Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"You call that a Salchow?! It looks like you have mad Salchow disease! That's right, your skating has a spongiform encephalopathy, bitch!"

2007 Little League World Series Championship Game Running Diary

Well, it seems that it's taken me less than a month as a blogger to ape my one-time sportswriting idol, Bill Simmons (whom I still like, but now find to be incredibly average) with a running diary of the 2007 Little League World Series Championship between Warner Robins, Georgia and Tokyo, Japan. Trusted companions include my fiancee, Carrie, and (sporadically) my dad and my brother. On that note, off we go...

3:30 EDT - We open with a montage--not of, as you might expect, highlights but rather of Little Leaguers, somewhat confoundingly, dressed like civil war re-creationists--narrated by Brent Musberger and scored by Sigur Ros. Seriously. It's actually, amazingly, even weirder than it sounds.

3:31 - Georgia, unfortunately, is not among the 16 teams in the highly addictive 1990 NES game Little League Baseball: Championship Series, making any attempts at simulating this outcome foolish. Suffice to say, both teams today would have lost horribly to virtual Chinese Taipei, as I recall them being absolutely unbeatable.

3:35 - Musberger looks to be the play-by-play man today--apparently he's powerful enough that he can have it written into his contract that he can do the Championship game without having to call any other Little League game leading up to the final (he was even MIA for yesterday's semi-final games). Joining him in the booth is Orel "I'm secretly way too happy Brandon Webb gave up a run in the 1st inning last week" Hershiser and Dusty "So, I only have to do this for summer before some team hires me, right??" Baker. Should be fun.

3:37 - Early intrigue: Georgia coach Mickey Lay has decided not to start his ace pitcher, Dalton Carriker (who also happens to be batting an other-worldly .796 thus far in the LLWS--that kid is going to get so much ass) instead opting to start Keaton Allen, a kid who hasn't played at all in this World Series. Why? He thinks that Allen's unorthodox delivery will disrupt the Japanese team for a couple of innings, at which point it seems they'll bring in Carriker. Umm. I reserve the right to be humbled later on, but this call could move former Lions coach Mike Morningweg's infamous (and, to this day, mind-boggling) "We're Won the Toss but We're Going to Kickoff in OT Because it's So Windy" decision off the top of the 50 All-Time Worst Coaching Blunders list.

3:43 - We're still waiting for the start of the game. In the meantime, everyone is keeping a close watch on the Tigers/Yankees game on FOX. I don't want to exaggerate, but if the Tigers lose today, they're playoff chances are completely shot to hell and they might well have to disband the team. The Tigers we up 5-1 early, but it's now 5-4 in the 9th. Todd Jones, whom I now believe to be physically incapable of having a 1-2-3 inning, has allowed a one-out single to Jason Giambi. Up steps Robinson Cano, or, as I like to call him, the most terrifying 7 hitter in the history of baseball. I witnessed him personally hit two HRs at the Rogers Centre last month and he hit .385 in July (also: his three run shot today narrowed the gap to one).

3:43 - [holding my breath]

3:44 - And Cano hits into a 3-6-3 double play to end the game! Thank Science! Hilariously, my brother, who is a Tigers fan, seems upset by all this (Cano, it seems, has now hit into 16 double plays this year), which prompts him to say "poor guy." At which point my dad turns to him and says, "if I ever hear you cheer for the Yankees again, I will disown you." Good times!

3:50 - Quick clarification re: Carriker not pitching. It seems that he threw 23 pitches in relief against Texas yesterday afternoon and he's therefore ineligible to pitch today. If he'd thrown less than 20 pitches yesterday he'd be able to throw today. I can't really fault the coach for keeping him in the day before, since the game came down to the final batter. I can, however, criticize this new rule. Nice work, Little League World Series! If there's one thing I thought was missing from this exciting yearly tradition, it was math and constant fretting about pitch counts. Nothing like watching a game with a ledger in tow! The other part of the rule is that no pitcher is allowed to throw more than 85 pitches in one game. After he hits 85, he can finish up against the current batter, but then must be removed. While I kind of understand that this--it's supposed to avoid, I guess, a situation where one dominant pitcher carries a mediocre team to the title (see here for a somewhat informed, though admittedly shrill, discussion on the topic)--it also leads to things like this: wunderkind Garret Williams, who pitched for Texas in the 3rd place game, struck out 15 and had a no-hitter going through 5 and two-thirds innings, but couldn't get the final out because he'd reached his pitch limit. The reliever did close it out for a very impressive combined no-hitter, but that's not nearly as cool, is it now?

3:51 - Because Japan lost the toss, they're batting first. Keaton Allen, looking a little shaky on the mound, gets the first out, but then a walk, followed by a rare 1st to 2nd tag up on a foul pop-out to the catcher (great baserunning there_, followed by a misplayed flyball in right and it's 1-0 Japan. Allen already looks ready to cry. Could be a long day.

3:53 - Georgia gets out of a jam to end the top of the first.

3:56 - The video of the Georgia players announcing their names and positions ("Hi, I'm Keaton Allen...") leads to a round of criticism by Carrie, including: "that kid looks blind," "that's a strange last name," and "these kids have the funniest accents." And, really, how odd does a child have to sound for an Irish girl to criticize their accent? (It's kinda true though, their "hi"s sound more like "hoi"s.)

3:57 - Carrie: "Mason Robins? So it's not even a state?"
Me: "No."
Carrie: "So it's this little town against...Japan?"
Me: "Yes."
Carrie: [shakes head] "Weird."

And it really is. For the record, Warner Robins' estimated '06 population is 58,672. Tokyo's? Somewhere north of 12,500,000. But I have it on good authority that WR also drew players from Centreville and Fort Valley, so that should even things out. According to Wikipedia, in an effort to secure a military base during WW2, the city elders shamelessly changed their town's name to "Warner Robins" (the so-called father of modern logistics for the USAF). Nice one! Its most famous (former) resident is one-time military brat Victoria Principal (who--and how is this for symmetry?--was actually born in Fukuoka, Japan), followed by...pretty much no one....Farooq, I suppose. WR is said to have "survived" a direct hit from an F4 tornado in the 50s. Amusingly, one of it's nicknames is "The International City," since it has such a diverse population as a result of all the foreign citizens living at Robins Air Force Base...and with its diverse 8.3% non-white and non-black population (according to the census) who could possibly dispute that it is a veritable panorama? It's city motto is EDIMGIAFAD or "Every Day in Middle Georgia is Armed Forces Appreciation Day"--which sounds somewhat exhausting. I don't think I could handle that many parades...

4:00 - An ABC graphic indicates that it cost each Tokyo player $4,300 U.S. to come to Williamsport, which seems like rather a lot of money. The team paid $115,000 overall, which translates to more than the value of the average home in Warner Robins. OK, I'll stop.

4:01 - Super-stud Dalton Carriker walks on 4 straight pitches. His goal in life is to meet Jessica Simpson. Oh, come on, DC. Aim higher! You've at least made it into Jessica Alba territory this week.

4:02 - Musberger just described 5'4'' Georgia player Micah Wells as "one of the cuties around here." Oh, my.

4:04 - A groundout and strikeout strands Carriker on base. 1-0 Japan through one.

4:06 - First preview of the day for the truly ghastly looking Caveman. Not looking forward to reviewing that one.

