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Monday, March 31, 2014

A Fitting Ending to How I Met Your Mother

SPOILER ALERT

Life can be pretty complicated with its unexpected twists, turns, trials, and tribulations that reshape our grand plans. At the same time though, some aspects of life are really seemingly driven by fate. To borrow a popular quote, many folks out there sometimes have a "rendezvous with destiny." The series finale of How I Met Your Mother, easily one of the best TV comedies of the last decade, reflected these elements of our lives. In this way, the conclusion was both realistic and sentimental. On the one hand, the complications of life were aptly displayed in events such as Barney and Robin's ultimate divorce (a kind of experience millions of Americans are familiar with), Barney eventually becoming the father of a child - perhaps inevitable, though appropriate, after being a proactive womanizer, and the mother, whose name is revealed to have the same initials as Ted's, dying of a terminal illness, a kind of pain all too many people have experienced in their families. On the other hand, the sentimentality of the show was at its best in the finale. The scene in which Barney holds his new child in his hands and tells her he will love her forever is incredibly heartwarming and satisfactorily humanizes Neil Patrick Harris' self-aggrandizing yet ultimately affable character. The finish, though disappointing to some critics and viewers who thought Ted and the mother (Tracy McConnell) were perfect together, was emotionally charged as well as Ted finally really did end up with Robin after all. This scene demonstrated brilliantly how the oft used axiom "everything happens for a reason" holds some truth to it as some things were just meant to be.

For these reasons, though Seinfeld was obviously a superior series, the series finale of How I Met Your Mother was actually better than the 1998 series finale of another popular, nine-year network sitcom, Seinfeld -- an opinion that will likely not sit well with some of my readers. The finale of HIMYM was an appropriate and fitting finish to a colorful story that, as the kids pointed out in the end, was really all about how Ted loves Robin. It brought it all "full circle," as my friend George Dobbins noted on Facebook, all the way down to the blue horn being presented by Ted. Further, as aforementioned, the finale was both totally realistic, in the depiction of unanticipated events that reshuffle people's lives like unexpected pregnancies and divorce and serious sickness, while still asking us to believe in some predetermined fate, as demonstrated in Ted finally ending up with Robin, for instance. However, the Seinfeld finale was, on the flip side, quite unrealistic which is important since that show was ostensibly all about the quirks that befall people in their daily lives so if any shows ought to have a realistic finale, it was Seinfeld. Ending up in a jail cell was just a bizarre way to close, as many critics and viewers pointed out at the time, as it was not realistic and somewhat abrupt.

Nevertheless, there will be those who will criticize the HIMYM series finale as maddening because the mother died and Ted ended up going after Robin years later anyway thus making the mother even more of a minor character in this whole series than we initially thought. Further, many of us viewers probably didn't want to think it was possible for Ted to fall in love with anyone else as Tracy was seemingly the genuine love of his life and nobody could ever match that. The show proved us wrong though in testing a hypothesis that Vice President Joe Biden raised in a spring 2012 address to the families of fallen U.S. soldiers. In recounting the devastating loss of his own wife, the mother of his first three children, one of whom died with her in the car accident that killed them in 1972, Biden noted that he thought he been "to the top of the mountain" and would never come back because Neilia Hunter was seemingly the only woman he could ever love with all his heart. After five years though, he met Jill Jacobs, now known to most Americans as Dr. Biden, and was able to find love again because as he put it in the hypothesis he laid out to families of the deceased, "there will come a day when the thought of your husband or wife brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye." In his memoir, Promises to Keep, Biden expands on this notion to demonstrate that your heart can find true love again while that smile can come to your lips when you think of the past -- almost the exact experience Ted had as he connected with Robin but still was able to happily recount to his kids how he met their mother.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Everyone Agrees: Time to Freak Out About Democrats Losing the Senate. It's Avoidable:


The Beltway punditocracy is in near-universal agreement now that the Democrats will almost certainly lose control of the Senate this fall. Chris Matthews, Karl Rove, and Robert Gibbs have all declared it is evident that this result is, if not inevitable, at least extremely likely. The crazed hype surrounding these predictions notwithstanding, it is important to note that the Democrats' Senate majority is tenuous at this point. Several of the Democratic Senators up for reelection this year represent deep red states where President Obama is not only extremely unpopular but in which he also lost in November 2012, when he was at the peak of his national popularity. Further, the rollout of Obama's signature health care law, combined with the "you can keep your plan" controversy surrounding the Affordable Care Act, has not only hurt Democrats' standing nationwide but it has also not been helpful to Democratic senators running for reelection. Every single Democrat in the Senate voted for Obamacare, including the conservative Democrats up for reelection this year, so they are already facing political attacks from the right for their votes for the ACA. However, the analysis that is being done now as we examine Senate Democrats' chances fails to take into account several key factors.

