Monday, November 24, 2008

Two Guys Email Review of: Zack and Miri Make a Porno

About a week to ten days ago, my friend Jamie and I went to see the Kevin Smith/Seth Rogen film "Zack and Miri Make A Porno". We went sorta late (9:00 pm show -- how edgy of me!) so when we left the theater we got into our respective cars and drove home without really discussing the movie.

I like to talk about movies, TV shows, sporting events, books -- any sort of medium a lot. This is obvious because I'm writing a Blog about these sort of things. So, the next day I emailed Jamie and asked him for his thoughts. We went back and forth for a little bit and this is what we had to say.

From: Byron
To: James
Sent: Thursday, November 13, 2008 9:28:43 AM
Subject: Zack and Miri

You've had a night to think about it, what's the final verdict?

From: James
To: Byron
Sent: Thursday, November 13, 2008 9:44:17 AM
Subject: Re: Zack and Miri

I still like the dialogue of kevin smith moives. I know it sounds like i'm 12 but I get a kick out of hearing new terminology (rudder...Shit! now i forget)

Over all it was a weak story with some pretty funny shit in it. If offensive humor wasn't my thing I probably would have hated the movie. I also felt like I was watching 40yr old virgin 2 becuase of the dialogue and similar actors. I'm also feeling an odd sense that it was missing something, but I don't know what. I can't explain it.

What did you think?

From: Byron Magrane
To: James
Sent: Thursday, November 13, 2008 11:36:22 AM
Subject: Re: Fw: Zack and Miri

I liked the flick because I like most of Kevin Smith's stuff and I like Seth Rogen going all the way back to his "Freaks and Geeks" days. However, that's also a reason why I didn't love the flick. It seems like Smith writes the same scripts over and over and over again. And Rogen seems to play the same characters--the sarcastic, nerdy slacker who eventually finds his true calling.

It's really a double-edged sword for me because I like what both guys bring to the table and I'm happy with their work, but it seems like I've seen this movie before. Which is why I agree with you saying that it's like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin Part 2".

I guess that's what Hollywood is all about though, actors/directors get into cycles and don't break them until it's too late. Will Farrell, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen all play their characters. Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith write their same movies. The only thing that really changes is the leading actress.

Having said all that though, Rogen was perfect in the role. I'm not sure if I could see anyone else playing Zack. I guess I'm just conflicted as I liked it, but I wanted more.

BTW, there was a scene after the credits: Zack and Miri get married and start a business: Zack and Miri make your porno.

From: James
To: Byron
Subject: Re: Fw: Zack and Miri
Date: Thursday, November 13, 2008, 12:15 PM

Curses! We should have stayed. I could see it in your eyes - you were itching to get to bed. You make me really want to watch what little of freaks and geeks came out. Which reminds me, that's where that lanky dark haired dude was from in that star wars heist movie we saw the trailer for last night.

I disagree with you about writing the same movie. I think Dogma was different than, say, Clerks or Jersey girl. On the other hand I can see a similar thread running through all of them. I guess that may be what you mean. It's the same thing with all art, I think. When a band comes out with a certain sound the seem to corner that sound. The songs may be different but you can channel surf and know that it's Rush, or Coldplay or Tool by only hearing a second of the song. Picasso's style is the same but the paintings are different.... you get my point.

I also think that them casting the same actors for all the movies they do doesn't help to keep it fresh.

I liked the movie. I'd recommend it to Kim and I will certainly watch the next movie that Kevin Smith does.
What was the Rudder thing called. I'm drawin a blank. I've been thinking about it too hard for too long so I can't even think straight about it anymore.

From: Byron Magrane
To: James
Sent: Thursday, November 13, 2008 1:25:44 PM
Subject: Re: Fw: Zack and Miri

I agree that it wasn't like "Dogma" and I never saw "Jersey Girl", but it is very reminiscent of his other flicks, "Clerks", "Mallrats", etc. And my point was mostly about how the dialog is written. Each character has times where they speak in one long monologue, which is ok, but after nine movies, it's sort of predictable.

Like I said, when that technique was first used in "Clerks" I thought it was brilliant. Now, it's getting pretty stale.

But you're 100% right about artists/bands having the same overall theme but riffing on that theme. And that's what I was trying to get across in my last email and what's got me so confounded about this movie. I like what Smith and Rogen have done. I went into the movie expecting exactly what I got. I don't think that I would have it any other way. But, yet I'm still a little disappointed. I thought that the movie could've been a bit more.

I don't think that the each man was lazy when it came to his craft, I just wished that they tried something different. You brought up an awesome point though, hiring the same actors to play essentially the same roles doesn't help. I'm not really a huge Jason Mewes fan, so maybe his role could've been taken by a different actor. I do like Randal though, but truthfully, they should have used a different actor for him too.

BTW, the answer to your questions:

1. The stringy guy in "Fan Boys" was the lead in "Undeclared" which was essentially "Freaks and Geeks" part two. BTW, it's an awesome show. Get it. He was also in "Knocked Up" and that movie "Million Dollar Baby".

2. And the move was the Dutch Rudder.

And that's that. Are you more or less informed?

Friday, November 14, 2008

34.Original Adult Swim

At the dawn of time, man did not possess the power of automatically taping his favorite television programs and watching them whenever he felt. Thus, if a program aired during the later hours of a night before that man was to wake early, two choices had to be made: stay up late, watch the show and be tired the next day or skip the program entirely. *

* Of course, the man could buy a VCR that taped on a timer, but as stand-up comedians have told us time and time again, these things are IMPOSSIBLE to figure out.

This is the backdrop of the four 15-minute shows that were began airing on Adult Swim, a late-night block of cartoons on Cartoon Network, in late 2000. The four shows are: “Sea Lab 2021”, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” (ATHF), “The Brak Show” and “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law” and they usually began airing at about 11:30 at night. For a late 20-something-year-old with a 9-5 job the shows had to be pretty good to get me to watch them.

Fortunately, they were. As an aside all four had awesome opening themes that were distinctively different but awesome in each sense.

Each show was different, but they all shared the same surreal, absurdest type of humor where continuity means nothing (except in certain cases) and absolute destruction of the characters or their homes was usually the punch line and ending to a majority of the episodes (except for Harvey Birdman).

“Sea Lab 2021” was a continuation of the Hanna-Barbera early 1970s eco-friendly and very serious (and quite boring) cartoon “Sea Lab 2020”. In SL2021, a year has past since the crew has been underwater and they have begun to go mad. Usually their madness was started by some ridiculously trivial pursuit by Capt. Hank Murphy and ended in the total destruction of Sea Lab. In the initial episodes, cells and frames from the old cartoon were used and manipulated with new dialogue and story lines. These were a lot more cutting and crude than the benign originals and were a terrific send up of the placid, boring (I mentioned that it was boring before, right?) original.

“The Brak Show” also took a chapter from an old Hanna-Barbera character, the space-cat pirate arch enemy of Space Ghost, Brak. In this program, Brak was reimagined as a typical naïve sitcom son with a wholesome 1950's-style mother (who looked like him) and a miniaturized Spanish father that sounded a lot like Ricky Ricardo and gave terrible advice. Brak was joined by another Space Ghost villain, Zorak, who is a gigantic preying mantis with the personality of a psychopathic Eddie Haskell. Each episode centered around Brak getting involved in various sitcom-esque scrapes and getting out of them by strange and often violent means.

“Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law” was probably my favorite show of the four. Like Sea Lab and Brak, the vaults of Hanna-Barbera were mined and there the creators found a fairly lame, late 1960s hero—Birdman—had him retire and transformed him into an over eager defense attorney. Instead of faceless clients, Birdman would defend Hanna-Barbera characters against very adult charges—such as Shaggy and Scooby Doo getting busted for marijuana or Fred Flintstone being the head of an organized crime syndicate. Villains from the original Birdman show would play the opposing prosecuting attorneys and judges. In this series, continuity mattered more than the other three.

“ATHF” is probably the most popular of the four original shows (a movie and two video games were made of the series) and centered around three anamorphic burger stand foods: a shake (Master Shake), a box of french fries (Frylock) and a meat patty (Meatwad) and their next door neighbor, Carl. Master Shake was the antagonist of the program and his obnoxious demeanor was the one that fueled the show's adventures, whether it was cruelly picking on Meatwad or finding another get-rich-quick scheme. Frylock was the conscious of the group, while Carl and Meatwad were the pathetic recipients of Shake's insane plots.

I'm going to look at these shows through one prism, as going through show-by-show-by-show is a bit time consuming. As a whole, the first two seasons of each of these shows are awesome, some of the greatest examples of absurd comedy that you're going to find. It featured a few retro-cool voices that were able to take shots at themselves (the real voice of “Fred” played Fred in the Shaggy and Scooby get busted episode of “Harvey Birdman” and Erik Estrada constantly poked fun at himself as one of the main characters on “Sea Lab”) and there were a lot of comedians who lent their voices to various characters (David Cross in an episode of “ATHF” and Stephen Colbert in “Harvey Birdman”). The shows all stayed really close to their original ideas and while the plots could be considered “out there” there was some tether to a sort of reality.

Another thing that all four of these shows had going for them is the references to pop culture. They all seemed to strike on the askew side. For example, "ATHF" had an episode built around a belt that contained the powers of the forgettable "super group" Foreigner. Hip hop and other "slacker" touchstones, not normally woven into other shows, were prominently featured in the many of these cartoons. It's as if the producers were one of us.

As the seasons went on and stories and plot lines were becoming harder and harder to come by and experimentation was growing, many of these shows began to lose their way. The first show that saw a downgrade in quality was “The Brak Show”. This show was originally centered on Brak and Zorak, his father (simply named Father) was used as comic relief through his non sequiturs of advice but was never the main star. Somewhere between the second and third seasons, the roles shifted and Father became the star and Brak was more of a supporting character. Like Ari Gold in “Entourage”, too much Father became a bad thing and the series limped to a close, hardly resembling the original show.

This also happened with “Sea Lab 2021” when the producers decided to abandon taking the old cells from “Sea Lab 2020” and synching up new dialog. Instead they created new animation that had its pros and cons. The main trade-off was that the characters were able to get into new situations outside of what H-B originally had done, but I'd argue that was made the original seasons so interesting. It was cool to see what the producers could do with such a lame show. Also, Barry Groz, who did the voice for their best character Capt. Murphy passed away during the show's run and was replaced by his real-life son who did a completely different character. This character never really seemed to fit into the crew and the show was cancelled a season later.

