Those evil moderates (Noam Chomsky, Pastor Anderson, Dr. King, and Revelation 3:15-16)

The theme of this post is “evil moderates”, and I’m drawing on radically different figures who have censured moderates as being worse than the real enemy: Noam Chomsky, Pastor Steven Anderson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the author of the Book of Revelation.

Consider the following description and citation of Noam Chomsky, written by Chris Hedges:

chomskyChomsky reserves his fiercest venom for the liberal elite in the press, the universities and the political system who serve as a smoke screen for the cruelty of unchecked capitalism and imperial war. He exposes their moral and intellectual posturing as a fraud. And this is why Chomsky is hated, and perhaps feared, more among liberal elites than among the right wing he also excoriates…

“‘I don’t bother writing about Fox News,’ Chomsky said. ‘It is too easy. What I talk about are the liberal intellectuals, the ones who portray themselves and perceive themselves as challenging power, as courageous, as standing up for truth and justice. They are basically the guardians of the faith. They set the limits. They tell us how far we can go. They say, ‘Look how courageous I am.’ But do not go one millimeter beyond that. At least for the educated sectors, they are the most dangerous in supporting power.'”

That’s the typical judgment of the regressive left — and why I take Noam Chomsky with a pound of salt — that one’s liberal cousins are more profoundly threatening than bigots, right-wingers and demagogues on the opposite side. There are many reasons why ideologues like Chomsky think this way, but the biggest one is our entrenched culture of self-loathing (on the extreme left) that denigrates anything and everything Anglo-American, and exalts western-haters as heroic underdogs struggling to defend other underdogs, whether or not they deserve a defense.

Take an example now who is opposite in every way from Chomsky. Pastor Steven Anderson is famous for his toxic sermons, especially the ones against gay people whom he considers beyond God’s forgiveness. He insists that all gays and lesbians are pedophiles, and if that’s your starting point (incredible as such a belief is), then gay people are as dangerous as it gets. But Anderson comes down harder on his fellow fundies for their moderate stance. He says, in a sermon delivered after the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage:

anderson“I never get mad when I get hate mail from the sodomites or mainstream Christians. The homos are just being the homos, and liberal Christians don’t even pretend to follow the Bible. But if you want to see me get mad, watch what happens when I get an email or call from a fellow fundamentalist or evangelical who tells me that I should tone it down against the sodomites. My wife will tell you, that’s when I start yelling at my iPhone.

“I’m not even so much preaching against the sodomites tonight. Because you know what the Bible says? ‘He that is filthy, let him be filthy still’ (Rev 22:11). That’s what the Bible says. But you know who I’m preaching against tonight? I’m preaching against my fellow independent fundamentalist Baptist pastors. Because the Supreme Court decision is their fault and they don’t even realize it. The battle wasn’t lost to a bunch of sodomites and perverts. No, the battle was lost in the hearts of fundamentalist preachers, who one day starting reading their Bibles, and got to Romans 1, and decided not to preach what it says. THAT is why our country is in the condition that it is.

“It’s my fellow fundamentalist preachers — I am blaming them for the Supreme Court’s decision; I am blaming them for our society accepting homos; I am blaming them for the homos coming out of the closet; and I am blaming them for the downfall of this country. They say ‘homosexuality is a sin” and ‘I’m against gay marriage’, but they WON’T USE THE WORDS THAT THE BIBLE USES! And they are trimming the message, and they’re preaching a tiny percentage of what needs to be preached. The Bible says that ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by EVERY word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’. And if they won’t use the words that God uses, then they are frauds and liars and compromisers. And what the Bible says is that homosexuals are reprobates beyond God’s salvation, and worthy of death. It does NOT say that we should ‘love the sinner and hate the sin’. It does NOT say that we should love the homos so that they can repent and be saved. It says ‘I hate them O Lord who hate thee’ (Prov 129:31), and that sodomites are haters of God (Rom 1:26-30).”

Moving now to the most admirable example: Martin Luther King, Jr. Unlike the examples of Chomsky (bad) and Anderson (off-the-scales), Dr. King’s sentiments were grounded in the best of reasons. From his Birmingham jail letter:

MLK“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.'”

