'The Last of Us' doesn't pretend people aren't a threat — but it also insists that we’re the cure

Multiple studies and numerous articles warn that the planet is in the throes of a loneliness pandemic. The British government created a Ministerial Lead for Loneliness position in 2018. Japan followed suit in 2021, making its Minister of Loneliness an official cabinet post.

As threat levels go, this may not seem on par with the Cordyceps outbreak that destroys the world in "The Last of Us," because its symptoms aren't discernible to observers or tangible.

Neither did it sweep the world overnight: Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy referred to loneliness as a public health epidemic in 2017, warning that chronic loneliness places people at greater risk of depression, anxiety and developing heart disease and dementia. The culturewide isolation posed by the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated what was already in motion. We've been hurting for a long, long time.

If the third episode of "The Last of Us" made you break out into an ugly cry, that doesn't necessarily make you one of the stricken. It simply proves co-creator Craig Mazin understands that apocalyptic fables are less about wildly speculating about the future than forcing us to confront who and where we are now.

"The Last of Us," which has been picked up for a second season, is HBO's biggest hit since "House of the Dragon." Some of its success is attributable to the phenomenal popularity of the video game from which it's adapted, but plenty of people who have never touched a PlayStation have fallen for it too. Casting Pedro Pascal's as its hero, Joel Miller, likely lured some newcomers; unlike "The Mandalorian," this drama doesn't encase him in metal.

Of course, a charismatic face only carries a story so far. A stronger explanation of why this show is defying our collective doomsday fatigue points is its insistence on pushing back against despondence. Nearly every other survival horror sells savagery, depicting humanity as more brutal than the monsters their creators dream up to devour or conscript the weak.

"The Last of Us" doesn't pretend people aren't a threat. But it also insists we're the cure.

Mazin and co-creator Neil Druckmann are making sure Joel takes his time to figure that out. As it stands, he's determined to keep his cross-country companion Ellie Williams (Bella Ramsey) at arm's length. Those defenses will fold, as they're prone to do when the person laying siege is a child. But the best way to crack it is to serve an example of what can be gained by letting someone in.

Mazin wrote this mostly standalone episode, titled "Long Long Time," as that instructive parable told in flashback and starring Joel's allies Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett), brought together by the music of Linda Ronstadt.

In 2003, when the military arrives to evacuate Bill's small Massachusetts town, he waits them out in his bunker before emerging, triumphantly, to plunge into his dream world, a street and a life without nosy neighbors.

Offerman wasn't originally cast as Bill, but since most people still recognize him as his "Parks and Recreation" curmudgeon Ron Swanson, it's hard to imagine anyone better suited for the part. Bill, a hardcore survivalist, is basically Ron Swanson minus the joie de vivre and a lot more guns. That heightens the comedy of watching him methodically plunder a gas station, the local Home Depot and the wine store before erecting fortifications, placing traps and harvesting goodies from his raised vegetable beds.

"The Last of Us" doesn't pretend people aren't a threat. But it also insists we're the cure.

From there, his life consists of enjoying his carefully plated forest-to-table meals for one, paired with fine vintages, and occasionally watching closed-circuit broadcasts of zombies stumbling into his traps.

One of Bill's perimeter pits becomes the site of his meet-cute with Frank, who is everything Bill does not appear to be: he's gentle, refined and admittedly vulnerable. Once Bill springs Frank from that dirt hole, he tries to send him on his way. But Frank quickly cracks Bill's shield; he's so hungry, can Bill spare a bit of food before he goes? Bill relents, and three years later, they're bickering over renovations.

"Long Long Time" takes its title from Ronstadt's lonesome 1970 single, which Frank finds in a songbook he digs out of Bill's piano bench, insisting on singing for his supper. But Frank knows precisely what he's doing, using the song to disarm his reluctant host.

In this age of overused needle drops, this song's diegetic presence is as flawlessly applied as Frank's seduction. He sits down at the piano and clumsily bangs out its opening melody, singing a verse or two with tinny force until Bill can't stand it anymore. Urging his visitor to move aside, Bill takes his place and, with the feathered grace the composition calls for, conveys its poignant poetry as the songsmith intended.

This also exposes Bill's survivalist front as a camouflage hiding a desolate cavern Frank leaps into. Bartlett's onscreen glow is never lovelier than when Frank rewards Bill's serenade – "Love will abide, take things in stride/ Sounds like good advice, but there's no one at my side" – with a silent teardrop.

Bill and Frank originated in the video game, although players only get to know one of them; Frank is only mentioned in passing as Bill's absent "partner." It's implied that they were in love, although never confirmed. The TV drama fills this story gap by writing a vibrant romance for them and placing it front and center, showcasing the breadth and diversity of Offerman's dramatic palette. His range shouldn't surprise anyone who watched him in "Devs." The brightness Bartlett infuses Frank with isn't uncharacteristic of his capabilities either; skewering that gleam with lances of bitterness won him an Emmy for his work in Season 1 of "The White Lotus."

The actors' complementary chemistry makes watching their intimacy develop over time into treasure. Bill could have subsisted by himself indefinitely, but at every turn, Frank makes him live fully. He shows Bill how to express love physically, but also aesthetically, turning Bill's neighborhood wasteland into a private shabby chic utopia. "Paying attention to things, it's how we show love," Frank says moments before enraging Bill by announcing that the two of them are going to make friends.

"We don't have friends, Frank. We will never have friends because there are no friends to be had," Bill seethes.

Frank's already been talking to Tess (Anna Torv) over their radio, so Bill's anger is pointless. Soon she and Joel are visiting Bill and Frank and establishing a trade partnership. Tess and Frank are friendly; Bill and Joel are not, because they are the same. (He eventually admits to Joel that he never liked him, "but still, it's like we're friends. And I respect you.") Their alliance strengthens both parties.

In the end, it isn't raiders or infected that do in Bill and Frank but an enemy they can't defeat. Yet their last stand in the face of it doesn't hold one splinter of sadness. Summing up their time, Bill simply tells Frank "You were my purpose."

Since "The Last of Us" pegs civilization's collapse to 2003, that means YouTube, Facebook and Twitter never came to exist in this world, and neither did their means of simulating friendship or algorithmic influence over what we watch or how we think. Even the video games that Ellie marvels at are designed to be played by two people standing next to each other. Forging bonds, platonic and otherwise, is a face-to-face endeavor, as it once was for us. As Bill and Frank's ballad shows us, connection is a risk. But it can be more advantageous than siloing ourselves off from others.

Druckmann, whether he meant to or not, endorses that notion by making the Cordyceps' interconnectedness central to their dread. It isn't simply the threat of death by a brain infection that's frightening, but the Cordyceps' ability to communicate through a web similar to the mycorrhizal network in forest soil. The Cordyceps is stronger than us because it works as a unified force or a hive mind. We, its prey, are simpler to divide and overpower.

Misanthropy is easy, though. That's why it's a typical feature of the broken hero profile. People striding across treacherous movie and TV landscapes, unwilling to risk the weakness that anything other than self-reliance might expose, seem so fierce. When we're feeling confident those characters have an outsize appeal, but dark moods can transform such figures into arguments for withdrawal, giving loneliness the illusion of strength. Other people are unreliable; other people will only slow us down; other people are Hell, and isn't there enough of that to go around?

Bill's choice to take a chance on Frank contradicts that bitterness. The audience witnesses their full relationship; Joel is only privy to parts of it. But that stanza is enough to break something open in him. There is always someone worth saving and protecting, Bill tells Joel in his farewell message. "That's why men like you and me are here," he writes. "We have a job to do."

The words are terse, capturing how Bill wanted Joel to see him, always a lone soldier ready to singlehandedly take on the apocalypse. Many scenes before that, "Long Long Time" reveals the truth of Bill's strength as he sits beside a strawberry plot Frank planted to surprise him.