As far as “ATHF” goes, there are a lot of things that are great about the show but now in it's eighth season, things are a bit stale. The characters haven't really changed too much, though the situations are a bit more bizarre. I'd say that out of all four shows, this is the one that broke the tether to some sort of reality and strayed the farthest. And really, there's not a lot of reality when you're watching a show about a talking milk shake, but the pop culture jokes that were rampant in the first few episodes became lost as the series wore on.

“Harvey Birdman” didn't lose its way until maybe the last season, but that's because one of it's stars, Steven Colbert, had to leave the show for his own show, “The Colbert Report”. Also, with over 50 episodes, it seemed as if they were running out of characters to spoof. I'd say that this was probably the most entertaining of all four shows and the one that kept the quality up from the beginning of its run to the end. I'm sure that's not a coincidence.

The one thread that seems to run through all of the shows is that in my perception the quality went down hill as they became more accessible to me. Around the second or third seasons of these series, I got a DVR for Christmas. The first shows I set up to record were these four shows, mainly so I didn't have to stay up until 1:00 am on a Monday morning to watch a bunch of cartoons. I was now able to watch them whenever I felt like it.

I guess that some of the shine was taken off when watching these programs in the light of “normal hours”. Also around this time, more and more people were finding out about them and enjoying them. Every person who “finds” a band or television show feels a twinge of sadness when the “mainstream” finds out about them. And eventually the sadness turns to a form of bitterness when “original” fans lecture to the newbies that things aren't the same as they used to be.

The fact is, maybe they are still the same—the viewer is the one that has seen his tastes and life change. By the time I stopped watching the first runs of these shows, I wasn't a slacker bachelor living in a Wakefield apartment with two other guys that I had never met before. I was a married man with a wife and a career. Wondering whether a french fry would fire lazers at a robotic rabbit (called Rab-bot) was getting to be the furthest thing from mind.

That being said, those cartoons are still being recorded on my DVR and every once in awhile, when I'm feeling nostalgic for a time where I didn't have as many responsibilities, I'll watch them. And if it's the first few seasons, you bet that I'm going to laugh my ass off. Because these aren't just shows about space cat pirates or insane members of an underwater laboratory, it's an often overlooked part of life—those strange, confusing years between college and marriage.

EDIT: The last two entries have been about shows that I once liked and now found fault with. I've been thinking about these past two entries and their negativity for a few days now, and it hit me why I'm being so uber-critical. It has to do with a lot about what I referred to in the pervious paragraph.

The reason why I like these shows is because they mean something personal to me, not in the specific “this-episode-was-so-awesome” or these characters are the best,. When I watch an old episode of “Entourage” or “SeaLab 2021” it takes me back to a time when I was just married or I was a person without a clear future. It's a nostalgic trip to the recent past where I get to relive a good part of my life.

Lots of people have this sort of nostalgic, moment in time connection with music and I have it with television. Every show on this list is a mile marker for a point in my life. As I still pass these markers, I can still see the chipped paint or their irregular shapes as I pass by and I feel that I need to point them out. The ones in the past, I forget about their imperfections and gloss over their inadequacies, instead remembering them in an ideal—almost perfect—form.

I'm sure when I revisit this list in a few years, I induct new shows and raise current shows on to a pedestal of perfection. So please take any new criticisms with a grain of salt.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

35. Entourage

When I put this list together about a year ago, “Entourage” was coming off of an uninspiring extended season and I was a little concerned at how the rest of the series would play out. However, I wasn't deterred for a one main reason.

I believe that the show got really popular very quickly, so HBO asked for more episodes to run alongside the last season of “The Sopranos” giving them a solid Sunday night line-up that did very well in the ratings. The way I looked at it, HBO saw that Sunday rotation as the 1986 Boston Red Sox starting rotation: you have one of the all-time greats as your number five starter (Tom Seaver in “The Sopranos” role) and you have a future all-time great as your number one (Roger Clemens as “Entourage”), a torch was going to be passed.

Fans of the old show would watch the new show and vice versa and HBO would keep it's strangle hold on Sunday nights. And to a degree it worked. The one unintended side effect is that the writers for “Entourage” couldn't keep up with the extended season, so there were a couple of clunker episodes and they were starting to believe their own hype. They were throwing everything at the wall and they didn't seem to care because “they're the new hot show”. At the time, I thought that cooler heads would prevail and that it would be no big deal.

But it is a big deal, the show is currently in its eighth episode of the new season and aside from some better scenes and marginally better episodes, this season is maybe a half-grade better than last. Chances are if I was creating this list this year, “Entourage” would have ranked much, much lower.

The question that I look to answer is whether two great early seasons outweigh one crappy and one meh season?

Let me first state that I never got into the whole “Entourage” scene with the first episode. I had heard that Mark Wahlberg was producing a show that was loosely based on his life and experiences when he and his buddies moved from Boston to Hollywood. I thought that it was going to be a vain ego project detailing how great he and his pals are and how every decision he has made is unquestionably the correct one. So I ignored it.

About a year or two later, I was talking to a friend and he was telling me about the show and when I gave him my uneducated opinion of an unwatched show, he told me that the show wasn't like that at all. It was an interesting look at the life of a young star, his washed-up half-brother and their two friends. He pleaded me to watch it because it was well-written, well-acted and there wasn't a lot of heavy lifting. Plus, he said, Jeremy Piven's character (super agent Ari Gold) steals every scene that he's in.

Intrigued, I Netflixed the first season and my wife and I were instantly hooked. We buzzed through the first season in about a week (curse Netflix and their slow deliveries) and we were going so fast through the second season that we weren't waiting for Netflix any more, we were going from Blockbuster to Blockbuster trying to find the discs that we hadn't seen yet. We were like crack heads—actually, that's too much of a boring cliché now. What's the popular drug that kids are doing now—methamphetamine! We were like meth heads looking for the next hillbilly to turn us on.

We cruised through the first half of the third season and were more than pumped for the second half of the third season and fourth season which ran back-to-back. That's when the bad times began.

Here's a hard and fast rule, the more that a show is hyped, the suckier it will be. And “Entourage” stuck to that rule.

The show was becoming trite and predictable and worse yet, there wasn't much of a direction. Yes, the over-arching plot of the season is that Vince (the series' main star and de facto Wahlberg) becomes the number one movie star in the world and bets his entire career on a project (the life and times of Pablo Escobar in a flick called "Medellin") that most studios didn't want to touch. Add to that mix that Vince wants his director, the obnoxiously demented Billy Walsh, to film the piece and you have the ingredients for a new star's abject failure.

And it was.

This wasn't the reason why the show stalled. Having Vince knocked off his pedestal was a stroke of genius and a bit of realism. However, the writers couldn't seem to come up with anything fresh.

Vince's best friend, manager and conscious of the show, Eric is becoming more and more of a Hollywood player and becomes one of the movie's producers after sinking everything he owns into the flick. He and Vince have their squabbles, as do he and Billy. The fights become more and more repetitive as the weeks go by. Billy calls Eric a “suit”, Eric gets his panties in a bunch and says something to Vince about the way Billy treats him and what his negative opinion of the movie. Vince says “If you don't believe in me or the script, you can have your money back”, Eric says he believes in Vince and they make up. Until the next week. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Problem number one: repetition.

In many of his fourth season scenes, Ari isn't interacting too much with the boys any more. This is a big problem because Ari by himself is boring. The best part of Piven's character is when he's losing his mind, yelling and screaming at people and acting like an uber-prick. For some reason, this is very endearing to the watcher (myself included) and Piven won an Emmy for this character. I think that he went to the writers and told them that he doesn't want to be a one-trick pony and to flesh out his character, or maybe they came up with this idea on their own. I don't know, but they did do this.

Instead of an alpha agent dick, we get an alpha agent dick at work and a neutered puss at home. I guess this dichotomy is supposed to add some layers to Ari's personality. It doesn't. It just makes him tough to take seriously. And I'm not blaming the writers one bit for this as Ari Gold is easily the best character on the show and they needed to expand his role. They couldn't go for the always yelling, always obnoxious character at home and at work because that would get annoying after just 10 minutes and for some reason sympathy (we wouldn't have sympathized with a constant screamer, I guess) equals character depth. So they went the other route.

Changing the show's focus is never a good idea, it ruined “Happy Days” when it went from being about Richie and his buddies to Super Fonz. Fonzi was once the coolest guy in Milwaukee, he didn't have a back story because he didn't need one. All of a sudden people were obsessed with Fonzi and wanted to know what made him tick. When the writers pulled back that curtain, they showed that there's an awful lot of stuff you don't want to know about Fonzi. To make up for that vulnerability, at the same time they made him even larger than life.

The writers did the same thing with Ari. At this point I wouldn't be surprised if Ari jumped four buses on a motorcycle out front of Arnold's hamburger stand.

Problem number two: Blowing up the ancillary characters and giving them contrasting depth.

Another thing that was done way too often in this and last season is the establishment of plots that died quick and anonymous deaths. For example, for two episodes, Turtle (a neighborhood friend who acts as a gofer for Vince) spends considerable time buttering up the father of a girl he wants to date. He finally gets the dad's blessing and after another episode gets date. The two have a good time and it seems as if the perpetually loveless Turtle has found his woman. Next week, we hear nothing about her. Nothing is said about this girl for the next three weeks. She's completely dropped from the show without explanation. To use another “Happy Days” analogy, she's the Chuck Cunningham of “Entourage”.

The other member of the group, perpetually clueless Johnny Drama (Vince's half-brother struggling actor) unexpectedly becomes a big television star. His story lines are even more infuriating as there are three or four plot lines that dropped off the face of the earth for him too. Same thing with Ari's assistant Lloyd.

As “The Sopranos” proved, not every plot needs an ending. As in real life, some times things just fade away. I completely understand that, but when you spend a better part of a season building up story lines and don't follow through that's not artistic license, that's giving your viewers blue balls. And after a while, when you do begin new plot lines, fewer people will care because they've been conditioned to believe that it doesn't matter. Who is going to invest time to care about a character when there isn't a pay out?

