'Four Seasons Total Documentary' captures the Trump campaign's emperor-has-no-clothes moment

One year ago "Four Seasons Total Documentary" director Christopher Stoudt happened to be at home when his roommate's brother, the director of sales at a Philadelphia-based landscaping company called Four Seasons, texted a picture of Donald Trump's surrogate Rudy Giuliani sitting in a drab office behind a nameplate that said "Boss Lady."

This article first appeared on Salon.

"When it was happening, I just thought it was just one of the funniest things that I've ever seen," he told Salon in a recent phone interview. Hours later, that moment became part of a ridiculous press conference that transformed a small family-owned landscaping business into a meme and local landmark.

As a reminder, former-President Trump kicked off the foolishness by tweeting, "Lawyers News Conference Four Seasons, Philadelphia. 11:00 a.m." Then he posted a correction: "Big press conference today in Philadelphia at Four Seasons Total Landscaping. 11:30am!" The famed hotel chain was obligated to follow up by saying it had no relation to the landscaping company, which services local businesses around Philly.

But while subsequent coverage chased the reasons for Trump Campaign's strange choice for its campaign's final gasp – the election was called for Joe Biden mid-Giuliani meltdown – the Four Seasons staff and its owner, Marie Siravo, were abandoned to face a barrage of hateful voicemails and online harassment for hosting the event.

"Four Seasons Total Documentary" is part of MSNBC's push into the longform non-fiction space, with network president Rashida Jones serving as an executive producer on the project. Don't let its tongue-in-cheek title throw you – it is an entirely serious if good-humored breakdown of how the press conference came to be and how it impacted this locally owned business, presented from the staff's perspective.

RELATED: The Four Seasons Total Landscaping debacle is finally getting the documentary treatment it deserves

It also tells the story of how Four Seasons turned around a situation that nearly destroyed the livelihood Siravo built over 28 years from the ground up. The landscaping company's salvation came in the from of retaking the narrative, making themselves the epicenter of the joke. They are the reason Four Seasons Total Landscaping t-shirts became last spring's hipster fashion must-have.

That plucky tone also informs Stoudt's approach, starting with the fact that at around 28 minutes long, this documentary is appreciably shorter than the press conference that inspired it. Giuliani's ceaseless rambling expanded a show about nothing to 37 minutes and 21 seconds.

The piece may be more of an episode about an episode than a documentary, but its economic runtime doesn't take away from its worth. Within that time up Stoudt and his subjects, including journalists who covered the campaign and the event, clear up many commonly held misconceptions about of how and why it happened. But as the director insists, that's the least important part of the story.

His main emphasis is on the people who said yes to a campaign's request to host an event on its premises, and their amazement that they became part of a larger story. To Stoudt, the press conference at Four Seasons was an appropriate bookend to a presidential era that began with a game show host descending a golden escalator.

Watching Trump's presidency end in front of a garage door next to some coiled yellow hose, he observed, "was kind of like the emperor-has-no-clothes moment for the Trump campaign, you know? It just sort of like it let us finally peek behind the curtain and see reality for what it was."

Keep reading for the rest of our conversation with the "Four Seasons Total Documentary."

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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What compelled you to film a documentary about, of all things, a press conference at a landscaping company?

It just seemed like an amazing opportunity to tell the story of 2020 and use this press conference as sort of an analogue for how crazy the year was, how divisive the election had been for so many people – it's probably the most divisive election in my lifetime, at least. And I wanted to tell this underdog story of seeing this family take this opportunity and turn it to their advantage.

Because at first, the whole world hated them. They were getting endless phone calls and hate mail, and people thought they were endorsing the Trump campaign as a result of their hosting. They would have done this for any campaign, they would have done it for Biden, if he had asked.

You've done a lot of short form pieces, and one of them being a 60-second short that you did on Katrina, a very different kind of disaster. You seem to gravitate towards current events flashpoints that say specific things about America. What does this documentary tell you about American culture?

It was just interesting to spotlight what I felt was a collective sigh of relief for the country. In 2020, we were indoors, we were locked up in front of our computers. A lot of our American experience that year was online. And when this event happened, it became the sort of antidote to all the misery and dread that a lot of people had been experiencing. It also gave us this communal experience to bond over that wasn't traumatic and tragic. It was a light-hearted moment to show us that we should be able to laugh at ourselves.


It's also an interesting examination of the snap judgment people made about the company, simply for choosing to host a Trump campaign press conference. The owner never reveals what her politics are, but she still has such vitriol directed at her. As you said, by the time you got to Four Seasons the family had already turned the story around. But were they hesitant when you approached them?

They were hesitant at first. And the reason they were was because every outlet under the sun, and all of them wanted to know why it happened. Why did they book this press conference? The focus was completely shifting away from the family. And actually, they were supposed to be anonymous, right?

The press conference was never supposed to be announced that it was at Four Seasons. Then Trump made his tweet, and suddenly, they were placed under this magnifying glass. Suddenly, their reputation and their character was on the line. And it was a place they never asked to be.

For me, my focus has always been less on the why of it than the who of it. And in telling that story, the who of it, I can still touch on the Trump campaign and the dysfunction that was happening at the time. And the sort of unraveling of Rudy Giuliani right before our very eyes. I mean, the great irony is that had there not been this funny little screw up, no one would have ever seen this press conference.

And what I gleaned from the coverage in making the film was that the Trump campaign didn't want eyeballs on Rudy Giuliani on that day. He had been going off the rails, he had aides assigned to him to make sure that he wasn't creating more problems for the campaign than he had already. So by this perfect screw up, suddenly the entire world is watching.

And the reaction from the media was a little classist. Like, everyone was talking about how [Four Seasons Total Landscaping] was next door to a sex shop and across the street from a crematorium. The reality that this was just a small family-owned business, trying to support themselves, serving the needs of local businesses who needed landscaping, was sort of glossed over. Suddenly their character was on trial.

What did you do or say to put them at ease in terms of letting you into tell their story?

My family's from Redding, Pennsylvania, which is really close to Philly, it's about an hour away. So, you know, I don't have any Philly street cred, but I felt a sense of familiarity to the region. And I remember the first thing that I told them was that if we were going to make the film, they were gonna have to take me to a lot of good cheesesteak places. And yeah, we just sort of started laughing and joking around. It felt easy for me to be able to sort of start joking with them and start stripping away sort of the "press" of it all. In other words, I approached them in a way that no one else had.

Did you take this to other outlets besides MSNBC? Or were you contracted to make it for them?

We definitely weren't contracted by MSNBC.

I asked that question because the branding of cable news has become very politicized, and MSNBC is seen as the liberal answer to Fox. You never state what the family's politics are, you simply tell the story. Did any portrayal of politics enter into forming the narrative?

I'll give some backstory there. The story changed a lot as it developed, right? Initially the tone was a little bit more comedic. And then I remember, on Jan. 6, I was in a Zoom meeting with my producer . . . and I got a text from a friend that said, "Hey, are you watching this? People are storming the Capitol right now." That moment was just such a tragedy for our country.

And after that I began seeing the direct line that you could potentially draw from Four Seasons to that moment. We had Rudy Giuliani in front of the crowd screaming, "Trial by combat!" The significance of the story and the power of the story really became apparent, and we needed to course correct. Then the goal became to be able to tell a story that could hold a mirror up to what happened without editorializing it in a way that sort of tipped our hand too much to what we as filmmakers believe.

Because when you make a film, you have to put your own biases aside. You have to be objective. And the phrase we like to use is warm hearts and clear eyes.

That's very "Friday Night Lights."

"Can't lose." Exactly.

But I always go into making films with a really warm heart. I love to find the good in people and the humor. For me, the politics ultimately distracts, because that's not really the point.

Look, I'm a long-haired guy from California. And when I show up in Philly, in Holmesburg, with long hair, it's pretty obvious where I stand, you know. But that was never held against me. And it wasn't really the point. It was always trying to let the moments speak for themselves.

You're always trying to tell as universal a story as possible. And this is about the American experience, and the American experience should be bipartisan. It should not be divisive. I think everyone can agree that the division that we experienced as a country leading up to this moment was incredibly toxic and created so much anguish for so many people. We wanted to do the opposite of that. We didn't want to create more division with our film.

"Four Seasons Total Documentary" premieres Sunday, Nov. 7 at 10 p.m. on MSNBC.

Fox News: 25 years of making America crappier

Fox News Channel has offered us oh so many ways to mark its 25th anniversary. How could we possibly count them? Creating a chronological list of its Achievements in Outrage would be a massive undertaking; someone else is welcome to it.

Retracing its history back to the start, when the late Roger Ailes launched the network with an array of opinion-based programming packaged to resemble news and calling it "fair and balanced," has been done. Citing poll data and statistics proving the extent to which the network's dedicated viewership is more misinformed than other news' outlets consumers would be similarly redundant.

Instead, let's simply pause for a moment and marvel at the spectacular impact a quarter of a century's worth of Fox News has had on American life itself. Whether a person watches the channel or never tunes in does not matter. In some way, Fox News has made your life remarkably crappier.

That pandemic we're still in? Fox News' prime time hosts have taken joy in helping to prolong it, and purely for the sake of harpooning a Democratic president's approval rating. Mask-wearing and vaccines, two common sense mitigants to get the spread of COVID-19 under control, are partisan issues dominating airtime on Tucker Carlson's and Laura Ingraham's shows.

Were you hoping to get a break from the sanity-testing anxiety created by the 2020 presidential election? Sorry! Joseph Biden's win meant Fox News lost the main source of its ratings, Biden's orange opponent. So it turned to a fresh energy source: amplifying The Big Lie and assaulting the integrity of our elections by echoing the losing party's baseless claims that the results were rigged.

This may make it sound like Fox News has made life worse solely for liberals but, hate to break it to you Fox News fans, it's also made life crappier for you.

Between Bill O'Reilly's nightly "Talking Points Memo" propaganda post-its, Megyn Kelly's obsession with Jesus' whiteness, Glenn Beck's rants and the contents of any Sean Hannity or Carlson transcript from the past half decade, Fox News has become rich by drawing you into a loop of anger and paranoia.

That loop was built to keep you watching Fox News and primes you to doubt or fully reject other news sources. Outlets that base their reporting on helpful, illuminating details like data, input from accredited experts. Some of them also publish lovely recipes for quick and delicious weeknight meals.

Worse than all of that, Fox also somehow persuaded you to place your faith in hucksters like Rudy Giuliani, who became so legally radioactive that even they had to ditch him, and Mike Lindell, who may have persuaded you to sleep on his terrible pillows.

This is on top of convincing people that risking severe illness and death is worth it, so long as you protect your personal freedom to refuse scientifically proven preventative measures to protect you from that severe illness and death.

Chris Wallace and Fox News journalists can never win at the pro-Trump network

Back to those of us who aren't necessarily saddled with relatives drooling a gravy of lies, illogic and outright bigotry all over otherwise pleasant family gatherings. O'Reilly's manufactured War on Christmas still managed to cast a mild pall on the simplest interactions with strangers. Remember that inanity?

Anyway, those were simpler irritants of a bygone era, when we did things like go over to other people's houses, or spend time in large crowds without fear of infection or sudden outbreaks of hand-to-hand combat.

Change the lens to a wider view, and Fox's destructive role becomes nothing to joke about.

Fox shaped the nation's narrative by emboldening rewrites of history, reinterpreting fact and encouraging the disbelief of one's own eyes. It wins by purposefully repeating misleading information reduced to catchy bumper sticker summations of divisive topics presented with little nuance and devoid of context.

Television news' overall quality is worse as a result, since Fox's political influence and popularity shoved all mainstream news coverage rightward. The network infected journalism with the disease of false equivalency and obfuscation, as organizations contorted themselves to placate accusations of liberal bias. This is explains why, for a short time, NBC tripped over itself to hire Kelly before attempting and failing to normalize her, hoping the audience would eventually forget about her past. And they would have gotten away with it too, if not for her addiction to defending blackface.

The slippage began around the time of the 9/11 and the Iraq War, when Fox first surged ahead of other networks. But it accelerated in the lead-up to the 2008 election and during Barack Obama's presidency when, among other feats, Fox amplified the birther lie.

The urge to ensure representations of all voices on all stories led to such situations as, for example, Republican energy lobbyist and climate change denier Rick Santorum being called upon to offer insights about a damning U.S. National Climate Assessment issued in 2018. He was featured on a news segment instead of a respected climate change scientist and author – who was bumped.

Fox News didn't do that, by the way. That was CNN, doing its best to give a voice to "both sides."

