Thursday, December 20, 2007

“Duel” and “Clash of the Choirs” Give a Taste of What a Writerless 2008 Will Look Like

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

ABC and NBC have decided to give us a taste this week of what January will look like without writers. Based on “Duel” and “Clash of the Choirs,” you can count on seeing a lot of ordinary people dancing, singing, or trying to win money (or some combination thereof).

On Monday, ABC launched a weeklong run of “Duel,” a new game show hosted by sports anchor Mike Greenberg (best known as half of the radio/ESPN2 morning sports gabber “Mike and Mike in the Morning”). The four top players will return on Sunday night to vie for a jackpot of more than (cue the Dr. Evil voice) one million dollars.

After watching the first three episodes of “Duel,” I came to the conclusion that the show was conceived as the anti-“Deal or No Deal.” That is, whereas “Deal” is often viewed as being mindless, “Duel” might be the most complicated game show in the history of television (not that there’s anything wrong with it, as the cast of “Seinfeld” would say). Seriously, running down the rules could take up an entire article in itself, so, if you really want to know the details, visit the program’s official website. In a nutshell, two contestants go head-to-head, not only answering multiple choice questions, but also managing their $5,000 chips based on how many choices they cover to a question, all while deciding when to “press” their opponent (that is, making them decide in seven seconds what to do). The winner plays on, the loser goes home (unless he/she is in one of the top-four places at the end of the week).

“Duel” combines the trivia aspect of shows like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “Jeopardy” with the strategy of games like “Deal or No Deal.” In a network landscape where we are asked if we’re smarter than a fifth grader, “Duel” asks us if we’re smarter than a belly dancer with a 4.0 grade point average or a self-described hillbilly with a photographic memory, while also maintaining the strategy skills of a chess master or Texas Hold’em champion.

While the dramatic lighting and sound effects, hyperbolic scene-setting by the host, and suspense-inducing commercial breaks are painfully familiar to anyone who has watched a game show in the last five years, the strategy aspect of the game is truly unique and really gives the program a lift. Where shows like “Millionaire” and “Deal” rely on the drama of whether or not the contestant will win (or blow) a lot of money, “Duel” has the added aspect of competition. You often find yourself rooting for one player or the other. When someone experiences a tough loss after a well-contested game, you feel like you’ve just watched a 1-0 pitcher’s duel in baseball or a five-set match in tennis (on a smaller scale, of course).

The added strategy aspect of the game allows the producers to use different types of questions, since, given the players’ ability to cover more than one response, there is no harm in the producers offering a question for which neither contestant is likely to know the answer. I would break down the queries into three categories: Those you should know (e.g. the number of nights of Hanukkah added to the number of Santa’s reindeer, including Rudolph), those you might know (e.g. which clothing designer is the mother of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper), and those you couldn’t possibly know (e.g. from how many feet away can a mosquito sense a human’s presence).

The producers also seem to have a different agenda than most game shows in selecting players, in that part of the game is openly about bursting stereotypes. If a contestant wins a duel, he/she then selects one of three randomly selected individuals from the player pool as his/her next foe. The only pieces of information provided on the candidates are their names, ages, hometowns and occupations. But, in every case, the person is not who they seem to be. As I mentioned, for example, the platinum-blonde belly dancing bombshell is an honor student in college and the used care salesman from rural Kentucky has a photographic memory. Similarly, the stay-at-home mom has a Mensa-level IQ (she resigned from the organization, wondering why she should pay money to be around other smart people), the mountainesque African-American high school football star is a verbally gifted telemarketer with a love of “Grease” and “Dirty Dancing,” and the rocker dude (who looks like the result of a science experiment combining the DNA of Johnny Ramone and Steve Perry) played baseball for eight years.

I find the show’s gimmick of referring to the contestants by their occupations rather than their names entertaining. (e.g. “If the answer is Minnesota, the used car salesman wins the duel, but if the answer is Maine, then the belly dancer will play on.”) Europeans often say that Americans are obsessed with their careers and define the people they meet by their jobs. “Duel” will do nothing to dispel that argument. Greenberg’s use of the players’ vocations only serves to reinforce the idea of playing on and dispelling stereotypes.

And while the producers are in no way subtle about it, this kind of sociological experiment in expectations based on appearance does have its appeal. One contestant, a woman from the Bay Area, admitted she was only selecting women to play against in a show of female solidarity, and the only African-American woman in the contestant pool, after winning a duel, didn’t try to hide that she was selecting the only other African-American contestant because he was “her brother.” Even more interesting was watching people exercise their biases in choosing opponents. Flying in the face of the traditional ageism of television, several contestants respected (feared, actually) their elders, zeroing in on the youngest available candidate. And there was no doubt that white males in intellectual professions (e.g. software developer, children’s author) or positions of authority (e.g. military officer, fire captain) were avoided like the plague, with each being passed over multiple times. The whole concept of selecting one’s opponent is just another little addition to the formula that makes “Duel” interesting television.

Even the host sets “Duel” apart. Rather than going for a comic (like Howie Mandel, Drew Carey, Bog Saget, et al) as so many game shows do, or a bland television “personality” (another word, apparently, for someone with no discernible talent aside from looking hip and not blowing lines, such as Ryan Seacrest or Dominic Bowden) as many reality shows do, “Duel” went for a sports anchor and radio host with experience filling hours of airtime. Why was the choice so smart? Because the game is so complicated, the host has to be part master of ceremonies and part craps croupier, as well-versed with the complicated strategies and betting rules of the contest as with the camera cues, player introductions, and faux dramatic narration. Greenberg is certainly up to the task. While he is forced to stifle much of the sly wit he demonstrates in his morning radio show banter with Mike Golic, he flawlessly keeps the proceedings moving, both with the players and the game itself. He seems to be the perfect master of ceremonies for a game that can lean towards wonkishness (again, not that there’s anything wrong with it).

If the ratings are strong this week, it seems like a no-brainer that ABC will order more episodes for next year. If that’s the case, “Duel” will make a nice addition to the post-strike schedule.

Meanwhile, over at NBC, the network started Monday with a four-night run of “Clash of the Choirs,” another program that will undoubtedly return next year if the ratings warrant it. “Clash” takes five past-it singers and sends them back to their home towns to assemble a 20-person choir (Nick Lachey in Cincinnati; Michael Bolton in New Haven, Conn.; Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child in Houston; Blake Shelton in Oklahoma City; and Patti LaBelle in Philadelphia). The teams then reconvened in New York to perform on live television. The winning group gets a six-figure donation to the charity it is representing.

As I watched the two-hour premiere of “Clash,” it occurred to me that this was truly the quintessential amalgamation of the reality shows that have dominated the first decade of the 21st century. It slavishly follows the “American Idol” playbook, showing auditions (some great, some terrible), featuring live performances, providing a panel of judges to analyze the recitals, letting audiences vote, and then dropping low-rated contestants. The producers then sprinkled in some “Survivor” moments, showing the celebrity singers going through the process of assembling the choirs in only two weeks. They then added the secret “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” ingredient and gave each team a sob story. Finally, they applied the jumble of formulas to a new setting, in this case choirs, which is a kind of wacky and inspired choice, as far as these kinds of shows go.

“Clash” is certainly a feel-good entry on this well-trodden ground. There are no Simon Cowell-style harsh criticisms anywhere to be found. In fact, the judges are not outsiders. The panel consists solely of the other celebrity singers. Where some producers would go for cattiness, egging on the competitors to take swipes at each other, “Clash” is one big back-patting exercise. The five leaders bent over backwards to do nothing but praise the performances (literally in the case of Shelton, who did the “we’re not worthy” bow after LaBelle’s choir performed).

Does it work? Well, if you don’t like “Idol” and/or “Extreme Makeover,” it’s unlikely that “Clash” is your cup of tea. But for those who enjoy the singing and the sob stories, “Clash” is certainly good television.

For one thing, when the five leaders praise the other groups, they’re right. Considering that the performances are live, and that the rehearsal time was limited, it’s actually pretty impressive how tight and professional the choirs are.

And the behind-the-scenes, making-of material manages to mix in some truly entertaining moments with the sea of “Extreme Makeover” tales of tragedy (Lachey’s team has a father and daughter whose wife/mother is suffering form cancer, Rowland selects a woman who lost everything but her iPod in Hurricane Katrina, you get the idea). My favorite segment was LaBelle’s trip to Philadelphia. She is touched when the long line of aspiring singers serenades her with “Lady Marmalade,” but by the time the auditions start, she gets more and more fed up as performer after performer launches into the song, until she finally can’t take it anymore and stops a woman mid-performance and tells her to sing something else. Similarly, Bolton seems taken aback that so many of the singers chose his songs for their tryouts. He notes that it takes guts to sing an artist’s hit to him. Watching Bolton and LaBelle, you couldn’t help thinking that every artist probably has to live with fans singing their favorite hits to them, whether it’s in a restaurant or (heaven help them) on an airplane. It was observant and made for good television.