Holding Frank's hand, he admits, "I was never afraid before you showed up."

Have hope for 'The Last of Us' — a drama about enduring at the end of the world

Shockingly enough, the pandemic seems to have depleted our appetite for apocalypse fantasy. Who'd have thought it? Not the people who made "The Walking Dead," "World War Z" and every other shambling undead property that ruled the 2010s, along with more recent end-of-the-world, zombie-free tales like "Y: The Last Man" or the remake of "The Stand."

If their brief lifespans are an indicator of the longevity odds of "The Last of Us," HBO's high-budget video game adaptation would seem to have a difficult if not impassable road ahead of it – and not merely due to our presumed fatigue with scripts about some impending version of Earth's big Game Over. Conversions of console-based mythologies to screens have a notoriously poor track record. In that regard, the starting line for "The Last of Us" is better positioned than, say, the challenge that the "Resident Evil" series writers faced in their effort to conjure prime rib out of the conceptual equivalent of Steak-Umms.

In creating "The Last of Us" Neil Druckmann intentionally spins a narrative as stalwart as its ferocious gameplay. The non-player character (NPC) backstories aren't simply described in their inventory notes but play out as the main characters travel through their forbidding environment. This is just one reason the PlayStation games have earned an enthusiastic fanbase since the first one came out in 2013.

Not even that is enough to guarantee a video game adaptation's success. Druckmann is also the creative mind behind the "Uncharted" franchise, which became a film; take that information as you will. "The Last of Us," however, enlists the storytelling expertise of Craig Mazin, the Emmy-winning creator of "Chernobyl." By merging the psychological profundity and emotional realism Mazin applied in his historical drama to Druckmann's speculative premise, its nine episodes feel at once harrowing and, strangely enough, hopeful.

Pairing "Game of Thrones" alumni Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey is key to establishing that air of optimism, however faint it may seem at times. In Druckmann's universe, the extinction-level pandemic is caused by a Cordyceps fungus akin to a real version that infects insects and eventually takes control of their brain function, driving them to spread their spores. In "The Last of Us," the fungus evolves to infect humans, transforming them into a variety of infected, with the most dangerous being the later-stage monsters known as "clickers" and "bloaters."

its nine episodes feel at once harrowing and, strangely enough, hopeful.

Viewers who haven't played the video game don't need to know those terms or even be concerned that episodes are driven by running from hordes of brainless, drooling former folk. Like "The Walking Dead," the living pose a higher degree of day-to-day peril to their fellow humans than the undead; in this world, the main factions are the military's fascist governing arm, known as FEDRA, and the resistance network dubbed the Fireflies.

Ramsey's Ellie isn't a fan of belonging to either, desiring most of all to be cherished by someone. She's familiar to most as the fearsome Lyanna Mormont, the young Lady of Bear Island in "Game of Thrones" whose battlefield scowl captures the mood of every woman who has had it.

Here she gets to play the part of a playful, curious, and tough 14-year-old named Ellie, who was born after the virulent fungal outbreak decimates humanity. All pre-outbreak technology is a marvel to her, from aircraft to video games. (The show's shout-out to "Mortal Kombat" is delightful.) When she and Pascal's Joel encounter an economy car at one point, he mutters about it being a piece of crap. She counters, with her face transformed into a beacon of awe, that to her it might as well be a spaceship.

Circumstances place her in Joel's care, although he refuses to allow affection to soften him. Ellie becomes his responsibility; he insists on viewing her as cargo.

Pascal is mainly associated with "The Mandalorian," which makes it easy to liken this situation to his "Star Wars" character. But Joel is hardened by loss. Two decades after civilization falls, he's a black market smuggler who links a will to survive to his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna), and his partner Tess (Anna Torv).

When Tommy doesn't return from a mission for the Fireflies, Joel and Tess take on the job of smuggling Ellie beyond the walls of Boston's grim quarantine zone and into hollowed-out cities, unfamiliar forests, and the vast wilderness that has reclaimed the land from mankind – untamed places that are home for the fungus to thrive unchecked, along with its once-human hosts.

Describing the stakes in those terms makes it easy to picture all the ways that "The Last of Us" could have fallen into the trap of aspiring to make a series out of what are essentially gaming cinematics. But Druckmann and Mazin avoid this by expanding the backstories mainly implied in the game into fully realized biographies.

It adequately pays homage to the adrenaline-spiking chaos that is the survival horror genre's selling point.

The most beautiful of these inspire the third episode starring Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett as Bill, a featured non-player character in the game, and Frank, another figure who is merely mentioned. The writers develop seeds sprinkled with the game's narrative into what may be the season's best episode and possibly among the best performances Offerman has ever given.

Do not take this to mean that this drama eases up on the violence or brutality that gamers want to see in these stories. There's a place for non-violent TV drama about how the world continues after society falls; for the time being, that role is played quite well by "Station Eleven."

"The Last of Us," in contrast, admirably services its original constituency through a lightning-paced depiction of it end-of-days' opening act, and it adequately pays homage to the adrenaline-spiking chaos that is the survival horror genre's selling point.

Those sequences, and the unpredictable incursion of preternaturally fast and savage monsters here and there, are not this story's primary magnets. (Although, of course, raiders, despots and cannibals are among the threats Joel and Ellie contend with.) Mazin and Druckmann confirm their understanding of our fatigue with subsistence stories and grim battles between brutal constituencies by emphasizing themes that are more relatable to those looking for escapism instead of another reminder of how scary the world has become.

Joel and Ellie's journey as the primary focus inspires the auxiliary plots to emphasize the necessity of caring for others as a means of affirming one's purpose. This is the doorway for joy to enter, and it's a means for deep pain, betrayal and madness to find its way in, too, and with similar efficiency to that Cordyceps infection.

Connected to this is the importance of trust as both an uncompromisable aspect of survival and living. When we widen that lens to apply that idea to the series as a whole, its creators have made serious efforts to earn that from the audience too. Whatever online trolling there has been over the diverse casting in this series matters is, as usual, irrelevant.

Mazin, Druckmann and the directors got the vital elements of "The Last of Us" right by honoring what makes the game outstanding and making its story come alive for anyone who has never played it and never will. Nonstop action can be enough to move along stories in that format and in comic books. Real people require additional dimensionality – and here, at last, is an apocalyptic fantasy that strives to give us that along with its monsters.

Ultimately that's more effective in persuading the audience to invest in the hearts of these characters and their thousand-mile journey, as opposed to expecting people to be thrilled anew by gazing at the latest herd of traumatized people struggling to endure and survive.

"The Last of Us" premieres Sunday, Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. on HBO.

Even if Harry and Meghan 'win' for Netflix, they lose

In the second half of "Harry & Meghan" we bear witness to the couple's session with a meditation coach. Sitting side by side on a couch, they breathe deeply and take in her wisdom.

This article first appeared in Salon.

"Remember that what is transpiring in the media, what is being created is an illusion," she says. "When you try to prove that you're good and that you're not the person they say you are, you're taking the bait, you're feeding the beast. It is an illusion. Your work is not to prove your goodness. You know who you are. Both of you."

Meghan breaks into tears at hearing this, because that coach is right.

On the other hand, the fact that we're watching this transpire on our TV screens proves they didn't take her advice.

A more empathetic view points out that would be impossible. If Prince Harry and Meghan Markle remained silent and let the institution that runs the royal family continue to lie about their character, their well-being would always be at the mercy of Buckingham Palace.

Hence, H & M are not merely feeding the beast, they're milking it. Good for them. Judging by the social media reaction to the series, along with Netflix-provided viewership data, this Jersey's got plenty to give.

The first three episodes enjoyed the best opening week of any of the streaming platform's documentary titles, logging 81.55 million hours of viewing worldwide. It was a Top 10 show in 85 countries and debuted as Netflix's No. 1 series in the U.K.

