Melanie McFarland

CNN’s 'Epic News Bro' fail: Why Chris Cuomo's unethical blunder isn't solely his to own

When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

How strange it is to apply this famous goon's wisdom to the situation CNN finds itself in with its top-rated personality Chris Cuomo. Strange, but not entirely unexpected.

On Saturday the WarnerMedia-owned cable news channel announced that it has fired the host of "Cuomo Prime Time" after the New York Attorney General's office presented CNN with a cache of transcripts, texts and emails showing that the anchor assisted his brother, disgraced former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, more extensively than was previously acknowledged.

Chris Cuomo's firing comes days after the network announced his indefinite suspension pending further investigation. According to Saturday's statement, CNN "retained a respected law firm to conduct the review."

"While in the process of that review, additional information has come to light," the statement reads. "Despite the termination, we will investigate as appropriate."

Mind you, an independent review from that respected law firm would have been appropriate and more timely back in May, when The Washington Post broke the news that Cuomo took part in strategizing conference calls with his brother Andrew, along with members of his staff, attorneys and other advisers.

When Andrew Cuomo resigned in August, Chris Cuomo acknowledged that he provided insight to his brother's aides until CNN told him to stop, following that story's publication.

At the time Chris Cuomo apologized on his show, and CNN was content with that, declining to discipline him further. The network also walled him off from coverage of the allegations against Andrew Cuomo citing his inability to be objective.

"When Chris admitted to us that he had offered advice to his brother's staff, he broke our rules and we acknowledged that publicly," CNN said in an earlier statement. "But we also appreciated the unique position he was in and understood his need to put family first and job second."

The statement continues, "However, these documents point to a greater level of involvement in his brother's efforts than we previously knew." This is mind-boggling until you allow for Chris Cuomo's star status.

CNN has had a Chris Cuomo problem for a long time. Until this development, which Cuomo recognized as "embarrassing" in his Sirius XM radio show, it hasn't been compelled to recognize that.

Cuomo was referring to himself presumably, but CNN's brass should be embarrassed too. It was scooped twice on a story sitting at their own desk. That didn't have to happen the second time if it engaged the most basic review it claims to be engaging in now back when the first story came out.

Included in the latest batch of documentation were texts between Chris Cuomo and the former governor's top aide Melissa DeRosa, back in March, when the first sexual harassment allegations against Andrew Cuomo were becoming public. "Please let me help with the prep," Chris Cuomo texted to DeRosa on March 3. So that additional information must really be something.

The outcome might have been the same. Or Chris Cuomo and CNN could have spun the situation into a teachable moment knowing his viewers probably wouldn't care. To everyone impotently bellowing, "But . . . but . . . ethics!" I acknowledge that's a depressing supposition. And you're right.

But that ignores the reason that this situation went unaddressed for so long: Chris Cuomo was CNN's most popular anchor.

Cuomo is combative and brash, styling himself as the network's Rocky Balboa to Fox News Channel's stable of Ivan Dragos – more character than journalist. "The Daily Show" awarded him the title of Epic News Bro, partly referencing the meathead comedy routine he created with his brother, New York's top government official, across multiple "Cuomo Prime Time" episodes back in 2020.

The public ate it up, growing a loyal fanbase that defends Chris Cuomo even now – and after he was the subject of his own sexual harassment allegation, don't forget.

Variety's Daniel D'Addario wrote a scathing analysis of how Andrew Cuomo used the media to gild his reputation as being tough on coronavirus throughout 2020, rising to national prominence as an exemplary public official and a voice of reason.

As his administration contended with mounting evidence that it underreported COVID-related deaths at nursing home facilities, the media glommed on to the odd "Cuomo-sexual" movement further establishing Andrew as a tough, level-headed hero while the White House doubled down on dispensing dangerous misinformation.

This was already in progress when Chris had his brother on the air multiple times to joke and banter, capitalizing on his direct family connection to a prominent politician.

Journalists who adhere to ethical standards would be right to flinch at all this, unless the goal is become bigger than the news itself and above the standards to which your peers are held. That bravura worked for Chris Cuomo's erstwhile boss Jeff Zucker, the former top NBC executive who brought Cuomo to the network in 2013 shortly after he was named the president of CNN Worldwide in 2012.

Among Zucker's greatest accomplishments at NBC was to elevate a couple otherwise average entertainers by providing them with a national broadcast platform. One is former "Fear Factor" host Joe Rogan. The other said the two sentences that open this article while boasting about groping women. He went on to become President in 2016 and lost re-election in 2020.

Zucker followed that up by coddling a cable news anchor who goes shirtless and gives fitness tips on an Instagram feed that John Oliver dubbed a "thirstpit" that "feels a little desperate for approval" back in 2018.

That very same social media trap helped establish Cuomo's popularity. His CNN show recently attracted an average viewership of 959,000, with 212,000 of those viewers fitting within the advertiser-attractive 25-to-54 demographic.

Nevertheless, it's extraordinary that Chris Cuomo copped to what his bosses deemed to be a misdemeanor level of unethical behavior and no one at an organization with a wealth of resources and investigative talent thought to do more than simply take him at his word for half a year. With a little digging, they could have made sure Cuomo wasn't under-representing how extensively he crossed lines he should not have.

Worse, perhaps it did and assumed none of what was discovered would ever become public. Either way, we have yet another very public example of an institution risking its reputational integrity by trusting in its star's power.

"You've got media critics condemning Chris calling on CNN to take action," CNN's chief media correspondent Brian Stelter says in a report that aired in the wake of Cuomo's suspension. "You have some colleagues here at CNN who are mad at Chris Cuomo for putting the network in a tough spot and wanting to see action. You also have a lot of viewers though, who love Chris Cuomo and are now ticked off that he's off the air and they want to see him back. So there's a mixture of relief, disappointment.

"It's a complicated situation," Stelter adds.

As it turns out, not really.

CNN, like MSNBC, has blurred the line between news and opinion/entertainment for many years. (Fox News has erased it almost completely, although its execs will claim it hasn't.) That means Chris Cuomo's dedication to performance isn't anything that anchors who came before him, and a few who are still employed at CNN, haven't done in some fashion. He was simply more bald-faced about it.

Cuomo may a punchline now, but he remains very famous. It's tough to say what moral future cable news hosts will draw from this story, aside from an unequivocal caution to never use one's position as a newscaster to assist corrupt family members.

That, and the lesson to avoid unfortunate catchphrases. Chris Cuomo's was, "Let's get after it." The New York Attorney General's office took him at his word . . . and look at him now.

Watch this clip of "The Daily Show-ography of Chris Cuomo: Epic News Bro" on YouTube.


New 9/11 documentary takes us inside the terror attacks with those who survived them

Ron Clifford remembers sharing the details of an important business meeting with his sister Ruth, who advised, "Ron, stand out." So he wore a new suit and a bright yellow tie. On that morning's ferry to Manhattan a man drinking champagne complimented his clothes, boosting his confidence.

Kevin Leary worked as a chef at the time, preparing sauces and pasta for a luncheon.

Joseph Pfeifer, a battalion chief with the Fire Department of New York, had 20 years and six days on the job. That meant he could have retired six days prior, but he was enjoying his time with the department so much that he wasn't even thinking about leaving.

It was a beautiful day, all told. Pfiefer and his crew were checking out a reported gas leak in a street. One of them was filming the job when American Airlines Flight 11 roared over them, seizing their attention before slamming into the World Trade Center's North Tower.

On September 11, 2001 terrorists attacked the United States by slamming that passenger jet and United Airlines Flight 175 into the World Trade Center's buildings, and a third, American Airlines Flight 77, into the Pentagon. But most Americans experienced these terrible events from through our televisions and radio reports, shocked and yet only able to imagine what New Yorkers were enduring. National Geographic's "9/11: One Day in America" closes that distance, taking everyone inside the smoke and flames, and terrible collapses of the buildings to relive each minute of those attacks with those who survived them.

The active horrors the disaster wrought unfolded in the span of a few hours, from the time the first plane hit through the second tower's collapse. But the accounts given by those who lived to talk about them fill every moment of this four-night, six-episode documentary series, making footage from that day come alive in ways few other reports have.

"9/11: One Day in America," produced in official partnership with the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, may be the most emotionally taxing examination of the events surrounding those attacks that you'll see this year. Hopefully the weight of that statement lands as it should, considering the slew of 20th anniversary commemorations debuting over the next couple of weeks. Encore presentations of previously released productions will certainly be part of this observance; we're not lacking for coverage of that day's events.

But as you experience these hours – not just watch, but feel them – what may immediately strike you is how antiseptic most of the documentary reports or news coverage have been. After the attacks the media's attention turned to the how and the why of them, offering deep dives into the structural collapse of the Towers, the government's failure to act on intelligence tip-offs or insights into how the hijackers planned and trained to turn passenger planes into weapons of mass destruction. Close your eyes and you can probably picture George W. Bush's grim face as he sat in that classroom, receiving the news. And there are all the accounts of those mourning their dead.

For the most part, though, coverage of the September 11, 2001 attacks all these years later enables us to emotionally separate from the human nightmare of it. To take that part in requires us to accept the fact that we are indeed vulnerable, that the actions of 19 zealots could take the lives of 2,977 people and injure more than 6,000 others.

