When the Truth Is Inconvenient

Note:  The following contains major plot details about HBO’s The Night Of.

“We have more on the kid.”

Those were the words spoken by District Attorney Helen Weiss late into the final episode of The Night Of on HBO.  If that sentence isn’t the single most tragic and infuriating reflection of American injustice in this whole series, it’s certainly the most succinct.

In its proper context, the line isn’t a statement of fact so much as a desperate act of defiance.  Having spent months preparing an airtight case against Nasir Khan for the horrific murder of Andrea Cornish, Weiss is confronted—at the last possible moment—with brand new, compelling and altogether persuasive evidence identifying The Real Killer, thereby exonerating Naz.  (It’s typical of the series that this information comes from Detective Dennis Box, the man who all but single-handedly pinned the murder on Naz in the first place.)

For Weiss—having presented everything to the jury except her closing statement—this revelation is her moment of truth and a test of character, and she knows it.  Discovering, at long last, that she’s probably got the wrong man and her entire case is built on a lie, she has exactly one morally correct option:  Abandon the case and set Naz free.

Indeed, had The Night Of been directed by Frank Capra and taken place in a universe whose moral arc always bends toward justice—think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where a corrupt senator finally (and dramatically) sees the error of his ways—that’s exactly what would have happened, thereby bringing the series to a swift and happy conclusion.

However, since The Night Of is, instead, the creation of Richard Price and Steven Zaillian—co-writers of The Wire and Schindler’s List, respectively—Weiss reacts precisely as the most cynical among us would expect:  By disregarding inconvenient truths for the sake of winning her case and preserving her sterling reputation.  By saying, in effect, “I don’t care about the facts; I only care about what I can make a jury believe.”

In short, she fails the test, proving herself capable of willfully denying justice to an innocent defendant—the very thing her vocation (and several amendments to the U.S. Constitution) abhors above all else and, in theory, makes every effort to prevent.

Saying, “We have more on the kid”—i.e., it would be much easier to convince 12 jurors that Naz is the killer than to start this whole thing over again from scratch—she manages to more or less sum up the ethos of her entire profession, thereby exposing a massive, horrifying ethical blind spot that, deep down, all of us pretty much already knew about.  In the end—as a certain presidential candidate is fond of saying—nothing matters more than winning.

The natural counterargument to this lamentation is that, when you get right down to it, there’s really no other way this process could function.  Since every civil and criminal court case in history has involved a dispute over the truth of a situation, we simply accept that at least one side is either lying or mistaken, and that the entire job of a judge or jury is to figure out which side (if any) is telling the truth.  If a prosecutor can present a set of facts that makes the defendant appear guilty—and if the defense team cannot rebut those charges sufficiently—then the prosecutor has done his or her job and has nothing to be ashamed of.

That’s why The Night Of is a tragedy instead of a farce:  The characters themselves might not be corrupt, but they are working within a corrupt system—a system that condones dishonesty so long as you can get away with it and has no fidelity to objective truth except when it happens to help the state’s case.

The tragedy, then, is that the problem of prosecutorial zeal can never be completely solved, just as a problem like runaway capitalism can never be completely solved:  For most people in America, there isn’t anything problematic about it.  It’s simply how the world works, and why bother fixing something that isn’t broken in the first place?

The strength of this series has been to take fundamentally decent people and situate them in a milieu that brings out their worst instincts.

Yes, Naz becomes a gangster and a drug smuggler while in prison.  But how would you behave in his shoes?  If self-preservation is an instinct you possess (to paraphrase Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction), wouldn’t you tailor your actions to whatever might save your life, regardless of what ordinary morality would dictate under normal circumstances?

Similarly, if you happen to be an attorney with a reputation to maintain in a high-profile case, of course you would do everything you could to prevail, because anything less would be humiliating.  District attorney is a job like any other:  You are rewarded for doing well, but not necessarily for doing good.

In the end, The Night Of allows Helen Weiss to have her cake and eat it, too—namely, by dismissing Detective Box’s 11th hour discoveries when there is no use for them, only to reconsider when circumstances provide her with a trap door through which she can save face and save her soul at the same time.

And so the show ended as maddeningly as it began:  By exposing all the unfairness, racism and hypocrisy of the American criminal justice system, while offering only a faint, distant glimmer of hope.  If the final moments of The Night Of were frustrating—having things both ways, lacking any real sense of closure—we can lay the blame squarely on the real-life frustrations this series was critiquing.  To end this show cleanly would’ve been a betrayal and a cop-out—a cheap way of telling us that everything’s gonna be alright when the whole purpose of this project was to remind us that, most of the time, it’s not.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

I have no idea whether Nasir Khan murdered Andrea Cornish during the first episode of The Night Of.  With the series finale set to air on HBO this Sunday at 9 o’clock, I doubt there’s anyone in America who has totally made up their mind—including every other character in this show.

Naz’s parents certainly haven’t built a united front on his behalf.  While his father vigorously defends his son’s honor in public, his mother has grown overcome with anxiety and guilt, asking herself, “Did I raise an animal?”

