First, a couple of Florida reps flamed Jay-Z and "the diva Beyoncé" for their trip to Cuba. Then Hova responded with "Open Letter" ("Politicians never did shit for me except lie to me, distort history, wanna give me jail time and a fine Obama said, 'Chill, you gonna get me impeached. You don't need this shit anyway, chill with me on the beach'"). And then things got really good: Press Secretary Jay Carney found himself in the strange position of explaining to a press conference that (a) it was a song, y'all, and (b) "I guess nothing rhymes with treasury." Sure, there are some near rhymes (wild celery, feathery, telephone directory), but they really do lack punch. I'd beg someone out there to remix this video, perhaps adding AutoTune or launching an entire web series devoted to White House press events dissecting Snoop Lion's stance on same-sex marriage or the political relevance of "Hey Porsche," but I'm sure there's a mastermind already at work.
In his 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds, New Yorker financial writer James Surowiecki argued that people, en masse, are often much more clever than they are individually. The idea is that a group, when functioning successfully, is uniquely able to synthesize a diverse panoply of opinions into a single, superior decision. At its most complex, this sort of thinking can be applied to questions of economics, politics, or even morality. At its most simplistic, it's what allows Voltron to be a giant, ass-kicking cyberwarrior rather than a chaotic assemblage of lame robotic jungle cats.
The Walking Dead, which stumbled back to life last night after its annual midseason hibernation, strikes me as a loud and sloppy refutation of Surowiecki's theory. For a show more devoted to the idea of "live together, die alone" than Lost — or, you know, a pack of actual jungle cats — The Walking Dead’s vision of collectivism is decidedly grim. On one extreme we have the jabbering extras of Woodbury, a faceless mob that's gone from suburban idyll to sub-Thunderdome bloodlust in the time it takes Carl to put on his hat. On the other is an entire continent full of brainless, flesh-gobbling zombies. And, stuck in the middle, are our main characters, the gang that can't even shoot itself in the foot straight. Honestly, it's enough to send noted individualist Karl Marx running for his copy of Atlas Shrugged.
"No exit" isn't what I was muttering to myself during the darkest days of The Walking Dead's dreadful second season (those words can't be printed, even on a non-family website like this one). It's the name of the most famous play by Jean-Paul Sartre, the one in which he coined the memorable phrase "Hell is other people." I didn't quite realize how relevant the sentiment was until the opening moments of "Made to Suffer," the final new episode of The Walking Dead until February. We opened on the same familiar woods and the same old sibilant growl of the shuffling zombies. Only — what's this? — it was an entirely new crew of skull-bashing survivors! Led by the valiant and kind-eyed Chad L. Coleman — a.k.a Cutty from The Wire, a.k.a. the guy stocking organic kale at the local food co-op — this diverse coalition was the first evidence we've seen of other ax-wielding good guys clubbing and stabbing their way to safety. (The goons from Philadelphia don't count. They're probably hunkered down in the Action News van with enough Yuengling to last till the next end of the world.) And I have to tell you: This may have been my favorite scene since the pilot. For once, the world felt bigger! And, more important, it was filled with people who weren't the people we already knew! Sure, maybe they make some bad decisions — once one of your people gets an arm hickey, it's time to cut and run — but at least none of them were wearing sheriff hats or droning on about nursing cattle. For too long on The Walking Dead hell hasn't been other people: It's been the same people.
Even a zombie partisan would agree that The Walking Dead tends to save its surprises for the ends of things: seasons, lives, our patience. So it was noteworthy that last night, in the penultimate episode of the first half of the season (the show will return in February), I counted three genuinely exciting shocks. Even better, none of them involved a new breakthrough in decapitation technology. (Though thanks to gross-out guru Greg Nicotero, they'll likely be on the cutting edge of that field for years to come.) There were no sudden stabs in the back or twists of the knife. (OK, thanks to Michonne and Andrea there were actually both of those things. But work with me here.) Instead, "When the Dead Come Knocking" found time amid the steady diet of scheming and slaughter to get weird. And no matter the show, when things get weird, they tend to get interesting. This is particularly true for a cable series about a world-ending zombie plague that hews closer to expectations and gender roles than a CBS procedural about a lady lawyer.