If we couldn't do that before, executive producers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin make that possible by placing viewers inside the frightened, thumping hearts of people who were inside the towers and the first responders who ran in and up the nearly 100 flights of stairs of the North Tower to get people out. Through footage featuring Pfeifer and his team we see the first plane hit. We watch their reactions and those of other New Yorkers in that moment as that flawless Tuesday explored in flames and disintegrating concrete and steel. We watch as bystanders head toward the blast out of curiosity and hear as their companions scream at them to run for their lives. Then we see the disaster unfold in real time from different angles, from the air and on the ground, outside the rolling poisoning clouds and from inside, watching abandoned cameras continue rolling as the world darken in the moments after building crash to Earth.

"9/11: One Day in America" is the product of a massive undertaking, involving sorting through 951 hours of archival footage, including shots never seen before on TV, to build out a narrative of that day told by those who survived it, and in chronological order.

The filmmakers contextualize the footage from that day by editing present-day interviews with 54 survivors around it, some of which prominently features the interviewees. Seeing archival footage of a younger Pfeifer on that day, directing his men from the lobby of the North Tower while its top floors were in flames, is extraordinary in the way that it showcases his composure in the face of imminent death. His description of his inner turmoil in those moments places puts us right in the midst of anxious uncertainty with him.

And this experience isn't limited only to his portion. Footage of Clifford with a gravely injured woman he assisted that way reveals their panic and fear as they're running for their lives, but only after he describes every moment leading up to it – finding her still smoking from flames that burned her alive, sitting and praying with her to assure her she won't die.

The highly sensory focus of these hours can be overwhelming, especially when we see those unforgettable shots of of people jumping from the highest floors of the North Tower, choosing that kind of death over immolation. But in keeping with its insistent focus on the living, what stays with us is how those moments register from the firefighters' perspective that day – the dreadful thud of bodies hitting the ceiling above them, the absolute shock registering on their faces as they realize what's happening.

You may want to look away, but the eyes of the men remembering that day as they lived it hold us. By having subjects speak directly into the camera, the filmmakers create an intimacy between the survivors and the viewers that makes is easier to bear witness and relive that nightmare with them and for them. To absorb the enormity of it. Leary, for example, talks about a choice he made that saved his life by a matter of seconds, whereas another wasn't so lucky. He still wears the wide-eyed shock of it as he recounts the memory. If you're moved to weep in the course of watching this, or have other intense reactions, that's part of bargain. It's only a portion of what these survivors felt and continue to feel.

"9/11: One Day in America" isn't entirely immersed in horror, however. The filmmakers include notes of hope at every turn, structuring each episode around a particular story that contains the simplest of mysteries. Will anyone come to save me? Did my friend survive? How am I going to make it out of this hell? Will I get to walk my daughter down the aisle on her wedding day?

Episodes are edited in such a way to make the most of this human drama without cheapening each individual's accounts, circling back to reveal endings of rescue efforts that sound hopeless at first. Sometimes it turns out that they are. But the editing choices maintain the tension of not knowing, even though those telling these stories know how they end, without robbing them of their integrity. Then, by sticking us back inside blinding clouds cut by falling, flaming debris as the tales unfold, we obtain a visceral sense of how dire every second was, that living through it was indeed a miracle.

Through its subject, the documentary carefully honors the people whose sacrifices made all the difference, like the small team of firemen who kept heading up stairs to save more than 70 people and never made it out. Or the three-man security team who stayed behind to make sure all of their 2,000 people escaped, and were still inside when the second Tower collapsed on top of them. Or, of course, the group of people who overpowered the hijackers of United Airline Flight 93, including a young man whose mother called him to tell him what was going on and encouraged him to fight for his life – hoping, she says, that her son could be a killer.

For all the devastation, Pfeifer recalls, "There were also signs of hope. And at this extraordinary time in history, those little moments of caring for another were the difference between life and death."

Twenty years hence America is contending with other disasters. The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed hundreds of thousands of American lives, and the death toll is still escalating. In Afghanistan, the war launched in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks is finally ending; America is not victorious and worse, other terrorists are attacking personnel on their way out. It all has a terrible symmetry to it.

And yet, the main message "9/11: One Day in America" leaves with a person is a reminder of how delicate and precious life is. Sometimes it does this joyfully, as with one subject who attributes her survival by simply being determined that the building was not going to take her away from her family.

Others like Frank Razzano, a lawyer who barely made it out of the North Tower's adjoining Marriott Hotel, make that point sorrowfully as he explains that his reflexive instinct upon heard the first crash was to secure the legal documents he had with him. "I was at the apex of my career at this time," he said, acknowledging how silly that sounds in the face of death.

All this is completely relatable because we view September 11, 2001 through his eyes and his memory, not through a newscaster's lens. To him and everybody else, it was a normal, peaceful day.

"Not a cloud in the sky," Clifford recalls at the top of the premiere installment. Who would have gussed that a few hours later the World Trade Center towers would be gone, that ash would black out the sun and concrete particulates choke the air? It was still the same day, and yet in the space of a few hours a new era began. "This was my world," Clifford observed, "never to be the same again."

"9/11: One Day In America" airs over four consecutive nights at 9 p.m. starting on Sunday, Aug. 29 on National Geographic, with episodes available the next day on Hulu.

9/11: One Day in America Trailer | National Geographic www.youtube.com

The Handmaid's Tale tireless cycle of torture

Since its second season I've likened "The Handmaid's Tale" to another serialized alternate history depicting a world upended by a beastly totalitarian regime.

In that other show, as in "Handmaid's," powerful oppressors lord over those they deem lesser and press humans into slave labor. A few of the bravest attempt to escape bondage time and again only to fail and be imprisoned once more.

I'm alluding to the TV adaptation of "Planet of the Apes," a flop that starred Roddy McDowall, Ron Harper and James Naughton.

Most people never knew a small screen "Planet of the Apes" spinoff existed because it scraped by on CBS from September to December in 1974. But its relevance isn't in the fact that it lived but why it died.

"About three or four episodes before the end, I'd realized, 'This is a boring series,'" Harper told an interviewer years later. He went on: "In every episode, one of us, Roddy, James or me, would get captured by the apes and the other two would rescue him. We took turns. 'Whose turn is it to get captured? Is it Roddy, me or Jim?'" Another time he referred to it "The Fugitive with Fur."

Nearly five decades later "The Handmaid's Tale" runs on a similar premise, and we call it a prestige drama. June (Elisabeth Moss) doesn't try to run out on her Gilead captors every week, but she's busted free and been recaptured enough times to make a person wonder what in the world is so special about her.

Fair question, considering that over the course of the series we see other Handmaids executed or maimed for looking at someone the wrong way. Not June! The writers find any number of excuses to keep her scowling and breathing despite her being a guaranteed flight risk. As this new season begins she's liberated scores of Gilead's precious babies in a mission called Angel's Flight. This happens after freeing her own at the end of Season 2, and returning to the home, only to be handed over to a new household, that of Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), so as we can see this mercy thing is really working out for her. However, in the course of fulfilling the Angel's Flight mission she's been shot. Badly.

But we know she's going to survive. You can be similarly confident in knowing freedom cannot be a permanent state for June, otherwise the writers would be wasting a fine opportunity to place Moss in the same room with Ann Dowd, who plays the vicious Aunt Lydia, and watch the two actors blow us away with their expressiveness.

Time was that "The Handmaid's Tale" won plaudits for its eerie relevance. During the previous administration it made our fears about democracy's slide into right-wing fascism real, giving that anxiety red robes and wings. Now its primary function is to showcase performances its stars can submit for Emmys and Globes – Moss and Dowd, centrally and primarily, but also Alexis Bledel (the show's other individual Emmy winner), Yvonne Strahovski and Samira Wiley.

The acting is excellent, so very good in fact that its fans probably forgive June's perpetual cycle between Hell and near-freedom and back again.

The "Planet of the Apes" producers and CBS thought that show would to go for five years, and its reliance on such a cycle doomed it to last precisely for as long as it should have. Meanwhile Hulu picked up "The Handmaid's Tale" for a fifth season before its fourth premiered trusting that its audience will show up – which it likely will, because it knows what it's getting.

Tougher to predict is whether its Christofascist dystopia will feel crusty; we haven't seen a new episode since 2019. That isn't to say we've halted our march to Gilead; the man (and woman!) in the White House seem committed to slowing its pace. But we have bad news: the Supreme Court could very well accelerate it despite the executive branch and Congress' barest efforts.

We're not there yet, but series creator and showrunner Bruce Miller seems bent on dragging out this series to some point at which fiction and reality connect in part by ensuring June can never entirely wriggle free of Gilead's patriarchy.

True to its main purpose, Season 4 showcases Moss' talents in front of the camera and behind it; she directs three of the season's 10 episodes.

This narrative's leg also spends more time with Wiley's Moira and June's husband Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) in Canada, where Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Strahovski) are also in custody and may stand trial.