His two lawyers have had their own crises of faith, stumbling upon gaping holes in Naz’s credibility and wondering—as they must—whether he has been lying to them from Day One.

The lead investigator is more conflicted than he lets on, inferring Naz’s guilt based on the evidence but still, somehow, harboring a kernel of doubt as to whether this mild-mannered young man is capable of committing murder against a woman he had just met, stabbing her 22 times during an evening of drugs, booze and passionate sex.

Then there’s Naz himself—the mystery of all mysteries.  Played with spellbinding restraint by Riz Ahmed, Naz has proved considerably more complicated—and more compelling—than the first two or three episodes led us to believe.  While we, the audience, have been conditioned from the beginning to sympathize with him and give him the benefit of the doubt, the effect of the last several installments has been to make that doubt progressively less tenable by making Naz progressively less innocent—first, by demonstrating his knack for withholding information, and second, by suggesting his capacity to commit physical violence.

I confess, I’ve spent the better part of this series taking Naz at his word, even as he’s given us one reason after another to regard him with suspicion and even fear.

At the beginning, I figured the central question of The Night Of would be, simply, “What happens when a man’s innocence is overwhelmed by evidence of his guilt?”  Today—having spent seven TV hours with this case—I realize another question has been staring us in the face this whole time:  “What happens when a man’s innocence exists entirely within his own mind?”

What if Naz committed the murder but has convinced himself that he didn’t?  What if he—like us, his parents and his attorneys—has sorted through the haze of that crazy, coked-out evening and concluded that he couldn’t be responsible for Andrea’s death—like his mother says, only an animal could’ve done that, and he’s nothing of the sort—and that, therefore, some other explanation is in order?

In fact, there is a long and storied history of Americans compartmentalizing themselves to without an inch of their lives, from Thomas Jefferson writing “all men are created equal” while owning 200 human beings to Donald Trump proclaiming—with total conviction—that he hasn’t a racist or sexist bone in his body, despite hundreds of public statements to the contrary.

Similarly, I don’t doubt that America’s prisons are dotted with convicts who are as guilty as the day is long but who haven’t quite reconciled the truth with their ideal selves.  Evidence be damned, they are unable to abide the possibility that a cancer has infected their souls, so instead they deny, deny, deny.  It’s an easy enough thing to do, particularly if heavy drug use is involved.

To that end, maybe Naz is exactly what he now looks like:  An essentially good person who—as Norman Bates immortally put it—can go a little mad sometimes.

The cheeky brilliance of The Night Of is to have shown us every last detail of the night in question, except for the one that actually matters, i.e., the murder itself.  In an ordinary show, there would be something irredeemably cheap and gimmicky about a trick like that—a way of pointlessly stringing us along about an event that could be explained in two seconds flat.

However, in this ambitious, thoughtful and quite extraordinary show, the unaccounted-for period during which Andrea is killed serves a higher and deeper purpose than mere suspense.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with suspense.)  Rather, it’s HBO’s version of the 18-minute gap in Richard Nixon’s Oval Office tapes.  It’s Naz’s “rosebud”—the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle that might explain everything about him, or perhaps nothing at all.

If we learned anything from Citizen Kane (the source of the original “rosebud”), it’s that certain mysteries can’t be explained in a satisfactory way; their power lies in their mysteriousness.

In The Night Of, the story’s real driving force is doubt itself—the reminder that nothing in life is certain, including certainty.  While there may well be such a thing as absolute truth, good luck finding it when everyone present was stoned out of their goddamn minds.

From the beginning, Naz has been put at the most spectacular disadvantage in the eyes of the law, steadfastly proclaiming his innocence, yet buried under an avalanche of DNA and circumstantial evidence that suggests his guilt.  As his case is put to the jury—which will presumably render a verdict before the final fade-out this Sunday—it’s hard not to recall 12 Angry Men, the 1957 movie with which this series has an obvious kinship.

In Sidney Lumet’s film, a jury is saddled with a murder case in which all the pieces seem to fit:  The motive, the weapon, the eyewitness testimony and—perhaps most damning of all—the unreliable and ethnically suspect defendant.  Indeed, as the deliberations progress, there’s only one tiny thing that gives any of the jurors a moment’s pause:  The possibility that they might be wrong.

12 Angry Men shows us the jury room and nothing else—not the trial, not the investigation and certainly not the crime—leaving us to depend for our conclusions on the impressions of the men arguing about it.

By contrast, The Night Of has shown us nearly everything—meticulously, at length, and without a shred of manipulation—and yet we find ourselves in essentially the same place:  Torn between our better angels and the facts that are directly in front of our noses, forever reckoning with the meaning of the words “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Personally, I still want Naz to be innocent.  Why?  Because I like him.  I like his intelligence, his resourcefulness, his innate sense of honor and—perhaps most of all—his silence.  I don’t want to find out that he’s a killer any more than I want to find out that Woody Allen is a child molester or that Hillary Clinton is a pathological liar, and like most Americans, I’m prepared to stick with my happy fantasies until the last dog dies.