I have to admit, it was almost a relief to see The Walking Dead return to its stumbling, brainless ways last night. For those still scarred by a lost second season spent mucking around a barn, these past few episodes — all stabby momentum that pulsed and gushed like a slashed jugular — were disconcerting. Many of the fundamental problems that nearly derailed the show were still present, of course: the draggy dialogue, the unpleasant personalities, Hershel. (When I say "derailed," I mean critically; not even Cousin Oliver water-skiing over a shark could kill the ratings, provided the shark was also a zombie.) But replacement showrunner Glen Mazzara did the smartest thing possible and sprinted right through them, cutting and running and then dancing us to distraction in the thick, arterial spray. It was actually a trick Frank Darabont suggested early in the first season and it was wisely echoed by a gimpy Michonne last night: Cover yourself in enough gore and not even a horde of angry bloggers monsters will be able to notice how injured you really are.
“I always want the show to play like a horror movie every week.” That’s Walking Dead executive producer Glen Mazzara in a pumped-up Q&A posted to The Hollywood Reporter just moments after the show’s second season finale. And while last night’s episode may have gotten his goal exactly in reverse — most horror movies start slow and talky and end quick and deadly, not the other way around — I found it mostly a relief to learn someone at the top has a vision for the series that extends beyond reinvigorating the post-agricultural economy of rural Georgia and the post-Weiner economy of AMC. Far too much of this meandering, face-slapping second season of The Walking Dead has seemed like an uncomfortable mash-up of other shows. At times, its slavish devotion to Lost was evident, with the insistence on factionalism, disquisitions on the burden of leadership rarely seen outside the work of Doris Kearns Goodwin, and spending numerous episodes locked in a supremely dull but no doubt budget-saving location. But mostly it reminded me of a rural spin-off of The McLaughlin Group, in which a gaggle of unpleasant alphas shout at one another incoherently, lazily circling an argument without ever landing on one, like backed-up 747s in a holding pattern at JFK. Mazzara’s quote suggests that there is a plan in place for the future and, as The Walking Dead so pointedly keeps reminding us, a strong voice at the top is crucial for survival.
Because so much of the second season of The Walking Dead has resembled a cul-de-sac, it was downright refreshing, if a bit bowie-knife-to-the-brainpain obvious, to see an episode begin at a crossroads.
(Actually, “18 Miles Out” began a little bit before that or, more accurately, a little bit after: the pre-credits teaser was a disorienting, thrilling glimpse at the episode’s high point, a confusing tsunami of blood spatter and zombie flash mobs overwhelming Rick, Shane and the tied-up new kid. This was a pretty invigorating break from the show’s traditional “start every episode the millisecond the last one ended” approach and, for a moment, I was hoping that we’d just fast-forwarded a year or two: Hershel and Lori were kibble for the undead and the show from here on out would be about the stabby misadventures of three crazy alpha males locked in a never-ending apocalypse of testosterone and guts. But, no. It was really new showrunner Glen Mazarra’s clever attempt to serve dessert first and thereby trick us into eating our argumentative arugula later.)
If we’re being honest, The Walking Dead doesn’t really need our help: The show remains a ratings juggernaut (6.6 million tuned in to find out just what was inside that barn in Sunday’s midseason finale — an audience almost three times the size of the one that tunes in to the average cocktail party at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) and a cash cow for money-starved AMC. (All that extra Hyundai loot isn’t hurting, either.) But creatively, the show is stuck in quicksand more treacherous than the stuff that conveniently surrounds Hershel’s sanctimonious chicken farm. In the deeply flawed seven-hour arc that just concluded, the showrunners — including now-departed behind-the-scenes boss Frank Darabont — attempted the tricky task of simultaneously expanding the world and constraining it, putting more focus on the tortured inner lives of the still-living protagonists while limiting their movements to a single, horsey setting. This decision proved disastrous in two ways. First, the show’s cranky leads proved themselves unable to carry the increased storytelling load, collapsing like cheap card tables into an unpleasant morass of sour looks, repetitive arguments, and bullet-wasting. We’re all for character development, but the more time we spent with these people the more we wanted to see them develop into zombie chow — particularly the show’s doomy Bermuda Triangle of overheated pathos, Rick, Shane, and Lori.
Unlike somepeople, J.J. Abrams sees his highly lucrative franchises through to the end. He's nearing an agreement to direct Star Trek 2, the sequel to 2009's $260 million-grossing original. The only problem: He won't finish writing and shooting in time for the June 29, 2012 release that Paramount had hoped for. So the studio will open G.I. Joe that weekend instead, since they can probably knock that one out in a week or two. Grade: B+ [Deadline]
Jennifer Lopez is expected to sign a deal this week to return to the judges' table for the next season of American Idol. She was presumed to be holding out for more money and a chair farther from Steven Tyler. Grade: B [HR]