No matter how much we may enjoy something, be it food, entertainment or our wardrobe, sometimes we want to shake things up a bit, trying out new offerings to stay fresh and invigorating. For that to happen, however, we often depend on others to make those new options available to us. Meanwhile, the purveyors of those commodities who fail to change with the times may easily be left behind when innovators step up to take their place. Such downfalls are avoidable, though, thanks to the power of reinvention, a prospect explored in the devilish new comedy, “Late Night” (web site, trailer).
Talk show host Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson) has been a staple in late night television for over two decades. As the first woman to host her own long-running late night talk show, she broke new ground in the TV industry, a breath of fresh air who captivated viewers with her commitment to excellence for intelligent and entertaining programming. Unfortunately, after more than 20 years, that fresh air has become a little stale. With no changes in format and content, Newberry’s show has become something of a dinosaur, with languishing ratings and no apparent prospects of turning things around. And, to make matters worse, the host herself is in denial that there’s a problem, insisting that her approach is solid because it’s rooted in quality. However, given the deterioration in the audience, the numbers would appear to disagree. New network president Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) wants the circumstances to change, because, if they don’t, she’s ready to replace Katherine with someone younger and hipper, a host more attuned to the wants of a changing audience.
One of the problems with the show, observers contend, is that, except for the host, it’s an all-male production. The entire writing staff is made up of men, as are most of the producers, and that’s apparently due to Katherine’s well-known dislike of women, a trait she doesn’t even recognize in herself. Of course, she might get a better sense of that if she spent more time with her staff; as it stands, she doesn’t know her own writers, having not even met most of them (even though she makes great demands of them). To bring a new perspective to things, Katherine’s right-hand man, Brad (Denis O’Hare), suggests that she hire a woman for the writing staff, a decision to which the host reluctantly agrees.
Enter Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling). The inexperienced chemical plant efficiency expert may seem an unlikely candidate to walk into this environment, but, as a woman and a person of color, adding an Indian female to an aging all-male, all-white writing staff could be just what’s needed to shake up the show – that is, if she’s given a chance. Fitting in is far from easy, with many seeing Molly as little more than a requisite minority hire and some even viewing her as the new department go-fer. What’s more, not only does she not have the backing of her fellow writers, but she also doesn’t seem to receive much support from Katherine, who continues to run the show like the control freak she has always been. If Molly’s going to succeed, she’s going to have to make quite an impression, breaking through a lot of tradition and resistance to change, from the top on down.
With nothing appearing to change, however, the show’s status continues its inexorable slide. Meanwhile, Caroline continues to pressure Katherine to boost the program’s numbers. She also threatens to replace the host with young comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz), a crude, unfunny rising star whom Katherine detests for his tasteless jokes, someone she sees as far from fitting for the franchise she has so carefully built. It becomes apparent something has to give.
The prospect of losing the show has Katherine seriously worried. After all, as she admits, it’s only one of two things in her life that she really cares about, the other being her husband, Walter (John Lithgow), who’s now suffering with advancing Parkinson’s Disease. Having to face the possibility of losing Walter and the show thus puts Katherine’s back up against the wall. But what is she to do?
This scenario opens the door for Molly. She convinces Katherine that, as noble as the production of quality TV is, the host needs to show more of her “human” side. She needs to get more in touch with her audience, revitalizing the show’s format with more approachable material and fan involvement. This means relying less on the high-brow content that, although funny, has also put up something of a wall between her and her viewers (especially younger ones). It also requires her to do man-on-the-street bits and other similar material that her late night competitors perform. So, with nothing to lose, Katherine reluctantly gives it a try – and it works, making the biggest splash her show has made in years.
But is it too little too late? That remains to be seen, especially when a scandal surfaces that threatens to undo all of the good work that has helped to renovate the show’s ratings and reputation. Katherine, Molly and crew need to act fast if they’re going to stave off a replacement and an uncertain future. And that’s nothing to laugh about.