Even our best leaders run with rhetoric, and Dr. King’s rhetoric implies that liberal sympathetic moderates are more dangerous, or more problematic — indeed “the great stumbling block” — than the actual racists who kill or vilely discriminate. That’s nonsense, of course, but we treat nonsense like wisdom when it grabs attention and fires our passions. If Dr. King had said that white moderates were a (not “the”) stumbling block, for the reasons he gives, and if he had removed his contrast with white supremacists groups (which implies that these groups are not a stumbling block at all to the black cause), his statement would have otherwise been fine. He was right that white moderates in the ’60s weren’t proactive enough — like today’s white moderates who aren’t assertive enough in addressing police brutality against blacks — and given the frustrated jail-cell context of his letter, Dr. King can probably be excused for his rhetorical excess.

Last is the classic example from the bible, Revelation 3:15-16:

lukewarm“You are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were one or the other. Because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.”

On the common reading of this passage, the author of Revelation prefers the “hot” who are zealous for God, and even the “cold” who are openly against God, over against the “lukewarm” who serve God out of half-hearted convictions.

It’s worth mentioning that this may not be what the author of Revelation meant to say. His nasty remark was addressed to the church of Laodicea, and it may have been intended to evoke the hot medicinal springs of Hierapolis, and the cold refreshing waters of Colossae. Laodicea’s aqueducts channeled both from afar in a lukewarm ooze. The passage could have been saying that the Laodicean Christians were neither therapeutic nor energizing — that they were neither like hot water in a soothing bath, nor like cold water in a refreshing drink; they were entirely useless. On this reading, it’s not that they lacked zeal in particular; they simply didn’t have a spiritual focus at all, especially being rich materialists (Rev 3:17-18). Craig Keener paraphrases the passage as saying, “I want water that will either heal me or refresh me, but you remind me instead of the water you always complain about in your city. You make me want to puke.”

But frankly the common reading — that the Lord prefers a (hot) zealous Christian or a (cold) godless heathen over against a (lukewarm) mainstream Christian — seems to me to be just as plausible. The other six churches addressed in Rev 2-3 faced opposition and/or persecution that calls forth zealotry, and it’s not unreasonable to suppose the Laodiceans faced the same problem even though it’s not explicitly mentioned. In any case, the idea that God hates mediocre believers even more than he hates infidels is often the litmus test of devotion among religious hard-liners, and for better or worse, Revelation has become the basis for this harsh view of moderates.

More moderation

I deliberately chose examples of people and writers who command different levels of respect according to one’s values, and the point is a common drive in our humanity. It’s easy for extremists and crusaders (even noble ones like King) to treat the real enemy like a sideshow while faulting those closer to home. The Chomskys of the world may hate the right-wing, and the Andersons the left, but the brunt of their ire falls on their moderate cousins who are in most cases more enlightened.

The Episodes of Stranger Things Ranked

Here are the 8 episodes of Stranger Things ranked.


Episode 8: The Upside Down. 5 stars. This is everything a finale should be: scary and emotional, with the right payoff and unexpected surprises on all sides of the story. At the Byers’ house, Jonathan and Nancy bait the shadow beast with blood, and when it appears (on top of a surprise visit from Steve), hell breaks loose — gunshots from Nancy, morningstar beatings from Steve, a firebomb from Jonathan — in a furious strobe effect of blinking Christmas lights. At the Hawkins Institute, Hopper and Joyce enter the shadow realm and find Barbara’s corpse and Will barely preserved alive, facehugger-style out of Alien (above image). And at the school, the kids are apprehended by Hawkins goons after El goes bad-ass and kills some of them, and while Lucas stands up to the shadow beast impressively with the slingshot, it is El who vaporizes it, sacrificing herself and devastating poor Mike. Aside from Mizumono (the second season finale of Hannibal), this is the best finale to any TV show I’ve seen.

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Episode 3: Holly, Jolly. 5 stars. The end of this episode is the best scene of the series, when the kids see Will’s body dragged from the river. They have no reason to think it’s a fake, and Mike’s reaction in particular — yelling at El and running home enraged — had me in tears. The use of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes” over this tragedy is a rare piece of genius scoring. The whole episode builds to this climax in one strong scene after another: the opening sequence of Barbara assaulted in the shadow realm; the dreadful scene in which El relives her killing two guards at Hawkins Lab, when she was dragged back to her cell for refusing to kill a cat; Joyce’s powerhouse scene, as she communicates with Will through the use of Christmas-tree lights, and he tells her to get the hell out of the house as a creature suddenly bursts out of the living room wall.