4:08 - A graphic tells us that Yuya Fushushima's favorite movie is Spiderman. Really? That one?? Taylor thinks that he means the whole series, but I'm not convinced. He strikes out looking. Serves him right.

4:11 - After a walk, it's two on, one out for Japan. First mound visit of the day. That was fast, Keaton Allen looks ready to shit his pants he's so terrified. The miked-up coaches segments never fail to disappoint. Just once I'd like to hear a coach say "get your head out of your ass. Don't you know how ridiculous you're making me look? Can't you see that I'm insecure?? Christ!! [storms off]"

4:12 - Japanese 3B Kato Kazutaka fake bunts, then lashes a single up the middle. Bases loaded.

4:13 - Up steps Kanta Hiraide, who, ingeniuously, has listed his coach as his role model. Suck up! On a totally unrelated note, he's batting clean up instead of his usual 9th.

4:15 - Ouch. Keaton Allen takes a ground ball off the shin. Everyone's safe. 2-0 Japan. Allen grimaces and hobbles around a bit before returning to the mound. He takes a couple of practice pitches, no doubt thinking "please let me be too injured to continue. Please let me be too injured to continue..." But no, he's fine. Except for the whole pitching thing--he's still terrible at that.

4:17 - Ryo Kanekubo's bio indicates that he'd like to play for the Yankees when he grows up. Prompting my dad to say, completely seriously, "wants to play for the Yankees--what a loser." Word. David Umphreyville Jr. makes a diving catch in CF to end the inning, limiting the damage to a run. Poor Keaton Allen looks positively euphoric.

4:21 - We're back from commercial with sideline reporter Erin Andrews in the stands with David Umphreyville's father. For the uninitiated, Mr. Umphreyville, a truck driver, was "forced" to quit his job when his employer, Mr. Potter, wouldn't give him time off to travel to Williamsport. Why didn't he just drive there? I find it pretty amusing that they've been advertising all week that this poor kid's father is jobless, with everyone, to a man, observing that it was "totally the right decision." Really?? Don't they need to, like, eat and stuff? Mr. U looks vaguely mortified that he's now the poster boy for unemployment, but Andrews delivers some good news: Kenny's dad has received numerous job offers this week. The dad nods enthusiastically. This all would have been significantly funnier if he was drinking heavily, pulling out his hair, and screaming "oh my God, we're broke!! The Japanese travel agent screwed us over! Then I bet our house on my son's team and the coach decides to start Keaton Fucking Allen!?! I didn't even know he was on the team! I thought he was the retarded batboy! He falls over if he walks too fast! Fuck!! My kid is doing fucking cartwheels in the outfield to bail this whiny tub out of jams! We're ruined! I'll have to sell my son to a wealthy Asian benefactor [sobs uncontrollably as Erin Andrews slinks away]."

4:22 - Hilarious ten second show of a chubby kid staring at a soft pretzel like it's a PS3 crossed with a dirt bike. He'll take seven, please.

4:23 - LF Payton Purvis steps to the plate. Intrigue: in an earlier game Purvis hit a HR off the marble bust of Howard J. Lamade in CF. Somewhat inexplicably, the Japanese team has taken to praying to this bust before and after every game. I wonder if they'd continue to worship him if they knew that (as observed in the LLWS media guide) he was the one-time editor-in-chief of Grit, which I can only assume is some sort of hardcore pornographic magazine. My guess is they'll plunk Purvis.

4:24 - They don't. Damn. Also, a quick Google search reveals that a correction is in order, as it seems as though Lamade wasn't quite the smut peddler I made him out to be. According to its website, Grit is a magazine "honoring the joys of contemporary country life." Surrrrrre.

4:25 - Interesting shot of Keaton Allen screaming encouragement to his team from the dugout. Probable sample dialogue: "seriously, you guys, I'm really not very good and David Umphreville's dad keeps giving me this throat-slitting gesture, so let's score some runs, OK?"

4:26 - Throwing error by the pitcher. Georgia is officially threatening. Don't worry kid, I'm sure the Tigers will draft you some day.

4:29 - Hunter Jackson is up at the plate. His favorite player is A-Rod. Nice work, ass. True to his hero, he grounds into what should be an inning-ending double play when his team could really use a hit. Another bad throw by the pitcher (seriously, Dave Dombrowski is foaming at the mouth now) limits Japan to just the force at 2nd. Runners at the corners with 2 down.

4:30 - ...and up steps Keaton Allen!

4:31 - Wow! Allen hits what looks to be a weak pop-up that somewhow hits about two inches from the top of the wall. Tie game. His favorite player is Barry Bonds--suspicious, no?

4:32 - Repeated shots of Allen indicating with his thumb and index finger how close his ball was from being a home run. Relax, Keaton. Everyone saw it. I'm totally resisting making a rather cruel joke about what he's actually indicating.

4:33 - Allen advances to third on a wild pitch, but instead of sliding into the bag, he collapses like he's been shot. Graceful. Alas, Georgia can't cash him in, so we're tied through 2.

4:35 - Kendall Scott is now on the mound for Georgia. Awwwww....I was just getting started. Keaton Allen's line: 2 runs, 4 hits, 1 walk, 3 death threats received, 18 pained expressions, and one soiled pair of pants. He trots out to left field.

4:39 – Junsho Kiushi is hailed as the “fastest text messager on the team.” Oh really? I’ll take Carrie—who can text faster than I talk—against Junsho any day of the week. Asked for comment, Carrie responds, in her best Ivan Drago, “I’ll beat him,” followed by—ominously—“I’ll break his fingers.” It’s unclear in which order, and I’m too afraid to follow up.

4:42 – Yuya Kurihara also lists Spiderman as his favorite film—is this the same child? Have they not had any new releases since 1999? This confuses me.

4:43 – Musberger, possibly dreaming of little boys (he seems particularly taken with the tiny Japanese twins) or maybe simply channeling his inner Pat Summerall, loses track of the count and doesn’t realize that a Japanese batter has walked. Seems they only wake him up for the important meetings. Japan threatens but does not score in the 3rd.

4:46 – It’s a shame that India doesn’t play in the LLWS, it only for the America: The Book-inspired comedic goldmine that this graphic would be: "Sanjay Suresh 3B, favorite subject: math and computers. Fun fact: has already taken your job."

4:50 – Superhuman Dalton Carriker steps up for his 2nd at bat. His favorite player is listed as Rafael Furcal. Him? The hell? I’m starting to worry about this kid—maybe he needs a cooler entourage. He grounds out.

4:52 – Kendall Scott lists his favorite player as Ty Cobb. Dad and I exchange a glance. This selection is somewhat understandable (Cobb was from Georgia), kind of awesome, but also totally hilarious. I have visions of Scott being completely racist.

4:54 – A quick scan of the Georgia bench reveals no black players. Hmmm. Coincidence, or the work of the nefarious Kendall Scott?

4:55 – Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue (and if you had told me that there was a governor named “Sonny Perdue” and not given me the state, GA would’ve been my first or second guess--that's like straight out of a Robert Penn Warren novel) is in attendance for at least the second straight day. Sigh. I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, it’s kinda cool that he’s here (we could never even convince our high school principal to come to one of our basketball games, and his office was literally less than 100 feet from the gym—and I guess this is a better vacation spot than the Crawford ranch); on the other, isn’t Williamsport like 1,000 miles from Atlanta? Is there nothing to be done in the statehouse? Isn’t Georgia’s literacy ranking like 46th in the nation or something?? Isn't it one of the most violent and unhealthy states in the union?