When we hit on a formula that works, there’s often a tendency to leave it alone and let it carry on as if it’s got a life of its own. Notions of “letting sleeping dogs lie” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” readily come to mind. But what if the conditions surrounding that formula start to change and its inventor makes no alterations to keep up with shifting circumstances, insisting that past successes will simply continue on in perpetuity? That could prove to be a problem, one that could even lead to an institution’s demise. One need only look to the experiences of businesses like Blockbuster Video and Borders Books to see what can happen when management rests on its laurels. And the same is true in other areas as well, with broadcast entertainment no exception.
That’s the lesson Katherine wrestles with in “Late Night.” She is heavily bought into the belief that her show will continue to succeed, no matter what, as long as she sticks to her principles. In the process, she’s also become thoroughly convinced that making changes is utterly unnecessary. Quality work, she believes, sells itself, a self-evident notion that everyone can see as plainly as she does.
Or so she thinks.
What Katherine fails to see is that what appeals to the public one day could easily fall out of favor the next. Remember when diners couldn’t get enough of quiche? But how prevalent is it on menus these days? The same can be said for wine coolers and smoking and TV variety shows and a host of other commodities that had their heydays and subsequently dwindled in popularity or vanished altogether. That’s the risk that Ms. Newberry runs if she’s unwilling to change with the times.
To survive, Katherine needs to adjust her thinking. It also helps to make changes from heartfelt intentions. That’s why Molly encourages Katherine to put herself into the show more than she typically has. Sitting behind a desk for all those years has clearly separated the host from her viewers, so, if she wants to revitalize the show, she needs to reconnect with those who helped make her a star, to allow her personal integrity to come forth and infuse the beliefs she holds that go into making the program work.
Changes like this can indeed be scary, especially when they seem to go against that aforementioned formula for success. But isn’t losing everything an even scarier prospect? (Most of us would probably think so.) That being the case, if Katherine wants to save her show, she mustn’t be afraid to face her fears and move past them, courageously wiping away whatever apprehensions and personal limitations are impeding her. The effort, though daunting, should prove worth it.
The key in all this is introducing a hefty dose of flexibility into our thinking. That enables us to see a wider range of possibilities, some of them aimed at introducing minor tweaks and others intended to usher in sweeping and perhaps outrageous change. However, as it’s been said, necessity indeed is the mother of invention, and Katherine certainly has a mother of problem to overcome if she hopes to stay on the air. That’s certainly not out of the question; in fact, given that her work involves entertainment, if anything it should be fun. And who knows, if she sees it that way, it just might turn out like that, too.
What a treat it is to see a smartly written, intelligent comedy these days, one that isn’t afraid to poke some major holes in the types of vehicles that claim to be funny but truly aren’t. While “Late Night” could use a little more development in certain parts of the back story, and while some elements are a little too predictable, this otherwise-spot-on tale delivers huge, often-scathing laughs and does so without necessarily having to rely only on one-liners. Kaling, Lithgow and (especially) Thompson serve up fine performances in a story that plays like “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) set in the entertainment world. It also features guest spots from some of the biggest names in TV comedy, including Seth Meyers and Bill Maher. However, make it a point to pay no attention to the trailer for this one – it really doesn’t do the film justice.
Day-old bread may be inexpensive, but how tasty is it? The same can be said of almost anything that’s hung around a little too long without any enhancements or improvements, including what shows up on our television screens. Legendary actor and producer Desi Arnaz realized that, which is why he insisted that his iconic TV series “I Love Lucy” continually go through changes each season to keep the program fresh – and viewers watching. It’s a lesson all of us should take a cue from when it comes to our own creations – especially if we want ʼem coming back for more.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
The Perils of Privacy Protection
Many of us likely believe that our personal privacy is a right that we’ve lost. Due to increasingly intrusive surveillance of virtually every aspect of our lives by government agencies, we’ve often come to feel that our personal spaces and individual lives are no longer our own. And, because of explanations like national security and waging the war on terror, those measures have thus been justified by those conducting them. Given all that, it may seem like there’s nothing we can do about it, either. However, one community subjected to severe scrutiny has had enough and has begun to fight back, letting those who are doing the surveilling know that they’re now being surveilled as well, a story chronicled in the troubling but inspiring documentary, “The Feeling of Being Watched” (web site, trailer).