That doesn't mean everyone is rooting for them, but when does likability factor into deciding whether to watch a show like this? Not as often as you think. There are fans of "The Kardashians" who don't like the Kardashians. In that respect, it's best thought of as a real-life fairy tale told by the Sussexes and director Liz Garbus, featuring an imperfect prince and his bride who, by her own account, "tried so hard, and that's the piece that's so triggering because . . . it still wasn't good enough. And you still don't fit in."

Indeed. Nothing that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex do or say will change anyone's pre-existing opinions about them – and be assured, almost everybody has one.

They are extremely wealthy, and perhaps the highest-profile interracial couple in the United States and the U.K., if not on the planet. They are also in the unique position to throw open the doors of the British royal family's laundry room.

All of that places the couple in a position where even if they "win," as far as that can be measured by ratings, they lose. That they've made this series at all is offensive to die-hard royalists. Whether people believe what they have to say is another matter. Many will resent what they hold back, as if the couple promised to serve dirt on King Charles III and William, Prince of Wales, and Kate. For the record, they never did.

H & M aren't merely feeding the beast, they're milking it.

On the contrary, Meghan has nothing but kind words for Charles and the late Queen Elizabeth II. And that fuels the discourse related to Meghan's willingness to join a family intimately associated with colonialist exploitation and all of its associated suffering. The opening episodes of "Harry & Meghan" address that history, but that sharpness is somewhat blunted by the couple's assertion in these new episodes that she and Harry explain they were willing to continue doing their work of representing the Queen's interests after placing an ocean and most of Canada between them and the palace.

One popular argument posits Meghan, a Black woman proudly dedicating her life to social justice, should have refused to participate in such a morally questionable enterprise. Of course, this ignores the very human inclination to be loyal to a family into which she married, one that refused to extend similar loyalty to her.

Besides, to continue this debate, doesn't this play into the unreasonable expectation that this woman who leaped from co-starring in an American cable drama to marrying into a monarchy propped up by centuries of baggage, could somehow transform centuries of racial animus by her very presence?

It's all messy, and it all leads to the conclusion that "Harry & Meghan" was never going to give the public enough of the mess that it desires.

However, it is deft at interrogating the weight the public places on institutional validity and how that can be horrendously misused.

"Harry & Meghan" puts the couple's story to its highest use by examining the toxic influence powerful institutions like the British monarchy have on society and the dangerous alliance wrought by wielding that influence through the media. The United States is contending with its own version of that problem in the form of a pliant media's coziness with right-wing politicians and billionaires. The U.K. tabloid press is simply more brazenly irresponsible than most stateside publications and broadcasters – we should say, those that aren't owned by Sinclair or the Murdoch family.

Parallel to this, its look at the way Meghan is a lightning rod for social media hatred is particularly compelling. Her case aligns with verified data concerning marginalized people being the main targets of online abuse and violent threats. Harry may sound hyperbolic when he calls social media bullying a humanitarian crisis, but once Bot Sentinel founder and CEO Christopher Bouzy breaks it down, you realize he's not so far off.

Bot Sentinel is a non-partisan enterprise dedicated to combatting disinformation and targeted harassment by monitoring accounts for signs of trolling and inauthentic accounts. In the series, Bouzy declares that the online coordination dedicated to stirring up hatred for the couple is unlike anything his company has ever seen.


His company analyzed 114,000 tweets and found that 70% of the most hateful content originated from 83 accounts that had a reach of 17 million users. Most of the content was produced by middle-aged white women, said Bouzy . . . allegedly including Meghan's half-sister Samantha. (Samantha Markle denies involvement through her lawyer, claiming her account was hacked. Sure, Jan.)

The couple's natural reaction to this can't help coming across as anything but personal, since these trolling efforts helped to escalate the death threats Meghan received. "You are making people want to kill me. It's not just a tabloid. It's not just some story. You are making me scared," she says through tears. "And you've created it for what? Because you're bored or because it sells your papers or it makes you feel better about your own life? It's real, what you're doing. And that's the piece I don't think people fully understand."

Author Safiya Noble seconds this by saying, "Let's be clear about what's actually at stake here: It's like symbolic annihilation. If you can destroy people who are symbols of social justice, then you can scare people to not want to be public. It is a way to signal to the rest of us to stand down."

Even viewers who disagree with that characterization of Meghan as a symbol of justice can't deny the genuine paranoia and despair she and Harry must have felt in knowing that amid this coordinated hate campaign, Buckingham Palace announced it was withdrawing their security.

Harry and Meghan are in a position where even if they "win," they lose.

Footage of the paparazzi circling their temporary home in Canada and strangers lurking just beyond their property provides some idea of how terrifyingly uncertain that experience must have been . . . until media mogul Tyler Perry swooped in and whisked them to safety. Thus, the uplifting resolution of the fairy tale resumes with what we know. First came relative privacy, then came Oprah. The revelation that Perry, who hadn't met the couple before abetting their escape to California, is Lillibet's godfather, is a pleasant epilogue too.

In this way and others "Harry & Meghan" plays out the difference between a journalistic documentary endeavor and portraiture. There's nothing wrong with that second approach, although the average viewer doesn't recognize the nuances separating one from the other. As such, one reason people question Meghan's historical and social naivete concerning the institution she and her husband would have continued representing is that Garbus isn't shown asking them about it.

A similar reaction may meet Harry's account of what occurred at the famous Sandringham family meeting, where he sought to hammer out an agreement about his and Meghan's role before they permanently stepped down. Then again, those circumstances are depressingly recognizable to anyone dealing with a dysfunctional family. Here was Harry, hoping to spend time with his grandmother, only to be denied that chance. Instead, he was made to face down his disapproving father and brother with no support.

"It was terrifying to have my brother scream and shout at me and my father say things that simply weren't true," he recalls, "and my grandmother, you know, quietly sit there and take it all in."

Afterward, the palace's public relations team quashed a story about the wedge between him and William, adding his name without asking his permission. "Within four hours they were happy to lie to protect my brother. And yet for three years, they were never willing to tell the truth to protect us. So there was no other option at this point. I said, 'We need to get out of here.'"

And yet, as Garbus records the couple in the days that follow their CBS interview with Oprah, we see that William has texted Harry a message. What the text says or what it means for the future of their relationship is never specified; we simply see Meghan embrace Harry, who says he must think about what to do with it.

Is that a missed opportunity on Garbus' part or an intentional omission to honor her subjects' privacy? We can only guess and choose whether to respect that choice, all of which depends on how we feel about these two. Professional loudmouths like Howard Stern may write off their account as whiny; Harry describes his last few years "like living through a soap opera where everyone else views you as entertainment."

Regardless, in making the series a combination of confessional and edifying, essentially doing exactly what their meditation specialist advised them against, Harry and Meghan's love story gets in the way of the valuable conversations "Harry & Meghan" seeks to have. That probably won't matter much in the long run. This is only the beginning of what they have to say.

All episodes of "Harry & Meghan" are streaming on Netflix.

The real 'problem with Jon Stewart'

"The Problem with Jon Stewart" achieved supreme viral status for the first time this fall, thanks to Arkansas' Republican attorney general Leslie Rutledge's inability to withstand a very basic line of questioning.

Stewart visited the state official's office, sitting down with her on her own turf, to ask her to explain the logic behind the 2021 passage of the "Save Adolescents from Experimentation Act" (HB 1570), which bans doctors from providing puberty blockers or performing hormone therapy.

Their conversation largely consisted of Stewart attempting to wring an honest answer out of Rutledge on a single point: "Why would the state of Arkansas step in to override parents, physicians, psychiatrists, endocrinologists who have developed guidelines, why would you override those guidelines?"