In fairness, and for the sake of balance, it would be silly to blame Fox News for everything that's gone wrong in America over the last 25 years. Republican operative and strategic racist Lee Atwater planted the seeds from which our modern version of partisanship blossomed by the time Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, long before Fox came into existence.

Rush Limbaugh's toxic version of 1990s conservative talk radio was a fixture in media predating Fox as well. Certainly he gathered the first members of what would evolve into the channel's flock. Ailes tried to launch Limbaugh in syndicated television before attempting to bring him over to Fox. He ended up settling for Sean Hannity instead.

Point being, some version of a conservative news channel would have emerged eventually. And might have even been far worse.

Still, one wonders how such a network might have fared if it emphasized journalistic integrity while incorporating a conservative point of view instead of perpetuating an endless cycle of fear, loathing and rage.

Don't think about it for long: Fox tried that. That effort is called its news division, prime time's parasitic twin that management calls forth from the lineup's innards every election night like Kuato. But even the journalistic side succumbed to Breitbart's influence after the 2016 election; with Fox's older viewership dying off, disaffected young white men are replenishing the ranks.

Indeed, for Fox to not have become what it is today, the Republican party, conservative talk radio and the Internet would have to be remarkably different entities than they are and always have been.

America itself would have to be different.

While you cannot blame the network for all that ails America and its imperiled democracy, you can certainly place a surfeit of responsibility upon it for the majority of the ills that befell us over the last six and continues to bedevil us now.

Rupert Murdoch himself claimed credit for getting the 45th president elected and was happy for his network to serve as the administration's propaganda arm.

You remember what happened after that, don't you? Not the details of the blur, the low-grade despair born of being dragged in its current. In the past, when Republicans had an actual agenda, Fox helped sell it to the American people with no apologies. Maybe that meant persuading viewers to hating the French for no reason other than to prove one's patriotism. Maybe it meant making up a non-existent threat like the New Black Panther Party to further stoke its viewers' fear of being governed by a Black president.

Now, Fox's talking heads drum up reasons for people to be afraid of or angry at people dedicated to making their lives better, such as teachers and scientists. Once the network drums up a misinformation campaign, there's little that can be done to stop it from proliferating and mutating into its own virus.

Fox News hosts were key players in transforming "critical race theory," which is taught in law school, into a plot to make white schoolkids feel bad by learning about slavery's foundational role in the making of America. Carlson, the channel's top rated personality is promoting the supposed "great replacement" of the white electorate by non-white immigrants, and spreading anti-vaccine and anti-mask rhetoric.

Crowds of people who could be engaging in any number of worthwhile pursuits – baking, reading, getting vaccinated – are intimidating school boards, threatening election officials and attacking healthcare professionals.

And at 25 Fox is still the top-rated cable news channel. According to Nielsen, in its third quarter the network's ratings averaged 2.372 million viewers in prime time, beating MSNBC (1.267 million viewers) and CNN (822,000 viewers). All three networks suffered a year-over-year ratings decline, with Fox News down by 32% in prime time.

Its overall viewership may be declining, but that matters less than the channel's gravitational pull. Think of the right wing mediasphere as the Star Wars equivalent of the Imperial armada – it's a dreadnought, towing along all the smaller ships like OAN and Newsmax, destroyers and all.

Depressing, isn't it? But that's why Fox News is inescapable. Have a few conversations with people you know, and odds are one of them will reveal they believe President Biden stole the election, or that the threat posed by the Jan. 6 insurrection is overblown, because Tucker said so.

Even if you live in a partisan bubble, someone in your circle of acquaintances is taking ivermectin or believes hydroxychloroquine can be used to treat COVID-19, because "The Ingraham Angle" touted these treatments.

They may have received that information from another source such as OAN, Newsmax, their yoga instructor or Joe Rogan. Rest assured you can draw a line right back to Fox News.

How do we move forward from this? Every answer is insufficient and exhausting. Fox News management isn't interested in reining in its prime time hosts because they're the channel's main ratings magnets. De-programming experts have all sorts of suggestions on how to save the rabid Fox addicts in your life, but once again that places the burden on reasonable people to wade into a reservoir of hatred that's been steadily filling for two and a half decades.

Oddly enough, I stumbled upon another response while watching a 1993 episode of "Northern Exposure," where the characters gather for a feast to celebrate, yes, the 25th anniversary of the local media company owned by the town's version of Roger Ailes, Maurice Minnifield. This is not a perfect parallel, since Maurice was the type of conservative Clinton-era liberals wanted to believe in, which is to say that despite his prejudices, he tended to behave humanely towards others.

Still, to mark that milestone, the town's sage and disc jockey Chris Stevens raises his glass, looks the devil in the face and speaks honestly, calling Maurice a homophobe and a bigot. Then he adds, "One thing you can count on, there's no hidden agenda with this man. Maurice Minnifield is not gonna stab you in the back! No, you're going to see him plunge that dagger right into your belly, pull it up, and twist, and twist, until your guts spill right out onto your shoes."

That doesn't make the blade poking our belly feel any better – but like the man said, at least the adversary is right in our face. What matters next is how the media and democracy responds.

Tellingly Fox, at 25, has changed its slogan to "Standing Up for What's Right."

The problem with Jon Stewart's new show

It is tough to resist the opportunity to go for the cute, simple sentence when pointing out that "The Problem with Jon Stewart" has, shall we say, issues to overcome.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Topmost is the host's refusal to let go of the "Daily Show" format he may not have originated, but definitively and successfully innovated.

More than six years after his final "Daily Show" broadcast, Stewart's method of blending cogent current events analysis with satire carries on through "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee," "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" and "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." Current "Daily Show" host Trevor Noah took what Stewart built and broadened his views to take in the world, not just the U.S., while speaking with authority to issues of race, class, and LGBTQIA+ rights.

You can even credit Stewart's successful "Daily Show" run for inspiring NBC to construct "Late Night with Seth Meyers" around political headlines instead of punchlines – acknowledging, of course, that Meyers is mainly playing to his strengths as a former "Weekend Update" host.

The field may not be full, but it is amply populated, to the point that other excellent topical comedy shows by "Daily Show" alums including Wyatt Cenac, Hasan Minhaj, Michelle Wolf and Larry Wilmore have come and gone.

Knowing all of this, what on Earth could Stewart possibly add to the whole "comic takes on news" gig? Why would he think that after his successors improved upon his means of punching up the news that he could bring something even fresher to the fray?

The answer may be a single word that begins with the letter H and ends with . . . OK, it's hubris. However, burying "The Problem" and scooting Stewart back to his farm and animal sanctuary shouldn't be the goal here.

Instead, let's borrow a conceit Stewart used often in his day and invite this audience of readers, which probably doesn't include him (but who knows?), to meet me at the imaginary equivalent of camera two. You know, for some real talk.

. . . Hey there, buddy. How are you holding up?

Asking because the first episode of your show is out there, and while it's great to have you back, it is not your best work. Even you acknowledge this when the live studio audience doesn't laugh at one of your brainier opening punchlines. Maybe the crowd is tougher. Maybe the joke didn't hit the mark as well as it did in rehearsal. It's probably a bit of both.

And we empathize with your situation. The world has changed since you raised "The Daily Show" from a toddler into a rebellious teenager. While you were semi-retired, your former co-workers and inheritors refined that style you perfected to stake out their own territories on the talk variety landscape, each familiar yet unique.

In the same way they have specific passions and areas of expertise, so do you. Just as the last five years have weathered all of us, they've also shifted your priorities. Semi-retirement has changed you, Jon, and not in a bad way.

Acknowledging that change is the key to solving "The Problem," if Apple grants you the space to do so and, more to point, if you choose to continue with it. Hopefully you will. People should realize by now that few series are the best versions of themselves in their first episodes, and that's doubly the case with news-comedy hybrids. With a few tweaks, what ails "The Problem" can quickly be cured.

The first is probably the most extreme suggestion: dump the guy-behind-a-desk schtick. Sure, the set is new, and that style is a genre standard, although Bee busted out by ditching the desk completely. Bill Maher's continued success with the panelist roundtables on "Real Time with Bill Maher" may have inspired you too.

But you're not Maher, or Oliver, or Bee, or any of those folks. That is not a quality judgment; it's a reminder of brand identity. Your brand has changed in the five-plus years since you've done this on a regular basis. Now you're the beloved older brother who drops by "The Late Show" to comfort and thrill the audience. More people know you as the passionate voice of reason who shamed Congress into extending funding for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund through 2090.

"The Problem" clashes that Jon Stewart against the Ghost of Stewart Past.

You even acknowledge this, sir, in a production meeting segment featured in your series opener "War." The episode looks at the disconnect between our public support for the men and women who serve in the military and our government's failure to provide adequate healthcare for them once they return to civilian life.

To illustrate this, you zoom in on the problem of toxic burn pits, the main means of large-scale waste disposal on military bases in places without existing infrastructure. In these pits, the episode shows, soldiers burn everything from equipment to body parts to feces – and the men and women serving breathe in the foul air that results. It is shocking.

You look closely at health risks they pose to men and women who serve, and the government's failure to adequately care for veterans who develop diseases, by soliciting the views of those who served and family members who watched their loved ones' health deteriorate.

And we see all of this before that production meeting snippet, where we see you and your writers bouncing relevant questions off one another before you interrupt. "This is the problem with the hybrid comedy shows," you say. "The whole time we're talking about this, I'm just looking at No. 1 with an asterisk" – referring to the list of ideas on a nearby white board – "snake penis."

See how you've unintentionally hit on what's doesn't feel right? You've anchored your episode in a real, painful issue with human cost, and brought a few of those humans in front of the camera with you. This doesn't mean you can't insert some jokes at the grim absurdity of it all in there, but jamming skits into unnecessary act breaks is not the way to do that. (One of them, "Ken Burns Presents Ken's Burn," is embarrassing for both the PBS filmmaker and "The Problem." Burns is clearly doing you a favor here; now, you owe him.)

Luckily by calling attention to this problem you have stumbled upon a better solution.

Once you've gotten rid of the studio audience, the stagnant set and the urge to shove jokes where the sun don't shine, embrace the Jon Stewart of Today.

This means acknowledging that you are an elder statesman in the comedy world.

Perhaps you find that term uncomfortable. Get over it.

The very fact that "The Problem with Jon Stewart" exists is evidence that you've attained that status. Throw in the respect you've earned as a First Responders advocate and all those old credits in the trust bank from back in the day when Gen Xers and millennials were supposedly getting their news from you, and guess what? You've more than earned your right to do serious interviews that aren't rolled in sugar.

David Letterman showed the way with his Netflix show "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction" which, in its first season, uses celebrity guests as Trojan horses to enter discussions of larger social and political issues.

But it's not as if you need some instructive pattern to guide you, Jon.

That first episode interview with Veterans Affairs secretary Denis McDonough demonstrated your ability to ply a respectful amount of skepticism in harmony with unfiltered B.S. detection. Surely viewers who are closer to the details of the topic will take issue with your argument, but that only works in your favor. It'll get people talking about the take instead of the host, you, which is what you want.

And if you can find a way to blend that type of gravitas with the lively energy sparking throughout the second episode's conversation with dissidents from Egypt, Venezuela and the Philippines, that's a wonderful means of bridging your classic approach with something different, if not entirely new.

That second episode, "Freedom," contains hints of how that might manifest even though it bears a closer resemblance to a version of old "Daily Show" that borrowed "The Nightly Show" table from a storage room. Leading off with classic Stewart rants about anti-mask, anti-vax hypocrisy reminds us of what we loved about you back in the day. Those kicked life into the studio audience, but at a cost: the comedown diverts some of the vitality away from the poignant conversation that followed about how dictatorships rise out of democracies.

"The Problem with Jon Stewart" is a work in progress, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. We've also only seen a few episodes. But one hopes that you and your creative team can find a way to emphasize the art of that equation. Wilmore, Cenac and Minhaj created brilliant work with "The Nightly Show," "Problem Areas" and "Patriot Act" by blending news and comedy that was perhaps ahead of their respective times. They left us too soon.

But you, Jon, are afforded a level of privilege they don't have, which Cenac brutally pointed out when your show was announced in April.

Don't be mad. Use your platform to elevate necessary conversations in ways that are distinct from what your peers are doing.

It matters little that your hair is silver and, to quote your own very harsh joke back at you, that you look like an anti-smoking poster. You don't, by the way, but you have returned to walls and furnishings that have a whiff of nicotine-stained staleness about them. Move out, move on, and don't be afraid to drop the old bits to spend the wisdom points you've gained. We're betting that if you do that, more people will be glad to listen to what you have to say.

"The Problem with Jon Stewart" premieres with two episodes on Thursday, Sept. 30 on Apple TV+, with new episodes released every other week.