I've read that the reason for the dropped plot lines and the choppy story telling is due to the fact that there has been a lot of turnover in the writing staff and the producers were bringing in people who didn't understand the characters very well or don't really know the show's history. Whether that's true or not, there should be someone who has been there since day one going over scripts to make sure that everything fits into the Entourage universe.

And it's not just in the plot, there is no consistency in character development. One episode something significant happens and the next episode it's forgotten. The writers bring all of the characters back to square one, and this year Drama even said, “Well I guess everything is the same as its always been ... we're all back to where we started.”

Problem number three: lack of consistency.

With all of these complaints you'd wonder why I'd even watch this show week after week after week. The reason is simple, the show was awesome when it first began. There was a sense of fun and levity, a great way to end the weekend. Not a lot of thinking, just the continuing story of a few lucky friends that are going through life much like every one else—albeit in a very heightened material state of existence. Add in a bit of “I-may-have-been-able-to-do-what-they're-doing-too-if-I-really-worked-at-it-and-took-a-chance” escapism that also came with each episode.

I watch every week to get that feeling back. Yet, aside from a few glimmers here and there, I've never seen it.

The show can be saved. It just can't be done lazily. The show was on the teetering verge of being completely shaken up this year when Ari was going to accept a $10 million dollar a year salary to be a studio head. Yet, he turned it down because he likes Vince too much. Never mind that for 40+ episodes we've been conditioned to believe that Ari was a take-the-money-and-run agent who thought of his wallet first and everything else a distant second. In two seasons filled with questionable character traits, this is the biggest one. It almost seemed as if the writers looked at themselves and thought that they had written themselves into a corner. They didn't, they wrote themselves into a new room, but couldn't find the light switch, so they went back to their old, safe room.

Back to my point, it was on the verge of changing and then the writers reeled it back in to where it began, which is where Drama's line came from. The writers need to stop writing lazy and move things forward. I am no Hollywood insider, but I'd be shocked if a star's life is as stagnant as Vincent Chase's. After the Escobar debacle, the writers tried to have him start from the bottom but they brought him back too quickly.

They also have to understand what they have, the viewers like the characters, don't turn them into caricatures of themselves. Let them grow. Each week that Turtle and Drama find themselves in a sitcom-y situation, cheapens what the show has done. The writers shouldn't be afraid to allow Turtle to find some self worth or for Drama to stop acting liking a jackass.

After awhile the viewer starts questioning why the characters like each other and from there it's only a short jump to the viewer asking himself, “Why am I watching this show?” and turning to Sunday night football.

Tom Seaver would not approve.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

36. Deadwood

In their music Led Zeppelin has sung a lot of world-wide, common sense truisms, such as: “If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now. It's just a sprinkle for the May queen.” I can't tell you how many times a day this piece of advice saves me from being alarmed. But this quote, “It's been a long time since I rock and rolled”, best fits in with the tardiness (as in late, not retarded – though you have to read this entry to weigh in on that) of my posts of late. Life, kids. Life sometimes gets in the way of writing.

Let's shrug off the day-to-day weight of life and get down to why we're here, to slog upwards to the top of the mountain of television greatness. Please don't forget that I am your Sherpa guide and in this entry, we're going to make a base camp at the summit of the HBO western, “Deadwood”.

Traditional Westerns have never done it for me; I didn't like “Bonanza” or “Wagon Train” or anything starring John Wayne. The whole genre seemed a little too hokey for me; the bad guys are always wearing black hats and the good guys in white always riding to the rescue of a town. The only payment for the good guys is the faint whiff of sweet lady justice—and the ability to put holes in people without getting tossed in the clink. And the rest of the characters were equally cartoony: the damsel in distress, the grizzled prospector, the pussy-assed “law man”, the savage Indian.

All of these people had flimsy excuses for living and had even lamer reasons for doing what they did. Why is the good guy good? Why is the mayor so lilly-livered? There was never any backstory or any shades of grey in westerns; good was good, bad was bad. That's just the way it was back then.

But was it really? Of course not. The west was the last bastion of no-man's land on this planet. Men who needed a new beginning or a change from the East or who were interested in making their fortunes fled to west because everything was up for grabs out there. Like to have sex with prostitutes for 50 cents? Come out to the west. Like to drink your weight in booze? Come out to the west. Like to kill Indians or want to be the boss of a boom town? Come out to the west. Don't want to work in a factory where your arms could get ripped off? Come out to the west.

These are some of the themes that “Deadwood” delved into. This show wasn't set up like the traditional westerns of the past, and that's what was so great about it. The one thing that traditional westerns glazed over was that there wasn't any “civilized” rules in the wild west and people acted upon it. Sex, drugs, drinking, swearing, killing—these kinds of things happened every day in “Deadwood” and it probably happened every day in “Bonanza”, yet the viewers weren't allowed to see it, or hear about it. Because of this puritanical attitude that was prevalent during the majority of last century,“Deadwood” is probably the best mirror to what the real post Civil War west was like.

I know that societal mores were different when the western was the popular form of entertainment, but how could an audience not question the actions of the men portrayed in a truly free society? “Deadwood” shows the type of lawlessness that happens when man is not governed by some set of rules.

There are a ton of characters in “Deadwood”; some real, some fictional. Calamity Jane is a lesbian drunk (which makes sense if you think about it), Wild Bill Hickok starred in a few episodes before he was shot in the back; but the two characters most focused upon are Sheriff Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen. Bullock comes to Deadwood, South Dakota with his partner Sol Star to open a hardware store because he is sick of being a lawman in his home town. Swearengen is the muscle that runs the local brothel and the rest of the town (unofficially, of course).

The two square off in the first season, realize an uneasy truce in the second season—when Swearengen has to mobilize to fend off Cy Tolliver, the proprietor of even shady business dealings and a new whore house that has been cutting in on Swearengen's business. Tolliver is small potatoes compared to the menace that shows up midway through the second season: George Hearst. As Hearst makes himself home and begins to summon his men to claim this town for his own—strictly for the gold in them thar hills—Swearengen and Bullock both agree that this isn't good for them and indirectly the people of Deadwood and mobilize a counter attack.

Those two paragraphs do nothing for the intricacies of each episode as there are often four to five plot lines running concurrently that may effect each season's story arc. I believe that what creator David Milch wanted to show is that like today, the west wasn't cut and dry. These were not people who had one moral compass; even the “good guys” do things for their own selfish reasons and that doesn't make them bad. And for the most part, the bad guys (even Hearst) aren't completely and totally bad.

Hearst is set up to be the villain purely because he arrived at Deadwood a few years too late. If he had taken the initiative and Swearengen had been lax in getting to South Dakota, the roles would be reversed. Like many HBO programs (“The Sopranos”, “Rome”, “Big Love” and even “Entourage”) everything comes down to power and how you protect it. Swearengen and Bullock don't want to give up their power and will do everything they can to keep it. That means that the sheriff may have to get dirty with the pigs in some cases.

Also, it is my belief that Milch sets Hearst up as the personification of progress and change; bringing the east out west. His character was like many of the factory owners, oil or land barons of that time where they were made rich off the sweat of the working man. They were unsympathetic towards the plight of their workers and treated men like raw material. Hearst does the same thing, only in the wild west there are people to try and stop them. Ultimately, Swearengen and Bullock will learn that they can't stop progress. If Hearst is halted, then there will be another and another and another until the “civilized” world is brought to South Dakota and their lawless paradise is destroyed.

There are also themes running through the three seasons: how women were treated (poorly, but with some respect), how black people were seen following the Civil War (a lot of the western settlers were soldiers from both sides of the conflict and thus their interactions are tempered by that), how the Chinese were treated (very poorly, almost subhuman—though Swearengen was intelligent enough to strike a bond with the Chinese ghetto's leader Wu). Even issues with children, Jews, the handicapped (played by former “Facts of Life” star Geri Jewell—another terrific character is played by follow 80s sitcom alum, William Sanderson as dim witted, puppet “mayor” and hotel owner E.B. Farnum. Sanderson played Larry—not Daryl or his other brother Daryl—on “Newhart”.) and other immigrants are brought to light in this series.

There are two hurdles to jump regarding this show: the cadence and quickness of each speaker is tough to pick up during the first episode. You begin to grow an ear for deciphering what each character says, understanding Deadwood is almost like understanding a different language. The other hurdle—and this is a big one—is that show never was given a proper send off. Once the third season concluded, it was thought that despite low ratings, “Deadwood” was going to get either a full or half-season to tie up loose ends. Then it was decided that Milch was going to work on his new series, “John From Cincinnati” (which was terrible) and wrap up “Deadwood” with two movies. That never materialized either.

So unless something happens soon, we are left to wonder what happened to the all too human inhabitants mining camp that tried their damnedest to stop civilization.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

2008 Boston Red Sox Pitcher's Preview

In honor of the Red Sox opening up Fenway Park for the 2009 season ... uhm, it hasn't been that long has it? Sorry about that folks, real life has been absolutely crazy the past few weeks which is why the TV countdown and the baseball previews have been stagnant.

So without more talky-talky, let's get to the reason why you guys are here; half-baked attempts at prognostication!

Daisuke Matsuzaka 15-12 4.40 – Better. For as much crap as Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett get for being hard-headed and unresponsive to suggestions from pitching coaches, Matsuzaka may be more so. All last year manager Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell have been begging Matsuzaka to throw his change up more often and for some reason he wouldn't. That's why he had decent, but not spectacular numbers. Do I think that he'll change his approach this year and listen to what Francona and Farrell have to say? I certainly hope so because he has the stuff to be a staff ace, I just hope he has the head too.

Tim Wakefield 17-12 4.76 – Worse. Wakefield pitched very well last year and at times he looked like Tim Wakefield circa 1995. I don't think that it will happen again this year and the main reason is that injuries are starting to nip at the knuckler's heels. He was scratched from a World Series start and opened the year on the DL. He didn't pitch very well in Toronto, though with the knuckleball things can be different from start-to-start. My gut tells me that Wakefield had his last good year in 2007 and that 2008 may be his last year period. I don't think that going from Doug Mirabelli to Kevin Cash is going to hurt him at all.

