Monday, May 12, 2014

Game of Thrones: Greatness ... and dragons, too!

Just when you think you have it all figured out, along comes something new.

OK, now in its fourth season, Game of Thrones is hardly new. But it's new to my "Best of Nadel" list, and what else really matters in life?

The acting is brilliant, from leading actors such as Peter Dinklage (who won an Emmy as wise-cracking dwarf Tyrion), Lena Headey (Cersei) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) to supporting players Jack Gleeson (the recently departed King Joffrey), Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) and Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), all the way down to the bit players.

The story-telling is wonderful, weaving in themes of angst and forbidden love and terror and longing and hubris and bile and guile. Oh, and damn cool dragons, too!

HBO, which had been flagging a little since The Wire went off the air, has struck gold with Game of Thrones, which has the network's highest ratings since The Sopranos.

My biggest beef is that friends who have read the books always want to tell me what's going to happen next. Hey! I don't want to know who is next to get beheaded, to be saved, to be damned. For me, a good TV show is like a good athletic event -- I hate it when I accidentally learn the final score of a game I've recorded. It's all about the drama!

I'm happy to put Game of Thrones on the pantheon of all-time great HBO dramas ...

1. The Wire. There are those who think this is the greatest series in television history, and it's hard to argue with that ... even if the fifth and final season can't quite keep up with the first four. I know I can't think of a show that has captured the hopelessness of inner-city life any better.

2. The Sopranos. The standard against which all cable TV series must be judged. It had a couple of mediocre seasons, and the final scene will be debated forever, but the series brought us Paulie Walnuts, gabagool, Artie Bucco, Father Phil, manacot, Pine Barrens, "Waddayagonnado?" and so many other memorable characters, phrases and scenes. "Iconic" is an overused word, but it fits here.

3. Game of Thrones. Fun, exciting and all of the stuff I said earlier. If it lasts long enough and doesn't have a bad season -- so far, so great -- it could ascend to No. 1.

4. Deadwood. Turns out, the Wild West was even more wild than we thought! Ian McShane's Al Swearengen truly is one of the great characters ever: vile, repugnant, unapologetic and maniacally vain. Lots of great supporting characters, too.

5. Six Feet Under. The show about a family of undertakers was always so much more about life than death. A tremendous ensemble of actors, including Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose (my personal favorite as the eye-rolling, deep-sighing youngest Fisher, Claire) and Richard Jenkins, as well as "guest-regulars" Kathy Bates and James Cromwell.

Honorable Mention: Rome, Boardwalk Empire, Oz, In Treatment, True Blood (Season 1).

Top 5 HBO Comedies: Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, Veep, Entourage.

Worst HBO Series Ever: John From Cincinnati. Yes, I actually watched the entire series, waiting for something to happen. The joke was on me ... nothing ever did. Thankfully, a second season never did, either.

There. I have said it, so it must be true!

Friday, May 2, 2014

On Donald Sterling, Jewish bigots, free speech, privacy and consequences

Not long after my Bar Mitzvah, I stayed at the home of an orthodox rabbi on a Friday night to see how ultra-religious Jews celebrated the Sabbath. I bunked in the same bedroom as the rabbi's son, who was about my age, and we talked for a little while to get to know each other. About a half-hour into the conversation, he was discussing the neighborhood his school was in ... and he used the n-word twice. I asked something like, "Did you have problems with them?" His response: "Nah, I just don't like (n-words)."

That pretty much ended our conversation. I wasn't confident enough in myself back then to admonish him on the spot or to tell his parents what he said, but I wasn't going to get swept up into this world. As the only Jewish kid in my grade school, I had heard plenty of taunts; as a guy who had befriended the few black kids in my neighborhood, I knew that racism existed and was ugly. I tried to go to sleep but tossed and turned until finally drifting off some time later.

