Saturday, April 21, 2018

How Homeland Broke Bad

Homeland Deserves the Snark

There used to be a great site called "Television Without Pity," whose motto was "spare the snark, spoil the networks." Unfortunately, it is no longer around. Showtime's prestige drama Homeland is one of the most snark-worthy series to ever be called great. There are a couple of SPOILERS ahead if watching Homeland is on your to-do list. This is seven seasons of snark in one article.

We're in the final stretch of the penultimate season. Hints that Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) is not going to survive for a spinoff are dropping as thick as tears from one of her "bipolar" crying jags. But don't worry, little Franny. Mommy will be coming back to traumatize you some more after all. Homeland will apparently end after next season (season eight).

Homeland's first season probably deserved awards. The story of a brilliant, but troubled CIA agent seemed like a plausible peek into the forbidden world of CIA operations. The moral ambiguity of the War on Terror was timely, the story was told well, and the acting was top notch.

However, the next six seasons were plagued with bad decisions and sloppy writing.

Pity Poor Dana and String Theory

Poor Morgan Saylor, a fine young actress, was a victim of one of those bad decisions. She played sullen Brody teenage daughter "Dana." The luckless girl got as much fan hate as Breaking Bad's Anna Gunn did as Walter White's wife. Apparently, the showrunners thought viewers who were hooked by the spy versus terrorist angle would welcome a hefty subplot of teenage angst.

Sloppy writing relied on tropes and left plot holes big enough to fly a squadron of Predator drones through.

Carrie solves a puzzle by covering the walls of her house with - are you ready? - pictures and text connected by yarn! Now, there's nothing wrong with a few tropes. But who doesn't roll their eyes at the String Theory trope nowadays? Especially when combined with the Room Full of Crazy trope? (Links are to the entertaining and educational TV Tropes site.)

Besides the relentless trope-a-thon, there is the sloppy writing,

In one episode, the only person with the evidence to show the Russians are subverting our democracy (!) is in a hospital. Lucky for the Russians, neither the United States government nor extra-governmental operatives (Homeland frequently leaves this unclear) could afford the overtime for anyone to guard him. ("Request denied. Not even the Russians would stoop to murdering someone in the ICU.")

The trick to suspension of disbelief is not letting your audience realize you're relying on it until the day after. You don't want them yelling at their screens.

You can also be too timely. And too twisted.

Info Wars, Ruby Ridge and Civil War II

A couple of seasons featured a conspiracy-mongering right-wing internet celebrity. At first the Bear thought "Mark Steyn" from the accent (not the dialogue), but the actor eventually dialed it in and became Alex Jones / Glenn Beck overdosed on methylphenidate.

However, nothing can be that simple on Homeland.

You see, he really has a sprawling bunker generating fake social media posts. No, wait. It's not really him, he's a catspaw of the Russians. But hang on. He's not really crazy. He risks his life to broadcast his show while on the run, but confesses he's appealing to "the lunatic fringe." However, his wacky conspiracy theories are right! But, he's still a fraud and a menace. And the Russians.

Complex or merely confusing?

Then the writers give us a docudrama mashup of Ruby Ridge and Waco as the United States teeters on the brink of Civil War II.

We're a long way from season one's plausible portrayal of the CIA.

However, even the worst seasons are just watchable enough. The Bear and other viewers were strung along like the handler for a double agent who is fed just enough real intel - "chicken feed" - to get him to swallow the disinformation. Sure, none of us ever want to see Claire Danes' face again, but there was enough sporadic excellent TV to keep us tuning in. And the weary and conflicted Saul Berenson, played by Mandy Patinkin (Princess Bride) and his awesome beard, is an understated performance that balances Claire Danes' histrionics.

(Bear knows she's largely at the mercy of writers and directors, but let's just say her career will not be remembered for her portrayal of Temple Grandin.)

From Mere Bad TV to Offensive

But there are two things that reduce Homeland from bad TV to offensive: its close-to-the-bone-ripped-from-today's-headlines "realism," and its treatment of Carrie's bipolar disorder.