Josh Beckett 20-7 3.27 – Same. This guy was an absolute monster in the post season in 2007 and without him, Boston would've lost to the Cleveland Indians in five games. The reason why he outpitched Indians' ace CC Sabathia wasn't because he had better stuff, it's because he threw 40 innings less than the large lefty. Boston was wise to keep him off the Japan roadtrip and while it may look like he got rocked by the Blue Jays on Sunday, he really didn't pitch that badly. I expect a better performance for his next start and that will catapult him for the rest of the season.

Jon Lester 4-0 4.57 – Better. I've never really been sold on Jon Lester as a lights-out prospect. I thought that he could be a decent mid-rotation starter, not someone that you don't include in a trade for Johan Santana. Over the last two seasons, he's impressed me at times—the guy came back from cancer in less than a year and won game four of the World Series, how can you not be blown away by that. But there have been times when he's been maddening—I'm not going to say that he's Pat Rapp or Frank Castillo, but quit f*&*%$ing nibbling out there and throw the ball. His first two starts were decent, let's see if he can keep it up.

Clay Buchholz 3-1 1.59 – Worse. He's not going to throw a no-hitter every other start, and truthfully if Schilling didn't get hurt, he'd be in Pawtucket. But the kid does have electric stuff and could be the best home-grown pitcher the Sox have produced since William Roger Clemens. This kid could be a top-of-the-rotation guy, but it won't be this year. Expect to see him struggle, expect to hear people ask “What's wrong with him?”, expect to see him dominate next year.

Curt Schilling 9-8 3.87 – Worse. Like him or hate him, he's been everything the Sox asked for since they acquired him during the dark winter of 2003. He's not going to throw a meaningful inning until July—if at all—so anything you get from him is going to be gravy. Because of his pride and respect for the sport itself, I have a feeling that Schilling will pitch again in 2008, even if it's just to get the standing ovation that he richly deserves. A borderline Hall of Famer coming into the 2007 season, I think that his candidacy was cemented last October.

Bartolo Colon 6-8 6.34 (with LA Angels) – Better? One day you hear that he's topping out in Pawtucket at 96 mph, the next day he goes on the seven-day minor league disabled list. He looks like Lard Lad, but apparently his arm is ok. I have no idea what to make of this guy. If I was a betting man, I would say that he'd make a few good starts in Boston, get the fandom completely pumped up and then go on the DL with some sort of ailment. Basically he's the fatter version of Brett Saberhagen, David Cone, Ramon Martinez or any other pitcher that used to be really good and then came to Boston on the backside of their career.

Jonathan Papelbon 37 saves 1.85 – Worse, but not much. The only reason why I say he's going to do worse is because of that ERA. Look at it. That's amazing. Can he do that for two straight seasons? It's a tall order, but if anyone on this staff can do it, it'll be him. The one thing that I'm worried about is if success has gone to his head. Going on David Letterman, offers for “Dancing With the Stars”, hanging out with the Dropkick Murphys—you saw what happened to Ricky Vaughn. I wish more people would realize that “Major League” was a cautionary tale and NOT a comedy.

Hideki Okajima 3-2 2.22 – Worse. Like Papelbon, how can Okajima be much better? For the first four months of the season, the guy was lights out. Then he got very tired, was rested and came back strong for the postseason. Say what you want about Mike Lowell, David Ortiz and Beckett, but Okajima was the MVP of the season. But he's not going to get a lot of pub for that, and that's ok because he likes being the “Assassin in the Dark”, which is a nickname that the inner comic book geek in me loves. That being said, he'll have another solid year but it won't be as great as 2007.

Mike Timlin 2-1 3.42 – Worse. This has to be it for Timlin, right? He's coming up on his 20th season and that's a bit old for a middle reliever. I think that the 2007 stats belie his effectiveness though as Timlin had a decent year, but he wasn't as good as his numbers say. I'd expect a few more trips to the DL and some worse numbers, but like always, he'll be effective.

Manny Delcarmen 0-0 2.5 – Better. A lot of responsibility is being dumped on Delcarmen's shoulders this year as the front office wants him to be the new Mike Timlin—ie the guy who gets to either Okajima or Papelbon. And with the first few games already in the books, that little experiment isn't turning out the way that the front office intended. Hopefully it's just the jet lag and not the winter spent being the toast of Jamaica Plain.

Javier Lopez 2-1 3.10 – Same. Lopez is a strange cat, he's a LOOGY who can't get left-handed hitters out, but is nasty on righties. Do you waste a roster spot on him hoping that he gets his act together and use him against right-handed hitters? Or do you send him away and pray that you can find someone that can get lefties out? I think that Francona is the type of manager who likes what he has and stays with it, instead of beating the bushes to see if he can get someone better.

Bryan Corey 1-0 1.93 – Worse. He only pitched a handful of innings last year and so far this year, he's thrown just as well. However, he's not going to keep that sub 2.00 ERA. He's a good back of the bullpen type of guy. You can't worry much about your 10th or 11th guys on the pitching staff, otherwise you'd go crazy.
David Aardsma 2-1 6.40 (with Chicago White Sox) – Same. And here's your 11th pitcher. There are times when he throws extremely well and times when he's should be boarding the Lou Merloni shuttle to Pawtucket. The problem is he doesn't have options left and the Sox like him. They like him so much that they DFA'ed Kyle Snyder last week instead of Aardsma. I think that says something.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

2008 Boston Red Sox Hitters Preview

It's already two days into the season and I'm already horribly late with my Sox preview, as Bob Ryan (or Julius Caesar, I guess) would say, “Mea culpa. Mea culpa.”* And after splitting two games with the Oakland Athletics in Tokyo, we don't have a good enough idea about this team yet to make any strong predictions on the 2008 season.

*Quick aside, I like that way of saying sorry it sounds so, erudite. And it's a lot less whiny than “I'm sorry.” Though needed at times, people sound wussy saying “I'm sorry”. “Mea culpa” has some gravitas behind it, plus if you get a person who doesn't understand Latin, you can apologize and not lose face.

Here's what I know about the 2008 Boston Red Sox: they're going to be pretty good. How good? I'm not sure. I am 90% sure that they're going to make the playoffs. I'm about 50-50 on them making the World Series and a little less sure about them winning the whole enchilada. With that being said, I'm not sure that there is a team better than them. I just think that a lot of things have to fall into place for the Sox to take home the trophy in back-to-back years.

What I'm going to do is go through the team, position by position with last year's numbers and tell you whether the player will do better, do worse or stay even in 2008. Be warned, I don't do a lot of projections with numbers, I'm going to go off of gut feelings, what I think is common sense and trends. I will get to the pitchers on Friday.

Jason Varitek: .255/.267/.421 – Worse. I think that 2007 was the last good year for Jason Varitek. He's 36-years-old, caught a ton of games in the last decade and he's getting older. His Spring Training stats weren't very good and he looked old and slow in the first two games of the season. Obviously two games don't make a season, but the Sox are really up against the wall when it comes to catchers. This is Varitek's last year on a four-year deal and there's no one out there (internally or on the free agent market) that's better. What do they do?

Kevin Cash: .111/.242/.148 – Better. I mean, how can he do any worse, right? For as much as I hated Doug Mirabelli, Kevin Cash is not the answer. He's a fine defensive back stop, but he can't hit for anything. That being said, you have to think that he can improve on those terrible 2007 numbers.

Kevin Youkilis: .288/.390/.453 – Same. Had a break out year last year, and like the three years prior faded down the stretch. Though he did rebound hugely in the post season and is one of the main reasons why the Sox won the Series. I'm hoping that Sean Casey will spell Youkilis a lot this summer and that will stop his yearly fade.

Dustin Pedroia: .317/.380/.453 – Worse. Rookie of the Year and began hitting at a Williamsian level after one of the crappiest Aprils ever. The reason why I say he may have a worse year is because you can't expect him to hit .317 all the time and he has to walk a bit more to get that OBP up. I wouldn't be upset with a .290/.400/.450 line. That's where I think that his numbers will fall this year, if he has a better eye.

Julio Lugo: .237/.294/.349 – Better. He can't do much worse and Peter Gammons has been banging the drum all spring that Lugo was very sick last Spring Training and lost a ton of weight, but now he's better. I hope so. I do have to say that he is batting .500 right now, which is much better than what he was doing a year ago.

Mike Lowell: .324/.378/.501 – Worse. Lowell had a monster career year last year, and I doubt very much that he'll do it again. Do I think that he's going to fall off the planet like he did in 2005? No, but I think that if he hits .280 with 20-25 bombs and 80-90 RBIs, that will be perfectly acceptable. I also think that he'll play better defensively this year than he did in the early part of last year.

Alex Cora: .246/.298/.386 – Same. Pretty good numbers for a back up infielder. Don't ask him to do too much and he'll do a good job for the club. The fact is, you can't have an All-Star at every position. I wonder if this is the year I stop calling him by his brother's name? I doubt it. There's only one Cora: Joey.

Sean Casey: .296/.353/.393 – Better, though not by much. I think that Sean Casey is going to use the wall to his advantage this year and pepper that thing with a ton of doubles. I hope that he can, so he can give Youkilis and Lowell the days off that they need to keep them fresh for the post season.

Manny Ramirez: .296/.388/.493 – Better, much better. Last year Manny Ramirez had pretty good numbers for someone not named Manny Ramirez. This year, I think that he's going to be the American League Most Valuable Player*. I've been reading articles all winter about how he's rededicated himself to training and is supposedly in tip-top shape. He looked monstrous in the opening series against the A's and I think it's just going to keep going from there.

* If Manny, or somebody on the Sox, wins the MVP this year or next, the Red Sox will be the only team to have a representative win the MVP in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s. Not too many people are talking about this, but that's a tribute to how competitive the Red Sox have been in the last 70 years. No one really talks about this though.

Jacoby Ellsbury: .353/.394/.509 – Worse. He only played about 30 games last year, and he's still a rookie. There is no way that Jacoby Ellsbury is going to put up the same numbers he did last year over a full season. Expecting him to do this is totally unreasonable. I wouldn't be surprised if he .275 with a few bombs and 40+ steals. I'd be totally ok with that. I don't think that the banshees on WEEI would, but they're not happy with anything.

