Saturday, December 29, 2007

54. The Odd Couple

"On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. (Unger's unseen wife slams door. She reopens it and angrily hands Felix his saucepan) That request came from his wife. Deep down, he knew she was right, but he also knew that someday, he would return to her. With nowhere else to go, he appeared at the home of his childhood friend, Oscar Madison. Sometime earlier, Madison's wife had thrown him out, requesting that he never return. Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?"

There are a lot of ways to set the scene of a sitcom; but for my money there has never been a better way of doing so than this. Never heard of “The Odd Couple”? Just tune in to the opening credits and you’ll know everything that you need to know about the premise of the show.

The scenario isn’t overly original, there have always been odd couples from Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton to Wally Cleaver and Eddie Haskell but Felix Unger (Tony Randall) and Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) set the new gold standard. You know the story: Unger was the anal retentive neat freak photographer while Madison was the compulsive slob sports writer. From the above the surface neat vs. messy dynamic to the undercurrent of words vs. pictures, Madison and Unger were as different as can be.

Yet they survived with each other for five solid seasons.

And that’s what the mid to late 60s were all about; surviving with someone that you have nothing in common with for the better good. I know that before the television show there was the play and the movie, but for a generation the television version of the “Odd Couple” is the only version that resonates. And like a number of other shows aired during that time, the comedy was garnered from surviving with someone that was foisted on to you by uncontrollable circumstances.

In that way, the “Odd Couple” is a lot like two other shows I’ve discussed (“The Brady Bunch” and “Gilligan’s Island”). Look at early episodes of the Bradys, those kids hated each other and weren’t happy with their parents for sticking them with another three siblings. And with Gilligan, the original idea behind the show was to put –isms aside in order to thrive. The Howells were clearly classists, but they needed working schlubs like the Skipper and Gilligan to survive. The professor obviously had no use for idiots, yet he need Mary Ann and Ginger in order to eat.

This type of programming was radical for the time. The Bradys and Gilligan were obviously geared for kids, but “The Odd Couple” was aimed at adults. Shows like these were the bridge from family-friendly entertainment like “The Patty Duke Show”, “Gidget” and the like to the Norman Lear “serious” comedies that preceded it. “All in the Family”, “The Jeffersons”, etc. were great programs and probably would’ve been hits, but without shows like “The Odd Couple” it would’ve taken much longer.

For one reason, it showed the viewing audience that it’s ok to tackle something like divorce and that the results of divorce don’t mean that the person has to walking around with a scarlet D on their chest. If Americans can handle that, then an episode about a menopausal Jean Stapleton is only a hop, skip and jump away.

The great thing about “The Odd Couple” wasn’t that the show wasn’t really heavy; in fact I don’t recall a serious episode. Divorce was a bit more serious subject a generation and a half ago (sure the Brady boys’ mother died, but what the heck ever happened to Carol’s husband .. see a fate worse than death itself), but TOC was a light hearted look at it. The show proved that it actually could be sort of fun, as long as Felix Unger wasn’t your roommate. Their relationship, which bore the comedy crux of the show, was more mother-son than friend-friend. And while that was funny, Oscar telling Felix off was the best part. Because although you love mom, when you’re 14 who doesn’t want to tell her to leave you alone?

And make no mistake about it, Oscar was the consummate 14-year-old; he’d have his buddies over for poker every week, he played the horses, he threw crap all over the floor. Felix always cleaned up after him and he did it in the most obnoxious way possible: by lecturing him and making faces. It was great.

With two different actors, the characters of Felix and Oscar could either be completely obnoxious, flat or worse of all—forced. Klugman and Randall (especially Randall) were able to bring some sort of humanity to their archtypes. I know that this is probably heresy to say this about two characters written by Neil Simon (and to be fair, he wrote one play—there was more than over 100 episodes), but one guy was a slob and the other was a neatnik. That’s it. “Your motivation in this scene Jack, is that you don’t like to pick things up and when Tony tells you to, you get mad.”

With anyone else, this show could’ve turned into “Shasta McNasty” after three episodes. Both Klugman and Randall brought something else to the table, which is probably why this show is an all-time classic. If either was off, it wouldn’t matter how good the other was. Playing a walking cliché is tough, but these two brought their A games every single week. If you met or had to live with either one in real life you’d want to kill them, but each week you tuned in to see what they were up to.

