Tag Archive: TV

  1. Lessons from T‘L’C

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    The Learning Channel, originally the Appalachian Community Service Network, was founded in 1972 and has since aired documentary-style educational programs that breach the often formidable barrier between informational broadcasting and pop culture. TLC’s shows take little-known subjects, like glitz pageants, and lure viewers by promising to mock the absurd while also educating people about obscure subcultures and fostering empathy by reminding us all that no matter how strange the circumstances, we are all human and have similar hopes, dreams, desires, needs, etc. Or something like that.

    Although I feel TLC shows are mostly educational, I occasionally have reservations about exploiting people’s ludicrousness for entertainment.

    A prime example of a TLC show that is informative and thought-provoking but still a bit mean spirited is “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.” The show uses weddings to explore Romani Gypsy and Irish Traveller culture in Great Britain. (There is also an American equivalent.) The couples are usually in their teens, and the wedding is portrayed as the biggest and best day of the bride’s life. The weddings feature horse-drawn carriages and wedding dresses with five thousand “diamonds” that weigh over half the girl’s body weight. And then there are the chartreuse-colored tulle bridesmaids’ dresses …

    I started watching the show because of the fantastical weddings, but I got a lot more than a punch line. I learned about the systematic legislative changes that are destroying the Gypsy way of life, which has survived in Great Britain for over five hundred years. I learned about their exhaustive code of honor and respect and their deep love of tradition. I felt enriched, just like an educational television show is meant to make you feel. But I also felt guilty for laughing at their weddings.

    Still, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” is one of the less exploitative shows on TLC. In the most recent season finale of “19 Kids and Counting,” Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar go to the obstetrician to find out the sex of their 20th child, only to find out that the four-month-old fetus no longer had a heartbeat. What followed was the worst kind of emotional exploitation. I watched it, but I hated myself for it. I felt similarly when watching the season premiere, when the Duggars attended a wedding in which the groom was flamboyantly gay.

    Although I find many aspects of TLC’s programming problematic, there is something to be said about the need to educate people about subcultures in American society. The new TLC show, “Breaking Amish,” which documents five young Amish and Mennonite Americans who move to New York, leaving their lifestyle behind forever, could not come at a more opportune time. The Amish, although typically reclusive, were recently in the national spotlight when an Amish bishop in Ohio was charged with a hate crime for forcibly cutting the bears of Amish men who disagreed with him. “Breaking Amish” can provide much-needed context for the court case, teaching viewers how symbolic and important beards are to Amish masculinity.

    The Learning Channel may retain some of the truth of its title, but to catch people’s attention, many of their shows have resorted to modeling themselves after 19th-century freak shows. I can not speak for the people in the programs, and I am sure they have their reasons for participating in reality television, but I feel like many of these shows appeal too much to my truly sick and twisted sense of humor. Maybe I should stick to “Say Yes to the Dress.”

  2. 'Eating Alabama' one small farmer at a time

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    Against shots of pastures and wheat fields, Andrew Beck Grace narrates a story that intertwines history, culture, politics and a bit of self-exploration. “Eating Alabama” documents Grace and his wife Rashmi as they embark on a seemingly simple mission: for one year, they will only eat food from Alabama farms. But to those viewers who hear this premise and expect this documentary to be a self-righteous filmmaker’s homage to “simpler times,” a surprise is in store.

    From the opening scene of Grace, a hunting novice, trying to take down a deer, “Eating Alabama” delivers humor. As they try to find and cook locally sourced meals, Grace and his wife, both from the suburbs, encounter a variety of pratfalls ranging from chaotic road trips scouring the state for farmer’s markets to a bleakly comical look at a chicken slaughter. Rather than over-romanticizing their goal, Grace and his wife, with their droll humor, honestly portray the difficulty of living and eating the way their grandparents did in the past.