The host was very specific as to which professionals he was referring, citing the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Endocrine Society, and the American Association of Psychiatrists, all organizations that recommend a certain set of guidelines for children expressing gender dysphoria. Rutledge responded by claiming that for every single one of those doctors and experts, "there's an expert that says, we don't need to allow children to be able to take those medications."

"But you know that's not true," Stewart counters. "You know it's not 'for every one, there's one.'" Rutledge rebuts that she doesn't know that's true, which leads Stewart to wonder: if she doesn't know if that's true, then why pass this law?

The full interview lasted for about 16 minutes, the longest segment of the second season premiere, "The War Over Gender," and earned widespread praise. Many media analysts observed that this is the type of probative interview professional journalists should be conducting with elected officials. But this is nothing new for Stewart, the 2022 recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for comedy and a man who, at the height of his tenure on "The Daily Show", reminded people that he is a comedian, not Edward R. Murrow.

Having said that, if there is an episode equivalent to a whetstone against which Stewart honed his sophomore season approach, it may be the first season's penultimate episode about, yes, the media. Breaking down broadcast news' myriad failures is Stewart's bread and butter, a tradition picked up and refined by "Daily Show" staffers that went on to helm their own shows, including John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Hasan Minhaj, Larry Wilmore and Wyatt Cenac. (Out of this group, only Oliver and Colbert still have shows.)

The "Media" episode takes a slightly different approach than usual, in that instead of merely bemoaning the TV newsroom tendency to take excellent journalism and smother it in useless alarmist garbage designed to be confusing, torrential, and addictive, he digs into why that is.

And when no network news presidents or directors agree to speak with Stewart, he turns instead to Robert Iger, the former chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company, ABC's and ABC News' corporate owner. Together they confirm what people who view the news with a critical eye already know, which is that the rise of right-wing media successfully conflated news and opinion, driving down the public's trust in the news media and journalists.

Iger tells Stewart that the late Roger Ailes, the Fox executive who molded the network into the hate machine that it is today, figured out there was a business in being biased. "But then, what we've also seen is that other news organizations then pivoted in another direction as a countermeasure to what he was doing," Iger adds. "That, to me, was a huge mistake. That was at the expense of credibility, at the expense of being accurate, and I would argue at the expense of being responsible."

At this Stewart wonders aloud whether there's money to be made by presenting news in a manner that's not as relentlessly hyperbolic. Iger's response is depressingly realistic: "I just don't know how practical that is," Iger says, explaining that this isn't simply a matter of financial viability. "I'm much more interested in whether it would truly make a difference in the world."

Stewart seems determined to test that interest — as far as one can when one hosts a public affairs-focused interview show on a small streaming service.

My initial review of "The Problem with Jon Stewart" made a crack about resisting the easy and cute headline, but in this case, it's tough to avoid since the problem with this show is its relatively narrow availability. Now that Stewart's interviewing mojo is back online, the main concern should be getting more people to see the useful work he's doing, which should inspire fellow interviewers to tighten up their techniques and standards.

A recent example with direct relevance to the 2022 midterm elections is Stewart's interview with Arizona's Attorney General Mark Brnovich in the October 28 episode titled, "Midterms: This Is What Democracy Looks Like?" Stewart points out that Brnovich's Election Integrity Unit, which the official claims has "run a lot of the stuff to ground" — is giving credence to conspiracy theories contending that Arizona's election results are fraudulent.

"When you get it 'to ground,' will you come out and say 'Donald J. Trump is wrong. The election in Arizona was fair, not stolen and not fraudulent?'" Stewart asks. Again, it's a simple question.

Brnovich draws out the spin with, "I've always been a straight shooter." Eventually, he comes out and says, "Donald Trump lost Arizona. Period. I've said that from the very beginning." He quickly adds, "we still have some active investigations going on, but people can draw their own conclusions—"

Stewart cuts him off. "No. People cannot draw their own conclusions. That's the point of the law. The law is that you have facts, and you have fiction. The fact is the election in Arizona was well run, not fraudulent, and not stolen from Donald Trump according to even your investigations. Why is it so hard to just say yes to that?

At this Brnovich continues to talk in circles, and a grinning Stewart simply says, "This is blowing my mind."

At Stewart points out, Brnovich went on Steve Bannon's show and brayed, "We all know what happened."

It seems the A.G. is determined to play both sides. But if you were to watch his interview with Scott Pelley on the October 30 episode of "60 Minutes," you would be left with the impression that Brnovich was rock solid in his position that no fraud occurred. Brnovich's appearance on Bannon's show isn't mentioned.

"It's all bulls**t," Stewart tells Brnovich. "And you know it's all bulls**t," adding that the real threat to American democracy is the alarmingly high number of people who don't believe in the multiply verified results of the 2020 presidential election.

The second half of Season 1 of "The Problem with Jon Stewart" streamed in March of this year, and represents an improvement over the lackluster if well-meaning opening four that premiere in late 2021.

But the second season, which launched in October, is even leaner and sharper. Gone are the writers' room bits, which were humanizing but added to the torpor. Instead, "The Problem" presses more forcefully into its confrontations with elected officials who other interviewers would allow to spew utterly false nonsense without confronting them on it.

Even better, Stewart uses his table to grant the people who aren't usually heard in political conversations an opportunity to have their say without being interrupted by more powerful voices who aren't interested in good-faith arguments.

Earlier in "The War Over Gender," Stewart hosted a roundtable that included Keisha Bell and Debi Jackson, parents to transgender children, alongside the ACLU's Deputy Director for Transgender Justice Chase Strangio and Dr. Joshua Safer, Executive Director of the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery.

Bell and Jackson vehemently disagree with descriptions of being "woke" parents blinkered by political correctness, for example. Strangio and Safer refute claims that gender-affirming treatment is dangerous or abusive.

He takes a similar approach in the "Midterms" installment, allowing two people who volunteer to help run elections to share their perspective, letting people know about the threats they've faced. Instead of viewing the issue through a lens of false equivalence, Stewart gives a face and a voice to the people most intimately impacted by needlessly punitive policies and dangerous conspiracy theory.

These are vital, substantive conversations that should receive a broader reach. But perhaps the best we can hope for is that journalists with bigger audiences might be inspired by what Stewart is doing.

"I've seen the impact that one news organization has had on the deterioration of it," he tells Iger. "Somebody's got to generate fodder that's better quality." Once again, and on a much smaller stage, the task falls to him.

New episodes of "The Problem with Jon Stewart" stream Fridays on Apple TV+.

The Jan. 6 hearings as must-see TV

Among the factors leading to "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" becoming the talked-about dramas of their debut season, as in 2004-2005, was their novel usage of bodies and questions in their respective premieres. "Lost" opens with wide shots of bodies scattered on a beach amidst a plane crash's wreckage. "Desperate Housewives" shocks with just one, that of the omniscient narrator who dies by suicide without warning.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Each show could have rolled along as straightforward relationship-driven dramas from there, save for the questions ending each pilot: "Oh Mary Alice, what did you do?" "Guys . . . where are we?" These simple queries establish there's something bigger going on than any individual character's story arc or their conflicts – a potential threat that supersedes individual problems.

I can almost guarantee that nobody on the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection thought about either of these shows or the many subsequent series influenced by them when they laid the groundwork for their televised hearings.

Scratch that – I'm positive of that, given the straightforward presentation witnessed by more than 20 million prime-time viewers on Thursday, June 9. None of the committee members made extra efforts to play to the cameras, and at times its chairman, Representative Bennie Thompson, D-Ms., stumbled when reading his lines from the teleprompter.

The unspoken understanding, at least among viewers watching in good faith, should be that none of these people were elected based on their acting ability. But the committee does understand how potent a tease, cliffhanger, and "coming up this season" montage can be to persuade a skeptical viewer to stick with the story. Rather, the man producing these televised hearings, former ABC News president James Goldston, understands this.

