Ripper Street – a show with potential that ultimately fails because it tries to be Game of Thrones

My Granddad was hugely into detective stories. I’m currently going through his combined anthology of Sherlock Holmes, more on that much later. He also enjoyed television mysteries as well. Perry Mason was perhaps his favorite. Yet as best as I can figure a good chunk of detective and crime fiction changed at the beginning of this century.

Let’s say my Granddad and I sat down to watch a new show Circa 2017. The protagonist is a guy we’ll call Smith. Smith solves crimes as a bitter disgruntled detective. He’s an alcoholic estranged from his wife and doesn’t always play by the book. Good so far, right? And so the usual stereotypes play out for the first few episodes. Then, in episode 5 Smith has a moral crisis based upon some situation. He’s forced to make a choice.

In 1988, Smith would choose the lesser of two evils and make a hard but ultimately moral decision. Then the episode would end with him getting tanked in a bar. In 2017, Smith would shoot somebody in the back of the head and dispose of the body. My Granddad would get up, turn off the television, and walk away never to return.

And thus do we get 2017’s version of television detective fiction in BBC’s Ripper Street. A show with limitless potential that ultimately descends into a nightmare of confusion, awfulness, and moral ambiguity that leaves you wanting to go hide under some coats with a flock of puppies.

This is all the more depressing because all the pieces for a superb piece of detective fiction are in place at the start of this show. Series lead Matthew Macfadyen, who the ladies will best remember as Keira Knightley’s Mr Darcy, is a cloth cut leading man late 19th Century thinking detective even down to the way he holds his lapels. Jerome Flynn, of Game of Thrones fame, is the brutal sergeant with the heart of gold. The unknown Adam Rothenberg is the rogue American doctor with a chip for life.

The three of them are put into a depiction of 19th Century London that’s both gorgeous and hard earned. Victorian Imperial Britain doesn’t look like much fun from the gutters of Whitechapel. Every detail of the set, the costumes, the music transports you to this age of humanity. And for a while this show works as a decent piece of detective fiction, if some of the plots are a bit far-fetched, and is a generally good watchable show. Not coincidently, season one has the highest ratings. Then things go downhill, both for the show and in ratings. Why?

Because this is a show run of 2012-2017, it’s important to remember what a successful television show thinks it must achieve. The legendary crime shows of our era are apparently Breaking Bad, or Narcos, or whatever similar program is out there. In other words, the focus is either on the criminals, or an anti-hero. I think this all began with the success of The Wire, an admittedly spectacular show which was one of the first to take a real long hard look at the reality of policing in the modern world.

But now things are in overdrive. Now it’s simply not good enough to run a standard piece of detective fiction. This is too soft, considered naïve, or not what the audience wants. The audience apparently wants Game of Thrones, a show where no character, no one is worthy of total admiration. Where there is no good or evil, just eternal grey. Where brutality reigns, and nobody’s hands are in any way clean.

Ripper Street avoids all of this in the first season or two, then it dramatically and noticeably turns. And thus we get what instead? Before we’re done Macfadyen’s reputable Inspector Reid commits two cold blooded murders and cheats on his mentally handicapped wife at least twice. Now here’s a protagonist you can root for!

Indeed, at one point or another every single major character in this series commits a murder. Several of them are accomplices to many other murders. It’s hard to tell who has a higher body count by the end of this series, the criminal underworld of London, or our supposed main characters.

If one goes by the theory that the intent of television is not to make you feel depressed or awful and is meant to entertain you or help you escape from the routine of a grinding life, then you generally need to imagine that some of the characters in a show you should root for. You want them to succeed, be happy, or at least find some measure of peace. Every single character in Ripper Street loses. Every single character is worse off at the end then they were at the beginning. There is no redemption, no answers, only chaos and despair.

This is very much in the vein of Game of Thrones. I no longer watch Game of Thrones but generally keep abreast of what happens in the show. And I’m always struck in discussions with friends or coworkers who still watch and who try to self-rationalize what they see on screen. They seem to think somehow that by the end of Game of Thrones it will all somehow all work out. They talk themselves into it. Almost as if they need it.