The Problem with Jon Stewart — Coming Soon | Apple TV+ www.youtube.com

How September 11, 2001 became the borderline dividing two eras of late-night comedy

In a recent episode of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher", right wing lobbyist Ralph Reed actually poses a legitimately relevant question about the state of late-night topical humor.

This article first appeared in Salon.

"When did comedy become reductionist politics?" the Faith and Freedom Coalition Chairman asks. Maher answers, "When everything became partisan. When it became more important to cheer for your team than to actually have a laugh."

It's not often that I find myself in agreement with Maher, but here he's at least halfway correct. Late-night shows never avoided politics, but the landscape has become increasingly partisan over the last 20 years, tacking more extremely in that direction since the 2016 presidential campaign season and that election.

Maher didn't assign an approximate date to this tonal changeover, which is somewhat strange given how abruptly the attacks of September 11, 2001 changed his own career. In another respect, that's understandable. Maher likes to process the world as it relates to him and burnishes his point of view. Over the same period he's said plenty of horrifying things and fueled a slew of "WTF?" headlines.

That same behavior won him enough of a loyal fanbase to earn his show two more seasons on HBO, ensuring we'll be shaking our head at the man on a regular basis through 2024.

Still, in his reply to Reed, Maher sidesteps an important piece of 9/11-related history. Lots of people remember that on September 17, 2001, David Letterman resumed "The Late Show with David Letterman," opening that broadcast with a sincere admission of feeling adrift in the wake of such unparalleled tragedy. His heartfelt words demonstrated a sincere level of commiseration with his audience, and his subsequent conversation with Regis Philbin was viewed as his way of giving people permission to laugh again.

Twenty years later Letterman's opener is still recalled as a lighthouse guiding comics and other hosts out of that tragedy's fog.

Somewhat forgotten is the detail that on the exact same date, Maher shared the opinion that would eventually lead ABC to cancel his show "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher": he said that the terrorists who hijacked the planes that downed the World Trade Center towers and crashed into the Pentagon were not cowards. "We have been the cowards," he said, "lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly."

If ever there was an example of "Too soon?" in action, that was it. But on the scale between Maher's tone-deaf gaffe and Letterman's considerate act of reassurance, late night comedy has steadily glided closer to the HBO host's side.

This is not his doing, mind you, or Letterman's. It is largely thanks to Jon Stewart's stewardship of "The Daily Show."

Comedy Central's late night flagship turned 25 in July, but in the months and years after 9/11 it found its distinct purpose. Stewart was already lampooning the news before that, but with mainstream TV news' skepticism concerning the Bush administration's justifications for war decreasing and the influence of hawkish, extremist cable news punditry rising, "The Daily Show" secured its legacy by meeting the dangerous absurdity creeping into the news cycle with relentlessly sobering satire.

"Our show has changed . . . I don't doubt that. What it's become, I don't know," Stewart said when "The Daily Show" returned on September 20, 2001, for its first broadcast after 9/11.

Then he said something that viewed from 20 years hence might be considered meaningful. "'Subliminable' is not a punchline anymore." Bush did not suddenly became an eloquent orator overnight; nor did comedians lay off the verbal stumblebum-in-chief. But that statement may have been a preview of the way the disaster necessitated a sharpening of political comedy's edge.

Stewart's honing of "The Daily Show" into a blunt force instrument wrapped in punchlines served a purpose that wasn't being fulfilled by "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" or other broadcast late-night talk shows.

To Leno, "subliminable" and its like remained fair game, much in the same way his predecessor Johnny Carson feasted off tabloid scandal that, for example, ensnared a former senator photographed with two women who weren't his wife on a yacht called the Monkey Business, sailing to a very funny sounding place called Bimini. The jokes wrote themselves; they were also toothless.

But as the destruction in New York and Washington D.C. began to recede in the memory, and war in Iraq and Afghanistan ramped up, a large portion of the country wasn't in the mood to giggle at malapropisms or oddly titled destinations. This is how "The Daily Show" and its first spinoff, "The Colbert Report," siphoned young viewers and their trust away from real news organizations and professional journalists.

A Pew Research report from 2007 reminds us of how quickly trust in mainstream media eroded after 9/11, mostly in the face of opinion shows passing off what Stephen Colbert famous called "truthiness" as fact. Respondents ranked Katie Couric, Bill O'Reilly and Charles Gibson as the most admired news figures, with Stewart tied for fourth place alongside Dan Rather, Brian Williams, Anderson Cooper and Tom Brokaw. He even outranked Jim Lehrer and, get this, Walter Cronkite.

Taking all of this into account, CBS choosing Colbert to replace Letterman when he retired was natural. And of course HBO and TBS would seize the opportunity to launch their own topical comedy programs helmed by Stewart-era alums John Oliver and Samantha Bee, respectively, after "The Daily Show" changed over to the Trevor Noah era.

Nor is it surprising that NBC tapped "Saturday Night Live" Weekend Update host Seth Meyers to replace Jimmy Fallon on "Late Night" when Fallon inherited "The Tonight Show" in 2014. "Tonight" is obligated to shoot down the center, but Meyers' knack of distilling political headlines and social flashpoints into pointed jokes and bits is different from what Fallon offers. He gives the broadcast network a way of competing in the market "The Daily Show" created and, until recently, had cornered.

Left-leaning hosts aren't the only ones capitalizing on the template established by "The Daily Show" during the Bush era. In April, Fox gave Greg Gutfeld his own post-primetime talk show, and in August it made headlines by overtaking "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" in total viewership ratings as well as in the 25-to-54 age demographic.

Whether "Gutfeld!" is funny is a matter of personal taste. In many ways its quality isn't relevant, since it is tapping into an audience whose humor hasn't been centered in entertainment in a targeted way – outside of political rallies, that is.

September 11, 2001 isn't solely responsible for these transformations. Conservative media already was on the rise, giving Stewart and other comics plenty of fodder to tear into.

However, we can view it as a distinct dividing line. In a previous era the late night talk show's primary task was sending viewers into slumber with a smile on our faces and stars in our eyes. Some remain primarily devoted to this purpose.

But the shows heralded for their social relevance and political necessity in 2021 earn that designation because they are cathartic release valves helping us to make sense of injustice, corruption and the anxiety-inducing cultural upheaval that's been simmering to a boil for two decades. We turn to them for reassurance that we're not crazy, and for confirmation that the world certainly is. And they remind us that sometimes the sanest means of processing sorrow and fear is to find ways to joke about them.

Nat Geo's '9/11: One Day in America' 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.

This article first appeared on Salon.

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?

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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.

Meghan McCain exits 'The View' but may have tainted it forever

The end of this week marks the end of an era for the millions of people who tune into "The View" for their daily spleen-venting courtesy of outgoing co-host Meghan McCain. After Friday's telecast we won't have her to kick around anymore. Not on a near-daily basis, anyway. (In the near term she's signed on to executive produce a Lifetime biopic starring Heather Locklear.)

This article first appeared in Salon.

But McCain's official departure from "The View," which she announced on the air July 1, leaves daytime television's most politically influential talk show without its "sacrificial Republican," as she once claimed to be in a fit of self-pity. Whatever will we do without the sustaining power of her wingnut-flavored granola?

To "The View," McCain was more than a spout of parbaked twaddle delivered with tell-it-like-it-is confidence. She was a voice of false equivalency and "but what about"-ism, representing America's extreme right-wing Karens. Occasionally she would vanish when a guest with whom she didn't want to engage appeared. But she wasn't just a purveyor of half-truths and Fox News talking points. She offered the very important perspective of women who make everything all about them.

Whether a given episode's Hot Topics concerned reproductive rights, identity politics, voting rights, cancel culture, protests against police brutality, anti-Asian violence, or anything related to the pandemic – especially as it pertains to who's to blame for stagnating vaccination rates (hint: it's Republicans, Meghan!) – McCain always found a way to redirect the road trip right back to her doorstep.

Except, that is, on the topic of nepotism. For that, she had bright orange detour signs to redirect us.

"I think my work and my work ethic speaks for itself," the daughter of the late Arizona Senator John McCain declared last week while addressing Ben Stiller's assertion that Hollywood is a meritocracy offered in defense of a group of moguls' kids planning to make a movie together.

Anyway, this week she accused CNN's Chris Cuomo of "the worst kind of nepotism that the media has an example of" for not covering the civil investigation that found his brother, New York governor Andrew Cuomo, guilty of sexual harassment on his show. So there.

Four years' worth of her eyebrow-raising blurts made "The View" a central media attraction. But that wasn't entirely about her. Whoopi Goldberg's confused and horrified reactions at her opinions were GIF goldmines. Joy Behar's acerbic rebuttals and outright smackdowns and Sunny Hostin's educational reads gave life to late-night comedy monologues and slow news days.

For people who live to drag dumb takes on social media, McCain and the conflict she created were reliable ways of bumping up in an era that's generally bummed us out. She was exhausting, but what she brought out in Behar, Goldberg and Hostin made for memorably entertaining TV.

But entertaining TV isn't necessarily good for healthy discourse. Often its effects are the opposite, tilting what should be illuminating exchanges into street brawls.

"The View" has lasted for 24 seasons and cycled nearly two dozen co-hosts through the New York City studios where it's been produced. The show will certainly outlast McCain. Remaining to be seen is whether the havoc she regularly wrought since joining in 2017 will permanently change its chemistry, much in the way some drugs can permanently alter brain function.

In this scenario, the drug is frivolous anger.

Anger is a natural human emotion – healthy even, in the right circumstances. A motivator, when applied purposefully. Angry gets s**t done.

Frivolous anger functions differently, acting more like an opioid than a benign stimulant. The longer that it's intravenously pumped into our systems, the more difficult it is to quit. Anyone who survived the last five years knows this all too well.

But we can't overlook the fact that Donald Trump injected anger into "The View" via Rosie O'Donnell back in the mid-aughts. The feud he picked with her bled into the show and eventually destroyed her relationship with that era's supposed sacrificial Republican Elizabeth Hasselbeck.

You can still watch the 10-minute, May 2007 slugfest that resulted in O'Donnell quitting the show directly afterward. People really should, because it's instructive. It marks the start of a reformulation that eventually brought McCain, previously a host on Fox News' "Outnumbered," into mainstream America's living rooms.

Hasselbeck, a post 9/11 conservative during George W. Bush's administration, wasn't especially beloved in her day either. "We used to fight on the air all the time," she recalls in a 2019 visit to "The View" to promote her new book. McCain is downright bubbly in that clip, laughing enthusiastically and jovially chirping, "What's that like? I don't know!"

Behar answers with, "It's a little different. But truthfully, we never fought backstage. See, that's the difference." At this, a wave of "oh no she di-int" ooooh -ing fills the place.

"'The View' has become an influential political talk show because it isn't one," Amanda FitzSimons wrote in 2019, part of an expansive New York Times Magazine profile of the show, it hosts and its political and cultural influence.

FitzSimons was referring to the stealthy potency of the show's cultural heft, which has evolved from the idea-exchanging kaffeeklatsch the show's creator Barbara Walters originally envisioned into a political opinion battleground, sometimes friendly but often not entirely. The secret sauce, other than the show's careful co-host curation, is the moderator's ability to prevent episodes from descending into complete bitterness.

This was easier to do when everyone was in the same room, sharing a table. Having to look your co-workers in the eye tends to lower the temperature in most interactions. Beaming each co-host in remotely during the pandemic only exacerbated the rifts present since McCain joined the cast.

Without a live audience reminding the co-hosts that people at home were watching, and with the editing filling the screen with Behar's and Goldberg's unfiltered reactions to McCain's pop-offs, "The View" merged into some combination of a sideshow and a pile-on.

When Twitter or CNN react to headline-making moments "The View" generates on any given day the topic of discussion is secondary to the bickering.

We remember when McCain called Behar a bitch on the air, but can you recall the circumstances? More recently Whoopi and McCain degenerated into a back and forth of "I don't care that you don't care," but who can cite what everyone wasn't caring about off the top of their head?

Who cares?

Everyone singing the "ding-dong" song from "The Wizard of Oz" has a right to enjoy whatever the relative silence her absence yields. Then we should be concerned about who or what takes McCain's place.

An analysis in The Wrap states that McCain's tenure with "The View" did not result in a substantial ratings boost, although the show's audience has been holding steady where other shows have weathered audience erosion – especially its CBS daytime rival, "The Talk."

Indeed, according to Nielsen ratings, "The View" is experiencing its best season since McCain joined, leading daytime among total viewers and households for the first time in the show's history. (The trade publication's article credits the 2020 election cycle for this, which I agree with.)