    This idea of returning to the past points to the larger goal of Grace and Rashmi — to explore a simpler lifestyle, to close the distance between the meal and the people involved in its origins. If this sounds like idealism with a dash of naiveté, there is a reason. We follow Grace as he discovers that perhaps he was not asking the right questions. A more complex look at the culture of food in the South emerges as he discovers the flaws of his goal in relation to the changed times. Grace interviews people from all levels of food production and gives the viewer an up-close look at the changing landscape: farmers from his grandfather’s ilk are few and far between.

    Between clips of Grace and his wife on their mission, Grace also uses old film clips and photographs collected from his ancestors, a long line of Alabama farmers. In this way, the story of Grace is interwoven with the history of farming culture in the South. Taken alone, these vintage stills are beautiful: viewers will discover that “Eating Alabama” is a delight for the eye as well as the appetite. Grace can expertly set a mood and the clips of friends gathered at dusk on a patio amidst food, wine and lanterns capture an ideal: the ideal of eating close to one’s origins, of food as a way of bringing people together.

    For such a short documentary, “Eating Alabama” delivers many ideas. Though the film unfolds to discuss politics, economics and our changing public opinion, it is too honest and unflowery to feel like a piece of propaganda. Rather, the film is a very real look at the way the culture surrounding food has changed, and a couple’s firsthand realization that the lifestyle of their grandparents, their closeness to the land, may never be recaptured.

  3. Allison Williams ‘10: One of the ‘Girls’

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    Q. Lena Dunham, the show’s writer, has said that a lot of what’s in “Girls” comes directly from her life and the lives of other cast members —

    A. Right, for instance the tattoos that Lena has, that she shows in the first episode, are all real. It was Jemima Kirke, who plays Jessa, who gave her the one on her butt and who has subsequently given her many more. And she has given them to Zosia [Mamet, the fourth lead actress on “Girls”].

    Q. Not you yet?

    A. I think I’m going to remain un-tatted.

    Q. It’s not a rite of passage — an initiation into the show?

    A. It’s not something I’m interested in. And, funnily enough, they encouraged me not to do it. They said, “It’s a slippery slope. Once you have one, you can’t stop.” It’s almost like they’re haggard and on the other side and telling me, “Don’t start, kid.”

    Q. The media has hyped “Girls” a great deal to be ‘representative’ of young women, and it’s also received some criticism for being another show focusing on relatively well-off, white, metropolitan, heterosexual women. How do you feel about these sorts of expectations and comments?

    A. I think the media often wants a TV show to ‘say something’ broad. But I think one of the nice things about the show is that it is very specific — it’s specifically Lena [Dunham]’s experiences, summed up. Rather than forming a thesis, it’s showing a number of different lives and alternatives. That makes it broader as a show, because it’s not looking to take a stand and then alienating people. I know, personally, it’s much easier for me to enjoy and ingest something if I know it isn’t trying to argue a point, at least not consciously. If the show makes you laugh, awesome. If it makes you feel angry, great. If you see yourself in it, or if it makes you feel less alone, great.

    Q. “Girls” is written for women, by women. What do you think or hope that men will take away from it?

    A. I’ve been surprised that more people haven’t asked this question, because it feels like a great one. A lot of the people who have seen the show so far are men. The male executives at HBO have seen it, and they are responding to it. It may be because there are nooks and crannies of female friendships that they didn’t know about. There are many men out there who watched all of “Sex and the City.” They will admit it under cover of darkness, but if you make a reference — you say “Smith,” and they know what you’re talking about — you can call them out on it, and I think that’s great.

    [Williams’s HBO entourage and mother, who are waiting patiently while Allison gives WEEKEND this interview, politely make noises indicating Allison has to go soon. Allison insists she can answer another few questions.]

    Q. Are you sure? If you have to get back to New York …

    A. It’s fine. I’m going rogue.

    Q. Maverick.

    A. This is my Palin moment.

    Q. On “Sex and the City,” there were characters who were “sex-positive” — who would have sex for sex’s sake. At least in the first episode, the sex shown on “Girls” is uncomfortable. Do any of the characters on “Girls” have a good, exclusively physical relationship?

    A. Yes. Some of the characters do, some don’t. Each of the characters has a different sensibility with regards to sex.

    Q. “Girls” has already generated articles and opinion pieces in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and New York Magazine. What do you hope the social impact of the show will be, if anything?

