TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The HBO comedy series "Veep," which satirizes American politics, has started its sixth season. It also just won a Peabody Award. My guest, Frank Rich, has been an executive producer of the series since it started. It seems like a perfect job for him. He understands the theater aspect of politics. He served as The New York Times theater critic from 1980 to 1993. For about eight years after that, he wrote a column for The Sunday Times about the intersection of politics and popular culture, a subject he continues to write about for New York magazine.
We'll talk about what's currently happening at that busy intersection. But let's start by talking about "Veep." The main character, Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, started the series as the inept vice president. Later in the series when the president resigned to take care of his sick wife, Selina inherited the role of leader of the free world, a job she was totally ill-equipped for. She wants power and fame, but has no vision, no core beliefs. And even if she did, she wouldn't have the savvy to translate that into policy. After serving as president for less than a year, her term expired and she ran for president.
The election ended in a tie in the Electoral College, requiring the activation of arcane congressional rules to decide the winner. And she lost. When the new season starts, Selina's trying to redefine herself and do the things ex-presidents do. But what she really wants is to be president again. In this scene from the season premiere, she's arranged to travel to Omaha and reveals her secret motive for the trip to her assistant Gary, played by Tony Hale.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VEEP")
JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) I'm going to tell you something, OK?
TONY HALE: (As Gary Walsh) OK, OK.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) But it's top secret.
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Oh, I love secrets.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) I'm going to go to Omaha because...
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) OK.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) ...Omaha is a 20-minute drive right across the border...
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) OK, OK.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) ...To Council Bluffs, Iowa...
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Beautiful.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) ...Where they have their annual Madison Monroe dinner.
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Fun.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Which you have to go to if you're going to run for president again. (Laughter) I'm going to run for president again.
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) That is a great idea.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) I know, I know.
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) (Laughter) I think you're definitely ready for this.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Yeah, I feel so great about this.
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) (Laughter) You should.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Yeah.
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Are you sure you're ready for this?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) So I'm going to tell the whole family about it tonight.
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) OK.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) You know, I mean, such as it is - whatever. And if any one of them objects, then it's OK. I just won't run.
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Well, I mean, you got my vote.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Why would I need your vote?
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) You wouldn't. It's just - what a crazy idea.
GROSS: (Laughter) Frank Rich, welcome to FRESH AIR.
FRANK RICH: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: So let's talk first about the new season of "Veep." So Selena was vice president, then takes over as president. And now her presidency is over. And the clip we played is a little misleading 'cause it sounds like she's going to run again. She's not going to run again because she's got no support from anybody, including her own people (laughter). Outside of maybe...
RICH: Including her own family (laughter).
GROSS: Including her own family, outside of maybe Gary. So why did you want to make it clear right at the start of this new season that she's not going to run again? That part is over.
RICH: We wanted to do that because I think that, you know, as David Mandel, the showrunner, would say, we didn't want to set up a false expectation that we were going into another campaign cycle on the show. So we really wanted to establish she is truly a former president. She's dealing with all the anxiety, disrespect, headaches of entering private life after a career in the public sector as a senator even before she was a vice president and president.
GROSS: As writers, did you no longer want to write her in the White House? Did you want a new set of storylines for her?
RICH: I would say, you know, that Dave Mandel, the showrunner, pitched the idea of this season and last season when he took over the show from the creator, Armando Iannucci, two years ago. And he always had pitched - and this totally comes from him - that she would lose the election in a tie, as she did at the end of last season, and that she would be in private life the season we're showing now and that was it. And, of course, since he was new to the show, he had never worked on a lot of the previous stories.
But he just saw that as a natural trajectory to do something different and to deal with this character, Selina Meyer, and all her humanity or lack of humanity in different settings so we're not, you know, doing the same thing over again to be sure but also exploring her as a character and taking her in new directions, even into a new city. She settles in New York.
GROSS: So as an executive producer, did you immediately think, that's a great idea, or did you think, like, wait, no, she has to be vice president or president, that's the premise of the whole series?