4:56 – They just showed the team picture from the Governor’s 1959 Warner Robins Little League squad. No black players there either. How interesting...

4:57 – Surprisingly funny Carpoolers trailer. It seems to be getting some good buzz.

5:02 – Presumably because there are incriminating photos of him somewhere, sideline reporter Orestes Destrade is forced to hang with the fan-waving Japanese mothers who have not shut the hell up for the entire game. Well…he’s not covering the WNBA playoffs, showing, at least, that things could be worse.

5:05 – Fun facts about Williamsport: organizers do not charge admission to any of the games. While that may not seem like a big deal, the estimated attendance for last year's series was 315,000. Instead, a hat (literally, a fucking hat--actually, no, I think it's a box) is passed around and donations are encouraged (or, as Creed would call it: Christmas). Food is very cheap, with a hot dog, french fries, and a drink running you less than five dollars.

5:14 – Groan. Hunt Smith’s favorite movie is The Longest Yard. Honestly, would it kill someone to throw in Clockwork, Memento, or 40 Year Old Virgin? Also, can someone explain to me how Sandler is the actor of choice for every single Little Leaguer born between 1995 and 2007? Some kid yesterday dropped Billy Madison as his favorite, which…what? Even if juvenilia is your thing, why not something like Old School or Wedding Crashers?

5:19 – An altogether forgettable interview between ABC reporter Karl Ravech (bunkered down roughly 500 feet from Lamade Stadium as if there’s some sort of restraining order against him) and Zane Ancell, aka the kid from Texas who broke his ankle while covering the plate yesterday in the American Championship. Probably not necessary.

5:20 – More on Garret Williams, the Texas pitcher that some Deadspinners have pointed out throws faster than Jamie Moyer right now: 16 innings pitched, 5 hits allowed, 2 walks, 42 strikeouts, and a 0.00 ERA. I don't really have a snarky comment...that's just incredibly impressive.

5:21 – Non-starter Kendall Scott mows down Japan 1-2-3 in the 5th. We’re still knotted at 2-2.

5:24 – We’re brought back from the break to some sort of atrocious rap to highlights from the tournament by what turns out to be two of the kids from High School Musical 2. Oh. This is the thing that's taking over the world one Disney special at a time? OK.

5:25 – Keaton Allen’s nickname is—amazingly—Cupcake, leading to this exchange:
Carrie: “why in the world would they call him that?”
Me: “Because they hate him.”

More importantly, how was this tidbit not unveiled when he shakily took the mound in the 1st? This is an outrage! Get me the ombudsman!

5:28 – Dalton Carriker whiffs. No one looks more shocked than him.

5:30 – As Japanese pitcher Ryo Kanekubo fans his final batter to end the 5th (he’s exceeded 85 pitches), we’re treated to an unexpected shot of Zane Ancell hobbling out of the stadium barely ten minutes after being interviewed on air. He couldn’t have stayed for the rest of the game?? That’s just cruel. I’m picturing Ravech turning to him seconds after segment ended and bellowing: “Ravech is finished with you. Leave immediately.”

5:34 – I haven’t seen a single Japanese player list sushi as there favorite food. Is this accurate or do you think the players are concerned about stereotypes?

5:36 – A graphic indicates that Japanese CF Hiroki Takewaki’s older brother was part of the 2001 Championship team. Interesting. Takewaki promptly strikes out, as his father, thousands of miles away, quietly disowns him.

5:38 – Kendall Scott strikes out the side to close out the top of the 6th. This kid is on fire. That said, Carrie and I both agree that his name makes him sound like a Bold and the Beautiful character.

5:43 – Since Kanekubo has reached the maximum, Japan is forced to put their starting SS, Junsho Kinchi, on the mound. I’m now convinced that, not unlike marketing the "rank my top friends" application on Facebook to thirteen year olds, this 85 pitch rule is designed to maximize cruelty. This is the bottom of the sixth and one swing can end it, so it makes perfect sense to bring in a kid who probably hasn’t warmed up in nearly three hours.

5:46 – After Kendall Scott narrowly misses hitting a walk-off homer, David Umphreyville Jr. reaches base on what is actually an error but is ruled a hit. Now the coach’s kid, 2B Taylor Lay, is stepping to the plate with a chance to be a hero.

5:48 – Nope. Kiuchi gasses him with a high fastball. Two down.

5:50 – Nicholas Martens swings and misses at a fastball for his third strike but advances to first because the catcher can’t get a glove on it, as David Umphreyville Jr. scurries down to 3rd! Two on, two out. Oh, the excitement…is what I would have said if the LLWS didn’t have the exceedingly boring rule that a batter cannot advance on a strikeout. Well, then. At any rate: free baseball.

5:51 – Ugh. An Ugly Betty song by Mika. I’m actually rooting for the HSM2 kids to be brought back at this point. We get it, ABC. She’s a lovable, ugly duckling underdog who has a beautiful spirit. (Though even that's contrived since she's clearly good looking in real life.) Shut up, already. They’re going to be totally insufferable once the show (undeservedly) runs the table at next week’s Emmys.

5:55 – ABC redeems itself with a shot of an evidently teary Taylor Lay being consoled by his dad the coach. Hey, Adam Morrison (scroll to the 2:20 mark if you're looking for the waterworks), the game isn’t even fucking over! Also, isn't it customary for a kid to cry after his failure at the plate leads directly to his team's defeat? I mean, he wasn't even the third out. If anyone should be crying, it's Keaton Allen (and maybe the out-of-work father).

5:56 – Apparently, this is the 5th extra inning championship game in history. Longest ever? 1971, when Chinese Taipei (I told you!) outlasted Indiana 12-3 in 9 innings. 12-3? How the hell does that even happen? Did the Indiana team walk off the field mid-game like the Red Army against the Flyers in '76 and Taipei just kept on hitting with their coach throwing BP? This needs to be explained!

6:00 – After a rare walk from Scott, a wild pitch, followed by another walk, Japan is officially threatening with 2 outs in the 7th.

6:01 – Kiuchi hits a weak grounder to third. Hunter Jackson snatches it up, dashes back, and gets to the bag just as the runner from second slides in. Safe. No! He’s called out. Side retired. Come fucking on! Has Mr. Umphreyville gotten to you, too? WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?? Oh, right.

6:02 – Upon further review, he was out. My bad. Probably best that I never appear in an announcing booth.

6:04 – Leading off the bottom of the 7th, we have Hunter Jackson, whose nickname is—purportedly—Action Jackson. You just know he gave that one to himself. Not cool, Action. Not cool.

6:05 – Hershiser and Baker, both roused from their slumber, engage in an extended discussion on whether the 1st base umpire is paying attention or really paying attention. Verdict: yes.

6:09 - Kiuchi strikes out the side. We’re going to 8. At this point, I think I’m rooting for this game to something preposterous like 11 or 12 innings, if only to see what kind of player factoids they’re forced to run. You know: 'furthest you've gone with a girl'; 'teammate I’d kill first if forced to'; 'team mom I’ve secretly fantasized about'. Admit it, you’d be riveted.

6:14 – Kendall Scott, facing his last batter, records his 10th K. Final line: 87 pitches, 5 and two-thirds innings, 1 hit, 4 walks, zero runs. I’m no scientist, but I’m pretty sure that if he’d started the game, it’d be over by now. Keaton Allen hijinks aside, why did he get the nod? What, exactly, made him unorthodox? The fact that he was tremendously shitty??