It may be hard to believe over the Homeland hype, but the Fox series 24 was a much more consistent Emmy-winner. Homeland was never anything more than 24 with pretensions. Yet, unlike 24, which was a guilty pleasure because of its wretched excess, Homeland was sold as a prestige drama about real-world issues.

"Happy Birthday Dear Drone Queen"

The Bear never had a window into covert operations. He did hold a Top Secret crypto clearance, but understands that watching someone wearing headphones writing number sequences does not make compelling TV. Audiences prefer explosions and shootouts, or at least a good Power Point presentation. (A senator asks what "UI" under his picture means; the answer is "useful idiot." The writing isn't always bad.)

The problem is, Homeland does not use a fictional setting like U.N.C.L.E. or the CTU. Exploiting the CIA, the White House and current events becomes squirmy-making after a while. Real Americans are still downrange, still dying. It sometimes feels like a never-made 1944 WWII movie about the moral ambiguity of fighting Nazis. The Bear is not much of a fan of boots on the ground (disclosure: his son wore those boots) but even so, there just seems something wrong about it.

For example, when Carrie is a CIA Station Chief, she orders a drone strike on a wedding. Before the dust settles, everyone is singing Happy Birthday over a cake that says "Drone Queen." Okay, Abu Grabe was real-world bad taste, but one hopes top CIA agents have better sense and sensibility these days. But, by now, viewers have no hope that writers will not club them over their heads with "issues."

Crazy Like a Bipolar Fox

After binge-watching 125 hours of Homeland, the Bear understands there's something called "bipolar disorder." (Rim shot.) But, seriously folks, Homeland's presentation of this as-yet scientifically unexplained uneven distribution of energy is worse than its sensational CIA portrayal.

Back at the start of season one, we think Carrie is just a slut. However, we learn that being a slut is part of her mental illness, just like tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt in a later season. (What is she spending it all on? Equipment for illegal surveillance?) And crying. A lot of crying. SNL spoof-worthy crying. 

Now, it is true that bad judgment is a hallmark of the manic pole of bipolar. Unless you are Carrie Mathison, who has an odd exception to bad judgment when it comes to figuring out threats to the homeland.

Of those 125 hours, it seems that 100 involve whether Carrie is on her meds or not. The problem for Carrie (and the security of the United States) is that bipolar people are only brilliant when they are off their meds.  (Come to think of it, maybe all that credit card debt is racked up at the knitting shop buying yarn for her String Theory walls.) When Carrie is faithful to her treatment, whether lithium or electroconvulsive therapy (shock treatment), she's a normal person not quite up to the emergency.

(Note to AstraZeneca lawyers: only your brand-name Seroquel is portrayed as something less than a miracle. In fact, in Homeland World it turns Carrie into a zombie who must pop speed just to save the country.)

However, when she is off her meds, she becomes manic Jane Bond, able to make connections no one else can. That's what makes her a "complex character," see? She must choose between normal-normal and crazy-brilliant. Bear supposes there is also some irony in the fact that the mentally ill person with delusions that only she understands the conspiracy of the season turns out not to be delusional. Which, like so much in Homeland, is a problem if you really think it through.

Forget that someone with non-managed bipolar problems of Carrie's mega-magnitude wouldn't last six months at Cinnabon, let alone the CIA. Forget that viewers only get one pole of Carrie's bipolar woes, the manic one. Watching someone lying in bed doesn't make good TV, either. ("Hi, this is Carrie. I won't be in the office for a while because, um, I have Avian Flu again, cough.") Forget that mania does not sharpen insight into the real world. And forget that drugs and shock treatments are not quick and reliable fixes.

But, since this show is about two things - espionage and bipolar disorder - viewers are unlikely to forget much of that, to the disservice of everyone to whom the bipolar label has been tacked.

Shockingly Cynical

The problem is, the writers mix enough true "chicken feed" into this parallel plot that viewers are liable to think they understand the reality of bipolar disorder. The Bear gets dramatic license. However, at some point a show works so hard selling their drama the license opens them to the accusation of cynically misleading viewers on a sensitive issue.

For example, when they take pains to add a whole lot of real-world medical detail in Carrie's second shock treatment scene, they only make things worse, because it seems so realistic.