RICH: I thought it was fantastically creative. Indeed, it happened when Dave was still thinking of taking over the show when he met with me and Julia Louis-Dreyfus for a drink in Los Angeles. And he pitched this entire thing. And I think both of us were kind of overjoyed at his creativity. And he really sort of saw around the corner of the show and perhaps a way that we, being so locked into what we'd been doing for the four previous seasons, couldn't.
So the freshness of a - you know, we were taken with it immediately and so was HBO when it was presented to them.
GROSS: So that means that you've had to come up with storylines for an ex-president (laughter).
GROSS: Right now she's doing all the standard things. She's writing her memoir, though she has a pretty small advance that she has been given.
RICH: (Laughter) Yes.
GROSS: She wants a Presidential Library, although nobody seems to want to fund it.
RICH: Yes, she's...
GROSS: And she's, you know, she's trying to, like, burnish her legacy, be that as it may (laughter)...
RICH: Yes, and then she was...
GROSS: ...In any way that she can.
RICH: Although she likes to think of herself as being a half-termer like John Kennedy, she's not. She didn't last that long, and she inherited the presidency by default to begin with. And so she doesn't have much of a legacy to preserve or burnish. And yet, she is dogged and incredibly narcissistic in trying to seize any bit of the limelight that she can.
GROSS: So let's hear another clip. And this is a clip with Selina Meyer, the former president. After having gone to her predecessor's new Presidential Library, she really wants one too. So she's on a borrowed private plane with her current very small staff - Gary, played by Tony Hale, and Richard, played by Sam Richardson, and Andrew, her ex-husband, played by David Pasquesi. And Selina's talking to them about wanting her own library.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VEEP")
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) I'm the only living president who doesn't have one. And you want to know why that is?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Because you served less than one year?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) No, because nobody gives me any respect. I was a two-term senator. I was a congresswoman.
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) A mother.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) No. I was the first woman vice president. And America cannot forget that.
SAM RICHARDSON: (As Richard Splett) Never forget. Oh, sorry, that's the Holocaust. Totally forgot.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) I need a monument to Selina Meyer.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) An institution.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Selina Meyer belongs in an institution.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) It was a spa.
RICHARDSON: (As Richard Splett) Let's do this.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Oh, you know what? We're on an airplane. I know that.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What are you thinking about for a location?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) It's going to be Yale. Yale has the prestige. And, boys, it's where I went to law school. So, I mean, Yale's just perfect.
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) Your outfits alone are going to be a wing - dresses...
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) I know.
HALE: (As Gary Walsh) ...Belts.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Now, look, I want you to start lining up architects. I want to talk to every Tom, Dick and Gary out there.
RICHARDSON: (As Richard Splett) Maybe a female candidate.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Well, we're not redoing a kitchen here, you know? And we need to tell them that the Kennedy Library is a reference point 'cause, you know, he was also a part-termer.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, that's Julia Louis-Dreyfus...
RICH: (Laughter) I was like, yeah (laughter).
GROSS: So have you been watching carefully how Hillary is handling having lost her election and how President Obama is dealing with being out of office now that he's just begun to emerge again?
RICH: Yes, of course, part of it through the perspective of the show, which is, as I should add perhaps gratuitously, it was written before we knew that Hillary Clinton was going to lose and, of course, well before we were watching her post-election blues and Obama's former presidential status. And watching them, you know, we see mirror images sometimes of what we did, you know, which is just amazing to us, the sort of Hillary in the woods.
Selina's not quite in the woods, but she is sort of wandering around not knowing what to do, how to assert herself, where to speak, what to say about anything, including, to some extent, the president who beat her, the female president who beat her. And Obama, of course, who's having what seems to be about as, at this early stage, as graceful and delightful an ex-presidency as you can have and has gotten this huge advance for his book, as has the first lady - is in contrast to - a quite stark contrast to Selina's sorry state.
