Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Bell cow to the slaughterhouse:
Scott Walker ends a bad campaign

WELL, SOMEBODY had to go next. Someone had to follow Rick Perry’s lead in getting out of the race, being unable to take the lead in the race itself. That distinction fell to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who on Monday shuttered his struggling 71-day campaign for the presidency, amid numerous disappointments and missteps.

He leaves behind 14 candidates, some of whom will soon follow his lead, and a comfort with super PACs that points to the problem for bundlers and donors and analysts who ignore a basic political truth: Sooner or later, a campaign with a marginal message, and no messenger, is no campaign at all.

“Today I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field,” he said Monday in Madison, Wisc., looking like death eating a saltine cracker.

“With this in mind, I will suspend my campaign immediately. “I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same,” he said, “so that the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current front-runner.”

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How the mighty fall down go boom. Return with us now to ... March. It was only in March when Walker was the bell cow, the one to beat for the nomination. By then he’d jumped to the front ranks of presidential contenders in Iowa after a fiery, passionately doctrinaire January speech in Des Moines. A thinner field of contenders didn’t hurt either.

But things went south for Walker by degrees, rather than all at once. Take his idiotic plan to build a wall along the Canadian border, for example. It was the perfect example of a process playing out, instead of an event. And it stemmed from Walker playing fast and loose with policy positions. All due props to Gertrude Stein, but to go by what some GOP insiders have said, Walker’s campaign had no there there. Add to that the steadily growing field of alternatives to Walker and ...

“The perception of Scott Walker was that he was this candidate who stood on principle and took the slings and arrows to prove it,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director for the Iowa Republican Party, to Politico. “Yet his campaign was one of a candidate who was constantly capitulating on issues. Those things undermined his campaign.”

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REMEMBER THAT Walker crack about candidates finding “a positive, conservative alternative to the current front-runner”? That was his shot at billionaire attention enthusiast Donald Trump, and he wasn’t alone. Speaking to The New York Times about Walker on Monday, Matt Moore, South Carolina Republican Party chairman, appeared to offer candidate Trump a caution about peaking too early.

“In a different era, Governor Walker could have won the nomination if all he had to worry about was trying to win Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada,” Moore said. “But now that the presidential race has become so nationalized, so early, a candidate can run into big trouble if they peak too early and can’t show donors and voters everywhere that they can recapture momentum.”

Walker supporters, political analysts and others offered various postmortems to The Times and Politico. “Scott, for whatever reason, didn’t connect on TV,” Stan Hubbard, a Minnesota-based TV station owner and big Walker contributor, told The Times. “And if you can’t make it on television today in national politics, you’re dead.”

Pardon our disappearance: I’ve been away for a while, tending to connectivity issues, literal and otherwise. But life don’t stop and neither did I. Let’s play catch-up. This piece is what you would have seen, on the stated date, if the wi-fi of life hadn’t gone down (for a minute).

You shouldn’t be surprised. Look at that face. Scott Walker has the galvanizing panache of a casket salesman. Rhetorically and spiritually, he aspires to Ronald Reagan — check out the asymmetrical hair cleavage evoking the Gipper — but it goes no further than that.

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Robert F. List, the former Nevada governor and the state’s chairman of Walker’s campaign, told The New York Times that Walker “suffered especially because of the ascent of charismatic outsider candidates, pointing to Mr. Trump, [Carly] Fiorina and Ben Carson.”

“I attribute the difficulty here to the outsiders sucking up oxygen and diluting the support for the other candidates,” List told The Times. But that was just part of Walker’s problem. If he had a solid foundation, a basis of support, he could have held on.”

Yeah, but List knows better than that, or he should. In a field this size, holding on isn’t nearly enough. That amounts to holding serve, fighting a defensive war. Having an aggressive hold on 13th place means nothing. With this many candidates in the hunt, you’ve got to keep moving, keep advancing, or they’ll find your bones in the desert. It happened to Perry. Now it’s Walker’s turn.