For what it’s trying to be, “Clash” certainly works. My quibbles are actually quite few. Mainly, I think the show was afraid to really embrace the idea of a “choir.” The first four groups to perform chose pop songs and added Broadway-like choreography, making me feel like it was more a battle of theater companies than a clash of choirs. The point was driven home when LaBelle’s team went last and stole the show, basically nailing “He's Got the Whole World in His Hands” with minimal dancing (mainly hand gestures while moving in place). It was, to me, what a choir should be. In his critique, Lachey said he felt like he was going to see a collection plate coming down the aisle during the performance. I thought to myself, “That’s what a choir is, Nick.” I like songs by Tom Cochrane (Shelton’s group) and Bon Jovi (Lachey’s outfit) as much as the next guy, but it just seemed like on a show about choirs, I wanted to see, well, choir music. And LaBelle certainly delivered that.

After the first episode, the performances of the groups move front and center, and the behind-the-scenes footage becomes less prominent, and I suspect the audience, well-trained on these kinds of shows, from “Idol” to “The Next Great American Band,” will be up for the ride, especially since the choirs are so good. I’m not sure “Choir” will attract the kind of rabid audience “Dancing With the Stars” does, but I’m sure it will do fine.

This week let us peek into what 2008 will be like without the striking writers. While game shows like “Duel” and reality shows like “Clash of the Choirs” don’t come close to filling the gap left by the lack of new episodes of “30 Rock,” “The Office,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Pushing Daisies” and other great scripted shows, they certainly beat the likes of “Wife Swap” and “Dance War: Bruno v. Carrie Ann” that the networks are about to unleash on us. And besides, I’m in favor of any show that can make one of the “Mike and Mike” Mikes into a prime-time star.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Mitchell Report Is Useless, Aside From Providing Some Tabloid Thrills

I was at a Yankees-Angels game on August 21 when utility infielder Wilson Betemit crushed a three-run home run to right field in the ninth inning. On its face, that sounds like something exciting. The thing is, the Yankees were losing 18-5 at the time and the Angels pitcher was a 29-year-old guy making his second major league appearance (he would finish the year with three).

That Betemit home run is the perfect metaphor for the report on the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) released by Sen. George Mitchell on Thursday.

Having trouble making the leap? It's not as crazy as it sounds. In theory, a ninth inning, three-run homer is going to be newsworthy, but when you look at the context of the blast, it quickly becomes apparent that the dinger was, in fact, an A Rod special (meaningless; a home run hit well after the outcome of the game was in doubt, and if you think I'm just being mean, consider that in that game, two batters later, A Rod hit a home run to give the Yanks their final run in a dismal 18-9 loss).

Similarly, it would seem that a report that details the alleged use of PEDs by more than 80 players, including potential Hall-of-Famers like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, as well as All-Stars like Miguel Tejada and Andy Pettitte, is a big deal, something worthy of the round-the-clock three days of coverage accorded the story by the ESPN networks (it took the NFL games on Sunday to knock it off the air). But, put in perspective, the report was as meaningless as Betemit's ninth inning home run.

Let's think about what was obvious the minute before the Mitchell report was released. We knew PEDs had been present, even widespread, since the late 1980s, something all but confirmed by Mark McGwire's limp "I only want to talk about the future" testimony to Congress in March 2005. It would stretch belief to think that the owners and management of the teams were blind to the goings on of its players, especially when you consider how baseball was in big trouble after labor unrest canceled the 1994 post-season, and how the 1998 assault on Roger Maris's single-season home run record by McGwire and Sammy Sosa helped energize the sport. It was also common knowledge that the Major League Baseball Players Association, led by Donald "I'd Cover Up a Murder Committed by a Player" Fehr, did everything in its power to prevent and/or limit the testing of players for PEDs.

If Congress hadn't put pressure on Major League Baseball, it's possible that there would be virtually no testing for PEDs today, or, at the very least, the number of tests and lengths of suspensions would be far lower.

In short, we knew the players were doing it, we knew the union was protecting them, and we knew the teams knew about it and looked the other way to make money.

To be relevant, a report on the use of PEDs would have to delve deeper into those subjects, provide a detailed history of the obstructionism of the teams and the union, give a broad analysis of the culture in the locker room and how it led to widespread use of PEDs, and/or uncover a majority of the players who used PEDs over the last 20 years.

The Mitchell report did none of that.

In Mitchell's defense, exactly two active players spoke to him: Jason Giambi, only because he was forced to by Commissioner Bud Selig after he tacitly admitted using steroids in USA Today, and Frank Thomas, because he likes telling people he doesn't do steroids. That's it. No other active players talked to Mitchell. Think it has anything to do with Fehr telling them they didn't have to? Because of Fehr's stonewalling of the investigation, you can give Mitchell a pass for not doing a better job of analyzing the players' side of the issue.

But what about the teams? Club employees were forced by their employers to talk with Mitchell's investigators. Presumably, Mitchell's research into the "look away, they're making us money" culture relating to steroids could have really been probed and uncovered in the report. But if you look at the report's table of contents, you quickly see that while Mitchell outlined the history of steroids use, there is almost no examination of how the teams were actively complicit.

Sure, he concludes that the clubs didn't do enough to combat the use of PEDs, but Mitchell added virtually nothing to the issue that wasn't universally known the day his report was released.

[As an aside, Mitchell does issue a bunch of recommendations for how baseball can move forward and combat the use of PEDs, but we didn't need a 20 1/2 investigation to come up with that list. Much of what he suggests has been out there for years. So long as Fehr and the MLBPA do not cooperate, all the proposals in the world won't mean a thing. Mitchell's suggestions, in the end, don't justify the report.]

Which leaves us with the naming of names. Nowhere is the Betemit analogy more appropriate than in Mitchell's decision to list the 80 current or former layers that allegedly used PEDs.

Don't get me wrong: I think any player who uses PEDs does so at his own risk and should not be protected. I'm not in favor of providing cover to guys illegally trying to get an edge. But the randomness of how these 80 plus players were identified is troubling. First of all, while the report shows copies of checks for some of the guys mentioned as users, other accusations are based solely on the testimony of one person speaking to Mitchell's team. While the players chose not to speak to Mitchell, they were not given a chance to specifically respond to accusations that they used PEDs. The whole thing feels wrong to me, a little too much like players named by Mitchell's star chamber-like team had no recourse. And while I have no doubt nearly all (if not all) of the players who found their way into the report have a good reason to be there, if even one is on the list unfairly, it taints the entire decision to name names.

Even more importantly, the guys busted by Mitchell come from an exceptionally limited number of sources. Essentially, if a player obtained PEDs in one of three ways, there was a good chance he was ending up in Mitchell's report: Via former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, from an Internet pharmacy in Orlando investigated by the Albany, N.Y. district attorney's office, or from BALCO, the Bay Area supplier at the center of the federal investigation that swept up Marion Jones and Barry Bonds, among others. But if a player got his PEDs from slimy characters hanging around the other 29 teams' locker rooms, a different Internet distributor, or a supplier from outside of the game, he was safe. How safe and useful does that sound?

Nobody, not even Mitchell, believes that these three sources of PEDs represented the bulk of sales to players. Just the opposite. It is widely believed that Radomski, Balco and the Orlando pharmacy were just the tip of the iceberg. So other than the roadside-wreck curiosity of pointing to alleged users, what was the point of naming a narrow, limited set of names? The very fact that the players named were drawn from three sources only underscores the utter failure of the investigation.

If you go back to why the report was commissioned in the first place, the thinking was that it would uncover what happened in the past so baseball could move forward into the future. Does anyone really think that goal was accomplished? The report didn't reveal anything of substance, merely stating conclusions we were already well-known, and it certainly didn't provide any closure, since there are now more questions than answers.

Maybe the process was doomed from the start. After all, to come up with an independent report on the use of PEDs in baseball, Selig chose Mitchell, who is on the Board of Directors of the Boston Red Sox. Nobody has suggested that Mitchell misused his power as an investigator to benefit his club, but the appearance of bias is inescapable. A less ethical man could have leaked to the Sox if a player the team was considering had done PEDs or, even worse, avoided mentioning current members of the club in the report. The process would have gotten off to a better start if the person chosen to conduct an independent investigation was, in fact, actually independent.

In the end, the Mitchell report plunged baseball's dirty laundry into the media without shining any real light on the underlying problem So, in the end, it has to be branded as a huge failure.

Will baseball save itself from its "steroid era" and move on? Probably, but it won't be because of Mitchell's investigation. The only thing that would have made my Betemit analogy work better would have been if Betemit himself appeared on Mitchell's list of users of PEDs. Then again, we don't know if Betemit has ever used PEDs, only that he didn't get them from one of three places. After 20 1/2 months and millions of dollars, that's all we can determine, which says everything you need to know about the importance of the report.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Strike Causes Me to Revisit "Deal or No Deal" and "According to Jim"

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

The writers strike is finally having an impact on the prime time television schedule. Many shows are out of new episodes to air, and the networks aren’t rolling out a lot of their midseason replacements until January. What is a viewer to do? Some might say, “Read a book,” but, come on, get serious. I write a television column. The TV fix has to be satisfied somehow.

Which led me to the conclusion that it was time to give a chance to shows that many have dismissed in the past as being, well, crap. I decided to visit two ends of that spectrum, laying fresh eyes on a show I occasionally catch as a guilty pleasure, “Deal or No Deal” (NBC, Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m. Eastern), and a sitcom that has been the living, breathing embodiment of bad television, “According to Jim” (ABC, Tuesday nights at 9:00 p.m. Eastern).