6:15 – Just saw the Orville Redenbacher ad from 1978 for the sixth time today. I have to ask: do they just have no advertising budget this year or is the lead guy at their ad agency trying to get fired? I’m at a loss. Like, even for 1978, it isn’t any good.

6:22 – Zach Conlon, the new pitcher, threatens to pull a Todd Jones (just kidding, TJ, you were great today!) before managing to get out of the inning.

6:23 – Bottom of the eighth. Ravech and Musberger excitedly mention the term “walk-off home run” about nine times in a minute and a half, so I guess we’d know what they’d like…

6:24 – And up steps Dalton Carriker. Well, if anyone can do it, it’s him. In fact, I think he will.

6:25 – And…it’s gone. HR to right. He knew it right away. Boom goes the dynamite! Carricker is so getting laid tonight—almost certainly by Mr. Umphreyville.

6:25 – For the record, Carriker finishes the tournament an astonishing 11 for 16 (for a cool .688 average).

6:26 – The Tokyo pitcher is still collapsed in a heap. Another kid is crying so hard, he’s making a face that, I think we can all agree, previously only existed in cartoons. Like, he wouldn’t be more upset if he was told he had a week to live and they were discontinuing Pokemon.

6:27 – Carrie, bless her heart, laughs and laughs at all the crying. For those concerned about her potentially xenophobic tendencies, let it be known that she mercilessly mocked the losing teams from Texas and Curacao yesterday. I’m not sure if anyone could ever be happier than Carrie right now.

6:29 – And, like that, we’re done. ABC--after some saccharine crap from Musberger (don't get me wrong, I like him well enough, I just happen to think he's more suited to Michigan-Penn State than this stuff)--bails for the news. Rats. No post-game interviews or champagne celebrations. Ah, well. Great game all around. A few complaints:
1. The backstop is too damned close to the catcher! It's probably 10 feet max and any ball that hits it seems to bounce back (at warp speed) to the catcher. It didn’t come up today and I’ll grant that these games probably shouldn’t swing too wildly on an erratic pitcher, but it shouldn’t be this easy for catchers to gun down aggressive runners from third. I'd say I saw 4 runners caught at home for every one that was safe. The risk/reward should be more balanced.
2. No footage of former and current major leaguers in their Little League days. Downer. Where’s the clip from Chris Drury’s 1989 Championship team? A shot from one of Pudge Rodriguez’s 7 (!) Little League no hitters? Dwight Gooden in the (I hope) pre-coke days, Gary Sheffield, etc. That's always fun. I hope it's back next year.
3. While entertaining as hell, these games are too damned long. I know it went 8, but this game took nearly three hours. I ran out of funny material 2 hours and 45 minutes ago!

Now, to convince Carrie to make the trek to Williamsport (did someone say honeymoon, LLWS-style? No? Oh.) If I can guarantee her tears, I might have a shot….

Friday, August 24, 2007

"Don't you ever, EVER compare me to Family Guy, you hear me Kyle? Compare me to Family Guy again and so help me, I will kill you where you stand!"

I wouldn't say that people are exactly loving this show, but it does have a 72 on Metacritic, which puts it slightly ahead of Big Love and slightly behind Hotel Babylon (make of that what you will)--of course, my parents' unsanctioned F-minus-minus would probably drag that number down considerably--but the buzz seems fairly positive. Respectfully: that's fucking crazy.

Five Things That Are Seriously Wrong with Californication (2007, Showtime)...:

1. The sheer amount of sex is actually overwhelming. Seriously, do the writers have a "Duchovny nails a hot naked chick" stage direction macro on their computers? If not: might be a good time-saver. We were about 12 minutes into the first episode (and three sexual encounters...on the show, people) before Carrie turned to me and said "I can see why Duchovny agreed to do this show." The show opens with a dream sequence where Duchovny (Hank) is sexually propositioned by a nun which segues into a now-awake Hank actually having sex with the same girl (who is, for the record, not a nun). He gets chased out of her room by her (understandably) irate husband, but, not to worry, Hank stumbles upon another naked lady is his own bedroom. Later, he has a sex with a girl that he meets while trolling around his own display in Barnes & Noble. The next day, after a botched blind date (more on that in a sec), Hank instantly meets and beds another girl. I believe that's it for episode one. The second episode opens with Hank in traffic. As this isn't nearly sexy enough, the writers see fit to have the girl in the next car over come on to him. A few minutes later, Hank is in her apartment, whereupon he discovers that she's a porn star. Amazingly (for him), he decides to bail, most likely because he knows that he's evidently utterly irresistible to women. Sure enough, he gets set up on another blind date (Paula Marshall, in a remarkably rather clothing-free cameo), whom he promptly gets down with in his ex's bed...but not before fending off the under-the-table-junk-grabbing advances of the girl he met in B&N (and who happens to be sixteen). I think I'm dehydrated just from recapping that.

Now, I have nothing against sex per se (honest!), but when a Showtime program makes Vivid Video's plots look nuanced, something's amiss. Was there a prologue (possibly involving a Xander Harris inspired love potion) that I managed to miss? I'm fairly certain that some of these female characters didn't even have names...

2. Duchovny (as pretty much always) is great, but some of the other acting is atrocious. In particular, Hank's daughter is whatever is just slightly worse than useless. The actress, Madeleine Martin (who, according to imdb.com, was in something called The Pillowman--which I believe was the working title for this show) could not convincingly deliver a line if her life depended on it, and instead settles on some sort of Demerol-induced automaton-like recitation of whatever was printed on the cue card just outside the camera frame. Some critics seem to have gotten around this very obvious problem by describing her as "precocious," but the key here is that the precociousness--which, last time I checked, means roughly "unusually mature for a child"--needs to be somewhat believeable. A toddler flawlessly quoting Chaucer is not an example of "precociousness"--it's fucking ridiculous. And having an alleged 12 year old character do a lengthy dinnertime soliloquy on how her parents first hooked up with all the intensity of a Econ Major forced to read from the DSM IV does not a riveting scene make. Put it this way, if they introduced a plotline in, say, episode 6 or 7, where it was revealed that the daughter was an android, I wouldn't be remotely surprised. That's...not good.

Also: she looks like Wednesday from The Addams Family. Someone get this girl a haircut!

Natascha McElhone (otherwise known as the annoying activist in The Truman Show) is good enough, I guess (she and Duchovny have at least a plausible degree of chemistry as an estranged couple), but she doesn't really bring a lot to the role. Through two episodes, 85% of her lines can be summarized as follows: shakes head and/or rolls eyes and/or drops jaw in response to something Hank has said or done, then says "seriously, I don't love you" or "you need to move on" or "Hank, are you OK?" Meh.

3. Ridiculous scenarios masked as "funny" or "surreal." For instance, after Hank and Paula Marshall get high and they are, um, in flagrante, she manages to buck him, which propels him head-first into a very expensive painting (erotic, no?). Hank, looking slightly concussed, grabs the painting and stares at it blankly for a good five seconds. At which point he throws up. Drawing inspiration, I assume, from the pie-eating scene in Stand By Me, the writers decide that Paula Marshall should also begin vomiting. At which point everyone at the dinner party--what are the odds?--walks in. Hilarity ensues. Or does it? I must confess, I did laugh a bit, but it was certainly more along the lines of "I'm just so embarrassed for everyone in this scene"/"Paula Marhall's agent is so totally fired."

