Thoughts on the Breaking Bad Finale

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(Note: This post will contain spoilers.)

Immediately following the conclusion of the Breaking Bad series finale, I texted a friend of mine (the same friend I called when I thought my cable went out at the Sopranos series finale). I asked my friend a simple, three word question.

“Greatest finale ever?”

The answer, of course, is that a question like that can’t be answered immediately after the fact. The episode must be given time to settle. The initial reaction must subside to make way for the nitpicking to begin. Then, after the last nit has been picked, the true value of the finale (and sometimes the series as a whole) begins to shine through. The whole process usually takes about a week. After the Sopranos, I was viscerally angry for about two days. I couldn’t understand why David Chase decided to end his show in such a jarring way. I felt that I had been promised something that had not been delivered. That was the initial reaction. The nitpicking process, it would turn out, revealed the brilliance of Chase’s work. Was the ending befitting of the series as a whole? Probably not. I think that’s why people are still so angry about it. Was it a bad episode? No.

As it turns out, the first question is more important than the second. A finale must first suit the show it completes. Everything else, including whether or not the episode itself stands alone as great television, is secondary. It can be a fine line, and some shows will fail to stand on the right side of it.

It’s been three days since Breaking Bad ended. The initial reaction has washed away. The nitpicking, in some corners of the internet, has already begun. The general consensus among television writers seems to be that the finale was satisfactorily fitting of its series, but that it wasn’t a particularly great ending. And I probably agree with that. The episode will not be transcendent, nor did it lift up Breaking Bad to any heights it had not already reached. Breaking Bad was a top two or three show of all time before the finale, and by the time Walt lay there, dead, as Bad Finger’s “Baby Blue” played us out to the credits (with the lyric “I guess I got what i deserved,” no less) nothing had changed. Breaking Bad will always be on the pantheon of the greatest television series of all time.

But there were some nits.

In a way, the flaw with Breaking Bad’s finale is that the story wasn’t resolved in its contained episode. Rather, the final three episodes (“Ozymandias,” “Granite State,” and “Felina”) were the series’ denouement in three acts. Had AMC decided to air the final three episodes as one, three-hour event, it may very well have been the greatest anything in the history of ever. “Felina” wasn’t so much a resolution of the series as it was the resolution of the resolution of the series.

While we’re examining the dental records of the horse Vince Gilligan so generously gifted us, we were denied some of the catharsis we had been seeking ever since the point in the series where it became clear that Walt probably wouldn’t survive to the closing credits of the finale. I’m speaking, mainly, about the conversation between Walt and Jesse, the one where everything got laid out on the table. It never happened. So much time had been spent with these two characters tolerating, liking, and eventually hating each other, that a simple nod between ex-partners seems like it wasn’t the proper send off to that relationship. It seemed as though, in its final season, the relationship between Walt and Skyler replaced the one between Walt and Jesse as the most important of the series.

In fact, Jesse’s entire final season seemed all too brief. The little time we did get with Jesse was spent with him in a catatonic state that he only really snapped out of for about an episode (when he realized that Walt poisoned Brock). I wouldn’t go so far as to say Jesse seemed like an afterthought to this season, but he certainly felt like a nuisance the writers had to keep paying attention to.

There were other problems (Why would anyone leave the keys to their unlocked car behind the visor? Did Walt memorize Badger and Skinny Pete’s phone numbers? How did Walt get the ricin in Lydia’s stevia packet? How did Walt know where Lydia would sit in the cafe (It was a table she’d never sat at before in the show)? Would Uncle Jack really take the time to trot Jesse out in front of Walt, when the whole point all along was to kill Walt in the next minute anyway? Why do Elliott and Gretchen still live in New Mexico? Does the DEA just not stake out the rear entrances of houses?) but to flesh them out seems petty, especially when the amount of chance and luck involved in making Walt’s plan work was pretty much in line with every other master plan Walt’s ever needed to work throughout the duration of the series.

This isn’t all to say that “Felina” wasn’t a great episode of television. It was. The conversation between Walt and Skyler, when Walt finally admits to her, and to himself (not to mention all the Walt-ophiles who supported his every action because “he was doing it for his family”) that he did everything for himself, because he liked it, and because it made him feel alive was, for me, the crowning moment of the final episode, and maybe the entire series. I’ve read some critics say that Walt’s sudden self-awareness didn’t feel earned, but I think he’s known all along who he built his empire for. Notice, it was only when he was afraid he might die of cancer that he ever invoked his family. When he was no longer afraid of his fate, the shroud of his greatest lie fell away.

So, “Greatest finale ever?” No.

As far as finales go, “Felina” was satisfying, well-made, brilliantly acted, and in line with the rest of the series. And that’s good enough. Vince Gilligan didn’t abandon the qualities of the show that made it worthy of following to the end in the first place, which can’t be said for all series finales. The final eight episodes of the series are quite possibly the best eight episode run by any series in the history of television, and “Felina” did nothing to bring that run down. I have the sneaking suspicion, however, that four or five years from now, we’ll remember flashes of this finale – Walt’s “I did it for me” speech, the Rube Goldbergian M60 making Swiss cheese of Jack and his merry band of Nazis – and little else.

A Tale of Two L.A.’s

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of Chris Paul-to-Blake Griffin-for-the-alley-oop, it is the age of Kobe’s forced jumpers as his trust for his teammates all but crumbles, it is the epoch of Clipperdom, it is the epoch of the End of Lakerdom, it is the season Little Brother surpasses Big Brother, it is the season Big Brother becomes Old Brother, it is the spring of contentment, it is the winter of resentment, LA has its shining future before it, LA has no future before it, they are all going direct to something truly special, they are all going direct the other way – in short, this period was so far like the last 30 years, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, as the defining moment between small market and big.