This approach is necessary given the grave danger the Jan. 6 insurrection represents and its relationship to a slow-moving, ongoing coup. Our entertainment landscape is awash with alternatives more exciting than a stodgy congressional committee hearing run by a bipartisan committee – a team of Democrats and two Republicans who, can you believe it, appear to respect each other.

But that also means not enough people are paying attention or simply won't, abetted by Fox News' refusal to carry the first prime-time hearing live in favor of featuring Tucker Carlson deriding it as propaganda.

Thus, last Thursday's episode served as a plainspoken table-setting chapter and an educational reset for any tuned in to ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, PBS, C-SPAN or MSNBC, with Thompson explaining why the committee embarked on its investigation against the wishes of nearly every Republican member of congress.

"I come before you this evening not as a Democrat but as an American who swore an oath to defend the Constitution," Thompson said, explaining that every member of Congress swears the same oath upon taking office: "to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

The prime-time opener of the Jan. 6 committee's hearings demonstrates comprehension of dramatic structure, not only regarding episodic presentation but in terms of spelling out a full season arc. Mind you, it was devoid of puzzle-box flourishes or the type of juiced-up "Desperate Housewives"-style heat that amplify unscripted reality and episodic true crime.

Cheney introduced the committee's aim in these hearings to clearly spell out "plots to commit seditious conspiracy on Jan. 6" by explaining exactly what each episode is going to show us. Monday's second hearing presented recorded testimony from campaign chief Bill Stepien and aide Jason Miller, who told the committee that they informed Trump the election was lost and advised him against making any statement on the night of the election.

The next hearing is a dive into Trump's efforts to corrupt the Justice Department, a development about which former Attorney General Bill Barr has already dropped hints.

Some of its "loglines" were teased before the hearings began, mainly the revelations that in the days leading up to January 6, 2021, former President Donald Trump pressured his Vice President Mike Pence to assist him in overturning the election results. Because of this the first Pence-centered hearing, originally estimated to be the fourth, will probably be a popular one.

Other were announced by Cheney during the first telecast, along with scheduled appearances such as Monday's main "get": live testimony by former Fox News political editor Chris Stirewalt, the man behind that network's controversial and ultimately correct decision to call Arizona for Joe Biden on election night.

The coda of its curtain-raiser featured committee Vice-Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wy., spelling out the themes of each hearing to come and, where relevant, announcing corroborating testimony from a variety of witnesses – many of them former members of Trump's inner circle.

Before that came the drama's introduction of its first hero, Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards, and a few of this story's monsters, including the Proud Boys meeting and the Oath Keepers.

It injected unintentional comic relief in the guise of Barr's taped deposition in which he described Trump's claims about the 2020 election having been stolen as, among other epic terms, "crazy," "garbage," "idiotic" and "bulls**t."

In the telecast's closing moments, their members' words speak to the question driving the season, the hearing's "Guys . . . where are we?" equivalent. At the root of all of this, the premieres spell out, the committee endeavors to prove, is Donald Trump's desire to hold on to power at any cost.

To some, describing this historic televised chronicle in the terms of scripted drama may seem to cheapen the proceedings. The opposite is true – it's a highly rational strategy to meet the audience where it is.

Goldston's hand in the hearings' production is light enough for the viewer to appreciate how easy-to-follow each installment is. For the most part, the committee has delivered as promised, save for a last-minute cancellation by Stepien, whose wife went into labor. Even then, his video deposition was edited in a way to fit within the flow of the committee's script.

It's also present in the "casting," as it were, of the committee's witnesses. Footage of Ivanka Trump's agreement with Barr made headlines, understandably. However, the conscious decision to call upon Edwards to testify is particularly savvy.

Why Fox News is obsessed with Johnny Depp -- its 'Manliness Under Siege' mascot

In 2017, when Johnny Depp jokingly asked his British audience at that year's Glastonbury Festival, "When was the last time an actor assassinated a president?" then-Fox News host and eternal Donald Trump water bearer Eric Bolling lost his mind.

"Depp, you damn fool. You think you can say these things without repercussions?" he boomed in the monologue for his show "Fox News Specialists" which, if you blinked, you probably missed.

He went on to add, "Maybe Americans will show their distaste for your comments by steering clear of your movies," and advised Depp to take on a role better suited for him, about a man who "abuses drugs and alcohol to the point of being accused of abusing his beautiful young wife, played by Amber Heard. Anyway, this guy ends up a burned-out wasted fool of a man. Wait, that's not a movie role. That's your life!"

Cut to five years later and a few days into Fox News' exhaustive coverage of Depp's defamation trial against his now ex-wife Heard, broadcast live from Virginia's Fairfax County Courthouse. Bolling has moved his shtick over to Newsmax.

Not to worry, because current and very popular Fox News host Greg Gutfeld has picked up the Depp beat. He opened the April 22 episode of his late night talk show, "Gutfeld!" with this reaction to the fallen star's testimony: "There's a bigger story here beyond the seedy salaciousness. The fact is, Depp is humiliating himself for a good reason. He's bearing the most pathetic, saddest part of his life because he feels it must be done. . . . So he's baring his horrible existence warts and all to billions of strangers. How can he do that? Well, somehow he's immunized himself against the effects of embarrassment. And that's a superpower."

Gutfeld went on to admit to feeling "somewhat liberated" by Depp's unburdening. "Give us any embarrassment of riches, and we could turn it into an embarrassment of embarrassment," he observed. "But what makes you immune to suffering is your ability to cease judging other people even as they judge you."

Hats off to the person who wrote that monologue, whether it was Gutfeld or a writer on his show's staff. Aside from the poop jokes, that prose was aglow with empathy. If it only it were coming out of the mouth of a person whose career wasn't built on sneering at and judging people, and wasn't referring to a man accused of intimate partner violence.

But the honesty behind those words matters less than the position they establish, which falls in line with the rest of Fox News' angle on this celebrity trial. Depp may be a wino and a recreational drug vacuum who joked about assassinating Trump in 2017, but to Fox News in 2022, he's the celebrity poster model for the channel's crusade against the war on masculinity.

Depp brought his lawsuit in reaction to an opinion piece published in The Washington Post in which Heard described herself as a survivor of domestic abuse. He claims its publication led to Disney cutting ties with him, ending his starring role in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.

The trial is a potent strain of catnip, bred from the conflict between a once rich and successful male sex symbol and the "difficult" woman who he claims laid him low.

Understand, Fox News isn't taking an official view on America's supposed testosterone depletion crisis. That's Tucker Carlson's bag, stemming from his kooky infomercial sounding the alarm on the nation's declining sperm count and testicular fortitude based on pseudoscientific data. Carlson's advocacy for scrotal tanning may be a nut too far for even his regulars. But Depp's performance as a crumbling shell of a man under assault by a she-devil he says he regrets marrying? That's something lots of people will, and are, getting behind.

Courtroom conflagrations like this are the reason cable news was invented. The celebrities in question didn't murder anyone and aren't accused of child molestation, questions that justified the wall-to-wall coverage of O.J. Simpson's and Michael Jackson's trials decades ago. But together and separately Depp and Heard are a flaming mess, adding to the prurient interest of it all.

For Fox hosts like Nancy Grace, who accurately likened it to watching "two wet cats in a barrel – we're hearing more than we ever wanted to know," the trial is a potent strain of catnip, bred from the conflict between a once rich and successful male sex symbol and the "difficult" woman who he claims laid him low.

Heard never mentioned Depp's name in the 2018 piece, but he alleges the inference was enough to destroy his career. Depp's reputation for trashing hotel rooms and putting hands on strangers has been common knowledge for decades. But since the dawn of his stardom, Depp's reputation for being Gen X's Marlon Brando has led fans to give him a pass.