GROSS: So let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Frank Rich. He's an executive producer of the HBO comedy series "Veep." He writes about the intersection of politics and popular culture for New York magazine, wrote a similar column before that for the Sunday New York Times. And before that, he was the longtime theater critic for The New York Times. We're going to take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDENBOY'S "KITTENS OF LUST")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Frank Rich. He's an executive producer of the HBO satirical political comedy series "Veep." And he's the former New York Times Broadway critic, the theater critic and wrote a column for the Sunday Times about the intersection of politics and culture. He also writes about that subject now for New York magazine.
So what did you think the outcome was going to be of the election while you were writing the current season of "Veep"?
RICH: I think everyone in the in the writers' room and on the show felt that, as the rest of the world did, that it would be Clinton. And it's not something we actively talked about because, as you know, we never reference contemporary politicians in the show. We've never mentioned Obama or Trump or Clinton. We - Selina isn't even identified by a political party.
So it's not directly relevant to what we're doing, but the first thing we felt was, as the 2016 election was really heating up last summer, that was just as our previous season - which had this outrageous election plot - on "Veep" was ending. And we thought thank God it's already out there. People have already seen it and, we hope, laughed at it or with it without us having to compete with this raucous Clinton-Trump election which then unfolded because we couldn't have competed with that.
And then we thought after that - oh, how great that we have an ex-president next season, and that'll be a change of pace. We thought it would be an interesting - assuming Hillary was going to be elected, we thought oh, it would be an interesting counterpoint that watch a woman who's not Hillary, Selina Meyer, lose the presidency. And what she was doing might be fascinating or, you know, some interesting bifurcated vision. And then of course that's not what happened. And now we're doubly glad, I guess, that we're not in Washington as much - that we don't - we're not in the White House because we couldn't compete with this White House in terms of sheer farce.
GROSS: You know, you mentioned that people aren't identified by party on "Veep." And I'm wondering why that's true. I mean, certainly - you wouldn't describe yourself as, like, an equal opportunity offender. I mean, you call it as you see it. You write political columns. And...
GROSS: ...You're very straightforward about who you think is doing a good job or a bad job. You call out parties for what they do. So - like, you have no personal interest in maintaining, you know, the facade of neutrality. You don't pretend to be neutral. So - I can't speak for the other people in the "Veep" crew. But, you know, why is it, like, we're not mentioning parties? And how do you feel about that?
RICH: I love it. It was one thing that originally drew me to Armando Iannucci - was exactly a similar thing he did. He did - he wrote and was Oscar-nominated for a movie called "In The Loop." And it was a movie about the run-up to the Iraq War, set both in the State Department and in 10 Downing Street - vicious satire, somewhat in the same vein as the "Veep"-yet-to-be. And the word Iraq was never mentioned in that movie, nor were the political parties of either country at play. And I felt what it allowed him to get at - and this was one of his central ideas in creating "Veep" was - a kind of algorithm of power and how it works. No matter who's in charge and how parties come and go and leaders come and go, there's still something sadly, tragically, comically, fatally the same.
I grew up in Washington - and - long before, obviously, I was a journalist or writing about politics. And I have to say, it really spoke to me in a way that no fictionalization of Washington ever has because I saw that as a kid. I was - my family wasn't in government, but I had a stepfather who was on the fringes of politics and lobbying and all of that. And you saw that one president would go out; one party would go out. One would come in, and it'd still be the same crave and desire for power above all else among most participants. And I - that, to me, is the biggest point of "Veep."
GROSS: You mentioned that your stepfather was on the fringes of lobbying. Exactly what fringe was he on?
RICH: He was a - he was a lawyer, but I've only really understood as an adult what he was really up to. But he was what you'd now call a K-Street lawyer. And in fact, his office was on K Street. And he was in his own little firm, and he represented airlines that, in the days before Reagan deregulated airlines, wanted - had to go through government agencies, like the FAA and others, as I recall, to get routes. You had to - if you - and he represented small international airlines that were always fighting the juggernauts of that time, Pan Am and TWA - if anyone remembers them - he was representing, like, Air Indian and Air France to try to get, like, the New York-London route for them.