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WALKER’S SUDDEN-slow-motion implosion also calls into question the power of super PACs, the steroid-laced political action committees that have taken point in national campaigns for their role in fundraising. After Walker’s blistering Des Moines speech in January, the super PACs couldn’t line up fast enough to drop something fat in the Walker war chest.

Fast forward to July and August, a slowly growing field of candidates, and a steadily growing number of Walker unforced errors. The governor’s power as a candidate was a fraction of what it was before the field got crowded, by virtue of the mathematics alone. And the super PAC crowd found that backing a candidate who has no real deep-seated reason to run for the presidency right now — and Scott Walker Has None — was throwing good money after bad.

What might have been a redeeming moment, on the main stage for the Simi Valley debate on Sept. 16, was anything but. It distilled the instant it was obvious that the campaign was over.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Handicapping 007 #7

DANIEL CRAIG will reprise his role as legendary British superspy James Bond when “Spectre,” the 24th film in the 007 franchise, opens in theaters on Nov. 6. That much we know. What we don’t know is whether or not the film opening in November and the one after that will be Craig’s last ones in the role. Just as unclear is who’ll replace Craig in a franchise role most actors would take out a license to kill for.

The uncertainty of who’ll be on the other end of the spiral tunnel that opens future 007 films has led to a dizzying array of possible replacements, and a situation in which popular culture, history and race have collided in different ways, some unexpected and others utterly predictable.

Shortly after the November 2012 release of the previous Bond film, “Skyfall,” a whispering campaign emerged that proposed Idris Elba, the phenomenal British actor (“The Wire,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” “Pacific Rim,” “Luther”), as the next 007. The idea’s quietly gained traction in the years since. Before exiting her job, Amy Pascal, the now-former Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman, thought enough of the idea that she wrote (in an internal email leaked to the media) that “Idris should be the next Bond.”

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On Aug. 25, author Anthony Horowitz made his feelings known. When asked about Elba taking on the role post-Daniel Craig, Horowitz, who wrote “Trigger Mortis,” the most recent 007 novel to be okayed by the Ian Fleming estate, said Elba was “a bit too rough” and “a bit too street” to portray Bond. Horowitz backtracked almost immediately, realizing how badly he’d stepped in it by invoking coded language for race (“rough”? “street”? Really?). “Clumsily, I chose the word ‘street’ as Elba's gritty portrayal of DCI John Luther was in my mind but I admit it was a poor choice of word,” Horowitz said in a statement. “I am mortified to have caused offense.”

As Elba gained support — or at least consideration — as the next Bond, oddsmakers trotted out another contender for 007 #7: Tom Hardy. According to BoyleSports, an Ireland-based online betting firm, Tom Hardy is the new odds-on favorite to replace Craig. Odds on Hardy are now at 2/1, BoyleSports announced Sept. 8, while Elba is at 3/1, Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) is 7/2, and Henry Cavill (“Man of Steel,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”) is 4/1.

“Following on from the support for Tom Hardy to take over from Daniel Craig as 007, BoyleSports can report that the gamble hasn’t dried up and punters believe that the deal may be signed sealed and delivered as there is no sign of the plunge coming to a halt,” said BoyleSports spokesperson Liam Glynn, to Entertainment Weekly on Sept. 8.

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HARDY’S AN estimable actor with a serious resumé. His work in “Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Logan” and opposite James Gandolfini in “The Drop” recommends him as a formidable acting talent. He’s certainly got the necessary physical requirements for the gig. And he’s up for the job. “I think anybody would consider doing Bond, wouldn’t they?” he said to Britain’s Sky News.

Well, maybe. If time permits. Hardy’s recent powerful star turn in “Mad Max: Fury Road” makes him the obvious choice to repeat as that character. You don’t sign up for an iconic international role like Mad Max as a one-and-done affair. Mad Max is a franchise, and so is James Bond.