There's another scene where Hank is out with his agent, his agent's wife, and a blind date they've arranged for Hank. Within a minute or so of them meeting, the blind date asks Hank to tell her what his first impressions are--I know what you're thinking: nothing could possibly go wrong with that--and he proceeds to absolutely devour her emotionally; like, he totally kills this poor girl ("you went to USC, maybe UCLA, got divorced, lost some weight, started a party planning business," etc.--in fairness, I really can't do it justice). And, yeah, it's all pretty hilarious as she, predictably, storms off, but I think the subtext of all this is that we're actually supposed to believe that he's completely right about everything he's said about her, which, aside from being totally implausible I guess also makes Hank some sort of douchebag savant. In still another scene, Hank gets punched in face (twice!) during sex and, once again, you kind of have to laugh. But it's not really because it's actually funny as much as it's so unbelievably awkward that chuckling seems like the only appropriate response.

4. It's. So. Cliched. So...he's a talented writer...who can't write at the moment...and who hates the movie studio for botching the adaptation of his masterpiece...who blew it with (what he believes to be) the love of his life...and is generally kind of shitty to everyone who isn't her (but also to her too)...and is now drowning in a pool of his own sexual retardation...and has a kid...and often behaves more immaturely than said child...and he hates L.A...and so forth. I mean, really, the day they came up with the premise for the show must have been a loooooong one for those poor manatees. Granted, it may be presented somewhat daringly (read: lots of a sex, with a liberal dose of rudeness), but this is really just several old shows and movies re-packaged together...and not particularly well at that.

As Carrie pointed out yesterday, if Hank's not going to learn anything from these random encounters--if it's simply going to be one meaningless shag after another--there really isn't much point in watching. Tim Goodman, in his excellent (and awesomely titled) blog, The Bastard Machine, refers to Duchovny's Hank as a "lovable loser." No, he's not. He's just a dick. What's worse is that Hank seems very much aware of this fact, but not at all inclined to change.

5. I actually couldn't think of a fifth one, so I'll just go with something catty like this: How come no one told me they were bringing Red Shoe Diaries back? (Zing.)

...and One Good Thing:

1. Paula Marshall! "Show Killer"! Naked! Come on!!

Sorry, that was completely unprofessional...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"He now looked not simply like the ruins of his youth, but like the ruins of those ruins..."

The Yiddish Policeman's Union (2007) by Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union tells the story of Meyer Landsman, a once-promising detective who is, at the moment, drowning in a sea of his own raging alcoholism. With the help of his more attentive partner (his half-cousin Berko), Landsman investigates the mysterious death of a former chess prodigy/messiah figure/current heroin addict. He is also dealing with the return of his estranged wife, Bina, who is now heading up the Homicide Division and serving as Landsman's de facto boss.

But this is only part of the tale. The other lead character is, interestingly, the setting, which looms over and colors everything in the book. In Chabon’s alternative universe, the year is still 2007, but the world is very different. The bulk of the action takes place in Sitka, Alaska, the adopted Jewish homeland that emerges in the wake of the alluded-to-but-never-explicitly-discussed collapse of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948. Sitka, a thriving metropolis of some three million people, is, much to everyone’s consternation, about to revert to U.S. rule, leaving the vast majority of American Jews in a state of limbo.

Chabon, who many (myself included!) fell in love with after the incomparable The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (the Seth Cohen quote—mainly, he and Ryan can't be friends if Ryan doesn't like K and C—still applies) is such a brilliantly evocative writer that trying to review his work is slightly embarrassing, to the point where it’s pretty much impossible to avoid quoting him at length. As such…

On Landsman’s childhood hatred of chess and his complicated relationship with his father: But in the service of his own small misery, Landsman could be stubborn, too. Satisfied, burning with shame, he would watch unfold the grim destiny that he had been unable to foresee. And Landsman’s father would demolish him, flay him, vivisect him, gazing at his son all the while from behind the sagging porch of his face (p. 33).

On friendship: “You bet. Mazel tov, Berko.”
Landsman’s congratulations are so ironic that they are heartfelt, and they are so heartfelt that they can only come off as insincere, and he and his partner sit there for a while, not going anywhere, listening to them congeal
(p. 49).

On longing: She reaches into the breast pocket of her suit jacket and takes out a pair of half-glasses that Landsman has never seen before. She is getting old, and he is getting old, right on schedule, and yet as time ruins them they are not, strangely enough, married to each other (p. 59).

And again: Landsman watches her walk across the dining area to the doors of the Polar-Shtern Kafeteria. He bets himself a dollar that she won’t look back at him before she puts up her hood and steps out in the snow. But he’s a charitable man, and it was a sucker bet, so he never bothers collect (p. 160).

Now, Kavalier and Clay this ain’t (although given how good K and C is—and, Shuk, I refuse to argue about this, so let’s just move on—this isn’t saying a whole lot), but his eye for detail and his ability to take the mundane and turn it on its head remains uncanny.

The book is also laugh out loud funny in places, but, on account of my less than thorough note-taking this time around, you're just going to have to take my word for it, dammit.

If forced (you are forcing me, right??), I could probably be just a little bit critical. The plot, especially near the end, is faintly ridiculous (and that's being generous). Additionally, the details on WW2 in the Chabonverse are considerably sketchier than I'd prefer. For instance, the Wikipedia page on the book is much more illuminating than the book itself on this front, to the point where I'm fairly certain the contributors are reading in stuff that wasn't actually present in the text. Landsman's alcoholism, which sounds as if it's crippling at the start of the book, becomes little more than an affectation at the end. Oh, sure, there's an awkward scene early on where he opts for a beer for breakfast, but, for the most part, he keeps his problem in check--like, there isn't even a whiff of danger on this front beyond page 150--which comes off as Chabon playing it safe. Now, this is Chabon's choice to make (the characters, after all, are his) and maybe he simply wasn't interested in pursuing that angle any more than he did, but then why introduce it in the first place? I'm not sure. Finally, there's a third act revelation about his sister which should really shock and anger Landsman, yet he completely brushes it off like it's no big deal. Truth be told, I didn't even pick up on this until my dad mentioned it to me (he ripped through it in four days after I finished it), but he's completely right: it is a tad askew. It's almost as if Chabon didn't want to have deal with the poignancy of the moment, set it aside, and never got back to it.

When pitchforkmedia.com isn’t falling all over itself being wildly arrogant and, in the process, sending me racing to the dictionary in an effort to decipher its latest review, it has rare moments of clarity, even beauty. One such moment occurs near the end of their review of Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker (astoundingly, this review is no longer available on their site), when the reviewer persuasively argues that the album is “the soundtrack for the last fifteen minutes of every relationship ever.” (I know people have heard me use this line before, but, dammit, it's great, so I'm sticking with it.) Well…if Heartbreaker were a book, it would be The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (and the disc should be the required accompaniment for all TYPU readers.)