But then I find myself admiring nearly everyone in this series, which—like most great TV drama nowadays—contains no real heroes and no real villains.  I admire Detective Dennis Box, whose subtlety and cunning allow him to extract deadly evidence from you without you realizing he’s doing it.  I admire District Attorney Helen Weiss, who, like Box, can do her job with one hand tied behind her back, knows how to bend the rules without breaking them, and—with that quintessentially New York accent and demeanor—is fundamentally incorruptible.

And of course I adore Naz’s counsel, John Stone and Chandra Kapoor, both continually negotiating the boundary between professionalism and being completely in over their heads.  As the defense team, they may technically be the underdogs in this story, but they certainly don’t behave like victims.  For that reason alone, they deserve our respect.

Call me sentimental, but I appreciate TV characters who aren’t stupid, histrionic, incompetent or corrupt.  It’s easy enough to create a show centered on a bunch of idiots and crooks, and incredibly difficult to fashion a series like this, in which everyone behaves as human nature and basic morality dictate, so that even their foolish decisions can be justified and understood.

My head says Naz is guilty.  My heart says he’s not.  I don’t require a final answer.  If Naz doesn’t know what really happened that night, why should any of us?  Doubt was good enough for 12 Angry Men and it would be bloody good enough here.

First As Tragedy, Second As Farce

The ultimate test of satire is whether it fools intelligent people into mistaking it for non-fiction.

I’m still tickled, for instance, by the stories of rock ‘n’ roll fans watching This is Spinal Tap and asking director Rob Reiner why he didn’t profile a more well-known band.  That, in a way, is the highest compliment that could be paid to a film of that sort.

It was in that same spirit that I recently re-watched Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove—probably the finest movie satire ever made—and looked for anything unbelievable about it.

It’s an awfully difficult thing to do.  To experience Kubrick’s twisted, apocalyptic Cold War farce is to peer 52 years into the past and wonder whether the movie is, in fact, a plausible vision for our future.

(The film, as you know, involves a desperate attempt by the U.S. and Soviet governments to avert nuclear annihilation by outsmarting machines that were specifically designed to resist all human meddling.)

There’s an old Hollywood legend that Slim Pickens, one of the stars, was never informed the movie was a comedy.  It’s a tribute both to him and all the other actors that, in watching it, we’ve no way of knowing whether this legend is true.  Pickens appears to be playing it straight, but then so does everyone else.

And, in a sense, it’s still an open question whether Dr. Strangelove is really a comedy at all.  It was originally conceived as a thriller—adapted from a straight-laced Cold War novel, no less—and the final product bears many of the hallmarks of what a traditional, somber treatment of the same material would’ve produced.  Really, the only thing that makes it more of a satire than a drama is the absurdity of the plot, but even that doesn’t completely settle the case, since the whole point of the thing was to demonstrate how absurd the drama of real life tends to be.

Indeed, one might say that satire is nothing more than drama that has achieved self-awareness, as exemplified in Dr. Strangelove by such lines as, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”

While the line between serious and silly has always been tenuous—doubly so when it comes to government and politics—it’s hard to conceive a more resonant contemporary illustration of this than Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  In Trump, we find the clearest argument to date that the world of Dr. Strangelove is one to be feared as much as laughed at, and that life can imitate art just as surely as the other way around.

At this moment—some 14 months after Trump entered the presidential race—we have absolutely no idea whether the Republican nominee takes his own candidacy seriously.  While it may contain flashes of traditional campaign strategy and is occurring in the real world, it is so manifestly ridiculous—both as a whole and in its constituent parts—that sober-minded, intelligent people have been compelled to wonder whether Trump is—in a Springtime for Hitler sort of way—pulling America’s collective leg.

Our provisional conclusion (if such a thing can exist) involves a mixture of inductive reasoning and Occam’s razor:  While we can’t prove Trump’s run is a calculated farce—that he is effectively throwing the election, for God knows what reason—he has consistently said and done what we would expect him to say and do if such a thing were actually the case.  If his original master plan was to secure the Republican nomination and then lose the general election in a rout, then nearly all of his behavior since June of 2015 would suddenly make perfect sense.

Thus, Trump is not an embodiment of Dr. Strangelove so much as its mirror image:  One is reality masquerading as farce, while the other is farce masquerading as reality.  I’ll leave it to you to determine which is which.

Most modern-day satire makes the mistake of going too far over-the-top and becoming just another form of slapstick comedy.  The secret to Kubrick’s movie, by contrast, is how little it exaggerates the truth—that is, if it exaggerates at all.

