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Leadership

Presidents Better than Trump

The man has been voted out of office and we are breathing a sigh of relief. In fact, we’re ready to have the last laugh That’s why we’re imagining the fictional (actual or would-be) Presidents who would have done a better job the last four years. This is definitely not a list of best TV and movie presidents (there are many of those). No one played by Harrison Ford, Geena Davis, or Dennis Haysbert appears on it. There’s no President Bartlett or his equally improbable and impressive peers. We’re not talking the greats here. No, this is a list of presidential villains, traitors, and idiots. A list of fictional ne’er-do-wells who would all make better Presidents than the 45th person who actually held the office. Shall we?

House of Cards (2013–2018)

There are three Presidents on House of Cards per my count and they’re all better than one Donald Trump! There’s Garrett Walker, who’s kind-hearted but easily influenced. There’s Frank Underwood, who’s an evil murderer and master manipulator (or what you might call a skilled politician). And there’s my favorite, Claire Underwood, who is cold, calculating, and ruthless but actually interested in governing. See how they all have an upside?

Wag the Dog (1997)

To distract from a sex scandal, the President in this film fakes a war, distracting the American people and hoping to look like a hero. He’s clearly ok with lying but at least appears to know the difference between fact and fiction. Plus, the idea that a sex scandal is embarrassing (rather than something to be proud of) and the military is myth-making magic (rather than comprised of “losers”) undergirds Wag the Dog and reminds us of simpler times.

Veep (2012–2019)

We’re going to focus on the titular Selina Meyer here since she does become President and we never see President Hughes anyway. Like someone else we know, she’s an incompetent narcissist who lacks basic human abilities but at least is genuinely funny. Plus, while she may be racist, her brand of prejudice is more the microaggression kind and less the refuses-to-condemn-white-supremacy, separates-you-from-your-kids kind.

Dave (1993)

In Dave, a random guy who does Presidential impersonations ends up taking the office after the actual President falls into a coma during a love affair gone wrong. Titular everyman Dave turns out to be a good person, more driven by doing what’s right than seeking power, fame, or fortune. I’d take a Trump impersonator who cares about things like the homeless and full employment instead of what we had any day.

SCANDAL – “Transfer of Power” – In the final days of his presidency, Fitz uses his power to make some unexpected changes, on “Scandal,” airing THURSDAY, MAY 18 (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Richard Cartwright) TONY GOLDWYN, BELLAMY YOUNG

Scandal (2012–2018)

Scandal’s Fitzgerald “Fitz” Thomas Grant III is not a great guy. He cheats on his wife, abuses his mistress, and you know, undermines democracy. Sure, he doesn’t know his team steals the election for him but he does know about the secret, extra-governmental force B613 and is cool with it. Yet, I’d rather have him (or his (ex)wife Millie) as President than Donald — at least you’d know that hyper-competent if morally-questionable Olivia Pope would really be at the helm.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004 and 1962)

Yes, the would-be-President in question here is brainwashed and mind-controlled, but he fights the powers that would see such a comprised figure in office, resisting his programming to the point of turning his gun on himself. Manchurian Candidate Raymond Shaw is a tragic figure, but ultimately a hero unlike, say, someone who willingly collaborates with a foreign power for personal gain…

Homeland (2011–2020)

Our (white) girl Carrie Mathison makes it through several US Presidents and while none of them make the best choices, we’d still take any of them over the Donald. There’s Elizabeth Keane, a stand-in for the actual 2016 favorite Hilary Clinton. Keane survives an assassination attempt only to turn on the entire intelligence community and endanger American ideals (like innocent until proven guilty). She’s a complicated figure but she does the right thing in the end, resigning so as to heal the country. A Biden-like centrist takes over but is quickly dispatched (helicopter goes bye-bye) and replaced with the most Trump-like character on this list, President Benjamin Hayes. He’s an idiot who’s quick to be influenced by other idiots and sees what he wants to see. But! He eventually learns, believes, and responds appropriately to the truth. Sounds pretty good, huh?