JD Drew: .270/.373/.423 – Same. Last year he told Boston Herald scribe Rob Bradford (when he was still with the Lawrence Eagle Tribune) that he spent the 2006 off season sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber—the same kind Michael Jackson sleeps in—so that he can cut down on his injuries. It sort of worked as he did play in 140 games. Problem was he hit like Jackson until Game 6 of the ALCS. What's he going to do this year? I have no idea. My gut says he'll be better, but I'm not sure. He's already begged out of the first two games with back issues. That nine hour flight back to the states should do wonders for that.

Coco Crisp: .268/.330/.382 – Same. It's about time to cut bait with Covelli Crisp. He is not the heir to the Johnny Damon centerfield throne, he just isn't. No matter how many times he teases us, he's not that guy. And that's too bad, because he had a very good year in Cleveland in 2005 and when he came to the Sox in 2006 he started out like a house afire, but then he got hurt. And that was the reason why he sucked in 2006. And the reason why he wasn't so great in 2007—though he did play a Gold Glove centerfield. And he's sort of been hurt in Spring Training.

Bobby Kietly: .231/.295/.327 – Better. Should be the fourth outfielder once Crisp gets traded or he might not want to wait around for that and demand his release in April. I have no clue what the Sox are going to do with him because while he went with the team to Japan, he was never brought on to the 40-man roster. Basically he got paid $40K to take a trip to Tokyo. Not bad work if you can get it. I do like him as he can play all three outfield positions. And he was pretty clutch in Game Four of the World Series. At least he has that on his resume.

Brandon Moss: .280/.379/.440 – Worse. If he plays, it'll be because of injury or because someone needs a break. He was the embodiment of the humbling game of baseball as he had a terrific game on Tuesday (game tying homer and two RBIs) and looked terrible on Wednesday (three strikeouts). I expect him to be a charter member of the Lou Merloni shuttle from Boston to Pawtucket.

Designated Hitter
David Ortiz: .332/.445/.621 – Same. The power numbers were there, just look at his slugging percent if you don't believe me, but he didn't hit 54 dingers. No matter, Ortiz had one of his best all-around years in a Red Sox uniform in 2007 and he did it on one knee. This year the knee is better (surgery in the off-season) and I don't see why Ortiz can't put up the same digits as last year.

Friday, the pitchers.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

37. The Monkees

Though it was only on for two seasons (which is really surprising to me as I thought it ran longer than that), “The Monkees” was an important show that had long-lasting ramifications on the television industry. Though that's not the reason why I like the show. Truthfully, I have no idea whether just preteens made up the audience or whether hippies thought it was a lame attempt of Hollywood scrubbing up the late 60s love movement for middle America (though both are probably true), but it is an enjoyable show. The show's plots aren't anything special and in most cases don't make a lot of sense, but you don't watch “The Monkees” for the plot. You watch for two reasons: the music and for the band members.

This entry isn't going to be a debate about the validity of the Monkees' music. Like many pop acts, there is some good stuff and some bad stuff, but the Monkees basically were a carbon copy of the Beatles from their Help! days. They were poppy, had a slight edge to some of their songs, but mostly sang about love and trivial subjects. The group had a lot of aid from professional song writers like Neil Diamond and Carole King, which made those subjects take on a more interesting tone. And the group also took advantage of session musicians until their musical chops were built up. However, a strict judgement on whether the music is “good”or “bad” misses the point of the show.

The point was to have a weekly show that would take suburbia into the wacky (albeit safe) lifestyle of the day's youth. Aside from a few things that never show (drug use, conjugal visits with scores of groupies, legendary battles with their producer Don Kirshner) I don't think that Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork or Davy Jones were playing characters that were too far off from themselves. The show was also among the first to use a lot of the slang that 60s youth was using. Most important about this is that the language didn't sound stilted or scripted. It also portrayed the youth of that time as caring and centered—having a good head on their shoulders—despite media reports that the baby boomer generation wasn't living up to their parents' generation and were shiftless and lazy.

While this probably went over the heads of older viewers—if it reached them at all—this is probably the main reason why the show resonated with a lot of young people. Here was a show with young people getting by without a care in the world. The only time that a problem did enter their world was brought in by a person outside of their “universe”, normally someone from their previous generation who didn't, or couldn't, understand the world today. The Monkees normally took care of this problem through nonviolent, and often slapstick, means which resulted not in vanquishing the foes, but turning enemies into friends.

Was that the way of the world? No. But it was a television show that never made any bones that it was more cartoon than documentary.

Despite the cartoon nature of the show, there were some serious aftershocks of “The Monkees”. For one thing, it was one of the first instances to prove the power of music on television. Yes, Ricky Nelson became a heart throb to millions of girls in the early 60s after singing a few songs on his parents' show “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”, but the Monkees were a juggernaut that provided their audiences with new songs week after week after week. And you pair those new songs with movie shorts, interspliced with the television show (often these shorts had zero to do with the program's main plot) and kids seemed to love the song much more.

Thus, the music video was born.

And it wasn't just the music industry that was revolutionized. While “Dobbie Gillis” was the first to break down the so-called “fourth wall”—where an actor talks to the audience—the Monkees also did this and further shattered the illusion of television when the cast members would stop the action to converse with camera men and stage hands while the show was being filmed. This nonlinear form of television was also extended to drawn out dream and fantasy sequences and inserts and jump cuts. All of these innovations have had a profound impact on the television and movies that we watch even today.

No matter what the ramifications that the shows had on later television programs or any social impact that it may or may not have had, the bottom line is that “The Monkees” were a fun program. Any time you tuned in, you knew what you were going to get and that's ok. Because a show does not deviate from it's norm, that doesn't make it a bad show. This is precisely what killed the band though.

Fed up with their bubble gum image, once the show was cancelled in 1968, they along with a young actor/writer named Jack Nicholson came up with a movie called “Head”. Written over a weekend where a lot of acid was ingested, the movie's first scene opened with the band jumping off a bridge and killing themselves. It only got weirder from there. The group's core base of fans (mostly young teens) were confused as to the radical 180 degree turn the band took and rejected them.

And the group of fans that the band did want—the more serious, older hipster crowd—thought that they were a fake band that was put together by Hollywood suits. They literally were a band without an audience and with their show running (and doing well) in constant reruns, the Monkees were constantly reminded of the past and how things once were. The Monkees would break up, try solo endeavors and reunite over the next 30 years, but they always remained in America's pop culture consciousness.

For me, and other members of my generation, the Monkees were a summer TV show first and foremost, I had no idea that the group had any chart success at all. Every June, Channel 56 knew that kids were being let out for summer break and would schedule the show to run in the afternoon. And I'd be in front of the tube watching as jokes about 60s culture went flying over my head. I watched an episode recently and the group was in ghost town being held hostage by gangsters. Mickey used an old phone and was hoping to get Marshall Dillon (the erstwhile sheriff from “Gunsmoke” to help out). He got a grizzly prospector who said that there is a Dylan in town (Bob Dylan) who could write a protest song for you, but couldn't help much more than that. Interesting (and funny) juxtaposition of Bob Dylan and Marshall Dillon, but one that an eight-year-old would never get.

That's what I get when I tune into “The Monkees” now, I get to remember what it was like when I was younger and had zero responsibilities and I'm able to appreciate some witty writing. That's not a bad two-for-one combination.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

2008 National League Preview

You saw my American League picks on Friday, here are my guesses for the Senior Circuit. BTW, I have always been a fan of the National League arrogance when they refer to themselves as the “Senior Circuit”. For some reason it made me laugh because even though the NL is only about 20 years older than the AL and the AL has (arguably) had more success than the NL, the National League never seemed to let the American League forget that they were around first.

I can almost picture the NL eagle saying to the AL eagle, “Sure, you have your New York Yankees and their 26 World Championships and your Boston Red Sox with their besting us in the first ever World Series, but we've been around since the days of President James A. Garfield, so suck on that American League.” Ok. Maybe I need some sort of a hallucinogenic to picture that, but you know what I mean.

National League East:

1.Philadelphia Phillies
I know that the New York Mets made a big acquisition over the winter (more on that in a bit), but I still think that the Phillies are the team to beat. The infield with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins is probably the best in the league. The front three pitchers of Cole Hammels, Jamie Moyer (who played with Cap Anson, I believe) and Brett Myers are terrific. If Brad Lidge comes back from injuries (both mental and physical) they could have a very good bullpen. The only weaknesses I see are outfield and manager. I've never been a Charlie Manuel guy, he reminds me too much of Grady Little, but he did get these guys to play extremely well down the stretch. Of course, they crapped their pants against the Rockies in the playoffs.

2.New York Mets
They got Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins for a bag of used doorknobs. They added him to a nucleus of Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Jose Reyes, players who are all in their prime of their careers. Unfortunately for manager Willie Randolph, he better hope that a few other of his twilight stars like Pedro Martinez, Billy Wagner, Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo and Moises Alou can stop father time for one more year. If that last group of guys come up empty, it's going to be a long year for the Metropolitans.

3.Atlanta Braves
Tom Glavine is back. John Smoltz is still pitching and Chipper Jones is manning the hot corner. It's like 1997 all over again, only we're not listening to Smashmouth and the Verve. The Braves do have some young talent in Jeff Francouer and Brian McCann (who is probably the best backstop in the division), but will that be enough? Obviously Mark Teixeira is going to have a monster year (he's a free agent after this season--and has agent Scott Boras chomping at the bit for another $20 million a year player) but will pitchers Tim Hudson and Mark Hampton also do well? That's the key for the Bravos, if Glavine, Smoltz, Hudson and Hampton find some magic elixir then the team will probably do well. Otherwise, it's third place. And come to think of it, that's exactly where they're going to end up, even if that foursome does find the Fountain of Youth. The bottom line is that they aren't as good as the Phillies and Mets, but they aren't as terrible as the Marlins and Nats. I don't think I've ever been more sure of a team's prediction as I am of this year's Atlanta squad.

4.Florida Marlins
Between the Marlins and the Nationals, who cares? One of them will end up in fourth while the other is in last. The Marlins have Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and a bunch of kids they got from Detroit. It sucks to be Fredi Gonzalez and have to manage this dreck. The good news is that in about three years the Marlins will have a new park, a new name (the MIAMI Marlins) and maybe some new players that owner Jeffrey Loria will hold onto for 20 minutes before deciding that a profit of $25 million isn't enough. After killing baseball in Montreal and slowly bleeding South Florida dry, I think that he could be the worst owner in Major League Baseball history.