Increasing the screen time for these characters and Bledel's Emily is wonderful, but if you get the sense that they're placeholders making space for a change in June's situation . . . to confirm that would be a spoiler. But I refer to previous points about situational redundancy. The handmaiden, if you will, to that problem is predictability.

Very little of the bombastic white feminism that drove me away from the third season has been ameliorated. If anything, June's successfully shipping more than 80 Gilead children to Canada along with a number of adults has given her even more of a Moses complex. (In case you didn't get the reference in the third season finale, that's Exodus June is quoting in voiceover as she's borne aloft by her fellow Handmaid rebels.)

Only now, June is done with bearing up under her sorrows. In the presence of a psychologically damaged child wife played by Mckenna Grace, she allows the malevolence and rage she's carrying around inside of her to flower. By the tail of this season she's a transformed figure which, again, gives Moss fresh extremes to play with.

All of this focus on June, and Moss, costs the other characters and actors opportunities to flourish. Some of that is corrected in these latest episodes, especially with regard to Wiley and Fagbenle's roles. Not only do Luke and Moira get meatier scenes, they're provided a reason to exist in this series beyond tying themselves in knots as they wait for June to parent her child Nichole. Through them and other figures filled out more extensively, including (thankfully) Amanda Brugel's Rita, the new season starts to explore what it means to survive an extended period of degradation. Then it asks whether it's possible for a person to come to terms with the damage that's been done to them and reconcile with the individuals who inflict that damage. I should say it begins to do this but, in the eight episodes provided for review, never fully gets there.

Blame that addiction to the round and round of escape and return, amped up this time to include a torture episode. That part exceeds an hour and incorporates a smiling version of Gilead's Torquemada into the sort of dimly lit chambers we'd expect from "24" at the height of its sadism. Perhaps this is a way for Miller, who writes the episode with Moss directing, to address those critiques about June's inexplicable survival by making her wages of her sin very dear this time. But yet another round of inflicted savagery is unnecessary at this point, and worse, it's tiresome.

People who love "The Handmaid's Tale" probably won't care about any of that, and may even welcome it, accepting that Moss is at the center of its existence. True to that notion Moss consistently adds new layers of grime and rot into June until she's barely recognizable.

Placing this insistent spotlight on Moss and June undercuts the potentially powerful themes the story might have explored with more fullness, and that June keeps insisting is the case, which is that the struggles of one woman aren't more important than the suffering endured by untold numbers of people oppressed and enslaved in Gilead.

That means that while the fourth season moves toward breaking that old catch and release merry-go-round, it doesn't sufficiently persuade us to wholly invest in what's beyond it. June despises Gilead and hates it more each time she's forced to go back, but without providing a vision as to where the story's headed the best we can muster in reaction to her plight is a yawn.

The first three episodes of "The Handmaid's Tale" Season 4 are currently streaming on Hulu, with new episodes released weekly.

Forget 'The Stand' – 'Alice in Borderland' is the wild dystopian ride we've been waiting for

Dystopia became our reality in 2020, and it feels nothing like so many movies and TV shows predicted. Zombies haven't overrun our cities. Roving marauders have been in short supply, relatively speaking. An airborne plague is the source of our woes, but the atmosphere is otherwise breathable. Mostly.

Those fortunate enough to ride this out at home watch the nation come apart on TV screens, marveling at how slowly time moves when everything cracks. This is part of the reason depictions of the COVID age left us wanting. Shows designed to reflect our new Zoom existence – "Connecting," "Love in the Time of Corona," "Social Distance" – arrived, and nobody cared.

Movies like "Outbreak" and "World War Z" surged in popularity at the beginning of the pandemic, but more than half a year later and with no end in sight to quarantine living, Amazon failed to successful tap into our anxiety with "Utopia, " a show set in the midst of pandemic. AMC's long-running post-apocalypse soap "The Walking Dead" returned to close out its season and netted its lowest ratings ever.

And a week ago, CBS All Access debuted its highly anticipated, star-studded updated version of "The Stand" to a resounding "meh."

Evidently we'd rather tune out reminders of the ways the world as we know it is falling down. Then again, maybe the issue is with how these stories are filtering our current reality. The "distanced" series failed to consider the audience's Zoom fatigue into the equation. "Utopia" is too messy and convoluted. Whether "The Stand" is a hit or miss depends heavily on the depth of a viewer's love for all or most things Stephen King, but its central conflict between light and darkness plays out onscreen as banal.

Thus I was utterly surprised to be drawn in by "Alice in Borderland," Netflix's recently released eight-episode suspense thriller directed by Shinsuke Sato and based on a manga series. This description automatically eliminates a vast swath of America from its potential viewership. For some reason we'd rather not deal with subtitles unless it's attached to a show featuring Klingons, Jawas, dragons, barbarians or Danish detectives.

To make direct comparison with "The Stand," "Alice in Borderland" handles the mechanics of introducing its characters more effectively and it doesn't throw off the audience by leaning heavily on flashbacks. What glimpses it shows of its characters' pasts are solely presented to contextualize their action in the present. Knowing the type of people they were before they tumbled into its dystopia is important, but unlike "The Stand," the "before" profiles aren't extensive to the point of dragging on the story's progress.

On the other hand, "The Stand" is a gentler story, which says plenty about the vicious nature of "Alice in Borderland" and may further narrow its appeal.

Unless, I should say, you're a fan of the 2000 cinematic cult classic "Battle Royale," the story of a busload of schoolkids who are knocked out and wake up on an island, at which point they are informed that by law they must now hunt and kill each other until only one of them remains. This Netflix show hints at what a series adaptation of that film could look like, albeit one influenced by "Ready Player One" and sprinkles of "Lost" thrown in for good measure.

"Alice in Borderland" doesn't flow like some simple pop culture mash-up or behave expressly as an eight-hour, end of days action blast. The slaughter is over the top, yes. Lots of rooms and buildings explode, and the bullets fly freely. By no means is it a culture-shifting epic, either; the script makes the same dumb missteps other shows like it trip over. (I was especially irritated by a scene threatening sexual violence against a main female character in order to highlight Arisu's impotence. Surely Sato watched "Game of Thrones," right?)

"Alice in Borderland" also endeavors to say something about the conditions that lead to a society losing its humanity, eventually asking its protagonists, and the audience by proxy, how they want to live once they've made it through whatever nightmares they have to survive.

That's the question posted to Arisu, this story's Alice (Kento Yamazaki) and an avid gamer who refuses to get a job or contribute to society in any meaningful way. "If only we could reset reality," Arisu sighs after his father kicks him out, which happens at the same time his friends Karube (Keita Machida) and Chota (Yuki Morinaga) suffer misfortunes of their own making. They meet up, blow off steam by goofing off and eventually dash into a train station toilet.

When they emerge, the city streets are inexplicably empty and without power. Not even their phones work. Then a digital sign suddenly appears on the side of a nearby skyscraper that directs them to their first game where they quickly learn by doing and barely surviving.

That Arisu doesn't believe in his own cleverness and worth is central to the first couple of episodes until circumstances force him to find some purpose in this violent world. To make it out of this world alive, he has to use his wits.

Game types correspond to playing card suits: Spades are physical competitions. Clubs require teamwork. Diamonds favor intelligent, logical players. Hearts are downright evil because they force players to toy with and betray each another.

None of the rules in this upside-down hellscape are negotiable. Giving up is not an option, because refusal to participate means game over by way of laser execution.

Why would anyone living amid an era defined by a senseless death watch something like this? For the same reasons we flock to Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" series, "Logan's Run," "The Running Man" or any grim vision of humankind's tendency to be inhumane to other people. Watching under-resourced and outgunned heroes overcome the odds is eternally satisfying – and as Arisu insists, every game has a solution.

In the same way "Battle Royale" was not expressly about cruel violence for diversion's sake, "Alice in Borderland" runs on a mystery hiding a critique of societal divisions enabled by technology and expanded as a result of other systemic failings.

Before "Borderland" Arisu spent most of his time in online battle royale games, the kind that foster thriving virtual economies and attract millions of player who use the space to socialize. (Think "Fortnite.") You can spend the majority of your waking life in these virtual spaces without physically engaging with real people and the world around you. Most gamers don't do that, but enough do to make it a culturewide problem.

Such games became massively popular in recent years and not for nothing. On Dec. 10, the same day "Alice in Borderland" debuted on Netflix, the Los Angeles Review of Books published an essay by writer Brendan Mackie that spells out why such games appeal to hundreds of millions of players, the majority of whom are under 25 years old.

In his estimation, they are the result of the broken promise of supposed neoliberal meritocracy. A good education no longer guarantees that a person will secure an income that helps build wealth, let alone pay the bills. Hard work does not necessarily equal economic advancement either, not in a society whose decks are stacked to favor the one percent. Hence Mackie's thesis:

"Battle royale games are the stories kids tell themselves about this culture of cutthroat competition. Just like the real world, in battle royale games only the one percent win. But these games are a fantasy in which this unequal outcome is produced transparently and equitably, albeit violently, a fairy tale about how the meritocracy should really work. Though it is tough, brutal, and difficult, it is fair; and though you have only a small chance of winning, the forces that oppress you are not unseen — they are clear and distinct. The decks are not stacked: everyone has the same health, the same armor, the same access to weapons and upgrades. You'll probably die. But you will live and die on your skills alone."