Though, unsurprisingly, Landsman and Bina eventually reconcile—as they were inexorably bound to when the book began—The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is very much rooted in this Adamsesque milieu of love and loss (of a wife, of an unborn child, of boundless optimism, of talent, of a homeland that they barely had a chance to miss, and of another homeland that was really never theirs to begin with). And, as far as I’m concerned, no happy ending can ruin this.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

In Five Years, We'll All Either Be Learning It In School...or Be Dead By Its Hand

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (2005) by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

This book was a huge hit back in '05 (#2 on The New York Times bestseller's list), but I'm fairly lazy, so I didn't get around to reading it until I stole it from my friend Andrew up at his parents' cottage and plowed through it in a day over the August long weekend (thanks, buddy!). At its core, Freakonomics, is a loose amalgam of random, intriguing theories put together by the "it" economist of right-the-hell-now, Steven Levitt.

So what does Freakonomics teach us? Glad you asked! Just a sampling: how to catch high school teachers that change their students' answers on standardized tests to earn their performance bonus (look for a strategically improbable string of correct answers later in the test, when kids are rather unlikely to be that accurate); how sumo wrestlers collude (those that are hovering around .500 going into their final bout will barter--successfully--for a win against a stronger opponent in exchange for dumping the next encounter between the two); how a regular joe helped fatally (not for him) undermine the KKK in the 40s (somewhat awesomely: this involves Superman); and the book answers the question of whether or not real estate agents will knowingly sell your house for less than it's worth in order to quickly receive their commission cheque (hint: yes!). Elsewhere, Levitt seeks--with a varying degree of success--to debunk the notion that money plays a major role in elections and provocatively asserts that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision is the major (not to mention: well-concealed) reason for the massive drop in the American crime rate, post-1990. More on this last one in a sec.

The weakest section by far is the one on election spending. Levitt is quick to make the point that deep pockets do not guarantee a November win--using Steve Forbes and Ross Perot as examples--something, as near as I can tell, that no one has ever argued. Two sharper/less retarded observations might be:
  1. Perot and Forbes' failures had less do with money being overrated than with the vagaries of the two-party sytem being virtually impossible to overcome. (Also, Perot being batshit crazy likely played a role.)
  2. Having money may not guarantee you a victory, but not having it all but assures your defeat (see: McCain, John...or any of the '08 Dems not named 'Clinton,' 'Obama,' or 'Edwards.')

Even from my pro-choice vantage point, there is something considerably icky (for want of a better term) about the more abortions = less crime formulation. So the theory goes:

  1. Abortions reduce the number of unwanted children born into this world.
  2. Unwanted children, when they turn 16, tend to commit more crimes, on average, than other children.
  3. Abortions became legal in 1973.
  4. The national crime rate, in response to legalized abortion reducing the number of unwanted kids, began to drop in 1990.

And...that's about all there is to it. Admittedly, if you don't buy point #2 (and, I'll confess, I missed that memo altogether), you're not going to like the theory. Now, I can think of a few things wrong with the argument--specifically, a confluence of minor events (a tipping point, as it were), unconvincingly dismissed by the author, seems a more likely answer--but I will acknowledge that it takes huge balls to make it in the first place.

All told, it's a fun and informative read (If you're unable to become the pretentious and pedantic ass at the cocktail party after racing through this book, I would suggest that you get out of the pretentious ass business), but there are a couple of nagging concerns...

The reality is--aside from the fact that the topics piqued Levitt's interest--there is precious little connecting the hierarchy of a crack empire to corrupt sumo wrestling, and even less of a link between the socioeconomic patterns of naming children and outing the Klan. To their credit, the authors do, indeed, go out of there way to point out that their book has no overarching theme. However, this reminds me very much of the Puff Daddy defense from years back. If I may summarize: "It's ok that I shamelessly sample other tracks in my songs because I'm admitting to you, right now, that I shamelessly sample." Well, ok, but it doesn't change the fact that you're still a shameless sampler. Few wannabe authors, I imagine, are trotting out the "my novel, read as a whole, is completely incomprehensible" argument (at least not successfully), so why should this fly here? (Good Lord, did I just reference P. Diddy as a hip-hop mogul? Science Dammit!) As Gregg Easterbrook (and who am I to quibble with TMQ?) observes in his own review of the book: "academic careers may not need unifying themes; books do."

There's also a tendency to set up straw men, such as the authors starting out with the premise that everyone believes drug dealers to be incredibly wealthy and then telling us that, no, in fact, most make less than the average burger jockey at McDonald's, a revelation startling to anyone who has never seen, heard of, discussed, or read about The Wire.

Another occurs when Levitt hypothesizes that maybe, just maybe, the name you're given at birth plays a role in your future earnings and then quickly follows this up with stats that prove just that. While it's fun to analyze the attached appendix (names from the California birth registry over three decades cross-referenced by the average number of years of schooling for the name-giver) is this (a) really worthy of an economist's time or (b) even remotely surprising? No on both counts, I think.

Finally, the subheading describes Levitt as a "rogue economist," and a blurb on the back adds--hilariously--"if Indiana Jones were an economist, he would be Stephen Levitt," to which I must ask: the fuck?? I actually don't even know what that means...would he still be fighting the Nazis? What's even funnier is that, allegedly, in its original run, each chapter began with a brief quote from Dubner (the co-author/possible ghostwriter according to some sources) fawning over Levitt. (Levitt is the "master of the simple, clever solution"; is "genial...and unflappable"; and is a "tender and attentive lover." Somewhat embarassingly, only one of those quotes is fabricated.)

This book, I'm willing to speculate, looks very much like what Levitt's brain would look like if you were able to walk around in it--cluttered, full of bizarre tidbits, wickedly funny at times, somewhat infuriating in other places. Whether that's a good thing or not is debatable.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

"See all that stuff inside, Homer? That's why your robot never worked..."

Bionic Woman (2007)

Caveats: (1) some of the special effects hadn't been added to the copy I watched, which meant that her bionic arm looked decidedly unbionic and, hilariously, the scene where she ran, Superman-like, beside a moving vehicle, reminded me very much of Poochie returning to his home planet on The Simpsons (except horizontally); (2) I'm pretty sure they were using stock music, as Carrie and I both noticed the theme from American Beauty and some of the better tracks from 28 Days Later. That or they just put no effort into their musical decisions. (3) According to Wikipedia, Jamie (the BW herself) Sommers' deaf sister, who appeared in our version, has been replaced--improbably--by an even lazier television stereotype: the budding, loner hacker. Oh, good! Her mannerisms won't be the slightest bit predictable.

Briefly: Bionic Woman is the story of Jamie Sommers, bartender by, er, night...um, sleeping bartender by day, who, as a result of a violent (and might I add: spectacular) car crash undergoes an experimental procedure and discovers that she is part machine. Hijinks ensues.

What I Liked

  • The guy that plays Jamie’s boyfriend/the doctor who ends up operating on her (Dr. Will Anthros, as played by Chris Bowers) gives a solid, if understated performance. The tendency, no doubt, will be to focus on the Bionic Woman herself, but I’d like to see a bigger role for the Doc.

  • It had an undeniable cinematic feel to it. The later half of the episode in particular, which takes place outside, at night, in the rain, looked great.

  • The fact that Jamie Sommers is not completely bionic could potentially make things very interesting. Her weaknesses are far more compelling and organic than Smallville’s pat “OK, we really need for Clark to be inexplicably incapacitated for the better part of a segment, so let’s just have some meteor rock randomly appear” solution. One could reasonably envision several scenarios where Jamie might seem in control, only for the tables to be quickly turned by someone exploiting her physical vulnerabilities.

  • Despite my problems with the show (see: the next seven paragraphs), it is genuinely intriguing. Whether this was done intentionally or the writers just aren’t very good, precious little is revealed in the pilot, which gives the show an air of mystery. I’m genuinely not sure where the show is headed. On the other hand...