Not that he couldn’t do it, but it’s hard to imagine Hardy taking on both Mad Max and James Bond. Assuming both those legendary movie personae over the next five to 10 years — in addition to any other irresistible roles that come Hardy’s way in the meantime — would appear to be a stretch. One man can only do so much.

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Other names have surfaced — Orlando Bloom (25/1, BoyleSports says), Michael Fassbender (6/1), and Dominic West (40/1) among them. But there’s more than the slight suspicion that some of these names have come to light as a way of tamping down any groundswell of support for Elba, the actor who would be, if the stars and producers’ objectives align, be the first black James Bond in the history of the franchise.

It apparently can’t be said in polite company, or even suggested (Horowitz found that out), but one reason why there’s Elba pushback has everything to do with race. It’s hardly coincidental that the other actors considered by oddsmakers are all white men. It’s fair to conclude that the decision makers in this process may not necessarily want to make more history than they’d planned. For them, there are fears of how such a choice might compromise the box office for the 007 franchise, one of the most lucrative in movie history.

I observed in 2010: “[A] black Bond would no doubt upset the legions of fans frankly accustomed to seeing Bond kick ass as a white guy.” And you know it’s true. For pop-culture’s strict constructionists — the same people who totally freaked at the sight of a black Star Wars stormtrooper — a black James Bond would throw over 50 years of history (or habit) and kick British culture to the curb.

James Bond is part of the cultural iconography that the public has long identified as veddy British: Aston Martin, the Beatles, Tanqueray gin, Burberry, the Beefeaters at the Tower, Savile Row ... Queen Elizabeth ... and the list goes on. Generations of Bond fans have not unconsciously made the indelible connection between Bond’s nationality and his race. A half-century of that kind of consistent association — this equals that — is a hard habit to break. Many people are hoping that 007 movie producers won’t even try.

If they do, though, Vulture (part of New York Magazine) just released a spirited mashup of Elba from different movie and TV scenes, cobbled together with scenes from the real trailer for "Spectre." If you've had a hard rime envisioning Elba in the role … well, feast your eyes:

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NAMES COME and go. Back in late 2008, there was talk of Sean Combs taking over as 007. Same for Sam Worthington, who was an oddsmaker’s favorite in 2010. Christian Bale was too.

It goes back earlier than that. In April 2007, Newsweek crowned Will Smith as the most powerful actor on the planet, the only one in history to have eight straight films each gross more than $100 million in U.S. box office, and the only actor to have eight consecutive films he starred in open as No. 1 in U.S. box-office receipts. Smith was also considered for the role.

But what’s the hurry to replace one Bond with another, anyway? “A six-year gap between 1989 and 1995 saw the departure of one Bond — Welsh actor Timothy Dalton — and the installation of another, Irish-born Pierce Brosnan,” BBC reported in April 2010. “A four-year break between 2002 and 2006, meanwhile, saw Brosnan leave the series and Craig take over.”

The England of Ian Fleming's era is as far from England today as shillings are from the euro. In a world of drones and cyberwarfare, spycraft is a very different thing from what it was in the 50’s and 60’s. We live in an increasingly complex, demographically interdependent world. No one understands that like James Bond ... whatever he looks like, two or three movies from now.

Also published in The Omnibus (Medium). Image credits: Craig: Elba: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP. Hardy: Michael Tran/FilmMagic. James Bond and the Queen: © 2012 International Olympic Committee. 007 logo: ® Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation.

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 4):
The shakeout gets started

THE LATEST CNN/ORC poll of Republican presidential contenders is out and the news isn’t good for most of them. But what’s bad for most of them will be good for the American voting public, which before long won’t have so many Republican candidates making promises they can’t hope to keep. Because they won’t be candidates anymore.

The poll, completed and released in the days since the undercard and main-event debates on Wednesday, shows how, for Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump, politics is a zero-sum-game experience. Fiorina took second place in the GOP field in the wake of a second strong debate performance, and the controversy created by billionaire attention enthusiast Donald Trump ... with Fiorina basically gaining what the Donald lost.