When Algerian-American journalist Assia Boundaoui began hearing rumors of long-term government surveillance of Islamic residents in Bridgeview, Illinois, the Chicago suburb where she grew up, she began to investigate. The reporter, whose credentials include work for the BBC, National Public Radio, Al Jazeera, VICE and CNN, was troubled by the prospect, even though many of those around her (including her own mother, Rabia) treated the idea somewhat matter-of-factly, something that they had almost come to take for granted. In fact, when Assia awoke one night and saw what appeared to be a strange vehicle parked across the street, she told Rabia about it who replied “It’s probably just the FBI, go back to sleep.” However, sleep was the last thing on Boundaoui’s mind. If the surveillance rumors were true, this was unacceptable if there was no legitimate reason behind it.
Upon looking into the matter, Boundaoui learned that the government launched a surveillance program of the Islamic community in the Chicago suburbs in the wake of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Designated “Operation Vulgar Betrayal,” the FBI investigation looked into the role that Islamic organizations and mosques may have played in funneling funds to terrorists. However, as Boundaoui came to discover, the investigation covered more ground than just the targeted organizations; it appeared to engage in blanket surveillance of the community. And, even though Vulgar Betrayal was shut down in 1999 after allegations of religious discrimination and sexual harassment, it was reopened after the 9/11 attacks – and continued long after.
But to what end? That’s the question Boundaoui wanted answered. By her accounts, most Islamic Bridgeview residents lead everyday ordinary lives, holding jobs, raising families and engaging in all of the other routine activities that American citizens typically do (quite the irony given that many of them are themselves American citizens). So why the widespread scrutiny?
As Boundaoui dug deeper into the story, she began running into roadblocks. Local residents were reluctant to speak about their experiences, even though many of them hinted that they had felt inexplicably targeted. But, to make matters worse, she was stonewalled by officials when she sought information about the investigations. This led to the filing of Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain copies of any documents in the government’s possession regarding its surveillance activities. And what she found out was stunning: The FoIA request responses indicated that the government possessed thousands of pages of information about this subject.
However, when Boundaoui asked for the documents in question, she was told that, due to heavy demand for the fulfillment of pending FoIA requests, it would take several years before she could get the first copies of what she wanted – and even then on a snail’s pace delivery schedule. Such government foot dragging, an obvious stalling tactic, led the journalist to file suit in court. But, even with court rulings in her favor, Assia came up against even more troubling revelations, namely, that her name, as well as the names of her mother and siblings, showed up in the records, despite the fact that the material in the documents overall was 70% redacted.
Suddenly, the investigation turned personal, a troubling thought for a journalist trying to maintain a sense of objectivity. Boundaoui now found herself having to walk a tightrope between uncovering the truth and addressing her own personal privacy concerns. Was the revelation of her name in the documents a government intimidation tactic because of the aggressiveness of her investigation? Or were she and her family part of the ongoing surveillance all along simply because of their Islamic faith? Indeed, were the Boundaouis caught up in a broad-spectrum program of racial and religious profiling with no legitimate justification?
These revelations thus raised the question, where do Bridgeview residents go from here? And is this government surveillance effort limited to just the Chicago suburbs? What is the Islamic community to do?
That’s where this film comes in. In her directorial debut, Boundaoui is blowing the whistle on what has been occurring. She has been taking the documentary to her people, making them aware of what’s going on and encouraging activism to expose the truth. In essence, she has put the government on notice to let the watchers know that they are now being watched.
Efforts like those undertaken by Assia Boundaoui are truly courageous. That’s not to say that such initiatives aren’t scary, but the intrepid journalist and her supporters have not let that hold them back. They have taken their story to Islamic community centers and mosques to spread the word, building a broad base of support and awareness.
This effort is crucial not only for the protection of the rights of the American Islamic community but for all Americans. After all, if this can happen in one segment of society that is placed under scrutiny, it’s not out of the realm of probability that it can happen to others as well. One need only look at the experience of immigrants coming from other lands these days to see how easy it is to be put under an investigatory microscope – whether it’s warranted or not.