The writer goes on to explain that even this is an illusion. Games and rules are constantly expanding shifting, and there are always bigger and more powerful weapons to find and buy.

The "Alice in Borderland" plot draws upon this concept, in that there is no obvious pathway to the ultimate goal when Arisu, Karube and Chota first set out on their journey. Eventually we discover that players don't necessarily share a common goal. Most of whom they encounter are only focused on survival, and more than a few are dressed like salarymen, corporate drones slogging through dead-end careers.

Several also wonder aloud what's the point of surviving if there isn't anything else to live for beside earning free time in an empty, lawless city.

This is where this show endeavors to do something beyond plying the audience with spectacles of violence. A strain of pondering the difference between survival and living hums throughout the first eight episodes that clicks with conversations lots of people are having right now: Who do we want to be when this is all over? How will society change?

"Survive" and "survival" are said so frequently throughout "Alice in Borderland" that when someone mentions "living," it stands out, and that's probably intentional.

Arisu's chance meeting and eventual alliance with an athlete named Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya) firms up this notion; one of the first questions she asks of him is, "Do you want to live?" They're not inside of a life-or-death contest when she asks it; he's collapsed on the ground and professes he wants to die, and she has just picked up a copy of Henry David Thoreau's "Life in the Woods."

In a former life Usagi climbed mountains with her father, a famous pro who vanished after a scandal and is presumed dead. Through Usagi refusal to let Arisu give up, she shows a determination to live within this world as she survives each trial. This may also increase her odds of "winning," whatever that means.

Watch closely and you may notice that she and other players who clear impossible games and navigate dangerous alliances share a drive to move forward as opposed to being motivated by the chance to return to their old lives.

Nearly every poor soul drawn into this terrible place is motivated to return to the original world, but only the ones who think like a game master as opposed to a powerless gamer have a chance. They win because they focus, determinedly, on the value of existing as opposed to surrendering to paralysis by fear which, in this scenario, is death. And the way this plays out forher is dark, and wild, but also bizarrely thrilling.

"How will you live in this world that's full of despair?" asks someone who happens to be one of the smarter and more skilled players in the game. We could, and should, be asking that of ourselves in this reality and more to the point, be determined to solve that puzzle.

"Alice in Borderland" is currently streaming on Netflix.

How Hugh Grant's charming villain who plays the victim embodies everything about 2020

The devil almost always wears a handsome face. Ever notice that? Evil itself is ugly, and villainy tends to be unattractive, but the boss of it all makes it a point to look good. That's how he snags you. It also struck me while watching the finale of "The Undoing" that if the devil had a favorite mask, it probably looks like Hugh Grant and acts like his character Dr. Jonathan Fraser, a well-respected and very wealthy pediatric oncologist living in Manhattan.

In "The Undoing" creator David E. Kelley makes Jonathan's guilt or innocence the central mystery. Jonathan is introduced as the charismatic, doting husband to Nicole Kidman's Grace Fraser and demonstrates tremendous care and affection for his son Henry (Noah Jupe). His community loves him. Grace adores him.

Nevertheless, the fact that he's played by Grant – TV and film's go-to rake in recent years – you may suspect he's at least guilty of something. And you'd be right.

Not long after a gorgeous young mother at Henry's school turns up dead, Jonathan disappears. The police find a connection between the woman and Dr. Fraser not long after that. Jonathan swears his innocence, of course, because that's what handsome devils do. The first line of defense he offers to Grace is, "Here's what happened: I had an affair."

Since he's rich, people are inclined to believe that's all it was. He gets on TV to plead his case. Grace stands by him even as his story starts to fall apart, piece by piece, proving to be as breakable as their marriage.

"The Undoing" is designed to be a showcase for Kidman, which aligns with the central focus of Jean Hanff Korelitz's 2014 book "You Should Have Known," which Kelley loosely adapted to make the series. But Grant seized our attention in an outsized fashion with his performance – not necessarily because it was brilliant but due to what it represents. Grant's Jonathan may be the zenith of his filmography's rogues' gallery section because through him, the actor gives us an all-too-familiar avatar of white male privilege in the modern age.

The "I had an affair" line, by the way, is memorable because Grant stammers it out in a way that's both ridiculously casual and blunt. He delivers it in a deadly serious scene but says it in way that borders on comedic. This is not a badly acted moment but rather the first example of bad faith on Jonathan's part.

Taken as one part of a whole – which is to say, a man who confesses to the least of his crimes against his wife and son to convince them to shelter him from paying for the much great crime of murder – it's such a quintessentially Grant moment that you can't help but love it.

In recent years the actor has admitted that the antagonists roles he's been getting lately more closely approximate his actual personality than those dreamboat Romeos ever did. This doesn't mean he's an actual sociopath (although years ago, Jon Stewart banned him from appearing on "The Daily Show," calling him his least favorite guest. "And we've had dictators on the show," Stewart quipped). But he does cop to his curmudgeonly demeanor and like many famous performers he enjoys letting his dark side out for the occasional sprint.

But Grant is one of a handful of actors who could convincingly play Jonathan Fraser because Jonathan appears to be a mature version of one of Grant's early cinematic "types": he's clever, charming and hard-working, and it's obvious Grace is the one who came into the marriage with money. He looks stunning in a tux and has a boyish sparkle about him, wearing his upper-crust accent without fuss.

His narcissistic malevolence soon gets the better of him. Still, the audience buys him as the face in his bout with the legal system because he fits a type that Grant himself helped create, and that creation fools the audience constantly.

Who knows whether the actor's Richard Curtis films exist in the world of "The Undoing"? Supposing they didn't, surely there would be some figure fulfilling the part of the swoon-worthy romantic lead – a mild-mannered, chivalrous stud who says "whoopsie daisies" unironically and doesn't believe love will ever be in the cards for him until it shows up on his doorstep in the form of Andie MacDowell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") or Julia Roberts ("Notting Hill").

This time of year, Grant will turn up in the inevitable holiday airings of "Love Actually" and "Bridget Jones' Diary," the former of which continues his love interest casting streak, the latter featuring his transition into jerkdom. It's a safe bet we'll also get a chance to marvel at his tap-dancing baddie Phoenix Buchanan in "Paddington 2."

All of these parts and others conspire to make Jonathan particularly loathsome and magnetic at the same time, because in him Grant creates a man who so excels at playing the victim and the aggrieved party that you almost want to believe someone else did it, until it's positively clear he's guilty.

Grant's oeuvre has trained us to expect Jonathan to be a man who steals your heart as mercilessly as he'd stab you through it. This also makes his deflection and misdirection through most of the series' episodes all the more sinister, since he allows suspicion to be cast upon the people to whom he caused the most pain – the husband of his victim, his own wife, even his child.

"The Undoing" was a must-watch for many over these past few weeks, but that doesn't mean it was great television. If anything it was a premium distraction enjoyed more for its lunacy and seductive fashion than the quality of its storytelling, a very pretty and ultimately weightless tale about one-percenter problems.

The finale's twist was . . . there was no twist. Jonathan was the prime suspect from the jump, and Jonathan actually committed the crime – shown in the last minutes in all its skull-crunching ghastliness as a cutaway between scenes of father coaxing his son to sing along with him during their doomed road trip.

The finale closes with father and son pursued by the law and halted on a bridge where Jonathan gets out of the car and rushes to the side, threatening to jump. The boy pleads with his father not to run from the inevitable, to acknowledge his case is lost despite his insistence of innocence, that he should be winning. "The Undoing" ends there, so we don't see the defense rest, the jury returning with its verdict or any rendering of judgment.

This leaves the door open for a second season, but I hope the story ends right here, leaving us at this point of ambiguity.

Justice may have Jonathan dead to rights, but if the modern world tells us anything about devils like him it's that they can charm their way out of anything.

All episodes of "The Undoing" are available on HBO Max.

'We're not able to process what's about to happen to us': Shep Smith highlights doctors' warnings on COVID

At several points during Salon's recent conversation with CNBC anchor Shepard Smith, he talks about noise. "The noise is just so loud. You've got have some quiet time," he said, referring to the space he carves out for himself during the workday when he retreats to his spartan office, puts his feet up and listens to music to harvest a little peace from the day's cacophony.

This philosophy also guides his approach to "The News with Shepard Smith," and it shows. Each weeknight at 7 p.m. Eastern since the program's Sept. 30 launch, Smith delivers the news of the day, regardless of what it may be, with an old-school broadcast anchor's mellow sobriety. Pressing events of the day top the hour and from there Smith and his correspondents zero in on an assortment of issues that stand to have significant local and regional impact.

"We try to find stories . . . tell them factually and dig into data a lot, and then hear from people about how they feel about the issues through their own personal experiences and how it's affected them," he explained. "And we're not looking for, 'How do you feel about what he said?' or 'How you feel about what she said?' We're trying to just seek the truth, find the truth and tell the truth in context and with perspective."

Having spent 23 years with Fox News, Shepard's new chapter at CNBC intentionally veers away from the argumentative clamor and enraged punditry that has defined cable news in the 21st century. Instead, "The News" offers something so rare and refreshing that people presumed it to be extinct: fact-based reporting, delivered calmly by a plain-spoken anchor uninterested in ginning up arguments.