Minutes after the dumbest work stoppage in sports history, (Seriously.  The owners locked the players out largely due to the small market owners wanting some sort of revenue sharing system – a problem that has precisely 0.00% to do with the players.), the LA Lakers, Houston Rockets, and the NBA-owned New Orleans Hornets agreed to a deal that would send Chris Paul, a top 3 point guard in the NBA by any argument, to LA.  Pau Gasol, the most skilled big man in the league, would have landed in Houston, where the Rockets had been preparing themselves for three seasons for just this opportunity.  The Lakers would have been building for now and the future, which is rare.  Most importantly, perhaps, the Hornets would have received 3 starter-quality veterans (Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, and Lamar Odom), along with Goran Dragic, a decent guard who is surely a rotation guy for a good team, along with a first round draft pick.  Many experts projected the Hornets as the real winners of the trade, citing the fact that they lost a great player but got three quality players back instead of watching Paul leave after the season ends.  That’s more than the Lakers got for Shaquille O’Neal way back when.

But, after the second seemingly-drunken letter authored by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert in as many offseasons, NBA commissioner/ de facto New Orleans Hornets owner David Stern nixed the deal.  Gilbert’s email ranted about how the lockout was supposed to stop the rich from getting richer, and how this had to be the moment that the league stops the all-stars from migrating to the “big markets.”  How could the Cavs ever hope to compete with the New Yorks and LA’s of the world?

Commissioner,

It would be a travesty to allow the Lakers to acquire Chris Paul in the apparent trade being discussed.

This trade should go to a vote of the 29 owners of the Hornets.

Over the next three seasons this deal would save the Lakers approximately $20 million in salaries and approximately $21 million in luxury taxes. That $21 million goes to non-taxpaying teams and to fund revenue sharing.

I cannot remember ever seeing a trade where a team got by far the best player in the trade and saved over $40 million in the process. And it doesn’t appear that they would give up any draft picks, which might allow to later make a trade for Dwight Howard. (They would also get a large trade exception that would help them improve their team and/or eventually trade for Howard.) When the Lakers got Pau Gasol (at the time considered an extremely lopsided trade) they took on tens of millions in additional salary and luxury tax and they gave up a number of prospects (one in Marc Gasol who may become a max-salary player).

I just don’t see how we can allow this trade to happen.

I know the vast majority of owners feel the same way that I do.

When will we just change the name of 25 of the 30 teams to the Washington Generals?

Please advise…

Dan G.

Sort of like Jerry Maguire’s memo mission statement, only way more whiny.  What doesn’t get quite as much play in the media is Gilbert’s crying that the trade would bring the Lakers under the league’s luxury tax, a dollar for dollar fine for being over a certain salary number.  That tax gets divided among the owners under the salary cap.  Gilbert took something that normally sounds like good money management and turned around into something bad for the league.  Stern released a statement the next day citing the reason for canceling the deal.  “Basketball reasons,” he called it, as if to say “This is definitely, positively, not because Dan Gilbert cries himself to sleep every night while cradling a LeBron jersey.  No one believed Stern.

Next came the awkward time.  The players involved in the deal had to report to the teams they knew tried to trade them just the night before.  Most notably upset was Lamar Odom who was so distraught over almost being dealt that he asked to be traded anyway, a request which the Lakers obliged in a deal with the Dallas Mavericks.  Pau Gasol, another famously emotional player, reported to camp with that awkward “I just got the voice mail you left when you drunk dialed me last night.  Let’s just pretend it never happened.” look on his face.

Rumors surfaced that the three teams were tinkering with the deal in an attempt to gain the league’s approval, but that was quickly followed by the league nixing the deal a second time.  LA and Houston dropped out of trade discussions.  The deal was dead.

Days later, the NBA Hornets finally dealt Chris Paul to LA.  Only, it wasn’t the Lakers that got the Greatest Pure Point Guard of All Time according to Bill Simmons, but the Clippers.  The league negotiated the trade, bypassing the general manager they had put in place and given full autonomy to.  That statement can’t be read with more weight.  The League negotiated a trade with another team.  I’ll take “Conflicts of Interest” for a thousand, Alex.  Just like that, Chris Paul teamed with Blake Griffin to form one of the most exciting point guard/power forward combos since ever.  Just like that, the LA Clippers were the talk of the NBA for the first time in its existence.  Just like that, the LA Clippers are as hot if not a hotter ticket than their Staples Center roommates.

Just like that, David Stern closed the window on this current incarnation of the Lakers.

Oh, the Lakers will have their shot to win another title before all is said and done, but their margin for error is so slim that the wrong matchup in the playoffs will spell disaster for them.  Kobe has no lift in his step anymore.  Pau Gasol is not Shaq in his prime.  There are no easy baskets on this team, and easy baskets is how you preserve your stars for when the going gets tough.  Dirk’s Mavs, Durant’s Thunder, and yes, even Paul’s Clippers should have an easier time scoring than their Laker brethren.

The average person hears of the Lakers’ misfortune and asks “so what?” After all, shouldn’t the rest of the league have a chance at the sustained greatness that only the Lakers have embodied for most of the past 30 years.  Consider this.  Since Magic Johnson’s Lakers ruled the NBA, the Lakers have signed exactly one mega star free agent, Shaquille O’Neal.  Everyone else was drafted by or traded to the Laker franchise.  The Lakers are not the Yankees, stealing talent from less fortunate teams by paying the players more money.  They are simply one of the best-run organizations in the NBA, and have been so since the modern age of the NBA began (1979 – present).

And that’s what schmucks like Gilbert don’t seem to understand.  This isn’t about market size, this is about how well a team manages itself.  Yes, LeBron bolted from Cleveland for Miami.  But he also chose the nation’s 8th largest market, passing on offers from the 1st (New York and New Jersey), 2nd (LA. The Clippers met with LeBron.), 3rd (Chicago), 4th (Dallas), and 6th (Houston) largest markets in the process.  Some of those big market teams were good, and some were bad.  In the end, all that really mattered was the Heat foreseeing LeBron’s desire to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.  They managed their cap situation to get themselves in position to make the only offer LeBron wanted.  Market size did not matter.