For one, though Senate races are increasingly nationalized in nature, local factors are still vital, as Tip O'Neill would tell us. For instance, Mark Begich remains well-liked in Alaska, Mary Landrieu has a famous family name in Louisiana, and Kay Hagan may benefit from the liberal uprising known as the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina. Second, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has proven adept at fending off GOP efforts to retake the Senate in the previous two election cycles as they recruited stellar candidates in open seat races, protected incumbents well, and exposed Republican rivals for their ultraconservatism. In 2010 and 2012, observers and pundits of all political persuasions predicted that a GOP takeover of the Senate was not out of the realm of possibility. Instead, Harry Reid and Michael Bennet retained their seats in 2010, the Democrats had a net gain of seats in 2012 thanks to wins like Elizabeth Warren's victory in Massachusetts, and those same pundits reacted with surprise the morning after the elections. Third, the Democrats actually are in a good position to potentially win back two GOP Senate seats in Kentucky and Georgia. In these states, the party has fielded exceptional candidates in Alison Lundergan Grimes and Michelle Nunn, both daughters of political heavyweights in their state's Democratic parties, and their GOP rivals (Senator McConnell and the litany of inane Republican congressmen Nunn may face) are not very popular. Public opinion polls are surprisingly showing statistical ties in these states.

Nevertheless, it is crucial that Democrats stay alert this year, show up to vote, and be mindful that a lot is at stake here. The final two years of Barack Obama's presidency will be crucial in determining his legacy as he seeks to remake the federal judiciary, now that the filibuster for presidential appointments is gone, and in order to do that, he needs a majority in the Senate to approve his nominees. If the Republicans take over control of the Senate, dysfunction in Washington will only worsen. In 2010, when millions of Democratic voters failed to show up to the polls, the result was devastating as we've now seen what GOP control of the House, various state legislatures, and a majority of governorships has done to the country: imposed painful austerity that has weakened the recovery from the recession while states enact a plethora of laws restricting civil rights in an array of issues. The Democrats would be wise to employ the following pieces of advice if we wish to avoid another disastrous midterm:

1. The party should emphasize the genuinely popular, populist ideas and policies that President Obama and the party has advanced and championed this year. These include an increase in the minimum wage (as well as highlighting Obama's move to raise the wage to $10.10 for federal contractors), reforms to overtime pay, boosting anti-poverty programs like unemployment insurance, protecting the social safety net, and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. Public opinion polling finds that these progressive policy prescriptions are enormously popular, even among GOP voters in red states. Smart candidates are already capitalizing on these issues to boost their chances, such as Grimes, who is underscoring her support of a minimum wage increase and equal pay for equal work for women in Kentucky. On the other side of the country, Senator Begich was wise enough to be one of 16 Democratic Senators to sign a letter to the President urging him to avoid proposing unpopular cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in his budget. Polling shows that Grimes and Begich have benefited from these moves while in Arkansas, Senator Mark Pryor came out against raising the minimum wage to $10.10 and the evidence does not point to any boost for his campaign after making this announcement. The fact of the matter is that economic populism is both good public policy and good politics. Undertaking these issues as core elements of a candidate's agenda will help vulnerable Democrats because these policies can attract Independent voters who are concerned about the economy and will excite the base that typically does not turnout in midterm races as much as they do in presidential years.

2. Tie the GOP candidates in your races to unpopular congressional leadership, expose their unpopular ideas for what they are, and follow them carefully to catch any gaffes. This kind of effort is a must because the last two cycles have proven that when weak, extremely conservative Republican candidates in swing Senate races are revealed for what they really are, they lose steam from their initial seeming inevitability. In 2010 and 2012, this was the case for candidates like Ken Buck and Todd Akin, respectively, as their gaffes and repulsive ideas regarding women's issues sunk their campaigns. The Democratic candidates in tough Senate races this year ought to relentlessly shed light on their GOP rivals' seriously unpopular ideas like cutting social safety net programs and repealing even well-liked parts of the Affordable Care Act. They would further be wise to employ talented and energetic opposition researchers who can pound on the weaknesses of Republican candidates in order to make clear that these races are not referenda on the state of the country but rather choice elections. Beyond that, Democratic Senate candidates would be smart to associate their rivals with GOP congressional leadership, given that Congress is extremely disliked. This is quite easy for some candidates, such as Grimes who is conveniently running against the Senate Republican leader - an unpopular figure nationally and in his own state.