They typically will focus on Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen as an example of the good one, or the one to root for, or the one who by the end of the series will emerge with at least some sense of accomplishment. This is in fact a specific plot point brought up within the show itself, where Danny is there to break the cycle, to stop the chaos, to bring some sense of peace to an absolutely horrific world.

But I always ask my friends and coworkers why this must be so? Why must, or should, Game of Thrones end in such a way? Why can’t the white walkers just kill everybody in the last episode? Why can’t Daenerys end up on the throne atop a pile of murdered corpses? Why must there be any redemption or peace at all, when all that’s occurred thus far is chaos and has no meaning?

Ripper Street ends this way. Inspector Reid himself is reduced in the final episode to admitting to his corrupt boss that there is only chaos. That he believes there is no meaning in his work. That all his efforts are/were pointless. That after decades as a policeman he has nothing to show for it but an empty street consumed by violence, murder, dead friends, and hopelessness. He ends the show alone in his office reviewing menial reports, alone, without purpose, without hope.  How uplifting!

I think my Grandfather would ask of such a show: What’s the point? What in the end is the point of Ripper Street? If you want to feel awful about life, about humanity, you can just read the news each morning. It’s right there in your face. To me, fiction’s purpose is to entertain, to give you an escape from the grind, and to explore some of the deeper themes of life on this floating rock. It’s there to give you some characters you can relate to, get to know, and ultimately to cheer for. You share their journey, learn with them, and learn about their life, and yours too.

But when Game of Thrones is your template, none of these things are evident. Ripper Street just leaves you a blank slate, without emotion, an emptiness. So I must ask: Is this the show’s point? Is this how they wanted the viewer to feel? Perhaps, and if so, the creators and writers achieved their goal. But why is this a valid goal for a detective fiction television series? Why is any of this necessary? What’s the point?

Does detective fiction need to be some kind of bubble wrapped clean shaven fairy tale where the protagonist is a constant paragon of virtue and can do no wrong? Of course not. This is a much more mature world and smarter television audience than 1988. But, I submit that what we have on today’s television has gone so far over the mark as to be just about unwatchable.

I don’t need my detective fiction to go so far over the edge of nihilism that we can’t even get a lead character who doesn’t commit murder. This says something about our culture, or at least about the state of television today. This is, to me, both a very sad state of affairs, and in the end, is just not very entertaining.

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Our heroes?

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they get away with it

Being rich and powerful must be sweet.  You can basically do whatever you want.  You can buy expensive cars or booze or giraffes.  Or I guess sexually harass whoever you want.  Now you might have been shocked by the idea that Harvey Weinstein could do so many horrible things to so many women for decades without getting exposed, but when you really think about it this is pretty straightforward.

Why didn’t at least one of his many victims (especially in this twisted age of social media) say even one or two things to someone that made this stick before last week.  Some of the most well known and powerful celebrity women and feminist advocates on the planet have now fingered this guy.  Why didn’t one of them tweet like three years ago, “Harvey Weinstein is a deviant sexual predator, he tried to rape me. #rape #yesallwomen”

Why?  Because Weinstein was powerful.  It’s as simple as that.  Weinstein was one of the top five guys in Hollywood.  He ended people’s careers in seconds.  It’s the way of things.  One of the themes I’ve noticed these last few days as women finally spoke out is their internal dialogue about what was going through their brains when Weinstein did his evil acts.

All these women in their own way mention some kind of cost / benefit analysis.  They’re in fear and protection mode as they try and escape the clutches of this shit creep.  But at the same time their brain is in fear mode about what Weinstein will do to them if they don’t give in.  This type of analysis is older than humanity itself.  It’s been playing out with evil rich and powerful men since before fire was invented.

We’d like to think in our super modern and connected culture that people can no longer get away with this.  But they still do, because it’s still human nature.  All the tweets in the world can’t change the human brain.

Regardless of what you think of Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy I think you can make a reasonable claim that if either of those guys worked at the Sizzler for minimum wage, that both of them would have done severe jail time and been disgraced.  Instead, they are both essentially American heroes.

I’m shocked that Dennis Hastert ever got caught for the horrible things he did to boys.  But if you’ll remember, Hastert wasn’t initially caught for sexual crimes.  They wrapped up Hastert for violating the government limit of how many $10K bank account withdrawals you can make without reporting it to the tax man.  Only later did the authorities realize what the money was for.  Otherwise Hastert would have gotten away with it.