Gilbert was upset that Lakers were primed to trade for Chris Paul and still have enough in the war chest to trade for Dwight Howard.  Read that sentence again, carefully.  The Lakers weren’t going to sign these guys away from their teams, they were going to trade for them.  All that requires is the assets to get the deal done, something the Lakers have that the Cavs don’t.  The Hornets had agreed to the trade, which means their front office was satisfied with what it was receiving in return for Chris Paul.  LA managed itself into position to acquire a young star to bring the franchise into the next decade, and Dan Gilbert was crying to mommy that he never had a fair shot at being successful even though he had LeBron James on his team for 7 years.

And so a new chapter in LA basketball history is being written.  It tells the tale of the all-too fragile Lakers who will have to defy every obstacle to win again in the face of Father Time, as well as the upstart Clippers, a team stockpiled with young, athletic, eager bodies ready to run and jump their way into the annals of NBA history.  For the latter franchise, their legend -if there is to be one- can’t be written without parenthetical qualifications, paragraph-long footnotes, and an asterisk next to the name of the point guard who got them to the mountaintop.

Lebron James is Not the Best Player in the NBA

In what could only have been considered an attempt to keep the NBA relevant during the lockout, ESPN published a list of the league’s top 500 players.  While many of the players were either undervalued or overrated, none was a bigger mistake than the player selected number 1, LeBron James.

Indisputable facts first.  LeBron James is an incredibly talented player, perhaps the league’s most talented.  He has two MVP trophies.  He is a physical specimen whose muscular build you might only find in a comic book.  He is a walking triple-double who can and has on occasion played all five positions.  He has only missed the playoffs once in his 8-year, hall of fame-caliber career.  He has never won a championship.  He has exactly one memorable game winning shot, over an underdog team he ultimately lost to in the playoffs.

Truth be told, LeBron James isn’t even the best player on his team.  Sure, if we were discussing talent in a vacuum – Talent Theory, if you will – LeBron is virtually unmatched by anyone ever.  But greatness is more than theoretical talent, it’s applied talent.

Here’s what I mean.  Eddie Murphy has as much talent as anyone in Hollywood, and he’s had that talent since the he was 18.  Would you call Eddie Murphy a great actor?  The prosecution rests.

When LeBron took his talents to South Beach, he chose to skip past all the moments where he would build his legend and go straight to the moment where everyone expects a player to win titles.  Just because you saved the Princess by warping ahead to level 8 – 8 doesn’t mean you beat Super Mario Bros.  What good is an accomplishment if you didn’t work for it?  We don’t hate LeBron for leaving Cleveland, we hate LeBron for thinking that taking the easy way out is the same as hard work.

Of course, LeBron was well within his rights as a free agent to sign where he pleased, but choosing to team up with both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh eliminated him from “Best Player in the NBA” consideration, at least for his first season in Miami.  He could have been considered the best player in the league coming into this season, if it wasn’t for that pesky NBA Finals he had.

If you recall, the “LeBron James chokes in the fourth quarter” jokes were everywhere after the Mavericks showed the world that LeBron hates figuring out zone defenses even more than he hates playing defense.  LeBron let his team down, plain and simple.  At the start of that series, LeBron was undeniably the main reason the Heat had gotten to the Finals.  By the end, it was equally undeniable that Dwyane Wade was that team’s Alpha Dog.

When LeBron signed in Miami, everyone wondered how Wade would perform in the “Pippen Role” with LeBron playing the Jordan.  Wade had never really been the facilitator, and was used to having the offense built around him.  For a while, the Heat struggled because of this fact.  No one knew who to defer to.  The Heat started picking up steam when both players worked off each other, featuring one of the greatest fast breaks of all time, but experts knew the playoffs would eventually slow them down, and they’d have to answer the lingering question of whose team it is.  The Celtics and Bulls did everything right.  They cut off LeBron’s lanes to the basket, which forced LeBron to settle for ill-chosen jumpers. (For the record, there’s no way Jordan lets this happen to him.  Cut off his lane to the basket, and he finds ten other ways to get there.  But LeBron is no Michael.)  The problem was that LeBron was hitting his improbable jumpers.  LeBron shot 33% from the 3-point line during last year’s regular season.  He shot 43% against the Bulls.  The Celtics fared better, holding LeBron’s averages to below his regular season marks, but the Heat edged out a five game series victory, outscoring Boston by a total of 14 points.  Once LeBron got to Dallas, his shooting streak stopped.  Dallas invoked the same strategy against LeBron that the others did, but their ability to keep pace with the Heat offensively coupled with the mounting pressure the Heat was facing caused LeBron’s collapse.

LeBron James averaged 26.7 points per game in the regular season.  He never scored more than 24 in the Finals.

Game 4 was LeBron’s lowest moment.  In 46 minutes, he finished with nine rebounds, seven assists, two steals, and eight points.  Eight.  To compare, Scottie Pippen only scored in the single digits three times in his 6 Finals appearances.  Two of those performances were his last two alongside Michael Jordan, when his back was gone and his body had been beaten down by relentless Karl Malone charges to the basket.  One of those games, Pippen played only 22 minutes.  Michael never scored that low in a playoff game (Career low: 15 points), let alone the Finals (Career low: 22 points).  In that same Finals, Dwyane Wade averaged one point more than his regular season average, and outscored LeBron in 4 of the series’ 6 games.  On the game’s biggest stage, it was LeBron who reverted into the supplementary role.  Dwyane Wade would play the part of Alpha Dog.  If you’re looking for the league’s best player, Dwyane Wade deserves more consideration than his more powder-throwing teammate.

LeBron can be the best player in the NBA should ESPN release a similar list next year, but naming him so now is premature.

This season is a new start for LeBron.  If he takes the pressure off himself to live up to everyone’s expectations, he can go back to being the player he was in Cleveland.  But even then, he’d still have to add the work ethic that the Greatests of All Time possess.    Having talent isn’t enough.  He has to do something with it.

