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?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Democrats Need an Intervention, Since Hillary Isn't Electable

Welcome, fellow Democrats. Sit down. First, I want to say that everyone here loves you and is interested in your well-being. But we are concerned that you are engaging in behavior, which has gone on for many years now, that is self-destructive. My friends, you have to stop nominating presidential candidates that will have a difficult, if not impossible, road to winning in a general election. For 2008 purposes, it's time you kick your Hillary Clinton addiction. If you don't, a year from now, there is an excellent chance you will be dead, politically.

A Zogby Interactive poll released yesterday made clear a fact that any student of history or politics could have told you months ago: America is not inclined to elect Hillary Clinton president. According to the poll, Clinton loses in a head-to-head match-up with every one of the five leading Republican presidential candidates. Every single one. Even someone as out of the mainstream as fundamentalist minister Mike Huckabee gets the better of her. The numbers break down like this:

Mitt Romney 43% to 40% for Clinton
Rudy Giuliani 43% to 40% for Clinton
Fred Thompson 44% to 40% for Clinton
John McCain 42% to 38% for Clinton
Mike Huckabee 44% to 39% for Clinton

Okay, I know what you're thinking: November 2008 is a long way off, and polls are not always reliable. Both true. But these poll results reveal underlying facts that should wake up anyone who wants to see a Democrat sworn into office in January 2009.

For starters, as I outlined at length in a July 31 article, Clinton has two flaws that may well be fatal. First, since the 1964 election, the electorate has not chosen a sitting U.S. Senator or a Democrat from a blue state for the presidency. Clinton is both. Second, unlike any other candidate in the race, on either side of the aisle, the electorate is locked in as to what it thinks of Clinton. A July Gallup poll I cited in my July 31 article revealed that 47% of respondents viewed her favorably, but 48% viewed her unfavorably. That means only 5% of the people were undecided, which represents a startling low number. For whatever reason (I would argue it's very unfair in many ways, but that's really not the point), a big chunk of the American electorate does not like Hillary Clinton.

But the Zogby poll released yesterday reveals even greater problems for Clinton. If all the Democrats were similarly trounced in the survey, you could dismiss the whole thing as a Democrat v. Republican issue. But up against a Republican field that has not inspired a lot of enthusiasm among the GOP faithful, Clinton's main rivals, John Edwards and Barack Obama, do considerably better than the New York senator in the pairings.

Obama wins all five match-ups against the Republican front-runners, and in each case, the margin of victory is substantial. Specifically:

Mitt Romney 40% to 46% for Obama
Rudy Giuliani 41% to 46% for Obama
Fred Thompson 40% to 47% for Obama
John McCain 38% to 45% for Obama
Mike Huckabee 40% to 46% for Obama

Even Edwards, who lacks the star power and funding of his two Democratic rivals, gets better results against the Republican front-runners than Clinton, beating four of the five GOP candidates by slim margins and tying the fifth (McCain). Specifically:

Mitt Romney 42% to 44% for Edwards
Rudy Giuliani 43% to 44% for Edwards
Fred Thompson 42% to 45% for Edwards
John McCain 42% to 42% for Edwards
Mike Huckabee 42% to 43% for Edwards

I'm not suggesting that a November 2007 poll, taken alone, should be dispositive in choosing a candidate. But it's a powerful piece of evidence, especially when taken in the larger context of American electoral history, the candidates themselves, and what is going on in the country.

With Bush's approval rating remaining in the basement, and the numbers for the Democrat-controlled Congress even worse, 2008 is shaping up to be a change election. From Iraq to an economy on shaky footing, the electorate may not know what it wants, but it's pretty clear it knows what it doesn't want, and that's the status quo.

Hillary Clinton does not in any way represent change to a majority of Americans. She was first lady during the Bill Clinton years, and part of the government machinery during the George W. Bush era, as the junior senator from New York. She is an establishment candidate, even if she has spent a good part of her time in Washington railing against the administration (although she did vote for the Iraq war authorization in 2003 and the resolution declaring Iran's Republican Guard a terrorist organization this year, neither of which makes one think of change).

After the utter debacle of the Bush administration, with its poorly-planned and executed war in Iraq, consolidation of executive power and utter disregard for competency in government (forever epitomized by Bush telling "Brownie" that he had done a great job in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina), and with the Republican field lacking a truly dominant candidate, the 2008 election is open for the Democrats to grab victory. But Democrats are foolish if they think that the election will be handed to them by default based on the historical failures of the Bush administration. Americans no longer support Bush, but that doesn't mean they will automatically vote for a Democrat to do better. If the Democrats pick the wrong candidate, the Republicans will most likely win.

Which is why we need an intervention for Democrats supporting Hillary Clinton. It's time to open their eyes and make them see the truth. It's time to recognize, as unfair as it may be, that too many Americans don't like Hillary Clinton. It's time to recognize that Americans are looking for change. And it's time to admit that it's a no-brainer as to which of the front-runners in the Democratic field can honestly make an argument for change, and that Hillary Clinton isn't one of them.