When developing each day's story slate, Smith says he and his staff adhere to a set of sensible axioms: Get it right. Add in whatever context is important. Explain why the story they're covering matters because of what the consequences will be, if those are known consequences. Then put it into perspective, historical and otherwise.

His show intentionally declines to participate in the cycle of back and forth fueled by false equivalency and both sides-ism.

"We have to ignore the signal and focus on the prize," Smith told Salon. "There's a lot of, 'Look over here!' in life, and there's always been a lot of 'Look over here.' But 'Look over here' gets a lot more juice than it ever did before because of all of these media ecosystems. And it can overtake you."

"This other stuff is going to fade away at some point," he added, referring to the poisonous politics of the last five years and the amplified flurry of lies and hyperbole accompanying it, "and we'll cover the trials and tribulations along with it, we'll cover the uprisings and the demonstrations. And we'll hear from people about how they think about things. But we're on a different road. It's the road less traveled, and I'm enjoying it."

In case you've forgotten, as so many have, that metaphorical road to which he's referring is that it used to be the main road. The road. In the days of broadcast anchor supremacy and CNN's earliest era, the news was a straight-laced enterprise guided by policy, data and expert insight, and what leaders said and did received more space than broad interpretations of the meaning of what they tweeted.

When Smith was first rising through the cable news ranks, he distinguished himself during Hurricane Katrina by careful reporting what he saw on the ground, allowing his emotions to show through at times when the horror overwhelmed him.

I pointed that out to him as an asset. He views the memory differently.

"My goal is always to not let emotions get in the way. Recognize them, use them as inspiration and guidance sometimes, but not to express them," he said. "I like to get excited about things when there are things about which everyone should be excited, and to be sad about things, about which everyone should be sad, but in measured ways."

"And you said that just now, you said, 'You let your emotions take over,'" he continued. "They didn't. They won."

In his view, emotions got the best of him because what he was seeing and reporting starkly contradicted the party line that was coming out of the White House and being repeated by other reporters and pundits, including those at Fox News.

In recalling the memory, Smith is passionate as he describes witnessing firsthand the dire suffering in his midst and his shock at hearing officials tell the public that the cavalry had arrived, that people where getting food, medical attention and water when that simply wasn't true.

"I know New Orleans. I'm a child of Mississippi. And I know its greatness and its horrors. There are so many dynamic cities around the world that are both things. And I know the Lower Ninth Ward. I know the poverty and I know how it is systematic and systemic. And I know that certain categories of people have been kept in a place and they don't have a way out and now they're flooded and dying."

He continued, thinking back to what he may have said at the time, "'All of you, maybe you're mistaken, maybe you're misled, but you are telling untruths about what's happening here. And as a result of your untruth, more people are dying.' I couldn't believe it was happening. I couldn't believe that people in a building thousands of miles away were telling me that what I was seeing wasn't true."

"And I'm like, 'Wait, wait, wait, no, no, I'm here. You're reading, but I'm seeing and smelling. I don't need the Associated Press to tell me what's happening here, because I happen to be in the right place.'"

For the better part of the last quarter century, the route Smith has chosen for his program has been all but abandoned on cable. Early on in "The News" run, critics predicted Smith's show would be trounced in ratings. They were right. While October ratings for Fox News and MSNBC surged with the rising excitement and anxiety leading up to the presidential election, the audience for "The News with Shepard Smith" averaged around 272,000 viewers between Sept.30 and Oct. 22, coming in behind its 7 p.m. competitors on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News.

For a bit more perspective on Fox News, both "Hannity" and "Tucker Carlson Tonight" broke the 6 million viewer threshold in October. Carlson's ratings even beat "The Masked Singer" on Fox – that's Fox broadcast, not cable – in broadcasts that aired during the last week of October.

However, let's add a bit of context as well: Carlson's and Sean Hannity's programs are the linchpins supporting Smith's former home, the dominant news network for a decade and a half. CNBC is a small business news network powered by "Shark Tank" and "Jay Leno's Garage," and whatever attention it snagged in the mediasphere tended to be the result of something terrible that Lou Dobbs said.

According to Nielsen ratings data, over the first month that "The News" has aired, it increased the audience by 120% year over year, when "Shark Tank" reruns aired in its timeslot. And its audience may be small, but it is slowly growing. On Nov. 16 the program enjoyed its highest viewership yet in it's the 25-to-54 target demographic. It's been averaging around 268,000 viewers over the last eight weeks.

A CNBC spokesperson stated that the network is pleased with the progress "The News" has made thus far.

"Not only is CNBC a new entrant in the general news genre, but news viewers are creatures of habit, and it takes a long time to change those habits," the spokesperson shared in an emailed statement, adding that Smith's audience far exceeds that of the last regular news program to air on CNBC in the 7 p.m. ET timeslot, which was "The Kudlow Report" way back in the first quarter of 2014.

And lest viewers be tempted to write off Smith's classic approach to TV news, the cable news field has entered a period of flux. Numbers for "The News" may never approximate Fox News, MSNBC or CNN audience levels, but even their ratings are coming off the historic highs they rode during Donald Trump's presidency.

Much has been reported about disillusioned Fox News viewers migrating over to more far-right leaning and conspiracy theory-driven outlets such as Newsmax and One America News Network, and if that is the case, then surely there must be a commensurate number of viewers seeking out the kind of straight, no chaser delivery that Smith purveys.

Because as many people are realizing, and Smith told me, there's too much noise. "And all of that noise is destructive."

Not all of that destruction he's talking about is figurative. The biggest challenge Smith foresees in the immediate future isn't ratings, which don't trouble him owing to his sense of perspective. He says he's steeling himself for the time leading up to Christmas and into what he describes as "the cold, cold, beginning of 2021, when it's unimaginably sad and horrible everywhere."

"Because I talk to doctors – I talked to Dr. [Scott] Gottlieb, I talked to Dr. [Anthony] Fauci. I talked to a lot of doctors who I don't talk to on the air and they all say the same thing: We're not able to process what's about to happen to us."

This is Smith coming to me, from his personal space – not the on-air figure, but the person who railed at the irresponsible distortion of facts as he watched bodies float by in Katrina's floodwaters. Over Zoom you can see the humanity and concern registering on his face and perhaps hear it catching in his voice a bit. "Death and suffering is horrible in the little places where I've been and experienced them. You know, Columbine, the Oklahoma City Bombing, 9/11, they were all in one place – 9/11 was in a few places and certainly affected everyone. But they cried for us. It didn't happen in their town."

"Now," he continued, "It's going to be happening every town. And we're going to be so sad, if the doctors are right. And sadness is so destructive."

During those times, he said, the role of "The News" will be to find the heroes in the chaos. We have to give some people who are inspiring, and who doing it in their own little way, to more people in order to inspire them to inspire.

Which is why he stressed his program's dedication to finding the light, not to goose ratings. The vaccines, he said, are a light. So is the culture's renewed focus on women's issues and its nascent efforts to take an anti-racist stance. "Everyone seems to agree that we cannot continue to exist this divided. It will conquer us. We have to find ways to come together. And, you know, as a gay guy, I've always known that if we know get each other better, it's all going to be easier."

Amazingly the CNBC anchor has a hopeful view of what lies ahead for TV news. I feel like eventually we're going to look back and this will be just a little blip in time when people got confused about what was true and what wasn't . . . They got distracted and didn't realize, and, ' I really was misinformed. And I need to go back to a trusted source. And I need to be more careful about how I consume,'" he said.

"But we're in the middle of it and we have to figure out how to get out of it. I don't know what the answer is . . . I don't know how it's all corrected. I don't know what policies and changes need to be made. But I know that we're trying to do it, just ourselves, and we begin by focusing and tuning it out."

'The Reagans' shows how the Gipper paved the way for politicians pretending they aren't racist

Forty years after Ronald Reagan's ascent to the presidency his legacy is still treated with kid gloves. Centrist Democrats seeking to find common ground with Republicans quote him as if he were a saint, the modern example of a conservative with bipartisan appeal save for, you know, a few mistakes he could not recall. In 2003 CBS was set to air a fictionalized miniseries that romanticized Ronald and Nancy Reagan but was hounded by the GOP until the network shunted it off to Showtime, the same network airing Matt Tyrnauer's new docuseries "The Reagans,"

"The Reagans" doesn't adequately dig into who Ron and Nancy were or tell us much of anything we don't already know about them within its four hours. But at some point somebody should.

This missed opportunity is but one on a list that anyone seeking to understand Reagan's presidency will lament after spending time with it. "The Reagans" isn't terrible, but merely serviceable – not particularly flattering, but not all that enlightening either.

At least the premiere's timing is fortuitous, given Tyrnauer's focus on the Reagans as conduits for the Republican mission to bring the Southern strategy into full fruition within the Republican party. There's also ample reason to presume that many people are ignorant as to the very basic facts about the less flattering side of Reagan's history become the catchy aphorisms about "morning in America" or the shining city on the hill mythology.