The Problem(s) With Baseball

When you are born in Chicago, you are born into two birthrights.  The first is that you will never, ever, have to succumb to Big Pizza. (Wouldn’t it be awesome if there were such a special interest group as “Big Pizza”? Like “Big Oil” or “Big Pharma”? I want to live in a world where the president is reluctant to veto pepperoni subsidies for fear of the wrath of Big Pizza.)  The second birthright bestowed upon all Chicagoans is an allegiance to one of the two major professional baseball teams, the Cubs or the White Sox.  I was born a Cubs fan, a gift and a curse in and of itself.  Any time you can sum up a century-plus-long curse in one or two word phrases, it probably needs no further ellaboration.  Bartman*.  The Billy Goat.  Lou Pinella.  The gifts of being a Cubs fan are twofold, one more obvious than the other.

The obvious gift is that if and when the Cubs do win a World Series, you can say you’ve been a fan since the dog days way back when.  And since you never expect them to win, it will be a delight when they do. (This can’t be overstated.  The cathartic release when the Cubs finally win a World Series will move grown men to tears.)  The other, less obvious gift of being a Cubs fan is this: Never expecting (in fact, downright knowing) your team isn’t going to win the World Series allows you a sort of disconnection from the sport that other fanbases aren’t afforded.  A Yankees fan bleeds Jeter and Mariano Rivera and probably has kids named Mickey and Yogi.  He never worries about a losing streak or a batter in a slump because he knows that, ultimately, his owner and general manager have put the best product out on the field.  A Twins fan has a kid named Kirby and a dog named Santana and has gripes about the financial inequities that allow richer teams to monopolize winning while his team remains a step away from winning year in and year out.  In Matrix terms, the Twins fan took the red pill, and has seen the horror and despair of his favorite team’s up and down (and ultimately down) battles year by year.  The Yankees fans are high on the blue pill, never understanding why other teams aren’t as competitive and thinking that everybody signs with the Yankees because everybody wants to play for the Yankees, and the truckloads of cash being doled out have nothing to do with it.  Cubs fans?  We’re the ones in the movie theater wishing our shades were as cool as Morpheus’.

This sort of disconnection has afforded me the right to claim the following two statements with no irony and complete sincerity.  I am a Cubs fan.  I hate baseball.

I hate baseball.  I hate the slower-than-dial-up pace.  I hate the fact that everyone knew everyone was cheating and they all pretended they didn’t know to uphold the myth of the Legendary Baseball Player like some sort of patriotic-religious Rite of Denial.  I hate that managers wear jerseys and that we call them managers and not coaches because they, in fact, do not coach their players and so what the hell does anyone pay them for?  I hate that the winning team in the All Star game’s league gets home field advantage in the World Series.  I hate that every team gets an all-star, even if that team had no wins or any player with a positive batting average.  I hate that there are 162 damn games, thereby making the regular season this huge, lumbering Thing from which literally any baseball argument (and its counter) can be cited. (One exception. You cannot argue, by any stretch of any statistics, that Adam Dunn had a good season.)  I hate that sports outlets (newspapers, radio, ESPN) cover spring training like it means anything, sometimes at the cost of coverage to sports that are actually in season (Ok, you got me.  That was a basketball-slanted gripe.  I couldn’t care less if the Red Sox/Yankees spring training game cost me Wimbledon coverage.)  I hate so much about baseball that I can literally drop out from any given season until late September, when every game pitch means life or death and when players and managers play and manage as such.

All that being stated, baseball could be great if only a few things got changed.

First, the game’s got to speed up.  We live in a fast-paced world where all gratification is instant.  Baseball games have no time limit.  A “quick” game may be about two and a half hours, or length of the average basketball game.  Most baseball games are anywhere from three hours to three and a half, or the length of the average football game.  Why does football seem to go by faster than a baseball game? Because football is always moving.  Movement, now there’s a novel concept.  You know what 7 of 9 baseball players are doing 35% of the time?  Standing.  Absolutely.  Still.  Give a batter 15 seconds to get to the plate, a pitcher 10 seconds to throw a pitch, 20-second mound visits (and no more than two per game).  When a guy hits a home run, why does he have to round the bases?  We all know he hit it out of the park, and congratulations to him, now go sit back down.  Soccer is one of the most boring sports in the world, but it will always have the upper hand on baseball, because at least I know that the regulation time of every match is 90 minutes.  At a predictable length of time from the beginning of every soccer match, that match will end.  The same cannot be said for baseball.

Second, baseball needs to even the playing field when it comes to salaries.  Yes, I know that every once in a while a poor team squeaks through and beats the odds to win it all, but ask the Baltimore Orioles or even the Toronto Blue Jays if they feel confident about making the playoffs in a given year, and behind closed doors they’ll tell you that they can’t adequately compete with New York or Boston so long as the rich can spend whatever they want and continue to monopolize talent.  All things being equal, a competent general manager is more likely to feild a winning team when he can spend 200 million dollars as opposed to 50 million.  The NFL recognizes this fact, as does the NHL, as does the NBA.  Baseball is still in the dark on this.  W. T. F. ?

Some of baseball’s rot goes deeper.  Baseball players are generally drafted out of high school, though some go on to college.  Regardless, a baseball player isn’t likely to start making real money (by athletes’ standards, of course) until he is about 26 years old.  LeBron James, by age 26 was already taking his talents to South Beach on his second max ($15 million a year or so) contract.  If an elite athlete has the ability to choose between two sports with similar career life expectancies, why would he choose the sport where his earning potential is far less, or where he might not even play at the top level until he’s almost 30?  The cases of athletes choosing baseball over another sport for which they had the opportunity to play professionally are few.

This year, an Indianapolis Colts/Tampa Bay Buccaneers game handily out-rated the New York Yankees/Detroit Tigers game in New York.  Take a moment to let that previous sentence seep in.  The New York Yankees, presumably Major League Baseball’s most popular and powerful franchise, failed to out-rate a much less important football game between two non-descript teams whose best player (Peyton Manning) didn’t even play.  Baseball is dying the Slow Death, like an elderly family member wasting away with Alzheimer’s.  Sure, baseball will stay alive and in the public consciousness, but never again with the same national fervor it once enjoyed.