Dropping "suxamethonium chloride" into the dialogue is not for Joe Viewer, who couldn't explain the difference between it and sodium chloride if Carrie beat him with a collapsible baton like she did Computer Ransomware Perv. (A promising plot line cut short if ever there was one.) It's a preemptive answer to critics that "We have done our research and are depicting ECT realistically, not like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

Heck, give the Bear Carrie's ECT over a trip to the dentist any day. (Just one electrode though, lest he forget his cipher code to his CIA Headquarters office.)

And watching Carrie "act crazy" every episode got old long before season seven. Even assuming she could survive CIA drug screens and polygraphs ("No, I am not secretly getting crazy meds from my doctor sister or buying speed from the trunk of some guy's car") surely one does not rise in the Company by being "that woman with the crazy eyes."

Even Good TV is Bad

No better entertainment with
the exception of Ginger.
As the Bear has written before, there is no better entertainment than the best of the network prestige projects, such as Breaking Bad. In retrospect, Homeland was probably doomed by its very nature to plummet from critically-acclaimed supershow to self-parody. Part of the success of Breaking Bad was surely due to it not dealing with the country's methamphetamine issue. 

Despite the occasional Breaking Bad, it is still a bad time for insomniacs, no matter how many choices they have. 

Even the Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul did not find its feet until season three. It is probably no coincidence that season three brought it closer to Breaking Bad, not only in the timeline, but in style, with homage paid to some memorable Breaking Bad visuals (e.g. gurgling up from the bottom of the swimming pool). Gus Fring and Madrigal's twitchy stevia-sipping exec Lydia Rodart-Quayle (talk about crazy eyes) among others made welcome comebacks. Season four is confirmed for later 2018, and it looks like we'll be reintroduced to DEA agent Hank Schraeder, too.

In the meantime, the Bear would be hard pressed to recommend much on television. Neither ratings nor critics are very reliable. There's always Breaking Bad. Or maybe 24 on Amazon. Which won a lot more Emmys than Homeland.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

I'm So Sorry

Sleepless Sorrow

William Story's last sculpture, this famous and evocative
memorial to his wife. He joined her in death the following year.
Last night the Bear couldn't sleep.

What he could do was hold his sleeping wife and contemplate our years together. He was moved to tears by the ways he has hurt and disappointed her.

He tried to remember the good things, but that provided little comfort. The Bear owed her those things. What was on the other side of the scale was just... wrong. Somehow, no matter how he tried to work it out, the scales would not balance.

Then, he thought something else, being a Bear, whose thoughts run surprisingly deep behind their small eyes.

The Use and Abuse of Shame

He realized the source of his unhappiness was mixed. It was not pure sorrow over wrongs, but there was shame, too. True remorse looks to the person wronged. Shame looks inward, toward ourselves. That can sometimes be a good thing. It is a good thing mainly when it orients us to briefly catalogue our sins in order to drag them into the light of grace.

However, it must not be confused with contrition.

"For the sorrow that is according to God worketh penance, steadfast unto salvation; but the sorrow of the world worketh death." 2 Corinthians 7:10.

Shame has a practical social use, but its benefits are limited, especially today. It is, after all, just a psychological reaction of the ego that may or may not be related to sin. Worse, shame has been unhooked from morality and attached to the petty taboos of our age. Its value to society is less than it used to be because the things that are considered shameful are all changed.

"Fair is foul and foul is fair," quoth the witches of MacBeth.

The Bear thinks even the best of us must take care not to become "shameless" in certain ways.

Passionate Intensity: the Sole Remaining Virtue of Our Culture

In his famous poem "The Second Coming," Yeats wrote: "The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity." The Bear reads tweets, FaceBook posts and blogs and must say that no longer is it just the worst who are full of passionate intensity. Everyone is. Passionate intensity is the sole remaining virtue of our culture, it seems. The Bear worries that we are rushing into an age of fanaticism.

It is as if everyone has realized that one must become a fanatic to beat fanatics, or even be heard over their shouting. Not only that, we can't afford to be seen to flinch, to have a moment of doubt. If you don't have all the answers, you're not even in the conversation.

