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.

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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.


The Kempies

The NBA is in full lockout mode.  The last time this happened (1998.  Chicago fans will remember this as the offseason after Jordan’s final game with the Bulls, which was followed by a 6-season, Corey Benjamin/Eddy Curry induced blackout.), the results were catastrophic.  David Stern grew a lockout beard that haunts my dreams to this day.  16 players organized a “charity game” which was designed to raise money for the NBA Players Association. (You will never find footage of this game.  It’s like David Stern had it all redacted from the public records.  It did wonders for the players’ image.  Anthony Mason showed up in a black fur coat with a white fur “14” on the back.  Pre-murder case Jayson Williams was a color commentator.  And it was the first time in months anyone had seen Shawn Kemp, which is also the first anyone had seen the 100 lbs. of muscle beer Shawn Kemp had gained since the lockout started.  If anyone has footage of this game, please send it my way, or at least post it on Youtube. A nation thanks you.)  Ratings dropped for three seasons after the lockout.  The loss of Michael Jordan left a void for the NBA’s marquee player (Kobe and KG were still pups, Shaq had been swept out of every playoffs in his career, and Tim Duncan had has about as much personality as Mel Gibson has bar mitzvah invitations.), a void which was legitimately filled by Latrell Sprewell (Yes, that Latrell Sprewell.) for at least a couple of months.

The ’98 lockout was resolved in time to save the ’99 season, although it had to be abbreviated to 50 games from the regular 82.  Since then, both sides have put off fixing the real problems with the league’s financial problems (The contracts are gauranteed, which wouldn’t be a problem if players like Eddy Curry didn’t get 6 year deals for upwards of 75-100 million dollars based on a couple good weeks of basketball in the last year of their contracts.  The salary structure doesn’t really protect smaller markets like Oklahoma City, Sacramento, or Charlotte, nor does it help them keep their star players.  Probably most importantly, there is no system for revenue sharing like they have in the NFL, so New York will always turn a profit no matter how terrible while New Orleans struggles to survive even though it’s been to the playoffs more in the past decade.), and now it seems this lockout may threaten to delete the entire 2011-2012 season.  Bummer.

Who will the casualties of this lockout include?  We already know Yao Ming is retiring.  We may have seen the last of Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, and other older players.  Some players have even signed contracts overseas. (Most notably, Deron Williams of the New Jersey Nets.  Most of these players have opt-out clauses in their contracts should an NBA season actually occur this year.)  But aside from actual retirements, which players will come back as shells of their former selves?  Who among the NBA players will gain a hundred pounds of molten hops, or fail to work out for a solid year, or get incarcerated after a high speed chase with the Minnesota state police? (Wow.  The answer to all three might be Michael Beasley.)  Well, without further ado, here are the pre-season lockout awards. (Which I’m totally calling “The Kempies.”)

Most likely to gain a solid flabby hundred lbs:  Shawn Kemp set the standard for this Kempie.  He went into the ’99 lockout a svelt 240, and came out on the other end no smaller than 310.  No athletic activity for 9 months made Shawn a fattie.  Why wouldn’t someone who gets paid to be athletic keep his body in shape during a work stoppage?  If anything, it’s a great time to add some good weight while still keeping your athleticism.  It takes a special kind of lazy to not work out at all and allow yourself to get that big.  Who can take the torch from the man whose name lives on in infamy?

And the Kempie goes to…Baron Davis.  Baron Davis is out of shape when there are games, how can we expect him to get in shape when there aren’t?  Like Kemp, Baron could have been one of the very best to ever play his position, if it weren’t for his amazing lazy streak.  This guy’s work ethic is so bad he has to throw alley-oops from a car.  But seriously, he’s so lazy the LA Clippers (Yeah, he wasn’t good enough for the LA Clippers. THE LA mother-$%#@ CLIPPERS!) had to package a first round draft pick with him in order to make him valuable to another team. (They traded what became the first pick in the draft along with Baron to the Cleveland Cavaliers, forever adding the “…Derrick Williams was a Clipper?” chapter to the NBA’s “What if…” conversation).  If the NBA misses significant time this season, Baron Davis will be the league’s first 250 lb point guard. (Magic Johnson was probably about 250 when he came back from his HIV-induced retirement, but he came back a power forward.)

