lifestyle. The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire feature criminals as their main characters, something that would never happen on network shows.

And the premium shows can take creative and artistic risks the network and cable shows cannot. Case in point is Deadwood, a gritty Western that is truly Shakespearean in its tone, characters, thematic elements, and dialog. The show aired on HBO from 2003 to 2005, but never would have aired on network or cable. Aside from the violence and language, it was far too provocative: throughout the series the central character carries on a conversation with the head of a murdered Indian chief he keeps in a box in his office, and Chinese immigrants dispose of dead bodies by feeding them to their pigs. HBO can take risks on those sorts of stories, but the networks cannot. Even the historical dramas, such as Showtime’s The Tudors and HBO’s Rome, contain a production quality and historical realism too intense for anything outside the premium channels.

So while my list mostly contains shows from HBO, Starz, and Showtime, I must admit the playing field isn’t exactly level. And of course any list like this is inherently subjective: I’m sure plenty of you will disagree with at least some of my picks. In the next post – to follow very shortly – I will list my favorite, most anticipated TV programs. Stay tuned…

Signed,

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S.P.Q.R.

A contemporary portrait of Caesar Augustus.

If I could go back in time to a single epoch in history, I would have a hard time deciding between the late Roman Republic and early Empire (103 BC to 138 AD), and the height of Renaissance through the end of the Baroque era in Western Europe  and colonial America (1504 to 1715). The first time period is probably the most important in world history, filled with key historical events and characters including Spartacus and his slave rebellion, the Roman Civil War with the end of the Republic and beginning of the Empire, the final fall of Jerusalem, the height of the Empire’s territory, and the construction of the Flavian Amphitheater (aka, Colosseum). It is full of prominent individuals such as Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus, Cicero, Cato, Virgil, Ovid, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, and the infamous depraved emperors such as Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero. Not to mention the crucial men and events of the Bible: the birth, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, along with His life, miracles, teaching, and the early spread of Christianity via His Apostles.

The latter period begins with the debut of Michelangelo’s David, and ends with the death of Louis XIV. This period includes the High Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire, the colonization of the Americas, the founding of Harvard University, the publication of the King James Bible, the English Civil War, Interregnum, Restoration, and Glorious Revolution. Flamboyant leaders such as Louis XIV of France, Philip II of Spain, and Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles II of England, along with philosophers and writers such as Voltaire, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rousseau, Luther, and Calvin. In Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica was completed, the Popes oversaw the Counter-Reformation, and the city itself was turned into an artistic wonderland by the likes of Raphael, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Bernini.

St. Peter's Basilica and St. Peter's Square

The city of Rome is central in the first period, and plays a major role in the second. Thus the main reason I love visiting Rome is because it provides – in dramatic fashion – fascinating glimpses into both periods of history. Modern Rome doesn’t have the economic or cultural impact that New York, London, or Paris possess on a global scale, but the historical value is unrivaled by any other city. Along with the pyramids of Egypt and the Acropolis of Athens, the ruins of the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and Colosseum are the greatest vestiges of the ancient world. The city’s main modern importance rests in the Vatican, the capital of Roman Catholicism and home of the Pope. St. Peter’s Basilica is still the site of many formal Catholic ceremonies and rituals, and also serves as a major repository for magnificent art.

The Galleria Borghese

The nearby Vatican Museum is easily one of the best in the world, punctuated by the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s Salons. Art is everywhere in Rome, from Bernini fountains to magnificent baroque churches on every street corner. The Villa Borghese is one of my favorite museums anywhere, with a fantastic collection of Bernini masterpieces and excellent High Renaissance and Baroque era paintings, not to mention the architecture and ceilings of the Villa itself. And then there are random wonders such as the Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, and Spanish Steps.