Episode 6: The Monster. 5 stars. The title defines the episode everywhere, because the true monster isn’t what it seems. It’s not the shadow creature (who just feeds according to its nature), nor even El (who opened the gate to the shadow world and let the creature through, in a terrifying flashback). The monsters, rather, are revealed to be people like Doctor Brenner, who recruits college kids for his nasty experiments which result in catatonic lives and child abductions. Or people like Steve, whose jealousy triggers life-threatening fist-fights. Or kids like Troy, whose bullying is carried to the extreme of forcing Mike to jump from the quarry’s cliff by by holding Dustin at knifepoint. All of these scenes are pulverizing to watch (I though Jonathan was going to literally beat Steve to death), but especially the last. Mike’s fall made my heart skip, and El’s telekinetic rescue completely astonished me. Her reconciliation with Mike is simply sublime.

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Episode 1: The Vanishing of Will Byers. 4 ½ stars. The opening D&D scene is my fourth favorite of the series (if you need to know my second and third, they would be the twin-climaxes of the finale, in which Mike’s promise to make El his girlfriend is thwarted as she sacrifices herself, while in the Upside Down Will is finally rescued and barely resuscitated). The boy’s 10-hour campaign is a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and shows why the game was so fun in the early 80s. It establishes their amazing acting skills through great personas — Mike the group leader (and so of course the dungeon master) and the undeniable soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; Dustin ruled by his appetites and hilarious in every frame; and Will the sensitive kid who won’t be getting much screen time. The chemistry between these kids is incredible, and I fell in love with them right away.

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Episode 4: The Body. 4 ½ stars. This is a chapter of slow-burns and stinging revelations, in which Hopper and Jonathan, along different paths, come to realize that Joyce isn’t crazy and that Will may still be alive. Hopper finds the fake body at the morgue, and Jonathan hooks up with Nancy, who has also seen the creature without a face in searching for Barbara. The kids also realize Will is alive (despite their tragic certainty at the end of episode 3), when El channels his voice over the radio. Three particular scenes stand out: (1) the boys dressing up El and Mike becoming increasingly smitten by her; (2) the gymnasium incident where El freezes Troy and makes him piss his pants; (3) Joyce ripping down her wallpaper and seeing her terrified son shouting to her in a flesh-encased portion of the wall. That last would be my fifth favorite scene of the series, and it gave me a goddamn nightmare.

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Episode 5: The Flea and the Acrobat. 4 ½ stars. In which the kids learn about the shadow realm, and others get a direct taste of it — Hopper at the Hawkins institute, and Nancy in “Mirkwood” forest. Now that everyone is on to the fact that Will is probably alive, they decide to take action, but things end badly for all involved. El sabotages the shadow gate’s magnetic field, ruining Dustin’s plan with the compasses, prompting a jealous fight between Mike and Lucas. She then smashes Lucas unconscious, driving a final wedge between them before running off. But the pivotal scene is at the end, with Jonathan and Nancy out in the woods, and Nancy enters the gate and gets her (and our) first full view of the shadow beast. There’s great exposition in this episode, as the science teacher answers the kids’ questions about parallel universes, and the kids do their own research on the shadow realm in a D&D manual.

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Episode 2: The Weirdo on Maple Street. 4 stars. The kids’ most iconic scene is their prepubescent horror at a girl who almost gets naked in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are downright hilarious. (Lucas: “Do you think she slept naked??” Dustin: indignantly mimicks her taking off her dress.) The other thread to this episode is the party at Steve’s house, in which Nancy loses her virginity. I wasn’t a fan of Nancy at this stage, and certainly not Steve; their characters are annoying in the worst way of teens. But the later episodes pay this off incredibly well, so it turns out to be a good foundation. By the final episode, Nancy and Steve have become likeable precisely for how the horrific events force them to move beyond their hollow concerns for high school popularity and sexual esteem.