That she juiced the daytime talker's social engagement level is indisputable. Seeing the program's hashtag trend on Twitter is enough to elicit a Pavlovian response at delighting in whatever new memes may have resulted in that day's smackdown.

It's equally as likely, though, that whatever she said or did created another opportunity to enjoy anew the famous "one of these things is not like the other" tile screenshot of the other hosts laughing as she scowls in the lower corner. Either way, it got people talking, which has currency to ABC.

In the same way television news coverage slid steadily rightward in reaction to Fox News' ascent, McCain's success in securing attention for "The View" raises the probability that its next right-wing representative will be even more divisive and less capable of good-faith debate. (Imagine someone like Tomi Lahren taking McCain's position. Behar might spontaneously combust before our eyes.)

Debate is a conversational artform the show tossed out some time ago without losing our attention, so why fix that dysfunction? Something about it seems to be working.

On the other hand, the strength of "The View" has long rested in its ability to strike a liberal-leaning centrist conversational tone that combines disparate paradigms, often with volatility and good humor. Should the producers find a reasonable, right-tacking conservative unicorn with a fierce, informed perspective who can disagree with her colleagues, but who doesn't come off like a caustic lunatic (best of luck with that star search!) she may reinvigorate the show's dynamic.

People would still despise her. Twitter will have that woman for lunch. But maybe she'll win something for herself and that McCain was never capable of doing: a modicum of respect.


'Mare of Easttown' is twisty until the very end, but the best part is its grace

Spoiler warning: The following story discusses the finale of "Mare of Easttown" in detail. If you haven't watched the show yet, what are you waiting for? Stop reading now and don't come back until you've binged it.

If you described Easttown as an incestuous place at the start of "Mare of Easttown," you may have mixed emotions about how right you were all along. You probably didn't mean it literally, right? And, yet.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Series creator Brad Ingelsby writes the overfamiliarity of Easttown as a blessing and a curse for detective sergeant Mare Sheehan (Kate Winslet), since everybody in the place knows her well enough to trust her while also resenting her.

Such a tightly knitted community means that anyone in that slumping burg could have a motive for murdering teen mother Erin McMenamin (Cailee Spaeny). Except, well, for Mare or her mother Helen (Jean Smart). But aside from those two the list of suspects stretched long enough to cordon off a soccer field. It also hit very close to home.

Mare's daughter Siobhan (Angourie Rice) was among the last people to see her alive. Her ex-husband Frank (David Denman) made the mistake of being a good Samaritan, which wouldn't have caused any trouble if Erin hadn't turned up dead and the paternity of the son she left behind never came into question.

Suspicion bounced around from Erin's cruel teenage ex-boyfriend Dylan (Jack Mulhern) to any number of men in her orbit. Even Guy Pearce's literature professor and new guy in town Richard Ryan, Mare's most persistent suitor, had a huge question mark hovering over his head. (By the "Law & Order" rule of "the most famous person in the story who isn't a series regular probably did it" making Richard look good for the crime early on.)

But the circle eventually tightened to those closest to the victim.

The fact that Ingelsby and series director Craig Zobel insisted on ensnaring the audience in uncertainty up to and throughout the finale, even after the guiltiest looking parties confessed, is a credit to their adroit construction and manipulation of dramatic tension.

But they also worked up the audience to expect nothing less. Erin's murder drove the A-plot, often weaving down the road through an obstacle course of misdirects and MacGuffins as the mystery of her life informed her death. Everything after that became questions leading into cliffhangers.

Was her murder a one-off or related to the disappearance of Katie Bailey, the daughter of Mare's high school basketball teammate Dawn (Enid Graham)? Were there crimes within these crimes? In Erin's situation, yes! Several!

The walls of crazy and theories this show inspired were impressive and highly necessary, since every character with a line and a link to Mare has a story worth knowing and, perhaps, relevant to the main murder. And through the first four episodes, anyway, the sheer number of characters jostling for space muddled the plot. But as Helen would probably attest, sometimes a muddle mixed with spirits, bitters and twists makes a smashing cocktail. The woman knows and loves her Manhattans.

In the end, what distinguishes "Mare of Easttown" from the typical murder mystery and other prestige shows – besides Winslet's superior performance – is the way it swims with and through grief.

In my initial review I wrote about how heavily sadness hangs on this Pennsylvania working-class hamlet. The place itself has nothing on Mare, a woman whose determination to solve crimes and to serve and protect is really her way of hiding behind everyone else's grief. If she were to stop, she'd have to mourn her son's suicide.

When Winslet allows the dam surrounding Mare's despair to crack a little, frosting the blank spaces between lines of dialogue with pure aching emotion, tearing your eyes away is impossible. She also nails the regional accent, from what I understand, but her dramatic muscle really flexes when she says absolutely nothing.

"Mare of Easttown" gets under your skin in those quiet interludes. From the shots of its streetscapes to its architecture, the images tell the story of a place that feels too close, crowded to the point that Mare can't help but step on a lot of toes without wanting and meaning to. Sometimes those small hurts lead to large fractures, which is what happens with Lori and her husband John (Joe Tippett) and John's brother Billy (Robbie Tann), who are Erin's cousins.

The limited series' finale, "Sacrament," lifts some of that weight from Mare just in time for her to capture Erin's killer, who turns out to be different from what the penultimate episode leads us to believe. This gives Mare space, at last, to actually hold the people who need her most acutely — including her best friend Lori (Julianne Nicholson), who discovers John is having an affair. Again.

A pause for one last bit of warning: From this point on, this story discusses revealing details that will blow the twists for anyone who hasn't seen the finale. So if for some reason you ignored the alert at the top, read no further lest ye be spoiled.

"After a while, you learn to live with the unacceptable," Mare tells a grieving Glen Carroll (Patrick McDade), who is struggling to stay upright after the death of his wife Betty (Phyllis Somerville, in her final role).

Betty was in the habit of calling Mare for small bothers, which Glen takes up — fortunately. He provides a list of things that have gone missing, but then mentions that his gun also went missing for a time only to mysteriously turn up again in the locked shed where he kept it.

It also happens to be the same out-of-production Colt pistol whose bullets were used in Erin's murder.

This would not matter if Mare were simply interested in closing the case, which she had when Lori's husband John confessed to killing Erin . . . after a photo surfaced that shows Erin in bed with the man. That also meant Erin's son was actually John's. He alleged that she threatened to spill that secret, so he killed her.

This is the finale's first twist, since in a previous episode, it was John's brother Billy who was ready to confess to the crime, explaining that they had hooked up at the Ross family reunion. But it was by no means its biggest. Instead, the Colt's finding leads Mare to the only other person with access to Glen's shed: Lori and John's young son Ryan (Cameron Mann), whose anger at his father's latest infidelity led him to pick up a gun and confront Erin.

The ponderous sadness Winslet dumps in to Mare's voice as she calls dispatch to send cars to her best friend's home to pick up the 13-year-old for murder piles another heartbreaking note on a mountain of them. Realizing what this means for Mare is especially devastating when a hysterical Lori tells her she never wants to see her again.

This, after Mare reaches out to the grieving mother of her partner Colin Zabel (Evan Peters), who was shot and killed in the harrowing mission to finding and freeing Katie, only to have the woman slap her in the face.

Mare loses even as she wins.

The eventual and ultimate success of "Mare of Easttown" unifies around Winslet, who magnetized this series from the start, carrying the mystery through its turgid spots and electrifying its finest ones. The latter outweighed the former, because as our familiarity with this small galaxy of characters increased, so did our affection.

Ingelsby and Zobel's choice to end the story in a bright state of grace also makes this the rare kind of show that opens with a tone of encumbering woe but works to takes us to higher ground steadily and with intent.

The smallest calls turn out to matter greatly, and the same is true of the details. Naming the finale "Sacrament" may be the most positively Catholic moment in a show revolving around the most Catholic of families, including a cousin who's a priest that drinks.

The hour begins with a long confession and ends with absolution — for Mare, who at last forgives herself, and for a boy guilty of murder who shouldn't have to lose his innocence.

In the sixth episode she admits she hasn't been up to her house's attic since she found her own son hanging up there. Ending the series by showing her opening the hatch, pulling down the ladder and climbing up lets us know she's found peace. It's a simple frame, free of dialogue as it should be. With that "Mare of Easttown" departs in a way one couldn't have predicted when it began — with a sense that life may still be tough for its heroine, but as she moves through its paces the sun may shine on her, at long last.

All episodes of "Mare of Easttown" are available to stream on HBO Max.

'Last Man Standing' bids farewell — while Tim Allen keeps on truckin' with his right-wing shade

The final half hour of "Last Man Standing" finds the Baxter family mourning the theft of Mike Baxter's classic pickup. Mike, played by Tim Allen, spent 10 years restoring that truck, and he loved it so much that the family organizes a wake in its honor. One by one family and friends share tributes that grow increasingly warmer and heartfelt, and the viewer understands it's not about the truck, or the Baxters. What we're really watching is the actors holding a wake for their departing show. The welled-up tears in their eyes, especially Allen's, are real.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Conflating Allen's persona with that of Mike Baxter has been the show's selling point and, depending on who you are, its drawback. Allen is one of Hollywood's most unabashed Trump supporters. Mike Baxter is conservative too, but Kevin Abbott, the final showrunner in a line of them spanning back to the show's creator Jack Burditt, has long insisted that he's a centrist.

Nevertheless, Mike's final entry in his confessional Outdoor Man vlog was anything but. "I've been thinking a lot about makers and takers, you know, because I had something very valuable taken from me: Somebody took my truck. Ten years of attention to detail, and then, poof, gone! It's an empty feeling," he – nominally, Mike – tells his followers.

From there Allen erases the pretense of separation between himself and his character. "I loved every moment of that show, er, truck. It was a classic, simpler, happier time. You know…the truck. And that's something that can't be stolen from me. What kind of punks steal other people's stuff? Make something yourself!"

"Last Man Standing" was never going to depart without circling back to its 2011 beginnings, but Allen's choice to sign off with these right-wing dog-whistles shows he's looking to infinity and beyond, and betting that this show's legacy will be to vindicate the version of reality he shares with his base.

In this interpretation, car theft isn't some random misfortune suffered by a wealthy man, but a symptom, somehow, of the undeserving reaping the fruit of honest people's labor. "Makers and takers" was one of former Republican congressman Paul Ryan's favorite phrases; it's also white grievance terminology dating back to the pre-Civil War era. It rolls off the tongue so easily, this shorthand for the myth that tax-funded government assistance programs that help the needy also make them more indolent.

But shucks, maybe I'm seeing something that isn't really there. Mike is only talking about his truck, and Allen is talking about his show; and in another interpretation the "taker" is 20th Television, now owned by Walt Disney, which also owns ABC, where "Last Man Standing" ran for six seasons.

I want it make it abundantly clear that its conservative skew doesn't make it a terrible sitcom. There's room on TV for all types of viewpoints, and certainly liberal creatives outnumber conservatives in Hollywood. Remove Allen from the mix, and "Last Man Standing" would be a harmless, decent family show demonstrating the ways that folks can hold different points of view, even quarrel, but still demonstrate loving kindness toward one another. This is how its fans would describe it and will remember it.

What's concerning is Allen's choosing to top off his show's overall veneer of homespun sweetness with such direct shout-outs to white male resentment, expecting that somehow we are supposed to laugh it off. It's not as if these concepts aren't normal family sitcom fare, but they're presented like harmless quips when they're not. If anything, they make the show's centrism look disingenuous.

Over the years, the show has been mischaracterized as a working class comedy, which it never was. That was abundantly clear when "Roseanne" returned to TV in 2018 and depicted the Conners struggling with money and health problems in ways the Baxters, an upper-middle class family living in a spacious Denver home, never did.

But where that show's storylines attempted with varying degrees of success to wrestle with Trump-era politics related to such topics as race, immigration and gender identity, "Last Man Standing" generally shoots for the middle.

Mike, for all of his he-man grumbling, is balanced by his wife Vanessa (Nancy Travis), a geologist who voiced support for Hillary Clinton, and his daughters Eve (Kaitlyn Dever), Kristin (Amanda Fuller) and Mandy (Molly McCook). Eve, his youngest, aligns the most closely with Mike while Kris and Mandy skew liberal.

Conflicts arise all the time, as they do in families, but their arguments stem from culture war talking points as opposed to matters of impactful policy. The ninth and final season avoids the most divisive issues of the day entirely, in fact, by jumping the story a few years ahead to a happier time when there's no need to get into pandemic-era tensions about mask-wearing and lockdowns.

This is in keeping with the show's reflection of America as your Fox News–loving family member perceives it: a country where everyone is equal, where hard work and ingenuity are always rewarded with a good and easy life, and where racial and social strife are manufactured by and happening to other people.