College Football Isn’t Worth It

When did we get to this place?  When did college football become an enterprise our society deemed Too Big To Fail?  In a system where the best case scenario is a player goes from not getting paid for getting his brain beaten in to getting paid for getting his brain beaten in, and the worst case is that decades pass before it is revealed that a school chose to harbor a serial child-rapist because he is too integral to the football program for them to lose, how did it come to pass that we made the institution of college football a bigger priority than the health and well being (not to mention the integrity) of the young men partaking in it, and of those defenseless boys, victims to a corrupt system they weren’t even a party to?

This is not an attack on football.  This is an attack on college football, an institution which may have no positive value to anyone near it.  The retort is predictable. “These kids get a college education in exchange for playing football.” But that’s a ridiculous premise on several fronts.  First, a college football player helps to generate more revenue than his team’s combined worth in college tuition for his school.  Second, the curriculum many of these kids have to assign themselves in order to stay football-eligible is laughable at best.  What most students would consider blow-off classes are the norm for most college football players.  Third, and this issue is perhaps the least explored in the media, is the hypocrisy of telling students to go out and play a sport that so commonly results in serial concussions which literally kill whole sections of their brains, and then repay those students with education.  It’s like hiring a guy to hand scrub a shark’s teeth, but then you pay him with piano lessons.

The only reason why college football exists is simple.  It generates billions for those corporations involved (ESPN, CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox Sports Net, The Big Ten Network, The Texas Longhorns Network, the NCAA, the individual conferences, the schools involved, the coaches).  Of course, with millions on the table for the individual schools, football becomes an addictive drug, the crack rock of our college education system.  A student at Notre Dame fell to his death because he was taping football practice from a hydraulic lift through gale-force winds.  Notre Dame’s response was horrific.  Notre Dame was under wind advisory at the time of the accident, but the team continued to play outside.  The kid, Declan Sullivan, posted on his facebook account during practice about how terrified he was.  The team continued to practice for 20-30 minutes after the accident.

Imagine this happened where you work.  Imagine one of your co-workers, an intern no less, dies in a horrific accident caused directly by the decisions of your boss.  Imagine that intern gets carted away by the medics, everyone regroups, and then goes back to work for the next half hour afterwards.  That wouldn’t seem odd to you?

In fact, that analogy doesn’t even quite equate, because it’s not like Notre Dame was in the middle of a game.  To quote the esteemed philosopher Allen E. Iverson, “We talkin’ ’bout practice. … Practice?!?”  So, in fact, this would be like an intern dying in your office softball game and then everyone else plays on 30 minutes afterwards.  Would beating the guys from Accounts Receivable really be more important than the death of the kid who was only working in your office for the college credits?

But college football is all-important.  Yes, the money a football program generates is enough to supplement all the rest of the sports in a given school, and enrollment in football schools can be at least partially attributed to the success of the school’s football team in bowl games.  Put slot machines in the student lounge, see if that raises any money for your school.  Take away football from a school and watch as students keep enrolling due to the — drumroll please — academic reputation of the institution.

The Jerry Sandusky story has been chronicled enough that I don’t expect anyone would read my little blog for more insight on the matter.  It’s disgusting, repulsive, and fundamentally evil what happened to those kids because of the power of Penn State’s football program.  But although it will remain the lightning rod for the greater issue of the rot of college athletics, and more specifically college football, it is hardly an isolated event.

The recruiting scandals, the concussions, the boosters (definition: people the schools get to do their dirty work), players sexually assaulting female students and getting away with it, the fact that 80% of the dumbest kids at any college in America play football, this all has to stop.  College football has to go.  Too many people are getting hurt and much, much worse because of it.  The bottom line is that it shouldn’t come down to the schools’ bottom lines.  Schools are supposed to shape young minds, not destroy them.  They are expected to be better than this.  Football may be the king, but even kings get beheaded sometimes.

Film Review: Contagion

As an appreciator of zombie films, I can tell you that their horror rarely resides in the zombies themselves.  Usually, it is not the zombies that are the villains, but people.  That’s what makes zombie films so scary – they shed light on just how fragile civility – and to a greater extent humanity – is.  Husbands will leave their wives to die, mothers will smother their children in a twisted attempt to spare them, best friends will kill each other in the streets over the last shotgun when society is introduced with a destructive element such as the undead.

In many ways, Contagion, the new film from director Steven Soderbergh, is a zombie film in its purest form.  The story is a mosaic centering around a few disconnected protagonists all dealing with the same villain, a new form of super-virus for which there is no vaccine.  What starts off as a few isolated cases turns into global pandemic too quickly for the world to withstand it, and the very fabric of society – civility, communication, even physical contact – falls apart.  The only thing separating this movie from Dawn of the Dead, really, are zombies.

The film supposes what all zombie/monster films suppose, that in the wake of impending doom, mankind will turn to the animalistic, survivalist aspects of its nature.  In short, when the choice is dignity or death, dignity goes right out the window.  It’s not the “what if?” of societal meltdown that scares us, it’s that it reminds us of the times it’s actually happened in the real world.  Remember Hurricane Katrina?  How quickly did the narrative shift from people trapped on their rooftops to looters in the streets?  How many horrible (perhaps apocryphal) stories of murder, rape, and general mistreatment of other human beings leaked out in the days and weeks following the flooding?

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11.  While the media would have us remember the nation coming together under one flag like the old Mighty Ducks and the new Mighty Ducks at halftime against Iceland and uniting to pick ourselves back up and rebuild our way of life, I won’t ever allow myself to forget the racism that befell every person of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, let alone the positively abhorrent discrimination against everything Muslim.  Society, in an attempt to defend itself, became uglier and less human than it had been previously.  Japanese internment, slavery, the genocide of…really any genocide will suffice.  Contagion reminds us all too well of the atrocities we are all too capable of committing against each other.