“Deal” has taken a lot of crap for being a symbol of idiocy on television. Unlike “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” or “Jeopardy,” “Deal” contestants don’t have to answer any questions. As the argument goes, there is no skill in playing “Deal,” since the contestants just pick numbers. I think that charge is unfair.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that you have to be the bastard child of Marie Curie and Mister Rogers to succeed on “Deal.” But to say the contestants are “just picking numbers” ignores the element of the show that you have to decide when to stop playing. Think of a game like Texas Hold’em. There are no cards to play, and the only decisions a player makes are whether to stay in the game and how much to bet. I look at “Deal” as the kids version of Texas Hold’em.

In case you’ve somehow avoided this omnipresent program over the last couple of years, the rules are pretty simple. A contestant picks one of 26 cases (each one held by a model), which contain dollar amounts ranging from one cent to one million dollars. That case now belongs to the player, who then proceeds to have the models reveal the contents of more cases until, at different points in the game, the unseen banker offers to buy the contestant’s case for a sum of money. After each offer, host Howie Mandel asks, “Deal, or no deal?”, meaning, Does the contestant want to take the money offered by the banker or keep on playing? After each offer, the number of cases the player has to open before the next offer decreases, starting with six and dropping by one each subsequent time. So, yes, as far as the game goes, people are just picking numbers. But the game lies in knowing when to take the banker’s offer and when to play on.

The reason why “Deal” is so successful, I think, comes down to two, separate, intertwined and equally necessary elements: First, the game does have inherent tension. When you watch as someone decides whether to turn down tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to try and win even more, you can’t help but be nervous. I think viewers can’t avoid putting themselves in the players’ shoes. Would I have the guts to keep going? Does it make sense to keep going? How do you say no to a lot of money, knowing that one bad case opening can doom you to a much smaller offer? Even if it is against your better judgment, you can’t help but get sucked into the action.

One reason I enjoy watching is to see hubris and timidity punished and smart playing rewarded. Players get to bring three friends or relatives with them as an advisory section, but from what I can tell, the job of two of the three supporters is to push their friend or loved one into taking stupid risks (one always seems to be the ignored voice of reason). Too often, it seems like the rooting section brings ridiculous factors into the game, like saying, “You deserve the million dollars.” Sure, so do good school teachers, but if deserving money meant you got it, hedge fund operators would be research scientists. Or, the supporters will say, “You came here with nothing, so you can’t lose if you leave with nothing.” It doesn’t seem to dawn on these folks that when the banker offers a boatload of money, that is real cash in the pocket of the player. If the person comes away with next to nothing, that person has lost a ton. Most of all, instead of looking at the board, analyzing the cases left in play, and determining a smart course of action, the advisers seem to run on emotion. As a result, a disproportionate number of contestants blow large sums of money. Which, of course, makes for compelling television.

The bottom line is that even if we think the player is doing something foolish, we, as an audience, are still sucked in, sweating while waiting to see what is in the case. And on the rare occasions that the person in the spotlight is making smart, reasoned decisions, you are sucked in even more, wanting the player to be rewarded with some big money. Either way, you’re hooked.

The second element in the show’s success is easy to identify: There are 26 attractive women on stage in pretty clothing. The genius of “Deal” is that the models are not presented as passive, unapproachable eye candy meant to be seen and not heard. They appeal to both genders. In fact, it seems like the female contestants often know the models’ names more often than the male ones do. After all, each week the 26 women wear matching gowns and accessories. There is plenty for women watching to discuss and comment on, but in general, the wardrobe tends to be smart and classy while also being sexy. Which, of course, is what most male viewers care about.

Also, the models are part of the action. The contestants universally talk to them as if they control the amount of money that’s in their cases, begging them for the appearance of a low dollar amount (the contents of the cases are loaded before the game by an independent third party, and nobody on stage knows what is in the cases). Mandel regularly announces the name of the model after a contestant chooses a number, and the models often engage in conversations with the contestants. They’re not part of the background, they’re participants in the game.

But the most important factor, I think, in the accessibility of the models. They are not uniformly tall, blonde, pictures of perfection (like, say, on “The Price Is Right”). The women, while nearly universally beautiful, are attractive in a real-life sort of way and look different from each other. There are several African-Americans, Latin-Americans and Asian-Americans; tall women and shorter ones; and blondes, brunettes and redheads. It looks more like a convention of high school cheerleaders than the lobby of the Ford Modeling Agency.

If you’ve caught Howie Mandel’s standup act or suffered through him guest hosting on “Regis and Kelly Live” and you’re saying to yourself now, “I cant’ watch ‘Deal or No Deal’ because Mandel is unwatchable,” your attitude is understandable. But you should know that Madel is fine on the show. “Deal” is like a machine, from the lights to the sound effects to the pacing to the wardrobe to the unseen evil banker to the monochromatic shirts worn by the contestants and their supporters to a billion other visual elements of the show. Mandel is just part of that machine. As a result, he spends most of the time fulfilling his role, dramatically asking “Deal or no deal?”, bantering with the unseen banker or outlining the options for the contestant. Or, put another way, there isn’t a rubber glove being blown up on a head in sight. So while I wouldn’t want to see Mandel in a comedy club or watch him host a talk show, in the context of “Deal,” he is fine.

This week NBC ran a week of “Deal” specials under the theme “What’s the Deal?”, adding twists to the game like letting the television audience see the contents of a chosen case before going to a commercial or spinning a wheel at the end to see if a player’s winnings will be doubled, tripled or halved. A testament to the “Deal” formula is that the new twists kind of bugged me. I like just watching the game unfold. The other stuff seemed superfluous.

Think of “Deal” like a bag of sugary candy: It’s find to treat yourselves over the holidays, but when you finish the bag, it’s time to get back on the straight and narrow. “Deal” can help get you through some of those strike-ravaged weeks, at least until new shows arrive in January.

“Jim,” on the other hand, won’t get you through anything. It is the kind of offering that can make you wonder if you should even be watching television at all. Returning for its seventh season soon (yes, believe it or not, this sitcom has a cockroach-like ability to survive despite being the focus of such disgust), ABC thought it would be a good idea to whet our palates with some reruns from last season. So, at 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday, we were treated to last year’s season finale, in which Jim (Jim Belushi, and by the way, I have to give him credit for something, but at least he allows Ashlee Simpson, Eli Manning and Eric Roberts to feel like they’re not the lamest siblings in the public eye), well, does what he does in every other episode of the show: pisses off his pretty wife, Cheryl (Courtney Thorne-Smith, who must spend every waking moment telling herself she used to be on “Melrose Place” and “Ally McBeal”); banters with his idiot, Drew Carey-knock-off buddy, Andy (Larry Joe Campbell); and makes a fool of himself before reconciling with Cheryl in the end.

What? You want plot specifics? Really? Fine. Jim doesn’t want to go to the co-ed baby shower for Cheryl’s sister, Dana (Kimberly Williams-Paisley, who must spend every waking moment telling herself that she shared a movie screen with Diane Keaton and Steve Martin in the “Father of the Bride” films). Through a case of mistaken identity, he ends up on the fakest looking talk show in television history (I’m sure it’s happened to you a bunch of times), and before you know it, he is espousing all his theories on the importance of being a “flannelsexual,” his term for a guy’s guy. In the end, Cheryl convinces him to go to the party. Big deal.

It’s not the plots, per se, that make “Jim” such a horrendous half hour of television (not that anyone will confuse the writing with “The Usual Suspects”), but it commits three sins that make it unwatchable: It’s not funny, it is so far from reality (even for a sitcom) that you are distracted, and it has a bad, almost creepy, vibe to it.

Let’s start with the humor. The episode’s opening before-the-credits scene was an amateurish, painful-to-watch attempt at nearly dialogue-free humor, involving Jim trying to eat a snack and drink a beer while watching a game, only to be interrupted before he can take a sip by a phone he can’t reach because he’s trapped under a tray of what appears to be nothing but condiments (even the props are lazy on this show). It made me think about the brilliant opening to a “Frasier” episode in which Niles tried to juggle ironing his pants and cooking something on the stove, leading to him cutting himself, passing out from the sight of his own blood, and burning his pants and the food. The “Frasier” opening was worthy of Buster Keaton. The “Jim” opening wasn’t worthy of David Spade in “Rules of Engagement.” The loud, intrusive and nearly illogical laugh track didn’t help matters, but then again, at least it told you where the writers thought the humor was supposed to be.

Okay, maybe physical humor isn’t the show’s forte. Maybe it’s funny dialogue? Uh, not so much. Unless, of course, you think it’s funny for Jim to respond to Cheryl calling his theories crackpot by saying, “Crackpot? How about genius pot?” Hmm. Maybe Andy’s lines are funnier? Seeing an opportunity to meet girls, he tells Jim, “I’m on an express train to naked town. Next stop, doing it!” Did that slay you? No? Okay, what about kids? Everyone thinks it’s funny when kids speak, right? So it must be funny when Jim’s young son says in a monotone that “nothing brightens up a room like periwinkle.” Don’t you get it? See, if Jim had a gay son, that would be hilarious, right? Oh, no, wait, it’s not funny at all. It’s homophobic and mean-spirited. Right.

