Idiot Box: Compromising Justice

The Kosovo crisis makes A&E’s Investigative Reports: The Nazis’ Secret Killing Squads (Monday, April 12, 9 p.m.) all too topical. The subject is Nazi Einsatzgruppen, “mobile killing squads” whose mission was to follow German troops into the Soviet Union and cleanse the land of Jews and other undesirables, clearing the way for German Lebensraum. While this documentary won’t resolve roiling academic controversies about why ordinary Germans were willing to commit mass murder (“Violent racism was the product of Germany’s leader, Adolf Hitler,” proclaims the narrator rather simplistically), it does afford a provocative look into the development of the techniques of genocide. Highly successful at carrying out their mission (they murdered more than one million people), the Einsatzgruppen paved the way for the gas chambers, which were both more efficient and less offensive to the sensibilities of those duty-bound to carry out the killing. The chief prosecutor of the Einsatzgruppen at Nuremberg, Benjamin Ferencz, featured prominently in the program, is still active in the effort to set up an international court to prosecute crimes against humanity.

You’d think there are enough L.A. jokes floating through the media ether to warrant their own sitcom. A half-hour show might give them the context and depth that Jay Leno can’t. Then again, depth is not the first thing one associates with L.A. (ta da dum!). That’s precisely the premise of ABC’s three-week-old It’s Like, You Know. The show chronicles the non-lives of four thirtysomething trust-funders and show-bizzers and their guest from New York City, a magazine writer played by Chris Eigeman (Will he learn to love L.A.?). The dismal pilot was content with a simple catalogue of the obvious (Eigeman finds them all shocking and horrific): Everyone in L.A. drives cars. People in the Valley are dumb. The weather is good year-round. The second episode stretched out a bit with a tedious riff on L.A.’s favorite spectator sport: watching live car chases on TV. (Remember when Seinfeld and George pitched a “show about nothing” to a network? Here it is.) Things look up by the third episode. I counted two funny bits (out of three) and a Seinfeld-style wrap-up that almost makes it worth watching. Maybe the fourth episode, airing Wednesday night (April 14) at 8:30, really will be.

ABC’s movie Swing Vote (Monday, April 19, 9 p.m.) plunges us immediately into a liberal’s fever dream: Roe vs. Wade is ancient history, and a black Mississippi woman has been convicted of murdering her unborn baby. Her case is on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Joseph Kirkland (Andy Garcia), a lawyer who made his name defending a notorious pro-life activist, has just been appointed to the court. There he replaces the only white surefire pro-choicer, who has retired (two other hardliners remain, both black). After some legal wrangling, it becomes clear that Kirkland’s will be the deciding vote in this landmark case. Interestingly, though, he does not have a firm position on abortion. He defended the activist because he saw him as “the Martin Luther King of the pro-life movement.” It is this unlikely state of ideological ambiguity that makes Swing Vote a genuinely suspenseful movie.

Kirkland, sort of an Everyman Goes to Washington, seems to promise a fresh solution to a conflict grown rigid and tiresome. Consider his journey through the landscape of abortion debate: The court turns out to be rotten with political intrigue and horse-trading. His wife is horrified that he might be thinking anti-life thoughts. Right and left seem equally moribund: In a delightful bit of kitsch, one aging Irish liberal justice visits his bedridden Irish liberal ex-colleague, who sings “Danny Boy” to him in a final attempt to influence his vote. How does Kirkland chart a Third Way? Tune in for the rousing ending.