Aside from being a classic zombie/Cold-war era monster movie, Contagion is also the third of the Steven Soderbergh mosaics about one overriding topic.  The first of the unofficial trilogy was Traffic, a film that served as a meditation on the holes and hypocrisies in the American “War on Drugs.”  Next, Soderbergh executive produced Syriana, written and directed by Stephen Gaghan (who also wrote Traffic).  Syriana takes a look at the oil industry in much the same style that Traffic examined the drug industry.  Contagion is a meditation on the fragility of civilization, and an essay on the bureaucratic, opportunistic, often racist, and inherently flawed system(s) we have in place to fight global pandemics.

There are few directors as in control of their film-making faculties as Steven Soderbergh.   His technical brilliance, aligned with his always pitch-perfect aesthetic give his films a sort of binding signature.  That being said, there are three Soderberghs.  The first Soderbergh is the original.  It’s the “shoe-string-budget-and-it-feels-like-it” Soderbergh.  Think Sex, Lies, and Videotape or Bubble.  Soderbergh tends to become more invisible in these films and allow the performances to carry the show.  The second Soderbergh is super-stylized and profoundly cool (Ocean’s 11, Out of Sight).  In this case, Soderbergh, by way of his cinematography, edits, and score, is as much a character in the film as the actual characters in the film.  The third Soderbergh, and my personal favorite, is the perfect blend of the two others.  Like the first Soberbergh, the third allows actors to fully realize their characters by way of improvisation or by simply letting the performances breathe in longer shots.  But like the second, there is also more visible editing at hand, as well as a strong score.  The third Soderbergh’s aesthetic is all his own, however, and often the scenes will end with wide shots to allow the heavy dialogue, the scope of the story, and the viewer some relief before delving into the next intense scene.  This Soderbergh is the one who made Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Che, and, alas, Contagion.  Soderbergh is so on top of his game here that every instance of human contact between two people, every handshake, every surface touched, every pat on the back, is as ominous as any blood-riddled, “made you jump” moment from a run-of-the-mill horror film.

The performances in Contagion succeed such that the characters all seem to be from the same universe experiencing the same events, albeit from totally different vantage points.  There is no over-the-top military guy whose priorities are predictably out of whack.  Nor is the everyman character a living saint who won’t give up on the sick around him at the expense of his own life.  Everyone seems real.  Laurence Fishburne seems more normal than I can ever remember him.  Usually he’s some sort of all-wise mentor or some hyper-realized stereotype of black men in America.  In this film, Fishburne is a doctor at the Center for Disease Control.  A lesser script would have made him the authority on viruses with the answer for every question, but that’s where Contagion differs.  He doesn’t know everything because people don’t know everything.  He isn’t driven by hubris or vanity as so many doctors are in films, but by the desire to do his job, nothing more.  The realistic palate of his character is typical with the rest of the characters in the film.

All in all, Contagion is a great movie that will unfortunately suffer two fatal flaws.  The first is that a movie is only as memorable as its villain, and technically the “villain” in this film is a virus that can’t be seen by the naked eye.  The second, and I actually prefer the flaw, is that the people (Read: the stupid, stupid masses) generally want the predictable plot with the over-the-top military guy (Dumb.) and the know-it-all doctor (Dumber.) and the saintly everyman (Ridiculous.) and maybe even let’s throw in a shot where the virus actually physically first infects the person at the microscopic level (Stupid.) and while we’re at it (Oh no.), why doesn’t this disease just turn its victims into zombies (Please stop.), or better yet, vampires (AHHHHHHH!!!), yeah (No.), ’cause vampires are in this year. (They’re not still in!)  When you market a film as an action film, and the best way I can think to describe is a meditation on blah blah blah, you’ve marketed the wrong product to the audience, and the film will fail to live up to (or down to) expectations.

Final verdict: If you’re looking at the showtimes and can’t decide if you want to see Contagion or Bucky Larson, just go see Bucky Larson.  If you enjoy masterful directing, great acting, and thought-provoking socio/political drama, Contagion is right up your alley.

Breaking Up With Entourage

This summer marks the 8th and final season of HBO’s Entourage.  As a bro, I’m sad to the show go.  As a tv enthusiast, I’m sad the show never really arrived.

I got in to Entourage as it was about to enter its second season.  Having heard good things, I watched the entire first season in a day thanks to an HBO marathon.  I was hooked.  Here you had a show about four dudes hanging out, being bros.  No petty who-slept-with-whose-boyfriend drama. (I’m so glad Laguna Beach and The Hills are over.  It taught a nation of girls on the cusp of becoming women how to turn every empty relationship in their lives into a soap opera.) No real conflict driving the season.  Watching Entourage was like having a fantasy football draft every Sunday night.  A bunch of bro-bonding in the form of hanging out, partying, and making fun of each other.  It was a fantasy-fulfillment show for dudes, our Sex and the City.  On top of it all, the show was also taking a satirical look at the chaotic, morally bankrupt, superficial lifestyle of Hollywood players.  I was a 22 year old film student when I started watching Entourage.  It felt like the show was literally made for me.

Season 2 didn’t disappoint.  The boys came back, weak characters were replaced with stronger ones (Most notably Lloyd, Ari’s assistant/whipping boy.)  and they even  peppered in a Mandy Moore love story and the real goal of Vince finally becoming the Will Smith-level movie star by trying to land the title role in James Cameron’s Aquaman. (Even this major plot point is a sarcastic nod to the superhero movie craze Hollywood had just begun to experience.  They turned DC’s lamest superhero into the largest grossing movie of all time.)  In fact, the penultimate episode of the second season, titled Sorry, Ari, may be the series’ best.  The show reached new heights and an immense level of popularity, quickly giving it a premature importance that it promised to pay off by the end of its run, like some sort of pop-culture status payday loan.