And so what did it mean? It meant ingratiating yourself with congressmen and senators and even, in his case, the Johnson White House. He knew Johnson a bit somehow from the late 1940s when they were both coming up in Washington. And he was a small player. But it really was like, you know, cajoling - I guess quasi-bribery - all sorts of shenanigans that I innocently didn't fully understand, now completely understand. And it's just everything I can't stand about Washington was happening right before me on a small scale.
GROSS: So tell us what your job is as an executive producer of "Veep."
RICH: I should say, the title producer can mean many things on any given show as well as from show to show. And also it's different between movies, theater, television - everyone finds it confusing. My job has been a little bit of everything. It's been, obviously, very involved in scripts, being in the writers' room, particularly over the past couple years. When we started a writers' room under Armando, the scripts were sort of distributed more by email and largely in England. So it's there, you know, occasionally pitching stuff but also hearing everything and, in some ways, functioning as a sounding board or an editor or part of the conversation.
It's involved being involved in every, you know, big decision about casting, about promotion, about the credit sequence, about everything dealing with the network and being in production and watching and, you know, the best I can to help manage a room where there - a room - a sound stage where, you know, there are a hundred odd people at any given moment and a lot of things are going on. And it's sort of Mickey and Judy putting on a show, and I'm a part of that. And it's completely different from journalism. And yet there are certain aspects that are - vaguely overlap.
GROSS: You know, well...
RICH: It's - yeah.
GROSS: I'm wondering if your skills as a theater critic are helpful to you now because when you want to criticize something and change it or improve it, you have the language skills. You have the vocabulary to really describe what you think the problem is. And that's a hard thing to put into words for a lot of people.
RICH: I think it's - yes, I think it's from - absolutely from my experience being a theater critic and learning how to articulate and, you know, diagnose problems with plays or figure out why things work in the theater. And I would argue going back to my days as a teenage ticket-taker watching, you know, highly professional Broadway shows in the days when they tried out out of town in cities like Washington. Watching - standing in the back of the theater after taking tickets, watching night after night for free, which I could as an employee, really gifted people - you know, a Mike Nichols, a Jerome Robbins, a Neil Simon, whomever - come and constantly tinker with the plays that they were bringing to New York to get them right, was the best education I could have had as a critic well before I became a critic or even thought of being a critic. And all of that, I feel, has culminated for me in my work on "Veep."
And I'd also add one other aspect to it. Emotionally, I never thought I'd really - I don't know why - I never really thought I wanted to be in the theater. Never - I liked writing. I liked journalism. I liked writing about the theater; that's how I got into journalism. But it turns out, I actually like being in the theater. And so it's kind of turned out to be a dream come true that I didn't know I had of working with a show - being with a show out of town, in a sense, and being part of a company trying to make something that's funny and - ideally - and smart and that people, I hope, will like. And working with artists, you know, terrific actors and writers and other producers and directors - it's been just kind of an emotional high for six years now.
GROSS: My guest is Frank Rich, an executive producer of HBO's "Veep," a columnist for New York magazine and former New York Times theater critic. After a break, we'll talk about one of his favorite episodes of "Veep." Then we'll move on from Selina Meyer to the real president of the U.S., Donald Trump. And Rich will share his Bill O'Reilly story. And TV critic David Bianculli will review the new adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel "The Handmaid's Tale." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "WASHINGTON POST MARCH")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Frank Rich. He's been an executive producer of the HBO comedy series "Veep" since it started. It's now in Season 6. Rich also writes a political column for New York magazine. Before that, he wrote a political column for the Sunday New York Times. He was the Times theater critic from 1980 to '93. "Veep" stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the vice president of the United States who becomes the leader of the free world after the president resigns. When her term expired, she ran for president. But after a recount and an Electoral College tie, she lost. Now she's trying to figure out how to be an ex-president.
We asked you to choose a favorite episode that you were involved in creating. And you chose Season 5, Episode 4, which is one of my favorites. It's the episode titled "Mother." And Selina's mother is dying. She's in the hospital. She's in a coma that she's unlikely to ever emerge from. But all Selina can think about is her chances of winning the presidential election, which had ended in a tie. And now she's hoping for a recount in Nevada and is waiting to see if the recount will be allowed. So while she's obsessing about Nevada - or should I be saying Nevada...