What I Didn't

  • I’m genuinely not sure where the show is headed. If you sit back and think about what happened in the episode, you’ll quickly come the following conclusion: barely anything at all. While we know a little bit about why Jamie ended up in the car accident, little else is known, including: why does this bionic division exist? What purpose does it serve? Are they good or evil? What do they expect of Jamie? To a certain extent, I’m curious, but I kind of get the feeling that they’ll be making it up as they go along, which is rarely good.

  • A pretty cool fight scene near the end is marred by one nagging issue: there’s absolutely no logical reason for Jamie to emerge victorious. Not only is she new to the Bionic game (and thus unfamiliar with the extent of her powers), she’s also a lesser Bionic (her opponent has no known weaknesses).

  • As near as I can tell, the BW was not given a bionic heart and yet she behaves as if completely devoid of emotion. There’s no real need to go into details (nor should I), but suffice to say, at some point in the episode, something happens that should really make Jamie rather upset and yet, when Jamie confronts the person responsible for this incident moments (literally) later, she appears completely unaffected, to the point where it’s actually somewhat jarring for the viewer.

  • Pursuant to the preceding point, the whole episode had a disjointed feel to it. I’m not sure if some scenes have been removed, shortened, or simply re-ordered, but the episode just doesn’t flow very nicely. Jamie’s “holy shit, I’m a fucking machine!” scene (think: Spiderman excitedly bounding around from building to building in the first film) is pretty woeful. So far as I can tell, it consists of Jamie (1) running really fast, (2) jumping across a roof, (3) making a puzzled face and shrugging her shoulders, and (4) returning to her job as a bartender. Not exactly riveting stuff.

  • Simply put, the lead performance (by Michelle Ryan) wasn’t strong enough. In particular, she lacked the toughness necessary to sell the part. For instance, there’s a line at the end—cool enough that I won’t bother spoiling it—that, when delivered, should have provided a chill moment for the audience. Instead, it’s kind of half-heartedly read by Ryan, leading the audience to collectively exclaim “awwww, is the Bionic Woman upset? That’s so adorable [tousles hair].” This could prove to be a rather serious problem.

  • Isaiah Washington referring to Jamie Sommers as "that robotic dyke" was completely inappropriate. I'm kidding! IW's five-episode arc hasn't even started yet. (Plus, I'm assuming they're saving the "Shadowy Government Official Enters Sensitivity Training" storyline for Sweeps Week.)

  • Jesus God, does this show ever take itself seriously!--to the point where it hinders the show. Any really good drama from the past, say, 15 years has managed to balance said drama with a healthy dose of humor. Though it had it's fair share of detractors (especially near the end), The West Wing was the absolute best at this--at times, it was leaps and bounds funnier than nearly every other alleged sitcom on air. This is especially true of shows with faintly (or blatantly) ridiculous premises--imagine Buffy without the humor (hint: it looks a lot like Buffy season 5 through 7) or--god forbid--Angel. Had those shows played it straight (something I briefly feared they were going to do with Angel after they abruptly killed off Doyle in season 1), they wouldn't have been nearly as successful. The last big hit that I can think of--though I'm certainly open to suggestions--that was utterly humorless is The Practice. So...yeah. Make of that what you will.

[Incidentally, this principle works in reverse. Any successful sitcom needs to be able to, on occasion, trot out a serious storyline without the gears grinding to a halt. (And, no, I'm not thinking of the very special Saved by the Bell episode where Kelly falls in love--in approximately three seconds--with a handsome TV star who just happens to be filming a "Don't Do Drugs" PSA at Bayside and also just happens to be a completely drug-addled dick. See also: the Growing Pains episode with...the exact same plot.) (Ah, hell. Maybe I am thinking of that.) See, for instance: Frasier (the Niles and Daphne saga, some of the stuff with Martin was also oddly affecting); Friends (the episode when Rachel finds out about Ross and the Copy Girl is positively gruesome); earlier, vintage Simpsons (Homer and Marge); How I Met Your Mother (thus fulfilling my contractual obligation to mention the show in every TV post...and furthering my efforts to drive Shuk insane. Anyway, the "will-they-or-wont-they"ness of Robin and Ted's relationship is dramatically compelling, but this show's charm is derived, in large part, from Marshall and Lily, as well as the believable dynamic between all five principle characters); Arrested Development (granted, the show never came anywhere close to a "serious" plotline but, at its core, it was a show about fathers and sons--more specifically: Michael and George Michael); and The Larry Sanders Show (Artie's platonic love for Larry, Hank's slightly less platonic love for Larry, Larry's love for the show itself, etc.). Arguably, Seinfeld is the lone exception (and probably South Park). No lessons were ever learned, no true feelings were ever expressed, no punishment meted out (except for the ill-advised finale, which is why many true fans were disgusted), and that was perfectly fine.]

Anyway....where the hell was I going with that?? Ah, yes: Bionic Woman. I don't think I laughed once (there may or may not have been a guffaw--I'll check the tape). This...does not bode well. Essentially, the premise is so silly that, if they're not willing to have some fun with it, this incarnation of Bionic Woman is probably doomed to fail. (That said, the original BW--which I've never seen but Carrie swears was good enough--lasted for 58 episodes and that BW was a former professional tennis player who doubled as a kindergarten teacher...which doesn't exactly seem like a comedic goldmine (sorry, mom!), so it's possible I don't have a clue what I'm talking about.)

How it will be a hit: A clearer mandate for Jamie (what, exactly, is she supposed to do? Fight crime? Destroy rogue Bionic Women a la Blade Runner? Magically cure alcoholics with her touch? This needs to be straightened out fairly soon); a bigger role for Dr. Will Anthros (what a name!); stunt casting (I'm thinking: The Harlem Globetrotters...or possibly Phyllis Diller. Failing that, a three-episode Hawaiian or Parisian--either will do!--vacation gone awry is ratings gold. Gold, Jerry!)

How it will crash and burn: Humorlessness (Scrabble Score: a disappointing 18 points); murky storylines; the lack of a compelling villain (which is the case so far--though this role may be capably filled by the enigmatic Dr. Anthony Anthros (Will's dad), who we get but a glimpse of in the pilot).

Likelihood of scenario A over B: 55-45. It seems to have gotten a 13-episode pick up (though, for all the BW fanboys out there, I must warn you: so did The Nine), which is somewhat promising. But tinkering with the pilot is rarely a good sign, nor is a production shake-up (which also happened), so we'll see...

Also, for anyone that thought I couldn't spend 1,600 words talking about Bionic Woman: I accept your apology.

Friday, August 10, 2007

This, too, began to seem familiar...

Tell No One tells the story of Dr. David Beck who, eight years ago, tragically lost his wife when she was kidnapped and later murdered. Or did he? (Hint: no.) We're barely into chapter two when David receives a cryptic e-mail suggesting that rumors of his wife's demise were greatly exaggerated. And we're off. Or something...This is probably why I haven't been hired to write exhilarating jacket blurbs.