But, as with payday loans, the show’s demise was too much interest.  Raising the status of Entourage to the level of even slightly-better-than-average shows like Sex and the City was expecting too much of it.  The show is a glorified cartoon, with characters who don’t grow, are never really in any turmoil, and who have no truly powerful enemies.  Most of these issues stem from the fact that, like their committment-phobic characters, the creative powers in charge of Entourage never made a real commitment to the show.  It became difficult to invest in the characters when the creators and writers weren’t invested themselves.  I’ll elaborate.

Ari had a son in one episode in the first season who was subsequently not mentioned again.  Now, it is perfectly fair game to dismiss the details given by any show in its first couple of episodes.  That’s the time when the show is still finding its footing, and most anything can be changed.  What’s jarring about the disappearance of Ari’s son is that he wasn’t mentioned again…until he  suddenly reappeared in approximately season 6.  We’re given endless scenarios of Ari at home, we see his daughter and even have some subplots with her as the star, but we never see his son for 5 years?  Strange, but ultimately forgivable I suppose.  Less forgivable was the relationship between Johnny and Vince.  Johnny and Vince Chase are established as half-brothers in season one.  In season two, it’s further layered in that Vince and Johnny share a father but have different mothers.  (In the episode where Johnny wants calf implants, he refers to Vince as having his mother’s legs, while he “got dad’s.” They share a father and have separate mothers.) In season 3, to fit the plotline of exactly one episode, the relationship is changed and Johnny and Vince share a mother.  I have two half-brothers.  We share a father.  I understood that dynamic and identified with it.  To turn it on its head such that these two brothers were now raised in the same home by the same mother changes their dynamic, and doing so in season 3 shows a laziness with details that better shows never seem to fall prey to.  There are countless other instances, which, to be fair, get a little nit-picky.  Ari mentions his dead mother in one episode and mentions meeting his mother for dinner in a later episode, stuff like that.  The list goes on.  A tighter show, like L O S T or The Sopranos or Arrested Development wouldn’t have this problem.

Season one established the characters and gave us the beginnings of Eric (The show’s main character.  No, it’s not Vince.) transforming from an ex-Sbarro’s manager to a true Hollywood player.  Season 2 gave us the series’ three best plotlines: Vince’s pursuit of Aquaman, Ari’s all-out war with Terrence, and the Mandy Moore saga.  Everything after that has been the equivalent of running in place.  Feigned character growth just the smokescreen of constantly moving the group from one mansion to another luxurious penthouse to another mansion. (Seriously.  These guys move about twice a season.)  Ari became so ridiculous that he’s now just a caricature of his original self, which was actually just a caricature of real-life super-agent Ari Emmanuel. (Yes, he’s Rahm’s brother.)  Vince and Eric, whose best-bro relationship is supposed to be the emotional center of the show, barely speak to each other.  For a few years, every episode followed the formula of Ari having some news for the guys which forced the guys to break off into pairs. (They always break up in the same pairs: Eric and Vince, and Turtle and Drama.  Eric and Drama have never shared a subplot together alone.)

I wish I could compare Entourage to Shaquille O’Neal, a great player who could have been the best but wasn’t as commited to getting better at basketball as he was making movies wherein he plays a genie.  Unfortunately, even that comparison gives Entourage too much credit.  For that comparison to have been apt, Entourage would have needed more seasons like season two.  Instead, Entourage compares more the NBA player who was great for a span of time much shorter than the rest of his career. (Jalen Rose and Tim Thomas come to mind most immediately)  Fans, writers, teammates and coaches waited desperately for those players to reach the potential they flashed once, only to be disappointed more often than not.  That’s Entourage.

All in all, Entourage was the bro you knew in high school or college who you were sure was going to make it in the world on his charisma alone, but who now works part-time at a car wash.  It’s the guy you know who peaked in his senior year, who was prom king and the star quarterback and never mind that he wasn’t the best student or all that deep.  Entourage is just like every meathead bro you know.  Fun to hang out with, but ultimately empty inside.

How Barry Bonds Saved Baseball

Andy Warhol, probably the world’s best known pop artist, is perhaps most famous for his screen prints of different-colored variations of the same Marilyn Monroe portrait or his work with Campbell’s soup cans. (Although, I argue his greatest contribution to the world was his notion of everyone in the future getting “15 minutes of fame,” a prediction made true with the advent of reality shows, Twitter, facebook, and most directly, Youtube.)  While his work lifted everyday objects such as the soup can to the level of high art, Warhol was commenting on pop culture (and capitalism) as a whole.  The subject matter, the perseverance and patience to carry on the art’s repetitive nature, even the very process of (re)creating the art (Warhol had a studio – called “The Factory” – where he employed adult film actors, drug addicts, drag queens and all the rest of Lady Gaga’s key demographic to work an assembly line, mass producing his work like a corporation.  The process was the art.) was saying something about the consumerist culture that, by the 60’s, was growing out of the World War II era and reaching something vaguely resemblant of our society today.  Think Mad Men

The effect, of course, is that by reproducing the same image over and over, its essence is lost.  It’s no longer a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, it’s a Warhol.  He lifted the subject such that it ceased to have meaning without losing its sense of still being art.  It’s like repeating a word, any word, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over until the word itself – that is, the collection of letters and sounds – separates from what the word means.  (It’s called jamais vu.  Never experienced that before?  Here, say the word “spoon” 90 times in a row.  Don’t continue reading until you have.  No seriously.)  Banksy, a truly original (perhaps the truly original) pop artist of our time says as much in his film Exit Through the Gift Shop.  “Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them.”

In 1998, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs each hit home runs at a pace the game of baseball had never seen before.  They chased the record for home runs in a season, then 61, until September 8 of that year, when McGwire hit number 62 against Sosa’s Cubs.  McGwire would finish the season with 70, Sosa with 66.  The chase was enough to rejuvenate interest in the game of baseball for a nation that had soured on the sport since the player’s strike in 1994.  Suddenly, there was national interest in baseball again.  For one magical summer, people of all ages (and most certainly my generation) understood how important baseball must have been in post-war America, when the true legends of the game – Robinson, Mantle, Mays, DiMaggio – played the only game Americans seemed to care about with such fervor.  And no statistic in baseball was sexier – the “Marilyn Monroe”, if you will – as the home run.