Honorable mention: Michael Beasley.  Anyone who’s nickname is “B-Easy” can’t love work all that much.  Add in some run-ins with the law over marijuana use, and suddenly the Beasley goes from talented if not moody swing forward to Oliver Miller‘s sponsee in Overeaters Anonymous.

Team most likely to benefit from a shortened season: In ’99, the the Utah Jazz, led by 108-year old  35-year old Karl Malone and 36-year old John Stockton tied for the NBA’s best record at 37-13.  Their top 6 players in minutes per game averaged nearly 31 years in age.  The San Antonio Spurs, the other 37-13 team, averaged the same, nearly 31 years in age, despite its top player being a 22-year old Tim Duncan.  The Miami Heat (33-17)? 31 years.  Veteran teams with continuity in their rosters do the best in a season where free agency, training camps, and the preseason are all cut short to accomodate a shortened season.  Expect Dallas, San Antonio, and Boston to benefit from this lockout more than the others.  (The Lakers get excluded because of their completely new coaching staff.)  But who will benefit from this lockout the most?

The Kempie goes to…the San Antonio Spurs.  Just as before, Tim Duncan and crew will benefit from this lockout more than the other teams.  The big three of Manu Ginobili, Duncan, and Tony Parker know each other better than any three players in the league, and the other pieces know where they fit and exactly what roles they fill.  Their average age?  30.

Honorable mention: The Boston Celtics.  Honestly, they’d be the winners if they didn’t stand to lose Big Baby Davis and Jeff Green this offseason (whenever it takes place).  They have the veteran leadership, coaching stability, and the hunger after being embarrassed by the Miami Heat last season.

Player we’ve seen play his last game in the jersey that made him famous: Back in ’99, this was an easy pick.  During the lockout, Michael Jordan injured himself with a cheap cigar cutter, severing a tendon in his right index finger.  Jordan retired from basketball a second time, never to be seen on the court again.  “But I thought Jordan came back to play with the Wizards?” you might be asking yourself.  Foolish, foolish child.  Why would Michael Jordan, the Greatest of All Time, play for a second-class organization like the Wizards? (If I keep wishing it never happened, it’ll be true some day.)  That wasn’t Michael Jordan, that was some sort of evil zombie, Black Lantern version of Mike. (Black Lanterns are the sole reason to hope DC and Warner Bros. don’t ditch the Justice League movies, even if the Green Lantern didn’t sell.  They’d have to repackage the idea somehow.  Imagine Batman as a Black Lantern.)  If I say to you “Michael Jordan,” and your first thought is “chubby guy on the Wizards,” something went terribly wrong in your childhood.  While we’ll surely see more retirements this extended offseason, which players will end up on another team before the new season starts?

And the Kempie goes to…Dwight Howard.  Look, I’m not sold that the Magic will trade him before the new season starts, but I’m also not sold that the new season will happen before Dwight’s contract reaches his early opt-out clause next summer.  Should there be some sort of abbreviated season ala 1999, Dwight (definitely) will (definitely probably) still (definitely probably maybe) be a (former) member of the Orlando Magic.  Count on it.

Honorable mention: Chris Paul.  Same story as Dwight, only without the same level of success.  The only thing keeping him in New Orleans would be some sort of not wanting to LeBron a city when it’s down, especially when that city is New Orleans.

Player most likely to be secretly hoping the lockout lasts a year: As players get on in years, their bodies wear out after taking a beating for 82 to 100-plus games year.  While a lockout is bad for the checkbook, older players have usually made more than enough money to sustain their families for several generations.  All that matters now is winning.  As we established earlier, a shortened season benefits older players moreso than younger ones.  So which of the NBA’s elder statesmen wouldn’t really mind so much if the season was cut short (or cut entirely)?

And the Kempie goes to…Kobe Bryant.  Kobe ended a strong season with a bumpy last 5 weeks or so, narrowly escaping the first round against the Hornets, and getting totally annhilated by the Dallas Mavericks.  His body broke down as the season wore on (Pau Gasol deciding to let Marc be the better Gasol brother didn’t help).  After the season, word broke the Gray Mamba had a controversial knee procedure to help rejuvenate his old legs.  If anyone wants the time off, it’s Kobe Bean Bryant.

