Saturday, November 29, 2008

The "Obama Effect"?

"Obama's Trickle-Down Equanimity"--Leslie Savan (The Nation):
The other day I noticed that my husband had for the tenth time ruined the slick seasoned surface of my cast-iron skillet by scrubbing it with Brillo. I started to get ticked off, building up a tiny tornado of fury; boy, am I ever going to tell him. Again.

But then I thought, Would Obama let this get to him? That tall cool drink o' distilled water would never blast Michelle for a domestic faux-pas like this, but here I am going ballistic because my spouse tried to clean a pot? Then poof! (or plouffe!): my anger was gone.
Not to get all hagiographic about it, much less to liken the President-elect to "The One" (the name the McCainiac right sarcastically used to paint him as the false Messiah), but Barack Obama's calm, nonreactionary response to the worst that politics and economics can throw at him has begun to establish a new emotional policy: trickle-down equanimity.

If Obama could forgive Lieberman, if he could make Hillary his secretary of state, if he can now refuse to vilify Bush, Paulson, and the entire GOP-enabled greed machine for destroying lives and the economy, then surely I could let my anger over petty slights melt away.

Not that it isn't in Obama's realpolitick interest to forgive Lieberman (who's now Joe the Beholden), to remove Hillary from the Senate, where she could have stymied his agenda, or in general to kill the Republicans with love. But he is the greatest global advertisement for the Zen-like detachment needed to see both the large picture and the smallness of the immediate gripe.

This isn't at all to suggest that we shouldn't criticize Obama's moves. While his "centrist" choices for the cabinet don't particularly bother me, his lack, so far, of prominent progressives does. Still, as American Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner said on ABC's This Week, it'd be far better if Obama's economic team included "someone who really believes deeply that casino capitalism is a menace.... however, at the same time, every time I second-guessed Obama in the campaign, he was right, and I was wrong."

No-Drama Obama, the Better-Angel Guy--however we frame Obama's patient, reasonable disposition, it's gradually slowing down some of our knee-jerks. A usually road-raging friend of mine tells me that recently "Someone was going too slow, and I was all ready with my F-bombs, but"--Obama news was on the radio at the time--"I stopped them."

Such interventions of Obamian goodness are fleeting, which potentially makes them all the more market-ready. (WWOD?--What Would Obama Do?--hoodies are selling online for the ripoff price of $75.) And they're a tad embarrassing. As a blog commenter, Bittersweet Girl, says of the future POTUS, "he's a guy without highs or lows but a generally steady middle....I'm also trying to be more like Obama in my life. I know it's cheesy but, WWOD?"

But try this for embarrassing: For the last eight years, I've more than occasionally given up on slightly difficult tasks, blithely run up my credit card debts, knowingly thrown logic to the side, and didn't bother to talk so good, all the time telling myself, If Bush got to be president by being an incompetent, no-good wastrel, then surely I could loosen a standard or two or three.

Every president's character helps define the parameters of what you can and cannot get away with. They're not exactly role models (that's more a job for baseball players), but they patrol social mores like shepherding moons, keeping us all in our proper rings. As long as they're on TV a lot and the media magnify their every word and deed, our leaders inevitably take up four- or eight-year occupations of the mytho-religious space in our brains that links private behavior to public values.

And there can be an almost scriptural smack of justice to the exposure of these titans' moral failures. As the Times of London famously told it:

With Russian tanks only 30 miles from Tbilisi on August 12, Mr. Sarkozy told Mr. Putin that the world would not accept the overthrow of Georgia's government. According to [Sarkozy's chief diplomatic adviser, Jean-David] Levitte, the Russian seemed unconcerned by international reaction. "I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls," Mr. Putin declared.

Mr. Sarkozy thought he had misheard. "Hang him?"--he asked.

"Why not?" Mr. Putin replied. "The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein."

Mr. Sarkozy, using the familiar tu, tried to reason with him: "Yes, but do you want to end up like Bush?" Mr. Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: "Ah--you have scored a point there."

Funny, but some time after Jesse Jackson fantasized about cutting off Obama's "nuts," he, too, must have decided that he didn't want to end up like Bush, because when we saw Jesse in Grant Park on election night, those were tears of history, not envy, streaming down his cheeks.

And have we ever seen anyone wield history as a shepherd's crook better than Barack Obama? The invocations of Abe Lincoln (senator from Illinois, Team of Rivals, even the better angels of our nature urged upon us by an emancipating ectomorph, etc.) have been masterful, like a sermon given from the mount where that shining city on a hill ought to be. Jesse, John McCain, maybe even Bush himself have been ever so subtly herded this past year out the door of history. Obama has grabbed us all by our hearts and minds.

Do we have the, uh, guts to follow?

"TV Casting May Feel an Obama Effect"--Bill Carter (NY Times):
It may say something about the state of American television that there is one more black president-elect of the United States than there are black actors with individual lead roles in a network television drama.