In my opinion, to really see Rome you need at least 4 full days. Why an itinerary for this post? For one thing, describing Rome Rome is difficult without some sort of context, but also because it illustrates just how many major sites need to be seen in the city. Below is how I would experience the city and its sites on such a schedule. I won’t go into the details of each site now, because really most of them deserve posts of their own. Rome is my favorite city to visit outside the U.S. Here’s how I would enjoy it:

Palatine Hill, overlooking the Circus Maximus and Rome.

Day 1: I would start a tour of Rome with the main ancient Roman sites.  The bulk of the ancient sites are clustered close together and can be seen in one day. One pass gains access to the Palatine Hill, Forum, and Colosseum, and the other site worth visiting is the Golden House of Nero, also nearby. I would start the day by visiting the Palatine Hill in the morning. The Palatine was home to Rome’s wealthy aristocracy, most notably the emperors. Today it is a vast array of ruins upon ruins, including a stadium and a complex of baths built by Emperor Septimius Severus. One can walk through the house of Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor and one of the great men in all of history, along with a host of homes belonging to other emperors and prominent citizens. The top of the ruins boasts a beautiful view of the city and a perfect view of what is left of the Circus Maximus, the site of the great chariot races in ancient Rome. On the Palatine, you truly walk in the footsteps of the emperors.

The Roman Forum

Walking down from the Palatine Hill one immediately enters the Roman Forum. The Forum is home to the monumental temples and basilicas of ancient Rome – most of what remains are looming columns and facades. The Temple of the Vestal Virgins can be seen, along with the Temple of Castor and Pollux, site of many key speeches by important leaders such as Julius Caesar.

The Curia, with several marble portraits.

The Curia, or old Senate meeting room, is relatively in tact (though reconstructed multiple times due to fires), and the site of the rostra (platform for speaking) is still visible nearby. Some of the ancient temples were converted to Catholic churches, which themselves are over a thousand years old. An almost perfectly preserved arch, the Arch of Septimius Severus, is a key feature. The forum is worth several hours of strolling and letting your imagination wander several millenia back, with a detailed guidebook in hand. I like to imagine what it was like walking through the forum 2,000 years ago, with men like Julius Caesar and Cicero passing you on the streets. As you walk down the Via Sacra, you are walking on the same road where the triumphs for victorious generals took place, with all the pomp including a parade of defeated rulers and generals, exotic animals, and magnificent feasts. To experience the Forum is to catch a glimpse of the soul of ancient Rome.

Michelangelo's incredible Moses.

The Colosseum is literally across the street from the Forum. Enjoy the impressive Arch of Constantine outside, with its haunting figures of captive Dacians on the facade. At this point I would walk past the Colosseum and up the hill to find an array of small restaurants for lunch. After taking a break and enjoying lunch, I would head to the Golden House of Nero, where the frescoes on the wall are still clearly visible. Walking through this ancient palace offers a compelling window into the luxury in which the emperors dwelled, albeit amplified in the abode of this pathologic megalomaniac. A few blocks away from the Golden House of Nero is a church, San Pietro in Vincoli, which is home to one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, Moses. It is well worth a visit.

Inside the Colosseum

From here you should be ready for the Colosseum, which is less crowded late in the day. I won’t go into detail about the Colosseum now, since it clearly is deserving of an entire post. But I will say it is an incredible experience, walking into the arena where the gladiators fought, Vestal Virgins cheered, and Christians were martyred. It is one of the most iconic historic sites in the world. From the Colosseum walk down the main road to the gaudy but monumentally impressive memorial to Vittorio Immanuel, the first Italian king. Along the way look to the right, where the walkways and columns from Trajan’s Forum still stand, along with a column commemorating his victories. The walk ends with the massive white monument, which is also the site of the Italian Tomb of the Unkown Soldier.

A small sample of the sculpture collection in the Vatican Museum.