Honorable mention: Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James (for very different reasons).  I couldn’t decide on one or the other, so they tied.  One of them gets to bask in the glory of the Finals until next season starts.  The other gets the extra time to work on his (lack of a) post up game.  One of them gets the limelight prominently on himself, while the other gets to escpape the unfair (totally fair) criticism the media (Read: everyone except ESPN.) hit him with everyday.  One got to travel back to his homeland, where he was greeted like some ancient hero of Greek mythology come back from slaying the Minotaur.  The other can never go back to the city he called home for 8 years, which would be sad if that city wasn’t Cleveland and his new city wasn’t Miami.  Seriously, LeBron is spending his offseason kicking back on the beach, making out hanging out with Dwyane Wade.

Wake Me Up When Wake Me Up When September Ends Ends

Smashing Pumpkins.  The Red Hot Chili Peppers.  Nirvana.  Green Day.  Those who say the 90’s were devoid of great rock were and continue to be sorely mistaken.  The 90’s gave us some of the greatest bands of all time, as every decade does.  They spoke to a time when the nation was getting over the excess of the 80’s, when a generation of youth was bound together  by a profound apathy, the rise of Slacker-dom.  If our generation was a character in The Breakfast Club, we’d be Ally Sheedy (The angriest of us might have been Judd Nelson.  Nowadays, kids are more likely to be an Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, or Anthony Michael Hall.)  But then something happened.  Perhaps it was the effect September 11th had on art as a whole.  Maybe it was just a natural evolution every musician goes through. (Except the Black Eyed Peas.  I maintain that their evolution is more cynical than it is artistic.  More on this another day.)  Either way, every single band I enjoyed that made it out of the 90’s went on to disappoint me in the 00’s.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers used to be an unstoppable force of rock, hip hop, and funk all rolled into one.  They could play anything from minimalist guitar tunes to epic, choir-backed crescendos (sometimes all in one song).  They covered Love Rollercoaster in a way that may be better than the original.  Suck My Kiss.  Give it Away.  AeroplaneThe Chili Peppers were so cool in such a funky, crazy way.  Then came Californication.  Yeah, I love that album.  Singles like Around the World, Scar Tissue, Get on Top, and Otherside are the Peppers at some of their very best, even though they seemed to be shelving their funkier notes for a more somber approach.  Every band gets one album to break away from its comfort zone and try something new.  My problem with the Peppers post-Californication, is that roughly every song sounds like Scar TissueThe funky rock band I knew and loved from Mtv in the 90’s had become just another melancholy, blah VH1 group in the 00’s.

As sad as I was to lose the Peppers, Green Day hurt infinitely more.  Green Day was authentic garage punk that had broken out into the mainstream, nothing more, nothing less. If you believe Dookie to be the best album released in the 90’s, you have a valid argument (I’ll take Boyz II Men’s II, but that’s just me.)  Green Day was this fun-loving, slacker band.  When I Come Around is one of the first videos I remember watching on Mtv. (Just a side note about Mtv as a whole.  We all fondly recall how Mtv used to play, you know, music on the tv and lament the programming shift brought on in the 00’s.  But think about it and be honest with yourself, if Mtv stayed with the programming model of airing music videos at least 12 hours of every day, you wouldn’t watch.  No one would.  I’ve watched 5 or 6 music videos on Youtube while writing this piece alone.  If I had to choose between waiting for my favorite video to definitely maybe air on Mtv, or definitely watching that video within seconds on the interwebs, I’d choose interwebs every time and you would too.  So, I guess you’re forgiven for Super Sweet 16 and The Hills, Mtv.  This does not, however, excuse you for the Harbinger of the Apocalypse that is Jersey Shore.  And, seriously, can we bring back the “Adult-Swim-before-Adult-Swim” that was Mtv’s Oddities?  Alright, back to the show.)  After 9/11, Green Day shifted.  American Idiot featured a more somber tone (like the Chili Peppers), and a more serious message, even if the title track is vintage Green Day.  Wake Me Up When September Ends spoke to a nation sick of remembering the pain of September 11th and the anger that carried us into war shortly after.  It helped us to begin moving on and stands as the one mainstream folk song of this generation’s defining moment.  Unfortunately, Green Day hasn’t moved on from their moving on song.  Wake Me Up When September Ends became the sound Green Day would go with for the remainder of the decade, totally abandoning the don’t-give-a-shit punk sound that made them famous in the first place.