Episode 7: The Bathtub. 4 stars. The road-chase prologue is the best part; El flips the van, her most spectacular feat of the series. The rest is somewhat underwhelming, centering around the plot of getting El in the bathtub to locate Barbara (dead) and Will (alive). I think it’s the way all the groups of characters — Hopper and Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy, the four kids — finally come together. These characters are at their best when they’re facing challenges on their own, especially the kids and teens who have to transcend themselves. Here they are just gathered around El so she can get the information they need. The Bathtub is still very good, but it’s a pause after the fury of The Monster and a calm before the storm of The Upside Down.

The Evolution of Demogorgon

Stranger Things made me relive the horrors of Demogorgon in my D&D days. The Prince of Demons is described thus:

“Demogorgon is 18 feet tall and has two heads, which bear the visages of evil baboons or mandrills. His two necks resemble snakes. He is insanely powerful: (1) He can hypnotize up to 100 creatures with his gaze with less than 15 hit dice with no saving throw. (2) The left head has the power of a rod of beguiling. (3) The right head can cause insanity, which lasts 10-60 minutes. (4) He has a forked tail that drains 1-4 levels of the people it hits. (5) If he hits you with his arm tentacles, a limb on your body will rot off in 6 rounds, which permanently removes 35% of your hit points. (6) He’s got every psionic power, 95% magic resistance and plenty of spell-like abilities.”

The Demogorgon I know is represented by the lame sketch of the first image below. While I’m an old-fashioned curmudgeon who lives and dies by 1st-edition rules — the classic D&D of the 70s and early 80s played by our young heroes in Stranger Things — I will admit that some of the artwork from the early Monster Manual was primitive and silly. Later imaginations did justice to what the most terrifying demon lord should look like. Here are the best representations I could find. My favorites are the 2009 versions.

1978: Monster Manual (1e)

Demogorgon.JPG

 

1987: Dungeon Magazine (issue #120)

 

2007: Dragon Magazine (issue #357)

 

2009: Monster Manual II (4e)

 

2009: The Plane Below: Secrets of the Elemental Chaos (4e)

 

2015: “Out of the Abyss” adventure module (5e)

 

Deviant Art

If on my deathbed I could watch ten film scenes…

… I might choose these.

1. The Return of the King: The Grey Havens. If this doesn’t make you cry, then you don’t have your priorities straight. The Grey Havens breathes the long defeat: the failure of Frodo, the passing of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men. On my deathbed I’d take comfort, even if those white shores and far green country awaiting Frodo would be out of my reach.

2. The Seventh Seal: The Dance of Death. I wish I could find a youtube clip of the entire six-minute ending, but this brief snip will have to do. Ingmar Bergman’s take on the Danse Macabre is that in the end we’re all on the same footing, regardless of our station or moral character. All the film’s characters are equally united in a dance with Death, who leads them away to an unknown fate. The image summons my nihilistic uncertainties about the afterlife to a tee.

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower: “We are infinite.” I choose this one to remember my teen years, back when, for all my coming-of-age frustrations, I thought anything in life was possible. Most teen films are saturated with cliches, but Perks is an inspired drama of teen alienation and this final scene is incredibly moving. David Bowie’s “Heroes” is as futuristic sounding today as it was back in the ’70s, and transforms what could have been melodrama into something profound.

4. United 93: Rushing the cockpit. This is my meditation on terror, and heroic sacrifice found in unlikely places. It’s a desperate fight-back that ends in foreordained tragedy, and the sudden fade to black as the plane hits ground hits way harder than the expected explosion.

5. Sunshine: Payload delivery. The visuals and scoring in this film are stunning and combine with the story to formulate an authentic statement about human hope. Sunshine postulates a future in which the sun is dying, and a crew embarks on a mission to deliver a thermo-nuclear payload that will re-ignite the sun’s fire and save the earth. I can’t find a youtube clip of the entire end scene, but this music video gives a feel for the film on whole, and has bits of the final act in 1:52-3:20.

6. There Will Be Blood: Washed in blood. My meditation on religion as a raging lethal force. This final scene is basically the same scene of Eli baptizing Daniel in his fundamentalist church. Now it is Daniel doing the “baptizing”. Just as Daniel needed Bandy’s land before, Eli needs the money from Bandy’s land now. And just as Daniel did, Eli chooses to suspend his beliefs for the sake of prosperity. He shouts out that he’s a false prophet, just as Daniel had yelled out his confession of sins. And finally, just as Eli slapped Daniel around in church, so Daniel smashes Eli’s head with a bowling pin — until it is dead Eli “washed in blood”. This brutal climax is my judgment throne, interrogating my cold ambitions and hypocrisies.