Which is a good segue to the really negative tone of the show. There is nothing feel-good about “Jim.” The battle of the sexes is a common sitcom theme, but the reason it works is that banter always masks positive feelings between the main couple, from Ricky and Lucy to Chandler and Monica. But in Jim, there is a malevolence to Jim and Cheryl’s relationship that is really off-putting. At the end, Jim hugs Cheryl, and she pats his back asking him to let her go. He doesn’t stop. She looks aggravated about it and tells him to break the hug. Jim, with a kind of scary look in his eyes, says it’s not a hug, and pushes forward on a reluctant Cheryl as the picture fades to black. I know the writers were thinking it was a “cute” moment, but it played like someone needed to call 911 to prevent a date rape. If there was any less chemistry between Jim and Cheryl, they’d be in comas.

Finally, the show strains reason at every turn. The kids are like table ornaments, only appearing in one scene to remind you that Jim has a family, but absent every other moment in the home. Cheryl seems to do nothing but sit around the house, and Jim seems to work about an hour a day. The biggest problem is that you don’t for a second believe that Cheryl would be married to Jim. Hell, it would be hard to believe that any woman would be consensually married to Jim, let alone a homecoming queen type like Thorne-Smith. Even by sitcom standards, their relationship more than strains credibility, it shatters it into a thousand pieces.

I really had an open mind hoping that “Jim” wasn’t as bad as I remembered. I hoped it might provide, at worst, a laugh or two, and would at least be a benign way to pass half an hour. With sitcoms in a state of decline, it’s like there is added pressure on each one to do its part to keep the genre going. I’m sad to report that not only has “Jim” dropped the baton in this relay race, it’s also kicked it into the crowd and used it to beat a spectator to death. To say “Jim” is a train wreck only serves to slander locomotive crashes.

It should come as no surprise that I support the writers in their strike, so I’m prepared to weather the barren TV landscape their job action has produced. But not by watching “According to Jim.” The weekly ritual of the models saying, in unison, “Hi Howie” when they hit the stage is good for more laughs than you’ll get in an entire episode of “Jim.” Stick with “Deal” until the midseason replacements come around.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

CNN Ignores Three Big Stories to Cover Bush's Scottish Terriers

[NOTE: I also posted this article on If you like it, please go to it here and recommend it, comment on it, etc. Thanks.]

One of CNN's lead stories this morning featured President George W. Bush in the White House. This should not be the least bit surprising, given that news broke yesterday on three key issues facing the country: global warming, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and air travel delays.

But, then again, this is CNN, the network way more interested in Britney's driving record than Bush's war record, so it should come as no surprise that the story the "news" network was leading with was about the Christmas experience of Bush's two Scottish Terriers (you can watch the piece here, just in case you think I'm making this up, although if I wanted to be inventive, I would have chosen something more plausible).

On Monday, I wrote about how Bush was out of touch on global warming and torture, putting the U.S. in a precarious position. And yet, in the last 48 hours, he has made things worse, even if CNN would have you believe that his biggest move during that time was lecturing one of his dogs about sibling rivalry.

On the global warming front, scientists revealed this week that the rate at which the Arctic ice is melting is far worse than even their worst-case estimates had predicted. And we're not talking about some fringe crackpot scientists here. The concerns are coming from U.S. government experts at NASA. An AP article quoted Mark Serreze, a "senior scientist," as saying that "[t]he Arctic is screaming," and NASA climate scientist Jay Zwally as noting, "At this rate, the Arctic Ocean could be nearly ice-free at the end of summer by 2012, much faster than previous predictions." Zwally went on to say: "The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming. Now as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died. It is time to start getting out of the coal mines."

Maybe. But what are the odds of getting out of the coal mine when CNN can't even get out of the White House?

You would think that a dire report like this would cause a stir in the mainstream media, and that there would be a rush to action on the part of the U.S. government? You, of course, would be wrong. The story was barely picked up (as you can tell from the fact that my link is to the Seattle Times). I mean, seriously, how will we be judged as a culture if future generations (assuming any survive) look back and see that CNN didn't cover this frightening report about the future of our planet, but the network was all over the play habits of two dogs in the White House? Won't Bush have to go down as the most foolish leader in the history of mankind, making Nero look like a policy wonk?

There was also news on the war front that seems to have slipped by CNN's notice. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said something that should be shocking to the American people. He casually asserted that Iraq is a higher priority than Afghanistan, noting: "In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must." Have we, as a country, become so amnesic that we no longer remember the last six years and three months of our history? Have we so accepted the Bush administration's explanations of things that we have lost all ability to think for ourselves?

It seems shocking to me that I should have to write this history, but let's review: On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 terrorists hijacked four planes, crashing two of them into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon. More than 3,000 Americans were killed. Ring a bell? If not, download any Rudy Giuliani campaign speech from YouTube and wait for no more than five seconds. He'll tell you about it. Now, the organization that did that to us, Al Qaeda, was based in Afghanistan, where they trained terrorists, and Afghanistan was also where the organization's leader, Osama bin Laden, was based. Bin Laden, is, you may recall, the guy Bush promised we were going to get, dead or alive? (For now, we'll put aside the fact that a majority of the attackers were Saudi, because that would really make the Bush administration squirm.)

So, we went into Afghanistan and cleared out the radical Islamic Taliban that supported Al Qaeda. But before we could finish the job or catch bin Laden, we invaded Iraq. Why? Well, it depends on the calendar, since the explanations changed with the seasons, but it had to do with weapons of mass destruction (that didn't exist), or getting rid of a dictator (we weren't, as promised, welcomed as liberators), or helping a democracy form and flourish (instead we are propping up a government that is unwilling to do the slightest thing to reconcile the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds into any kind of unified country).

To review, Afghanistan supported the organization that attacked us, and Iraq was in no way involved in the 9/11 attacks or giving support to Al Qaeda.

And yet, now, even as a majority of Americans view Iraq as a mistake and the invasion of Afghanistan as proper, the administration is prioritizing Iraq over Afghanistan. This is myopic mania run amok. (I won't even go into the history of the U.S. using Afghanistan for its purposes during the Soviet occupation and then hanging the country out to dry after the Russians retreated.) It's not bad enough that Bush's Iraq obsession will cost the U.S. dearly for years to come, but now he's going to flush the victories in Afghanistan down the toilet, too, in service to his Iraq addiction? I'll bet you W is the worst Risk player ever.

And, again, CNN has passed over this major policy decision for a discussion of Christmas at the White House.

Finally, the New York Times, buried in the Metro section, reported yesterday that in an effort to ease the delays and congestion in the New York airports, the Bush administration has decided to try and limit the number of flights allowed into and out of John F. Kennedy International Airport each day. On the surface, this would appear to be an ideology-free decision, with the White House actually trying to address a more mundane problem ("governing" is another way to put it, something that Bush has demonstrated he likes less than members of Congress who don't do exactly what he demands). But, if you read the fine print, you see that Bush's plan for JFK is an example of same, uh, stuff, different day.

How would you know this? Well, it's the job of journalists to dig deeper into these things. While the Times journalists did their jobs, the newspaper's editors, unfortunately, saw fit to limit the exposure of the story to the Metro section. And CNN? Again, you cannot cover boring stories about airport policies when there are dogs running around the White House! Cute dogs! Jeez, what is wrong with me? I really don't get it, do I? They're dogs. In the White House. With gifts! Doesn't that say it all?

So what's the airport story? Well, in a nutshell, the delays in the three New York airports are the cause of most of the airline delays in the U.S. Your first reaction might be, "Okay, then limit the number of flights." Ah, but if it was only that simple. Last month, New York magazine ran an eye-opening piece about the air congestion problem in New York, complete with detailed analyses of the causes and possible solutions (along with a cheat sheet for consumers on how to limit delays, including a list of the best and worst flights on 10 routes). Suffice to say that the "limit the flights" solution would give rise to a load of other problems and fail to address the true underlying causes of the delays.

Clearly, the writer of the article, Michael Idov, did a lot more research than the Bush administration. Why do I say this? Easy, because the Bush administration looked at the congestion problem and did what it always does. Instead of asking, "How can we fix this problem?", it said, "How can we use this problem as an excuse to impose reactionary privatization policies on an industry while giving as much aid as possible to big corporations." (On October 15, I wrote in more detail about how Bush's policies are revolutionary in their single-minded desire to serve corporations.)

According to the Times article, Bush's solution to the air mess in New York is to limit the flights, and then auction off the routes to the highest bidder. In other words, the White House is putting its purported "free market" economics into practice, while also serving the biggest corporations, since, clearly, the big boys are the ones who will have the resources to secure the routes. (And yet, even the larger airlines are against the plan, taking the position that making them bid on routes they already have amounts to taking their property away.) The article notes that smaller carriers would be effectively driven from the market. The limitation would also lead to higher fares, as competition is decreased (much like on the shuttle routes between New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.; so much for the "free market" Bush pretends to care so much about) and airlines try to recoup the money paid for the rights to the routes.

The article also notes that the what Bush is proposing is untested and ridiculously risky. Or, as Robert Mann, president of R. W. Mann & Company, an airline industry consultant is quoted as saying, "This suggestion that auctions could be used at the New York airports is lunacy,” with the administration relying "on economic and game theory that has no basis in reality, including the actual starting conditions and real world constraints."

In other words, again, Bush is more interested in imposing his ideologies on an industry than governing and solving problems. How has that worked out so far? In Louisiana? The toy industry? Mining safety? Iraq?