    A. I hope it gets groups of people watching it together — friends of all genders, ages, and backgrounds in a room. I think so much of the digital age, and the way we live and absorb media and culture today, is so individualized. It happens alone and in front of a laptop. The great thing about television is it’s one of the few forms of media left that people can sit down, watch together and then discuss. I hope the show creates discussion, and I hope there are girls out there who see themselves in us.

  4. Just close enough to home

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    If you are a 20-something college grad, or soon to be one, HBO’s much hyped new series “Girls” will probably hit quite close to home. The pilot opens with executive producer, writer, director and lead star Lena Dunham in the role of Hannah — a writer two years out of college with an unpaid internship, at dinner with her parents who have been financially supporting her. The discussion sounds all too familiar: ‘What are your plans? You need to get a job’ — until her life-providers drop the oh-so-tactful “It’s time for one final push,” also known as “You’re cut off.” Hannah’s reaction is hilarious but also valid. She’s their only child, she points out, the economy is not exactly booming and they should be grateful that she’s not a drug dealer (I’ve definitely used that one before). But her attempts are in vain.

    The mood set in this ill-fated family dinner permeates the rest of the episode, which follows Hannah, Marnie (Allison Williams ’10) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) through their encounters with internships turned sour, overly nice boyfriends and bad-advice-giving British cousins (Jessa, played by Jemima Kirke). The tone is one of realism that is so easy to identify with that it becomes uncomfortable and the only reaction you can have is to laugh at Hannah and, to some degree, yourself. Dunham masterfully melds true-to-life characters and situations — like Marnie’s inability to break up with her boyfriend Charlie because she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings — with sitcom humor, which has the potential of feeling set up but usually arrives as an unexpected surprise.

    Part of the success of “Girls” success is that Dunham isn’t afraid to bare it all, in both a literal and figurative sense. Probably the most memorable scene is when Hannah stops by Adam’s (Adam Sackler) apartment for a booty call and tries to take off her clothes while face down on the couch with her hands clasped behind her back. Unlike other shows, both Hannah and Adam’s bodies are far from glamorous, and instead of skipping from kissing to postcoital lying in bed, the entire interaction is shown, complete with painfully awkward dialogue.

    The realistic angle explored in “Girls” is one not seen too frequently these days on TV. In the midst of guilty pleasures like “Jersey Shore” and thrillers like “Dexter,” “Girls” comes as a breath of fresh B.A.-delivered air. You can relate to the characters because they don’t live at the extremes of stock or ideal; they exist as patchworks of both likable traits and imperfections, held together but always about to collapse into a pile of post-grad-survival angst. One might think a show that recalls uncouth interactions you want to forget would not be a pleasant experience, but “Girls” avoids this problem by adding humor to the discomfort, making the situation not only bearable but extremely entertaining. I don’t know how long “Girls” will be able to keep up the laughs without making them feel planned, but for now, it’s certainly one to watch.

  5. ‘Surviving Progress’ with primeval brainpower

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    “Surviving Progress” is not a film for first dates or one where you can stuff your face with popcorn and walk out of the theater wearing a big smile and feeling pleased about the future of humanity. Quite the contrary, the film examines the economic, technological and environmental cost of “progress” in our modern, American society and offers a grim decree: Our contemporary technological advances are far outstripping our primeval brainpower, and as a consequence we are hurtling towards a catastrophic societal collapse.

    The film opens and closes in a primate research lab where we observe two chimpanzees attempting to balance yellow building blocks, mimicking the very experimentation we are engaging in with the development of civilization. Despite its doomsday message, the film is an entirely engaging and stunning cinematic experience. The documentary is full of stimulating and eloquent interviews with such figures as Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Hawking and Colin Beaven, all of whom offer provocative insight into the meaning of progress, our human responsibility and the future of society. In addition to these interviews, spectacular cinematography documenting mega-cities, Amazonian deforestation, Chinese industrialization and Mayan ruins keeps the film continually enjoyable.