7. Juno: “Anyone Else but You”. My deathbed lullaby, sung in part by Ellen Page. It’s the endearing end to Juno.

8. Braveheart: The Field of Bannockburn. This might seem a strange choice, and the fact is that I’ve never been a big fan of Braveheart. But the last three minutes give me chills every time — the soaring bagpipe theme, the sword spinning in the air, the charge of the outnumbered Scots — and on a list focused on death it earns a place. The Scots knew they were in for a slaughter, and it was a miracle they won their independence from the English.

9. Wicker Park: Airport reunion. All right, sue me, I’m including a romance. This film didn’t score well with critics, but it’s actually a good remake of a foreign film, innovative in the right ways, and serves as my “chick-flick” choice for the list. This ending is well earned, as Coldplay’s “The Scientist” plays over Matt’s reunion with Lisa, after two years of being unable to find her in plain view, thanks to the machinations of a jealous rival. It’s the kind of scene that makes me reflect on lost opportunities in life, owing to chance and cruel intentions.

10. The Tree of Life: Eternity. The picture-perfect Tree of Life ends on a spiritual apocalypse that can strike to the heart of a hardened atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, a hopeless fantasy we cling to in order to cope with pain and loss.

Taking the Black: the Night’s Watch and the Supreme Court

Facebook quizzes don’t allow for much nuance, but then people don’t seem to care about that anyway. For example, in the quiz “Which Supreme Court Justice are You?”, a questions asks, “How would you characterize the Constitution?”, and offers two choices:

A. The Constitution is dead like the white-walkers. Its meaning is as set in stone as Mount Rushmore.

B. The Constitution is alive… like Jon Snow. The intent of the founders is clear, but its application in the present should evolve like the latest iPhone.

Imagine if someone posed equally stark alternatives in characterizing Paul’s belief in the resurrection:

A’. Jesus rose in a new body completely distinguished from the old, without flesh or bones or blood. His corpse remained on earth when he was resurrected.

B’. Jesus rose in the same body, with the glorified physicality implied in the gospels. (I.e. with the same holes in his hands and feet, per Luke 24:39 and John 20:27.)

Scholars of Paul might write in a third choice:

C’. Jesus rose in the same body, but with the flesh and blood so transformed that it had lost reference. Biology isn’t antithetical to spirituality but undergoes a metamorphosis so that the body becomes angelic-like and androgynous, as when God created it in Genesis.

We need an analogous C-choice for the role of our jurisprudence in America. I wouldn’t compare the Constitution to White Walkers or Jon Snow returned from the dead — maybe more like the Night’s Watch:

C. The Constitution is resistant like the Night’s Watch. It is open to extensions and modifications and even corrections, based on original meanings.

One of the reasons the Supreme Court is the highest authority and final arbiter is the fact that is — or should be — as neutral as possible (again, sort of like the Night’s Watch, which takes no sides in politics). Justices aren’t supposed to pass or enforce laws, only referee them to the best of their ability. Unfortunately, “Jon Snow” justices are becoming the norm.

Take last year’s case, King v Burwell (June 25, 2015), in which Chief Justice Roberts saved Obamacare in a way he had no right to. He played the executive and legislator in order to resolve a tension between a statutory text and the statute’s structure and purpose. But when a statute is ambiguous, the court is supposed to defer to the interpretation of the implementing agency; Roberts simply arrogated the role to himself. I sympathize with his reason, especially since I support Obamacare. He and the liberal justices were obviously trying to save the Affordable Heath Care Act in 36 states, in a rather quick and dirty way. That’s horrible precedent. Process matters, and this is why people have criticized Obama’s own acts of executive overreach (Hillary Clinton will be even worse). I may personally like the end result of King v Burwell, but I don’t approve the decision.

What makes that decision so ironic is Roberts’ dissent the very next day, in Obergefell v Hodges (June 26, 2015). He objected to gay marriage by bashing the sin he had just committed — judicial overreach: “The question is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law.” But the question of gay marriage does involve Constitutional precedents, the most important one being a logical extension of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. The freedom to contract has always been understood as a liberty protected by the Constitution (the right to voluntarily enter into agreements that restrict one’s future options in exchange for benefits, as employment contracts and marriage contracts are), and to deny gay people the benefit is discriminatory. The court, again very logically, used the Equal Protection Clause as it had in the past to legalize interracial marriage and allowing the marriage of incarcerated prisoners.