If you would have told 1995 me that Green Day would be all serious all the time and The Red Hot Chili Peppers wouldn’t be funky in ten years, first I’d ask if 2005 me is playing in the NBA yet (No.), and then I’d say you were crazy.  How could a band abandon the very sound that sets it apart from the rest?  In fact, it happens all the time.  No Doubt used to be a ska band.  Outkast used to be among the most prototypical of southern rap.  Hell, the Beatles went from bubblegum pop (I Wanna Hold Your Hand) to their rock phase (Come Together) to their trippy hippie phase (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds), and they were only together for ten years!  Musicians change their sound all the time.

Maybe my disappointment comes not from nostalgia for these bands, but the times they represented.  My personality comes in large part from the seeds planted by the pop culture of the 90’s.  We weren’t as angry.  We had no defining moment with which to base our entire artistic point of view (unless you count the AIDS epidemic that seemed to shape the first half of the 90’s).  We were just kids who were more bored than anything else.  Septemeber 11th and the internet and cell phones and two endless wars and cameras everywhere all the time weren’t the reality.  Music was more about the introspections of slackers and stoners.  Maybe I’m not ready for my slacker-youth bands to grow up because it signals my own growing up getting older.

Don’t Stop [Cut to Black]: A Defense of the Ambiguous Ending

On June 10, 2007, Tony Soprano died (probably).  At least, that’s my interpretation of the series-ending moments and sudden cut to black before the credits.  The fact of the matter is, the ending was received and interpreted in a variety of ways.  Perhaps the show ended just as Tony’s daughter,  Meadow, entered the restaurant, signifying the moment we had been waiting for since the premiere, wherein Tony’s family finally comes back to him (like the ducks).  Maybe it was just David Chase messing with us. (The least likely explanation.  Why would the man want the memory of his legacy-defining creation to be that the final moment was an “eff-you” to the audience?)  In any event, if you watched Sopranos enough to “like” it on facebook, you no doubt were forced to decide once and for all how you felt about the show in its dénouement.

It seems that more and more stories, whether they be books, films, or television series, have opted for the ambiguous ending.  In some cases, this ambiguous ending is the cynical route.  (If we never show the protagonist dying, it leaves us open for a sequel!)  In others, this is the effect of misguided narratives running on concepts or characters not strong enough to carry through to any satisfying ending, like those Saturday Night Live sketches about the weird lady who works the register at Target.  There are the afforementioned Sopranos-esque ambiguous endings, wherein the author has given you everything you need to understand the events that transpire short of just showing you the event transpiring.  Finally, there are the endings that only seem ambiguous because the action hasn’t ended even though the story has. (Memento, Inception, No Country For Old Men) Anyone who’s taken an English class in the past 20 years has heard someone say “I think it’s left open for interpretation”, which may be true in about 5% of all written works, but has now become a crutch (Read: cop out) for people who don’t want to do the heavy lifting of thinking critically about the material.

There is overwhelming evidence that suggests Tony Soprano met his demise in the final moment of The Sopranos (The Man in the Members Only jacket suspiciously walking into the restroom ala Michael Corleone, Tony being startled twice from behind in the final episode as a foreshadowing to his vulnerability to an attack from behind him, Tony remembering his conversation with Bobby about how you probably don’t even hear it coming when you get shot, the list goes on), yet people still needed to see Tony’s bloody corpse to believe this was the case.  In fact, this is the only support to the “Tony isn’t dead” theory.  This is entirely valid and understandable, but not seeing Tony’s death doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. (Was that a triple negative? You’re damn right it was.)  The fact is, David Chase had a definitive ending in mind when he wrote and directed the final episode, and he supports it with mounds of hints and clues along the way.  That the clues weren’t clear enough is a fair criticism.  That the ending is open to interpretation is not.  (Of course, this can quickly turn into the cynical type of ambiguous ending should David Chase ever decide to write a Sopranos movie.  This is all based solely on the idea that the cut to black is the final moment in the Sopranos canon.)