Trump remains the frontrunner in the Republican field of candidates; the poll finds him with 24 percent support. But the poll finds an 8 percentage point drop for Trump from just earlier in September. That’s when an earlier CNN survey had him at 32 percent.

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Fiorina’s now in second place with 15 percent support -- up from 3% in early September. She's just ahead of pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, who basically held serve, slipping by one percentage point into third place (14 percent).

It hasn’t happened completely yet, but as new polls come in and some candidates wake up to the prospect of more months of hotel chicken Kiev, and those candidates take a hard look at themselves in the mirror, it’ll be clear that the shakeout has started, the process of separating those with an outside chance of gaining the Republican nomination from those who never should have declared at all.

Some time in the next few weeks, and maybe sooner if their campaigns aren’t any more robust than that of Rick Perry (who folded his tent a while back), the bottom feeders will stop the bleeding and formally suspend their operations, shutting down what are already Campaigns In Name Only.

That’ll leave us with something a lot more manageable than the horde of contenders we’ve got right now. Whenever that happens, though, it’ll follow the breakthrough process that’s inevitable in a field this large.

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SOMEONE had to break out of the pack of 1 and 2 and 3 percenters that characterize most of the Republican field, and for right now, and maybe for a while to come, it’s Fiorina. Something in the interaction the former Hewlett-Packard CEO had with billionaire attention enthusiast Donald Trump resonated with women in particular and Republicans in general. They may not say so, but they’re getting tired of Trump’s reflexive bluster, his insensitivity, his vacuous policy positions.

You know what happened, of course. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Trump condemned Fiorina for her physical appearance, with comments that couldn’t be more insulting. “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Trump said. After the story appeared, Trump tried perceptual damage control, saying he was taken out of context and that he wasn’t referring to her physical features.

Payback’s not a bitch, it’s a sentence that is the perfect rejoinder. At the second Republican debate on Wednesday Fiorina was asked if she had a response to Trump’s comments. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO’s reaction was, rhetorically and imagistically, pitch perfect.

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Fiorina replied: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” The crowd at the Reagan Library & Museum burst into spirited applause, clearly siding with Fiorina, and loudly endorsing a realpolitik rule of thumb: Sometimes the best way to deal with a bully is to bully a bully right back.

That explains why, moments later, eggs Benedict still on his face, Trump said, “I think she’s got a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman.”

It’s episodes like this proving that when it comes to retail politics, Donald Trump is a mile wide and two inches deep. He is not a retail politician. There’s little empathy, real empathy, for anyone who’s not like him. He doesn’t even like to shake hands. What serious American politician doesn’t want to shake hands, for God’s sake?

Trump is the archetypal rich Republican, the plutocrat from central casting, the little bastard in spats and cutaway coat who runs the board in Monopoly. And when he talks about women, he might as well be one of the characters from “Mad Men.” He proved that with his “look at that face” comment about Fiorina, and that’s what people reacted to in the CNN/ORC poll.

Trump believes that, to one degree or another, he’s immune to the gravitational pull of American politics. In his political cosmology, the poll numbers always go up, the situation breaks his way, the rules don’t apply to him. That towering hubris was what made his breathtakingly callous remarks about Fiorina possible in the first place.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 3):
The undercard show

ON WEDNESDAY night, CNN, the original cable-news outlet, briefly assumed the persona of its corporate cousin, the Cartoon Network. The shape-shifting that took place at the Republican candidates’ debates at the Reagan Presidential Library & Museum revealed a tale of two highly animated spectacles — the undercard and the main event. But that distinction was pretty much irrelevant.

For most of the 15 candidates populating the two debate performances, and barely registering in the polls, the backdrop of the Boeing 707 that ferried President Reagan around the world is as close to Air Force One as they’ll ever get. That’s why several candidates on the stage in Simi Valley, Calif., had nothing to lose by swinging for the fences.