Don't get me wrong, some measure of escapism has long been the essence of the network sitcom's duty. Broadcast comedies are designed to comfort and entertain, and whatever conflicts humming behind the smiles and the laugh tracks are usually solvable in around 22 minutes, and almost always bearable over the long term. Hence when a show like "Black-ish" or "The Conners" gently and intelligently guides the audience through topics like police brutality or transgender visibility, it is a real accomplishment.

But this show's version of such field trips takes the form of conversations right-leaning families may have that don't typically turn up on broadcast TV. Some of them are actually quite uplifting and hopeful, such as the conversations Mandy's husband Kyle (Christoph Sanders) has with Mike's business partner Ed (Hector Elizondo), a staunch atheist, about his studies at seminary college.

Neither man converts the other, but the pair sustains a mutually affectionate understanding that comes across as totally genuine. Threads like these are quite typical in this series, where Mike or someone else airs their spin on a conversation starter and everyone travels through the topic in their own way until they reach middle ground.

In the wider and real world, middle ground might as well be the lost empire of Atlantis. Maybe it was accessible at some point, but not anymore. We're wrestling with a bevy of ills and in some respects TV is responding to that.

"Last Man Standing" premiered on ABC as part of a reactionary slate of shows catering to the false fear that the nation was suffering from a widespread affliction of low testosterone, a so-called "man-cession."

It was flanked by "Man Up!" and briefly joined by a disaster called "Work It," in which two men dressed as women thinking that they'd advance their careers in doing so – something like "Bosom Buddies," but with an eighth of the charm and no Tom Hanks to speak of.

"Man Up!" failed as well, but "Last Man Standing" survived to see nine seasons – six on ABC, until the network cancelled it despite it being the second highest-rated comedy on the network. Fans accused ABC of penalizing the show for Allen's Trump support, although executives maintained, and a number of journalists have researched and affirmed, that its dismissal had more to do with financial and demographic reasons. (Translation: the show wasn't produced by ABC, it was getting more expensive; and its audience is older.)

On Fox, its viewership held steady during the 2016-2017 season, when Trump first entered office, only to decline in its eighth. Giving "Last Man Standing" enough notice to give fans a farewell, then, is a courtesy not every show gets, even those that earn it. How this translates to Allen's show being "stolen" is baffling…unless it's not about the show, or the truck, but partisan politics.

Looking back from that perspective, then, the toothless punchlines take on another dimension. Lots of people have examined the sharpening of partisanship in parallel with the coarsening of culture, a reaction to the "wokeness" that in previous eras was called political correctness. That term was as terrible as "woke" is when it drools out of Tucker Carlson's mouth, but both are born of noble intentions that have been co-opted and twisted.

Where liberal comedians skewered political correctness as a release valve – correctly or wrongly – right-wing figures turned it into a process of attack and retreat. Cable news pundits, radio jocks, politicians and their followers honed a practice of lobbing vicious insults at their political adversaries and then, when called on crossing whatever imaginary line their might have been, throwing up their hands with an insistence that it's all just jokes. Can't you liberal snowflakes take a joke?

Allen wasn't so sinister in his stand up, particularly after he discovered the magic formula of speaking to conservatives with a wink and a goofy smile. This is why the Baxters never had to be an overtly MAGA-tribe, and Mike didn't have to prevail in his arguments or even follow through on cracks about Obamacare or gun control with cogent arguments. Acknowledging that a segment of the show's audience – the dominant portion – thinks like Mike and discusses such topics with their families is enough.

Mike's truck was stolen, no doubt about that. Allen's show was not, though. A more realistic interpretation is that TV chose to drop him off and keep on rolling. Not just him or "Last Man Standing," either. Sitcoms in general are entering a broadcast dry spell, indicated by the fall schedules NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox revealed this week.

Indeed, Fox's fall schedule is utterly devoid of live-action comedy half-hours, saving its new sitcoms "Pivoting" (about three women) and "Welcome to Flatch" (about small-town life) for midseason. ABC, the first home of "Last Man Standing," is corralling its sitcoms to one night, and all of them feature families that are working class or solidly middle class. Its remake of "The Wonder Years," the quintessential show about a "classic, simpler, happier time," shows how such an era was lived from a Black family's perspective.

NBC is also saving its comedies for midseason; no half-hours grace its fall schedule as it currently stands, although its streaming service Peacock has a few outstanding new ones. The exception is CBS, but its comedy block has been consistently successful for years. Many of the ones returning to its schedule are produced by Chuck Lorre, the king of imperfectly empathetic comedy that means well.

Viewing this as a sign of social progress is optimistic, but it's not entirely realistic. Television may influence changes of heart, and that's crucial. But it's tough to look at what's happening to our democracy and society, and not be disheartened.

At the pinnacle of Mike's speech, he shares the Thomas Moore–penned verse Reagan uttered when he lost the Republican nomination in 1976: "'Though I am hurt, I am not slain. I lay me down to bleed awhile. Then I'll rise and fight again.'"

That series-ending diatribe, served with Allen's signature grin, reminds us that the show's alleged centrism was always camouflage. It was never about the truck with "Last Man Standing," but figuring out what was really lurking underneath the hood.

The series finale of "Last Man Standing" aired on Thursday, May 20. All episodes are streaming on Hulu.

SNL host Elon Musk pulls the supervillain ploy of taking an audience hostage

Only a true supervillain has the gall to turn live TV into a crime involving hostages. The Joker's pulled that move a few times, as has Dr. Evil.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

As Elon Musk prepares to host "Saturday Night Live" this weekend, we can at least say that he's following in something of a grand tradition among his ilk. He's also one-upping those other malefactors because, unlike them, he's real.

The world learned the world's third richest person would commandeer "Saturday Night Live" two weeks ago by way of the evildoer's megaphone of choice, Twitter. The official "SNL" account shared a coy photo of his name written on an index cards, one of three with the other two setting the dooms date (May 8) and the other revealing the evening's Harley Quinn, er musical guest, would be played by Miley Cyrus.

We kid, but only sort of. Indisputable is that millions of folks are indignant about Musk hosting, reportedly including several cast members who may not perform alongside him in Saturday night's episode. Many others who haven't watched "SNL" in years and don't plan to break that trend are likely ticked off in principle which, OK, fair.

But the main reason "SNL" mastermind Lorne Michaels said yes to such a controversial figure hosting the late night institution is as old as the medium itself, which is to lure in the curious and halt the season's downward rating trend. "Saturday Night Live" experienced the same boost enjoyed and suffered by the mediasphere while Donald Trump was in office, remixing itself into a balm for our misery with its weekly trolls.

No comedian enjoyed the layman's assertion that Trump was great for comedy, but his vicious administration was a boon for "SNL". . . and the comedown hasn't been kind. Pulling in Musk is Michaels' way of admitting he and the show need a taste – just a bump baby, that's all.

While Bowen Yang and Aidy Bryant released their own dismayed social media reactions to Musk's duh-dumb "Let's find out just how live Saturday Night Live really is," tweet, Michaels is probably correct to wager that they're outnumbered by folks who share Pete Davidson's bewilderment at not knowing why people are freaking out.

"And I'm like, the guy that makes the earth better, kind of, and makes cool things and sends people to Mars?" the comedian told Seth Meyers on a recent episode of "Late Night."

Half of Davidson's point likely reflects the public's prevailing view. Ask the average person to tell you about Musk, and they'll say he's the guy who blessed us with Teslas, is currently worth $166 billion and wants to send humans to Mars.

Tell them that he also called concerns about the pandemic "dumb" in its earliest days and about half will reply, "Yup, they are."

That Musk is barred from running for president is cold comfort, and he's not running for any office now. He could in the future, but that possibility isn't as concerning as the damage he's doing right now in his current starring role as a planetary wealth hoarder. Musk is considered to be a union-busting, exploitative white collar goon who has enough money to influence government officials and bend policy to his will and whims.

One episode of "Saturday Night Live" won't shift that one way or another. However, it still serves the larger purpose of polishing Musk's celebrity value. Musk has already popped up on "Young Sheldon" and "The Big Bang Theory," along with "Rick and Morty" all shows featuring geniuses, the last one a thoroughly damaged and possibly sociopathic one.

These cameos are thematically understandable given Musk's founding of SpaceX. The company recently sent four astronauts to the International Space Station by way of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. Musk might not have a film to promote but that's something he can crow about.

He's also a proponent of Hyperloop technology, which he and other mega-gazillionaires swear will be less expensive and polluting than air travel, and much faster than traveling by train or car. It involves travelling inside floating pods sliding within giant tubes at speeds exceeding over 700 miles an hour, which doesn't hold a hint of Bond movie nefariousness about it at all.

But these shows present him as a fictional figure, and in small doses. "South Park" and "The Simpsons" each tossed him a guest voice bone, but nothing central enough to earn more notice than a credit.

"Saturday Night Live" enables him to sell some version of himself, and whether of the parts he embodies has any basis in who is really is matter less that knowing he'll be in millions of people's living rooms and – ugh – bedrooms for 90 minutes. Come Sunday and the top of the week, the show's sketches will receive wider circulation, so even if you choose not to watch it you'll probably stumble across the episode's most successful bits.

Americans fall all over themselves for men like Musk with or without a gig like this, but any and all airtime assists them in styling their image and whatever legend they want to spin out of it. Plus, Musk's obscene wealth is actual as opposed to a reality show producer's prop, and to countless millions that make him the kind of guy who must be doing something right. Laugh at his jokes, forgive his sins and accept that to make that better Earth Davidson talks about, you have to move fast and break things. If one of those things is a town, or a group of people, or a nation, so be it.

Musk's "SNL" hosting gig coincides with the one-year anniversary of forcing his Alameda County, California-based Tesla factory to resume production in defiance of the county government's pandemic-related manufacturing shutdown order. (Around this same time he also received a performance-based company payout of approximately $775 million.)

He assured workers that they could take unpaid leave if they felt uncomfortable returning to the plant, and when some took him up on his offer, the company sent them termination notices.

No amount of shaming or threats of legal intervention made a difference. By December, according to county data, at least 450 Tesla workers had been infected with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

But have you seen the latest Tesla whips though?

These criticisms are based in moral and ethical concerns, and this weekend's "Saturday Night Live" audience probably won't be thinking about much of either. They'll tune in to see whether Musk is funny, and he has a Twitter feed lousy with proof that he isn't, but that doesn't matter. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and billionaire Steve Forbes were not known as funny men, but the writers scripted them to be. "Saturday Night Live" also made Rudy Giuliani come off as a mensch in 1997.

NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff got a spin at the hosting wheel and I'm sure he did fine job of reading lines off of a teleprompter, but who in the heck remembers?

"Saturday Night Live" writers can and will massage Musk's persona into something palatable and they might even make cryptocurrency investors wet their pants by working a mention of Dogecoin into a skit. Celebrities love giving fans a shout-out during the monologue, and some of its investors are praying he does, supposedly jacking up its price. Doing so would place "Saturday Night Live" in the headlines for reasons other than ratings on Monday morning. Nobody should be shocked if Michaels blesses that move.

And really, this episode isn't the democracy-ending event some are making it out to be. It will be added to lengthening list of Musk's rehabilitating appearances, which he may build into a persona he can sell to the public or merely use to stroke his ego.

Over its many decades "Saturday Night Live" featured hosts who turned out to be not-so-great people. Less than a handful of them rose to positions where they could strangle our democracy, our environment or starve our economic system.

Musk is already there, and Michaels senses that he's type of polarizing host worth ransoming his 46-year-old show's audience for a week. In the short run his strategy will probably work. It may also prove to the countless people for whom "SNL" is no longer relevant, to quote another famously media-savvy archenemy, that there's nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster.

"Saturday Night Live" airs Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. ET/ 8:30 p.m. PT on NBC.

HBO's QAnon series 'Q: Into the Storm' is a bewildering attempt to decode a super-conspiracy

Perhaps you're familiar with TV idiom "the crazy wall." Watch any detective drama for a while and you'll encounter one. The phrase describes a large vertical board kept out of sight by a dogged protagonist or freakish suspect who knows exactly what it says about them. Said board or wall is festooned with newspaper clippings, photos, maps, and Post-It Notes with random words like "PROOF???" written on them.

What makes a crazy wall crazy as opposed to an art installation is the tangle of yarn, push pins and creative thinking connecting everything together.

Long story short, Cullen Hoback's docuseries "Q: Into the Storm" is a crazy wall realized as a six-episode HBO Max docuseries. Any extended dive into the world of QAnon probably needs to be in order to understand how this mutating, supersized conspiracy theory infecting mainstream culture to an alarming degree came to be. Hoback traipses down several key timelines in the modern Internet's history and the rise of troll culture as he begins to explain it: What starts with the comedy meme site Something Awful in the late '90s morphs into the Anonymous hacktivist collective, Gamergate, the incel movement and Pizzagate.