More interesting are the endings that seem ambiguous because the action hasn’t stopped even though the story has.  The best case of this type of ending in recent years is the film Inception.  The film’s final moment shows Cobb, Leo DiCaprio’s character, spinning his top hoping it will stop spinning and he’ll know his dream of seeing his children again is at last a reality.  When he hears his children’s voices, he steps away from the spinning top and goes to them.  The camera stays on the top as it continues spinning, starts wavering, and, just when it’s about to fall (or about to keep spinning longer than would be naturally allowed by the laws of physics) the film ends.  In this case, there is no definitive clue one way or the other letting us know what’s real and what isn’t.  You could defend your argument equally well whether you believed the whole movie was a dream, only the second half of the movie was a dream, or everything was real or dream as the characters told us it was.  In fact, I’d encourage you to watch the film three separate times with either of these beliefs in mind.  You’d find that the film is grey enough to support all arguments.  Then why doesn’t that count as a cop out?  Because figuring out whether or not the film is all a dream sequence isn’t the point of the film.  When Cobb abandons the spinning top to be with his kids, the story is over.  Cobb’s arc has come around from a man who was very strict with the rules of dream invasions so as to always keep his grip on reality, to a man who didn’t care if he was dreaming anymore, so long as he was happy (with his children).  Story over, the end.  Interpretation of the setting of the final scene is left to you, but you cannot argue the meaning of it.

No Country For Old Men, both the book and the film, also seems to end on strange terms.  The climactic shootout between Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem’s characters, one that the whole film had been leading up to, happens off screen.  Bummer.  After that, the movie sort of dwells on Tommy Lee Jones’ character, scoping out the crime scene, being too afraid to enter the hotel room, and retiring.  The final moments of the film show the him recounting two dreams he’d had the night before.  Both dreams involve his (deceased) father in some capacity, and one of them is about he and his father traveling by horse on a mountain trail, his father pushing ahead of him to set up camp and wait for him there.  Of the three or four major themes running throughout No Country For Old Men is the idea that “you can’t stop what’s coming (death).”  The sheriff’s dreams reflect just that.  The sheriff knows he’s getting older and, in an attempt to stop what’s coming, he’s retired from the force.  He won’t die for a world he no longer understands.  That we never see what happens to the villain is irrelevant.  The sheriff’s story is done.

The very point of art is that the artist has something he has to say to the world.  What are the odds anyone’s message would be “What do you think I have to say?”  We live in a “let’s give all the kids a trophy” age of self-esteem over actual accomplishment.  Everyone’s so afraid of hurting a kid’s feelings that we won’t tell them they’re not thinking critically enough.  This has led to my generation and those after me to feel every work of art has been left open for his or her interpretation, that there is no wrong answer.  Bullshit.

There Won’t Be Another L O S T (until the next one)

I miss Jack.  I miss Sawyer and Hurley, Desmond and Ben.  I miss Locke.  I don’t miss Kate.  I miss the Numbers and the polar bear and the Smoke Monster.  I miss the mythology of L O S T as much as I miss the characters.  Every time I start moving on from losing one of the greatest network shows ever, I get reminded of its greatness by all of the terrible, cynical imitations the networks throw at us every 4 to 8 months.  Persons Unknown. The Event.  Flash Forward.  Heroes. (Yes, Heroes counts.  It debuted the season after L O S T.)  These (and I’m sure other, more forgettable) programs have taught me what made L O S T work. (Hint: it has nothing to do with the statue having four toes.)

Television, like the NFL, is a copy cat league.  If one show about vampires gets its 15 minutes of fame (or an NFL team wins 16 games based on a new offensive idea), guess what you can expect the networks to trot out next season. (True Blood begot Vampire Diaries, the much less successful The Gates, and is at least partially responsible for Mtv’s “why does this even share the same name with…?” Teen Wolf.)  This fall, NBC’s got a show set in the sixties about the Playboy Club, while ABC’s got one set in the sixties about Pan Am (which is cleverly titled, wait for it, Pan Am).  I’m sure this coincidence has nothing to do with the critical acclaim of a little indie program you may have heard of called Mad Men, a show in which the sixties is as much a theme as it is a character as central to the story as Don Draper himself.