But even with a lot of heat being thrown and very little light, by the night’s end the debates moved the needle — watch for one or two of the bottom feeders to drop out after the latest polls arrive — and changed perceptions. The blowhard of the moment was, in fact, deflatable. The latest in a family dynasty may not have the political chops of his father and his brother. And surprise, surprise: The last man standing on Wednesday night wasn’t a man at all.

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The back-to-back debate performances recalled the way half-hour TV game shows or sitcoms are often shot: two on the same day. The first one was manageable. Four candidates — former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — took the stage and basically demonstrated why they were on the second-tier debate.

All four men, polling in the low single digits, did what they could to stake out positions separating them from the pack that would follow in the second debate. For much of Debate 1, Santorum was on the attack, trying to occupy a space that could be appealing to moderate Republicans and attractive to hardliners in the party.

Santorum proposed a 50-cent increase in the minimum wage over five years — the only candidate to take such a heretic, populist stance. But he also said the Supreme Court was “abusive” and had “superseded their authority” with its decision on same-sex marriage, which begs the question of whose authority it was to make that ruling. On immigration, Santorum tried to move beyond the blame game, saying that the argument “should not be about what we're gonna do with someone who's here illegally,” but more about the restoration of American jobs, many of which have gone to immigrants in recent years.

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JINDAL SAID he’d never support amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Otherwise outlining his bona fides, he said “I've got the backbone, I've got the bandwidth, I've got the experience to get us through these tough times, to make sure that we don't turn the American dream into the European nightmare.”

Pataki said that, if president, he would undertake to enact “a sweeping conservative agenda.” Part of that apparently entails scrapping the Iran nuclear deal. Pataki said he would "reject this deal on day one," criticizing Hillary Clinton for supporting it, saying her tenure as secretary of state “reduced the Middle East to flames.”

Graham, no doubt aware of how far down he is in the race, let his inner hawk fly around the room all debate long. Never mind the myriad foreign and domestic issues facing the next American president, the South Carolina pepper pot said he’s “running for president to destroy radical Islam, to win the war on terror, to protect you and your family.”

His approach couldn’t have been less surgical. “We're gonna destroy the caliphate, pull it up by its roots; we're gonna kill every one of those bastards we can find,” Graham said, channeling Gen. George S. Patton, and overlooking the likelihood that the caliphate has a large measure of indigenous support.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Stephen Colbert’s opening week

NEVER FAILS. The rise of a new late-night star is always accompanied by the first-night postmortem — who was on, what he did, how badly he screwed up or deftly avoided screwing up. But the first show isn’t the best way to get a handle on a show’s real emotional temperature. You can’t judge a pitcher by the jitters on Opening Day. Not accurately, anyway.

“The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” is a great example. After months of buildup, the replacement program for David Letterman’s long run got off to a bright, zany, somewhat unpredictable start with Colbert, his conservative all-beef high-fructose kingmaker persona retired, took over the “Late Show” franchise on Tuesday night.

The first night’s been written and analyzed to death. But what we got in the two or three shows after conveys a better, richer, more balanced idea of the new “Late Show” identity.

And in interviews that moved from the star-struck to the cerebral to the deeply emotional, Colbert’s already shown himself to be more than equal to the challenge of carving out his own identity in a new forum.

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On the second show, on Wednesday, we got an idea of the Colbert intellectual range. The first guest was Scarlett Johanssen, always a good late-night get. The actress, maybe a tad jet-lagged having just arrived from Paris, did her part as one-half of the mutual admiration society that developed between her and Colbert.

In “Big Questions With Even Bigger Stars,” what we're led to believe will be an ongoing segment, the two of them lay on a makeshift blanket and gazed up at the “stars” and pondered the Meaning of Life. You know, the serious stuff, like, is it better to have feet for hands or hands for feet? And, “What do you think Oprah’s doing right now?”