The one thing that rang a bit untrue was the opening credits, specifically the end where Oscar and Felix are in Central Park and are dancing around a May Pole with a bunch of little kids. Huh? I don’t get this. Maybe Felix would do this; he had a little girl and maybe she wanted her daddy to dance around a pole with her friends. But Oscar? Mr. Big Time Sports Writer? That was a little weird. Whatever, every show needs an unsolved mystery, even if it’s a little one.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Play for me Johan Santana

You're the Boston Red Sox. You have won the American League East, the American League pennant and the World Series Championship (the second time in four years). You have a bonafide stud pitcher in Josh Beckett, a potential stud in Daisuke Matsuzaka (both under 28-years-old) and two veterans who probably have something left in the tank in Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield. You also have a slew of prospects that have done well in their brief call-ups (Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz) plus a bunch of kids on the farm.

You want the best left handed pitcher of the last ten years but you don't need him as much as your chief rival to the south does. If you mortgage the farm and paid upwards of $20 million a year for the next five years, you can pretty much count on going to the playoffs every year for the next half a decade. Do you trade for him?

(The last two paragraphs employ a style that New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Cannon made famous. I didn't intentionally think about writing the first couple of sentences like this, but I guess I was influenced by Cannon's collection of columns bound into the book, “Nobody Asked Me, But ...” which I am currently reading. It's a decent read if you care about sports from the 50s and 60s and you should be able to get it at a used bookstore.)

Let's look at what we do know: despite a mediocre record last year (which doesn't really mean a hell of a lot) and the fact that he gave up way more home runs than he did during any point in his career, with the Red Sox, Johan Santana is a lock to win at least 18 games. You slot him as your number two guy after Beckett and the Sox staff gets longer. Daisuke, who I think is going to have a monster year this year, goes to three, Schilling goes to four and either Wakefield or Buchholz takes the fifth slot. Even with an injury, either Wakefield or Buchholz takes the injured pitcher's spot and the Sox don't miss a beat.

No one can match this rotation. Not the Yankees, who on their best days have three number two guys (Wang, Pettitte and Mussina) and a couple of kids (Kennedy, Hughes and maybe Chamberlain). But the wheels on Pettitte and Mussina could easily come off (as Schilling and Wakefield's could) and Wang proved during last year's post season that he's not an elite star. And how good are the rookies? They are pinning their hopes for two fifths of their rotation on kids. Is that a recipe for success? I don't know.

Now, let's look at what we don't know: is Santana coming down from his super star stratosphere? It would seem that the answer is no, as his peripherals were still solid last year. But what if he spits the bit in Boston? What if the number of players that the Sox give (and there are some reports that this could be a five-for-one swap) almost dry out the system making other in season trades impossible? Is the money that Santana will command worth it? Does the check he cashes eventually trickle down to Beckett, David Ortiz, etc.? Guys that were here, proved themselves in Boston and now want to be paid as much as the new guy?

Obviously, you can't worry about the latter question, but one thing you could concern yourself about is what I heard a few weeks ago on WEEI, a Twins beat writer from one of the Twin Cities (I can't remember who it was) expressed thoughts that Santana could be nicked up a bit, which is why he was hit harder last year than in previous years. He claims that Santana wasn't throwing the slider as much because his elbow was killing him. I have no doubts that the Sox will do their due diligence in checking over the medical records, but the injury concern will always be there for a guy who has thrown the amount of innings that Santana has.

I suppose that one has to look back at the last times that the Sox made a transaction such as this. In 2005 Boston sent Hanley Ramirez, Anibel Sanchez and two minor leaguers to the Florida Marlins for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. The rap on Beckett was that he'd eventually cost big money (the Fish were selling him on the cheap because they were afraid of Beckett's up coming arbitration case and the Sox had to take Lowell because he was making too much cash). Ramirez has turned into one of, if not the best, shortstops in the National League. Sanchez threw a no-hitter his rookie year and had solid numbers, but was hurt for most of last year and the other two kids haven't made the bigs yet.

Despite concerns about arms injuries (there was actually a rumor floating around that Beckett's agent told the righthander to go on an extended Texas hunting trip so that he could not be reached if the Sox called to inquire about it) and blister questions, Beckett has been as good as advertised. It took him a season to get settled (which is why I think Matsuzaka is going to be great in 2008) but he won 20 games and destroyed the Angels, Indians and Rockies during the 2007 post season.

In 1997, the Red Sox were desperate for a starter since the Steve Avery experiment failed miserably and Boston GM Dan Duquette sent highly regarded prospects Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. to the Montreal Expos for Pedro Martinez. This is a more apt comparison because people were questioning Pedro's body size (too small), acumen (“wild” headhunter who played before just family and friends at Olympic Stadium) and add in the fact that he wanted a big contract extension. How did it turn out for the Sox? Pedro was absolutely transcendent for most of his Boston career—the pitching numbers he threw up at the end of the century were among the best ever, perhaps all time if you take into account the era and home park he played in as well as the team behind him. He was a main cog in the 2004 championship. Pavano and Armas are both good pitchers, but they aren't Pedro.