GROSS: ...Her mother has been declared brain dead. And Selina has to decide whether to take her mother off life support. So then her strategist and polling expert Kent Davison comes in, played by Gary Cole. And so they step aside for a private talk. And it looks like he is, like, consoling her and they're having an emotional talk. But here's what they're really saying to each other.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VEEP")
GARY COLE: (As Kent Davison) I don't know if this provides any solace. But ever since your mother's health setback was announced, there has been an outpouring of support that has driven up your favorables (ph).
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) I'm talking about pulling the plug on my mother here. How's a half a percentage point in the polls supposed to sweeten that [expletive] biscuit?
COLE: (As Kent Davison) More like double digits.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyers) Really? But just out of curiosity, if I were to, you know - would that end?
COLE: (As Kent Davison) There's a possibility of a shorter lived but numerically greater outpouring - if you will, a death bump.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyers) Really?
COLE: (As Kent Davison) Really.
GROSS: I love the idea of a death bump.
RICH: The death bump. Let me just say, for the record here, though, I'm very much involved with this episode as a producer. But it was written by two really brilliant "Veep" writers who write as a team, Pete Huyck and Alex Gregory.
GROSS: When I hear that scene, I can't help but wonder how you felt about that scene because I know your mother was in a coma for about a month. She had a car accident. And she was in a coma for a month, and she died. And I know that was, like, you know, obviously a horrible loss for you. And so here is this episode, you know, being hilarious about the mother being in a coma and Selina obsessing about her own chances of winning the presidency. But did you go through any kind of like emotional thinking...
GROSS: ...In working on that scene? Yeah.
RICH: Wow. I don't want to turn you into my shrink. My mother died in 1991, as you said, in a car accident after lingering for a month in a coma in a shock trauma center in Baltimore. And it was such a traumatic thing for me for many reasons, most of which would be obvious.
I couldn't even bring myself to go back to Baltimore. She lived in Washington. Just - that's where she was from the - from 95 where the accident happened and where she'd been, you know, medevaced. And the very first night that I arrived in Baltimore, where "Veep," by happenstance, was shot for its first four seasons - a lot of shows are shot there, "House Of Cards" for instance - I had to go back to Baltimore because that's where the show was. And the cab taking me to the hotel passed that shock trauma center, which I had not seen in, you know, over a decade - roughly a decade. And it was quite upsetting.
And then I thought, my mother would love this. She'd love that I was involved in some form of theater because she inculcated it into to me. So cut to, you know, several years later - four or five years later, we're shooting the "Mother" episode. I very much thought about it, and I felt sad and some of the grief come back. But I also felt that my mother would get a kick out of this Washington spin on such a tragic situation. I think she would have found it funny - I mean, not if it was about her. But she would've found it - the scene itself very funny. And I sort of made my peace with that emotionally and allowed myself to enjoy being in this kind of deserted hospital that we used - it's a location in Los Angeles - to shoot the scenes of Selina's mother dying.
GROSS: So you've written about the intersection of politics and popular culture for years. That's where our new president lives. I mean, he comes from television. I mean, he comes from the world of real estate but also from the world of television. And he's really brought a reality show sensibility to the office. And let's start with, did you watch "The Apprentice"? Like, did you know him as a reality show person before starting to write about him as the candidate or president?
RICH: I had seen "The Apprentice" out of curiosity once or twice, and that's it. I'm not a big reality show watcher in any event. But I mainly knew him as a figure around New York City, a sort of, you know, blowhard real estate tycoon - more flashy than some but a kind of common variety of mogul that you'd see if you live in New York.
GROSS: Do you find it kind of strange that politics has become popular culture - that instead of being obsessed with movie stars, people are really obsessed with Trump and the people he's surrounded himself with? It's the staple for comics now. You know, obviously it's in the tabloids. It's in the front page all the time. It's - everybody tweets about Trump. I mean, it's just - he's kind of taking up all the air in the room. But it's become popular culture in so many ways.