Day 2: the second day is Vatican day. I would start with the Vatican Museum, where you will spend much of the day. Get in line early and if possible get a line pass ahead of time, which will reduce your wait by about an hour. The museum itself is jumbled, poorly labeled, and has very little information posted next to the works of art. Nonetheless, it is easily one of the best museums in the world for the value of its collection, which hosts an incredibly vast array of well-preserved ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. The paintings are superb, with all the masters very well represented, and the tapestry collection is overwhelming. The collection of Renaissance and Baroque sculptures is second to none, with masterpiece after masterpiece tucked away in every corner of every room.

A small taste of Raphael's salons in the Vatican.

Yet the climax of the museum is undoubtedly the combination of Raphael’s salons and the Sistine Chapel. Raphael’s rooms deserve hours of sitting and enjoying the ingenious use of color, magnificent figures, and the sheer scope and scale of the work – splayed out on all four walls and ceilings of the papal offices. While the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is more famous globally, I personally find Raphael’s rooms every bit as masterful. The dense crowd sweeps you through without giving them the attention they deserve on your way through a series of winding staircases to the Sistine Chapel. The series of paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel provide a fitting end to your visit. One of the most famous images in the world is that of God reaching out to touch Adam’s finger, but the rest of the vast room and its walls are also worthy of much study. The room is packed and the guards like to keep the crowd moving, but try to sit and enjoy one of the world’s great works of art for as long as possible. In my opinion this is one of the highlights of Rome.

Inside St. Peter's Basilica.

From the Sistine Chapel I would eat lunch at a nearby restaurant, but possibly one off the beaten path rather than one of the overpriced tourist traps nearby. Make your way back to St. Peter’s Square with its massive, womb-like colonnade – a Bernini design. As you wait in line to make it through security, stand in awe of the truly awesome scale of the basilica. I am always amazed by its massive size, with the giant figures on top of the facade, with Jesus carrying a cross in the center. After making your way through security, the first few steps into the basilica are overwhelming – it’s impossible to take in the entire scene. Like the Colosseum, St. Peter’s deserves a post of its own. I will say to spend as much time there as you can, taking in the enormous statues that adorn every corner and alcove, the painting masterpieces, and of course Michelangelo’s Pieta, perhaps the best sculpture of all time. And don’t forget to make your way down the crypt, where almost every pope from Peter to John Paul II are buried; many of these men played a massive role in world history, and had enormous impact in the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people for many centuries.

Bernini's magnificent David in the Galleria Borghese.

Day 3: today should be spent enjoying the key works of art and museums in Rome, of which there are many. Of course a discussion of museum and art in Rome begins with the incomparable Galleria Borghese, in the heart of the Villa Borghese. For me the museum is one of the must-see sites in Rome. The collection of Bernini sculptures alone is well worth the visit, but the gallery also boasts an excellent collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, and the paintings on the walls and ceilings are masterpieces in their own rite. I could easily spend half a day in the superb but relatively small gallery.

St. Theresa in Ecstasy, by Bernini, in Santa Maria della Vittoria.

After making your way through the Villa Borghese – Rome’s version of Central Park – walk down to the National Gallery of Art in the Palazzo Barberini. The palace is an architectural fantasy, and houses an incredibly rich collection of paintings, including Raphael’s famous La Fornarina and Holbein’s famous portrait of King Henry VIII. I have not yet visited this museum – it is a must-see on my next trip to Rome. From the Palazzo I would take a look at the nearby Piazza Barberini, in the middle of which sits a Bernini fountain, Triton. Then make your way back up past the Palazzo Barberini to the intersection of the Four Fountains, where a fountain sits on each corner with a sculpture representing one of the world’s great rivers. From this intersection make your way to the Santa Maria della Vittoria, home of Bernini’s St. Theresa in Ecstasy. The church is a superb baroque piece by itself, but Bernini’s masterpiece makes it an important site in Rome. From here walk back to the Quirinal, a papal summer home where states offices are now located. In the piazza there several massive 5th century equestrian statues taken from the Baths of Constantine.

Four River Fountain in the Piazza Navona.