All of it was the runway to 2017 when a mysterious user going by the handle "Q Clearance Patriot" began dropping strange riddles on 4chan and claiming Donald Trump to be a messianic figure. In the world according to Q, Trump is the only thing preventing a deep state run by infanticidal cannibalistic Democrats from ruining the world. This story may have started as an especially loony version of live action role play, or LARPing. Now there are likely hundreds of thousands (a very hopeful conservative estimate) who wholeheartedly believe in some QAnon lore if not all of it, including members of Congress.

Would you believe this is the part that makes absolute sense?

Adam McKay ("Succession") produces "Q: Into the Storm," which probably explains how Hoback, a nimble independent documentarian, can afford to jet to various American cities as well as Italy, Japan and the Philippines to conduct in-person interviews. He maintains a very lo-fi field shooting style, utilizing handhelds and surreptitiously filming at times even when he's asked not to.

When Hoback attempts to make some sense of the alphabet soup of Q drops, numeric tags, random Socratic questions, that's where the attention begins to wander. As the filmmaker twists this tale into rope he also introduces us to a passel of QAnon YouTube evangelists and zealots, a few of whom know one another well enough to share a bizarre sense of camaraderie.

Soon Hoback embarks on a journey to Asia to meet Jim and Ron Watkins, the father and son who run 8chan, the website that hosts Q, and Fredrick Brennan, the man who created 8chan before selling it to the Watkins.

Brennan, who has brittle bone disease and uses a wheelchair, once worked with them but is now their bitterest adversary, and their energized rivalry soon become central to "Q: Into the Storm." The Watkins' banal lack of concern over the uncensored hate speech on the site is in stark contrast to Brennan's insistence that they shut it down, which only intensifies after a slew of violent racists incidents are traced back to 8chan.

Ironically Brennan's dedication to uncensored speech is the reason he created 8chan in the first place.

Hoback approaches his series as part educational exploration and part investigation, and what emerges is a somewhat organized wreck. "Q: Into the Storm" soaks us in a deluge of information very quickly in the first two episodes before slowing down to entertain the veracity of several larger theories about Q's identity. Included are insights from people who lived key parts of the Internet history and respected investigative reporters at respected (or: fake news) media outlets, but these are presented right alongside true Q believers.

Through it all Hoback engages in educated guesswork as Q's true identity. Could it be Steve Bannon, or Trump's advisor Michael Flynn? Hoback pushes harder on the more believable notion that Ron or Jim Watkins may be Q. Ron, known by his 8chan handle "Codemonkey," plays upon those suspicions by claiming to have been in contact with Q while insisting he doesn't know who Q is.

The series turns more personal as the Watkins and Brennan compete for Hoback's attention and his sympathy, and at times the filmmaker seems too close to maintain any objectivity. On the other hand, as he gains Brennan's trust, Brennan divulges more and more about the inner workings of 8chan. Jim Watkins takes Hoback on strolls through his pig farm (which he says funds about 25% of the site), and Ron Watkins speaks to him from a cross-legged seated position, as if he were some dead-eyed martial arts master.

They're an eccentric group of characters, Ron and Jim Watkins more than Brennan. Jim, who made his fortune in Internet hardcore porn, plays up his impishness for the camera, but given who he is and his off-kilter sartorial choices, his creepiness only increases as the series progresses.

Hoback resists the urge to paint Q followers like dupes, even the ones filtering their existence through analyses of each QAnon drop, searching for meaning and signs. But "Q: Into the Storm" doesn't neglect to connect a movement they insist is heroic at best and harmless at worst with a surge in racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic violence and a rekindled rise in neo-Nazism.

The filmmaker nails that point by opening the series with footage of the Jan. 6 domestic terrorism attack on the United States Capitol, an inevitable result of years of conditioning people to disbelieve reality. Whether it ends by unmasking Q is probably beside the point, even if that's the obvious reason to hang with it through its messiness. Even those who are reeled in by the quirkiness of these grimy characters can't ignore the terrifying nonchalance with which they're watching society tumble into ignorance and chaos simply because they can.

"Q: Into the Storm" premeires with two back-to-back episodes Sunday, March 21 at 9 p.m. on HBO Max.

The 'South ParQ Vaccination Special' fails to be funny – but maybe that's the point

One day we're going to look back upon all this and laugh. Seriously though . . . no. No we won't. Provided enough of us recall the broader details of this pandemic year, very few will find anything funny about it. A more likely scenario takes the shape of choosing to forget and move forward, having learned nothing. Not all of us can or will; bearing the weight of 500,000 deaths does that to a country; or perhaps it's better to say, it should.

But if there's anything we should recognize on this one-year anniversary of the global pandemic, it's that many aspects of America society remain fundamentally broken. A glorious summer may be a real possibility. Returning to a previous state of "normal" probably is not.

That about sums up the general message of the "South ParQ Vaccination Special," the hour-long companion to last fall's "Pandemic Special" and the only new episode of the series we've seen in the 15 months since the 23rd season's finale in 2019. Referring to it as a companion is an assumption, I'll admit. Although Matt Stone and Trey Parker previously oversaw serialized seasons of the animated series, they returned to one-offs after the 2016 election.

A few changes had to remain consistent including the election of the show's Donald Trump stand-in Mr. Garrison to the nation's highest office. That's something the creators probably weren't expecting and had to follow through the 21st, 22nd and 23rd seasons. Having him roast a scientist alive at the end of "The Pandemic Special" before cheerfully reminding the audience to vote was a brutally humorous shocker. In light of Wednesday night's new hour it also doubles as a plea.

Last fall Parker, who wrote and directed that hour and "Vaccination Special," may not have predicted how extensive QAnon's infection would spread or even how quickly pharmaceutical companies would develop effective vaccines.

But when Stan said, "I can't take these shutdowns anymore and I'm scared of what it's doing to me," we should have paid closer attention. Maybe the "South Park" guys didn't have a clue as to how the pandemic would reshape their two-dimensional world back then. They do now.

"South ParQ Vaccination Special" begins with relatable absurdity and ends with an imperfect reset of the show's world that rebuilds a wall between it and our society's very real madness. Everything in-between, like life itself right now, feels irregular.

The opening scene restyles the town's local Walgreens as an exclusive club complete with velvet rope and bouncer, with elderly patrons designated as V.I.P.s.

Once vaccinated the town's old folks go full "Cocoon" – they're revitalized and mischievous, taking over bars and burning rubber on motorcycles.

While this is taking place, at South Park Elementary Cartman worries that the forced separation of quarantine has threatened to break up the "bro-ship" he has with Stan, Kyle and Kenny, inspiring him to pull a prank on a teacher in the hopes of lifting everyone's spirits.

Since he never thinks about anyone but himself, Cartman doesn't get why the teacher responds by ranting about risking her life only to be mistreated and walks off the job. This further endangers said "bro-ship," so Cartman redirects his tendency toward opportunism into organizing the boys to steal enough vaccine to inoculate the school's teaching staff.

This is the scenario to which a post-White House Mr. Garrison returns flanked by Mr. Service, a Secret Service agent sporting a thong instead of trousers.

Most of South Park hates him, including the administrators at South Park Elementary, who refuse to hand his old job back to him. But then he stumbles across a family of supporters, the Whites, who also organize the town's QAnon faction.

From there Parker weaves his usual web of pandemonium only to tear it apart at the climax. Classrooms empty out after the cult organizes a private teaching service, "Tutornon," that indoctrinates most of the children into a youth sect called Lil' 'Q'ties.

The boys succeed in their mission only to be set upon by hordes of people who also want the vaccine – and even Kyle, who is usually sensible, can't resist attempting to steal some for his parent. All of it collapses into a battle royale in front of the school at the same time that Mr. Garrison and Mr. White discover that in the world of "South Park," one part of the QAnon conspiracy is true: There really are Hollywood elites controlling their world. Their names? Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Not every "South Park" episode succeeds in its aim. Some of them aren't particularly funny. The "South ParQ Vaccination Special" is an odd entry, though, because reminds us that sometimes hilarity is beside the point. Sometimes we need to see the obvious and disturbing parallels between actual examples of human behavior and the facile reasoning that informs cartoon characters' decisions.

The "Vaccination" one-off proves the near impossibility of satirizing a reality that has become a living parody to such a degree as to make one-upping it nearly pointless, and in case you haven't noticed, this is the world we're living in right now.

We really do have teachers and parents preaching QAnon conspiratorial nonsense to kids, or attempting to pass off the big lie about November's election results as fact. We really do have wealthy people going to impossible lengths to obtain a vaccine meant to protect members of vulnerable populations, including working class folks who don't have the luxury of staying at home.

In both cases the reasoning is similar to Butters' excuse: "I just wanted to believe in something that got me out of the house."

Usually "South Park" refracts the image of who we are back to us in a way that skewers our smug sense of righteousness, snickering at religion, politics and all manner of sacred cows while usually validating some part of our beliefs. The land of flawed logic is their playground. And yet, what is there to laugh at in our current state of affairs? An alarming number of people are so hungry to return an inept and dangerous man to power that they refuse to believe facts regardless of who is presenting them.

A dangerous band of terrorist cultists attacked the capitol. People died there, on top of the half a million people dead of COVID-19. Yet half of our political leadership, along with their followers, wants us to move on. Sadly, we have, as Wednesday's special depicts by having the town gather for a character's funeral only to ditch the mourning midway through the eulogy, kick over chairs and start partying.

There is no "going back to normal" in our reality. "South Park," though, is subject to the whims of its makers, which it shows by zapping Mr. Garrison, Mr. White and Mr. Service into an arctic void. In a flash Mr. Service turns into Mr. Hat, and Mr. White – railing at the unseen forces controlling everything – endures a series of ridiculous transformations, including mixing up his body parts and putting him in a shapeless dress, before turning him into a gigantic talking phallus. The perspective shifts, showing Mr. Garrison, and us, how this world works, that at any time the people making it can add layers or remove it. So Mr. Garrison strikes a deal with his invisible, omnipotent puppeteers – everybody in town gets shots, and he gets his old job back. The lesson he's learned, he explains, is to always be sure to be on the same side as the people with the most power.

It's as if the last five years of madness never happened.

Stan, Kyle Cartman and Kenny won't forget it. As the special ends, their "bro-ship" is fractured, and they agree to share custody of Kenny using the standard 2-2-3 schedule familiar to children of divorce.

"South Park" has depicted existential crises several times through its 23 seasons and somehow manages to keep going. These pandemic quarantine-created specials are evidence of its dedication to rolling with the times, however that manifests.

Although Comedy Central hasn't set a premiere for its next 10-episode season, it's been renewed through 2022 and the channel is more or less keeping the lights on by heavily stripping repeats throughout the week.

Between this and access to the full library of past seasons on HBO Max, it's very easy to escape to ye olden pre-pandemic times when the show inflated the vulgarity of our culture-wide egocentrism in ways that made us roar.

But if the "Pandemic" and "Vaccination" specials aren't the most entertaining entries in the "South Park" library, that's because they refuse to discount the ways in which this past year on top of the four that preceded it have changed the boys, and us, and Parker – and presumably Stone. By admitting to this, they can also do something those of us living in a three-dimensional living, breathing reality can't do. They can rebuild the divide between the world and their cartoon, and write a story in which its star characters find ways to air their grievances and get past them.

They can even decide to simply and eventually agree to move on and return to the way things have always been, reminding us that while "South Park" isn't really America, it is a true mirror of who we really are. One day soon we'll be eager to belly laugh at what it shows us. Just not now.

The "South ParQ Vaccination Special" is available to stream for free online.

Only Oprah had the empathy and interview skills to take on the damaging British media – and win

Americans and Britons alike are still processing the "what?!" heard round the world, courtesy of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's spilt tea during Sunday's "Oprah with Meghan and Harry" special on CBS. Now let's look closely at the context in which that particular bomb dropped.

Meghan, fully open but diplomatic in what she chooses to say, tells Oprah that a member of the royal family had expressed to Harry "concerns" about how dark the couple's son Archie might be when he was born.

Oprah's expression in the silent second or two that follows mirrors that of every person of good conscience who heard it with her. The host's typically serene face slackens in shock – "What?" – then comes the indignation. "Who – who is having that conversation with you?"

Meghan slowly blinks, shifts uncomfortably in her seat, takes a deep inhale and says nothing. Oprah puts her hands up as if to fend off some invisible malice attacking her calm. "Hold up . . . there's a conversation . . ."