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Finding Love and Pandemonium on “The Good Place”

In “Pandemonium,” the season three finale of The Good Place, the show makes explicit its most radical idea yet: love. Specifically, love as what gives life meaning. As Janet, the all-knowing robot says, “If there were an answer I could give you to how the universe works, it wouldn’t be special. It would just be machinery fulfilling its cosmic design. It would just be a big, dumb food processor. But since nothing seems to make sense, when you find something or someone that does, it’s euphoria.” This euphoria, the way the world stops spinning when you’re in love, this is the answer to the “randomness and pandemonium” of the human condition.

It’s a nice idea and backed up by the show’s emphasis on relationships. At one point in the finale, Michael encounters Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani together and says “Look at the four of you all together.” And as the camera shows our quartet, the four humans at the center of the show, I was struck. A group of friends, sometimes lovers, on an amazing adventure together. The Good Place succeeds because of the relationships. It is the drama of each character’s interactions that allows the shows to delve into the Big Ideas it’s known for. Without them, it’d be like watching a textbook.

That’s not to say that I don’t find the romance between Chidi and Eleanor a bit overdone. I’m not particularly interested in their will-they or won’t-they plotline but the season three finale got me (spoilers ahead). In it, we see the happily together couple face a new dilemma: Chidi’s ex Simone will be one of the four new humans upon which the group must prove can improve to save all of humanity from ending up in the Bad Place. Convinced he won’t be able to teach her moral philosophy without their past interfering, Chidi volunteers to have his memories washed.

After the reset, his memories will stop at the moment he originally died, effectively erasing all his relationships on the show and particularly devastating to the new, happy couple. Unlike the previous resets, the other three humans won’t be losing the memories too. Meaning Eleanor will go on knowing and missing her relationship with Chidi while he’ll have no idea what’s happened. It’s new territory for the show that’s kept its four principles all in the same position over three seasons as they reboot, go to heaven, and discover hell altogether. Now Chidi will be on his own or more precisely part of the new group of people which includes Simone and doesn’t include Eleanor, Tahani, or Jason.

In addition, because of Michael’s fear of failure, Eleanor has stepped into the architect role, acting as the mastermind of the afterlife. Her new role further separates the group, disrupting the original dynamic of four relative equals even more. It’s certainly an interesting visual: to replace Ted Danson’s old, white man, the prototypical face of leadership, with Kristen Bell’s small, casual Eleanor. Let’s just say her T-shirt did not inspire confidence in her first few scenes as the architect. But wardrobe questions aside, Eleanor’s always been the natural leader in the group. Yes, Chidi has been the teacher but Eleanor started the lessons, built the relationships, figured out the rouse first, and got the rest involved. I’m excited to see what her leadership will look like with formal trappings, especially after watching its growth for all these seasons.

So I guess the remaining question is: will love conquer all? Specifically, can it conquer the structural barriers the show has set up for season four? Eleanor and Chidi have found each other through countless do-overs so there’s certainly hope for them. That said, sometimes they end up as friends (my general preference for the two). This time will be particularly difficult because Chidi will meet Simone and Eleanor at approximately the same time, making his chance of falling for either of his two (forgotten) exes pretty even. Plus, as the architect, Eleanor won’t be in the same group or situation as Chidi and the other humans, making it even harder. I adore Simone (played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste of Killing Eve) and thought she was a great match for Chidi when they paired up earlier in the season. I’d still argue that she has more chemistry with Chidi than Eleanor. So who knows what will happen?

The problem with rooting for Simone though is that Eleanor and Chidi’s relationship is what makes them grow. It’s what turns Eleanor from a self-absorbed “Arizona dirtbag” into someone engaged with ideas, concerned about the feelings of others, and interested in doing good. It stops Chidi from being paralyzed by his choices and let’s him finally live. So can this same growth happen if their relationship isn’t romantic? If Eleanor and Chidi are just friends? I hope so. Love comes in so many forms it’d be frustrating for a show as smart as The Good Place fall into the damaging (and often sexist) troupe that only romantic love counts.

So whether they’re coupled or not, I hope Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason keep changing because their development is what makes the show so dynamic. If these charmingly insufferable people can evolve, then there’s hope for the rest of us. I guess what I’m saying is, of all the big ideas, famous theories, and lesser known concepts The Good Place has dramatized, its presentation of love may be the riskiest. We’ll have to wait until next season to see if the gamble pays off.