RICH: It has. And it feels, as you said, like overload. I think he is brilliant at creating that. He is a natural showman. It may not be our - my kind of showman, but he understands, possibly at the pre-intellectual kind of gut level - which is true of a lot of people in show business, starting with P.T. Barnum - how to get people - keep people tuned in. So to make outrageous statements, contradict them with more outrageous statements two hours later, hit you from all angles, whether it be TV or Twitter or, you know, whatever else comes to mind, and gin up suspense and be outrageous and keep the audience alert and interested. When you do it with the White House in your possession, and it has some consequence, possibly serious consequence, the stakes are even higher, much higher than on a reality show where they're giving away prizes.
GROSS: I think both, you know, for columnists and for comics, everybody has tried to find where their niche is when it comes to commenting on President Trump. What do you think of as being, like, your place?
RICH: I have to look - say that I look at it a lot through the perspective of - that he has taken something that resembles entertainment and used it to smash a lot of conventional wisdom about how America thinks, runs, what the consensus is. I mean, the thing that I - I find him fascinating to write about and have since his campaign began because he is breaking all the rules. And there is stuff to learn from it. And I've been trying - I feel it's easy to say all the horrible things about him which, in my view, are true - that he's a bully, he is a bigot, he's a misogynist, he doesn't know anything about how to govern, he has no fixed beliefs - I agree with all that, and I've written all of that.
But I also feel it's fascinating to see him smash and force us to look again and pick up the pieces of fixed coordinates in kind of our groupthink about America is. You know, before his campaign, we believed strategists were helpful. We believed that, you know, unlimited spending on campaign budgets and TV ads almost always was - would work out. There are many, many other things he's - we believed that you couldn't call a war hero a coward and get away with it in a national election - that you couldn't, you know, demean women in public and possibly had a major party's ticket and win. Well, he broke all those rules, and he continues to break others. And I think it's - to me, it's interesting to look how that plays out beyond our negative judgment of him.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Frank Rich. He is an executive producer of the HBO comedy series "Veep." He's been in that since the start of the show. He's also The New York Times' former theater critic. He wrote a column for the Sunday Times on the intersection of politics and popular culture, a subject he continues to write about for New York magazine. We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER'S "MIGHTY MIGHTY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Frank Rich, an executive producer of the HBO series "Veep," which is a satire about American politics. And its now started its sixth season. He's also the former New York Times theater critic and wrote a column for the Times about the intersection of politics and popular culture. Now he writes a similar column for New York magazine.
I'd like to ask you about Bill O'Reilly now that he has lost his position as an anchor on Fox News as their big money-maker, I mean, which he was. And, you know, it's interesting - like, Roger Ailes was forced out because of sexual harassment charges against him. And ditto for Bill O'Reilly. As I recall, (laughter) Bill O'Reilly had some not-nice things to say about you on his show. Can you refresh my memory?
RICH: Yeah. I mean, he went after me about Mel Gibson. I was a big critic of Mel Gibson's "Passion Of The Christ" movie, feeling it was anti-Semitic. It is before Gibson was, you know, caught actually saying anti-Semitic things in Malibu. And O'Reilly attacked me on the air repeatedly, maybe ran my photo. It resulted in a lot of crazy hate mail, including threatening hate mail, where - first and only time in my life people actually put their names and addresses...
RICH: ...On letters threatening to, like, kill me, you know. Mel Gibson himself threatened to kill my dog - only I didn't have a dog at the time. So he sided with Gibson who I quickly discovered had purchased an option on a novel Bill O'Reilly had written some years earlier to make into a movie that never happened, whatever the reasons - political, whatever. But, you know, that's a long time ago. And he's gone on to continue in greater and greater success until now.
GROSS: So what's this about Mel Gibson saying he wanted to kill your dog, which you didn't have?