Filmed and released during the hottest moments of the Cold War—when the U.S. and Russia were pointing nuclear weapons at each other and no one was particularly confident there wouldn’t be an “exchange”—Dr. Strangelove imagines a scenario whereby a rogue U.S. Air Force commander named Jack Ripper orders his entire fleet of B-52s to bomb the living hell out of the Soviet Union, triggering a sequence of events that unfolds with the airtight logic of classical tragedy:  As the pilots hurtle toward their targets, an unsettled president and his war cabinet are informed that the planes cannot be recalled without inputting a code that is known only to General Ripper himself, who, by this point, has locked himself in his office and cut off all communication lines.

To further complicate things, the Russian ambassador reveals the presence of a “doomsday machine” inside the Soviet Union that will automatically launch a nuclear counterattack against the U.S. the moment Russia is hit by those B-52s—an eventuality that cannot be averted, because, as the ambassador explains, this machine “is designed to explode if any attempt is ever made to untrigger it.”

How, you ask, did a relatively low-ranking officer like Ripper manage to unilaterally launch a nuclear attack in the first place?  Easy:  By exploiting an emergency provision of existing U.S. war policy, which grants such authority to someone like him in the event that, say, the Soviets strike Washington, D.C., and wipe out the entire executive branch.  (Presumably, a similar provision also exists today.)

How, then—you may further ask—did Ripper get away with this extraordinary power grab when all systems were normal and no such emergency had occurred?  Well, he just kinda did.  He himself will claim he was preemptively saving humanity from a vast communist conspiracy, although another character is perhaps more accurate in saying of Ripper, “He went a little funny in the head.”

So we have, in short, a situation is which the entire world is faced with nuclear annihilation because one individual, of his own volition, takes advantage of a system that operates precisely as it was designed to operate—designed, admittedly, on the assumption that every government official would behave rationally and according to protocol.  Whoops.

Dr. Strangelove boldly follows this arrangement to its logical conclusion—cowboy hat and all—suggesting that so long as nuclear weapons exist and humans remain fallible, it’s only a matter of time before everything falls apart.  After all, it only takes one crazy person—or, as the movie puts it, “a single slip-up”—for a machine built like a Swiss watch to turn against the very folks who built it.  I am reminded of Greer’s Third Law:  “A computer program does what you tell it to do, not what you want it to do.”

If you find the plot of Dr. Strangelove far-fetched, it might just be that you can’t bear the thought of how inherently dangerous the existence of nuclear weapons has always been and will always be.  A half-century after the fact, we understand with terrifying clarity how close the two superpowers came to blowing themselves up in October 1962, and history is replete with other (albeit less famous) examples of similar brushes with Armageddon, either through misunderstandings or carelessness.

And now, of course, we have a presidential nominee who reportedly asked an adviser—on three separate occasions—“If we have [nukes], why can’t we use them?”  If Trump becomes commander-in-chief, the risk of a nuclear “slip-up” won’t merely involve a hypothetical Jack Ripper somewhere down the chain of command; it will concern the actual finger on the actual button.

Not that we should be any more confident about the people a President Trump would hire at every level of his administration.  If the man himself has choreographed an “anything goes” attitude toward U.S. foreign policy—up to and including the use of weapons of mass destruction—why should his underlings be expected to exercise restraint and discipline with whatever authority they have (or don’t have)?

I doubt even Stanley Kubrick could’ve directed this slow-motion apocalypse more perfectly than it has directed itself.  If it miraculously ends well, we can rejoice over our dumb luck in avoiding nuclear catastrophe for another few years.  And if it ends badly—with Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again” in the fade-out—we’ll at least have the consolation of knowing that reality and satire will have merged once and for all.

Profiles in Cowardice

A major reason I supported Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries was his uncommon political courage.  Now that his candidacy has died, I worry that political courage itself has been killed off along with it.

If courage is defined as saying or doing something at risk to one’s physical or social well-being, then political courage is saying or doing something at risk to one’s job or reputation.  John F. Kennedy wrote a book about it in 1957, and the Kennedy Library has bestowed a “Profile in Courage Award” upon worthy individuals every year since 1990.

It’s a shame that instances of public valor are so rare that they require official recognition whenever they occur.  Even worse, perhaps, is how the American people’s expectation for such high-minded virtue in their elected officials is so low that the very concept has essentially become a relic—particularly in an election year like this one.

All the same, it’s worth asking:  Has Hillary Clinton taken a single risk in her entire public career?  Has Donald Trump?  If we are to elect one of these people leader of the free world, shouldn’t we expect them to have assumed a gutsy moral stand on something—even if just by accident?

Barack Obama passed this test eight years ago by having openly opposed the Iraq War in 2002.  As for Bernie Sanders, you could say his entire tenure in Congress has been an act of professional chutzpah—specifically, his dogged insistence on calling himself a “democratic socialist” at every turn, despite the obvious hazards of identifying with a political philosophy that is still seen by millions as outright un-American.

In the case of Trump, the issue is complicated—as all such issues are—by the inherent unseriousness of Trump’s entire candidacy.  Since the Donald has shown, over and over again, to believe in nothing but himself and to change his political positions on an almost hourly basis, there’s really no standard by which we can say he has ever risked his so-called principles for any higher purpose.