5.Washington Nationals
From what I read they have a very good group of prospects that are about a year or two away, so in 2010 they might be in the running for first place. However, it's still 2008 and I don't think that there is another Dmitri Young type surprise for the Nats. They did pick up Elijah Dukes from the Rays during the winter and if Young can be some sort of a mentor to both him and Lastings Milledge (acquired from the Mets) then maybe the Nationals can hop over the Marlins and start year one of the rebuilding a bit early. They do have a brand new ball park, so that should excite the Washingtonians for a few months.

National League Central:

1.Milwaukee Brewers
They faded down the stretch, but I think that this is the year that they go wire-to-wire for first place in the NL Central. Chris Capuano can't be that bad, can he? I think that it may be time to admit that whatever Ben Sheets gives you is gravy, because I don't think that he'll ever stay healthy for an entire season. The Brew Crew pitching staff does have Yovani Gallardo and Jeff Suppan, plus a rebuilt bullpen, so they may be ok in the pitching department. Where Milwaukee excels is at the plate: Prince Fielder, JJ Hardy, Ryan Braun and Billy Hall make up the new Harvey Wallbangers. Lots of 10-8, 11-9 contests in the Brewers' favor this year.

2.Chicago Cubs
Ok. I'm going to say it, Lou Piniella is overrated. He led the Reds to the 1990 World Series upset of the Athletics and skippered the Mariners to a 116-win season, but what has he done since then? Not a heck of a lot. The Cubs will probably be pretty good this year; much like last year where there were some periods of great play and periods of terrible play. Alfonso Soriano will be the offensive star while Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez try to help out. Kosuke Fukudome has been brought in from Japan to help in the outfield and Felix Pie may work out too. Aside from Carlos Zambrano, there is not a lot of pitching to speak of. Chicago is second here, but they could easily be fourth or fifth.

3.St. Louis Cardinals
Speaking of overrated managers, Tony LaRusa is back for another year at the helm in St. Louis. This may be the worst team that he's had because aside from Albert Pujols, there isn't a lot of guys that can score runs. And Pujols may need Tommy John surgery soon. Let me amend that, the Cards do have Mitchell boys Troy Glaus and Rick Ankiel and if they're taking their vitamins, maybe there will be some firepower in the midwest. Aside from that, it's going to be a long season pitching wise as Chris Carpenter, Joel Piniero and Mark Mulder are all starting the season on the shelf. It got so bad they had to sign Kyle Loshe.

4.Cincinnati Reds
This is going to be a very interesting year as baseball's Holy War may come to somewhat of a conclusion. I think that Cincinnati is just mediocre enough that going to one of baseball's dueling philosophy (stats vs. intangibles) may push the Reds to being something better than they are. On one hand we have the anti-stat guy managing the squad Dusty Baker. He's all about blood-and-guts, old school baseball. He thinks math is something that you learn and forget in high school and is certainly not to be used on the diamond. Baker has told his troops that he wants them hacking away and not trying to work walks, because walks “clog up the basepaths”. Now, if the Reds do well and exceed expectations, it might be safe to say that Baker does know what he's talking about and that the number crunchers might be clueless. However, if the Reds suck, then it's Baker who's clueless. I'm putting my money on the latter scenario taking place.

5.Pittsburgh Pirates
I'm going to be honest, there's not a lot I can say about the Pittsburgh Pirates other than that their ball park looks awesome. I do know that they're trying to sign Ian Snell long term and that their biggest off-season acquisition was Byung-Hyun Kim. Freddy Sanchez is going to hit and play a decent second base, Adam LaRoche and Jason Bay are going to try and have bounce-back years. And other than the perfectly average Tom Gorzelanny, there's not much else in the Iron City. And that sucks. In retrospect, I guess that they should have signed Barry Bonds instead of Andy VanSlyke. Live and learn.

6.Houston Astros
Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee. In that order are the best the Astros have to offer, and that's not a lot. True, Miguel Tejada and Jose Valverde are on the roster, but Tejada has had a really bad winter and who knows just how good Valverde really is? What does this mean for manager Cecil Cooper? It means that they'll probably be the worst team in the National League Central, which is really saying something. With the size of their park and the quality of their pitchers, the Astros are going to get bludgeoned every game that Oswalt doesn't start.

National League West:

1.Arizona Diamondbacks
Here's the deal, when the D'backs and the D'Rays came into the league about a decade ago, I hated everything about Arizona. I hated their goofy name, I hated their purple, teal, copper and black uniforms, I hated Buck Schowalter and his 800-page Diamondback way book, I hated that they weren't trying to build anything from the ground up and were just signing free agents like crazy, to paraphrase Ugly Kid Joe, I hated everything about then. But then Josh Byrnes goes from Boston to the desert and starts making the Diamondbacks into a real, major league organization. He ditches their old uniforms, gets rid of their old broken-down players and sets the ground work for a solidly-run squad. With the best 1-2 rotation in all of baseball (Brandon Webb and Dan Haren) and a pretty decent number three in Randy Johnson the D'Backs can do really well. Especially if Micah Owings fulfills his promise. The offense is young with Connor Jackson, Steven Drew, Justin Upton and Chris Young leading the charge. This is a fun team to watch and wouldn't surprise me if they went to the World Series.

2.Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers have a bunch of young kids and that's how they're going to live and die this year: through youth. And I think that they're going to live, especially with another bonafide All Star catcher in Russell Martin. Throw in Andy LaRoche, James Loney and Matt Kemp and Los Angeles is going through a youth revival the likes of which Los Angelenos haven't seen since the mid 90s. As for the vets, Andruw Jones has something to prove and this might be the end of the line for Jeff Kent. New manager Joe Torre (you may have heard of him) still has to figure out the pitching staff, but should be ok with Derek Lowe, Brad Penny and Jason Schmidt. And he has Scott Proctor on board too, which means that we should see Proctor's arm completely falling off by mid-June.

3.Colorado Rockies
I think that the Rockies are a decent team with a bunch of young stars that may have played very well last fall. That being said, I think that they got extremely lucky and I do not expect to see them in the post season this year. Outfielder Matt Holiday was huge last year, as was shortstop Troy Tulowitzky, Brad Hawpe and even Todd Helton rebounded with a nice year. I just don't think that they have the pitching this year and God's squad maybe looking at a finish in the middle of the pack. Hopefully this kick starts baseball in Denver and for a generation of fans, this could be their Impossible Dream year.

4.San Diego Padres
The biggest problem for the Padres? No outfield defense. I know that might not be a big deal, but when you play most of your games in Petco Park and have fly ball pitchers, outs that should be easy and turn into triples can really screw with your staff's collective heads. The pitching staff is more than solid with Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Greg Maddux and a rehabbing Mark Prior looking to make a mid-season debut. And their bullpen is top notch too, with ageless wonder Trevor Hoffman waiting for “Hell's Bells” to ring so that he can nail down another save. However, Hoffman's mental state is one to watch. He did give up Tony Gwynn Jr.'s two-out, ninth inning game tying triple in the last game to ruin the Pad's post season chances. Then blew a save against the Rockies in a one-game winner goes to the NLDS game. But that's the least of their worries, the bats just aren't there. I envision lots of 2-1, 3-2 losses for the Pads this year.

5.San Francisco Giants
Why did manager Bruce Bochy leave the Padres for this group? This could be the worst team in the major leagues as their veterans are way over the hill and their minor league system is scrap iron. Put it this way, guess who is replacing Barry Bonds as the number four hitter in the lineup? Bengie Molina. They do have Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain for starters and Barry Zito has to be better than last year, but other than that, it's deadwood. I think that it'll be interesting for baseball fans on each coast to see what section is worse: the Bay Area (Giants and A's) or the Beltway (Nationals and Orioles). I think that the former is going to take the crown.

Friday, March 14, 2008

2008 American League Preview

Today I am completely exhausted for some reason, but I am still going to deliver to my readers my 2008 American League baseball preview. Next week, I'll bust out the National League preview and the week after I will go ahead with a more in-depth Boston Red Sox preview.

I was trying pretty hard to think of a gimmick for this entry, but those have been sort of played out in the last few years, right? I mean, if I have to see one more person use quotes from “One Crazy Summer” or the names of 19th Century German philosophers as reasons for where teams are going to end up, I'm probably going to puke. So, we're going old school and just listing the teams in the order where I think that they'll end up ... which is sort of a gimmick in itself.

American League East:

1. Boston Red Sox
The Sox freak me out a bit, I think that they're going to win, but it's not going to be easy. Josh Beckett's back scares me. Curt Schilling's injury scares me. Tim Wakefield scares me some times, but is oddly comforting other times. The experience of the two kids (Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz) scare me. Bartolo Colon would scare me if I saw him coming at me with a fork and knife. About the only starting pitcher that doesn't scare me is Daisuke Matsuzaka. I think that he's going to have a monster year in 2008.

I think that the bullpen is going to be great, as long as Papelbon is handled with care and Peter Gammons has been absolutely raving about Manny Delcarmen. Mike Timlin and Hideki Okajima are going to be solid and the team has a few other live arms as well. I just want to ask, what the hell ever happened to Craig Hansen? Wasn't he supposed to have the closer's role by now?

Dougie Parmesan is gone, which means that backup catching goes to Kevin Cash. That totally sucks, but it doesn't matter, because Jason Varitek is going to do most of the catching. And maybe the front office will get off its collective ass and get a catching prospect to intern under Varitek.

Aside from Coco Crisp, the same group of infielders and outfielders are back for another year. Is Jacoby Ellsbury for real? The front office certainly thinks so. Will Mike Lowell have a 2008 that was anything like 2007? Probably not, but JD Drew and Julio Lugo should be better, so that will even out. Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis are four guys who you shouldn't spend a lot of time worrying about. They're going to be fine.

2. New York Yankees
I don't know what to tell you about the 2008 Yanks. Do I think that they're going to be bad? Probably not. Do I think that they're going to be good? Yes, I do, but not as good as they were last year. But I'm not ready to count them out yet. Mainly because I've been kicking dirt of the Yankees' grave since 2002 and they always come back to haunt you.