RICH: He gave an interview. There was a piece in The New Yorker - frankly, a horrible piece written by someone who, A, was later let go by The New Yorker and subsequently, I think, worked for Ailes off-camera at Fox News - a profile of Mel Gibson that was essentially a very credulous, sympathetic piece about Gibson at the height of this uproar about "The Passion Of The Christ" and, in general, his and his father's association with a very right-wing sort of splinter, militant Catholic group. And in the course of it, I was brought up by the writer to Gibson. And he said - I'm paraphrasing but not by much - he said I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog. That's pretty much close to the exact language. And so it landed me in People magazine. You know, I mean - it was ridiculous, but - I mean, not me but, you know, citations of this. And it was tasteless but whatever.
GROSS: So I bet you never get responses from that because of a bad review of a Broadway show.
RICH: (Laughter) I was used to it as, you know - as the so-called Butcher of Broadway. I was used to people wanting my intestines on a stick, even if that wasn't necessarily the language that was used.
GROSS: Between being a Broadway critic and writing your political columns, have you ever found it exhausting to have to have so many opinions?
RICH: (Laughter) Yes. Indeed, one of the reasons I gave up doing a op-ed column for the Times was - it's also the reason, you know, 15 years earlier, I decided to not be a drama critic anymore is, yeah, I got sick of having to have opinions. And your opinions don't really change that much on the big issues. It's not like I'm suddenly going to be, you know, I don't know, go from being in favor of abortion rights to being against that.
I mean, I guess I've - some issues maybe I've - I'm sure I have changed over time, including esthetic issues involving the theater. But, yeah, I think I like writing longer pieces that are - in terms of my journalistic work - that are not tied to having an up and down verdict about a particular politician issue or a play, you know, or a playwright.
GROSS: Well, OK, so now people have opinions about your work? I mean, people have always had opinions about your work. But you're working on "Veep." You're an executive producer. And "Veep" is getting reviewed, of course, in newspapers and magazines. What's it like for you, as a former theater critic, to read reviews of the TV show that you work on?
RICH: Well, obviously the critics know nothing.
RICH: You know, they have no idea of what's involved in putting on a show.
RICH: What can I say? I'm not super sensitive about it. And we've been fortunate in that the reviews have generally been, you know, quite strong - not all of them and not all the time. It makes me reflect, actually, on my days of being a critic and realizing that...
GROSS: The harm that you did, the hurt that you caused.
RICH: The harm - the carnage that I caused. Yeah, no, maybe a little bit that but not - but, you know, what really it makes me think of - back on is to be quite critical of some of my criticism, not because of its impact or even that my opinions would really be any different but that I - there's a lot I didn't know that I have learned. I mean, one of the things about working on this show has been it's just an incredible - it's been an incredible learning experience for me and - about everything, including how actors work, you know, how script writers work.
And so, you know, the things that I was very cocky about and thought I was certain about as a critic, I was wrong in some cases. But my taste wouldn't have changed. I don't think it's like now I would think that because of what I've learned, I think, you know, "Cats" is a great show suddenly. It's not like my opinions changed. But my sense of my own knowledge has been humbled.
GROSS: Frank Rich, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
RICH: Thank you.
GROSS: And you sound so happy working on "Veep" (laughter). So I'm happy for you.
RICH: I actually am having the time of my life and have been for - it's crazy - since 2011 so...
GROSS: That's great.
Frank Rich is a columnist for New York magazine and an executive producer of the HBO series "Veep." After a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will review the new adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel "The Handmaid's Tale." This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Tonight, the Hulu streaming service premieres a new adaptation of "The Handmaid's Tale," the 1986 novel by Margaret Atwood. Her futuristic story, in which women are denied rights and freedoms and the most fertile of them treated as breeding stock, is now a 10-part miniseries starring Elisabeth Moss, who played Peggy Olson on "Mad Men." Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "The Handmaid's Tale" arrives on Hulu already riding a wave of controversy - with several people involved in the production, some producers and even some stars, denying that this new miniseries adaptation is either a frightening feminist narrative or a timely political commentary.
Of course it is. And those aspects, especially the swift and aggressively hostile erosion of women's rights and status, are what make "The Handmaid's Tale" so haunting.