Oddly enough, if he were a normal candidate with even a glimmer of intellectual consistency, we could say—with absolute truth—that he has taken brave political stances on multiple occasions throughout this campaign.  Indeed, Trump has, at certain points, unambiguously said things that, up to now, were considered ideological treason by the Republican Party and were grounds for excommunication from the party and the campaign.

For instance, there was that time he asserted—at a GOP debate, no less—that “millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood.”  Or his repeated claims that Iraq was better off with Saddam Hussein than with George W. Bush’s war.  Or his related view that 9/11 was essentially President Bush’s fault.  Or his assurance that if Caitlyn Jenner walked into one of his buildings, she could use whichever restroom she wanted.

Ordinarily, any of the above would register as political audacity of the highest order, since no GOP candidate could reasonably expect to rise to the top with such heresies as those.

Except for two things.  First—and at the risk of repeating ourselves—there is no reason to think Trump genuinely believes anything he’s ever said (even many of his own supporters have their doubts).  And second:  By the time Trump even bothered making substantive remarks of any kind, he was already ankle-deep in sexist remarks, racist remarks, Islamophobic remarks and anti-immigrant remarks—all of which only enhanced his standing in the polls, thereby insulating him from all the usual rules of political logic thereafter.

In other words, once GOP voters bought into the bigotry, paranoia and white male victimhood that comprise the entirety of Trump’s appeal, they essentially stopped listening to anything else that came out of his mouth.  And Trump, sensing this, became liberated to break with any Republican orthodoxy that he wished, knowing it would have no adverse affect on his poll numbers—and, therefore, no longer qualify as political courage.

With Hillary Clinton, the calculus is mercifully simpler:  As a public servant, she is wholly preoccupied with the objectives of her various constituencies and the minutiae of turning those dreams into reality.  As such, she is possibly the most risk-averse person who has ever run for president and, if elected, cannot be expected to make any inspired leap of faith on any major initiatives.

To wit:  She supported the Iraq War until it started going badly.  For all her gay-friendly bona fides, she didn’t publicly endorse same-sex marriage until March 2013—10 months after President Obama did the same.  Her views on America’s various trade agreements tend to oscillate based on popular sentiment at the time, as do her positions on gun control, immigration and Wall Street.

There’s an interesting and worthwhile argument going on about whether Clinton’s identity as a cautious, finger-to-the-wind incrementalist is a virtue or a vice.  (In the interest of time, we’ll save that debate for another day.)  In either case, it means she will not—under almost any circumstances—be ahead of the proverbial curve on any controversial subject.  Indeed, it is not clear whether she believes a president should be a pioneer of that sort, or whether she should merely go wherever the public takes her.

Drawing from her research on Abraham Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has said that the role of a president is to be a step ahead of the people, but to allow them to take that extra step on their own terms—that is, by nudging them in a certain direction without being pushy.

Would it be too generous to call that an accurate summary of how Hillary Clinton operates?  If pressed for a one-sentence appraisal of Clinton’s character, I’d offer that she has genuine political views—often shaped by trial and error—but that her deference to public opinion precludes her from sharing them until it becomes practical to do so.  Some would call this calculation.  Others would call it democracy.

In any case, hardly anyone would call it courage.  Clinton fancies herself “a progressive who likes to get things done,” and as appealing as that may sound (to progressives), it suggests a dull, single-minded efficiency that doesn’t allow for thinking too far outside the box, lest it distract from the central task at hand.

In the long run—and considering the historically impotent Congress we now have—maybe Clinton’s limited imagination will do the trick.  Maybe big and bold are luxuries we can’t currently afford and perhaps we’re better off not deluding ourselves into thinking otherwise.

After all, it’s not as if courageous decisions are an inherently good idea.  In the end, they are only as worthwhile as the person making them and the circumstances in which they come about.  If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s to be extremely wary of candidates who aren’t concerned about the consequences of their actions.

Larry the Cable Guy

Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore has been an absolutely essential component of late-night television over its 19 short months of existence.  For 30 minutes every Monday through Thursday, Wilmore’s program has accomplished something that no other show of its genre has:  Taking issues that are important to black people and making them visible to white people.

The Nightly Show was abruptly cancelled this week, for exactly the reason you’d expect:  Not enough white people were watching it.

Of course, that’s not exactly how Comedy Central phrased it.  A network spokesperson spouted some blather about how the show “hasn’t resonated with our audience,” but let’s not kid ourselves about what sort of audience this executive had in mind.  If African-Americans comprised more than 13 percent of the population and/or more white people were inclined to value news stories affecting racial and ethnic minorities, The Nightly Show would be at the top of the pops, and no one would even think about pulling the plug for many years to come.

It’s an unfortunate Catch-22 of this business that a program that gives voice to people who are otherwise ignored or mistreated by mass media can only survive by drawing from the very audience that has been complicit in that ignorance.  A show that’s both for and about minorities cannot hope to succeed without also appealing to the majority, and once it has done that, it risks losing the very distinctiveness that it sought to cultivate in the first place.