    The documentary is based on Ronald Wright’s book “A Short History of Progress” and, like many documentaries tackling colossal issues, it only scratches the surface of this inspiration during its 86-minute running time. The film briefly chronicles the rise and fall of many great societies, notably the Romans, the Maya, and the Rapanui of Easter Island, and uses them as mirrors to gain perspective on our own society and the devastating repetition of history towards which we are rushing. It also explores the concentration of wealth and political power, and could be argued to be a summary of the most paradigmatic, the most distilled aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

    If there is one thing “Surviving Progress” covers entirely and indisputably, it is that we are utterly and distressingly doomed. But please don’t let this scare you away from watching it; the film serves to engage in a conversation few in our society are willing to partake in and opens up discussion for the next steps we must take. There are no easy answers in this film, there are no “An Inconvenient Truth”-esque ending tips about taking shorter showers, joining Meatless Mondays, and planting trees. Rather, the film is consciously complex, provocative and thoroughly unsettling.

  6. Missed Allison Williams ’10 on Letterman? Watch here

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    Allison Williams ’10, a star of the much-talked-about HBO series “Girls,” appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman Tuesday night.

    Letterman spends most of the interview asking Williams about her famous dad, NBC anchor Brian Williams, and only briefly mentions her “tremendous” performance in the new series. We can assume that was frustrating, but Williams hides it well, joking about a fourth grade crush and Bill Clinton LAW ’73. The interview ends with Williams doing a Regis Philbin impression, which is obviously how all good interviews should end.

    The video is, of course, already online. Watch it here.

  7. David Blight goes on TV, is famous

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    If you were casually watching C-SPAN on Thursday, you might have noticed Yale celeb professor David Blight moderating a panel about — what else? — the Civil War and Emancipation.

    The panel — which drew about 100 attendees and was moderated by Blight, a Civil War historian and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, — featured author and senior editor for The Atlantic Ta-Nehisi Coates, Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco, University of Virginia professor Gary Gallagher, University of Pennsylvania professor Stephanie McCurry and Yale Law School professor John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00.

    Panelists discussed the memory of Civil War and Emancipation, and questioned the role of the war’s memory in present day society.

    “For me, one of the features of the Civil War is we’re mesmerized by it because we can’t imagine such a scale of death and destruction,” Delbanco said during the panel. “It was a good preview of some of the problems of the twenty-first century.”

  8. I'll never hate you, "Parks and Rec"

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    I understand that the first season is underwhelming, the concept seems tired and the setting is unexciting, but “Parks and Recreation” is still my favorite show on TV right now. Yes, the skeptics have valid points, but they’re wrong: properly appreciated, “Parks and Rec” is a great show with a few entirely flawless episodes. (For your reference, they are “The Fight,” “Fancy Party” and “Li’l Sebastian.”) The first thing to understand about “Parks and Recreation” is that it is not “The Office.” It’s a faux-documentary, single-camera, Thursday night NBC workplace comedy with Rashida Jones, but it is not “The Office.”

    While “The Office” features the full spectrum of characters, from people you could meet in the real world to the over-the-top histrionic, pretty much everyone on “Parks and Rec” is somewhat cartoonish, albeit grounded by their circumstances (small-town bureaucracy). And while Scranton, Pa. is pretty remorselessly realistic, Pawnee, Ind. is a cross between satire of middle America (the town slogan is “First in friendship, fourth in obesity”) and straight-up absurdity. One of the strongest elements of the show is its cast of recurring secondary characters (shout-out to Jean-Ralphio), all of whom are flagrantly insane. Everyone in the main cast of the show is some kind of caricature, as well kind of a loser, stuck in the mechanics of small-town government. Most of them aren’t even especially likable (which is why it can take a few episodes to get into the show). With the exception of Ann Perkins, whose absence of quirks keeps everything somewhat lifelike, “Parks and Rec” is a collection of weird types and goofy ad-libs. And yet for all of its ridiculous, flawed, frequently flailing characters, what makes the show stand out is its depth. For such a silly city, Pawnee comes with a seemingly inexhaustible lore (the Fourth Floor, the murals at city hall, the infamous raccoon infestation). And while Leslie’s intense enthusiasm for her city is frequently satirized, it’s also deliberately admirable. Dumpy Pawnee, Ind. can be a great city; local government can transcend its role as what libertarian parks director Ron Swanson calls “a greedy piglet that suckles on the taxpayer’s teat.” More poignant still are the relationships between the characters. How a show so deliberately absurd can have such palpable emotional stakes I don’t know, but it makes “Parks & Rec” incredibly entertaining.