I’m not sure what all this means, other than that as always humanity is on a perpetual quest to self improvement.  It also means you have to take a rather cynical view of what people say.  Especially if the person talking is rich and powerful.

Weinstein’s been a big time bankroller for women’s rights and so forth for decades.  And that whole time … , well, that’s also why they get away with it.  It’s the smokescreen to cover up who they really are.

Notice how Weinstein is already making the usual public relations statements about screwing up, learning, personal growth, etc.  He doesn’t seem to realize he’s truly done.  He still things he’s in control.  That’s how twisted his brain is.  He still thinks he can get away with it.  That’s the biggest thing to learn about this above all.

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Rich and powerful bad dude, rarely caught.

Leviathan – the movie that makes you realize your life ain’t so bad

Movies can do many things to improve your quality of life. They can make you smile, entertain the hell out of you, make you laugh, scare you of the dark in a good way, and so on. They can also make you realize your life just ain’t that bad. Thus when you wake up in the morning after viewing such a movie you’re like, oh, well, at least I’m not those people.

This is Leviathan. It’s essentially an ancient tale. The weak have their land stolen by the powerful. And things go from there. It just happens to fascinate me because the tale is Russian, and is one of the better Russian movies of the post-Soviet realm. Please be sure to enjoy this kind of thing while you can. For one of two things will likely occur in the near future:

– Filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev will eventually give up his independent streak and be coopted (he’ll sell out) by the totalitarian state (for whatever reason) and become a tool of the system like other noted formerly awesome filmmakers such as Nikita Mikhalkov or Zhang Yimou.

or

– Vlad and his buddies will simply ban such films from being made.

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know what you are getting yourself into when the film’s money shot is a distraught child sitting next to a whale skeleton

Leviathan is set in modern Russia’s north. Not Siberia, but rather the Kola Peninsula. Specifically Murmansk Oblast, home to reindeer, discarded nuclear submarine hulks, fish processing infrastructure, and lots of other cold things. It’s a place that all things being equal, human beings probably have no business living there.

The first few minutes of the movie are nothing but nature shots as Zvyagintsev makes damn sure you realize this place is the end of the planet. Not a word of dialogue occurs until about five or ten minutes in as you the viewer are acclimated to a wasteland of concrete, rock, and snow. This tone remains throughout the entire film.

The protagonist is Kolya, a middle aged car mechanic, drunk, husband, hothead, father, and part time firearms enthusiast who is having his fairly decent sized home unjustly expropriated by the state for a fraction of its total value. He enlists the help of his friend and/or brother who’s a lawyer from Moscow. Also within the mix are Kolya’s second wife and son. Crucially, his son is by his first wife.

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As you can imagine in this kind of movie, everything goes swell. The local mayor is a paragon of decency, the courts do their job well, the cops can be counted upon to keep law and order justly, folks drink only in moderation, the local economy is humming along with glorious abandon, kids get along well with their parents and are otherwise well adjusted, and so on.

Bizarrely this wire brush beating of a flick was actually 1/3 funded by the Russian State, who apparently didn’t bother to read or approve the script. I’m rather shocked they let the film stand as is. I think the reasons are thus:

– Vlad is only pictured in the movie once, as a nondescript portrait in the local mayor’s office. He is otherwise not mentioned or discussed.

– Since all of the film’s arch-villains are all local politicians and authorities, it fits perfectly with the authoritarian propaganda narrative. As in, if folks view the Russian state as predatory and corrupt, it’s because the local authorities are to blame, not national level leadership. After all, it’s your local traffic cop bribing you on a Wednesday afternoon, not the Minister of Forestry. If only Vlad knew the truth, he’d clean up that local filth.

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fuck all four of these parasites

So Zvyagintsev got away with it, somehow. The result is a darkly haunting movie that deals with living under a predatory state that sees its citizens as nothing more than cash machines. But Zvyagintsev takes the story to another level by incorporating the deep flaws of average human beings that struggle because they’ve had all the powers of man and nature pinning their necks against bare rock for almost all their lives.