If success is measured by ratings and nothing else, The Nightly Show will go down as a noble failure—an intriguing, well-intentioned experiment that never achieved the “crossover appeal” required for long-term viability in the competitive late-night TV marketplace.

However, if you’re like me and prefer to measure success by the entertainment value of the product itself, then The Nightly Show is a treasure.  Wilmore and company should be very proud of what they’ve created, and it’s a low down dirty shame they won’t be allowed to continue.

Before we go any further, we should make one thing clear:  If The Nightly Show failed to attract a large enough white audience to its largely non-white platform of ideas, it was entirely white America’s fault.  Day in and day out, the stories Wilmore spotlighted—many ripped straight from the headlines—were unfailingly compelling and critical to the national conversation about how Americans view and interact with each other, and Wilmore’s own commentary—which often became quite personal—lent them a moral weight and an urgency that cannot be found anywhere else on the tube.

I know for certain that The Nightly Show’s appeal was not limited to the worlds of the black and brown people it was highlighting:  Being white myself, I’ve watched every minute of every episode and never once felt it was somehow not for me.

Au contraire.  At its best, Wilmore’s shtick was exactly for me, delivering a combustible admixture of information, analysis and comedy about subjects new and familiar.  As strikingly diverse as those issues were—in a typical week, the show might cover Bill Cosby, the death penalty, Kanye West, and the latest horrible police shooting—the connecting tissue was the sense of rank injustice—of the existence of an underdog who needs defending.  As Wilmore once explained to Charlie Rose, the show’s emphasis on racial distinctions was really a sideshow to the even greater American struggle of class distinctions.  (Not that the two phenomena aren’t related.)

The secret sauce was Wilmore himself, a onetime Daily Show correspondent who has been in television—as an actor, writer and producer—for more than three decades.  Unlike his lead-in, Trevor Noah—the fresh-faced, 32-year-old Daily Show host—the 54-year-old Wilmore brought a frustrated weariness to his onscreen persona, the result of a lifetime’s experience of being a black man in America.  By virtue of his identity alone—to say nothing of his intelligence, character and wit—Wilmore was able to express his disgust and sorrow about such issues as police brutality, gun violence, mass incarceration and other forms of racism with a gravitas and straight-shooting integrity that was at once unsettling and gratifying.  Hearing him speak seriously, you suspected every word emanated directly from his soul.

And yet The Nightly Show was also among the zaniest, most gut-splitting half-hours on cable, overflowing with the sorts of goofy, irreverent, satirical comedic bits that have been the hallmark of late-night television for eons.

It was in these segments that we were introduced—mostly for the first time—to a veritable army of promising comedic performers of color.  Names like Robin Thede, Mike Yard, Franchesca Ramsey, Jordan Carlos and Holly Walker didn’t mean much to most people before The Nightly Show premiered.  Today, we have every reason to think their careers will be long, fruitful and prolific.  In any case, they’ve certainly proved how much they deserve it, both through their scripted bits and their commentary during the panel discussions that closed every episode.

Those roundtable chats—on paper, the series’ purest and most active exchange of ideas—proved to be simultaneously the show’s most engaging and problematic component.  On a good day—and there were plenty of them—the panel would include a pair of the show’s most thoughtful correspondents, plus an equally thoughtful cultural figure, and they would hash out the meaning of the most interesting news of the day.  (Wilmore himself acted as referee.)

The strength of these exchanges—as with the show itself—resided in their invigorating bluntness—particularly, the way the panelists seemed at once knowledgeable about the issues but also, officially, non-expert.  Like your loudest, most civically-engaged friend, they would express their two cents about this and that while acknowledging they are, in the end, just one more random person on the street.

It recalls the old William F. Buckley question:  Would you sooner entrust the people’s business to the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty or to the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book?  (Buckley himself claimed the latter, although that might’ve been because he went to Yale.)

From 256 episodes of The Nightly Show, we find the answer to be as muddled as it’s always been.  You do not need a pile of college degrees to understand human nature—nor, conversely, does a PhD guarantee that you do—but this doesn’t negate the very real correlation between education and actual knowledge (and, if you’re lucky, wisdom).

To that end, The Nightly Show’s worst moments entailed certain panelists blundering their way into conversations to which they had nothing useful to contribute, yet still, somehow, not learning to just shut the eff up while the smarter people sorted things out.  While one could argue that the exceptional democratization of these segments was emblematic of the show’s fidelity to Americans who normally feel slighted or forgotten, I’m not sure it helped the cause to reveal how dumb and ignorant some of those same folks can be some of the time.

On the whole, however, the arrangement worked, and what really terrifies me is that Comedy Central (and other networks) will conclude that The Nightly Show’s central conceit of treating African-American concerns with the dignity they deserve (and telling jokes along the way) is unworkable in late-night TV, because there just won’t be enough viewers to sustain it.