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I Want to Live in Shondaland

I Want to Live in Shondaland

by Cristina Escobar

I want to live in Shondaland. Ideally, the universe of Grey’s Anatomy (and Station 19 and Private Practice). And not just because the God of Shondaland is a benevolent black woman. Or because Grey’s did a Dia de Los Muertos episode last week (and a voting episode the week before that).

No, I want to live Shondaland because I love its vision of humankind. You see in Grey’s Anatomy (and to a lesser degree Scandal and How To Get Away with Murder), we see people at the top of their profession, doing life-changing work. And what do those people look like? Yes, of course, they’re TV-level beautiful. But more than that, the doctors, lawyers, firefighters, and heroes of Shondaland are black and white and brown. Skinny and thick. Women and men, cis and trans. Christian and atheist and Jewish and Muslim. Some are addicts. Some are differently abled. Some are rich and some grew up as foster kids. There are no boards solely composed of old white men deciding the fate of the world. Instead, you have the beauty of all of humankind represented.

In Shondaland, POC characters like Olivia Pope may “have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have” but they rise to the challenge. The Doctors of Grey-Sloan Memorial exist in a true meritocracy, where previous generations (thanks Dr. Richard Webber, thanks Meredith’s mom) fought the good fight and pathed the way for this hard-earned present.

That isn’t to say that Shondaland’s fictional today is post racial. It’s not – there’s still discrimination of all kinds. In Grey’s Anatomy, we see it in the ways patients try to navigate a dysfunctional insurance system that leaves them picking between bankruptcy and life-saving medical treatment. We see it in Dr. Jo Wilson’s powerlessness in the face of domestic violence. We see it when patients and colleagues underestimate Dr. Miranda Bailey (remember when she messed up that white supremacist’s tattoo? Or had a visiting doctor running around the hospital trying to find the “Nazi”?).

I was particularly impressed when the show delved into the reason a (good) white doctor Amelia Shepherd believes a white intern (Dr. Jo Wilson) over a black intern she works with more closely (Dr. Stephanie Edwards). It may be implicit bias but Amelia doesn’t get off the hook easily as another black doctor (Dr. Maggie Pierce) holds her accountable and asks her not to make Edwards pay for mistake twice by forcing the issue of forgiveness. That’s what happens when you have several black characters, not just one. Those are the types of issues you can delve into when you’ve been passing the Bechdel test for 15 seasons. This nuance is so rare on TV where race and discrimination issues are usually either A. ignored or B. treated like a completely black-or-white issue with racist villains against justice-seeking (often white) freedom fighters (pun intended). We’ve got to get deeper in the stories we tell about what it means to be a person of color and Grey’s+ does that, week in and week out.

Now, I’m not saying Shondaland is perfect. It certainly mirrors some of the problems of today. It erases nursing for one, having the doctors do the work that nurses and other medical professionals do in real life. And since nursing is so tied to womanhood and femininity, this privileging of “doctor” over “nurse” reinforces our broader privileging of the “masculine” over the “feminine.”

Shondaland in general and Grey’s in particular romanticizes relationships between unequals, relying too much on young woman falls in love with male superior (see also Scandal). If there’s anything we learned from #MeToo and Bill Clinton, it’s that it’s actually pretty unsexy to sleep with a subordinate. And, of course, to live in Shondaland is to live in a world full of terrible tragedies and deadly violence whether it’s plane crashes, shootings, or bomb explosions. Lots of bad stuff happens and it happens at an alarming frequency. I’d have to worry about what crazy, once-in-a-lifetime type tragedy would happen to me every year.

And yet despite the increased risk of death, near death, and general drama, I’d live there if I could. It’s the leadership porn I so desperately need in the Trump era. You see, Shonda Rhimes writes about teams of diverse people who achieve great things. Teams with leaders like Dr. Miranda Bailey and Dr. Richard Webber. These are the people you want to be running your hospital, to be your teacher or boss, or dare I say leading the country. They tell you the hard truths, keep the bigger vision in mind, and act with integrity. They make you laugh and they falter, humans with their own quirks, regrets, and weaknesses. Yet, fundamentally, they are good people who are rewarded for their hard work and strong character. Doesn’t that sound like the universe you want to live in too?

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