Slouching Toward Contrition

Then the Bear had another thought. How often has he felt that same awful feeling, only about having hurt his Savior? Not often enough.

It is good to feel bad about behaving badly toward your spouse. It is probably only natural if there remains any love in our hearts. However, when we go to confession, how often is it more about the shame we feel, the disappointment that comes from not living up to the exaggerated high opinion we hold about ourselves?

How often do we think of Jesus and feel hot tears, not because of what disappointing creatures we are, but because Jesus loves us and we are supposed to love Him, and, in some way that may be hard to understand, we truly do hurt God?

Might we use the opportunity of natural regret to redirect that awful feeling toward our loving Savior in true contrition?

Opening Our Hands to Receive Grace

With grace. Always and only with grace. All bitterness, all contention and selfishness, and certainly every grudge, no matter how high-minded, is incompatible with grace. And so is shame, because shame is ultimately just a feeling: pride's ironic shadow.

It is easy to recognize the bad things we must let go of in order to receive grace. It is often the things that seem good to us that that are barriers to grace. Anything we will not release, however, keeps us from facing God with open hands.

We never know what offer of grace may be our last. We must take them seriously.

We learn to love through creatures, such as our family members. That is wonderful and even holy. We can even be led through selfish shame to true remorse, and to the other side of the coin, forgiveness. These are marvelous things.

But, we should not love any creature more than God. When we cannot sleep for love, perhaps God is inviting us to open our hearts even wider for Him.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Please Don't Eat the TULIPs

Please Don't Eat the Tulips

It's spring, and the flowers are blooming, but there is one whose blossom never fades, even in the snows of Geneva: the TULIP of Five-Point Calvinism.

  • Total Depravity
  • Unconditional Election
  • Limited Atonement
  • Irresistible Grace
  • Perserverance

Five-point Calvinism used to belong to Presbyterians and some Baptists, but today, it seems that everything outside of Catholicism (and evangelicals along with some mainstream denominations) is coming up TULIPs. The face of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" Jonathan Edwards appears on tee shirts of young Protestants like Che's on coffeehouse Reds. Behind the praise band and uplifted hands of your local nondenominational church may lurk Calvin's idea of a Sovereign God whose will is behind everything from the flea biting your dog to 911.

Also, who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell.

The theological issue is legitimate. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, how can a mere creature defeat His sovereign will? Even St. Augustine wound up in this brier patch when he tangled with the Pelagians. 

The Catholic answer (the Bear has misplaced his CCC; most conversations with Red Death start with "I can't find my...") is, to the best of Bear's recollection, that God grants grace and we cooperate or not. If you wind up in Hell it is because you have decided to reject God.

On the contrary, according to TULIP, (1) there is not one atom in a person capable of either moving toward God or resisting His grace; (2) the game is rigged from the start; (3) Jesus did not die for everyone, but only those destined for salvation; (4) if you're predestined, you cannot escape God no matter what; and (5) no one can ever lose his or her salvation.

If you Watch Porn, God Will Make Your Wife Miscarry

Following that logic, God, according to Calvinist superstars like John Piper, determines everything, including every sinful act. And God punishes accordingly. Not just 911, but, well, hang on for this one:

A man asked if his wife miscarried as punishment because he watched pornography. Pastor Piper did not give an unequivocal "yes." It was more like, "You're probably onto something there, Sunshine." Why God caused the miscarriage if He also caused the guy to watch porn was not addressed. You can't have a rational discussion under the pretzel logic of Calvinism.

The Bear admits that fewer issues have been thornier and more controverted than exactly how we are saved. Pope Francis reintroduced "Pelagianism" to the vocabulary of Catholics. But, the Bear figures you didn't come for a monograph on soteriology, including the relationship between the sovereign will of God and the will of man. 

The leaders of the Reformation parted first from the Church's teaching, then from each other.

Bear Conducts Research in the Field

The Bear's curiosity led him to discover the "young, restless, and reformed" movement. It is a sort of backlash from the more vapid expressions of evangelicalism. Aside from a few outspoken Calvinists like Piper, you are not likely to hear it preached. "God loves you and wants you to prosper" goes down a lot better than, "most of you sitting out there are going to Hell and there's not a damned thing you can do about it, so why are you even here?"