See, it would be one thing if Wilmore’s program had simply been awful, leading TV executives to devise a radically different approach to an otherwise similar concept.  That Wilmore himself proved so smart and endearing—and the content of his program so consistently interesting and provocative—and yet still couldn’t draw a large enough audience to survive—well, that’s not terribly encouraging news.

It’s not a matter of the thing being perfect.  The Nightly Show was undeniably flawed, but then we could all name a dozen shows that were demonstrably more flawed yet somehow stuck around for decades.

As with presidential elections, the name of the game is demographics:  How do you appeal to as many different subsets of America as possible without compromising your own identity?

The short answer is that you can’t.  As a rule, being true to yourself requires alienating at least 50 percent of humanity, and if you manage to endear yourself to everyone, you probably have no real personality at all.

So The Nightly Show—with its deeply opinionated host and inherently explosive subject matter—was always going to be a gamble for Comedy Central, which trusted in the natural talents of Wilmore and his supporting cast.  In the end, the wager did not pay off financially, but the network was not wrong to make it.

Continuity with Change

Out there in the über-liberal, anti-Hillary, Bernie Bro corner of the interwebs, the following challenge has been posed:

“Convince me to vote for Hillary Clinton without mentioning Donald Trump.”

As with so much else about the #NeverHillary crowd, it is unclear whether the above is a genuine, good-faith inquiry or just a snarky dig at Clinton’s supporters’ supposed moral bankruptcy.

It’s a rather bizarre question, in any case.  If it’s meant as pure rhetoric—a way of pointing out how the leading justification for Clinton’s presidency is that it would prevent a Trump presidency—then we can take the point while also acknowledging its childish assumption that competing candidates could ever be judged independently of each other—as if choosing one option didn’t also mean rejecting the other.

However, if the question is meant seriously, then it’s just a stupid question.

Can liberals identify reasons to elect Clinton that don’t involve her not being Donald Trump, you ask?  Are there really other liberals who think the answer is “no”?

There are dozens of ways to support Hillary’s candidacy without regard to her Republican opponent.  Many of them are identical to those that led millions of future Bernie Bros to support Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012—and, naturally, many of the same traits also applied to Bernie Sanders during this year’s primaries.  There are also reasons to endorse her that are sui generis, applicable to her and her alone.

Broadly speaking, Hillary is an enthusiastic subscriber to virtually the entire Democratic Party platform—thus, anyone in ideological agreement with Democratic principles is, by definition, in general alignment with Clinton on what we sometimes refer to as “the issues.”

For instance, she would clearly support and defend—and, if we’re lucky, expand and streamline—the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, overruling every last congressional attempt to kill it once and for all.

She would affirm the recently-established right of any two consenting adults to get married, have children and live happily ever after, while also ensuring those same people cannot be fired or otherwise discriminated against for unconstitutional reasons.

She would continue President Obama’s fight against global warming and his attempts to make the country more energy independent.

She would pledge solidarity with Muslims and other religious minorities against persecution by violent Christian extremists.

She would shape a Supreme Court that would vote in favor of a multitude of issues that liberals care passionately about—voting rights, women’s rights, transgender rights, you name it.

She would try to do something about gun control and—if the stars are aligned just right—maybe even succeed.

In addition to being the first female chief executive, she would appoint a record number of women to her cabinet, not to mention a boatload of ethnic and racial minorities spread throughout the executive branch, thereby inspiring countless young people to consider public service for the first time in their lives.

She would hold meetings and actually listen to what the other people have to say.

She would forge relationships with every last member of Congress, knowing that someday she might need their support for something important.

Long story short, she would essentially be a slightly more mature—but slightly less exciting—version of Barack Obama.  In effect, she would represent Obama’s third term in office, for better and for worse.  That’s the argument for electing her president.  Take it or leave it.

Now, it’s true enough that Clinton herself has never explicitly said, “Vote for me, Obama’s third term!”  However, it doesn’t require a great deal of reading between the lines to grasp the subtext of all of her major policy positions, which can be summed up as, “If you’ve enjoyed life under Obama, you’ll enjoy it under me.”

I realize this is an inherently uninspiring message—a tacit admission that things probably aren’t going to change very much over the next four-to-eight years—but it’s also admirably fresh and realistic—a means of subtly lowering our expectations to a level at which we might actually want to re-elect her four years hence.

Every president in history has needed to confront the gap between what he thinks he can accomplish and what he can actually accomplish, and Hillary Clinton stands apart from most previous candidates in her deep understanding of this fact.  Among the many differences between her and Donald Trump—a man whom, you’ll note, I haven’t mentioned in quite some time—is that Trump apparently thinks a president can do literally anything he wants, while Clinton knows full well that the job is extraordinarily limiting and depends on a great deal of teamwork to get anything meaningful accomplished.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy intoned to the American people, “Let us begin.”  When Lyndon Johnson succeeded Kennedy in November 1963—albeit under unusual circumstances—he said, “Let us continue.”  That’s the dynamic between Obama and Clinton:  They are so compatible in their basic worldview and value systems that we can expect an exceptionally smooth transition from one to the other (this time without an assassination in between).

