An Open Letter to Sen. Lamar Alexander

Dear, Sen. Alexander

Many years ago, when you were governor, I was a young Boy Scout in Shelbyville, Tenn. and met you during a visit to their annual horse show. I shook your hand, got your autograph and told you what a great admirer I was. That admiration has dwindled since you became senator.

This is because your actions indicate that you care more about Republican politics than about Tennessee. I came to this conclusion when I saw that you voted to filibuster the recent jobs bill and when the filibuster failed, you voted for the bill.

This tells me (and anyone else who is paying attention) that you’d rather play political games and be an obstruction to our economic recovery, than serve the people who voted to send you to the Senate.

You voted for the bill, so you knew it was good legislation, but before that, you voted against cloture. Why? Why be a part of the Republican’s petty games? Why be a part of that mess? You must like the bill enough to want it to pass, it was mostly tax cuts for small business owners – the sort of thing that you’ll most likely take credit for when you’re up for reelection. But you’re so tied up in being a good party soldier that you voted to kill this bill and it was only due to the the surprise votes of some moderate Republicans that the bill made it to the floor for an up or down vote. This tells me that, though you like the bill and know it would be good for Tennessee, you’d have been just as happy for it to be just one more obstructionist notch on your party’s bed post.

There are currently more than 450 bills that the House has passed and are waiting for action in the Senate. Surely among them you will find something worth supporting, but we may never know because you and your party have decided that your pathetic political careers are more important than governing. I don’t know why I’m surprised.

I had such high hopes for you because of your history in Tennessee, but you’ve become a sad disappointment. I hope you will get your priorities straight soon.

Calm down, Sarah

I watched the most recent episode of “Family Guy” and it contained a B-story about how Chris likes a girl at school and is afraid to tell her. Stewie helps him gain confidence and Chris asks the girl out. There is a song and dance number about ways to impress the girl and in the end, Chris discovers that the girl isn’t very nice and he doesn’t want to have anything to do with her.

Here’s the thing: the girl in question has Down’s Syndrome. Chris knows this and doesn’t care. Once Stewie finds out, he doesn’t care either. The song lyrics are all about impressing the Down Syndrome Girl, who treats Chris badly and chases him away. Chris makes the discovery that those with Down Syndrome are like everyone else – some are mean, jerks. I don’t recall anyone making fun of the condition or her for having it. There was one instance when Chris asked her what her parents did for a living and she said “My dad is an accountant and my mother is the former governor of Alaska.” Chris responded “That’s cool” and the girl said “It’s real cool. Now get over here and give me a neck massage.”

In other words, the girl is portrayed as confident, independent and a little rude.

So, I wasn’t offended by what I saw. I saw it as an attempt to make the point that we can treat those with Down Syndrome like we do everyone else. It was an odd way of making the point, but I got it.

The backlash came from those who didn’t get it.

Now, if Sarah Palin wants to squawk about how they implied that her daughter has Down Syndrome, well, okay. It was rather strongly implied that the girl was a Palin, albeit a fictional one. But Palin is already walking a very thin line trying to be the word police. She is still calling for the White House Chief of Staff to resign because he used the world “retard” in a private meeting, but when Limbaugh says it multiple times to an audience of millions, that’s okay because Rush was using satire.

“Family Guy” is all about satire. You can argue about whether it was funny and I didn’t think it was a particularly good episode, but you can’t really claim that it was an attack on people with Down Syndrome.

LATE UPDATE: Andrea Fay Friedman the actress who was the voice of the girl with Down Syndrome on the episode has spoken about the controversy. Friedman, who has Down Syndrome, has a different take on the episode than the Palins:

“I thought the line was very funny. I think the word is ‘sarcasm,'” Friedman responded in an email to media outlets. “In my family we think laughing is good. My parents raised me to have a sense of humor and to live a normal life. My mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way former Gov. Palin carries her son Trig around, looking for sympathy and votes.”

TV’s Existential Crisis

Over the years I’ve watched a lot of sitcoms. They are, in my opinion, a great American art form. There are many aspects of my life in which my tastes are not exactly mainstream, but when it comes to sitcoms, I tend to hit the big part of the bell curve. Some of the better sitcoms have died out without a chance to really make an impact on popular culture. Others have lingered on and on and on and on way past their ability to contribute to the cultural landscape. I don’t miss “Friends.” I do miss “The Loop.”

There is a show on Fox now called “‘Til Death.” It stars Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher. Currently in its third season, there is something about this show that grabs me. I appreciate that Garrett has stepped completely away from his character in “Everybody Loves Raymond” and the chemistry between him and Fisher is really great. The show has had some difficulties – retooling, moving around the schedule, the writer’s strike. But what we have on the other side is a distillation of the sitcom experience.