The episode did affect my Jewishness. As a newly minted teenager, I already was questioning my faith (among other things). And now here came this son of a rabbi, and he was filled with hate. He didn't even have a reason for it. I remember thinking, "This is somebody who professes to be Jewish, somebody who claims to believe in a benevolent God?"

Which brings us to Donald Sterling. His real name is Donald Tokowitz. And, as we all know by now, he is a Racist with a capital R.

I'm always amazed when a person whose lineage traces back to a long-persecuted people can be so hateful and bigoted toward another long-persecuted people. You'd think Jews would have empathy for blacks and other racial, ethnic and religious minorities. When the Jewish person instead is filled with bile, it is, in my mind, a little tragedy. It certainly doesn't speak well for how God supposedly oversees us all.

I won't go into Sterling's transgressions because we've all heard them by now. His punishment? He eventually will be forced to sell the L.A. Clippers, reaping a mere $1 billion or so on his original $12 million investment.

See? Jews are good with money!

Some are trying to make this a free-speech issue. It isn't. Sterling is free to say whatever he wants. And the private organization to which he belongs -- the NBA Board of Governors -- is free to punish him. If you work for a private company and you are overhead saying the exact same things Sterling said, hopefully your company will ban you for life, too.

Because Sterling was recorded by an angry girlfriend, who might have goaded him into showing his hateful self, some are trying to make this a privacy issue. It isn't. Just because those comments came out in such circumstances, it doesn't mean Sterling's peers should have ignored them. He DID say them. He obviously believes every word he said. If you send what you think is a private email to a co-worker belittling your boss, your boss has every right to fire you. You will not be protected by any kind of right to privacy.

Were this a court of law, he couldn't be convicted. But it isn't a court of law. He doesn't have the protections of speech and privacy. He signed a league constitution binding him to rules of order and he violated those rules of order.

Some have equated this to hateful comments that black NBA players have made against gay people or putdowns of white players. In the future, will the NBA also ban players for life for insensitive or bigoted remarks? Well, no.

For one thing, players are protected by a union. The NBA couldn't even make stick a year-long suspension of Latrell Sprewell, who famously choked his coach in front of witnesses. A player might get a slap on the wrist for racist comments, but there is no way he will be banned for life.

But that's a double-standard, isn't it? Perhaps, but the two situations are far more dissimilar than they are similar. A player has little power. He doesn't hire and fire coaches, he doesn't decide if a department manager should be promoted or demoted, he doesn't establish a pay scale for secretaries and janitors. His bigotry is distasteful, but he doesn't have the power to use it for evil.

Long before this incident, Sterling left a trail of discrimination lawsuits, allegations of mistreatment and the like. His NBA peers have long wanted to rid themselves of him. This latest incident gives them an "in" to do it -- kind of like Al Capone finally getting nabbed for tax evasion.

Well, how about those who worry that this is a slippery slope? Will every owner who is caught on tape saying something disparaging that he thought was private be forced to sell a franchise he worked so hard to build?

Certainly, precedent now has been set. But let's not get overly dramatic here. Maybe people actually will start thinking before they talk. Now there's a crazy notion. We can't answer the broader question until we see how it plays out.

Finally, given Sterling's history, one person who comes out looking particularly bad is recently retired NBA commish David Stern. While his replacement, Adam Silver, has come out of this looking golden for the swift, strong stance he has taken, Stern has the smell of an enabler who turned a blind eye toward Sterling's longstanding racist acts.

Stern certainly wasn't afraid to ruffle feathers. He fined Mark Cuban so much and so often for ripping referees over the years that the Mavericks' owner might as well have set up direct deposit from his bank account to the NBA's coffers.

Here's hoping Stern wasn't giving Sterling a pass because they share the same religion.

Being Jewish never has been easy. Beyond the overt and covert bigotry that has persisted for thousands of years, entire nations and religions want nothing more than to eliminate all Jews from the face of the earth.

So it's especially sad and disheartening when Jews are guilty of narrow-mindedness, intolerance and hate.