You think maybe CNN should have given this issue a little air time, instead of two Scottish Terriers checking out gifts by a Christmas tree? I know, I know. They're dogs. In the White House. With gifts. I understand. Is there a way we can get two Scottish Terriers to express concern about global warming, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the air congestion problems in New York? Because if we could pull that off, CNN would be all over it.

Monday, December 10, 2007

On Torture and Global Warming, Bush Is More Than Just Out of Touch

It's one thing for a president to be out of touch with the realities of his country and the world. It's another thing entirely when that president, through his ostrich-like placement of his head in the sand (I was thinking of another destination for his head, but I decided to take the higher road ...), has destroyed the country's standing in the world.

Two issues have come up in the last week that have demonstrated how far the United States has fallen thanks to the policies of George W. Bush.

Yesterday, in Oslo, Al Gore was given the Nobel Peace Prize for his work educating the world on the dangers of global warming. In his speech, which was greeted warmly by those in attendance, Gore soberly and powerfully laid out the case of the damages caused by CO2 emissions to the ecosystem and the action that needs to be taken to combat these problems, something he has done thousands of times before. Just before the end of his remarks, he said:

"Make no mistake, the next generation will ask us one of two questions. Either they will ask: 'What were you thinking; why didn’t you act?' Or they will ask instead: 'How did you find the moral courage to rise and successfully resolve a crisis that so many said was impossible to solve?'"

I doubt he meant it his way, but I can't help thinking that these are questions that need to be posed to Bush.

A week earlier, a climate conference was held in Bali (say what you want about the global warming crowd, but they certainly know where to hold an event), at which the new Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, reversed his country's course and agreed to sign the Kyoto pact, leaving the United States as the last major industrialized nation not to agree to the treaty. Meanwhile, attendees rejected the Bush plan (technology, private investment and economic growth instead of mandatory emissions cuts) and called on the U.S. to wake up and become a leader in the fight to combat global warming before it's too late.

Essentially, the world has come together and agreed that we are facing a climate crisis, awarded one of the highest prizes possible to the man urging for immediate action on global warming, and yet the President of the United States thinks he knows better. He threatened to veto an energy bill passed by the house that called for mandatory cuts in emissions by 2050 (not exactly rushing things, after all), but was saved when his GOP-mates in the Senate blocked consideration of the bill, keeping the Democrats from getting the 60 votes needed to proceed.

So, on the global warming issue, Bush has turned the country into an ignorant, backwater, third-world country, marching on with our ruinous ways in the face of overwhelming evidence of impending disaster. As I've said before, Bush is a modern-day Nero, fiddling while his empire burns (or in this case, chokes on CO2 gas).

Unfortunately, this was the kind of week where, thanks to Bush, the U.S. didn't even take its worst hits over the climate change issue. Instead, the world got to see how far we've fallen as torture again took a front-and-center position in our government. Last week it was revealed that the CIA had destroyed two videotapes of interrogations of suspected Al-Qaeda operatives. On Sunday, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), appearing on ABC's "This Week," called for a special counsel to be appointed to investigate. Even Republicans, such as House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who oppose the idea of a special counsel being appointed, still support investigations by the Justice Department and the CIA. And what does President Bush have to say about all of this? First, the administration said Bush was never told about the tapes, and now they have stopped discussing the issue in public.

To me, the debate over how to investigate the destruction of the tapes completely misses the point. What this incident shows is how much the Bush administration has destroyed America's place in the world. Thanks to the White House, to the world, the United States is a country that tortures. To be clear, I'm not naive enough to think that the U.S. has never been involved in nefarious activities abroad in the past, whether it was Nicaragua, Chile, or anywhere else. But making the leap from being a country in which bad stuff sometimes happens to a country who as a national policy supports torture (yes, I believe waterboarding is torture, and more importantly, so does the rest of the world, not to mention that subjects of interrogation in "friendly" countries like Egypt that faced far worse during questioning).

For Bush to put the imprimatur of law on interrogations that most of the world would call torture is disgraceful. In one simple decision, the president has reduced the moral standing of the United States in the world. How can we honestly criticize the limitations of rights in places like Russia and China when whoever we criticize can point their fingers back at us and say, "Look who's talking." And, certainly, by condoning torture, Bush has put the troops in the field at risk. Again, if an American soldier is tortured in Iraq or Afghanistan, how can the administration protest? Then again, Bush has shown so little regard for Americans serving in the military, I'm not sure why this issue should be any different.

And it's not like it's just liberals like me who are complaining. Many Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have spoke out on the need for the U.S. to reject torture. In the wake of the revelation about the destruction of the CIA tapes, McCain was quoted as saying, "What this does in a larger sense is it harms the credibility and the moral standing of America in the world again."

What makes this all so sad to me is the long-lasting effects of the White House's actions. Throughout American history, there have been ups and downs as different administrations come to power with different agendas and outlooks on the world. This ebb and flow of power is something that we all have come to accept and recognize as part of the American political system.

But what Bush has done has broken away from this traditional teeter-totter. He has stepped over lines and broken taboos that go to the heart of who we are as a nation. He loves to talk about "freedom," but by allowing sanctioned torture on his watch, he has deviated from hundreds of years of American policy and abdicated any moral leadership claim for the country. It's not like George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, or Richard Nixon sanctioned torture in this way, and they were all Republicans.

When the questioner in Gore's speech asks, "Why didn't you act?", the main response, for the period of 2001 to 2008, will be, "Because we had a president that was stubborn and just got it all wrong." The same answer holds for both sanctioned torture and global warming. And for Iraq and a dozen other important issues that arose during the Bush presidency. The clean-up of the damages caused by Bush's eight years in office will take unbelievable effort, and some of the damage is probably beyond repair. The only positive is that Bush won't be in charge to oversee the work. He would probably send "Brownie" down to run things and tell him what "good work" he's done. Then we would really be in trouble.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

“Underbelly” Makes Itself Too Comfortable in the Mainstream

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

ABC has returned another sitcom to the air, and it’s not “According to Jim” (yet). So that’s two things to celebrate. “Notes From the Underbelly” (ABC Mondays, 9:30 p.m. Eastern), which had an eight-week run in April and May last season, made its way back to the network’s schedule last Monday at 9:30 p.m. in the comfy spot after “Samantha Who?” (which moves to 9:00 p.m. from 9:30 p.m., where it had followed the “Dancing With the Stars” juggernaut).

At first blush, “Samantha” and “Underbelly” appear to be a good match. Both are single-camera half-hour comedies aimed at more “adult” (as in identity, not porn) issues. But where “Samantha” is a truly original, sharply written breath of fresh air (you can read my October 18 review here), “Underbelly,” despite certain surface appearances to the contrary, rehashes ground that has been heavily trod many times before. More importantly, “Underbelly” just isn’t as funny and clever as it could and should be. Which is a shame, since there are some really positive elements in place.

The sitcom follows a group of six friends, two couples and two singles. Lauren and Peter (Jennifer Westfeldt of “Kissing Jessica Stein” and virtual TV newcomer Peter Cambor) are expecting their first baby. Julie and Eric (Melanie Deanne Moore, who you’ll recognize from numerous commercials, and Sunkrish Bala, in his first series lead) are the overprotective parents of newborn baby Perry (who they constantly call “Baby Perry”). Cooper (Rachael Harris, who has guested on a ton of other shows) is a baby-averse, hard-as-nails divorce attorney, and Danny (Michael Weaver, a survivor of the legendarily bad “The Mullets”) is a juvenile goofball.

If that set up of characters feels like you’ve seen it all before, that’s because you have. Cooper and Danny are stock characters that have been present in numerous sitcoms, and they lack the slightest bit of three-dimensionality or originality. Harris looks as though her face would break if she smiled, and Weaver seems to have his emotion meter constantly set to maximum silly. To show Danny’s immaturity, the writers actually resurrected the long-trite bit of the clueless guy eating face cream thinking it’s dip. New mom Julie is the most insufferable character of all, especially as embodied by the helium-voiced, mega-caffeinated Moore. These three seem like they have relocated to “Underbelly” from one of the mindless sitcoms out there, like “According to Jim” or “Two and a Half Men.”

The plots are as clichéd as the supporting characters. This season’s debut last week revolved around Julie contending with an overly protective nanny (yeah, there’s one we’ve only seen a thousand times before), while Danny and Cooper stumble into a credibility-straining opposites-attract series of dinners that were not only tired but wholly predictable. (Wow, he can cook and she reads romance novels she keeps in the oven. Startling ... not so much.) Meanwhile, Lauren and Peter argue over whether or not they should find out the gender of their fetus, which, by my calculation, is the 1,876,474th time a show has adopted that story line this decade (hey, if the show can be so lazy with its plots, I don’t have to actually do research to find out the real number of times the device has been used, right?). The conflict sets up Lauren’s complaint that Peter isn’t assertive enough, only to find in the end, of course, that he does stand up for things he really cares about, and their dynamic works fine for who they are.