It’s somewhat ironic that the watchers are now being watched, too. If the watchers believe that they must engage in such surveillance, then it shouldn’t come as any surprise to have their tactic turned back on them. Their efforts are, fittingly, now being mirrored at them, validating that what goes around truly can come around, for better or worse.
Those who are being unfairly surveilled need a voice to speak for them, and that’s precisely what’s being accomplished by this excellent documentary. It’s a chilling story about a courageous advocate’s efforts to expose a troubling issue and how she has had to balance her coverage of a story that affects her both professionally and personally. Boundaoui’s meticulous storytelling details everything that went into the unraveling of this mystery, showing how she followed an ominous trail of breadcrumbs that led her to where she is now. This is must-see viewing for anyone who feels his or her privacy is threatened – or could be.
“The Feeling of Being Watched” may take a little effort to see, at least in the near term. It has been playing at film festivals, in a limited theatrical run, and at special screenings at mosques and Islamic community centers. In October, however, the film will receive national coverage when it airs on PBS. It should also be noted that this film is a work in progress, one that will be updated as further developments in this story unfold. Viewers should thus be on the lookout for new information as events transpire.
It’s stunning how so many of us have taken the loss of privacy in stride. Something so cherished should be jealously protected, given that it may be difficult to retrieve once it’s gone. In that regard, this film should serve as a wake-up call to those who take this precious freedom for granted. When any of us lose this, it’s a loss for all of us, a true tragedy for a nation that was built on such a formidable and fundamental principle.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Ode to an Inspired, but Underappreciated Creative Legacy
It’s often sad when a favorite television show goes off the air. But it’s even more regrettable when a series reaches its end without having been given the chance it should have received. That was very much the case for one program that had a decided love-hate relationship among viewers, one that had to fight for every bit of recognition to stay afloat, an effort chronicled in the captivating new documentary, “What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” (web site, trailer).
In 1993, the “Star Trek” franchise embarked on a new chapter with the debut of a new TV series different from its predecessors, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Coming after “Star Trek,” the original 1960s network series, and “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” its highly successful syndicated follow-up set 80 years in the future from its forerunner (both of which followed the adventures of spaceship crews exploring the galaxy), “DS9” was set on a space station through which a myriad of different alien species passed, not far from the planet Bajor. But the differences extended beyond that. It was the first “Trek” series featuring an African-American in charge, Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks). Sisko was also the first commander to be a parent, in this case a widowed single father to his teenage son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton).
What’s more, “DS9” was a series that truly went where no one had gone before in a number of respects, dealing with such themes as the role of spirituality in the lives of its characters. This included Sisko, who,upon arriving at the station, was proclaimed Emissary of the Prophets, a physical liaison to a band of enlightened extradimensional beings who brought religion to their devoted followers, It was a title that made the commander uncomfortable and that he embraced reluctantly in spite of attempts to deny it. These were all genuine differences that Sisko’s TV predecessors Kirk and Picard never had to contend with.
On top of this, “DS9” introduced a host of characters and story lines vastly different from anything to come out of the “Trek” franchise, some dark, some edgy and many of them exotic. Among the more inventive characters were Odo (Rene Auberjonois), the station’s shape-shifting security chief who struggled with his fluidic nature in the presence of beings who remained in fixed form all the time; Maj. Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), the highly spiritual Bajoran station commander who served as Sisko’s first officer; Garak (Andrew Robinson), a refugee from the enemy Cardassian Empire and suspected spy who operated a tailor shop on DS9’s retail promenade; and Capt. Cassidy Yates (Penny Johnson Jerald), a freighter pilot who made regular stops at the station, eventually becoming Sisko’s love interest.