But after years of ensemble dramas sprinkled with nonwhite supporting actors, the excitement surrounding the election of Barack Obama could help to open doors for more minorities in leading dramatic roles, executives from television production studios said.
Ben Silverman, the co-chairman of NBC Entertainment who oversees the network’s television studio, said that he and the head of the diversity initiative for NBC Universal, Paula Madison, have been pushing for projects starring minorities.

Mr. Silverman said, “We were going after this regardless, but I don’t think you can deny the power that Barack Obama brings in magnifying this direction in our world.” He added, “We’ve all been colorblind for years, but the results don’t necessarily match up to our intentions.”

Ms. Madison said that NBC’s approach was at least as much about business as about social responsibility. “People are not living in single-race silos anymore,” she said. “We said, ‘Let’s try to develop a world that looks like the world we’re living in.’ ”

The evidence seems to indicate that race neutrality has not produced a surge of black lead performers, at least in network dramas. While comedies with black characters have been something of a network staple — from the much vilified “Amos ’n Andy” in the early days of television, through shows like “Sanford and Son” with Redd Foxx, “The Jeffersons,” and Martin Lawrence’s sitcom “Martin” — historically, blacks in lead television drama roles have been rare.

Bill Cosby, whose 1980s hit sitcom revitalized that genre after a period of decline, famously broke through in drama as the co-star of “I Spy” in 1965. He won three Emmy awards in the role of Alexander Scott, an espionage agent. Exactly two black actors (and no actresses) have won Emmy awards for drama series since: James Earl Jones, who played the title role in the short-lived “Gabriel’s Fire” in 1991, and Andre Braugher, who was part of the ensemble in “Homicide” in 1998.

Dennis Haysbert, who played President David Palmer on the Fox series “24,” is featured in the CBS ensemble drama “The Unit” (produced by Mr. Newman’s Fox studio). Also this season, the venerable NBC drama “ER” added Angela Bassett; executives at its studio, Warner Brothers, now identify her as the lead in that show.

But both “ER” and “The Unit” are ensemble shows, a genre that has for decades — going back to performers like Michael Warren in “Hill Street Blues” and Denzel Washington in “St. Elsewhere” — been the route for black drama actors to break through.

“ER” has featured black actors (including Eriq La Salle) since its inception in 1994. ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” whose creator and executive producer, Shonda Rhimes, is black, has similarly offered a notably diverse cast.

But there is no dramatic series spotlighting a single star — like “House” on Fox, “Chuck” on NBC, “Eli Stone” on ABC or “The Mentalist” on CBS — now led by a black actor. Hispanic actors have fared somewhat better. Jimmy Smits has starred in several series, and America Ferrera is now the star of “Ugly Betty.”

Cable’s recent list of single-star dramas is also notable for its roster of white stars, including shows like “The Shield,” “The Closer,” “Saving Grace,” “Dexter,” “Monk,” “Burn Notice,” “Breaking Bad” and “Damages.”

Tim Reid, who was the star and an executive producer of the Emmy-winning comedy series “Frank’s Place” for CBS in the 1987-88 season — and who recently wrote, with the white comic Tom Dreesen, “Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White” about their days as a stand-up team — has been outspoken about the continued limited opportunities for minorities in television.

“If the president-elect should have any positive influence over the so-called liberal base of Hollywood, it will be by focusing their attention on the reality of the kind of multicultural world we actually live in,” Mr. Reid said in an e-mail message. “This doesn’t just mean putting another person of color in front of the camera, but giving them an equal opportunity in having a say-so in what is created for the camera.”

“In my opinion,” he continued, “we’re far more likely to have a black president in my lifetime ... oh, yeah ... I can stop saying that now.”

The most significant hiring of a black actor for a television series has been long in the works: next month the film star Laurence Fishburne will assume the lead in CBS’s biggest hit show, “CSI.” That move was not connected to the ascendance of Mr. Obama, though CBS and studio executives expressed hope that the timing would help in the transition from William Petersen, the current “CSI” lead, to Mr. Fishburne.

David Stapf, president of the CBS Paramount Network Television studio, which produces “CSI,” said of Mr. Fishburne’s selection: “If you have a chance to get an actor like that, you go for him. It wouldn’t matter what ethnicity he is.”

Paramount also has a deal in place to find a project for the rap star L L Cool J.

NBC Universal said it has a number of projects in the works tailored for blacks, including development deals with the director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) and the actor and writer Ice Cube.

Among shows already in production, Mr. Silverman cited the buddy comedy “Off Duty,” with Bradley Whitford, who is white, and Romany Malco, who is black. The network also has a thriller script from Frank Spotnitz, the “X Files” writer and producer, with Gabrielle Union, a black actress, signed to star.

And NBC Universal announced with some fanfare “Making Friends With Black People,” a sitcom that is to star the author of the book of the same title, the comedian Nick Adams.

If these projects are only tangentially tied to the arrival of a black star in the leading political role in America, Gary Newman, co-chairman of the Twentieth Century Fox television studio, suggested another potential influence stemming from the election of Mr. Obama.

“We may see more chances taken on comedies that feel more hopeful rather than the sarcastic, cynical style we’ve seen a lot of recently,” Mr. Newman said. “The Obama success seems to have put people more in touch with their more hopeful side.”

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