The chief justice was a libertine Jon Snow in King v Burwell, and a primitive White Walker in Obergefell v Hodges. The man in black would recognize his limited role in the former and engage the text in the latter. Interpreting the law requires reservation and gumption, and knowing when to apply each.

TV Addictions

Here are my favorite TV shows ranked in descending order. Most come from the 21st-century “golden age” of television, but there are a few from my coming of age years too. My blind spots include The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead, for which I still haven’t found time.

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1. Breaking Bad. 5 seasons. 2008-2013. The best show of all time, period. It starts strong and gets stronger, never flagging on its promises, and I dare say if the show writers had gone to ten seasons they probably could have kept the momentum going. They settle for nothing less than excellence. Breaking Bad is the revenge tragedy of a school teacher who feels that he’s been emasculated by the fate of cancer, on top of being screwed out of a business partnership that could have made him millions. He’s a chemistry genius but under-achiever, and puts up with endless teasing by his family, especially his DEA brother-in-law. By season five he’s a killer and a drug-lord — people have learned to respect him or else — and the journey to that point is a brilliant character evolution. The suspense levels are insane; even the worst episode is superior, though I did rank the best.


2. Hannibal. 3 seasons. 2013-2015. I consider Hannibal the poster child of TV’s golden age; the aesthetic is that overwhelming. Think how David Lynch might reinvent Hannibal Lecter, and then throw in some of Cronenberg’s body horror and Argento’s insane imagery. The result is that Silence of the Lambs has been way superseded, something I thought impossible. Mutilations and gore are given transcendence. The first two seasons consist of original material taking place before the events of the novels. The third is two mini-seasons, the first half covering Hannibal (reversing the chronology of the books with Lecter’s exile in Italy and Mason Verger conflict; these are set in the time of Will Graham instead of Clarice Starling), the second half Red Dragon. Here’s how all the episodes rank. There were supposed to be six seasons altogether, and it’s outrageous that the show was cancelled. If you had told me back in ’91 that something of this astonishing scope and quality would ever make cable network, I wouldn’t have believed it.

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3. Game of Thrones. 8 seasons. 2011-2018. With only one season left, George Martin has become increasingly irrelevant to his own creation. Basically we’ve been getting the sixth and seventh books before they are published. And like the books, the series has been a game-changer in fantasy, with wild plotting, understated magic, graphic sex, constant backbiting, and heroes who die unfairly in every other episode. The focus is on court intrigue and politics, and no one takes the supernatural threat broiling up north seriously until too late. If I had to summarize Game of Thrones in a sentence, I’d say it’s about power and political ambitions, and what it takes to make people see beyond their local and petty interests if they can. See how the episodes rank.

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4. Stranger Things. 2 seasons. 2016-2017. I can only assume this overnight success was scripted by an alternate version of myself from a parallel universe. It’s a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and homage to old-school Dungeons & Dragons. When I watch it, I relive the best parts of the ’80s and am reminded how lucky I was to grow up in this time when kids were more independent and didn’t have to suffer helicopter-parents hovering over them every minute. These kids are up against a “demon” from an alternate dimension, which seems weirdly reminiscent of the Demogorgon of their D&D campaign. Just as it kills Will’s character in the game, it abducts Will in real life, and his friends must learn that he’s really not dead but imprisoned in a shadow realm, and try rescuing him. I was skeptical about a second season, but the reports are that it might actually be even better and become a more menacing horror series. (Here are the best scenes from season 1.) The kids are simply fantastic and their acting skills amazing for their age.

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5. Twin Peaks. 3 seasons. 1990-1991; 2017. The first season is classic, the second also very good though it lost its bearings a bit in the second half, and for my money the current third is promising to be the best of all though it has certainly divided viewers. If you’re expecting more in the style of the early seasons, you may be disappointed. But if like me you think the prequel-film Fire Walk With Me is a masterpiece, chances are you’ll love season three and all of its weird and hideously disturbing elements. As I write this only four of eighteen episodes have been shown, but on the strength of those alone I award the #5 ranking. We’ll see if stays there at the end.