At this Meghan's anger flares, albeit tempered with regal dignity. "There were several conversations." Oprah gently pushes her to elaborate: "With you?" she asks. "With Harry," Meghan replies. "About how dark the baby was going to be?" "Potentially, and what that would mean or look like."

Then, more silence. Oprah asks if she'll say who had the conversation with Harry. Meghan pauses again before responding. "I think that would be very damaging to them."

The next day on the "CBS This Morning" telecast, as Oprah shared scenes that weren't included in the two-hour special, co-host Tony Dokoupil requested clarification when the mogul said that was the most surprising moment of her conversation with the prince and his bride. Was she surprised that such a thing happened inside the palace, he asks, or that the couple was telling her about it?

Oprah pauses before saying, "I was surprised that they were telling me about it."

There is an art to the one-on-one television interview few people master regardless of how long their careers may be. On Sunday Oprah reminded us why she's a part of those ranks, but for very different reasons than other interviewers who sit down with hard-to-pin-down subjects and stick the landing.

Oprah's reputation for treating vulnerability as a virtue can be a weak spot in her technique, since at times she uses that approach to create the mirage that we're all friends here — audience, host and guest alike. This was not a David Frost/Richard Nixon-style standoff, and neither was it the same as her 1993 Michael Jackson interview where the goal was to humanize a star dogged by troubling allegations. A closer likeness is Martin Bashir's 1995 BBC interview with Diana, Princess of Wales. But even there, Bashir adopts a cool, clinical demeanor, relying on Diana's personality to carry the conversation . . . which it does.

In contrast Meghan and Harry are obviously friendly subjects; Oprah attended their wedding and on "CBS This Morning" said she had been communicating with Meghan since then.

Somehow this felt different that other one-on-ones. At times the conversation took on the shade of plaintiffs appealing to a jury that's only ever heard the defendants' point of view. Compassion led Oprah's tone, although the wall between her and her subjects was palpable and she only probed as far as was necessary.

But the product's real power rested in the silences between the earthquakes, and in the mutual unspoken sadness and disappointment you could read on each woman's face. Those spans of quiet added their own truth to the testimony.

With its relatively spare production, beyond its setting in the flawlessly cultivated backyard paradise of one of Oprah's "friends," "Oprah with Meghan and Harry" is designed to be a one-shot, surgical rebuttal to all the sniping Meghan has endured in the British press.

Regardless of whether Meghan and Harry truly had no idea as to what Oprah was going to ask them, the Duke and Duchess obviously decided together what they were willing to go on record about, how much they would say about it, and no-go areas. For instance, each makes a point of heaping praises on Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, with Meghan claiming they remain close even now.

They also take care to draw a distinction between the family and "The Firm" or "The Institution," whenever they referred to some of the more inhumane moments, such as when Meghan admitted she had suicidal thoughts, reached out to the powers that be to ask for mental health treatment, and was denied . . . because it would not look good for "The Institution."

Oprah and Meghan also worked the PR angles – as did Harry, who joined the interview in its second hour.

Then there were the bits that made for good, soft-filtered theater, like Meghan's claim that she never researched how to curtsy before meeting the Queen for the first time, or really anything related to what it meant to be in a relationship with a British prince. There was the off-the-cuff charm of Harry singing "just the three of us" to the tune of Bill Withers' "Just the Two of Us." The tiara, however, was Meghan's recollection of an "a-ha" moment instigated by rewatching "The Little Mermaid" during one of her low points. "I went: Oh my God! She falls in love with the prince and, because of that, she has to lose her voice," she says, "But by the end, she gets her voice back."

That this revelation occurs while they're in the couple's chicken coop is a magnificent feathering of their "happily ever after."

But the level of candor Oprah coaxes out of her the subjects is partly possible because Oprah is a powerful Black woman speaking to another Black woman who is world-famous but disempowered by her royal in-laws. Thus, the interviewer knew when to let the tension do the talking instead of probing wounds until they bled, demonstrating the puissance of eloquent silence. This technique asks the audience to sit with what they had just heard instead of trying to fill the void with more words.

Therefore, while some commentators suggested Oprah failed to get Meghan and Harry to name names, that's beside the point. It wasn't going to happen, for one; Harry knows that turning on his family members would only put his and his family's safety at a higher risk than it may already be. The larger point rests in the revealing skin color comment. That in itself speaks to a truth each woman and a significant portion of the audience knows, which is that at some point a person's Blackness erases whatever social or financial status they've gained.

Oprah is the richest Black woman on the planet, and she's been refused service at two high-end boutiques while shopping for handbags. Meghan married a prince and yet his family announced their son Archie would not also enjoy that title. Meghan says this was not her or Harry's choice, explaining this decision allows the palace to refuse to provide security for Archie. The other explanation, which she doesn't need to say out loud, is the jaw-dropper that made Oprah say, "What?!"

This is how Oprah and the Sussexes brought a slam-dunk case to the only place that matters in a situation like this, the court of public opinion.

While there were many accusations left unanswered in those two hours and the supplementary bonus clips on "CBS This Morning," enough was said to leave plenty of room for reasonable doubt in the minds of the American public on Monday morning, with Britain's impressions following on Tuesday.

In the United States, Meghan and Harry are the living proof that those fairy tales Disney raised children to believe in and "The Bachelor" franchise markets to adults can be true. We love riveting television about royal problems. (Exhibit A: "The Crown.")

Meanwhile before marrying into the Windsor family, Markle was mainly familiar in the U.S. as the co-star in the USA drama "Suits." In the U.K. the public saddled her marriage to Harry with expectations that they would modernize the stodgy monarchy, as if two people could do such a thing. Instead she became Buckingham Palace's tabloid scapegoat in order to make Prince William and his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, look nobler. She was, as Oprah made her specify, not silent, but "si-lenced."

But the part in the interview about the predatory, parasitic relationship between Buckingham Palace and the tabloid press is the real game they're playing here. Harry has long detested the media over its role in his mother's death, and he admits his fear of history repeating with his wife and child. Then he and Meghan pull the lid off of the cozy symbiosis the "Firm" shares with the media.

"There is this invisible contract behind closed doors, behind the institution and U.K. tabloids," Harry explains. "It's a case of if you, as a family member, are willing to wine, dine, and give full access to these reporters, then you will get better press. . . . There is a level of control by fear that has existed for generations."

With this the interview becomes something more than Harry and Meghan alleging a litany of sins on the part of their family. It evolves into Oprah and Meghan and Harry versus the British gossip machine.

While the U.K. media had its own fast reaction to the broadcast on Monday morning, most of the British audience hadn't seen in the telecast when Piers Morgan weighed on "Good Morning Britain" and declared he didn't believe Meghan's shocking admission that she "didn't want to be alive anymore."

Backing him up was none other than Megyn Kelly, who you may recall destroyed her NBC News bag by publicly supporting Team Blackface during a Halloween segment on her morning show. Poor things. They hadn't a clue as to what they were up against.

According to CBS more than 49.1 million viewers worldwide have seen the special so far. Some 11 million U.K. viewers watched the special Monday night, joining Sunday's 17.8 million-strong American audience. By Tuesday, mid-morning West Coast time, the verdict was in. ITV released a terse statement saying Piers Morgan "decided now is the time to leave 'Good Morning Britain.'"

Buckingham Palace also released a statement on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II. "The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan," the statement reads. "The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately."

Shortly before this on the Palace's Instagram account, photos of Prince Charles sharing space with Black people suddenly appeared. (On Monday's "CBS This Morning" Oprah passed along that Harry wanted the public to know neither the Queen nor Prince Phillip made the offending inquiry, thereby narrowing the list of suspects to Charles, William, or, let's be real here, Camilla.)

Barbara Walters could not have achieved the same result even if she was bringing her A-game. Neither could Gayle King, for that matter, and this is said with the full recognition of King's sharp interviewing skills. Oprah brings this and empathy, and that's what won this part of the case. Be assured, there will be several appeals.

For now the public has a better view of who Meghan and Harry are, separately and together. They may also have a more clear-eyed impression of what it means to be a royal in a time of so much social reckoning with regard to race and class.

And I suspect the British media now recognizes what Americans already know and Morgan and the Windsors are learning the hard way. Defending the Queen and taking potshots at duchesses may sell papers, but if you're going to take aim at Oprah, you best not miss. Otherwise, prepare to be si-lenced.

An encore broadcast of "Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special" airs at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 12.

HBO's wrenching 'Allen v. Farrow' builds a damning case against Woody Allen's credibility and egomania

What with all the documentary series and special reports that taken on such fallen superstars as R. Kelly and Michael Jackson some cinematic reckoning for Woody Allen was inevitable.

That the task fell filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering to make HBO's "Allen v. Farrow" will surely be a relief to some and predispose others to approach everything contained within the four-part series with skepticism, perhaps even doubt.

Where you fall on this scale depends on how you would answer the first question Dylan Farrow poses in her 2014 open letter: "What's your favorite Woody Allen movie?"

How much you believe of "Allen v. Farrow" depends on your answer to that question. Dick and Ziering are aware of this, and a good portion of the series' fourth hour features critics and academics wrestling with the conundrum of whether one can separate the artist from his art, and whether one should have to once they've been made aware of the artist's odious actions.

We have known about Woody Allen's taste for women many years younger than he since 1979's "Manhattan," where he plays a 42-year-old twice-divorced comedy writer dating a 17-year-old girl. At the time of its release Allen also was twice divorced and 43, and while a man's art isn't always an imitation of his life one of the women featured in "Allen v. Farrow" alleges that Mariel Hemingway's "Manhattan" character is based on her.

The other version of that story is the one we already know, the tortured and squeamish "the heart wants what it wants" fairy tale that ends with Allen married to Soon-Yi Previn, Mia Farrow's adopted daughter. Farrow and Allen were still in a 12-year relationship when he and Previn conducted a secret affair that officially began while Previn was a freshman in college. According to witnesses who worked at Allen's apartment building and who are referenced in one episode, their sexual relationship was very much active while Soon-Yi was still in high school.

This is the part of Allen's mythology that people accept because millions of people have a favorite Woody Allen movie, or several; because he's a quirky artist, a writing and cinematic genius. His adopted daughter Dylan Farrow's 1992 sexual abuse allegations were buried and overlooked in the lurid coverage of Allen's affair with Soon-Yi, and the famed filmmaker's people successfully painted Mia Farrow as a woman scorned and a liar. (Allen consistently denies ever having abused Dylan.)

That is the case Dick and Ziering make in "Allen v. Farrow" which replays this history from Dylan's and Mia's points of view and is supported by several of Farrow's still-living children – including Fletcher Previn, Ronan Farrow, Frankie-Minh Farrow, Quincy Farrow and in audio-only clips, Daisy Previn.

Allen's side is presented via excerpts from the audiobook recording of his 2020 memoir "Apropos of Nothing." The series' filmmakers reached out to him, Soon-Yi and Moses Farrow, who eventually turned against his mother and accused her of being abusive. All of them declined to participate in the project.

Documentarians aren't obligated to be objective, and if you know Dick and Ziering's track record you can safely guess without seeing "Allen v. Farrow" that Woody Allen does not come off well here.

The filmmakers first came to national attention with their 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary "The Invisible War," a sobering account of the widespread sexual misconduct in the military and the near-total lack of recourse or support for victims. They applied the same critique of institutional failures to universities in 2015's "The Hunting Ground" and took on the music industry's propping up of rape culture in 2020's "On the Record."

None of these are facile examinations and each requires the filmmakers to piece together the victims' wrenching accounts and furiously mine documentation for whatever corroboration they can construct to make the most forceful case possible. The accused never agrees to give their side.

Mounting an attack against institutional failings is in some ways simpler, than taking on a Hollywood god, especially one who cultivates an image of being awkward, nerdy and clever. We expect systems to fail us, but afford special dispensation to the artists whose work speaks to our souls.

If there is a dividing line in "Allen v. Farrow" that separates the film from being a straight bullseye and a piece that somewhat leaves wriggling room for reasonable doubt, it is one drawn in the ink of the viewer's compassion.

"Allen v. Farrow" is necessarily an intimate tragedy laid bare for all to see, one in which an abuse survivor agrees to bare her scars again and again, bringing unwarranted agony down on her mother in the process. Seen as a family quilt sewn with cherished home movies and old photos, placed next to recently filmed shots of Farrow sequestered at the family's Connecticut retreat, the series is a devastating tragedy.

Taken as an assembly of documentation discrediting Allen, there's enough to back up Dylan's insistence that Allen sexually assaulted when she was seven years old, including Farrow's videotaped interview of a very young Dylan explaining what happened to her in the days after the event was alleged to have taken place.