The things I'd be worried about if I was a Yankee fan are: starting troika of Ian Kennedy/Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain—and this doesn't include their asinine plan to start Chamberlain in the bullpen for two months, send him to the minors to stretch his arm for two months and then bring him back as a starter for the stretch run. Can these three rookies handle the pressure? Can Andy Pettitte handle the season after what happened to him in January and February? Is Mike Mussina going to continue to be the best .500 pitcher masquerading as an ace ever? Mariano Rivera is 36-years-old, he has to slip eventually, right?

And what about the offense? ARod is going to rake, no doubt. Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano will do the things they do. But Jorge Posada won't have the year that he did last year. Johnny Damon is left, Melky Cabrera is in center and Bob Abreau is in right. Is that a good outfield? And Jason Giambi is playing first, while porn meister Hideki Matsui DHs. Is that a good idea?

Plus, Captain Spaz (Joe Girardi) himself is the new manager in the Bronx. This is not Joe Torre and with Hank Steinbrenner shooting off his mouth every two weeks, I can easily a Bronx Zoo situation blowing up in the summer. I think that this team is closer to fourth place than first.

BTW, Billy Crystal will not help this team. Though if he did get a fastball in his ear, that would've helped me out immensely. I hate that smug prick.

3.Toronto Blue Jays
They've got good pitching and solid hitting. They can definitely go places. Of course, I've been saying that for a few years and each year, someone on the Blue Jays gets hurt and it completely submarines their season. Who will it be this year? I am going to go on a limb and say Alex Rios or AJ Burnett.

4.Tampa Bay Rays
These aren't your daddy's Devil Rays. They changed their uniforms, their colors, their name and maybe their luck. These Rays are going to be a solid team, no doubt about it. I wouldn't be surprised if they finished ahead of the Blue Jays for third place, but fourth is where they'll likely end up. They have solid starters (Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and James Shield) and have a solid, young lineup especially if Evan Longoria is ready to take over the hot corner. The one thing that's going to kill them is their bullpen, especially if they're going to rely on Troy Percival, who didn't even pitch last year. Put it this way, if this young and exciting team doesn't draw anyone to the Trop this year ... end the charade and move them to a city that appreciates Major Leauge Baseball.

5.Baltimore Orioles
Give this front office credit; it took them 10 seasons but they finally realized that they have to blow the entire thing up and rebuild. And it's not going to be pretty. This team may lose 110 games this year and will be a punching bag for every team in the division. If you're an O's fan, at least you'll get to watch Adam Jones and whatever they get from the Cubs for Brian Roberts. That should be fun.

American League Central:

1.Cleveland Indians
I like what the Detroit Tigers have done this off season, but I like the Indians a little better. Fausto Carmona and CC Sabathia are miles ahead of what Detroit has. Also, their every day talent is a bit younger and I expect Travis Haffner to have a more more Pronk-like season this year. Also, and this is a scary thought, I think that their bullpen is going to be better, especially when Joe Borowski is not the closer any more. This Indians team reminds me of the Indians team of the mid 90s in that there may be a flaw or two, but otherwise its a solid group of players that should do some damage during the season and post season.

2.Detroit Tigers
Just four years ago, Detroit were the worst team in the majors and you couldn't find a Tigers fan if you offered free Red Wings tickets. Now, they're arguably the strongest offensive team and the pick du jour for World Series Champions. That happens when you acquire Dontrelle Willis, Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria. No doubt, they're stacked, but there are a bunch of questions. Will Willis make the transition to the American League (especially after getting lit up in the NL last year)? Is Gary Sheffield healthy? Will Maglio Ordonez have the same output this year as he did last year? Is Renteria an AL player?

3.Kansas City Royals
Maybe it's because I read three Royals Blogs a day, but I am convinced that Kansas City is going to do very well this year, or at least better than expected. Gil Meche and Brian Bannister lead off their rotation and those two guys aren't too bad. If Alex Gordon matures and Billy Butler hits like he's supposed to (draft him in the late round of your fantasy league, trust me) they could be a decent team. I like what new manager Trey Hillman is doing and if they play with some passion, third place is a good landing spot for them.

4.Chicago White Sox
Mark this down, Ozzie Guillen will be the first manager fired in 2008. However, GM Kenny Williams should be the one to get the blame. He signed a ton of mediocre bullpen guys to long term contracts over the winter. He traded starting pitcher Jon Garland for shortstop Orlando Cabrera. He did manage to get Nick Swisher, but he's playing him in centerfield. I'm not predicting a lot of South Side wins this year and they're going to fight with the next team on the list to stay out of the basement.

5.Minnesota Twins
They have Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan and a healthy (?) Francisco Liriano. That doesn't add up to a lot of wins, but will that allow them to escape the cellar? I don't know. They lost a lot: Torii Hunter, Carlos Silva, Matt Garza and most of all, Johan Santana. The one really good player they got back from all that was Delmon Young. They're building for their new building in 2010, so I think that they expect to get their butts handed to them—especially with the worst hitter in the majors as their starting short stop, Adam Everett. It just sucks for Twins fans because owner Carl Pohlad has the money, he's just too cheap to spend it.

American League West:

1.Los Angeles Angels
They're the class of the division. They have the most balanced starting rotation, a terrific bullpen and every day lineup, as well as a pretty decent manager. They've been like this for most of this century, so why do they only have one World Series title to show for it? I don't know, maybe Vlad Guerrero has something to do with it. They were able to sign Torii Hunter and while he was able to be a star in Minnesota, I don't think that it will translate to the left coast. I expect them to take the American League West title again and suck in the playoffs.

2.Seattle Mariners
Last year the M's won 88 games. Stat heads will tell you it was mostly luck and that they should have won closer to 83 games. Apparently the front office doesn't believe in statistics as they went out and traded their entire minor league system to the Orioles for Erik Bedard. With Bedard and King Felix Hernandez, does Seattle have what it takes to win the AL West or at least get the Wild Card? I don't think so, but if you like strong starting pitching and a great closer with a funny name (JJ Putz) look to the Pacific Northwest.

3.Texas Rangers
They aren't going to be a very good team, but they will be better than the Athletics. Seriously, the Orioles, Rangers and Athletics could be some of the worst baseball teams the American League has seen in some time. I know that Ron Washington manages them, Hank Blalock, Ian Kinsler and Michael Young make up a decent infield and catcher Jarrod Saltalamaccia has the longest last name in MLB history and is a stud, but this team is damn terrible.

4.Oakland Athletics
Every few years Billy Beane is lauded as the example of a model franchise and then does the model thing—purge. Edit: Ugh, what a crappy juxtaposition ... I'm going to leave it in there as a testament to just how bad I can write some times. Christ. Huston Street will probably be gone by July 31 as will Joe Blanton and if anyone wants Bobby Crosby or Eric Chavez, they'll be out of town too. That leaves a bunch of kids and Jack Cust. The A's are building for their move to Freemont, which like Minnesota will also be in 2010. Manager Bob Gerren has his hands full, but the good news is that he shouldn't have any expectations to win. Hooray for him.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

38. 24

I really do like this show a lot, but there are two reasons why this show is not higher on this list: a) I find repeated viewings of this program virtually unwatchable and b) last season was so bad, that the only reason why I continued watching it was out of consolation and to make fun of it.

Let me explain the second reason first: it probably wasn't totally the writers' fault why the fifth season was just so poor. For starters “24” is a hit show because of one reason, each week and each season the show has to be more exciting and more action-packed than the last. The American people always want more, they want their heroes to be bigger, stronger, faster and after a while a tipping point is reached where action-packed turns into sheer idiocy. Unfortunately, that tipping point was reached last year.

I would guess that each season's first writer's meeting begins with the following question “How do we top the previous season?” For the sixth season, the writers thought that a nuclear bomb exploding in a town just outside of Los Angeles would be the best thing to do to grab their audiences' attention. And that worked, however they had the bomb explode a little too early in the day thus rendering the rest of the day's action completely implausible.

Yes, I understand that when viewing “24” and thrilling to the heroics of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) believability is usually suspended. It has to be so that the “real time” formula of the show can work correctly—Bauer is never in traffic (unless as a plot point), he never eats, sleeps or goes to the bathroom during this entire day, people eventually bend to his every whim and for the most part people do what he says. Fine. I can deal with all of that, this isn't a documentary.

But, here's what happens during Season Six' day: Bauer is released from 20 months in a Chinese torture prison, immediately he is put to work to help find five suitcase bombs, he finds four and the fifth one explodes in Valencia, CA, the President and the leader of a anti-American group (who is now working with the Americans) both are caught in a bombing that was set up by a secret cabal that includes the Vice President, he wants to turn the Middle East into a parking lot and hopes that the American people will buy that an Arab faction were the ones that wounded the President, also the Chinese and a renegade group of Russians come back into the picture with war on their mind and it's about to happen until Jack Bauer stops it.


What would be on the front page of the following day's newspaper: War with China and Russia Averted? President in Coma? Coup D'etat Squashed? Nuclear Bomb Explodes Near LA? For example, when the bomb explodes, every one is in a panic for about 10 minutes. The rest of the day happens like there was no bomb. The President is in a coma and everyone is ok with that too and he comes out of it for a few minutes to stop the Vice President's “retaliatory” strike on an innocent Middle Eastern country. Oh yeah, the US government was rounding up Middle Easterners and throwing them in internment camps. Aside from a few people, no one really seemed to care.

See, there is just way too much going on and after awhile it was just silly. The best part of “24” was that there was a little bit of realism that went along with the show. In Season Six, the writers took all of that and threw it out the window. Jack Bauer could've been in outer space fighting dragons with a Wookie sidekick and I'd probably have taken it more seriously.

As far as the first reason, that's more on me than anything. “24” is syndicated on a couple of channels and I've tried to watch it, but when I know what's coming, the show just isn't as good. I know that a cougar is going to attack Kim Bauer in the first season. I know that President Palmer—who, BTW is the best fictional President ever, though his brother sort of sucked—is going to get some sort of virus from an unsavory character. Nina is going to turn on Jack and shoot his wife. Audrey is going to get amnesia. The kid from “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” is really a terrorist. Edgar may be a creep at first, but he's really a nice guy and is going to die from poison gas that wipes out most of CTU. These things just don't pack the same punch when seen a second time as they do when they are first viewed.

BTW, there were spoilers in that last paragraph.