But is it the very act of copying another show’s formula that makes the replica worse?  The answer is a resounding “yes and no.”  If the creators of Pan Am sat in a room and said, “Mad Men‘s set in the sixties.  We need a show set in the sixties.”, that show is doomed before it even started.  That only serves to copy the show’s “hook” rather than the show’s essence.  A good hook in and of itself isn’t enough to sustain a full 23 episode season.  Mad Men is set in the sixties, but that’s not why it’s good.  Likewise, mystery and mythology is not what set L O S T apart from the rest.

Benjamin Linus is one of the most dastardly, sinister villains in the history of television… and by the end of the show’s run, we pitied him (even liked him).  He ranks among the most complex characters ever.  John Locke has one of the most fascinating character arcs ever presented on network tv. (From wheelchair-bound toy store employee to evil yet sympathetic demigod. True story.)  Even the vanilla-by-comparison Jack dealt with his own demons (substance abuse, undead father walking around on the island).  L O S T was more than numbers and hatches.  It was about characters.  Somehow, the fine folks at ABC and NBC (And from what I hear about The Killing, AMC) overlooked characters and character development when creating their knock-off versions of it.

In Persons Unknown, the characters literally spell out which cardboard archetypes they each fulfill. (This is not an exact quote, but the dialogue was literally along the lines of: “What do I know?  I’m just a bratty socialite.”)  By the third episode (once I’d realized there would be no attempt to flesh out these characters), I no longer cared.  At that point, the only thing driving the story were the seemingly unanswerable mysteries.  I’ll admit, I watched another three episodes based solely on trying to figure out the big pay off.  But without characters and relationships that I could buy into and invest in, the contrived, sometimes (Read: every time) ridiculous twists and turns held no weight.  L O S T was about a bunch of castaways on a ever-moving, all-healing, wired for time-travel island.  One time an atomic bomb exploded on it.  These are ridiculous plot points and concepts, but they were just the scenery on the ride.  It was always the characters and relationships that were driving L O S T.

Trying to synthesize the next L O S T in a lab is a pointless endeavor.   After all, by the logic of network execs, wouldn’t L O S T itself have to come from some other idea?  The show was an original, which is why whatever takes its place will be nothing like it.  The next L O S T will most likely not be set on an island. It probably will not be centered around a rag-tag group of flawed saints and sympathetic miscreants thrust together in a cryptic, dire situation. (I’m talking to you, The Walking Dead.)  Trying to figure out the mystery at hand will not be the driving force of every moment of every 42-minute (when you take out commercials) episode, even at the expense of developing relatable (likable) characters. (Cough cough, Flash Forward.  Excuse me.  Something in my throat.)

The next L O S T is going to be from somewhere we never saw coming, just like the Original.

The Death of the American Sports Hero

The generation before mine knows exactly where they were when they heard Kennedy was shot.  The media tells me I should remember where I was when Princess Di…um, died.  I’ll never forget where I was when Michael Jordan announced his [first] comeback.  It was by fax.

In what would seem minimalist even by today’s 140-characters-or-less age, MJ sent a fax to the press that read, simply, “I’m back.” (That’s 9 characters, by the way.)  It took 9 characters for the city of Chicago, as I remember it, to go ape-shit.  Cars veered over to the sides of the roads.  Total strangers danced and high-fived each other in the streets like MJ’s fax had just slain the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.  The news interrupted whatever the hell eleven-year old me was watching that day (Probably X-Men but possibly a rerun of Small Wonder.  Fox had this weird Saturday morning lineup that went from pretty great cartoons to American Gladiators to reruns of Family Ties, Small Wonder, and Mr. Belvedere.)  My mother worked Saturdays (She worked every day that ends in a “Y.”), and my brother was at his ice skating class, which left me home alone.  When my father and brother came home, we each oozed with the excitement that only comes on Christmas morning or when Daniel-san got into crane position. (No, wait, I was definitely watching NBC’s tween lineup of Saved by the Bell, California Dreams, and Hang Time.)  What’s intrigued me about that moment as I’ve looked back at it over the years, is that at the time Jordan 9-charactered his way back into the world spotlight, I wasn’t a sports fan.  I couldn’t have told you how many players it takes to field a football team or even what the Bulls’ record had been up to that point that year. So why was the news of Jordan’s triumphant return exciting to me?

Because he was my hero.