Day 4: the last day in Rome, if it must be your last, should be spent simply walking the streets of Rome, with several important sites to visit along the way. I would start at the Piazza Navona, home to yet another Bernini masterpiece, the incredible Four Rivers Fountain. With massive figures representing the world’s great rivers, this fountain is both haunting and aesthetically appealing. After enjoying the fountain and the many interesting vendors and street performers in the piazza, make the short walk to the Pantheon. The Pantheon is an almost perfectly preserved temple from the 2nd century. Originally built by Marcus Agrippa in the early 1st century, it was destroyed by fire and then rebuilt a century later. That exact structure – with a perfect dome – still stands today. After walking through the Pantheon (now a church), spend some time eating lunch and enjoying the impressive building.

Trevi Fountain

From the Pantheon make your way up to the Spanish Steps, the top which affords a beautiful view of the city and the dome of St. Peter’s. From the Spanish Steps head down to one of Rome’s most iconic sites, the Trevi Fountain. The Trevi Fountain is one of my favorite places to visit in Rome. It is massive, over the top, classic, monumental, and beautiful. I could sit and enjoy the fountain for hours, with its horses, tritons, and figures, especially the central figure of Neptune.  It is a microcosm of the beauty of Baroque era Rome and papal excess.

Those are the sites to see, and plenty of others were left out including the catacombs, Castel Sant Angelo, mausoleum of Augustus, and multiple major museums. But don’t forget to enjoy Rome itself. This quick little itinerary contains a variety of superlatives such as “most,” “greatest,” “famous,” “largest,” “oldest,” “masterpiece,” etc. Indeed, Rome is filled with key historic, artistic, and architectural treasures. But remember Rome is a charming, attractive city, filled with hospitable people and wonderful food. Yes, the food. Enjoy the fresh and flavorful sauces, the home made pasta, the tender and tasty meats, and of course the gelato. Smooth, rich, thick, and tasty, the Roman ice cream is my favorite everywhere.  But above all just enjoy exploring Rome. Enjoy the fantastic architecture around every corner, the small sample of Roman ruins in a random side alley or square. Rome is filled with nearly 3,000 years of history, much of it rich and important. Just relish being in such a historically endowed place.

There is nowhere else like Rome. It is a historical and artistic wonderland, a city worth exploring and savoring. No other city ignites my imagination, my artistic enjoyment,  and my historical curiosity quite like the Eternal City. I think it’s one of those places I’ll always look forward to visiting.

Signed,

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Manhattan Monday: the Land Down Under

One of the things that intrigues outsiders most about life in the Big Apple is the subway. Mostly influenced by TV and movie lore mingled with a dash of truth from the pre-Giuliani days, the popular perception of the subway is a graffiti-drowned wreck of metal junk-boxes on rotting rails in which riders risk life and limb dodging crowbars, flying bullets, and jutting knives while crawling over drugged out hookers and passed out winos. While the subway system

The subway of old: graffiti is a thing of the past

The subway of old: graffiti is a thing of the past

could use some sprucing, it is nothing like the hell-on-tracks perception held by many non-New Yorkers: riding the subway is my favorite mode of transportation in the City.

Above everything else, I love the way the subway serves as a great social equalizer. I’ve ridden on the subway with millionaires sitting next to homeless people. I’ve ridden the subway with doctors, lawyers, and hedge fund managers, and have sat between migrant workers and down-on-their-luck immigrants from every continent. Everyone sits on the same seats, hears the same station announcements, feels the same bumps, walks through the same doors. Riding the 4 train downtown from the Bronx,  at Harlem-125th Street a 20 year old single mother with 3 screaming kids wearing ragged, stained sweat pants pushes her way onto the crowded car using her stroller as a plow, followed by a

A variety of people ride the subway, particularly at a major hub like the Union Square station with its famously curved platform.