Obama may be a sitting senator from a blue state, but there are mitigating circumstances that may allow him to overcome this historical stumbling block. He is new to Washington, and his record opposing the war in Iraq from the beginning is attractive to the majority of voters who are angry about that issue. He also has a long resume of working outside the system, which helps him overcome the "insider" label usually hung on sitting U.S. senators.

As Andrew Sullivan argues in the cover story of the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Clinton is part of the generation that battled the culture wars of the 1960s that have extended through to the modern era. It's been a bitter, divisive confrontation, symbolized by 20 years of see-saw administrations of Bill Clinton and two George Bushes. And the country is tired of it. They want to move on. Nominating another Clinton is not moving on. It's fighting the same battle over again. Obama is not part of that discussion. As Sullivan points out, Obama is a member of the post-Baby Boomer generation, with a completely different set of political and cultural touchstones. He is the true change candidate.

Sullivan also points to the message electing a candidate with Obama's cultural background would send to the world. He writes in the Atlantic Monthly article:

"Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can."

As for Edwards, he brings a lot of baggage to the table, from his less-than-commanding presence to his place on the losing 2004 Democratic ticket, to his policies that fall to the left of his rivals (and, possibly, to the values of the American people). But there is no doubt that he can make the change argument better than Clinton. He issued a mea culpa on his Iraq war vote in the early days of the campaign (something Clinton still hasn't done) and positioned himself as an outsider candidate from the beginning. And it doesn't hurt that he's from a red state and no longer holds a seat in the Senate (having spent the last three years campaigning, first against poverty and then for himself), meaning he will not have to buck two pieces of history to be elected, unlike his two rivals.

To be clear, none of what I have written has anything to do with the qualifications of Clinton, Obama and Edwards, nor do they reflect my belief as to which of them would make an effective president. I like Hillary Clinton an awful lot. I'm proud to be a resident of the state she represents in the Senate, and I think she would make a strong, decisive and smart president. And I don't necessarily believe that Obama or Edwards would do a better job as chief executive.

But the problem is, after the destruction George W. Bush has inflicted on the United States in the last seven years, to me, splitting hairs over which Democratic candidate would do the best job in the White House is a luxury we can no longer afford (like, say, gasoline). Right now, once a Democratic presidential candidate has established himself/herself as being competent and right on most of the issues (as Clinton, Edwards and Obama have already done), there is one and only one issue that should drive our primary and caucus votes: Who can win in November 2008?

The evidence is overwhelming that the answer to that question is not Hillary Clinton. But, with national polls putting her support at close to 50%, Democrats aren't getting this message. Thus the need for the intervention.

Many Democrats, I fear, think that the issue has been decided, that Clinton's nomination is inevitable, so no good would come from fighting it. Under this argument, the belief is that the better course of action is to rally around the presumed candidate and do the best we can. Only, history tells us that it is definitely not too late.

While Clinton still holds a big lead in the national polls, the nominating process is not, as we know, a national endeavor. Rather, we go state-by-state, with the results in early states affecting subsequent primaries. The first test is the Iowa caucus on January 5, and a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll has Clinton behind, with Obama leading with 30 percent, Clinton next with 26 percent, Edwards third at 22 percent, and Richardson hanging in with 11 percent.

More importantly, a lot can change as the actual voting approaches. Don't believe me? Well, look no further than four short years ago. In the beginning of January 2004, Howard Dean had a commanding lead in the polls. A CNN/Time poll had Dean at 22 percent nationally, with no candidate as high as 11 percent, and with a substantial lead in head-to-head match-ups with any of his Democratic rivals.

Six weeks before the caucus in 2004, a Pew Research Center poll looked like this:

Howard Dean 29%
Dick Gephardt 21%
John Kerry 18%
John Edwards 5%

But when the votes were counted six weeks later, a lot had changed. Kerry won the caucus with 38 percent of the vote, Edwards surged into second place with 32 percent (quite a jump from a mere five percent), Dean dropped to third with 18 percent, and Gephardt was a near non-factor at 11 percent.

The bottom line is, 2008 does not have to be an inevitable coronation of Hillary Clinton if Democrats don't want it to be. It's not too late.

So, Democrats out there supporting Hillary Clinton, it's time for that intervention. Open your eyes. All of the evidence says that she will have a much harder road to the White House than her two main rivals. It's time to break the addiction to Clinton that could hand the presidency to the GOP again in 2008, something that we (and the country) would regret. It's time to break the pattern of Democrats shooting themselves in the foot and nominating candidates that any amateur student of history or political science could predict would not be elected by the American electorate (like a Democratic senator from Massachusetts in 2004 or a Democratic governor of Massachusetts in 1988).

Okay fellow Democrats. Let's not make the same mistake again. This is your wake-up call. This in your intervention. We've done all we can. You've been made aware. It's up to you now.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Rod Miscalculates, But Pays No Price

I was so proud.