What I'm saying is that the Red Sox were able to win two World Series Championships in direct result of trading youth for known greatness. In the long run, were these trades worth it? If you're the Sox, no matter how good Ramirez does or how well Pavano pitched, yes these trades were worth it because the bottom line for this franchise is winning. Were the Boston Red Sox a better team with Pedro Martinez and Josh Beckett? Yes. Would they have been able to win a World Series without either? It's hard to say, but probably not.

The beauty of having a lot young chips is cashing them in for a guy like Martinez or Beckett or Santana. You can't have everyone in your rotation or in your starting lineup. The trick is to keep the great ones and trade the good ones.

Do these history lessons make the trade a slam dunk? Of course not, but judging how this same scenario played out twice in the recent past plus the added caveat of keeping Santana away from the Yankees, one would have to think that the Red Sox should do whatever they can to import another star from Minnesota.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

55.Law And Order

Even if you hate cop or lawyer shows, you've seen at least one episode.

There have been about 10 different spin-offs (actually there are four) of this show, but only one holds a small place in my heart and that's the original “Law and Order”. You know the one, Chris Noth or Jesse L. Martin or Benjamin Bratt is paired off with either Jerry Orbach or Dennis Farina as the no-nonsense cops on the Law side. And Sam Waterston is the crusty executive assistant District Attorney with the semi-hot assistant and has Fred Thompson or Steven Hill (Diane Weist absolutely sucked) is his boss on the Order side.

The show has been on since September of 1990 and is shown on a perpetual rerun loop on TNT every single day.

Despite its omnipresence, “Law and Order” is a good show. It's just thoughtful enough to keep you engaged, but it's not so taxing as to make you run to the local law library to review cases. Quite frankly, TNT has this correct: it's the perfect show for the daytime set.

A typical episode begins like this: two people are usually walking around a borough of New York City talking about something that has nothing to do with the case. Sometimes, the initial conversation is more intriguing than the actual show. They come across someone who was murdered or raped and murdered or robbed, raped and murdered. In any event the person is dead. The two people stop their conversation and call the cops.

The normal cops will either set up a tight perimeter or screw something up royally which will get one of the detectives to yell at them. The latter doesn't happen that much and I'm convinced that when it does it's because one of the writers got a parking ticket or some other small infraction with the law and needs to let out some residual anger. It's usually pretty good.

Once the detectives are on the scene, they begin picking up clues like there's no tomorrow, only they can't always piece them together themselves so it's back to the precinct where the Buddah-like Lieutenant (S. Epatha Merkson) puts most of the pieces together and tells the duo to get back out on the street and start interviewing people.

This is where you are supposed to remember that it's a television show and suspend belief for a couple of minutes. In order for the cops to make the correct bust everyone in New York city from the top CEOs to the guys pushing brooms or hot dog carts have the greatest long term memory for the benign that you'd ever want to meet.

Cop 1: “Do you remember that car that you parked next to, eight months ago?”
Witness: “You mean the 2001 silver Honda Civic sedan with a dent in the passenger side door, a scrape of paint missing from the bumper and the antenna bent a bit?”
Cop 2: “Yeah. That's the one. What can you tell us about it?”
Witness: “If I remember right it had just over 85,000 miles which I thought was funny because it looked like it should only have 84,500 miles. Also it seemed to take Ultra Plus gas instead of regular because of the residue on the pavement. Sorry that I can't give you more information than that. I only saw the car for a second.”
Cop 1: “I guess it'll have to do.”

All of this information is then used to bust the perp and bring him or her down town. While in the holding tank the detectives take the old good cop/bad cop routine to the Nth degree; throwing people up against the wall, badgering them for information, everything except beating a confession out of them. This is usually where we meet Waterston's assistant. Nine out of ten times, she's smoking hot and none was hotter than Elisabeth Rohm. Two things about Rohm: apparently she was quite the party girl in real life so seeing her dressed up and serious is probably a stretch for her and two she can't act for shit.

Who cares, because like I said, she's supposed to be hot. The woman before her, Angie Harmon, actually did a decent job though and the two after her aren't too shabby either. She gets all of the information down and sends it off to Watterston who then begins his weekly crusade against something.

Waterston does a terrific job of playing the smug, douche-y lawyer that is convinced beyond a shadow of any doubt that he is 100% right about everything. He comes in lays out the facts, tries to bully the judge, rolls his eyes at the defendant and does everything in his power to make sure the criminal goes to jail for a long time. Then it's judgement time and we go home.