A variety of people ride the subway, particularly at a major hub like the Union Square station with its famously curved platform.

battalion of Armani suit-clad business men swarming onto the same train just one stop later at 86th Street in the Upper East Side. Many people prefer the bus, taxi, or even their own car, but every type of person rides the New York subway; a single ride provides a veritable microcosm of humanity.

The subway also carries a certain rustic charm that is matched by no other city. I would like to see the cars upgraded and improved (a work in progress – about half the trains have been upgraded to date), and the maintenance at the stations could be much better. Even so, I like the tangible realness of the New York subway. The stations aren’t scrubbed and sanitized to the point of sterility the way they are in the Washington, D.C. Metro or MARTA in Atlanta. The subway looks more or less the way it did when the last line was

The stations haven't changed much in 60 years - many of the mosaic station identifiers are originals.

The stations haven't changed much in 60 years - many of the mosaic station identifiers are originals.

completed in the 1940s – the intricate, sometimes elaborate, station mosaics are still in tact, the thick steel beams with peeling paint stand as they did then. The stations are small and sometimes cramped without air conditioning or heat. Cars and buses rumble overhead, and waterfalls pour from the streets above after a rain shower or snowstorm. The lighting is dim and the echoing noise cacophonous, providing a cavernous feel to the small stations. The subway stations are not nice, nor are they pretty: they are practical, unpolished, and authentic.

Practically speaking, the subway is a safe, effective means of travel within New York City proper. The subway’s operating company, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), sets the standard for corruption and inefficiency, but they also maintain the world’s 3rd busiest subway in the only system that never closes. The stations are located conveniently and in sensible places, even in the outer boroughs – a station is always within a few blocks of the desired final destination.

 You never know what (or who) you'll encounter on the subway. Pole dancing for tips is the new busking.

You never know what (or who) you'll encounter on the subway. Pole dancing for tips is the new busking.

The trains are generally fast and on time – much faster than riding a bus, and often faster than a cab ride, especially traveling Uptown or Downtown. And the subway is indeed safe. With graffiti-proof coating and the frequent presence of cops on board, I’ve ridden the subway alone at all hours in all boroughs and never felt the least bit uncomfortable. Considering they never close and carry 3.6 million people every day (1.35 billion every year), the subway is remarkably safe and effective.

Part of its practicality comes at the expense of ease of use for tourists. Unlike the very basic, color-coded lines of the London Underground and Paris Metro, the New York subway is confusing to the savviest out of town guests. TheThe subway reaches just about everywhere in the City. subway was designed for locals and makes perfect sense considering the most common commuting routes. But it can be a difficult maze to navigate for tourists, with Express and Local trains easily confused: it’s not uncommon for tourists to find themselves in the heart of Spanish Harlem when they’re trying to get off  at Grand Central Station. With its own colloquial lingo, it’s not always clear which train is the appropriate one to take, frustrating many inexperienced riders. In my mind its user unfriendliness is part of the charm.

Vintage New York image: a subway subway train rushes by.

Vintage New York image: a subway subway train rushes by.

So riding the subway is an enjoyable aspect of Manhattan living. Hopping on and off the subway is an efficient, often enlightening means of transportation. I love seeing the first glimmer of light on the rails far down the tunnel as the train approaches – all true New Yorkers crane their necks to look down the tunnel for the first sign of a coming train – we all know that makes it arrive faster. I savor the rush of wind that swirls through the station, pushed along by a speeding train. Once on board, the familiarity of the recorded PA system is almost soothing: “Stand clear of the closing doors please.” And we’re off to our destination: the place may be the same, but it’s always a new adventure getting there.

subway-scene-06

Signed,

Blue2 copy

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Gloriously Inglourious

“We’re in the Nazi killing business…and let me tell you cousin, business is a-boomin’.” – Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raines