The show began as a typical relationship comedy in which Garrett and Fisher play Eddie and Joy Stark a couple married for two decades and comfortable with each other. The new neighbors are newlyweds and the husband is the assistant principal at the high school where Eddie teaches history. Antics ensue.

During the second season JB Smoove was added to the cast as Eddie’s friend. They meet because Eddie joins the Big Brother program and was given a grown man to mentor. Antics ensue.

But now we’re at season three. The neighbors are gone. JB is gone. The daughter and her crunchy husband have moved back home and are living in a trailer behind the Stark’s house. The new principal at the high school is a cute young woman who used to be Eddie’s student and (because of the teasing she received in his class) has sworn revenge on Eddie.

But what has prompted me to write about this show is an interesting b-story that has carried over into a couple of episodes now. The Stark’s son-in-law, Doug, is a tree-hugging, organic fair-trade humus eating wag. Recently, he has gone through an existential crisis – unsure if he is real or part of someone’s dream.

He convinces himself that he is a character in a sitcom because of little things like how no one does or says anything while facing upstage. He claims to  hear the laughter of the live studio audience. In one scene, he walks into the kitchen from the back yard and the boom mic is barely in the frame. He reacts to it and panics a little when it disappears out of sight.

When his wife wants to make him an appointment with the doctor, he tells her it won’t do any good because “He’ll just make jokes and his office will only have three walls.” In the most recent episode, he’s practicing different catch phrases to utter while entering the scene. At the end of the show, he tells no one in particular that it’s a wrap and time for lunch before exiting the room.

While it isn’t brilliant writing, per se, it is smart writing. It dances around our expectations of what a sitcom is. It becomes meta. “’til Death” has suffered in its three short seasons plagues visited upon sitcoms with much more success and vintage. We’ve seen actors recast before. When Jeff Foxworthy’s show moved networks, there was even a promo in which Foxworthy and Haley Joel Osment discussed the fact that the mother had been recast. We’ve seen characters disappear before, from “Happy Days” to “King of Queens.” “Ellen” completely changed from one season to the next – half her friends went away and suddenly she owned a bookstore.

We’ve seen characters break the fourth wall before, to address the audience directly or to glance at us to say “You get it, right?” In “Better Off , talks to the audience all the time and only he seems to be able to do it. In “Scrubs” it’s an internal dialog that gets passed from character to character without addressing the fourth wall directly.

This isn’t like that. Doug never looks directly into the camera. He doesn’t talk to us. He believes in us. And if you can get around some of the cheesy jokes (“Doug thinks he’s in a sitcom” “If this were a TV show, it would have been canceled a long time ago”) it’s really kind of cool. Doug is working from the same frame of reference we are. He regularly comments on the threadbare tropes employed by sitcom writers and his frustration at the family’s lack of belief mirrors my own when I encounter people who don’t “get it.”

I don’t know how long “’til Death” has until it is shelved for good, but I’m going to keep watching them. It practically dares me to.

In sadder news, I found out today that a guy I went to college with was killed in the Haiti earthquake. We didn’t talk much back then, he was on the broadcast journalism side and I was print. But I knew who he was and found him to be a nice enough fellow. Keep his family in your thoughts.

About three weeks ago, I went to Greeneville to see the wife and kids. I was greeted at the door by Rozzy who was excited to show me a flyer she had gotten at school. It announced the annual “Daddy/Daughter” dance. I knew there was no way I wasn’t going, so I decided to embrace it. I told Dollie I’d be sure and bring my suit.

“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far,” she said. “I’m sure a nice shirt and tie will be fine.” I asked Rozzy what I should wear – a suit.

We stood in line and got our photos made, had some cookies and lemonade and waited for things to get rolling. The DJ played a nice mix of music, but seemed to think we dads were much older than we were. I was looking around at a bunch of hunched over dancing 30-40 year olds. The DJ was playing the play list from the Oldies station.

It was fun, though. We sat and talked. Rozzy saw some of her friends and they compared dresses and shoes. When a song came on that she knew, her eyes lit up and she pulled me to the dance floor where she danced and looked to see what everyone else was doing while I tried not to stumble over some big dude’s princess.

It was a great time and I hope whoever is keeping score was watching because I earned some points that night.

Being in Greeneville for the Daddy/Daughter dance meant I was going to have to haul it back to Murfreesboro to make Badger’s annual SuperBowl party. I’ve been to a bunch of these. Some were more successful than others. I figured that this year the attendance would be light due to our friends getting big TVs and wanting to watch the game in comfort. But I don’t much care about football, so I made it to the party and had a good time.

I’m glad I was there, too. Badger is from New Orleans and to be there when the Saints won the SuperBowl in their first appearance there was pretty special.

Max got into the game this year. He was walking around all weekend saying “WhoDat?” Dollie sent me photos of his victory dance when the Saints scored. He told me the kids in his school were giving him a hard time about rooting for the Saints. I hope he yelled “WhoDat” at them on Monday morning.