Waterston's character is sort of a prick, in fact most of these characters are self-righteous pricks, but Waterston takes the cake. That's why I love it when he loses and he's awesome to root against. Because when he loses his case, man, that's just awesome. And this is no Perry Mason where Waterston wins everything, he loses his fair share; though recently with him as the DA he hasn't lost a heck of a lot – but the drama is stil there.

Why do I like this show if it's filled with a bunch of assholes and the cases (RIPPED FROM TODAY'S HEADLINES!) are fundamentally simple? Because like “Gillian's Island” and “The Brady Bunch” “Law and Order” follows a pretty simple formula every episode. You can sit back and root for the people you like, scoff at the things that are unbelievable and kvetch about the decision ... especially when the DA has the last witty retort. The show is a terrific way to kill a post-New Year's Eve, post-July 4th or post-Arbor Day hangover.

And sometimes, that's just enough.

Friday, December 07, 2007

56.Gilligan's Island / Brady Bunch

This entry isn't just about the two shows, but also about their creator: Sherwood Schwartz.

While reading a bit about him on his Wikipedia page, I found that it was interesting that Schwartz and Red Skelton hated each other. So much so that while Schwartz was a writer on Skelton's show (which did very well in the ratings), Schwartz had it written in his contract that he never had to see the star of the show face-to-face.

That's a pretty ballsy move.

It's also pretty ballsy to walk into a head of a network and claim that the idea for your new show was an allegory as to show how seven people (the seven continents) can live and work together on one island (the Earth) in peace. After the head buys the idea, Schwartz gave them “Gilligan's Island”.

Here's the thing about these two shows that will always be linked because of a lot of different reasons, but the main reason is that Schwartz created them both. And he did it in a way that was appealing to adults, but also to kids. What GI or BB, each episode was essentially the same: during the first five minutes a trivial problem (though monumental in the eyes of the protagonist) is discovered. During the next ten minutes, the main character either mopes about said problem or attempts to fix it, which results in the problem becoming even larger. During the last 15 minutes, the rest of the cast is brought in on the problem, solves it and they all live happily ever after.

The one monkey wrench in this comparison between the two shows is that “The Brady Bunch” didn't have the deus ex machina that is Gilligan. In order for the castaways to continue their show, Gilligan had to screw up every episode so that they're still stuck on the island.

This repetition of theme and plot made the shows lovable to children and teens alike. It has been proven that babies enjoy and need repetition: from white noise sounds soothing them to sleep to endlessly enjoying the same shows hour after hour. As one grows up, the familiar becomes boring, yet there is still a desire for the familiar—even if the show is “new”. I believe that Schwartz was aware of this and became the backbone of both shows.

And while he never had any more hit shows (“It's About Time” sounded terrible), that's ok because he gave the world two generational touchstones and two theme songs that most people under 60 know better than the national anthem.

Everyone knows that Gilligan is going to blow it in the end or that Mike and Carol Brady are somehow going to save the day; this is precisely why we watch. Even for thirty minutes, all is right in the world.

A few nights ago, I was watching an episode of “The Monkees” (more on them in a subsequent entry) and it occurred to me that there were a few jokes that went over my head when I was a kid—in this particular episode, Mickey was looking for a Marshal Dillon and tried to make a phone call for him. The person on the other line only had a Bob Dylan who couldn't help you, but would write a song about your troubles. That was funny to me now, but I know that I had no idea what a Marshal Dillon was or a Bob Dylan and why anyone would get them confused.

The BB and GI do not have a higher level of comedy (and that's comparing them to “the Monkees”), what you see was what you got. Bobby wasn't an archtype for Che Guerva and Mrs. Howell wasn't the personification of greed and stupidity. There is something refreshing about this one dimensionality and if I catch these shows on television today it takes me to when I was a kid. Back then I enjoyed watching a show because it was my favorite show, not because it made a social statement. And make no mistake, the kids who grew up on this stuff; whether they're black, white, yellow, or green didn't care either, they were able to identify with the characters because their struggles are universal.

Who hasn't been picked on, whacked on the head with a sailor cap, formed a song and dance troupe to compete on television for their parents' anniversary present, stole a rival school's mascot, met your favorite band and got them to perform a private concert just for you (a plot that happened on both shows-Davy Jones on BB and the Beatlesque Mosquitoes on GI). This is the reason why my grandchildren will probably be watching these shows, long after every cast member is long dead.

On a personal note, both programs bring back a ton of memories for me: watching “Gilligan's Island” on Sundays at 11:30 am at my aunt's house after we went to church and had a big breakfast meant that I was about to be shipped outside because football or baseball was about to be put on (I was too young to understand either game). And when 5:00 rolled around, I know that I could watch the Bradys and then eat dinner before it was time to do homework or go to bed. BTW, both shows were on Channel 56 in Boston.

