Making the click-through worthwhile: Tom Steyer, the billionaire and useful idiot who’s about to blow up the Democratic presidential primary; why the Jeffrey Epstein scandal ought to force a confrontation about the way the entertainment media sexualizes teen girls; and the stranger things about Stranger Things.
Tom Steyer, the Democratic Primary’s $100 Million Man
Tom Steyer, you beautiful madman. You’re about to turn the Democratic primary into an expensive demolition derby: “Billionaire Tom Steyer announced Tuesday that he will join the crowded field vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and promised to commit at least $100 million of his personal fortune to the campaign.
Steyer will not be the 2020 Democratic nominee. But with $100 million, he can do a lot of damage to anyone he deems an obstacle, and it’s worth remembering that Michael Bloomberg just overwhelmed every opponent with a tsunami of ad money when running for mayor in New York City three times. Steyer has limited name recognition now, but a nearly unlimited television advertising budget will change that fast. He can promise anything and accuse anyone else of being a “Washington insider.”
Steyer’s probably not quite a threat to overtake Biden or Harris or Sanders or Warren. But everybody below that might as well call it quits.
Life just stinks if you’re Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Michael Bennet these days, doesn’t it? You’ve worked hard to try to get things done in the U.S. Senate and it means bupkus to most Democratic primary voters. You could call for Trump’s impeachment, but you can’t do anything until the House of Representatives actually passes articles of impeachment. You’re sharing the stage with no-name House members and some spiritual guru from California who’s talking about the power of love. You’re going to spend your summer eating corn dogs in small towns in Iowa singing the praises of ethanol while reporters ask why you’re not raising as much money as the mayor of South Bend, who nobody had heard of a year ago. And now some billionaire who you’d prefer to have as a benefactor rather than an enemy has decided he wants the same job you want.
Go Figure, We Weren’t a Bunch of Prudes after All
Bravo, Kyle Smith. Our culture has had a wink-and-a-nod attitude towards the sexualization of those under age 18 for a long while, a phenomenon that ought to come to a screeching halt with the latest claims of abominable crimes by Jeffrey Epstein and his network of associates. Smith begins with Roman Polanski and just gets angrier from there:
Polanski is a man of his era. At 33, Ringo Starr had a No. 1 hit singing “You’re 16, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine.” Woody Allen made what felt like an autobiographical movie about a 42-year-old television writer having an affair with a 17-year-old high-school student, and nobody blinked. Time magazine put him on the cover under the legend “American Genius.” (It turned out Allen had had affairs with two teenagers around that time). Urged on by her horrible mother, Brooke Shields built a career around being jailbait, posing nude at age 10 for a Hefner publication called “Sugar and Spice,” then starring as a 12-year-old hooker in Pretty Baby (which began filming when she was 11), then at 14 starring in a film about two teens discovering their sexuality, The Blue Lagoon (though a double did her nude scenes). At 15, she starred in Endless Love, which as filmed initially received an X rating, before most of the nudity was cut to achieve an R. Whatever “controversy” attached to any of this was reported by the press solely to pump up the box office, as though conservative naysayers were aliens from a quaint, slightly daft foreign country. The media itself had no problem with it.
But this wasn’t just a sleazy 1970s phenomenon; I’m sure you can think of other examples like Britney Spears’s early career. (She was 16 when she did that schoolgirl-themed music video.) Back in 2017, Kira Davis of RedState detailed allegations of wildly inappropriate behavior in Hollywood’s studios generating entertainment for kids. There’s this unnerving assembly line of girls performing on the Disney Channel or other kid-focused television programming and then popping up in Maxim or other magazines, shedding their previous image and most of their clothes — but at least in those cases, the young women have at least passed 18 years of age.
Notice this sentence from NBC’s The Today Show about actress Millie Bobbie Brown: “The 13-year-old actress looked all grown up at the Stranger Things Season 2 premiere, thanks to a sleek shoulder-length bob and black leather dress.”
Thirteen-year-olds are not “all grown up.”
The Stranger Parts of Stranger Things
Speaking of Stranger Things, I’m five episodes into the third season and enjoying it a great deal. In an era of binge-able television, franchise movies and sequels, book series, comic books, and other forms of continuous storytelling, one of the great challenges is figuring out how to follow up an inspired and original debut with that elusive formula of “More of the same, but not so similar it feels repetitive.” You notice that most of our most acclaimed shows run into complaints somewhere around the second or third season. The characters and plots need to change, but this risks moving away from what the audience liked about the story originally.
Stranger Things has a strong third season, but it’s going to be tough to maintain this quality, and I don’t mean that so much of the once-adorable-kid cast is hitting puberty — perhaps one of the best aspects of this season is how directly it deals with the fact that the characters are young teens now, with changing interests and personalities. No, the problem is that in a story that involves the supernatural, the characters should only be surprised by the existence of the otherworldly once. (The creators have said they’ve expected the next season to be the last.)
By now, the residents of Hawkins, Ind. should be moving out in droves. (I’ll try to avoid spoilers for season three but will discuss the first two seasons.) The town has had two supernatural-driven massacres in two years. Staff at the Hawkins National Laboratory have been killed left and right in both seasons. Numerous U.S. government soldiers have died. Benny Hammond, the nice guy who runs the diner, was seemingly shot in a robbery. Henry and Dale are killed by an unknown assailant during a hunting trip. The cover story for Barb is that she was accidentally poisoned. That’s a lot of deaths for the government to cover up or explain away — particularly in a town where, as we’re told in an early episode, the last missing persons case was in 1923 and the last suicide was 1961. It looks like a good chunk of the town attended the funeral of Will Byers and when he returned, seemed to accept it as no big deal.
Would reports of strange happenings around town really generate skeptical mockery and cries of “Nancy Drew”? By now, residents should not be responding to blackouts and reports of bizarre rodent plagues with a shrug. The moment the lights go out, residents — or at least any character involved with the previous seasons! – should be responding, “Well, this is probably an invasion of monsters from the Upside Down, everyone grab weapons and fan out and try to hold them off. If we don’t find that superpowered teen girl, we’re all going to be killed in terrible, gruesome ways.” A character can only say, “Eh, it’s probably nothing” to a creepy sound before they’ve run into some horrible monster. In Hawkins, even the maintenance shed for the public pool looks shadowy and ominous.
Minor spoiler: Early in season three, we learn Hopper doesn’t want Joyce to move away. Why shouldn’t she? Her younger son has disappeared, been declared dead, mysteriously returned, been traumatized and possessed, her boyfriend was killed by monsters, her older son’s nearly been killed several times, monsters have burst through the wall of her house . . . What, some suburb of Indianapolis can’t compete with all that?
ADDENDUM: Sixty-one reviews for Between Two Scorpions! Indulge me sharing this assessment from Joe Doaks:
The other top reviews are right, this isn’t your typical thriller – it’s original. A small group of talented misfits get assigned to a single group, presumably where it’s easier to keep an eye on them, and they manage to fight America’s enemies anyway, with brains, tech, legwork, luck, and humor. The author’s dry and subtle wit comes through in the characters and makes them all the more individually human. A fair amount of tech figures in the plot, but I never felt it was used as a cheap short cut – let’s face it, that’s how we live now. Whether you worry about the NSA’s abilities to monitor us, or not so much, the mostly-true capabilities outlined in the book should give you pause. Most books of this genre are either well written but short on plot, or have convoluted plots that turn out to be beyond the author’s ability to illuminate. This book balances the story and the telling expertly.
I talk about the book in an upcoming edition of John J. Miller’s excellent podcast, The Bookmonger.