The Bear asked one young minister recently about the discrepancy between what he preached and what his nondenominational church actually believed. He quoted 19th Century English preacher Charles Spurgeon that there can be no misunderstanding between friends. In other words, he, like Spurgeon, did not preach the doctrine he believed and excused it by hand-waving.

That seems a bit disingenuous to the Bear.

Protestant Wars

The Bear read Spurgeon's own "Defense of Calvinism." Its deficiencies are typical: highly selective proof-texting to justify an emotional experience of great comfort. Both Spurgeon and the young preacher with whom the Bear spoke described a sudden comfort in knowing the saved could never, ever lose their salvation. (Spurgeon said a salvation you could lose is not worth having.) Come to think of it, whenever the Bear has talked to a Calvinist, he gets this same testimony centered on "comfort."

No one has ever been presumptuous enough to tell the Bear he was certain of his predestination, but that is the tenor of the witness. One assumes if they believed the contrary - that they were among the damned and there was nothing they could do about it - they would not be so comforted.

The Bear also read Roger Olson's "Against Calvinism." Olson does a thorough and even-handed job of demolishing TULIP - especially the idea that God must be behind sin.

The controversy is instructive in this way, though. Evangelicalism was found wanting and there was a reaction. One heresy is the revenge of some other heresy, Bear supposes. No matter what Catholics think of Pope Francis, they should understand that Protestantism is not just fractured, but unhealthy.

Don't sell your soul for all-you-can-eat doughnuts and a variety of fresh coffee.

The Tower of Siloam

The Bear is surprised how Calvinists can miss how Jesus Himself addresses worldly calamities. In Luke 13 1-5, Jesus was questioned whether the people who lost their lives in the collapse of the Tower of Siloam were being punished for their sins.

Jesus, typically, uses the question to illustrate a broader point. Everybody dies. Make sure you're ready, because you never know the hour. If Jesus had wanted to launch into a discourse about how God punishes people for their sins with bridge collapses or the like, He would have.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Statement On Hope and Life Press

The Bear was sad to learn his publisher is going out of business. The first thought he had was how we brought out two books of which the Bear is very proud despite holding such radically different opinions. We worked to make our partnership successful, which is why the Bear can say he’s sorry to see Hope and Life go and wishes Marcelle the best.

The silver lining is that rights to the Bear’s two books (and Red Death’s one book) will revert much sooner than they would have under contract. As in at once. It will be nice to own JUDGING ANGELS and SAINT CORBINIANS BEAR LENTEN COMPANION for BEARISH HUMANS. They will be transitioned to independent ebooks and made available on Amazon until the Bear lands another publisher.

The sequel to JUDGING ANGELS is being worked on for a release as Christmas comes up.

The Bear is aware he still owes a few books to people. He hasn’t been feeling well lately, but will make that happen.

If anyone has any questions or comments, now’s the time.

Bear out.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Christ is Risen!

Our resurrection icon is on the right. The olive oil lampada burns 24/7.
A first class relic of St. Maurus is on the shelf, sent by a reader.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Sad Day on Good Friday

You may remember our goat Holly.

We drove down to Kentucky to pick her up. She had been bottle fed, and the Bear wondered if the man was going to be able to go through with the adoption. She rode back in his lap. Such things are not uncommon in Zoar.

We are up to 20 goats now. Many are descendants of Holly, her children and grandchildren. She was sweet, but would stand her ground against Fox. She was the leader, the queen and the favorite.

Yesterday, she got into trouble delivering a pair of kids. Red Death is not squeamish and knows how to get in and position a kid in the birth canal. She has handled several difficult deliveries. This time, however, nature had played a cruel trick. The kids were post term and big. The first one didn’t make it, but proved impossible to dislodge. There are gruesome expedients, but there was neither room nor time.

Holly exhausted herself and the necessary .40 caliber decision had to be made.