Margaret Atwood wrote her futuristic novel in the 1980s, midway through the Reagan years and echoing the Cold War divisions and tensions of the generation before. Bruce Miller, who has adapted her novel for television, sets the story in the very near tomorrow. It's a dystopian world where parts of the country are polluted by toxins and radiation, and other parts are ruled by a strict, conservative sect governed entirely by men. Women are either pampered but powerless trophy wives, humble servants known as Marthas or fertile breeding stock called handmaids, prized because the family patriarchs can impregnate them, using them as vessels to deliver babies for their wives.
Elisabeth Moss, who as Peggy Olson on "Mad Men" started with so little power and status, has even less as we meet her in "A Handmaid's Tale" (ph). She's a handmaid who's recently given name is Offred because she now is the property of a man named Fred, of Fred. And just as in the novel, she's mostly servile and silent on the outside but has lots to say to herself, as when she describes the rather stark room to which she's been assigned as the new handmaid of a couple whose wife is barren but wants a child.
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ELISABETH MOSS: (As Offred) A chair and then a table, a lamp - and a window with white curtains. And the glass says shatterproof, but it isn't running away they're afraid of. A handmaid wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself given a cutting edge or a twisted sheet and a chandelier.
I try not to think about those escapes. It's harder on ceremony days, but thinking can hurt your chances.
My name is Offred. I had another name, but it's forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now.
BIANCULLI: Hulu's "A Handmaid's Tale" isn't the only TV series recently to update a vintage novel and dramatize a creepy, totalitarian future and make members of the resistance its endangered heroes. Another streaming service, Amazon, has done a fine job with the '60s sci-fi novel by Philip K. Dick, "The Man In The High Castle," which imagined what might have happened if the Allies had lost World War II and the Japanese and Nazis had divided up and controlled the United States. But though the country as we know it falls in "A Handmaid's Tale" as well, this time, the chief victims are its women.
Hulu made three episodes available for preview. And by the time they're over, it's made all too clear that the past depicted in the TV show is our present. We see increasingly detailed flashbacks which show Moss' character and a girlfriend starting an average work day - going for a neighborhood run, stopping for a coffee - when all hell breaks loose. It happens instantly. And watching it happen is like seeing a monster movie but one where the monsters are the men seizing power. And the future world of "The Handmaid's Tale" is even more haunting because it's all paranoia and bleakness.
Eventually, Offred gets approached by a fellow handmaid, played by Alexis Bledel from "Gilmore Girls," who is part of the resistance and says simply, join us. That kicks off another of Offred's internal monologues.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HANDMAID'S TALE")
MOSS: (As Offred) There is an us. Seems imagined, like secrets in the fifth grade, people with mysterious histories and dark linkages. It doesn't seem as if it should be the true shape of the world. That's a hangover from an extinct reality. Now the guardians of the faithful and American soldiers still fight with tanks in the remains of Chicago. Now Anchorage is the capital of what's left of the United States. And the flag that flies over that city has only two stars. Now darkness and secrets are everywhere. Now there has to be an us because now there is a them.
BIANCULLI: The TV version changes or emphasizes different parts of the novel. The central character's real name is revealed, for example, though it never was in the book. And while Atwood described and explained the meanings of the color schemes of the various costumes worn by women in her story, the visual force of them, especially in group shots, is palpable. Handmaids wear white bonnets that obscure their features and long, red robes that allude to their rare and valued fertility.
Those images, like the horrifyingly clinical scenes of forced procreation, won't soon leave you, nor will the central performance by Elisabeth Moss. Even with all her character's interior monologues, she says the most with her super expressive face and eyes. Sometimes she glares straight into the camera as if to say, please don't let this happen to me, which may well be the essence of this TV drama's very timely and very feminist message.
GROSS: David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University and is the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From 'I Love Lucy' To 'The Walking Dead,' How TV Became Terrific." The Hulu series "The Handmaid's Tale" begins streaming tonight.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk with journalist Bruce Weber who, for years, began his day like this.
BRUCE WEBER: You know, usually, after I say hello to my colleagues, it would be - OK, so who's dead?
GROSS: Weber wrote more than a thousand obituaries for The New York Times. We'll also be joined by Times obituary writer Margalit Fox. They're featured in the new documentary "Obit." I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.