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6. Doctor Who. 36 seasons (so far). 1963-1989; 2005-2017. Doctor Who has been an essential part of my life since age 8, when I was initiated into the golden age of the Hinchcliffe era. The four seasons spanning 1975-1978 (the early Tom Baker years) were the absolute best of Doctor Who and still are. They were a violent and gruesome horror-fest (that sometimes called forth protests in the U.K.), and I couldn’t believe I was watching stuff this intense on TV. Hinchcliffe’s Doctor Who was basically adult horror for kids. I’m a fan of the new series too, but with reservations, since the highs are high and the lows really low. Classic Who had its lows too, but at least it was always its own thing. The reboot has been in thrall to Joss Whedon-style storytelling, which means that it plumbs kitchen-sink soap opera at its worst. At its best it’s downright epic; it can be dark for a family show and profoundly tragic.


7. The Fall. 3 seasons. 2013-2016. Don’t be put off by the controversy. In its unflinching look at violence against women, The Fall never glamorizes the the issue. I can see why some people think it does. As in Hannibal the aesthetic is intoxicating while the serial killer is less distant. Lecter sees his victims as mere pigs for food; Spector has grievances about justice. He’s protective of vulnerable people, especially children. He hates particular women, wants to “transform” them, and the intimate way he goes about his obscene killings makes us feel somehow complicit. Things get even creepier in season two when Spector bonds with a young teenager who craves sadomasochistic thrills. The performances from this girl are brilliant and takes the show to a new level. Some were disappointed with season three, but not me. The glacial-paced storytelling was used very effectively to give space in examining the evil inside of Paul.


8. The Man in the High Castle. 2 seasons (so far). 2015-2016. In this reinvention of America defeated in World War II, the Germans rule the eastern United States, the Japanese the West Coast, with the Rockies serving as a kind of no-man’s land where people of impure genes eke out a living as they foment rebellion. The show pulls off the impossible feat of making Hitler the guy you actually root for against his upstarts who think he’s gone soft. John Smith is the oddly likable Nazi, ruthless in his career but a caring father and husband. Nazi America is portrayed as a creepy “Leave it to Beaver” world where rock n roll was never born, girls don’t wear pants, and boys graduate straight from high school to the military. But my favorite character is on the Japan side: Tagomi the Trade Minister. The final scene in the first season which sees him waking up to something unexpected is one of the greatest epiphanies I’ve seen in a film or TV series. The second season is really good too, though it lost some of its edge in the second half with the departure of the show’s creator Frank Spotnitz.

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9. All in the Family. 9 seasons. 1971-1979. There’s no way a sitcom like this could be made today, unless someone like Quentin Tarantino took charge. People were so offended by the second season DVD release (in 2003) that Sony almost cancelled the project. Thank the gods censorship didn’t prevail. All in the Family reveled in the taboos of the 70s, many of which are still relevant today, and it accomplished this through an outrageous redneck. Archie Bunker pontificated from his chair against “spades” and “hebes” and “spics” and “dagos” and “fags” — and of course women. He demeaned his wife and yelled constantly at his liberal son-in-law, and was basically the first TV-show lead character who was both hated and loved. Some say today’s golden age of TV was planted by Twin Peaks; others go back further and say Miami Vice. But you can sort of make a case for this show on grounds of its bigoted anti-hero. By bringing hard-core prejudices out into the open, Norman Lear succeeded a great deal in changing American attitudes. That’s the power of artistic satire, and what today’s regressive leftists need to learn.

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10. Regenesis. 4 seasons. 2004-2008. Forget Orphan Black. This is the Canadian science fiction show that makes cloning and governmental conspiracies believable. Few Americans have heard of these Toronto-based scientists who work against bio-terrorism and disease, and it’s almost impossible to come by on DVD. Unlike most sci-fic thrillers, Regenesis isn’t so much about saving the day as learning to live with irreversible damage, and there’s a high body count among the main cast. It’s probably the most realistic ever seen in the genre, thanks to the scientific advisor who insisted on it. The first season features Ellen Page who plays the daughter of the lead scientist, and her story-arc practically steals the show: she befriends a dying boy who thinks he’s a clone. I love her scenes with Peter Outerbridge. See, for example, her ice cream scene (they talk about ebola) and her grief scene (when Mick dies).