    My personal favorite episode of the show is about a horse funeral, the most perfect horse-funeral-themed half hour of television ever aired. Li’l Sebastian, a miniature horse mysteriously beloved by the entire population of Pawnee, has died. Each character’s reaction is pitch-perfect, somehow both loveable and insane. Man, myth and legend Ron Swanson: “I have cried twice in my life. Once when I was 7 and I was hit by a school bus. And then again when I heard that Li’l Sebastian had passed.” Hyperactive health freak Chris Traeger responds with terror at his own unavoidable demise, while Leslie and Ben are forced to scramble to hide their illicit relationship (with the bonus revelation of their role-playing preferences: “And this is how Eleanor Roosevelt would kiss.”) The characters rallying together to put on a funeral that the little horse deserves is, of course, entirely weird, but there’s something touching about it for each of them: real-world emotional stakes for a horse funeral that features a character getting his eyebrows burned off in a giant fireball.

    “Parks & Rec” uses its emotional power to create a wide range of successful comic duos (Leslie and Ron, Ron and April, Leslie and Ann, Ben and Leslie, Chris and Ben) with interesting and dynamic relationships. The fraught but affectionate dynamic between government-loving Leslie Knope and her boss, avowed libertarian Ron Swanson, would be less funny without its accumulated mutual respect, and less heartwarming without its constant snafus.

    Incidentally, the formula created the most adorable sitcom marriage of all time. Screw Jim and Pam, who took six seasons to get married — Andy and April hosted a dinner party that turned out to be an undercover wedding, planned completely on a whim. (Andy: “I cannot emphasize how little we thought about it.”) April is Ron’s sarcastic, unmotivated intern who claims to hate everyone; Andy’s an overgrown man-child whose tenure on the show began when he fell into a giant pit. Together, they have a completely functional, relatable marriage that doesn’t need will-they-or-won’t-they tension to stay aloft.

    April’s wedding vows: “I guess I kind of hate most things. But I never really seem to hate you. So I want to spend the rest of my life with you, is that cool?”

  9. Obsession is back: "Mad Men" takes out its trash

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    In case the sudden uptick in Facebook activity from that one friend who fancies themselves to be yet another wise-cracking, well-suited account man at the gin-soaked, ever struggling Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce hasn’t tipped you off already, season five of “Mad Men” premiered on AMC this Sunday.

    Expectations ran high for the two hour episode, diehard “Mad Mennies” (think Trekkies, but with better taste in clothing) needed a quip from cynical partner Roger Sterling, a sassy dig from master secretary Joan Harris, and, of course, an emotional breakthrough mid-pitch from the man himself, Don Draper. When a show runs for four seasons, assumptions build around how the characters can and will act.

    The premiere defied those assumptions. Between the fall of 1965 and Memorial Day 1966, we see that Joan, weighed down by her baby, has left the office; that Pete Campbell is starting to bald; that someone in the costume department recently discovered the color orange — hidden somewhere near the shag carpets and leftovers from filming the first Pink Panther movie. As Peggy herself remarks about surprisingly still-married Don Draper, “I don’t recognize that man.”

    Much of this can be attributed to changes in history. Racial tension, once a ominous hum behind the character drama, explodes when civil rights protestors shout with pride on Madison Avenue. Perhaps the most painful reveal occurs when the stuffy British Lane Pryce steps over trash, out of his Taxi, and into an unkempt city street. New York is dirty. The clean swept, white washed, utopia that people like Don Draper sold doesn’t even exist on the show anymore.