Since his time on "21 Jump Street," he's played sensitive, broken heroes. He dusted off one version of such a performance for the cameras. "I don't believe that I'm the only human being that's ever punched a door or broken something," he calmly said in response to accusations of violent behavior, backed up by video showing him splintering a cabinet he slammed shut in his kitchen.

Asked if anyone other than Heard expressed concerns about his drinking, Depp replied, "Sir, if anyone had a problem with my drinking at any time in my life, it was me. The only person I've ever abused in my life is myself."

In an explanation regarding one of his texts that imagines Heard as a "burnt corpse," the actor claims it was a "Monty Python" reference, "irreverent and absurd humor." This was presented alongside his insistence that he, too, is a victim of domestic abuse, first at his mother's hands and later at Heard's.

Heard, who filed a $100 million countersuit against Depp in the summer of 2020, takes the stand next week. But she's already sustained an "ordeal by water"-style dunking in the brutish court of public opinion. Testimony by a clinical and forensic psychologist working for Depp's legal team claimed she exhibits signs of borderline personality disorder and histrionic disorder. Depp's claim that she defecated in his bed further bolsters his claims that she's unstable (which, it must be pointed out, is a go-to tactic in domestic abuse and intimate violence cases). Deep even gave the act a highly hashtag-able nickname, calling it a "grumpy."

Whether Depp wins or loses... there's only upside for the purveyors of Manliness Under Siege hysteria.

Depp's debut as Jack Sparrow in the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie in 2003 rekindled his adolescent pull even though he was 40 when it came out and made him richer than he already was. Following the article's publication in 2018, when the #MeToo movement was set back on its heels by Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court, Depp says Disney cut ties with him.

Relatedly, reports of Depp's profligate life and spending habits have been giving tabloid readers a contact high for decades; as has their schadenfreude at hearing he was on the verge of going broke. Those stories were circulating long before Heard penned her account but blew up substantially when The Hollywood Reporter ran a 2017 story enumerating all the ways Depp allegedly blew through $650 million from the perspective of his former accountant, who Depp sued and accused of fraud and mismanagement.

In contrast, Heard could never claim to have a fandom anywhere nearly as extensive and rabidly supportive as Depp's.

Social media has treated their divorce and continued bickering in the press like a sports team rivalry since 2016, with Depp's aggressive fanbase supporting his allegations that she lied in court documents about enduring "excessive emotional, verbal and physical abuse from Johnny." Understandably, domestic violence advocates found the public's reduction of Heard's serious, alarming accusations to entertainment fodder to be highly disturbing.

But in 2022, with the political right inculcating its messages about #MeToo, "wokeness" and so-called "cancel culture" destroying innocent lives, Depp and Heard's legal meltdown brings all its fears to life, with A-list actors portraying the parts. Gutfeld's review raves that this play is "sad, kinda gross, kinda riveting. But it's also kinda inspiring."

"Up in the Air" author Walter Kirn, one of Gutfeld's panelists, summed it up as "one long personal ad for the most screwed up lady in the world."

Another contributor, professional wrestler George Murdoch (who works as Tyrus), empathized with Depp's dudely struggle with a "we've all been there, who among us?" reaction to Depp's tendency to break stuff. "He'll never get a movie again if he's known, if you're known as a sexual harasser or a domestic violence guy . . . you will never work again. But a drug addict? You can get some work."

(Indeed. Consider the demonstrably permanent cancellation of that guy who recently won the Grammy for Best Comedy Album, who definitely isn't working. Or Bolling, who Fox fired for sending unsolicited photos of his junk to at least three female colleagues. Or, and always and forever, Mel Gibson.)

All this creates a special opportunity for Fox, a right-wing cable channel capitalizing on Carlson's manufactured fears of a Low T pandemic. Whether Depp wins or loses, as he did when a similar case was brought before the British courts, there's only upside for the purveyors of Manliness Under Siege hysteria. His win is a victory in the fight to halt the erosion of American masculinity. His defeat may been seen by paranoid sacks as evidence that their endangerment by the feminist vagenda is real. No matter what the outcome is, all of us who would rather not be subjected to this dumpster will be left feeling a few smudges grumpier.

Volodymyr Zelensky is nailing the role of his life

One emergent piece of trivia about Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy that may have conquered more hearts and minds than any video propaganda ever could is that he provided the voice for Ukraine's versions of 2014's "Paddington" and 2017's "Paddington 2."

Politicians playing roles in movies stopped being novel decades go, but this is something else. Paddington Bear is a children's literature institution, a soft-spoken, polite character who disarms adversaries with kindness. He's also a talking bear, pure fiction, and Zelenskyy isn't channeling him in the role he's playing right now.

However, in each of his persuasive speeches to world leaders and conversations with journalists, Zelenskyy conveys the deportment of a rational, determined man. In the viral video he filmed in a studio and others taken in the streets, using his own mobile device, he's personable and calm. Reassuring.

Vox's Emily VanDerWerff wrote a defining piece about the ways in which Zelenskyy is using his stagecraft to successfully dominate the propaganda space, analyzing his expert staging of backgrounds and angles, even breaking down the importance of where he stands in each frame.

Another element I hope people also appreciate is that this world leader standing up to a savage, unprovoked attack by Vladimir Putin is a comedian. There are many ways to misinterpret my pointing that out, so let me be clear – this is not an identifier Zelenskyy is overcoming on the world's stage, but another asset he's using to resist Russian president Vladimir Putin's tyranny.

Zelenskyy's comedy and his filmmaking skills are hand-in-hand endeavors. A veteran of comedy troupes, including one called Kvartal 95, which he co-founded, Zelenskyy cultivated his popularity as a TV personality. In addition to starring in several movies, he won the first Ukrainian edition of "Dancing with the Stars" in 2006 and hosted a number of live shows, including the variety sketch series "League of Laughter."

Kvartal 95 morphed into a production studio responsible for a number of popular shows, including the comedy "Servant of the People," in which Zelenskyy stars as a high school teacher named Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko who becomes president.

"Our ambitious objective," he says in a quote attributed to him on the Kvartal 95 website, "is to make the world a better place, a kinder and more joyful place with help of those tools that we have, that is humor and creativity. We are moving towards this goal, trying to conquer the whole world, of course ;)"

Cut to his quick turnaround to responding to Russia's claim in the opening hours of the invasion that Zelenskyy and his leadership had fled the country. Standing in the streets with his mobile phone, he filmed a concise statement to the Ukrainian people, and the world, to debunk that lie. It's also very carefully set up to show all of the leadership in the shot, whether shoulder-to-shoulder with him or at his back.

"Good evening, everyone," he says in that Feb. 25 video. "The leader of the faction is here. The head of the presidential office is here." He goes on to list the names and positions of the four men standing with him before saying, "We are all here. Our soldiers are here. The citizens are here and we are here. We defend our independence. That's how it'll go."

He doesn't say this with pumping fists, a raised voice, grim solemnity or worse, no emotion whatsoever. He is solid. He is explaining how it is to an audience hanging on his every word, offering them a firm hand to hold. The message is a simple curtain-dropper on a fallacy.

Then he comes his battlefield version of "Thank you, and goodnight": "Glory to our defenders, both male and female. Glory to Ukraine."

Rightly or unwisely, we look to comedian in stressful times because we trust them to make sense of madness. We see them as our truth tellers, our guides for taking power over despair or relieving tension with laughter. The best are also improvisational specialists, a skill Zelenskyy calls upon in his interviews with international press, in his speeches to the world leaders and his viral video offensives.

The comedian wins the audience by making people feel good, or better, by being honest even when they tell tall tales. They bring us to their side with empathy. But in most sets there's a point where the noise is meant to die down and the folks in the seats are meant to listen to the point of the night's exercise, to take in the truth of it all. This is a sunburst through a cloud of deception, one last invigorating eye-opener before the "thank you and good night."