3. If you are an incumbent, demonstrate real work you are doing in the Senate on behalf of your constituents. History has shown that voters reward workhorses, not show-horses in Senate races. For example, Senator Al Franken appears in solid shape for reelection in Minnesota, despite the President's declining popularity in this state he carried easily twice, in large part because of his impressive record of legislative efforts and achievements. On the other hand, in 2006, when Senator Rick Santorum failed to win reelection in Pennsylvania, one element of his loss was undoubtedly his showmanship as a national GOP social conservative hero which overshadowed any kind of other legislative work he was undertaking. Therefore, Democratic Senators who are running for reelection ought to highlight their efforts in the Senate to achieve legislative accomplishments on behalf of their constituents. By doing so, they will show that constituents in their states will be sorry to lose them.

In the end, Democrats have reasons to be worried this cycle but it doesn't mean that they can't employ wise political strategy to avoid losing our fragile majority.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Why the Oscars Matter, the Case for My Favorite Film of the Year, and My Predictions

Despite losing a significant chunk of viewership amongst the key demographic of 18-49 year olds, the Academy Awards are still a culturally significant, exciting, and important celebration of excellence in film. In the United States, our mastery of movies, acting, and the thriving nature of the Hollywood industry has fueled economic productivity, livened our culture, and has made us a beacon of free expression and art in the world. Further, the films that are recognized at these ceremonies are ones that capture our imagination in the most inspirational, heartwarming, tragic or enlightening ways. They are the best of the best -- movies that, in some cases, can reshape our thinking and understanding of life. For these reasons, the Academy Awards are still very much relevant, important, and worth our attention.

This year's films are among those movies that inspire us, challenge our thinking, and boggle our minds. 12 Years a Slave reminds us of the horror of slavery and why we should never forget, dismiss or understate the brutality and gruesomeness of America's greatest sin. American Hustle makes us laugh at the comedic nature of the corruption of the ABSCAM scandal while making us cognizant of the dangers of pay for play politics. Her dares us to imagine the unthinkable possibilities of a future of constantly expanding technology. Of all of these films though, the one that deserves Best Picture, and the one for which the lead actor deserves Best Lead Actor, is The Wolf of Wall Street and Leonardo Dicaprio.

The criticisms of the film are understandable - mainly, that it glorifies the excess and bad behavior of Jordan Belfort and that there are sexist undercurrents in the portrayal of the characters involved. Perhaps I am biased towards liking the movie only because I saw the film with my best friends on my birthday but I don't think that explains my belief that it is worthy of Best Picture.  Far from glorifying Mr. Belfort's despicable actions, the film vividly illustrates the dangers of his way of life, the heartache and misery his decisions cause for his family and for so many working individuals he duped along the way, and the horrible consequences of greed.

Beyond that, The Wolf of Wall Street is an incredibly timely film, a movie that tackles head on many of the most pressing issues of economic justice that have dominated our national dialogue in the years since the financial crisis. It superbly demonstrates the deranged yet self-serving mechanisms, motivations, and mindset of the worst of Wall Street financial titans whose desires and decisions are entirely driven by their own well-being. The film shows these actions are wrongs, as seen in its demonstration of the pain that these decisions cause for many, many people, while indicating that justice is attainable. The final scene, in which the FBI agent on the subway appears satisfied and content looking at the faces of middle class Americans he looked out for in going after Mr. Belfort, encapsulates the movie's overriding message that levers of power, in this case that of the government's, can be utilized for good to squash power that is used for bad and that, ultimately, justice can be served. Further, the film also includes extremely talented acting on the part of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, both of whom deserve the respective awards tonight for which they are nominated. They electrify the screen, brilliantly capture the spirit and personalities of their characters, and have a rapport in the film that is masterful and wonderfully orchestrated. These actors, combined with the compelling nature of the story, make for a truly great film that, despite being three hours long, keeps you excited, alert, and involved for the entirety of its duration. It is a film like The Wolf of Wall Street  - relevant, entertaining, and defined by skilled acting - that makes watching the Oscars still an important annual ritual.

Now, for my predictions:

OSCAR HOST: Ellen DeGeners will do a fantastic job as emcee of the Academy Awards. She is extremely funny, down to earth, and virtually universally well-liked. She'll do a better job than Seth MacFarlane, without question, though it remains to be seen if she'll top her own 2007 hosting performance for which she won an Emmy.

BEST PICTURE: 12 Years a Slave

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE: Judi Dench (Philomena) 

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Frozen

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Gravity

BEST DIRECTING: American Hustle

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: The Act of Killing

BEST FILM EDITING: American Hustle