Inglourious BasterdsAnd so it is in Quentin Tarantino’s revenge-fantasy World War II movie, Inglourious Basterds. Like most Tarantino movies, the film isn’t driven by a plot so much as a premise. In this case the premise involves a group of Jewish-American soldiers (led by Brad Pitt’s character, Aldo Raines) who are tasked with gruesomely killing Nazis (pronounced “gnat-zee”) in order to strike fear into the German soldiers in occupied France. When the Basterds find out that all the top German brass will be attending the Paris premier of a new Nazi propaganda film, they make plans to infiltrate the crowd and bomb the theater. In the meantime, a young French-Jewish woman whose family was murdered by the Nazis owns the theater where the premier is to be held; she makes plans of her own to exact revenge. Who succeeds, who doesn’t succeed,  and how it all plays out I won’t reveal here. Needless to say there are plenty of twists and turns, and the ending is predictably unpredictable.

Basterds and Nazis play a drinking game with fictional actress Bridget von Hammersmark in the film's best scene

Basterds and Nazis play a drinking game with actress Bridget von Hammersmark in the film's best scene

Like Tarantino’s other films, Basterds borrows stylistically from a variety of genres, including Spaghetti Westerns, such as the opening scene when a menacing enemy approaches an isolated farmer and his family from a distance. It also borrows from WWII exploitation films like The Dirty Dozen, particularly the climactic scene in the theater. Like Tarantino’s other movies, the scenes are long and dialogue-heavy, almost like a series of individual short-films. There is occasional graphic violence (e.g. Nazis being scalped) and profanity, knee-slapping comedy, a (literal) 2-second sex scene, and no nudity – all typical of his movies. I’m a big fan of Tarantino, and while the Kill Bill series is still my favorite of his works, Inglourious Basterds is very good and both Melissa and I give it high marks.

The Parisian theater where the penultimate scene takes place

The Parisian theater where the penultimate scene takes place

The interesting aspect of Basterds is the revenge theme it shares with other Tarantino films: Butch gets revenge on Zed and Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, The Bride relentlessly seeks revenge on Bill and his gang in Kill Bill, and the girls defy the odds and get revenge on Stuntman Mike in Deathproof. In Basterds he brings revenge to the forefront, as the entire purpose of the movie is to illustrate the joys of killing and mutilating Nazis: the Basterds kill and scalp with glee – their goal is 100 scalps each; Shoshanna (the Jewish theater owner) plots revenge in meticulous, calculating fashion; the audience follows along happily, savoring every joyful killing.

The film's main bad guy, Col Hans Landa, is also its most intriguing character

The film's main bad guy, Col Hans Landa, is also its most intriguing character

In my mind this raises the question of whether or not it is appropriate to cheer when other humans are beaten with a baseball bat, scalped, and shot, even if they are perpetrators of a great atrocity. The final scene haunts and horrifies, yet at the same time I found it to be fully satisfying. I didn’t feel sorry for the scalped and beaten Nazis, as awful as their deaths might have been. Is this appropriate? Am I cheering for true justice, or selfishly enjoying the satisfaction of bad guys getting their due?

The answer is probably a little bit of both. We should certainly strive for justice – stopping evil and punishing bad guys is a noble pursuit. When we stop pursuing justice we become unjust ourselves. On the other hand, when we seek personal revenge we change justice from a noble ideal to a mere selfish desire. The Bible strongly admonishes revenge but praises justice. Paul warns against seeking revenge in his letter to the Roman church:

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12:19-21

Yet “doing justice” is constantly commended. Isaiah says this:

“…learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” – Isaiah 1:17

So does enjoying the comeuppance of the Nazis fall into the category of doing justice or enjoying selfish revenge? Does relishing the deaths of “bad guys” like we do while watching Inglourious Basterds constitute an enjoyment of justice or merely indulging a fantasy of violent revenge? Paul speaks of personal vengeance, yet the Nazis did nothing to harm me personally – does that make it acceptable to applaud their demise? Do we cross the line when we’re satisfied with the deaths of wicked men and women, or does that indicate a desire for justice? What do you think?

Signed,

Blue2 copy

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