From the very start, the director's intention to link then to now is crystalline when journalist Lesley Stahl recalls a Reagan observation that stuck with her over the years. "'If you are not a good actor, you cannot be a good president,'" she recalls him saying, "And it came to pass. If someone's running for president and they are not willing to do what an actor does – look good, read your lines well – you cannot lead."

This bit of implication plays well in 2020. Beyond it, much of the series' early examination of Reagan's rise in politics is relatively shallow, leaning heavily on shots from old Hollywood to reinforce the mythmaking nature of the actor's initial forays into politics, and the similarities between Hollywood political machinery and the one grinding up Washington.

Observations from son Ron Reagan lend additional insight into the president and First Lady as a parents and private people and serve to remind us that in spite of their flaws, they're still human beings. Nevertheless, what Reagan lends is limited. His father enacted destructive policies that hurt America's poorest even though he grew up in a family that benefited from many of the same government safety nets he ripped away. It would be fascinating to find out what fueled such a lack of empathy, but I regret to inform you that tax reform activist and right wing lickspittle Grover Norquist has no answers.

To watch "The Reagans" and hear Tyrnauer's relatively limited gallery of experts describe the direct parallels between Reagan and Donald Trump without explicitly mentioning the latter is a reminder that Trump represents the apotheosis of a destructive political ideology as opposed to an aberration.

Reagan had moves way back when that are easily recognizable to anyone who spent the last five years drowning in Trumpland. "Make American Great Again" is directly cribbed from the Gipper; if you weren't aware of that the series handily reminds us this is the case. As civil rights activist Maya Riley puts it, "Reagan's genius was that he wrapped his racism in a façade of fatherly love. And it was something that Black people in this country understood was a façade. And we understood it from his words and his deeds."

Several of the film's experts use the term "genius" in reference to Reagan, but the documentary doesn't adequately make the case for his genius. Instead "The Reagans" chips away at the veneer of folksy character surrounding the man by peeling back the rhetoric to spell out the true meaning behind noble sounding terms such as "small government," which sounds like it's preaching support for putting more money back into the pockets of regular Americans but is actually a cover for cementing power and privilege for the upper class.

Presumably if you're reading this, you have survived the last 30 years of right wing partisan hackery and therefore you already know this. You might also know that Reagan is the first president to hoodwink the working class into voting against their best interests, because to do otherwise would also benefit non-white folks, which "The Reagans" also points out.

At least it's a helpful reminder of the main difference between Reagan and America's outgoing president: Trump dispensed with the racist subtext Reagan pushed in the '80s and simply made white supremacy his main text.

And while that isn't as effective now as it might have been, given that Reagan won the presidency in 1980 with 489 of 538 electoral votes, and only received 14% of the African American vote, 73 million voters tell us that marketing racial animus to white voters is still pretty darn effective.

And while "The Reagans" leaves the viewer wanting in terms of adequately examining the extent of Nancy's influence over Ronald and how that may have manifested in terms of the policies he enacted, where the series is at its best is in examining the method by which Reagan tweaked racist messaging into coded language that spoke to white Americans' racist angst while allowing them to profess that they aren't saying anything racist.

His earliest messages weren't particularly well-disguised as the documentary shows in a commercial featuring Reagan describing California city streets as "jungle paths" and claiming "the jungle is closing in on this little patch that we've been civilizing" in the wake of to the Watts riots. We're still hearing some of it parroted back at us today. "Law and order," anyone?

Still, some of Reagan's greatest hits are breezed on by. "The Reagans" does a decent job of addressing how he sold out unions and dismantled social programs in the name of saving taxpayer dollar and progress while demonizing poor Black women as "welfare queens."

But I would trade in the time spent galloping through Reagan's early film career to receive more insight about his and Nancy's abject ignorance to America's LGBTQIA+ community's cries for help when AIDS was tearing through the country during his administration. Indeed, many of the scandals we closely associated with Reagan are hastily shuffled into the fourth hour, along with the requisite "Tear down this wall" soundbite.

Eight years of Reagan produced a legacy we're still grappling with. It's a shame that four hours of "The Reagans" doesn't do a better job of helping us to better understand what his part in reshaping America back then implies about our future.

The first episode of "The Reagans" premieres Sunday, Nov. 15 at 8 p.m. on Showtime.

The strange and wonderful world of John Oliver in the miserable 2020

Underneath this avalanche of the unthinkable under which we're buried – the obscene count of preventable deaths, the laments over time's meaninglessness, the emergence of end-of-days creatures, all this and much more – lurks a simple truth that surely must be universally acknowledged: 2020 is a sadist.

What's strange and wonderful is that "Last Week Tonight" host John Oliver chose to help us laugh about that by fantasizing about that force as a live human mascot played by Adam Driver.

To be clear, never has Oliver implied that Driver is evil, or thoughtless or uncaring. But for reasons that may only be slightly more apparent now, Oliver ushers his bizarre, violently sexualized fantasy statements about what the "Marriage Story" star could do to him into a recurring bit apropos of nothing.

"Last Week Tonight" has a tradition of ending its seasons with a massive stunt its viewers anticipate with the same glee as other holiday traditions. Some people look forward to annual broadcasts of "Frosty the Snowman" or "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Oliver's devotees hang in there to see whether he'll send off the year that was with a smile or a massive F. U.

In 2016 producers compiled a montage of statements from people on the streets of New York listing all the ways that year sucked. Oliver referenced Trump's election as a dispiriting capper while also adding, "We cannot lose sight of all the other multiple ways this has been a s****y year."

Looking back on those complaints now, most people would give anything to be subjected to the irritations those 365 days served up, save for 2016's celebrity losses. That was the year we lost Prince, David Bowie, Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest and Alan Rickman, for starters.

However, what we remember most fondly is how he wrapped up that litany of woe: by gleefully blowing up a gigantic "2016" in the middle of an empty stadium.

As we approach the end of 2020 we have very little of such fire left in us. Replacing it instead is an urge to feel – more, or better, or anything at all. Maybe that's why Oliver's Driver obsession somehow makes sense. Bewildering, unexplainable and a tad frightening, it is the murder hornets of late-night bits.

At various points during Season 7 of "Last Week Tonight," Oliver saucily invites Driver to "Shatter my knees, you f***able redwood"; or "jam your mandible claw down my throat, you irredeemable steer" or other lines even E.L. James would characterize as "a bit much."

This walked up to Sunday's season closer that we should have seen coming: Driver, at last, confronting Oliver via FaceTime with a rage that was decidedly non-erotic. Instead he is frustrated and confused, particularly after Oliver's request that Driver "crush his larynx" while lending him the pet name of "you unwieldy boulder."

"I was having some weird fun," Oliver explains to the actor, who he yells at the host for creating a situation in which the Internet stans the pair of men and declares, "That you thirsting over me is 'a mood.'"

Fair enough. Also, and I'm just throwing this out there. . . . what if it is?

Across the board, late night comedy has provided us with clarity, catharsis and bracing honesty wrapped in laughter in a time of extreme separation on many fronts – physical, emotional, certainly political. Quarantine and divisiveness have worn on us in large ways and small, and while several hosts are getting us through this nightmare with gentle, soothing jokes and counseling tenderness with ourselves and each other, others have seized upon the surreal nature of our collective lot to create some next-level screwiness.

Then there's John Oliver and his void.

Oliver long ago proved that he doesn't need an audience to pump up his jokes. But like everyone else, being in other people's presence lights him up in ways that the void simply cannot.

Don't get me wrong – "Last Week Tonight" has been as searing, effective and necessary as ever, but recent episodes also reveal its host's humanity and the impact of surge depletion. You can see it in the shift in energy between early in the season and later half-hours either by watching a few of them, or simply scanning the tiles on the HBO Max episode page and noticing the weight in his facial expression as our collective mood transformed from early 2020 bemusement to late-year exhaustion.

But the Driver fiending is something else.

Oliver's first sexy Driver reference occurred during a February segment exploring the dangerous nationalism of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in which he used Driver's walking out on an NPR "Fresh Air" conversation with Terry Gross as a point of contrast with Modi storming out an interview. The contexts are very different. Modi stormed off because a journalist asked him whether he felt a sense of accountability for riots that occurred in 2002 under his watch as chief minister, in which more than 1,000 people lost their lives. Driver was angry at Gross because she played an audio clip of him performing on Broadway despite knowing that Driver does not like hearing or seeing himself perform.

But Oliver was not likening Driver to Modi. He affirmed the actor's exit simply because, in his estimation, Driver can do "whatever the f*** he wants." And here is where the dirty talk began. "Step on my throat, Adam Driver, you rudely large man. Break my fingers, you brooding mountain."

Oliver initially busted this out in front of a studio audience, one of only four such telecasts that "Last Week Tonight" was able to host in its 30-episode seventh season that ended on Sunday. But for . . . reasons . . . Oliver kept finding ways to come back to his fictional obsession with having Driver "demolish him" (his words, not mine).

"And what of Adam Driver himself? Is he bothered by this continued sexualization?" Oliver asked midway through the season. "He seems like a fairly private guy who's generally uncomfortable with attention, making what I'm doing possibly some form of harassment! He might actually have pretty good grounds to have my reprimanded legally to which I say, 'DO IT. Slap a restraining order on me, you forlorn block. Beg me to stop, you menacing obstacle.'"