As for the story lines, “DS9” featured a wide array of innovative plot lines. There are too many to detail here, but one that opened doors to many possibilities (both literally and figuratively) had to do with the station’s unique locale. DS9 was positioned in the vicinity of a wormhole connecting its area of space with a distant sector of the galaxy known as the Gamma Quadrant, home to a race of beings known as the Founders. These morphic aliens, relatives of Odo, possessed an extreme dislike and mistrust of their faraway (or not so faraway, thanks to the wormhole) monoform counterparts, beings they disparagingly called “solids.” The wormhole itself was also a special place, serving as a sanctuary for the aforementioned Prophets, a holy place that many of their devoted Bajoran followers called the Celestial Temple. This portal thus became a fertile source of story material for the show, given its enigmatic attributes and its functionality as a transit corridor between far-flung sectors of the galaxy. Imagine the possibilities.
Given the foregoing, one would think that this cutting-edge series should have been a big hit. Unfortunately, nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, the show’s producers routinely received barrages of venomous hate mail.
So why did fans turn on the show? For starters, many viewers disliked the space station setting, claiming it was too fixed and didn’t afford enough opportunities for adventure and exploration of the unknown, despite the presence of so many diverse influences on site. Then there was the spiritual angle, something that made for plot lines that were seen as “too cerebral” and “overly talky,” with not enough of the action that helped characterize the predecessor series. And, of course, there were some regular characters who were either disliked or seen as unrealistic. While all of these elements were groundbreaking in the “Trek” franchise, they didn’t set well with many diehard fans.
Given the foregoing, “DS9” was faced with the daunting – and ongoing – task of continually having to reinvent itself to survive. Executive Producer Ira Steven Behr, the driving force behind the series (and this documentary), had to come up with ways to keep the show fresh – and to appease disgruntled viewers. This called for some drastic measures, tasks implemented in the “can-do” spirit that typified the efforts of those behind other “Trek” projects. For instance, for viewers who tired of the show’s fixed location, the producers introduced story lines that took the characters off the station on occasion. The presence of the nearby planet Bajor, for example, provided ample fodder for story material, given its rich, diverse cultural, spiritual and historical nature. The DS9 crew was also provided with transportation to ferry them off-station, such as shuttle crafts known as “runabouts” and, eventually, a warship known as the Defiant. The producers even incorporated alien species and characters familiar to “Trek” viewers from other series, such as the inclusion of Lt. Cmdr. Worf (Michael Dorn), a staple from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” who joined the “DS9” cast as a regular during the series’ fourth season. Thankfully, Behr and crew rose to the occasion, regularly rejuvenating the series to keep it afloat and, ultimately, to enable it to thrive for seven seasons as one of television’s most unique productions.
But, even with this fine-tuning, the show had other factors working against it that kept the series from setting ratings on fire. For instance, “DS9” was distributed through syndication, mostly to independent stations, which meant it didn’t have a fixed air time across all of the affiliates of its ragtag network. Some stations weren’t kind in their scheduling, either, airing episodes at times that were far from viewer-friendly, such as late at night or on Sunday mornings. Also, the show was frequently subject to schedule changes, especially on stations that broadcast live sporting events, necessitating alternate air times that were often difficult to find. And, because of stagnant ratings, the show’s time slots often didn’t improve over time. It was thus difficult for “DS9” to find a loyal, steady audience, despite the producers’ earnest attempts to cultivate one.
All was not lost, though. Those who appreciated the show’s singularly distinctive attributes came to love the series and stuck by it through its entire run. Also, as the show’s format and narrative were favorably tweaked, it slowly began to attract new fans, including those who may not have given the series a fair shake initially. Yet, even with these gains, “DS9” was still the stepchild of the franchise, lurking in the shadows of its two older relations and its junior sibling, “Star Trek: Voyager,” the wunderkind offering of the UPN TV network launched in 1995.
Interestingly, though, “DS9” has experienced impressive growth in its audience of late, years after leaving the airwaves. Thanks to developments in on-demand viewing options, such as streaming services and physical media like DVDs, the problems associated with inconsistent broadcast schedules have been eliminated, enabling fans to watch episodes on their time and terms. Also, given the serial nature of the show’s overall story line (especially in its last few seasons, another distinguishing quality of “DS9”), these new media have promoted binge watching, making it easier for viewers to follow the unfolding nature of its mythology, enhancing the appreciation and comprehension of this impressive body of work.