We’ve been lucky, plus Red Death knows her business. We have lost a few kids, but fought for and saved more. This was really hard on her, though. Not just losing a favorite pet, but it was a desperate fight she lost and had to end herself. Bear can only imagine.

There’s probably a lesson to be drawn. But the Bear would feel like one of Job’s insensitive and foolish friends trying to draw one.

Farm life puts you close to life and death. You pay for the joy of holding a newborn kid or gathering fresh eggs from your familiar hens. The coin is sudden death. Fox is still the ancient foe and death watches unseen not only when we leave this world, but sometimes when we enter.

Yet, we still have kids frolicking in the pasture. Bear likes to just watch them; his personal goatquarium. Goats have a surprising amount of personality. The ones we had to bottle feed because their mothers rejected them are especially fun. A couple days ago, one of our twin sons said a kid “teleported” through the fence to run up to him. Little ones stay where they belong more because they like the company.

Bottle babies, however, prefer humans.

Like Holly.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Catholic Book Reviews: The Bridge Of San Luis Rey

Poster for Possibly Better 1944 Movie
This is on your Books I'm Going to Read Someday list, unless it is is on your Books I Was Forced to Read in High School list. (Spoiler alert: the bridge collapses.)

The famous novella by Thornton Wilder is really the extended remix version of the Collapse of the Tower of Siloam in Luke 13:1-5. So whose version is better? The one by Jesus or the one produced by the dreary and overrated literary generation of Wilder?

The Bear is going to have to go with the Second Person of the Holy Trinity on this one.

One might say, "Thornie got a Pulitzer for his little book, Mister Smarty Bear, so who are you to judge?" It is true that Judging Angels (which is a whole lot thicker and has a higher body count without any "collapsing bridge" gimmick) has been snubbed. The only possible reason is ursophobia. The Bear has yet to find a big enough closet in which to hide, except that one (you know the one) in your house.

Jesus famously did not go into the merits or demerits of the victims of the Tower of Siloam collapse. It is ridiculous that a Franciscan Friar would think to perform some scientific inquiry into a similar event. The Inquisition gave Brother Juniper what he had coming for being an idiot child of the Enlightenment, rather than a Catholic. (Spoiler alert: the Spanish Inquisition was really bad.)

The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Or Rock City. One of the two, anyway.

That aside, the literary conceit works to give an almost voyeuristic look into the lives of the victims of the collapse of a bridge on which no one in his right mind would set foot. We are gulled into hoping Wilder offers some insight into the mysteries of fate. But, he really has a different salmon to fry.

A small one, but, hey, at least you can blow through it in a couple of hours if you don't try to sound out all the names.

There is a moral. Now, a moral is better than a wrong answer, which Brother Juniper’s absurd inquiry could only supply.

Jesus sensibly says there’s nothing special about the victims. We all die. Sometimes unexpectedly. Usually alone. Occasionally with others in a newsworthy event. Bears don't watch news. In fact, we shrug and say, "One death is a death, more than one death is at least two."

Think about it.

One minute you’re in a tower built to the Palestine Construction Code Of 30 A.D., or crossing a deep chasm on a swinging bridge built by primitive people a century before out of vines and sticks and the next you’re dead. Or you slip getting out of your tub. You're still dead, plus you're naked.

Be ye therefore ready.

Wilder’s extended remix of the economical tale in the Gospel is not an improvement for the banal moral. But, three stars for a tale told with cleverness and sympathy. Whatever you can say about him, Wilder at least wrote to please real people.

However, the Church already had its answer to Brother Juniper’s inquiry, and, as the old expression goes, the story is offensive to pious ears. No chance is missed to bring up the Inquisition or depict Catholics as superstitious.

These are choices Wilder made. There was no real Bridge of San Luis Rey collapse, he troubled himself to learn next to nothing about Peru, and he decided to set it in a period that was a PR low point for the Catholic Church.

To be fair, an abbess is a good person, and her goodness survives in an unexpected way. It is unclear whether her goodness has much to do with her religion.

This suggests the real point of the story. Such as it is, the Bear will not give away the moral, which is: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

Whoops. Anyway, Bear thinks "be ye therefore ready" is better.

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