Not to get all Andy Rooney, but in my day (I cannot believe I just used those words), there was an air of mystery(even mythology) surrounding our sports heroes.  Of them all, Jordan was the most untouchable.  Simply put, you never believed the Bulls were going to lose so long as MJ was lacing up Nikes.  But it went deeper than that.  As a child, I can’t remember anyone reporting on Jordan’s mammoth gambling addiction.  I don’t recall a single printed word devoted to unearthing his extra-marital affairs.  In fact, the only things we were ever told about MJ just served to reinforce his legend.  He physically scrapped with players who weren’t giving it their all in practice.  He practiced longer hours and pushed himself harder than anyone.  Ever.  He loved his father and his wife and his kids.  For Chicagoans at least, Michael was as close to Superman as you could experience in reality. (The man could fly for Christ’s sake!)  And that’s how we felt.  We had a super-human fighting on our side.  Your side was just going to have to accept losing to the Best That Ever Did It.  I suspect the kids in New York felt similarly about Patrick  Ewing, just as the Hoosier Youth felt about Reggie Miller.

But that era’s over now.

Now, even the kids (Read: “tweens.” Kids younger than 10 still consider cartoon characters to be role models.  Stupid kids.) know that Kobe is an alleged rapist, that Manny Ramirez is a head case, and that T.O. is a douche bag.  They know that LeBron choked in the Finals, that Michael Vick just got out of prison, and that every great power hitter since they were born is most likely juicing.  And how do they know this?  Because the information is being fed to them literally every second they flip on one of the dozen or so ESPNs (remember when the idea of ESPN 8, or, “The Ocho” was a punchline in Dodgeball?).  The 24 hour news cycle has killed the Sports Hero as we used to know it.

Don’t believe me? Quick, let’s play some word association.  Barry Bonds.  Tiger Woods.  Brett Favre.  Lance Armstrong.  In order, I’m willing to bet your answers went something very close to “Steroids, Hoes in Different Area Codes, Sexting, Doping.”  To be fair, two of these transgressions aren’t even against the law, they’re just instances of general douchebaggery.  To take it one step further, I’m not saying  MJ wasn’t guilty of one (or all- yes, even the steroids) of these offenses, just that there wasn’t the same coverage of it.  Oddly enough, the 24-hour news cycle as it stands today owes itself to the grandaddy of sports hero-turned-word association experiments: O.J. Simpson. (Pre-1995, your answer would have been either “Heisman”, “Hall of Fame”, or “Naked Gun.”)

The irony of it is, had MJ come along today he wouldn’t have grabbed the national spotlight in the same way he did because he’d be everywhere.  There’s a certain saturation point that’s just right, and then there’s the “Why is Michael Cera in every movie about a scraggily guy?” over-saturation point.  Jordan would be the nightly lead on Sportscenter for his gambling exploits in Vegas during the regular season, he and his mistresses would be plastered all over the tabloid racks in supermarkets, and he’d still be the world’s greatest pitchman (Also, sadly, Space Jam still happens in this alternate universe, but it stars Spongebob).  We even started to see glimpses of what MJ in the internet age would look like with his mistresses extorting him and his $168 million divorce settlement.  Long story short, Jordan is lucky he came along just before the Deadspin.com era.

It’s sort of like the Presidency.  Did Abraham Lincoln bang an intern in the Himself Bedroom?  Maybe.  Would said intern have been able to tweet about it later? Doubtful, unless she owned a DeLorean.  We used to be satisfied building up our heroes.  Now the process isn’t complete until we’ve torn them down.  (Maybe this is why sports movies suck nowadays.  They all follow the Rocky paradigm when they should be following Goodfellas.)

I suppose the bright side to all of this is that we love a redemption story even more than the fallen hero story.  If LeBron, say, loses Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to injuries for a season, and manages to win the title by putting the Juwan Howard All-Stars on his back and carrying them there, all will be forgiven.  Likewise, should Michael Vick run into a burning kennel and mouth-to-mouth a labradoodle back to life, no one will remember him as the Heinrich Himmler of the canine community.  But, we may still have to suffer something along the lines of a “man CPRin dogz like crazy n ths b” tweet flashing across ESPN 12’s crawl at the bottom of the screen.  It’s no “I’m back,” but then again, that was a different Michael.