And that's what I love most about this show: it's unpredictability. It's awesome that main characters get killed all the time, it's cool that Jack Bauer is as close to a super hero as we have on television, it's great that there are bad guys who are just evil. I love it, the whole black and white of all the situations are great. You don't have to think or feel conflicted, like you do in the real world. Bad guys are bad. Good guys are good. It's almost like I'm eight-years-old again.

And I think that the whole serialization of the show is brilliant. From January through mid-May you get a new episode or two every single week. No reruns, no waiting three weeks for a new episode. It's gratifying to know that next week, Jack is going to wiggle his way out his next dangerous encounter and kick some bad guy ass. I imagine this is what older generations loved about the “Superman” or “Tarzan” serials that were run before the main feature of a movie every Saturday. Watching a show unfold, as if it was a chapter in a book is terrific fun.

I know that I usually go on and on and on about characters, but this show is much more different than any show that I watch—as the plot is what I like most. The plots are involved, though not the most difficult thing to understand (“The Wire” is far more complicated as was “Rome”) and there are a few red herrings here and there, but for the most part they keep the viewer interested and engaged. The writers do cop out every now and again—how many moles could CTU hire in five years? It seems like 90% of the people that work there have other, more sinister obligations—but I can understand that and I give them a pass. I would bet that writing “24” is not a typical gig for a writer.

The characters are usually right out of central casting, but that allows the viewer to concentrate on the plot. Yes, nerdy computer girl (Chloe, played by “Mr. Show” alum Mary Lynn Rajskub) may look like she won't help Jack, but in the end she will. And the hard ass CTU boss (there are a million of them) may not like the way Bauer does business, but damn it, he gets results!

The one character that is a bit different is Jack Bauer, of course. Yes, he is a machine who will stop at nothing to get the job done, but he also has a conscious which sets him apart from the drug lords, mercenaries, war lords and terrorists that he faces every day. And while that can be a little hacky, the writers at least allow him to lose something tangible (his wife in the first season, his partner and daughter in the third, his girlfriend and all of his friends in the fifth) so that it's not just lip service. This makes him a hero with flaws, which is something that we don't see too much—even in this age of anti-heroes.

My hope is that with the writers' strike cancelling this season of “24” it will allow the writers to look back and study what made older seasons of the show so great. Then they will go forward with better ideas and realize that bigger is not always better. The one thing that I am nervous about is that one of the series creator, Joel Surnow, has left the show. In my view “24” seems to have a liberal bent (most of the “evil” politicians are conservative) but what I find interesting is that Surnow is about as right wing as one can get. He ultra conservative and favors isolationism, but his writing doesn't seem to follow his ideas. I think that this is really cool for some reason.

Are there better written dramas out there? Of course. But is there a more fun drama? I doubt it. Another thing that I really like is that each episode is like a mini movie, with explosions and fire fights that rival big screen action movies. The producers and the tech guys spend a lot of time and money on this show and the viewers can tell.

Having said that, will this be a show that goes down in the annals of television history? Probably not. I suspect that in 10 or 15 years, people will look at “24” the way that we look at “The A-Team” or “Knight Rider” now; innocent fun that seemed far more serious at the time. Especially since there is going to be a whole group of people that will parody the way that the show is shot, will have the digital clock countdown and other aspects from the show. The same thing happened to "The Matrix" when everyone copied the slow motion fighting. It took away from the original project and made it a cliche. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I guess that will be just fine.

Monday, March 10, 2008

39. Car 54, Where are You?

I'm not here to write an exquisite prose about the cultural merits of “Car 54, Where are You”. I'm not going to say that it was a wonderfully sublime show that worked on eight different philosophical levels. Nor am I going to say that the show reinvented the sitcom, and forced us to look at ourselves and our lives differently. I'm not going to say this because it's not true. I am going to paraphrase a certain NFL head coach and say, “Car 54 was what it was.” And what the show was was a screw-ball comedy about two oddly coupled Bronx cops and the people they helped and worked with every day.

Quick aside, everyone has met that guy; the one who always has to bring the must mundane, mindless pleasures up to a certain level so that he can explain why he enjoys them. Usually the medium involved is either music or books, especially comic books (“I read the Amazing Spider-man because of the subtle and sophisticated commentary on social mores that I can't find anywhere else.”). Every once in awhile he'll turn his attention to a television show that's “beneath him” and find some sort of crazy high-brow justification for why he watches it. I've never found anything wrong with this reason: I like it because I like it.

And that's the reason why I enjoy “Car 54”, the show does what it sets out to do: make me laugh. Each episode's plot was pretty much the same: something out of the ordinary happens to Gunther Toody (played by Joe E. Ross) or his partner Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynne). And it's the typical sitcom faire: they have to take care of a baby or a dog, Gunther has problems with his wife, Muldoon can't find a date, etc. During the next 30 minutes, there's a few misunderstandings, some shenanigans ensue and the duo return to the status quo. To make things even better (Or worse depending on your point of view) neither of them ever bring up any of the previous episodes' “major” calamity.

If you've been reading some of my other entries, you'll notice that I harp on one thing: it's not the plot, it's the characters. And that runs true here: Muldoon is the typical straight man who is both sharp and level headed. Toody is the buffoon, whose responsible for most of the laughs. They bicker like a married couple, but they genuinely have a strong affection for each other, which is something that the audience can tell.

As actors, the two couldn't have been more different. Up until his role on the Phil Sivers' show “Sgt. Bilko”, Ross cut his teeth as a comedian who was the first act at a lot of strip clubs and bars. Gwynne was a Harvard-educated ad man who, like previous entry and Harvard alum Conan O'Brien, was the president of the Harvard Lampoon. He loved performing but found it tough getting a steady job (which is why he worked at an advertising agency) until “Car 54” came along. Of course, Gwynne was to become most famous for his turn as Herman Munster in “The Munsters” which aired a year after “Car 54” was cancelled. Joining him on “The Munsters” was Al Lewis who played his father-in-law Grandpa. In “Car 54” Lewis played fellow officer Leo Schnauser.

It is these differences that helped make the show shine. Officer Toody looked like a guy that would be a hacky comedian working at a strip club while Officer Muldoon looked like a guy that would've gone to Harvard. The writers were smart not to go against type and let these two guys play to their strengths. And like future sitcoms like “Seinfeld” there was never a “learning or hugging” moment in the program—though, I doubt that was an official edict as it was on the Seinfeld set. Gunther and Toody were two Bronx cops who happened to be involved in funny situations and for the most part, the producers left it like that.

When I started this entry, I promised that there wouldn't be any other reason for liking this program other than “because I like it”. However there was another interesting dynamic to the show that wasn't prevalent in the era: and that was the “dignified” appearance of black people on a TV show. I put dignified in quotes because of a few reasons, but the biggest one is that television in the 1950s and 1960s was typically a white world, when a black person was on TV usually he or she was in a role as servant or in some other menial job. On “Car 54” there were a few black cops, most notably Nipsey Russell who took on the role of Officer Anderson. They were treated the same as the white cops and as actors, Russell in particular, had some great lines.

Was “Car 54” the Rosa Parks of the sitcom world? No. But showing black people and white people equally working together was a step in the right direction.

Another reason why I liked this show was sort of the reason why I liked "The Andy Griffith Show" and that's there is no way that this program could ever be on TV now. America is too different of a place than it was in the early 1960s. Like Andy Griffith what made this show funny is that there was a certain respect that cops had that they don't have now. The neighborhood policeman was a pillar of the community and the jokes about them were seen as good natured fun. The modern day lampooning of police officers is a little more edgy, a little more mean and that's because of the way that cops are seen. Whether or not we're better off, I'm not sure, but while I can't see Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland joining the 53rd Precinct, I couldn't see Toody and Muldoon signing up for a tour on "The Wire" either.

Perhaps the lasting memory of “Car 54, Where are You?” is the opening theme song:

“There's a holdup in the Bronx!
Brooklyn's broken out in fights!
There's a traffic jam in Harlem
That's backed up to Jackson Heights!
There's a scout troop short a child!
Khrushchev's due at Idlewild!
Car 54, where are you?!”

Of course, I know that Idlewild is the old name for the current John F. Kennedy International Airport, but when I was a kid I thought that the line was “Krushchev is doing Ida Wild”. It sounded dirty, which didn't make sense in the context of the show, but I had no idea who Ida Wild was. I think I may have even asked my parents, who also had no clue what the hell I was talking about.

“Car 54” ran for two seasons before it was cancelled. According to Fred Gwynne biography I watched over the weekend—yes, I am that much of a dork—the show was still popular when it ended, but the biography didn't give a reason why it was cancelled.* And after that it spent some time in syndication reruns before landing at Nick at Nite during the late 80s, which is where I found it.

* The same thing happened to “The Munsters” as it was a ratings bonanza when it debuted in 1964—which coincidentally was also the year that “The Addams Family” and “Bewitched” debuted, which says a lot about the copy-cat industry that is television even in those days. However, it fizzled once “Batman” came on the air the following year in the opposite time slot. Gwynne didn't care that his show was on the way out because by that time he was pretty sick of playing Herman Munster. From the hours it took to get him into makeup to the ridiculous Munster plots, Gwynne didn't go on a full-fledged Robert Reed rant, but he did make it known that he wasn't thrilled playing the role that would make him so famous.

In 1994, someone got the idea of revising the “Car 54, Where are You?” franchise for a full-length movie starring John C. McGinley as Muldoon (you may know him better as Dr. Cox on Scrubs) and David Johansen as Toody (you may know him as Buster Pointdexter who sang that insufferable “Hot, Hot, Hot” song that's played at every single wedding and the guy who lead the cross-dressing pre-punk New York Dolls). Adding to the cast were Fran Drescher, Rosie O'Donnell, Jeremy Pivin and Daniel Baldwin. There were also cameos by Russel and Lewis.

It was one of the biggest bombs of the year and given the cast, who could blame them from staying away from the theater. I have no idea why the producers used the “Car 54” name for the project as it really had nothing to do with the original show. McGinley and Johansen are just playing mismatched cops, like Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte did in “48 Hours”. Why go with the “Car 54” name? Call it something else, especially considering that this wasn't a time piece it was updated for the 1990s. I don't think that a name change could have saved the movie, but at least the show wouldn't have been connected to this stink bomb—which readers listed as the 28th worst movie of all time.

Watch the original TV show, but avoid this movie at all costs.