In the season finale, Driver did not beg. He ordered Oliver to stop . . . and Oliver, playing the shocked and mildly titillated submissive, complied. It was the culmination of a season-long gag that good-naturedly reminds us of how strange we've gotten in the absence of normality or public places to visit, see others and be seen, save via Zoom.

It also bookends Oliver's 2016 season ender, down to the explosion – this one taking place in what appeared to be some sort of quarry.

"This year has been an absolute parade of misery," Oliver says before listing everything that occurred before the pandemic, including the Australian wildfires and Kobe Bryant's death. Now we're living with mass unemployment and evictions on top of mourning the losses of Chadwick Boseman, civil rights pioneer John Lewis and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"This year ruined lives, jobs, concerts, and sanity. It also brought on a new wave of wrenching videos of police brutality that brought on a national reckoning with race, and a ferocious and depressing backlash. And sure, the presidential election ended well, but it was grim to live through," he said.

Taking all that into account, perhaps we can understand why Oliver, a host who describes himself as "six feet of nasty, spankable bird meat crammed into a suit," took a bit in which he daydreamed about a famous stranger slapping him around and ran with it for 10 months. At first it was absurd and seemed to come out of nowhere. Soon enough we came to wait for it, wondering what that was all about. Maybe that mood prevented us from completely retreating into our own numb nothingness. More realistically, it was just the sort of strange that felt right for right now.

As he does every year, Oliver ended his season with a warning for the future, laced in faint hope. "I really hope next year is going to be better. But the truth is, what happens is up to all of us. It's going to depend on how willing we are to fight, how well we learned from what's happened, and how much we're able to care about each other. So I don't know what happens next. But I do know what happens now."

At this point he takes a pen-sized detonator and fulfills an explosive fantasy on behalf of millions of us by demolishing something as opposed to getting demolished. "F*** you 2020," Oliver commands, adding for emphasis, "Get f***ed."

Trump & Election Results: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) www.youtube.com

All episodes of Season 7 of "Last Week Tonight" are currently streaming on HBO Max.

Our problems aren't just with Karens -- but with a nation of Meghan McCains

On the day after the election, Meghan McCain was feeling nostalgic. Accompanying an Instagram graphic that urges, among other observations, "Vote for whomever, but it will be up to us to rebuild the division this political process has established by being decent, respectful, kind, loving, supportive, and compassionate human beings during these trying times" were a few of McCain's personal thoughts.

"My first Election Day without my dad is my first with my daughter Liberty. Feeling overwhelmed with nostalgia and warm sentiments about the circle of life. . . " she wrote.

Then came this. "I love Election Day, always will. Don't let the ugly, divisive fleeting politics of today remove what's beautiful about our democratic process and our incredible country I will forever love so much. I am so proud to be an American and to have the privilege of living in the greatest country that has ever existed. No president or time or political party will ever change that. In the words of my dad – we're Americans and we fight, never surrender."

With that warm, Hallmark-ready closer, McCain illustrated the mindset of the white women who voted for Trump in 2016 and in 2020 – some of them doing so again, others for the first time and altogether in greater numbers.

In the coming weeks media analysts are going to engage in some generalized hand-wringing and soul-searching in an effort to figure out why about 70 million voters wanted a second term for Donald Trump, despite his miserable handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, his overt bigotry, misogyny, documented corruption and malfeasance and, oh yeah, the fact that he was impeached.

Within that study are subsets of curiosity to dig into, like figuring out the reasons for Trump's increased support among a small subset of Black and Latino voters. But to the immediate horror of liberal white women who believed that somehow at least some of their conservative sisters would wash their hands of Trump – after five years of sexist comments, the Stormy Daniels saga, caging migrant children at our southern border, #MeToo and multiple sexual assault allegations – it turns out they did not.

On the contrary, those white women responded to Trump's various moves on other women and women's rights overall with a lusty embrace. Some 55% of white women voted for Trump in 2020, compared to the 52-53% who threw their support behind him in 2016, according to a recent New York Times exit poll.

And even with the usual disclaimers, such that the fact that exit polls are far from precise and it isn't clear whether this includes information from voters who submitted via absentee ballot, the rise in support for this misogynist is astonishing . . . to everyone who hand knit pink pussy hats for their girlfriends as Christmas presents back in 2017.

It really isn't to women of color who have been dealing with these types of women forever. And to clarify, by these types of women I'm not talking about Karens. I'm talking about the Meghan McCains of the world. The differences are subtle, but they're there. McCain, for example, probably wouldn't have called the cops on a birdwatcher or a kid selling water or stood on her front lawn waving a gun at protesters marching near her home; I imagine her as much more of an eye-roller.

But that doesn't mean she doesn't have feelings about all of those folks – she just saves her thoughts for other forums. For example, on the same day McCain posted her national kumbaya on Instagram, here's what she offered on Twitter as a quote reply to Politico correspondent Anna Palmer's declaration that Tuesday was an "abject disaster" for Democrats:

"Normalizing socialism, 'mostly peaceful protesting', cancel culture, insane tax rates, arrogant identity politics, apologizing for loving America and patriotism, and overall coastal elitism about Christianity and anyone making under 100k a year," McCain offered, adding as a smug kicker, "There I explained it, Democrats."

McCain has been on maternity leave from "The View" over the last few weeks, denying us a televised window into the psyche of how half the country politely, comfortably and quietly supports authoritarianism. However, that tweet tells us a lot about her overall appeal.

For the sake of focus let's not get into her strange accusations about apologizing for patriotism or Christianity or get into the ways that the term "coastal elite" is a dog whistle or parse the coded language conveyed by the reflexive usage of the term socialism. I assure you that Kamala Harris' alleged socialism isn't the reason some of these women I'm talking about refused to vote for Joe Biden, even though they may allege that it is.

We also need acknowledge that McCain and her mother publicly declared that they did not vote for Trump, choosing instead to throw their support to Biden. However, just read the text of that tweet cited above and imagine if Trump hadn't insulted her father, the late John McCain, or prisoners of war in general or American military servicemen and women killed in battle.

Imagine if Trump has simply stuck to demonizing progressives, feminists, Black Lives Matter protesters, journalists and liberals living in large cities. Maybe, given those circumstances, you might envision McCain voting for Trump. Hence her similarity with the expanded plurality if not majority of white women who voted for Trump.

Remember, McCain's role on "The View" is to translate the world from the conservative perspective, to represent the sensible right-wing woman who hasn't gone full QAnon and maybe mingles with people of color insofar as they're in her orbit, who decries racism and yet refuses to make an effort to understand where all the inconvenient divisiveness is coming from.

You know, beyond "political process."

Hence, when millions watch her on the "The View," she presents a version of a conservative firebrand that is at best atypical, which is to say a woman who sits down at the table with other women of different ethnicities and political points of view and isn't afraid to spar, but then appears to find common ground with the rest of the group.

This is why McCain can ask all the "but what if" questions she wants on "The View" and not demonstrate that she's listening to or learning from the insights her subjects provide. As McCain shared in a tweet she has since deleted, she's interviewed Stacey Abrams multiple times, during which Abrams offered concise answers supported by data.

In one such exchange back in 2019, Abrams pushed back against McCain's attempt to dismiss Democratic policy proposals as identity politics by actually defining that term. Abrams explained that it is an effort to honestly tend to the needs of marginalized people who are asking for help and not getting it. That includes people in rural communities that aren't getting adequate investment and, in her example, Black women whose high maternal mortality rates aren't being addressed.

"Identity is simply saying, 'I see you and I see the obstacles to you getting the things that all of us want: healthcare, economic security, educational opportunity,'" Abrams said. "What I look for in this Democratic primary are conversations that say, 'We see all of you.' Because if we want people to turn out and vote in November, they have to be seen long before that. You don't win elections by convincing the same people to do the same thing. You win elections by getting new people to say, 'I care too.'"

Democrats were successful in doing that to some degree with Black voters, and in part because of the party's support of racial justice demonstrations sparked by Floyd's death, regardless of what McCain's social media thread posits. Data from TargetSmart, a Democratic political data and data services, shows a surge in voter registrations in several states, particularly among young voters and people of color, as protests took place across the country this summer.

Yet in her paradigm and that of people like her, supporting those protests was an "abject disaster," politically speaking, because it disturbed their world.

McCain and people like her aren't interested in following up with the information she learns in her interviews to glean more facts or draw their own conclusions. This is not out of laziness – Meghan McCains aren't lazy, not by a mile – but because it would threaten to shift their convenient view that everything would be fine if everyone would simply go back to being the "decent, respectful, kind, loving, supportive, and compassionate human beings" they were before election season kicked off.

This posits that American culture was already all of those things, along with just and equal. The point of all the unrest and anxiety that's finally boiled over across the country is that it never was.

There have been times when McCain acknowledges this, as women like her do to maintain the polish on their legitimacy. But it's entirely performative and therefore meaningless. All you have to do is scroll back through these last few months for examples.