I don’t know about you, but I have quite enjoyed the Obama administration.  It has followed through on a plethora of progressive actions that were utterly lacking under George W. Bush, and I can say unequivocally that my own personal corner of America is infinitely better off now than it was eight years ago.  If Obama were eligible to run for a third term, I would vote for him a third time.

But he can’t, so I’ll settle with Hillary, instead.

Many Republicans will be familiar with this sense of depleted enthusiasm, since they elected George H.W. Bush in 1988 by pretending he was Ronald Reagan, an incumbent who was term-limited after eight years of making many conservatives’ dreams come true.  In the end, Bush proved a capable but ultimately lackluster follow-up act, keeping some promises while breaking others, and is today admired as much by liberals as by conservatives.

History could easily be in the process of repeating itself on the other side of the ideological spectrum, and that is roughly what we should expect.  Hillary Clinton has drifted to the left on numerous issues as of late, but the intractability of Congress and Clinton’s own cautiousness will surely limit the reach of her administration’s most ambitious goals, resulting in exactly what her most clear-eyed advocates have promised:  Modest, gradual progress through compromise—a variation of Selina Meyer’s campaign slogan in Veep, “Continuity with Change.”

Sounds pretty good to me.

Ode to a Lost Boy

As of today, Robin Williams has allegedly been dead for exactly two years.

I say “allegedly” because, in a sense, I’m still in denial about the whole thing.  Robin Williams can’t be dead, because how could life go on without him?

It actually can’t.  He was one genie we couldn’t just put back into the bottle, and anyway, why would we want to?  As a comedian and movie star, he enriched our lives in a manner that couldn’t be replicated by anyone else, and his abrupt departure from Earth in the summer of 2014 created a void too upsetting to confront head-on.

Of course, we’ve never actually needed to confront it as we would the death of a close friend, since Williams’ presence in our lives existed entirely on a screen.  We’ll never see him again in the flesh, but then most of us never saw him in the flesh while he was alive.

Except that’s a rational way to approach the loss of Robin Williams when, in fact, his connection with us was entirely emotional.  That he died on purpose, by his own hand, somehow made the blow even more personal.  It felt almost like a betrayal—an acknowledgment that his duty to us, his adoring public, had been subsumed by a private agony that he couldn’t bring himself to share with us.

As it turns out, we didn’t know him quite as well as we thought.

Looking over his credits recently, I was a bit surprised how few of his movies I’ve actually seen.  That is, until I realized how few of his movies are worth seeing at all.  As a rule, I follow the advice of my favorite critics unless I have an extremely compelling reason not to, and the unfortunate fact is that only a fraction of the projects Williams attached himself to were worthy of his enormous talents.  I don’t know about you, but I find it rather depressing to subject myself to mediocre work by otherwise great artists.

So I’ve never bothered with Death to Smoochy—the 2002 comedy about which Roger Ebert wrote, “In all the annals of the movies, few films have been this odd, inexplicable and unpleasant”—nor have I followed up on his Teddy Roosevelt impression in all the Night at the Museum sequels.  Life is short, and I’d hate my mental image of Williams as Armand Goldman or Mrs. Doubtfire to be polluted in any way.

On the other hand, I did catch 2006’s Man of the Year on cable in recent months, and was intrigued by how it both confirmed and defied this theory.

As you may or may not know, Man of the Year is a political farce, directed by Barry Levinson, with Williams as a comedian who is elected president of the United States on the strength of his straight talk and, presumably, his wit.  If the conceit is a bit of a stretch, the character is not:  Here, Williams is basically playing a more civically-engaged version of himself, saturating his few serious thoughts with a bottomless supply of jokes, impressions and idle observations about the absurdity of the world around him—and of course everyone in the room eats it up.

It should work, yet it doesn’t.  For all the promise of its constituent parts—the cast also includes Laura Linney, Christopher Walken and my other favorite comic, Lewis Black—Man of the Year is not great cinema.  It’s lame, uninspired, unfocused and, well, just not terribly clever.  Like those lesser Marx Brothers movies that spent far too much time with inane romantic subplots and far too little time allowing Groucho and company to let loose and turn the joint upside down, Man of the Year plays like a stand-up special with all the interesting bits left out and replaced with a whole lot of fluff.  It’s the sort of production that fails the old Gene Siskel test, “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?”

And yet I can’t hate it—and I’ll put it on for a few minutes in between changing channels—because, dammit, it’s still Robin Williams.  The fact that everything around him is junk doesn’t negate the joy of his very presence on the screen.

Indeed, Williams was among a small, elite group of performers whose humanity enabled him to transcend lousy material.  For all the misfires in his career—most of which were patently obvious at the time, perhaps even to him—he never really left our good graces, since it was plain to all—through his words and his actions—that beneath the vulgar, often drug-induced zaniness, he was a decent, generous, big-hearted person who wanted nothing but to be loved.  And boy, did we love him.