This cannot help but read as trite in a hellish conflict where hundreds of civilians have been killed and more than a million people have been displaced. Putin's attack and his reasons for it are anything but funny, but they are entirely absurd.

Since exceptional comedians know how to navigate such surreality, that also equips them to handle drama. In America we constantly claim surprise when a slapstick MVP like Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler tears into a dramatic performance that skeptics assume to be beyond them.

In truth, the comedian's facility with heightened personas gives them an edge when they're asked to navigate the subtleties of human emotion. We love Bill Hader as Stefon, and we also believe the stabbing pathos he brings to "Barry." Both parts capitalize on empathy, comedy's foundation.

Empathy brings fan bases together around a common cause or a personality championing that cause. This can take a dark turn, of course, as we've seen in recent examples provided by Dave Chappelle, Joe Rogan or other popular comics who use their platform to lash out instead of punching up.

Their fanbases may not have much grace for those designated as members of an outgroup, which is why they attack those who aren't part of their tribe.

Politicians exploit our urge to empathize with heroic performers all the time; witness the rise and fall of the "Cuomo-sexual" weirdness that arose about former New York governor Andrew Cuomo's made-for-TV displays of transparency and competency at the height of the pandemic.

In the United States we're still living with the consequences born from the more egregious merger of a showbiz personality with politics; the difference is that our 45th president is not an actor or even a comedian. He's not even the business success he played on TV.

Hence, in 2017 when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un engaged in some antagonistic chest-thumping, the former host of "The Apprentice" responded, unimaginatively with assurances of raining down "fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before." The dictator responded with a heckling that briefly make the term "dotard" the world of the day.

Real danger was never on our nation's doorstep, not in the way Zelenskyy is facing it down, and the growing direness of the situation in Ukraine requires the type of level-headed leadership he's modeling.

Zelenskyy is plugged into a more potent version of empathy, however, and this is what we're seeing play out.

Zelenskyy's establishment-upending election in 2019 walked a similar path to that of his fictional character. In "Servant of the People," Vasyl arrives at his inauguration ceremony in a taxi. Zelenskyy nixed the usual motorcar parade to walk among the throng that elected him, taking selfies with people along the way.

This wasn't merely about living up to his show's title, or the political party named for it, which claimed a majority of seats in the nation's parliament following the snap election Zelenskyy called as his first act of office. (That consolidation of power is reason enough to be wary of the Ukrainian leader's newfound fame, regardless of people casting him as the comic delivering an unexpectedly strong performance in the toughest part any human can play.)

Zelenskyy knew the value of playing the civil servant his voters imagined him to be. Now he's simply doing what many actors who play presidents on TV have done, which is to be the leader his people need.

The "Paddington" line in his filmography only makes people like him more, adding to the story of a vicious authoritarian who misjudged how tough Zelenskyy, a man who gave a gentle bear a voice his people could believe in, would prove to be.

Here's how Volodymyr Zelensky is nailing the role of a lifetime

One emergent piece of trivia about Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy that may have conquered more hearts and minds than any video propaganda ever could is that he provided the voice for Ukraine's versions of 2014's "Paddington" and 2017's "Paddington 2."

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Politicians playing roles in movies stopped being novel decades go, but this is something else. Paddington Bear is a children's literature institution, a soft-spoken, polite character who disarms adversaries with kindness. He's also a talking bear, pure fiction, and Zelenskyy isn't channeling him in the role he's playing right now.

However, in each of his persuasive speeches to world leaders and conversations with journalists, Zelenskyy conveys the deportment of a rational, determined man. In the viral video he filmed in a studio and others taken in the streets, using his own mobile device, he's personable and calm. Reassuring.

Vox's Emily VanDerWerff wrote a defining piece about the ways in which Zelenskyy is using his stagecraft to successfully dominate the propaganda space, analyzing his expert staging of backgrounds and angles, even breaking down the importance of where he stands in each frame.

Another element I hope people also appreciate is that this world leader standing up to a savage, unprovoked attack by Vladimir Putin is a comedian. There are many ways to misinterpret my pointing that out, so let me be clear – this is not an identifier Zelenskyy is overcoming on the world's stage, but another asset he's using to resist Russian president Vladimir Putin's tyranny.

Zelenskyy's comedy and his filmmaking skills are hand-in-hand endeavors. A veteran of comedy troupes, including one called Kvartal 95, which he co-founded, Zelenskyy cultivated his popularity as a TV personality. In addition to starring in several movies, he won the first Ukrainian edition of "Dancing with the Stars" in 2006 and hosted a number of live shows, including the variety sketch series "League of Laughter."

Kvartal 95 morphed into a production studio responsible for a number of popular shows, including the comedy "Servant of the People," in which Zelenskyy stars as a high school teacher named Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko who becomes president.

"Our ambitious objective," he says in a quote attributed to him on the Kvartal 95 website, "is to make the world a better place, a kinder and more joyful place with help of those tools that we have, that is humor and creativity. We are moving towards this goal, trying to conquer the whole world, of course ;)"

Cut to his quick turnaround to responding to Russia's claim in the opening hours of the invasion that Zelenskyy and his leadership had fled the country. Standing in the streets with his mobile phone, he filmed a concise statement to the Ukrainian people, and the world, to debunk that lie. It's also very carefully set up to show all of the leadership in the shot, whether shoulder-to-shoulder with him or at his back.

"Good evening, everyone," he says in that Feb. 25 video. "The leader of the faction is here. The head of the presidential office is here." He goes on to list the names and positions of the four men standing with him before saying, "We are all here. Our soldiers are here. The citizens are here and we are here. We defend our independence. That's how it'll go."

He doesn't say this with pumping fists, a raised voice, grim solemnity or worse, no emotion whatsoever. He is solid. He is explaining how it is to an audience hanging on his every word, offering them a firm hand to hold. The message is a simple curtain-dropper on a fallacy.

Then comes his battlefield version of "Thank you, and goodnight": "Glory to our defenders, both male and female. Glory to Ukraine."

Rightly or unwisely, we look to comedian in stressful times because we trust them to make sense of madness. We see them as our truth tellers, our guides for taking power over despair or relieving tension with laughter. The best are also improvisational specialists, a skill Zelenskyy calls upon in his interviews with international press, in his speeches to the world leaders and his viral video offensives.

The comedian wins the audience by making people feel good, or better, by being honest even when they tell tall tales. They bring us to their side with empathy. But in most sets there's a point where the noise is meant to die down and the folks in the seats are meant to listen to the point of the night's exercise, to take in the truth of it all. This is a sunburst through a cloud of deception, one last invigorating eye-opener before the "thank you and good night."

This cannot help but read as trite in a hellish conflict where hundreds of civilians have been killed and more than a million people have been displaced. Putin's attack and his reasons for it are anything but funny, but they are entirely absurd.

Since exceptional comedians know how to navigate such surreality, that also equips them to handle drama. In America we constantly claim surprise when a slapstick MVP like Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler tears into a dramatic performance that skeptics assume to be beyond them.

In truth, the comedian's facility with heightened personas gives them an edge when they're asked to navigate the subtleties of human emotion. We love Bill Hader as Stefon, and we also believe the stabbing pathos he brings to "Barry." Both parts capitalize on empathy, comedy's foundation.

Empathy brings fan bases together around a common cause or a personality championing that cause. This can take a dark turn, of course, as we've seen in recent examples provided by Dave Chappelle, Joe Rogan or other popular comics who use their platform to lash out instead of punching up.

Their fanbases may not have much grace for those designated as members of an outgroup, which is why they attack those who aren't part of their tribe.

Politicians exploit our urge to empathize with heroic performers all the time; witness the rise and fall of the "Cuomo-sexual" weirdness that arose about former New York governor Andrew Cuomo's made-for-TV displays of transparency and competency at the height of the pandemic.