The groundbreaking nature of the series represents a wondrously creative breakthrough that, narratively speaking, set the show apart from anything else on television, including other installments in the “Trek” franchise. In so many ways, it truly reflected the familiar tagline of all the “Trek” properties – humanity’s desire to boldly go where no one has gone before. Even if “DS9” didn’t necessarily do that through the locales in which its stories were set, it certainly did so through the kinds of stories it told.
In carrying out its mission, “DS9” pushed limits on many fronts, including story lines that dealt with relevant and controversial topics, themes that might not have been able to be addressed directly but that could be creatively finessed through the lens of science fiction. Continuing a tradition begun with the original “Trek” series, “DS9” frequently told stories that symbolically tackled issues that likely would have been too hot to handle through literal treatment. Topics like the agony of war, racism, religion, political corruption and treatment of the homeless, for instance, were among the touchy themes that the show covered through its expertly crafted, albeit less-than-veiled, scripts. The show also did much to further the roles of minorities and women, featuring such prominent ethnic characters as the members of the Sisko family, as well as such integral female personalities as Maj. Kira, Capt. Yates, science officer Dax (Terry Farrell, Nicole de Boer) and religious leader Kai Winn (Louise Fletcher). The show even went so far as to present a realistic view of the troubles of a married couple experiencing relationship difficulties, Miles and Keiko O’Brien (Colm Meaney, Rosalind Chao).
Such honesty reflects the heartfelt beliefs of the show’s writers, actors and producers. The degree of integrity that they brought to the show’s episodes is palpable. This series truly was a labor of love for all involved, often without commensurate recognition. Yet the pride in what they were creating is plainly evident in the finished product. Even though “DS9” was underappreciated at the time it originally aired, its own character has evolved, from the tolerated stepchild of the “Trek” franchise to a respected sibling in this family of space-faring series. It may have taken more than two decades to reach that point, but it has finally come into its own. Viewers have come to see “DS9” for the great work it is, especially among new and younger fans who have taken to it from the get-go, not wishing it to be something that it was not intended to be, as happened with the series in its early days. It’s gratifying to see that the validity of “DS9” is finally getting its due. It truly deserves it.
The kind of creativity that went into the making of the series spilled over into the making of this documentary as well. “What We Left Behind,” a variation on the title of the series finale, “What You Leave Behind,” is more than just a chronological retrospective look at the show. In addition to the archive footage and participant interviews that one typically expects from films like this, this documentary features elements that set it apart from other such works. Most notable is a reunion of the show’s writers and producers, who came together to collaborate on the creation of a story line for a hypothetical eighth season premiere, one that picks up 20 years after the series conclusion. Besides bringing viewers up to date on what has transpired in the interim, this hypothetical episode attempts to address questions left conspicuously (and perhaps deliberately?) open when the broadcast series completed its on-air run. And it’s comforting to note that the show’s creators haven’t lost their touch after all these many years, coming up with a compelling scenario right in line with the qualities that characterized its seven years of predecessor episodes. Personally, I would love to see such a project made, even if only as a standalone production, but, given the logistics involved, it’s highly unlikely. However, as with all of the “Trek” properties, one can always dream, one of the enduring inspiring and hopeful messages to come out of the franchise.
For those who may not have heard of “What We Left Behind,” that may be due to the fact that it was a largely crowd-funded project featured at a one-night-only US theatrical screening on May 13, an offering of Fathom Events. However, despite this unduly short stint in theaters, it will be available on DVD and Blu-ray disc in August. I can’t wait to get my copy.
For those who missed “Deep Space Nine” on its first go-round, this documentary may be an ideal vehicle for whetting the appetites of the uninitiated, perhaps even spurring enough interest to give the series a second look. And for diehard fans, this is must-see viewing, a film that will delight, revive nostalgic thoughts and maybe even bring a tear to one’s eye. However, even though the show is no longer in first-run production, viewers can take comfort that its legacy lives on, that its profound and creative nature can still be appreciated now and for generations to come, a genuinely inspired body of work capable of touching us all in innumerable ways.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.