It reminded me of how CBS’s “Rules of Engagement,” a comedy that aims far lower than “Underbelly”(David Spade is a cast member, so that’s a given), handled a similar plot line so much better. (You can read my September 27 review of “Rules” here.) In “Rules,” Patrick Warburton’s Jeff is banished to the guest room when his snoring keeps Megyn Price’s Audrey awake. Jeff and Audrey go through their clever paces (including a very funny running joke involving Steven Seagal) before discovering at the end that they prefer being together. In “Underbelly,” we roll our eyes waiting for Lauren and Peter to reach their inevitable conclusion that their personalities are well-suited to each other, as we’re forced to endure epicly overused jokes, like Lauren reacting to Peter’s newfound assertiveness with a non-ironic rendering of the should-be-retired-forever line, “I’ve never been more turned on by you than I am right now.”

Monday’s episode wasn’t much better, built around Lauren and Peter’s neurotic stalking of their OB-GYN and Peter’s fear of not being able to take care of the baby once it arrives. The subplot involving Cooper’s use of Julie’s video blog about Baby Perry to ingratiate herself with her underlings at the office was certainly more inspired, but, again, the over-the-top silliness of the characters rendered the activity so unbelievable that the story line went down in flames. Actual personal blogs and Web sites can be exceptionally off-the-wall, and yet Julie’s blog, from the way it appeared on the computer to the manner in which she related personal details about her married life, felt false, almost like what someone who has never been online would imagine these kinds of videos to be like.

As I watched “Underbelly,” the one feeling that overwhelmed the others was the frustration that the show didn’t have to be this way. The single-camera format, which raises expectations that the program will not follow the conventional clichés of the sitcom format, only serves to highlight how mundane everything is. But even as the characters and stories felt like the work of a supremely mindless show, there were hints at what “Underbelly” could be. For starters, despite the recycled plots, the show avoids the kind of idiotic broad jokes that have threatened the genre (like, for example, Charlie Sheen rubbing his crotch on everything to combat a rash in this season’s premiere of “Two and a Half Men”). In the middle of the uninspired goings on, clever lines occasionally pop up like lifelines from a drowning show. I liked Lauren and Peter playfully sparring over the contents of their earthquake kit, with Lauren admitting she breaks into it when she’s hungry, and Peter admitting he has a second, back-up basket for that very reason. When she demands he reveal its location, arguing that he might not be home when the earthquake hits, Peter calmly replies that in that case, she will have learned her lesson. In the season premiere, they are equally charming while engaging in dueling bribes of a mariachi band (she wants them to leave, he wants them to stay).

Actually, Peter and Lauren, as portrayed by Westfeldt and Cambor, are likable and funny characters that deserve to be surrounded with a better show. Westfeldt’s indie film pedigree (she broke through writing and starring in “Kissing Jessica Stein”) is apparent in her performance. There aren’t many female comedy leads on network television as unaffected and low-key as she is in “Underbelly.” And I like the kind of goofy naturalness Cambor brings to Peter. In lesser hands, especially surrounded by far broader characters and performers, there would be great temptation to amp up Peter’s dorkiness. But Cambor matches Westfeldt’s easy-going demeanor, creating a couple that you would like to spend a half hour with, especially if they were given funnier dialogue and less clichéd plot lines to work with.

I also like that the show is not afraid to portray Lauren as being ambivalent about her impending motherhood. That angle is not one we’ve seen often on network television, especially on a half-hour comedy. I suspect that Moore’s over-the-top mom Julie was placed next to Lauren to highlight her lack of blind joy about having a baby, but I wish the producers would have trusted Westfeldt to make us feel Lauren’s doubt on her own. She’s certainly up to the task. Julie’s cartoon-like enthusiasm hammers the point home, and it’s painful to watch.

At a time when sitcoms are having trouble finding a place on network schedules, I greet the introduction of any half-hour comedy with a mixture of happiness and worry. At this point, the mere existence of a new or returning sitcom is cause for celebration. But at the same time, I am concerned that if the program doesn’t cut it, with critics and/or audiences, the failure will be used to bolster the idea that comedy no longer works on television. Personally, I think that good comedy will always find an audience, but it might take a bit more time than, say, a police procedural.

As a result, I went into the second season of “Underbelly” hoping for it to be good, so it could join “Samantha Who?” to create a solid hour of comedy on ABC. That didn’t happen. But I’m happy to say that there is enough to “Underbelly,” especially with its lead couple, that maybe the show will find its voice and get better. To do so, ABC will have to be patient and allow the producers to take some chances and provide the lead characters with some original and offbeat material to work with.

In the end, the problem with “Notes from the Underbelly” is that there isn’t enough “Underbelly” being explored. And let’s face it: “Notes from the Been-There-Done-That Mainstream” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

With Bush's Continued Outrageousness, Why Is the Result of the Presidential Election in Doubt?

Diane Sawyer (Jan Hooks): You still have a minute-twenty, Mr. Vice-President.

George Bush (Dana Carvey): Well, more has to be done, sure. But the programs we have in place are doing the job, so let's keep on track and stay the course.

Diane Sawyer: You have fifty seconds left, Mr. Vice-President.

George Bush: Let me sum up. On track, stay the course. Thousand points of light.

Diane Sawyer: Governor Dukakis. Rebuttal?

Michael Dukakis (Jon Lovitz): I can't believe I'm losing to this guy!

- An excerpt from a 1988 "Saturday Night Live" sketch of a Bush-Dukakis debate before that year's presidential election.

I read a Yahoo/AP article today on the administration's reaction to the release of a National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Iran has not pursued a nuclear weapon since 2003, and I immediately thought of the "Saturday Night Live" moment outlined above. It seems to me that we're again living in a time where the actions of the government and the electorate seem out of step with common sense.

Last week I wrote a piece on why I thought Hillary Clinton wasn't electable. I have since had discussions with several people about which Democratic presidential hopeful has the best chance of winning, and which Republican candidate would be the most dangerous opponent. The result, for me, has been a kind of pessimism and exhaustion on the topic, not to mention a building feeling of anger.

I can't help thinking to myself, "After all that the Bush administration has done in the last seven years to tear this country apart, why is the election so close? Why isn't there more outrage?" When Jon Lovitz, as Michael Dukakis, looked into the camera in the SNL sketch and pleadingly expressed, with complete disbelief, what so many of me and my friends were thinking, it summed up the moment perfectly. And it sums up how I'm feeling now.

The history major in me realizes that, in 1988, a short, ethnic, soft-spoken, stoic, intellectual governor of Massachusetts had no shot against a tall, gregarious Texan who was a sitting vice president in a popular administration, regardless of the fact that the Texan was really from Connecticut and obviously lacked the substance of his opponent. But it didn't make Bush Sr.'s victory go down any easier. And I'd like to hope that we'll be smarter in 2008 than we were in 1988, but more and more, I'm thinking that we haven't learned a thing.

Of course, the 1988 sense of outrage was nothing compared to what I felt at the elections of George W. Bush, who not only came off as less intelligent than his father, but is a far more dangerous ideologue, putting his partisan, right-wing, often religion-derived beliefs ahead of minor details like facts, competency and the law.

So, after the disaster that Iraq turned into, complete with cherry-picked intelligence, a total lack of planning and a lack of respect for the soldiers being asked to make tremendous sacrifices in the name of Bush's discredited beliefs (including enduring appalling conditions at Walter Reed Hospital), along with incidents of failure and disgrace, from Hurricane Katrina to the outing of an undercover CIA agent as part of partisan gamesmanship, and, most of all, a strategy of striking fear and uncertainty in Americans as a way of rolling back basic rights and freedoms and consolidating executive power, I am left with the same feeling I had on that Saturday night in 1988, feeling like, "I can't believe I'm losing to this party." Only this time, the emotion is exponentially worse, like it's trained with Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for a few months and partook in some of that magic flaxseed oil.

While I might have complained in the Hillary Clinton piece about how bad the Democrats are at picking presidential candidates, as I watch the continued disgraceful behavior of the White House, I get even more upset that the electorate isn't massively rallying around changing the party in charge of the executive branch. Or, from another point of view, why, finally, after seven years of incompetence and utter mismanagement, the country is not looking for substance over flash and competence and intelligence over pretty faces and fear mongers (and, sometimes, candidates who are both, yes I'm talking to you, Mitt).

The Yahoo/AP article on Iran really set me off. It contains this paragraph:

"The administration is worried that the new National Intelligence Estimate — representing a consensus of all U.S. spy agencies — weakens its leverage over Iran and its ability to build global pressure on Tehran to stop its uranium enrichment program."

Read the sentence carefully. It says, in a very matter-of-fact, dispassionate way, that the administration is upset that the facts have interfered with Bush's agenda on Iran. Remember, it's not the New York Times or Washington Post that has printed an article on Iranian behavior, but rather, the report is the product of the U.S. intelligence agencies of the federal government. The attitude from the administration seems to be, "We know Iran is bad, we know we have to go after them, so why would you possibly release any information that gets in the way of that?"

This lack of respect for the facts has been a hallmark of this administration. And instead of being outraged by Bush's continuous lack of respect for freedom and democracy, it seems as if people have just gotten used to it, like it's something that has to be accepted and tolerated. It doesn't.

You don't have to be a political science major to know that Iran is not a friend of America and has to be monitored closely. Reasonable people can differ as to how much of a threat Iran poses and what actions should be taken to keep Iran in check. But shouldn't that discussion be based on all of the facts available? And shouldn't the discussion be led by the facts, not have facts cherry-picked to make the case for an already-determined conclusion?