Take mid-May, for example, when a segment of "The View" was dedicated to examining Barack Obama's virtual commencement speech, during which Obama took a shot at the current administration's incompetent response to the pandemic. Most of the hosts gave it high marks. McCain blamed Obama for ushering in "the culture war that I believe is real, and is raging in this country" leading to Trump exacerbating it.

A few weeks later after George Floyd's murder, McCain expressed empathy and copped to the shortcoming of looking at the world from a place of privilege, saying, "All of us have a responsibility to take a hard look at our responsibility confronting race . . . I hope this is a watershed moment that we can learn and grow from."

She may have suggested that Fort Benning be renamed in honor of Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman killed in combat – "As long as we start highlighting wonderful icons like that in our military history, I really think it is something people can get on board with," she said – but her Nov. 4 tweet blasting Democrats for normalizing "'mostly peaceful protesting'" and arrogant identity politics does not show much learning and growth.

And yet, the left is failing to win over these women and other Trumpists not because of their passionate enthusiasm for white patriarchy, but because progressives aren't pushing a comfortable sort of identity politics – the type everyone can get behind.

See, the difference between McCain and the average white woman Trump supporter – not the ones who show up at rallies unmasked, co-opting Village People songs and braying racist mispronunciations of Kamala Harris' name – is that she's paid to put it all out there.

Out in the wild, many of the women holding those views tend to keep their politics to themselves because discussing such matters in company that may not share their opinions isn't polite and, indeed, may lead to irritation and bad feelings.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these folks aren't exposed to many people of color on a regular basis save for the few at work or church or who marry into their families. They may feel affection for those individuals and still vote for candidates who back policies designed to harm them because those politicians also speak to their personal beliefs and, with Trump, fears.

Since they'd rather keep their interactions polite, nobody engages them or challenges them to explain why they voted for a fascist white supremacist because I'd wager it would lead them to expose some unpleasant and impolite qualities about themselves that they can't quite defend, like their racism. To someone who supports racists while insisting she isn't racist, that's uncomfortable.

The Meghan McCains of the world deeply resent being made to feel uncomfortable.

Maybe it's time for the people who cater to them to stop feeling bad about that and thoughtfully confront them over their harmful politics and cloaked bigotry, regardless of how impolite they insist we're being in doing so. The challenge is to keep the engagement going for longer than an hour or an episode, because four years of treating our democracy like a TV show is what got us into this mess in the first place.

All the ways Trump let the coronavirus win

Over the last four years, Donald Trump's administration has kept fact checkers and truth-seekers several levels occupied. Those who aren't actively correcting his statements busily dig for precedent or corroborating evidence to prove their take on reality isn't simply yanked out of thin air, that it is accurately represented.

Such a task shouldn't be difficult. But "Totally Under Control" shows how needlessly tough it is under an administration that has pitted science against politics and the economy, and for experts with extensive backgrounds on pandemic response against Trump loyalists more eager to remain in the president's good graces than to curb the spread of a pandemic he'd rather would simply disappear, like magic.

"Totally Under Control" is a 123-minute indictment of the Trump administration's disastrous mishandling of this pandemic, which is exactly what a person expects from an Alex Gibney documentary. No fan of this administration, Gibney has had an especially prolific 365 days thanks to this administration's bungling; this is his third Trump-related documentary released since last November, after "Citizen K," and HBO's "Agents of Chaos."

Understandably, Gibney could direct this project alone, especially given that he decided it needed to be made in April, "in the middle of the New York sh*tshow," according to the film's press notes. Demonstrating this are the recurring instances of perspective shots taken from behind the interview subjects, showing them speaking to a small screen surrounded by extensive plastic sheeting, behind which a camera operator is lurking.

There's a touch of levity in those glimpses; more than this, however, it calls attention to the obscenity of this new normal.

Works born in the midst of crises and times of high anxiety risk becoming victims of the creator's frustrations, but Gibney and his co-directors Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan sidestep those pitfalls.

By carefully walking the viewer through the pandemic's timeline from the emergence of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 to the most recent headline-grabbing developments, it reconstructs recent history to remind us of how recently and quickly this pandemic changed life as we know it. Simultaneously, it calls attention to the many missed opportunities officials could have seized that may have altered the course we're on, and the inexcusable idiocy behind decisions such as contradicting expert recommendations that people wear masks in public.

Somehow ignoring scientific advice became an act of patriotism, the film observes. That misguided fervor will take more than a regime change to undo.

"Totally Under Control" moves with a variation of the anxious urgency that drives "Agents of Chaos" owing to its connection to the here and now. Just as that film dives into Russian interference with the 2016 elections and was released weeks before the 2020 edition, the final frame of "Totally Under Control" confirms how close to release the three filmmakers had to update the production.

It simply a text card that reads, "One day after the completion of this film, President Donald Trump revealed that he had tested positive for COVID-19."

In light of the two hours' prosecution that spells out this administration's spectacular bungling of its response to this pandemic, those word should have an air of poetic justice to them. But they don't because we're still living with the effects of that failure. "Totally Under Control" simply adds the doleful confirmation that all this could have been avoided if not for Trump's narcissism and ego, his and his cronies' zealous belief in the myth of American exceptionalism and his administration's purposeful dismantling of any plans or structures informed by expertise.

Mind you, despite their even-keeled strategy in taking on this story, "Totally Under Control" is far from a dispassionate film. Nearly every scientific or medical expert who agreed to sit for an interview has at least one point in their testimony where they are at the very least at a loss for words.

Rick Bright, who was removed from his position with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) after going to the press with what he knew about this administration's intentional misleading the public regarding hydroxychloroquine, nearly breaks down in tears as he's retracing the steps that led to his decision to effectively garrote his government career for the sake of protecting the public.

"It's not easy to come forward in this administration, OK?" he says, adding, "It was a very hard process to lay our careers on the line to push back" against the Food and Drug Administration's insistence upon rushing the treatment to consumers at the White House's insistence and despite any evidence of its effectiveness.

But this is an appropriate response when placed in context of the documentary's central question: Why did the United States fail to reckon with a danger for which it should have been so well prepared?

The answers are exasperating – and to the credit of Gibney, Harutyunyan and Hillinger ( who worked on the FX docuseries "The Weekly") the blame doesn't entirely fall on this administration. Just most of it.

"Totally Under Control" explains why the federal stockpiles of protective medical equipment should have been adequately supplied under Barack Obama's administration but, unfortunately, were not. As with all past presidencies, military spending was prioritized over preventative allocations for other departments, including those tasked with pandemic preparedness.

As with any film of this sort, much of "Totally Under Control" is in effect a replay of the news that's come before that takes time to highlight aspects of the pandemic narrative that likely escaped our attention or might have been underreported.

One alarming testimonial comes from Max Kennedy, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy who volunteered to assist the White House COVID-19 Supply-Chain team headed up by Jared Kushner. Kennedy assumed he would be providing auxiliary support to a team of experts, only to discover that he was part of a 10-person crew of 20-year-old volunteers "all just with private laptops, nobody with any industry relationships, no experience working in supply chain" Googling mask manufacturers online and contacting them through their personal email accounts.

He left in mid-April, as the pandemic was ravaging Manhattan and state governors were bidding against each other – and the federal government itself – to secure PPE for its own state medical facilities and frontline workers.

"My takeaway was really that I still feel that I haven't worked for the government," Kennedy says. "We were so far outside of it. I mean, we were . . . every single person that we reported to up the chain of command was a political appointee. The number of FEMA employees I met, I could count on one hand, and they were fleeting interactions. It taught me about how this administration works, and it seemed to work in this case outside of the government."

This makes "Totally Under Control" a case study of how this administration works against the interests of the public and for the enrichment of corporate entities and the personal financial portfolios of everyone involved. And if the professionals here can't hide their aggravation or befuddlement at the administration's criminal inability to refrain from politicizing a deadly virus, no sane and feeling viewer can blame them.

We've reached a point in this presidency's lifespan at which the public surely must be numb to so many accounts of willful negligence and mishandling of issues that impact the entirety of the American population – the economy, the environment, systemic injustice and now, the public's health.

Within the last four years, Trump has inspired more than 1,200 books about his life and his governing methods, positive and negative. A count of every special report, hour-long news special and documentary such as this would eclipse that number by a wide margin.

"Totally Under Control" serves as a record of Trump's dereliction of his duty to protect the American people that's also a testament to the efforts of the respected and accredited medical professionals who have done their best to step into the void he's left.

"There's a misconception that public health failed. The truth is that political leaders failed to follow public health guidance, and that's what caused avoidable disease, death and economic destruction," said Dr. Tom Frieden, the former director of the CDC.

Frieden and other medical professionals aren't sharing such opinions out of vindictiveness but rather, dismay, anger and sorrow. For people like Dr. Taison Bell, the COVID-19 ICU Director at UVA Medical Center who sounded the alarm regarding the pandemic's disproportionately heavy toll on communities of color, testifying isn't merely a matter of satisfying one's conscience. He's doing it, he says, because in every case he sees his own family and the risks they face.

When he reads names of people who fell sick or died of COVID-related illnesses, he says he sees "smiles and hugs and tears and barbecues. They're not numbers on a paper."

"Totally Under Control" is currently available on demand and premieres on Hulu on Tuesday, Oct. 20.

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