The filmmakers polish the images' clarity in earliest episodes as the Farrows construct their portrait of family life, filtering the footage to look darker and fuzzier as Allen's shadow weighs heavier over them.

Then again, maybe that's the psychological effect of the head spinning at taking in everything that happens after Dylan's accusations go public. The recordings of phone conversations where he threatens to destroy Farrow, the step-by-step examination of all that led to the faulty Yale-New Haven Hospital report Allen made public to destroy Dylan and Mia's account, all of it chips away at Allen's credibility.

And there is valuable hindsight contributed by people like Connecticut prosecutor Frank Maco who found enough evidence to pursue a criminal case against Allen but did not out of fear of traumatizing Dylan. So the world moved on, and Allen continued to make movies.

A few production aspects of "Allen v. Farrow" are questionable, like the lack of clarity as to when Daisy's audio interview was recorded and the context in which her comments were offered. We're left to assume that the filmmakers could only persuade her to lend her thoughts without using her image, but how do we know they made those recordings?

"Allen v. Farrow" also whisks through its examination of media complicity and the susceptibility of the gossip machine, making it easy for public relations machines around powerful men to prop up predators and bury their victims' reputations. We know this to be true based on what we know about other powerful beastly people – Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves – and their influence the used to wield in newsrooms. But when the film insinuates that the New York mayor's office is behind the dismissal of a New York social worker's findings that Dylan's allegations were plausible there isn't anything to back that up beyond hearsay.

But you can't deny the reality of the adult Dylan Farrow's uncontrollable shuddering at the memory of her abuse. The rage you may feel at witnessing all of this and watching a succession of female performers praise Allen for all the thoughtful parts he wrote for women, or at Diane Keaton defending Allen in a Today show interview with Matt Lauer (of course!), is very real.

Scene after scene showing Hollywood's elite giving Allen standing ovations and praising his genius long after Dylan's case went public in 1992 take on a nauseating tone.

I may be one of the rare cinema lovers who never liked Woody Allen. "Allen v. Farrow" crystallizes why that is by revealing the sinister egomania fueling his vision as it shapes his art and the world around him. That makes me lucky because don't have to bargain with my conscience about the art and the artist. Given that he's preparing to direct his 51st film, which is being produced in Europe, I wonder how many people's affection for Allen will be affected by the case against him as it is presented here.

"Allen v. Farrow" premieres Sunday, Feb. 21 at 9 p.m. on HBO.

Allen v. Farrow: Official Trailer | HBO www.youtube.com

'I finally got a fascist nutcase out of my bed': author recounts dumping her MyPillow

Thursday morning will forever be remembered as the first time in who knows how long that I woke up without neck pain, back pain and creaky joints. Untold millions may have awakened similarly refreshed, the result of a temporary relief that sanity has been restored the White House and the nuclear football is no longer in the hands of an unpredictable madman.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

But I credit this atypically sound night of sleep to an additional factor: I finally got a fascist nutcase out of my bed. In this respect I suppose my household may have something in common with Jane Krakowski.

According to a report in The Daily Mail, Krakowski secretly dated Mike Lindell, Donald Trump's weirdo bestie and inventor of the infamous MyPillow, for nine months. A statement from Krakowski's publicist to Page Six denies the story, stating "Jane has never met Mr. Lindell. She is not and has never been in any relationship with him, romantic or otherwise."

However if the tale turns out to be true at least she kept her alleged lapse in judgment brief; my husband and I have been resting our troubled heads on four MyPillows for the better part of a decade. Our only excuse is sheer laziness. (This paragraph has been updated.)

They were gifted to us by my mother-in-law, a devoted worshipper at the church of "As Seen TV," who first introduced Lindell's bestselling products to us during a hometown visit. Thanks to her, our lives have been blessed with many direct-to-consumer-marketed devices over the years, including but not limited to: one Snuggie, the Clapper, and countless packages of ShamWows.

Usually she sneaks them in under elaborate Christmas wrapping. In this instance, she secretly replaced the old pillows on her guest room bed with a pair of MyPillows with all the wily verve of an instant coffee taste tester. If memory serves, she asked how we slept, and we must have responded "fine" because she insistently sent us home with the two sacks of open-cell poly foam fill we slept on, shipping two more as presents later.

We didn't turn her down because our existing pillows were old and crappy, and here were four that perked right back up after a few cycles through the dryer.

Admittedly for a long time we didn't think our MyPillows were bad, mostly because we barely thought about any of the pillows we purchased before we got these. They were also free, which is a main reason the devil's fun bags lasted in our home for as long as they did despite the fact that they were yellowing, getting flatter and miserably irregular as time trudged on.

Still, they're also entirely machine washable.

But then Lindell tried to hawk overthrowing the government with all the slickness and subtlety of Wile E. Coyote trying to tiptoe away from an amateurish trap only to have it snap on his ankle, triggering an anvil to drop on his head. Following the elections he loudly peddled lies about widespread voting fraud involving Dominion machines; in response Dominion fluffed up a legal letter warning of pending litigation.

Lindell also funded buses to the Jan. 6 attempted insurrection in Washington D.C. And after it went over about as well as a post-taco Tuesday Dutch oven, he popped up at the White House with notions of convincing former president Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act and declare martial law.

At long last I looked at the offending nap cushions, turned to my husband and said, "I'm sorry, but we really need to get rid of these."

"I was thinking the same thing," he grimly muttered.

Could I have sauntered over to some big box store and picked from the replacement options there? Of course. Instead, for the first time in my life I decided to research my purchase instead of throwing my money at some down-stuffed floozy that would eventually make my life worse. More than this, I wanted some level of assurance that the manufacturer wasn't a complete kook. In other words, I decided to treat my pillow selection with more or less the same level of vetting I'd give the people I vote for, with the difference being I intended to sleep with it.

At the time we acquired our MyPillows neither my mother-in-law nor my husband nor I or suspect most of America had a clue as to the extent of Lindell's depravity. Back then – "then" probably being around 2013 or 2014 – Lindell was mainly known to insomniacs and convenience enthusiasts.

We placed him in the same category as Billy Mays, Ron Popeil and Vince Offer – fast-talking late night hucksters pushing products of variable usefulness. This one, promoted as "The Most Comfortable Pillow You'll Ever Own!" led Lindell to call himself a "sleep expert" and tout his American-made pillows as the solution to chronic neck and back pain, sleep apnea and an assortment of other bodily nags, ailments and chronic diseases.

These claims would eventually make him the subject of many lawsuits.

Anyway, even after Lindell started popping up next to the game-show host-turned-feckless authoritarian, even after he tried to sell poison as a snake oil COVID cure, we nervously assured ourselves that the money that funded our pillows was spent long ago and not by us.

This time the decision I made would be completely on me, so I decided to use a combination of consulting consumer evaluation lists and poking around a few "about us" sections of the recommended companies' sites. I cannot claim this to be anywhere close to a scientific method or on the same level as an investigative report. The only thing I knew is that I wanted those lumpy crimes out of my home, and I didn't want to trade them for a product supporting a company that might be somehow as bad as Lindell or possibly worse . . . but smarter because they remained quiet about it.

Here's the sad, honest truth: If Lindell hadn't loudly participated in multiple assaults on America's people and its democracy over the course of 2020, it's highly likely I would still be sleeping with the enemy. I am not proud of this.

Since I spent most of 2020 trying to ignore that crackbrain, several of his other abhorrent acts escaped my notice, including his assistance in bailing out Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with gunning down two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin who were protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Yes, I know. I should have trashed the pillows then.

Let he or she who has never quenched their thirst with a Coca-Cola or a Fanta; used IBM products; quoted Coco Chanel or treated their illness with a drug manufactured by Bayer cast the first stone.

But capitalism follows some version of the comedy equation of tragedy plus time when it comes to persuading the masses to forget details like Nazi collaboration. Lindell's walrus-mustached face is up in our collective business right now, and at long last some companies are de-platforming him in the same way tech companies banished his messiah.

Bed Bath & Beyond, Kohl's, H-E-B and Wayfair have all dumped Lindell's products; Krakowski allegedly cut him loose last summer, and following a brief search for new bedding options so have I.

Kristin Wiig returns home to 'SNL' for a holiday edition rife with promise and peril

Whether the year in which they air has been defined by soaring highs or miserable flops, the holiday episodes of "Saturday Night Live" are . . . consistent. People who keep up with the long-running late night sketch series approach each December's jaunt with an air of anticipation if not outright excitement, particularly its year-ending episodes.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

For those, Lorne Michaels brings in the big gun hosts: Matt Damon left tinsel-sparkled memories in the wake of his 2018 appearance. Last year Eddie Murphy made headlines with his return to "SNL" and revived a number of his old hits, including Gumby; Mister Robinson, the down-on-his-luck double for Mister Rogers; and Buckwheat. Nightmarish as 2020 has been, 2019 wasn't exactly all strippers and parades either, making Murphy's return welcome if not a shoot-the-moon performance. That his stint was largely composed of retreads was beside the point – we were simply happy for a visit from a friendly face from way back when.

That brings us to Kristen Wiig, the latest returning "Saturday Night Live" alumnus to tuck the show into its midseason nap. Since exiting the sketch show, Wiig has expanded her repertoire to include bonafide dramas, and on Christmas Day she'll be tearing into Wonder Woman as The Cheetah in "Wonder Woman 1984." Our expectations for her this weekend are much simpler.

Wiig is her "SNL" class' Kate McKinnon equivalent, the clutch player with dozens of characters and impressions under her belt. This all but guarantees a troop through past seasons and a few clapter-inspiring cameos from her famous cohorts. Maya Rudolph is already nearby, what with her impression of Kamala Harris saving Jim Carrey's disastrous Joe Biden parody on the regular. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler might pop in too.

As likely are signature character revivals that fit the season: Gilly? Target Lady? Dooneese? They can climb down that list like a ladder, and they will. In the way of all half-glass empty optimists, I am bracing to be underwhelmed with the expectation that Wiig will clear the middle rung where I've placed the bar. It's also 2020, and I'm not in the mood to be taxed by anything anymore. Bring on Wiig's Judy Grimes playing "Black Jeopardy," why not? Like everyone else I'll be watching with my head on a pillow from a prone and deflated position.

Closing out the year with old friends coming back to "SNL" isn't a regular gift, but they have done it a few times over its 46 seasons, and it's an easy win. Among the alums who came back to ring in the holiday with viewers are Bill Murray (in 1981), Jimmy Fallon (2011 and 2013), Martin Short (2012) and Fey and Poehler in 2015. Murphy has seen out the old year three times now, hosting in 1982 and 1984 when he was at the height of his powers. One imagines these homecomings to be something of an easy walk for the writers, particularly with a host like Wiig. Hand her some doll arms and an off-putting elf suit and you've got a fine way to kill 10 minutes.

We're all due an easy win, a bit of midwinter's rest. And surely many of us are curious as to how "Saturday Night Live" will enter 2021 now that the man Alec Baldwin has been clowning for years now is getting booted from the White House and – fate willing – our screens, newsfeeds and subconscious.

Baldwin's Donald Trump facsimile was tremendous for "Saturday Night Live" in the administration's early years and a simple magnet for giggles before the novelty wore thin. The sketch show's fall return did not ignore the election but retrained the spotlight on Carrey and Rudolph's Biden/Harris ticket, a dicey proposition since the audience loves Rudolph and was less enamored of Carrey's Biden. But as of Saturday we won't have the "Kidding" star to kick around anymore: he announced his retirement from portraying the president-elect on Twitter.

Over the last few episodes the creative stagnation in the scripts has become tougher to countenance but forgivable; the cast, crew and writers lived through the same year as everyone else, and if the skits were flat, no one could blame them.

Bringing back Wiig at the end of this stretch is a good thing. Her appearance also underscores the promise and peril of these alumni returns, though – they spark our nostalgia for what was and make us notice the ways in which the present cannot live up to the past.

This weekend, though, Wiig also has an opportunity to remind us that the time will soon be here when we may not be wrung out on a Saturday night following a week of processing multiple acts of dangerous, heartless stupidity committed by our leaders. Maybe she'll be able reassure us that a shift in our mood lurks but a few weeks away instead of years.

Perhaps whatever goodwill she can engender will inspire everyone at "Saturday Night Live" to aim to be something beyond imitative and reactionary. Wiig once observed, "When you go out of your comfort zone and it works there's nothing more satisfying." She's not wrong . . . and we so badly want to be satisfied by "Saturday Night Live" in the coming year.

The final "Saturday Night Live" episode of 2020, hosted by Kristen Wiig, airs Saturday, live at 11:30 p.m. ET/ 8:30 p.m. PT on NBC.