More to the point, didn't we learn anything from Iraq? As much as the administration would love you to believe that the military successes of the recent surge have made the previous four-and-a-half years of failure go away, the bottom line is that the drop in violence has not led to significant political reconciliation. The goal wasn't making things calmer for a few months, but to make things calmer so that the Iraqi political process could move forward. That hasn't happened. In the bigger picture, the death, destruction, financial cost, moral cost, security cost, loss of respect in the world, and damage to the U.S. military and its ability to engage in other parts of the world (including Afghanistan, where earlier victories are being reversed by a resurgent Taliban) can lead to only one logical conclusion: The decision to invade Iraq was hasty, misguided, and damaging, and if America could get a do-over, it would undoubtedly be the right decision to go back to 2003 and try a different policy.

But despite this, it seems like the administration is at it again, running the same game plan, but this time substituting "Iran" for "Iraq." Only this time, not only is the U.S. weakened by its Iraqi misadventure, but it is up against a more powerful opponent. What was the purpose of a Senate resolution designating the Iranian Republican Guard as a terrorist organization, even though the U.S. list of terrorist entities doesn't contain any other governmental entities? The only conclusion to be drawn is that it is a justification for future action. Do Americans want to go to war with Iran? I highly doubt it. So why isn't there more of an outcry?

The Yahoo/AP article contains the following quote from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice:

"I am not going to comment on that comment except to say that what the National Intelligence Estimate shows, and the transparency with which the administration released it, is what it means to live in a democracy and I hope one day that the people of Iran will live in a democracy too."

I almost choked on my breakfast reading that one. Didn't the article say, a few paragraphs earlier, that the White House was angry about the release of the report? In a few hundred words, the administration went from censors to proponents of free speech quickly enough to induce whiplash. More importantly, the Bush administration has a long and thorough record of stamping out speech. This DNC summary from June 2005, complete with citations to major newspapers for its facts, does a good job of hitting some of the high points, including the administration redacting parts of an EPA report that supported the existence of global warming, moving to censor scientific reports that conflicted with its policies, and requiring a second report on drilling in the Arctic when the first report went against certain White House claims. And, of course, that summary does not even go into the administration's handling of Iraq intelligence (and the lack of weapons of mass destruction), the stonewalling of requests for the identities of the people advising the vice president on energy policy, and the complete shut-down of cooperation on the probes into the firing of the U.S. Attorneys and the leak of Valerie Plame's identity to the media, just to name a few glaring instances.

When Rice can stand up and brag about the transparency of the Bush presidency and the full weight of the press and the American citizenry doesn't come crashing down on her duplicity, all I can do is summon the Lovitz SNL line and wonder what has to happen before people pay attention.

We are at a dangerous time in our history. From Islamic extremism to global warming, and from the rising power of China to the lurking problems with the U.S. economy, and with a U.S. culture that values bargains over sacrifice and ignorant bliss over an effort to become informed, the nation faces an uncertain time. We have some big choices to make, and if we choose wrong, the results can be calamitous.

I hope it doesn't take one of these calamities to finally get people's attention. The last thing we need is current SNL cast member Darrell Hammond, doing his drone-heavy Al Gore characterization, looking into the camera and saying, "I can't believe they didn't listen to me." If it gets that far, it could be too late.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

ABC Again Walks Down "October Road"

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

“October Road” (ABC, Mondays, 10:00 p.m. Eastern) premiered late last season, dropping into the high-profile Thursday night slot after mega-hit “Grey’s Anatomy” for six episodes and holding its own in the ratings. The show was rewarded by ABC with a second season, but not a spot on the initial 2007-2008 schedule. After a “sneak preview” last week (which was really the final episode of last season held over for this year), “October Road” returned on Monday, this time on a lower profile day of the week. The new scheduling is appropriate, since the show, while admirably ambitious, isn’t at a level where it can be expected to maintain a key spot in the network’s lineup.

“October Road” is a traditional melodrama presented with a cinematic scope. Set in the impossibly idyllic yet beaten down town of Knight’s Ridge, Mass. (or simply “The Ridge,” as the locals refer to it), last year’s mini-season followed Nick Garrett (Bryan Greenberg of “One Tree Hill”) as he returned home after a sudden, ten-year, self-imposed exile to New York City following his high school graduation. Nick left behind a first love, Hannah (Laura Prepon of “That 70s Show”), and went on to write a best-selling literary novel (are “best-selling” and “literary” mutually exclusive?) that pretty much trashed The Ridge and all of its inhabitants, including his best friend, Eddie (Geoff Stults), and the rest of his crew, the hard-scrabble Ikey (Evan Jones), the married lug Owen (Brad William Henke), and the now agoraphobic sensitive guy “Physical” Phil (Jay Paulson), as well as the town tough guy/villain, Ray (Warren Christie), who goes by the nickname “Big Cat.” Nick also left behind his simple brother, Ronnie (Jonathan Murphy), and his tough-guy father, “The Commander” (Tom Berenger).

Nick did more than just run out on his girlfriend and trash his town and friends in a book. He committed the larger crime of crossing the literal and metaphorical October Road that divides The Ridge, with the locals on one side of the barrier and the high-brow Dufresne College (or “The Doof,” as the townies call it) on the other. If it isn’t bad enough that Nick moved to New York and became a novelist, he came back to The Ridge to give a lecture at The Doof, and then to teach a class there. Back in town, Nick discovers that Hannah is now dating Big Cat, and he suspects that he might be the father of Hannah’s wise-beyond-his-years son, Sam (Slade Pearce).

“October Road” is, at its core, a melodrama that plays on the interactions of its characters. There is nothing new here in the will-they-won’t-they tango of Nick and Hannah, the blood feud between Big Cat and Nick, the frayed friendship between Nick and Eddie, the back-home-again conflicts between Nick and Ronnie and The Commander, and the us-versus-them dynamic between the townies and the school. But what elevates “October Road” above typical nighttime soap opera fare is its scope, both in its production and its outlook.

The show is shot like a film, which is not surprising since the first season was directed by feature helmer Gary Fleder (“Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”). There isn’t a bad studio set in sight, and exteriors are in abundance, one more authentic and picturesque than the other. And the cinematography is beautiful, moody and nuanced, far closer to an indie film than, say, “Desperate Housewives.”

Much in the way the twee overload of “Pushing Daisies” pushes audiences to extremes of devotion or nausea, the affected literary tone of “October Road” can swing in either direction. On the one hand, it’s nice to have a show, especially a melodrama, that treats its blue-collar characters like they’re not monosyllabic morons. Then again, it can be off-putting to watch a pizza delivery driver wax philosophical about how an ice cream sundae is a metaphor for the melting pot that makes up the United States. It rings false, but then again, it helps that as embodied by Lindy Booth, Pizza Girl (we don’t know her actual name), the girlfriend to shut-in Physical Phil, is sweet, funny and empathetic. So it’s a pick-your-poison scenario, I suppose. Do you want characters that you enjoy watching, or do you want authenticity? I’m willing to go for the interesting characters, so long as the show doesn’t pull me too far into disbelief. And it definitely walks the line, way more than I’d like.

There is a certain irony that everyone in The Ridge talks like they’re sophomores at The Doof. Physical Phil examines the fading image on his television and describes Brian Williams as looking “wan” and “consumptive,” before later giving a lecture about how the television has been his window on the world (which is why he named the set Jason). Even Big Cat, before popping the question, compares his relationship with Hannah to a lilac bush they planted together.

Against my better judgment, I like the story line following the beginnings of a romance between high school football hero Eddie and Janet (Rebecca Field), the overweight bartender at the local watering hole. I’m not sure I believe for a second Eddie would give Janet the time of day, but it makes for good TV, nonetheless. The story line is getting some juice this season with the addition of Sean Gunn (Kirk on “Gilmore Girls”) as Janet’s quirky co-worker, Rooster. The relationship between the two grown-up unpopular kids gives some context to the Janet-Eddie pairing. When Rooster invites Janet on a walk of the town, and then reveals the purpose was to show her the type of girls Eddie had bedded and discarded, the Janet-Eddie arc took on a new dimension.

Then again, the fact that I’ve spent so much time talking about two of the program’s other couples without even mentioning Nick and Hannah is a potential fatal flaw to “October Road.” In the end, I care less about the lead potential pairing than I do about Phil and Pizza Girl, Eddie and Janet, or even Owen and his wife, Alison (Elizabeth Bogush, memorable as the woman stuck in an MRI machine in “Scrubs”), who cheated on him with Ikey. All of those relationships engage the viewer in a way that Nick and Hannah don’t.

In Monday’s episode, Hannah turns down Nick’s request to get back together, telling him that all they have is memories, and they have nothing else after so many years apart on which to base a relationship. I’m usually a sucker for guys or girls going back to reconnect with long-lost loves, but even I shrugged at Hannah’s announcement and said to myself, “She’s right.” There is really no reason to hope that Nick and Hannah work it out. Not that we can root for Hannah’s engagement to Big Cat to work out, since he is such a slimy presence that Hannah’s attraction to him makes her unsympathetic as a character. But it’s not enough to help us pine for Nick and Hannah to get together.