It this weird, twisted, screwed up world where lunatics are being voted into office by those who rightly feel the modern world has left them behind, it’s worth exploring a character study on how human beings who would otherwise be normal, can be turned into puddles of despair by their surroundings and the events that shape their lives. That is, no matter how squared away your life currently is, if you lived there too, maybe you’d be just like them. It’s a very cynical thought, but worth exploring.

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not the place to live

why do we enjoy some bad movies and hate the others?

So you catch three hotel movies across three days because you’ve lost your mind with work and they crank in at 13%, 6%, and 14% on the Rotten Tomatoes cult. Is your quality of life improved or degraded? Well, it depends. At home you’d suffer because there’s so much else to do. But in a ditch hotel that for cost purposes is at a place where you can walk nowhere, where your boss has the only rental car and won’t share, and so you’re just killing time? Well, it can work. And so it did.

Say I get a movie at home and folks say it’s good, but it ain’t, then I get angry. When I get a movie at the hotel and I know it’s bad, and it’s bad, I can just laugh at the movie and enjoy it. Then I’ve killed off a section of the multi-day six pack and at least about 90 minutes of my evening. Then I can read some and go to bed. One night closer to going home.

And so on my latest lengthy epic journey at one point I caught two movies in a Texas hotel and the third one the day after in Wisconsin. They were Black Rose, Extraction, and Last Knights. Three movies that nobody has ever heard of let alone watched. None of these three films ever hit the American theater. They were available to my eyeballs purely out of Netflix’s desire to throw content at you.

So where did this leave me? Black Rose is not really good, but holds your interest. Extraction extracted my brain. I actually enjoyed Last Knights, I mean I really liked Last Knights.

Why? Let’s get into it! Because why not? Oh my, I’m such a loser!

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Black Rose

From a bunch of joint American and Russian production companies you’ve never heard of comes 46 year old Alexander Nevsky’s masterpiece in which he directs, writes, and stars. Nevsky is apparently a former bodybuilder. Black Rose is not his first starring role nor journey into the movies, but it sure seems so.

The plot is brutally simple, Russian girls are getting killed in LA. The LAPD can’t get it done. Nevsky is a Russian cop who’s brought in as a ringer. He teams up with LAPD reject and former time assassin Kristanna Loken in a bid to stop the serial killer, before he kills again, and time runs out, for another Russian woman, and she is murdered, by the killer.

It’s everything you would expect it to be. We get dialogue worthy of 1987’s best action flicks, Nevsky has several (like seven) long montage shots of him walking on LA beaches, investigating Russian businesses, and shopping at the local K-Mart. Nevksy is a loose cannon. Loken is the more scientific analyst. They get Adrian Paul to play the Chief, which is backwards, but whatever it works.

But it’s the mystery that actually holds your interest. For whatever reason, Nevksy’s likely use of Soviet weightlifter drugs did not inhibit his ability to write a decent murder plot. I always love a good mystery that keeps you guessing until the last moment. Even if after you know the answer it seems dumb. And boy does the villain’s final answer sure seem dumb. But, I was into it, I wanted to know the answer.

My biggest problems with this flick are that there’s not nearly enough action and Nevsky is too much like 1980’s robot Arnold. When I’m promised a bad action movie, I need stupid action. Nevsky only kills like three people in this whole movie. I think a car only blows up once. There might be six minutes of combined action available. I guess Nevsky was trying to be serious with his work? But come on.

Also, Nevsky seems to think that acting like robot Arnold circa 1982 (before he could speak English) is the way to go. He spends the entire movie with a mask of the T-100. He doesn’t even really yell at the bad guys. It looks like he popped motion sickness pills before each scene. I’ll try not to get into him too much on this, Arnold only became charismatic on screen once he knew the language, but it makes the flick less fun when the main character is a block of wood.

Overall, we’ll give it two stars.

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Extraction

Do you like money? Who doesn’t. I know for sure Bruce Willis does. Because it’s the only explanation for his presence in this garbage flick. This thing barely qualifies as a functioning movie. It’s got a plot, characters, and they have like things in the movie, like cars and buildings. But that’s about it.

There’s the CIA, spies, people get beat up, whatever. I think this line actually appears in the film, “Sir, I cannot eliminate the target as we have not determined where the package is at this time. We should consult our latest protocol.” Did I watch it? Yes. Did it serve its hotel purpose? Yes. Is it one of the worst I’ve ever seen?