Never mind that Sosa looked larger than he’d ever looked before.  Never mind that McGwire was caught with a supplement, androstenone, in his locker that wasn’t technically illegal but certainly spoke to a greater rot at the game’s core.  Never mind that before Albert Belle hit 50 home runs in the ’95 season, only three other players had achieved that mark in the previous three decades, but by ’97 another 4 players would join the 50-homer club.  No one cared then.  We chose to believe Sosa achieved his physique from a strict regimen of Flinstones vitamins. (Literally.  Sosa credited Betty Rubble for his Hulkish physique)  Denial is a hell of a thing.

Like an economic bubble, home runs were being hit with more regularity than ever before and at an increasing (unsustainable) rate.

Cut to 2001.  Barry Bonds, a player who, before that season, was known more for great defense, speed, and hitting than his home run totals, and a player who had never hit 50 home runs in a season before, broke Mark McGwire’s 3-year old record by hitting 73 homers.  Maybe it was his unlikable demeanor.  Perhaps his sudden explosion (at the age of 37, no less) was all too conspicuous.  (This was a player everyone knew was on performance enhancers.  You just don’t go from looking like Dave Chappelle your whole career to looking like the Thing at the age of 37.  As the legend goes, so envious was Bonds of all the attention given to Sosa and McGwire when it was he who was the best player in baseball, that he changed his entire approach to the game to prove once and for all who the best player of all time really was.)  Or maybe it was just because he is a black man.  Whatever the reason, Bonds’ record chase was met with decidedly more vitriol that McGwire/Sosa’s had been just a few seasons earlier.  “At least,” his critics maintained, “he’s too old and too far away to break the most important record in the game (or any other game, for that matter) – Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs”.  But Bonds didn’t stop at the single-season record.  He went on to average 32.5 home runs a year for the next 6 years, remarkable when you consider one of those years was injury shortened, and Bonds already had 5 home runs in 14 games.  His average over the other 5 of his last 6 seasons jumps up to 38 when you remove that one short season.  His utter destruction of any and all records associated with baseball’s sexiest statistic continued when, on August 7th 2007, Bonds hit his 756th home run, passing Aaron’s record, which had stood since 1976.

On August 7th of 2007, Barry Bonds destroyed the most hallowed record in sports.  On August 7th, Barry Bonds saved baseball.

Baseball historians were incensed.  “Put an asterisk next to his name!” “Bonds has made a mockery of America’s game!” “In my book, Henry Aaron is still the home run king!”  The media (Read: ESPN) carried on the debate in a way that had only until then been rivaled by Court TV during the OJ trial.  And the children! Oh how the children cried! (Ok, to be fair, children didn’t care.  This is because children inherently know that sports aren’t real life, and athletes aren’t real people.  Athletes, to a child, are like Dora the Explorer, if Dora explored syringes.)  Bonds took the heat as the game’s premier cheater, even though he was only following in the footsteps of those who came (three years) before him.

Before all was said and done (and Barry Bonds was black-balled out of baseball), Bonds would hit another 6 homers, giving him 762 for his career.  But the magic was gone.  People looked twice at every player having a conspicuously good year.  Fans went back and re-examined the home run chase that had brought so many of them back to baseball.  Experts and sports pundits clung to the remaining “untainted” giants of the game like a child clings to a teddy bear hoping it will protect him from the monsters in the closet. (Every player who laced ’em up during the Steroid Era is tainted.  That’s what makes the Steroid Era so tragic.)   Detractors of Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez began to root him on, hoping he’d recapture the home run crown for the Good one fateful day. (The movement subsided quickly when A-Rod was found to be a steroid user as well.)

Barry Bonds had done to the home run what Andy Warhol had achieved with the Marilyn prints – he mass-produced home runs systematically as a commentary on the absurd value of home runs systemically.  Bonds never wanted to be the monster he became.  It was his appallment from the acclaim Mcgwire had been given as some American hero when he did literally nothing well except hit home runs, which were obviously the result of performance enhancing substances.  In his mass-production, Bonds succeeded at lifting home runs to the level of the highest in athletic achievement such that they lost their value entirely.  They were Marilyn Monroes before Barry.  Bonds made them soup cans.

Nowadays, the home run has subsided.  It seems almost as if baseball is embarrassed by them.  A player knocking a baseball 500 feet away from him is the most blatant reminder that there are drugs people can take to give them such strength.  Fans seem to be much more impressed with the “5-tool player” (the type of player Bonds used to be) than with the smasher.  Last offseason, the most sought after free agent wasn’t Adam Dunn, the prolific home run hitter who routinely got to the 40-homer plateau in the first decade of the 2000’s and who had hit 38 in each of the last two seasons.  It was Carl Crawford, a player who never hit more than 19 home runs, but who routinely steals 50 – 60 bases a year and bats near a .300 average.  Actually, the comparison between Dunn and Crawford to Mcgwire and Bonds is apt until you realize that Bonds actually hit home runs at the same clip as Dunn but with similar speed and hitting numbers (Bonds averaged 10-15 less less stolen bases and 15-20 more home runs than Crawford, but with a higher batting average than either Crawford or Dunn.) to Crawford, and that was before the steroid-induced 73-home run season.

This season, Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays in on track to once again eclipse 50 home runs for the second time in as many years.  Previous to last season, Bautista had never hit more than 16 with any of the 5 teams he played for.  Should he come close to 73, there will be coverage.  But it will be the coverage befitting such an event.  It will not be some sort of commemoration of the American Spirit, nor will Bautista be the hero that McGwire and Sosa were before him.  He’ll just be the guy who happened to break the record of the guy who made that record meaningless.  Just another Marilyn.