Anyway, TNO focuses of Beck's attempts to (not necessarily in the following order): find out the truth about his wife, clear his name, and not get killed. Exciting--I suppose--in theory, but considerably less so in execution. It's taken me three subpar mystery/thrillers in rapid succession to get here, but I think I've figured "The Coben Formula":

  • An innocent (typically: an ordinary joe) with a secretive and/or tragic past (or both!).
  • A heavy (in this case: an angry billionaire--yes, just like in Karate Kid 3--but often a crooked cop...or detective..or FBI agent) who will (gasp) stop at nothing to accomplish his nefarious goal.
  • A crazy goon (here: a North Korean by the name of Eric Wu--I'm sad to report that he never accuses the hero of "breaking his balls"--whose fists are actual lethal weapons) in the heavy's employ. In Promise Me, there were actually two goons who worked together, one of whom enjoyed biting his victims to death. Whatever.
  • Ridiculously rapid escalation, invariably stemming from the lead character being accused (falsely, I feel obligated to add, though you've probably figured that out) of some high crime or another. Apparently, in Cobenland, if you're the last person seen with a now-missing person, you've obviously brutally murdered her (the police logic being, from what I gather, if he didn't kill her, why has no one else seen her alive? Aha! Now, let's go question this guy and refuse to believe his perfectly acceptable alibi and generally be really shitty to him...). In Trust No One, Dr. David Beck's wife goes from "being presumed dead for eight years at the hand of a deranged serial killer" to "presumed murdered by her adoring husband" to "not being presumed dead at all" in the span of, say, 80 pages (or: less than a day in the actual book). Paralleling that, Beck goes from "grieving widow" to "odds-on cold-blooded killer" to "well, he must be hiding something!" in the same span. Good times.
  • A strong female character (typically: stunning) who loves and respects the hero (as a friend!) and serves as a trusted confidant throughout, even though the hero can trust no one. Strictly speaking, I have no problems with this aspect, though it's fairly trite.
  • A twist that you'll never see coming. Literally. Coben favors the "I'm going to relinquish no hints at all until the actual reveal, so as to dazzle the reader with my twist" (think The Village or--and it actually pains me to reference this--Vanilla Sky). I won't give anything away but, seriously, I defy anyone to point to a single clue in the preceding 369 pages that would lead us to the "shocking" moment on page 370.
  • A nasty habit of pandering to his readers. This is particularly evident in Tell No One. Specifically, I'm thinking of how the main character casually mentions that Homer Simpson's voice notifies him when he's received a new e-mail. Whereupon Coben, ever so helpfully, adds "I mean Homer Simpson as in The Simpsons character." Ohhhh! That Homer Simpson! I thought he meant the Jeffrey Chaucer impersonator!! Everything's so much clearer now! Later on, Coben has Goon #2 explain to Goon #1 (Eric Wu) how, exactly, a message board works, like we're fucking retarded. You know what? I get that there's a 63 year old woman reading TNO that wouldn't understand either reference (I guess), but, really, does that really take away from the book to the point where you need to spell it out for them? Don't you think they could piece it together on their own? Or would they simply slam the book down in disgust? ("Mes. Sage. Board? Whaaaat? Is this guy from the future?? Where's my book of Jumbles?")

Now, to the untrained eye, it may seem as though I have peculiar obsession with Harlan Coben --as Carrie, my lovely fiancee, has asked me on numerous occasions, "why are you reading his books if you clearly dislike them?" Honestly, baby? I have no idea. In part, I think it's because he's hugely (and, I shall cattily add, inexplicably) popular at the moment (his books routinely debut in the Top 5) and in part because The Atlantic Monthly (my favorite magazine that doesn't have "Sports" or "Illustrated" in the title) deemed him worthy of a lengthy profile last month. Or it could simply be the fact that he went to Amherst with David Foster Wallace, my favorite writer ever. At any rate, clearly I'm not reading his stuff because I like him. In fact, I think I hate him a little bit. Why?



Jealousy (fine! A little bit...)

Because he's a shitty writer. (Better!)

Call it The "Bobby" Principle. (God, what an awful movie.) Anytime I watch or read something that is supposed to be good and my first thought is "well, hell, I could write something better than this!"--that is usually a pretty solid indication that what I'm witnessing is lousy; because, let's be honest, I'm just not that creative (see: the previous 900 or so words). With Coben, I get this feeling on every single fucking page. Say what you want about Dan Brown (I'll start: he's terrible. Any book that does not prominently feature Encyclopedia Brown should contain significantly more pages than chapters--James Patterson, I'm also looking at you), but at least the idea behind The Da Vinci Code (cribbed though it may have been) was clever. One cannot make a similar claim with Coben. And with that, I wash my hands of him. That's right, an unprecedented (I assume) Harlan Coben moratorium.

[Dusts off hands triumphantly]

Unless I change my mind at a later date...which I almost surely will. After all, hating stuff sure is fun. But, until then: ah, sweet principled stands.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

"Whatever’s Just Slightly Worse Than Useless..."

OK, so, technically, this is simply a re-posting of my Facebook review of the book, but I thought I'd get the ball rolling. Stay tuned for another Coben review (Tell No One, which--impossibly--I liked even less than this one).

Book Review: Promise Me by Harlan Coben (2006)

Read: last week

This Harlan Coben guy...boy, I don't know...

Strike One: really, really weak dialogue that HC is trying (I'm assuming) to pass off as clever. This includes Myron (repeatedly) mocking antagonists by sarcastically repeating their rather feeble retorts and adding "ho ho...that really is hilarious. Honestly, how do you come up with that?"; Myron's sidekick Win (the only truly interesting character in the book) answering the phone--every single fucking time...and it probably happens 20 times, i.e. roughly 19 times more than necessary--with the exact same greeting: "Articulate"; and Myron using--non-ironically--"we can do this the easy way or the hard way" in a conversation.

Strike Two: limp attempts at humour that stick out like a sore thumb and invariably fall flat. This includes Myron referencing an old (admittedly funny) Seinfeld stand-up bit about how, if you're buying a detergent solely on the basis of its ability to get blood out of clothes, you have more problems than cleanliness that is so awkwardly introduced it actually made me cringe at the page; as well as a joke about a book editor, a desert island, "tweaking," a glass of orange juice, and human urine that I'm positive Coben made up for the book (even though he introduces it as an old joke) and isn't funny anyway. Just stop.

Strike Three (SPOILERISH BUT NOT REALLY): OK...here's the thing. If you're writing a mystery novel, you have to walk a fine line between not giving away the villain too early (which is boring/predictable) and not giving the reader any hints at all and then simply revealing the villain right at the end (which is frustrating/unsatisfying). A good mystery writer will do this by dropping subtle clues along the way (think: The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects) that, after you've completed the book (or film) and you look back, it takes on a whole new meaning. Coben...does not do this, choosing instead the cheap reveal at the end (this has happened in both Coben books I've read). Now, some might point to this as a sign that Coben is, in fact, very good at creating twists--that is, setting up a reader for one ending and then skillfully veering off in a different direction. But...that's only true if the twist develops organically, which I really don't think it does here. It's a cheap thrill and, instead of resonating, it just left me feeling cold.

And yet, somehow, I'm compelled to read more of his stuff. I'm going to be the guy that's read all of his books who, when asked about him as a writer, shrugs his shoulders and says: "meh...he's ok." I can feel it. And I'll be right.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Fall 2007 TV preview coming soon...

...look at me, ma--I'm on the webernet!

Shows (leaked pilots only, at this stage):

  1. The Sarah Connor Chronicles

  2. Chuck

  3. Bionic Woman

  4. Pushing Daisies

  5. Cane

  6. Big Bang Theory

More to come (hopefully).