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Last Knights

Why? Why do I like this movie? Apparently folks hate it. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s well shot, has great acting, a good story that you don’t realize until like 3/4 of the way through is based off a classic Earth tale, and it’s different. As far as these sword films go, it’s done differently. Don’t let the foolish studio generated clickbait movie title fool you, the folks who made the film clearly cared. Why do we enjoy some bad movies and hate the others?

1) Acting: With Last Knights we get Clive Owen and Morgan Freeman. They don’t disappoint. Both of them are superb in this flick. These guys have been in some terrible, terrible movies, so it’s not like their Shakespeare’s ghost or anything, but they both give it a great effort and it pays off. Their characters effectively suit their acting talents. I don’t normally like Owen, but in this film he’s great, probably the most I’ve liked him in a role. Freeman is Freeman, you know what you get, and I’ve always liked Freeman. Contrast that with Extraction where Willis looks like he’s hungry and can’t wait for the scene to end so he can go get a sandwich. I’ve already talked about Nevsky. The other two leads in Extraction failed middle school drama and/or one or both of them are MMA fighters which is why they were cast, I can’t remember which.

2) Unique: I won’t blow the whole plot by saying that this is a different sword slashing movie. In the first five minutes you realize this. This is (by way of Freeman’s narration) a multi-racial society ruled by a cast of knights that’s different from your usual feudal / medieval structure. They also go out of their way to create a different look to this world. The costumes, the sets, the way people behave is about as far from Game of Thrones or whatever Viking stuff you can get. Even their swords look unique. When Hollywood can only generate films based on characters that were first created in 1936, it’s refreshing to see a film willing to do crazy stuff and take risks. Yes, ultimately you discover that the film is based on an ancient tale, but it’s so subtle and revealed so late in the movie that the surprise is actually welcome and exciting. It sneaks up on you and you’re happy that you recognize the tale that you’re now in.

3) Interesting Dialogue: In the first twenty minutes we get great scenes where Owen talks to some page, Owen and Freeman speak, Freeman meets the villain, and so on. Whereas Black Rose and Extraction have dialogue written at the fourth grade level, Last Knights had me rewinding scenes so I could watch them again. It wasn’t necessarily because the dialogue was fast paced or that I didn’t understand what was going on, I just felt like I wanted to rewatch it immediately. I almost never do this. You can tell they went through a lot of trouble to write sharp, exciting scenes right up front. You may have met Owen’s character only seven minutes prior, but you already know who he is, what he’s about, and already you like him and are rooting for him. And who can’t root for Freeman as the wise revered father of the realm? Did Nevsky entertain me? Yes. Was I ever actually rooting for him? Nyet.

Catch Last Knights if you can. Catch Black Rose if you’re bored or something. You can bin Extraction.  Will you love Last Knights as much as I did? Or is this just a fluke? Well, on the Rotten Tomatoes cult the audience reviews for these flicks (unlike the critic reviews) have a disparity. Black Rose gets 10%, Extraction 17%, and Last Knights jumps all the way to 46%. So clearly I’m not the only degenerate in the audience who liked Last Knights so much more. I say give it a shot, and feel free to blame me if it bombs for you.

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contemplating Sean Bean’s imminent demise

Sean Bean partially narrates this game I’m playing and it got me chuckling.  Once upon a time folks got to see Sean Bean brutally decapitated in Game of Thrones (that show I no longer watch).  This was the first of many main character deaths in that horror fetish of a series.  But at the time folks tried to rationalize what had just occurred.  I specifically remember saying to my brother, “It’s that much more dramatic because it’s Sean Bean.”

Wait, what?  That’s probably one of the dumber things I’ve ever said.  And man, do I spout some dumb shit.

For you see, Sean Bean does in fact die in everything he’s in.

And here’s even a Funny Or Die skit where Sean expresses his desire for a piranha based doom.

Sean Bean is only 58 years old, but perchance before he hits 60, he’ll be attacked by aliens.  They won’t come to conquer Earth, they’ll just come for Sean Bean.  And he’ll probably be smiling.