    The early seasons of “Mad Men” had the dubious advantage of taking place in that utopia. Just as “Friends” operated on the semi-ridiculous premise that six 20-something’s could pay Manhattan rent, “Mad Men” stipulated that men could drink too much and abuse their wives, but that we would still identify with them because the logic of their world just wasn’t the same as ours. Sure Don’s a bastard, but he’s just trying to find himself in a society where men were bastards. A lot of this is due to the finely articulated beauty that lies at the heart of Mad Men’s world. Everybody in Sterling Cooper looks good, is shot well and dresses impeccably.

    All the depravity in the show, though undeniably present, is tempered by its own aesthetic. Forgetting what they’re celebrating, people host “Mad Men” parties and choose favorite characters to imitate. The show is largely responsible for resurrecting 60s fashion and for championing the return of the skinny tie.

    Critics of “Mad Men” often target its style, arguing that focusing on appearance leaves gaps in character development, or allows the actors to get away with bad work, or even presents a vision of the 60s that never existed. I disagree. These characters sell themselves for a living. Don Draper, formerly Dick Whitman, wakes up in the morning and asks himself, what would Don Draper wear? Clothing, style, everything in “Mad Men” is a weapon, a way of selling persona, one’s own way of life. It’s only a coincidence that we buy Don’s product as much as anyone else.

    If the season five premiere is any indication, this season, though maintaining that aesthetic, is going to question how powerful it can be. The episode was bookended by civil rights protestors, first being water bombed by a rival firm then answering Don’s joke “equal opportunity” ad en masse. These problems matter. Compared to the delicate intrigue of office politics, they have weight.

    “Man Men” has always been about people who sell solutions rather than solve problems, and nowhere is that more present than in Don’s new life with his sexpot Canadian secretary, Megan. Her surprise birthday rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou” at Don’s party (available on iTunes!) delivers on her promise that “after this party, everyone will want to go home and have sex.” Don has bought a new life with her, but both have yet to realize its flaws. The viewer, however, has the privilege of Sally Draper’s perspective, who wanders disoriented through her new home, realizing the false promise — the bathroom door leads to dad’s new girl — of her new home.

    In a beautiful world, dirt is more fascinating than anything else. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce may tell you that it doesn’t exist, that you can buy a life that’s squeaky clean, that beans do ballet, but the dirt will always creep in. Fans may not want to acknowledge it, but the dirty and ugly are everywhere — in race relations, city streets and even the knots of Megan’s formerly white shag carpet. Beauty, sex and style sell, but dirt, trash, loss and change matter. “Mad Men” knows that; that’s why it still works.

  10. Jon Stewart makes fun of East Haven mayor

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    Remember that time the mayor of East Haven said he would support Latinos by eating tacos? Jon Stewart remembers, too.

    On last night’s episode of The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart discussed how Rick Santorum said Mitt Romney was “the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.” Stewart one-upped Santorum, showing the now-infamous clip of East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo telling a reporter “I might have tacos when I go home” when asked about how he could support the Latino community.

    According to Stewart, Romney is at least a step up from “taco mayor.” Watch the clip here — Stewart makes the Maturo joke at the 3:40 mark.

  11. O’Reilly Factor takes critical look at Sex Week

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    Fox News offered a fair and balanced report on Sex Week 2012 in a Thursday segment on the O’Reilly Factor.

    Jesse Watters, a producer for Bill O’Reilly’s show, spun a few interviews of Yalies into an insightful look at Sex Week. His short segment features students — representing a broad cross section of the campus community — forced to justify the place of a controversial sex education program in an ever-changing world.

    In the segment, Watters struggles to understand college life at Yale. In an attempt to relate to one female student, an interview ends abruptly after the Fox producer and Trinity graduate claims, “When I was in college, every week was Sex Week.” The student appears visibly miffed and walks away.

    Unfortunately, most Yalies missed the Tuesday descent of O’Reilly’s gang to Yale’s campus. Next time, we’ll have to be sure we take a break from Yeats and do more to flatter the number one network in cable news.