But at one point before this serene foolishness, Colbert was firing questions at her so relentlessly, Johanssen had to say “Stop it!” — which seemed to settle Colbert down. From then on, things got better, the tone more like a conversation and less like a prosecutor’s inquiry. Which is what you want.

With his next guest, billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, Colbert kept his promise to bring more unconventional guests to his show. Musk (whom Colbert called “the real-life Tony Stark”) wasn’t exactly the most scintillating guest, sometimes impassively answering Colbert’s questions with replies way too brief to make for satisfying television.

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THURSDAY NIGHT showed us what’s really possible. Colbert brought on a major talk-show get: Vice President Joe Biden, who is thought to be weighing a run for the presidency in 2016. He’s undecided largely because he is still emotionally navigating the loss of his son, Beau, who died May 30 of brain cancer, at the age of 46.

Gently steered toward the topic by Colbert, Biden, in a few short and touching moments, laid bare the breaking heart that is still his.

“My father had an expression and he said, ‘You know your success is apparent when you look at your child and realize that they turned out better than you.' I was a hell of a success, and my son was better than me. He was better than me in almost every way.

“So many people have losses as severe or maybe worse than mine and didn't have the incredible support I have," he said. “I feel self-conscious. The loss is serious and it's consequential, but there are so many other people going through this. For me, my wife when she wants to leave me messages, she literally tapes them on my mirror when I'm shaving ..." One of them was by the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. “'Faith sees best in the dark.' For me, my religion is an enormous sense of solace."

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Joe Biden is our enduring political empath, an official not just willing but eager to kick ceremony to the curb and engage people in the purest, most visceral, retail-political sense. Watching him struggle with this still-fresh tragedy in the company of a clearly supportive Colbert, made for a riveting emotional moment in the teleculture. This, folks, is what late-night television — what all of television — is supposed to be about: humanity you can feel through the screen.

And when Biden made common cause with Colbert, who lost his father and his two older brothers in a plane crash — on Sept. 11, 1974 — it solidified Colbert’s position at the top of the late-night leaderboard. “You're one of them, ol’ buddy,” Biden told Colbert, turning the tables for a moment. “Your mom, your family, losing your dad when you're a kid. Three brothers. What made your mother do it every day?”

“She had to take care of me,” Colbert replied. “And I had to take care of her... I would say that I raised my mom from that in a few years.” The back-and-forth between them was heartfelt and real as it gets. If your waterworks didn’t turn on after the Biden segment, for at least a moment, odds are you’re already dead.

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ON FRIDAY, ending the first week on a high note, Colbert brought in comedian and “Trainwreck” star Amy Schumer and nonstop novelist Stephen King. Colbert and Schumer found common ground in their having both been on the cover of GQ magazine. And Schumer, still not a household comedy name, went into details about staying at Jake Gyllenhaal’s house once and eating the actor’s cake.

For his part, King showed up wearing the National Medal of Arts he recently received from President Obama, saying that putting the thing around his neck made him feel like Flavor Flav. Colbert also suggested altering the award to better suit the author’s writing style. “You can sharpen the edge of that and it would make a nice murder weapon,” he told King.

This wasn’t the usual parade of guests tirelessly plugging their latest movie, book or TV show. And there’s more of this to come; Apple CEO Tim Cook, Pearl Jam, actress Kerry Washington and billionaire attention addict Donald Trump are among those slated for “Late Show” appearances. Novel choices all around.

The novelty of the new thing is hard to resist, and that’s what Stephen Colbert is enjoying right now. But his “Late Show” premiere week tells us that, once the new-car smell fades, we’ll be left with a show that won’t embarrass us (even as it routinely surprises us), a late-night host who’s not afraid to break the boundaries — the boundaries that we as viewers didn’t know were there, until he pushed past them.

Image credits: Biden and Colbert, “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” logo: © 2015 Spartina Productions/CBS.
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