In the United States we're still living with the consequences born from the more egregious merger of a showbiz personality with politics; the difference is that our 45th president is not an actor or even a comedian. He's not even the business success he played on TV.

Hence, in 2017 when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un engaged in some antagonistic chest-thumping, the former host of "The Apprentice" responded, unimaginatively with assurances of raining down "fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before." The dictator responded with a heckling that briefly make the term "dotard" the word of the day.

Real danger was never on our nation's doorstep, not in the way Zelenskyy is facing it down, and the growing direness of the situation in Ukraine requires the type of level-headed leadership he's modeling.

Zelenskyy is plugged into a more potent version of empathy, however, and this is what we're seeing play out.

Zelenskyy's establishment-upending election in 2019 walked a similar path to that of his fictional character. In "Servant of the People," Vasyl arrives at his inauguration ceremony in a taxi. Zelenskyy nixed the usual motorcar parade to walk among the throng that elected him, taking selfies with people along the way.

This wasn't merely about living up to his show's title, or the political party named for it, which claimed a majority of seats in the nation's parliament following the snap election Zelenskyy called as his first act of office. (That consolidation of power is reason enough to be wary of the Ukrainian leader's newfound fame, regardless of people casting him as the comic delivering an unexpectedly strong performance in the toughest part any human can play.)

Zelenskyy knew the value of playing the civil servant his voters imagined him to be. Now he's simply doing what many actors who play presidents on TV have done, which is to be the leader his people need.

The "Paddington" line in his filmography only makes people like him more, adding to the story of a vicious authoritarian who misjudged how tough Zelenskyy, a man who gave a gentle bear a voice his people could believe in, would prove to be.

'The Masked Singer' may not normalize Rudy Giuliani, but it's a crime to even try to make him cuddly

Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying, or screaming, or burrowing into the Earth to live out the rest of your days as a mole person subsisting on roots and grubs. Life is constantly providing reminders of this, mainly in the form of influential entities doing exactly what they should not do. This week's example was brought to us by the announcement that Rudy Giuliani was revealed as a contestant on the upcoming seventh season of "The Masked Singer."

This article first appeared in Salon.

At the risk of sounding like America's angry mom screaming at all your rambunctious toddlers, didn't we talk about this? What did I say? Did I not warn you several times not to touch the buttons on that image rehabilitation machine over there?

Yes.Yes I did! Here are the receipts: Back in ye olden days of 2018, I humbly requested talk show gatekeepers to refrain from promoting Sean Spicer's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad book. Only "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" crossed that picket line which, fine, bygones.

Spicer's book didn't go on to be a bestseller but nevertheless, he was invited to participate in "Dancing with the Stars" in 2018. All he did was lie to us about crowd sizes, right?

RELATED: Giuliani prompts "Masked Singer" walkout

In November 2020, a few days after Donald Trump lost the presidential election to Joseph Biden, I pleaded to the entertainment powers that be to resist the urge to rehabilitate any of the flunkies with him at that point.

"None of these figures deserve to turn up on celebrity editions of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" or drop in on "The Conners" for a hilarious cameo or to show their faces in any broadcast network entertainment title," I wrote, "Not Kayleigh McEnany, not Kimberly Guilfoyle, not Mark Meadows, none of them. Not now, not ever."

Shame on me for assuming a Giuliani ban was a given. After all, by this point Sacha Baron Cohen had broadcast a video that caught Giuliani with his hands down his pants on a hotel bed, appearing to prep himself for what he thought would be a sexual encounter with a young woman masquerading as an interviewer. This happened before his hair color melted off his face on live TV, but after he'd ranted for nearly 40 minutes about supposed election fraud on a landscaping company's driveway, kicking off the Big Lie.

Giuliani is a mess, and if he weren't actively involved in destroying democracy, that would make him a terrific reality show candidate. But he is, at this moment, facing multiple legal actions against him, not the least of which is an investigation of his role in the January 6, 2021 insurrection and his leadership of a plot to install illegitimate electors.

He is a central participant in a rolling coup against our democracy that is intensifying by the day, including on Friday, when the Republican National Committee officially rebranded the deadly attack on the Capitol and all the events leading up to it as "legitimate political discourse."

That's really enough for any producer with a shred of moral fiber to say, "You know what? I don't think this man should be featured in any of our hits, let along one with the tagline of 'The Good, the Bad and the Cuddly.'"

"The Masked Singer" isn't an entirely unproblematic show, mind you. Its host, Nick Cannon, has made antisemitic remarks. One judge, Jenny McCarthy, is on record as an anti-vaxxer. Another, Robin Thicke, is famous for being a groper and a lech, and ripping off Marvin Gaye. Maybe the exec who opened the door to Giuliani looked at that situation and said to themselves, "Well, you know . . . glass houses and stones."

And even if we acknowledge that shows like "Dancing with the Stars" have a history of casting polarizing political figures, there's something extra sinister to hiding Giuliani under a mask before springing him on an unsuspecting audience. The shows draw is its veneer of family-friendly innocence, and even its most controversial participant, Sarah Palin, has been defanged by the political establishment. She's still a terrible person, but after she squawked her way out of that bear costume few people gave her a second thought.

Hate on her if you want, and she assumes you do. She did not call for "trial by combat" minutes before insurrectionists invaded the Capitol building and hunted for congressional Democrats. Giuliani did that.

Anyway, if I'm overreacting, I'm in fine company.

"No single headline has captured the national zeitgeist of existential dread combined with ridicustupulocitiness better than this one," Stephen Colbert joked on Thursday. "That's right: the criminal goon that we know for a fact is being investigated for trying to overthrow our democracy for his idiot emperor was yukkin' it up on a reality show!"

Kimmel, who broke the news to a Thursday night audience that howled in disgust, asks "How does this even happen?"

Then he answers his own question. "I mean, a lot of people at Fox had to sign off on this – not one of them was like, 'Hey maybe we shouldn't have the guy who's under investigation for helping to plot an insurrection singing on our show'?"

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He's right. "The Masked Singer" is not a small title for Fox. It finished the 2020-2021 TV season as the top-rated unscripted series among 18-to-49-year-olds, the viewership most sought by advertisers. It's also among the top five most popular shows overall in that demographic. That means a lot of people at the top of the corporate food chain who are aware of its popularity gave it a thumbs up, thinking of the ratings potential as opposed to the part it may play in making an amoral goblin seem like a harmless showman.

We should be dismayed at this but not surprised. As I have also previously pointed out – I'm getting tired of repeating myself! – it is their job to make their network money by selling products, even poisonous ones. This also should be a reminder that the Fox broadcast network is still owned by Fox Corporation and the Murdochs.

So while Giuliani may have been banned from Fox News while it contends with Dominion's $1.6 billion lawsuit against the channel for backing the baseless election fraud claims, transforming him into a man-sized stuffed animal for our amusement is . . . swell?

Ken Jeong acknowledged how wrong this is by walking off in protest. Thicke reportedly followed him but, in a reminder of his spinelessness, later said that he wasn't taking a stand against a fomenter of fascism. He was just checking on his friend. Just to be clear!

But no matter how long Giuliani gets to stand in that spotlight or what song he sings, it's a note and a step towards sanitizing a long, dirty ledger that's still unrolling.

And while I would not go so far as to theorize that sliding the former mayor of New York into a troll suit (or whatever he wore) will be enough to normalize him, it does set a precedent I shiver to game out from here. If he's OK for this show, who else is acceptable?

Maybe let's not answer that. We might give somebody new ideas.

This one is bad enough, even if it does make for one hell of a punchline: "One of the most chilling phrases in the English language," Colbert says, "is 'Surprise! It's Rudy Giuliani.'"

'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.

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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.

Ding-dong.