One reason for the disconnect may be Nick’s romance last season with one of his students at The Doof, the whip-smart (is anyone dumb in this town?) Aubrey (Odette Yustman). Nick broke up with Aubrey late last season to placate the dean at The Doof (Penny Johnson of “The Larry Sanders Show”), who, much to Nick’s surprise, is dating his father. But if you can put aside the ethical dilemma of a professor dating his student, Nick and Aubrey make far more sense than Nick and Hannah. When Aubrey made her return to campus in Monday’s episode, I found myself rooting for her to try and get Nick back, which is not the reaction, I’m sure, the producers were hoping to elicit.

Similarly, Nick’s visit to New York City only furthers the idea that he doesn’t belong with Hannah. In the sneak preview episode last week, Nick and Eddie go to Manhattan to retrieve Owen, who, after finding out about Ikey and Alison’s affair, moved in with his demonic brother, Big Boy Brett (Will Sasso of “Mad TV”). As we watch Nick and Eddie move through Nick’s old life, from the supermodel apartment-sitting for him to the hip club where he knows the bouncer, I couldn’t help thinking that Nick, a successful novelist and still a young man, belongs in New York, not back in The Ridge chasing after a girl he hasn’t talked to since both of them were three years away from legally drinking. Again, not the reaction the producers were going for, I’m sure.

Despite its flaws, I enjoy that “October Road” makes the effort to go beyond the boundaries of the normal television soap opera. I like that the characters tend to be smart, and I find the cinematic approach to the production refreshing. While “October Road” may lack the sharp storytelling of “Grey’s Anatomy,” the gonzo abandon of “Dirty Sexy Money” or the sly humor of “Pushing Daisies,” it’s still an enjoyable hour of television on the ABC roster of one-hour dramas, less syrupy than “Brother and Sisters,” more engaging than the jumped-the-shark “Desperate Housewives,” and far more compelling than the self-absorption-fest that is “Private Practice.”

The characters on “October Road” repeatedly ask each other, “What goes on?” What goes on at “October Road” is a pleasant place to spend some time on Monday nights and a respectable slot on ABC’s increasingly ambitious schedule. Not to mention a place where pizza is delivered by cute girls with an interest in philosophy. If that sounds like too much for you, I understand. But, if you think it would be fun to hang out with philosophy-spouting pizza girls, check it out. You might even find yourself wondering, “Does The Doof have a graduate school?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

After the A Rod Debacle, Yanks Must Not Trade Damon

It's been an up-and-down, tumultuous off-season for the New York Yankees. They made some smart moves (hiring Joe Girardi, re-signing Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada) and some stumbles, both awkward (treating Joe Torre badly) and horribly miscalculated (handing the keys to the vault to Alex Rodriguez). But the next move the Yankees make could be the difference between post-season success and failure in 2008. The team must not trade Johnny Damon.

What? You thought I was going to say that the Yankees had to trade for Johan Santana? Sure, if the price is right, both in players and dollars, the club should go ahead and pull the trigger on that one. But after blowing up two years of careful planning by giving a ten-year, $275 million (at least) contract to A Rod, arguably the most selfish player in baseball, who is also a guy with a post-season record in pinstripes bad enough to make Carl Pavano feel like he might not be the biggest bust in Yankee history, the team has to put the ship back on a championship track. And, believe it or not, keeping Damon would be consistent with that plan.

As currently constituted, unless you think Jason Giambi is going to develop a new body in the off-season (who knows what kind of undetectable performance-enhancing drugs are out there now?) that would enable him to play first base, the Yankees essentially have three left-handed batters for two spots (left field and designated hitter): Hideki Matsui, Damon and Giambi.

If you believe what you read in the papers (always a dicey proposition, as teams usually release information to reporters with an eye toward accomplishing a goal, not toward providing a public service to fans), the Yankees are open to dealing Damon, who has two years and $26 million left on the four-year deal he signed with the team before the 2006 season. After all, Damon's body broke down last year, especially in the first half of the season, sapping him of some of his speed and power, and preventing him from playing the position he was signed to play, center field. And his numbers were down in 2007, batting only .270 with 12 home runs. The argument goes that you want Matsui, who has career numbers of a .295 batting average and .371 on-base percentage, with averages of 24 home runs and 108 runs batted over his four full Yankee seasons (he missed most of 2006 with a wrist injury), in the middle of the lineup.

In my judgment, though, such a decision would be wrong.

As I've written in my October 29 (premature) farewell to A Rod and my November 20 lament at the Yankees' decision to bring A Rod back, championships are won by superior pitching and by guys who do what it takes to win, play smart, find ways to succeed against good pitchers and hit in the clutch, not by sluggers who amass impressive regular season numbers (not that they have to be mutually exclusive, as Reggie Jackson and David Ortiz can attest). In that sense, Damon is the anti-A Rod, a proven winner who raises his game when the pressure is on.

Sure, Damon had an off year in 2007, and his first half of the season was abysmal. But when everything was said and done, Damon's numbers were not too far off his career averages. His .270 batting average was 18 points below his career average, but with his 73 walks, he finished with an on-base percentage of .351, only two points below his career percentage. More importantly, few players see more pitches than Damon, which allows his teammates to have more information going into their at-bats, and which wears down starters, keeping them from advancing deeper into games. Throw in that Damon still managed to score 93 runs and drive in 63 from the lead-off spot, and his 2007 regular season suddenly doesn't look as bad as some would have you believe.

But what makes Damon indispensable to the 2008 Yankees is his history of post-season success. He not only is not fearful of the big stage, he embraces it, which allows him to find a way to succeed more often than not. While Alex Rodriguez struggled to a one-for-14, no RBI performance in the 2006 ALDS against Detroit, Damon batted .400 in the first two games, scoring twice in the Yanks' only win in Game 1, and providing the team's only runs with a three-run homer in the 4-3 loss in Game 2, before being subdued by Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman like the rest of his teammates in Games 3 and 4. Last year, in the ALDS against Cleveland, Damon batted .278 (second highest on the team of anyone with at least five at-bats) with a team-leading two home runs and five runs batted in. His clutch three-run homer in Game 3 turned a 3-2 Indians lead into a 5-3 Yankee advantage, and his lead-off home run in Game 1 off of C.C. Sabathia put the Yankees on the right track (only to be derailed by the first of two awful pitching performances by Chien-Ming Wang).

And I don't think that any of us Bomber fans want to go back to Damon's pre-Yankee days and relive his two home runs in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS, including a gut-punch grand slam, that sent the Red Sox to the World Series and the Yankees on a post-season spiral from which they have yet to right themselves.

You can make an argument that while the hitting has gone silent in the last two post-seasons, Damon was the only Yankee to do his job both years. Even Derek Jeter, one of the most clutch players of all time, played a major role in the Yankees' 2007 demise, with the final nail in the coffin being his inning-ending double play in the bottom of the sixth inning of Game 4 after, yes, Damon had singled to set up a first-and-third situation with one out.

So if between Matsui, Giambi and Damon one of them has to go, obviously, Giambi is the one you'd like to see jettisoned. But if that's not possible (believe it or not, there might not be a market for an oft-injured, steroids-tainted, designated hitter with diminishing skills who hasn't managed 500 at-bats in a season since 2003 and is owed $21 million for 2008), and it comes down to a choice between Damon and Matsui, I think it's a no-brainer. Damon is the man to stay.

Yes, the Yankees have to beef up the team's pitching, but what the first-round exits of the last three years have demonstrated is that they also need good hitters who can be effective in pressure situations against good pitchers the way Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez were during the team's championship run between 1996 and 2000. Rodriguez isn't that kind of player. Giambi isn't that kind of player. And Matsui? He certainly was that type of player once, batting .339 in his first five post-season series for the Bombers. But Matsui's iron man approach, playing in every game for years leading up to his 2006 wrist injury, might have taken its toll on his body. He seems slower, both in the field and at the plate, and he has been less adept at finding ways to succeed against good pitching. And his recent post-season numbers prove it. In the Yankees' last three first-round defeats, Matsui has batted .213 with one home run and two runs batted in in 47 at-bats.

But Damon has been the exact kind of player that helps you win in the post-season. He has, in fact, played a huge part in the only two playoff wins the Yankees have managed in the last two years. Look at it this way, in one at-bat in Game 3 of the ALDS last year (the go-ahead three-run homer), Damon amassed the same number of runs batted in as Matsui and A Rod were able to manage combined in the last three Yankees series (13 games each, a combined 91 at-bats). If it's October of 2008, Game 5 of the ALDS, the Yankees are down by one run, and it's two outs, who do you want to see standing at home plate, Damon or Matsui? The numbers don't lie. Damon is the choice.

Which is why the Yankees can't trade him. I'm not saying that Matsui has to go, but only that Damon has to be the team's left fielder and lead-off batter in 2008.

The mega deal the team handed to A Rod may be so cataclysmic that the Yankees will not be able to recover. I accept that premise. But if there is any chance for the team to succeed next year and beyond, the powers that be have to return to the formula that the club followed in the 1990s, and the one general manager Brian Cashman has pursued for the last two years. The Yankees have to stress young pitching, avoid giving bloated long-term contracts to free agents, and find the type of smart, tough, battle-tested, team-oriented hitters that can get the job done in October. And with Johnny Damon, they have a player like that sitting on the roster. After the major mistake of handing a gargantuan contract to a guy like A Rod, every subsequent decision has become that much more important. Keeping Damon would mean recognizing what it takes to win in October. Isn't that what it's all about?