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11. Damages. 5 seasons. 2007-2012. Glenn Close was born to play Patty Hewes: a high-stakes litigator who demeans her subordinates, fires people on a whim, disowns her son, and then tries having her own protégé killed. Each season escalates the bizarre relationship between Patty and Ellen, who respect without ever trusting each other. Some claim that Ellen’s willingness to have anything to do with Patty after the murder attempt undermines the show’s credibility, but the unlikely relationship is the point. When Ellen is able to transcend herself by forgiving Patty, it’s as much a self-serving forgiveness as a self-empowering one. She acquires power over Patty knowing her worst secret. The theme of forgiveness, and what it does to people in unforgivable cases, is precisely what makes Damages compelling. Without it, it would be a just another legal thriller.


12. Dexter. 8 seasons. 2006-2013. Here’s the thing about Dexter: the highs are high and the lows abysmally low. Seasons two, four, and seven contain some of the best TV drama I’ve ever watched, and seasons one and five are really good too. But seasons three, six, and eight are bad — even atrocious at times. Another reason Dexter is at the bottom of my serial-killer trio (Lecter, Spector, Dexter, in that order) is because he’s too good to be true. This is a hero-vigilante who channels his urges against the worst scumbags so as to make us cheer. Once you accept the premise it works well, and the characters are compelling. Dexter’s inner voice has become legendary, our means of seeing the world through a disturbing perspective we wouldn’t get otherwise. Here’s how the seasons rank.

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13. Miami Vice. 5 seasons. 1984-1990. This program showed me the potentials of TV, and even film, more than anything else in my coming-of-age years. ’80s movies were embarrassingly bad, and what Miami Vice did on TV was often leagues ahead of the film industry. It brought a dark edge to the small screen, with music-driven sequences, amazing art direction, and police heroes who were deeply flawed. More often than not they failed to save the day, and this was unprecedented on TV. The show was predictable in that way only — its nihilism. You could count on things going to hell, and good people suffering terribly, and bad guys often winning. But inside that framework plots went anywhere. If the show hasn’t aged the best by golden age standards, it’s still very watchable.

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14. Dark Matter. 3 seasons (so far). 2015-2017. I liked the first season so much that I watched it again right away, which is something I’ve never done with any TV show except Stranger Things. There’s something uniquely compulsive about Dark Matter, even if objectively it’s not the most outstanding series. It starts with six people waking up on a starship. They have no memory of who they are but soon learn they were (are) notorious criminals being hunted by the law. Their past secrets are gradually revealed as they travel to planets and space stations and get involved in nefarious plots, and as characters they are simply terrific. The tender moments between Five and Six are my favorite – she the underage geek who wants to be part of the team, he the man who hates what he’s done. Here’s how the first-season episodes rank. Season two had some fun with alternate versions of these characters in parallel universes, and season 3 upped the game considerably with the renegade Four.

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15. Fargo. 3 seasons. 2014-2017. I wasn’t sure where to place Fargo. All three seasons are excellent and contain some of the best direction and production values you’ll find in any TV series. And I always look forward to the next episode. But when all is said and done, I tend to forget about Fargo. It doesn’t leave a lasting impression on me, and this is also the way I feel about the classic film. It seems wrong to call it overrated, and I suspect the problem is rather with me, that there’s something to this franchise that I just don’t fully “get”. It’s filled with allegories and digressions, but they seem (to me anyway) to mean less than they pretend. There’s a brooding theme about how random and cruel life can be, but it doesn’t strike me as especially profound. All I know is that I’m fully engaged by the series as I watch it, and less than detached when I reflect on it.

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16. 13 Reasons Why. 1 season (so far). 2017. Yes, you’re really seeing this on my list. For all its wrong-headed messages about teen suicide, and overrating the power of kindness, it works despite its problems and sometimes even because of them. The glorified hyper-vindictive Hannah, while problematic in a real-world way, has the advantage of not letting us off the hook. We lose sympathy for this tragic heroine when her bullies emerge as fallible and in some cases likeable enough kids who make naturally stupid mistakes. That turns out to be very realistic. The polarizing aspect of the show started a much-needed conversation about high school bullying and teen suicide, and that’s a success in itself. It’s surprisingly well-acted for a teen drama and superbly directed. See my full review for an analysis of the show’s strengths and weaknesses.