“Oh, hay there lads, got a ray gun I see?  Well, make it slow, if ya can.”

we reaffirm our commitment to “giving it a hard time just for the sake of it”

The goons of humanity who try and remote control other people’s lives are shockingly transparent. So when the Communist Party backed a movie they placed supreme faith in, gee, who would have figured they’d lose their minds when it turned out to be the terrible, mindless, bad action flick everybody expected?

Beyond my original thoughts on all this, I’ll simply put down the international failure of this movie to two concepts:

1) Zhang got himself trapped (as many a good filmmaker has) by the power of special effects. Since computers allow him to do anything he wants, he lets his mind go insane. Simple decent scenes become a mesh of digital action nonsense so disconnected from reality that the audience can’t connect with the movie. It’s like watching a bad video game or seizure inducing Japanese anime. You don’t feel anything. See the Star Wars prequels or the Transformers films for similar forays into the awfulness.

2) Despite (1), a whole bunch of movies succeed in this format and make a ton of money, see Fast & Furious. I think the Red goons wanted The Great Wall to make an insane amount of money. If it did, it would have been a critical first step of an organic Chinese blockbuster. The problem is nobody cared. Folks probably saw the terrible trailers for this movie and were like, “eh, whatever”.

The movie debuts in America tomorrow. So I guess we’re about to find out just how dumb the American theatergoer is. If this movie makes $300M in the States, I’m moving to the Moon. But the Chinese theatergoer already figured this out, and they weren’t happy.

But hey, even though the movie sucks, it’s not the movie’s fault. But rather you, the viewer, who is wrong. Per The Economist, Xinhua (the Party mouthpiece) called the film “innovative” and accused online detractors of “giving it a hard time just for the sake of it”.

I’ll wear that appellation with pride. As I hope every Chinese citizen who rightly criticized this movie online will. We can’t let the goons control human lives. To the point that the bad, is made to be good. Just because they say so.

The question again, is can you make good art, a good movie when the Party is pulling the creative levers? I don’t think so. Zhang used to make great movies, when he was a rebel and against the Party. Now he’s a team player and the art is over.

I hope he learns from this, dumps the handlers, and goes back to making great films.

The Great Wall

Human actor plays medieval part in movie about aliens who got to Earth on an asteroid and attack once every 60 years. Eh, wait, what? Well, what could go wrong?

first the circus, then the zoo

When I was a young lad I looked forward to many things, Christmas cheer, birthday presents, sports games, Sicilian thug poker, and my ability to selfishly find ways to fold space and time. But I only ever kept a calendar checklists for one thing, the circus.

In retrospect I have no idea why. I mean, I love the circus, but it wasn’t like I was going to visit the Moon in a spaceship filled with supermodels. But for whatever reason, I would X off those days until I got to the O and got to go see the elephants and all those lunatic performers.

Well, so much for passing down that tradition. With the circus set to close, millions of children everywhere will have to find some other cool event to count down to on their smartphone’s calendar application powered by Google Android Colossus (your kiddy’s calendar schedule is privacy ad fodder for Google’s maw).

Could Ringling Brothers have survived in our Internets era?  Gee for all our sakes I sure hope so.  I really hope modern entertainment entails something other than freaking VR hooked directly to our brain stems while we foam at the mouth.

But what I do know is the circus’ death was accelerated by the animal rights folks.  Even the elephants were already scheduled to go away, well before Ringling Brothers threw in the whole towel.  What’s a circus without the elephants?

Reading the animal rights folks coo over their victory makes me sad.  Wow, that circus sure was a lot of fun.  No more.  For you see, taking an animal from the wild (where nature is a vicious wheat thresher) and giving an elephant a longer life expectancy and quality of life while brining young children joy and knowledge of nature is barbaric.

I might be (am) a lunatic.  But I’ll just go say this right now: first the circus, then the zoo.  Every animal rights argument that you can apply to the circus, equally applies to the zoo.  Now that the haters have claimed one scalp, why would they stop?  I’ll just say (roughly) that within three decades or so zoos will be severely curtailed and/or closed.

And kids will only get to see a tiger or lion in a book, on their smartphone app, or on a safari for the ultra-rich.  To the activists I would say, think folks don’t care about nature now?  Wait until they close the zoo and kiddies can only see apes in books.