Like I said earlier, every one wants to go back to a simpler time. It's hard-wired in our brains—just like these shows.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

I'm Back ... Both New and Improved

I'm back.

What do the kids say? I was “out of pocket” or “off the grid” for awhile, but now I think that I'll be able to devote a little bit of time to the blog. Just a brief message, I don't think that any kids say “out of pocket” or “off the grid”, unless those kids are corporate suits in training.

The last time I wrote, I believe that I was in the air going from Seattle to New York for a conference in late July. Well, I landed. Aly and I also had a dog at that point in our lives, his name was Dave. Unfortunately, he died a few days after that entry. He had distemper, which is an extremely rare disease. Sucks, because he was a good dog too.

Since then I've gone toVegas for a few days (work stuff) and went to a killer party at a club called Pure that Selma Hyack may or may not have been there for. I was completely wasted and some buddies from Amesbury got me in. Also, I lost my job at TechTarget, was unemployed for a few months; which was probably the best thing that's happened to me in awhile as I saved a lot of money during that period and my sanity (I actually hated TT). In March I started a new job that I like very much.

Also, my grandmother passed away in February, which was pretty difficult and there are times when it still hurts to think about her and how I'll never see her again.

In late March, I learned that Aly was pregnant and on October 28 (on the day the Sox won their second title in two years) Giuliana Rose (after my Nina) Magrane was born. She was five weeks early, which was expected as Aly began to have complications (coleostasis – not sure if you spell it like that, probably not) and their was a need for an early birth. Anyway, she weighed at 5 pounds, 14 ounces and was 19 inches long. She's been awesome, but at the same time it's been a tremendous learning experience for both of us.

Mainly learning how to survive on very little sleep.

Also we went to Puerto Rico in July for our annual summer vacation. Pretty good, not great. And I added another stadium to my growing World Tour of Baseball Stadia. I went to Shea Stadium for the first time, as the Mets played the Dodgers in a late August battle. The place was a complete dump, good thing that they're getting a new park in 2009. I also went to Camden Yards again.

So that's what I've done in the last 16 months since I've last written. In the next few months, I'm going to completely retool the blog and focus on pop culture and some sports. Gone are any musings about my comic strip (that went down the toilet due to lack of time) and I'm really going to try and cut down on the personal stuff.

What I want to do is write a couple of essays a week about things that are either going on right now or stuff that I have percolating in my brain. My next entry will be about my personal top 56 television shows. Some entries will be long, some short, but they should be fairly interesting as I'm going to cover a wide range of stuff.

To whet your appetite, here's a list of shows that I'm going to write about:

    1. The Honeymooners
    2. Leave it to Beaver
    3. Arrested Development
    4. Mr. Show with Bob and David
    5. Tom Goes to the Mayor
    6. Undeclared
    7. Freaks and Geeks
    8. It's the Garry Shandling Show
    9. The Larry Sanders Show
    10. The Wire
    11. The Sopranos
    12. Curb Your Enthusiasm
    13. Seinfeld
    14. The Simpsons
    15. Get A Life
    16. The Office (UK and USA)
    17. Scrubs
    18. WKRP
    19. Newsradio
    20. South Park
    21. Car 54, Where Are You?
    22. The Daily Show
    23. SuperRock
    24. The State
    25. 30 Rock
    26. Rocky and Bullwinkle
    27. Dragnet
    28. The Odd Couple
    29. The White Shadow
    30. Magnum PI
    31. Good Eats
    32. Diners, Drive Ins and Dives
    33. Jeopardy
    34. The Monkees
    35. Austin Stories
    36. Moral Orel
    37. Beverly Hills 90210
    38. Early Adult Swim catch-all
    39. Law and Order
    40. King of the Hill
    41. Grosse Pointe
    42. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    43. Head of the Class
    44. 24
    45. Justice League
    46. Deadwood
    47. Entourage
    48. In Search Of ...
    49. The Banana Splits
    50. Gilligan's Island/Brady Bunch
    51. Chappelle's Show
    52. The Andy Griffith Show
    53. Action!
    54. Late Night with Conan O'Brien
    55. Andy Richter Controls the Universe
    56. Mission Hill

Two things, this list is obviously not in any kind of order, that will be determined in the weeks to come and a few were sort of just added on to the list so that I could have an even 56. If a show or two comes to mind, they may be bumped off. As they say, check your local listings.

So that's where I'm at. Come back for more, I promise that there will be stuff here.