On October 29, when I wrote how smart the Yankees were to cut ties with Alex Rodriguez, and how good it was for the team's future that he would be gone, I was a happy man. For two years, general manager Brian Cashman had developed a plan to right the Yankee ship, moving away from long-term, big-money contracts; seeking to rid the clubhouse of bad influences; and relying on the newly developed quality in the minor leagues (mainly the pitching prospects) to build around. For the first time since the Yankees were winning championships between 1996 and 2000 behind a lineup of home-grown stars and carefully selected, modest trade and free agent additions, I was truly proud to be a Yankee fan.

Then, in one day, it was all over. I returned from a trip out of the country on Thursday afternoon, and when I was in a taxi heading home from JFK, I heard on the radio a story tease that had to be some kind of mistake: The Yankees were going to re-sign A Rod.

By now, we all know the story. During the fourth game of the World Series, A Rod's agent, the universally reviled Scott Boras, announced that A Rod would be opting out of his contract with the Yankees without giving the team the chance to talk with the player directly or make an offer of a contract extension. With one voice mail message to Cashman, Boras made the nearly $30 million due from the Texas Rangers to the Yankees disappear, much like a post-season fastball disappearing into the catcher's glove after an A Rod swing and miss.

The Yankees big shots, seemingly true to their word, declared the Alex Rodriguez era over, and vowed to find another third baseman via trade or free agency. Meanwhile, Boras whined about why the Yankees wouldn't negotiate with A Rod while talking with their other free agents (uh, Scott, I'll give you 30 million reasons why ...), watching as his whole plan -- having the Yankees and another team bid each other into numbers that surpassed the gross national product of many third-world countries -- unraveled faster than A Rod's image. The bank-breaking offers from the Angels, Giants and/or Dodgers never materialized. Teams publicly declared themselves out of the A Rod derby with such speed and decisiveness, you would think they were talking about Barry Bonds, not the soon-to-be-crowned American League Most Valuable Player.
In a nutshell, A Rod was royally screwed. He was universally reviled for the timing of his opt-out announcement. There were no suitors rushing to pay more than the Yankees were willing to offer in an extension. Things had not gone to Boras's script, which is usually as prescient as a crystal ball. If you believe press reports, A Rod was angry at Boras for miscalculating so badly, and disappointed he could not continue his career with the Yankees.

Or, put another way, the Yankees had all of the leverage in the world, and A Rod was at their mercy.

With things unraveling, A Rod contacted Warren Buffett to see what he should do. Buffett's advice? Go to the Yankees directly, without Boras. And he did, contacting a Goldman Sachs pal who got the message to the Yankees that A Rod wanted to come back.

At that point, with all the leverage in the world, the Yankees should have said, "Well, if this isn't about the money, and you really just want to come back to New York, you should be happy to take the extension offer we were going to make, 8 years for about $225 million, minus 10 percent for the crap you put us through, and minus the $30 million we lost from Texas thanks to your opt-out decision."

But, as we all know, in life, we don't always say what we should say. Instead, the Yankees, having been spurned by A Rod once, and holding all of the negotiating chips, instead offered A Rod a monster ten-year, $275 million contract, plus a share of any revenue generated by A Rod's pursuit of the career home run record. Who were they trying to outbid?

If this was simply the Yankees spending more money than they should have, then it would be hard to be too angry. After all, what's $70 million between friends? Unfortunately, this isn't about paying retail when a discount store had the same item for half the price. Rather, this signing could single-handedly kill the Yankees' championship hopes for the next ten years. It certainly doesn't help any.

The Yankees have guaranteed themselves that for the next ten years, they will be saddled with a $27.5 million anchor pulling them away from where they want to be. And I'm not just talking about the last years of the contract, when they will be paying $27.5 million a season for someone who is 39, 40, 41 and 42 years of age. No, more importantly, for the next ten years, we will be talking about A Rod and his need to be in the spotlight, rather than discussing winning. The Yankees will have a player in the middle of their lineup that has a record of failure in the post-season that is historic. A player that for four consecutive playoff series has disappeared when his team needed him most. A player who has not had a hit with a runner in scoring position in a post-season game since around the time that Bush stood under that "Mission Accomplished" banner. A player who has never played in a World Series. A player whose teammates tolerate him, at best. Simply put, a player who has yet to prove that he can actually help his team win important games. (In my October 29 column, I went into more detail how having a slugger like A Rod is not a necessary component to winning championships.)

The Yankees had a plan. Cashman had found ways to strip ego-driven, controversy-courting malcontents like Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson from the team, all while getting good young players in return. He had also avoided committing to long-term contracts for pricey free agents, instead giving opportunities to kids like Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano. Sure, 2008 would have been a bit rough without A Rod's numbers in the middle of the order. But the strength of the farm system and the paucity of albatross-like contracts on the books had positioned the Yankees to make the right trades and signings that could have resulted in a team that could return to prominence in 2009 and beyond. It was all right there. And, with the monster contract going to A Rod, it's all gone.

I honestly believe that the tragedy of the A Rod signing is that it puts an end to Cashman's two-year, carefully constructed plan that had revived hope for the Yankees. But I would be lying if I didn't admit that what also bugs me about the signing is that there were no consequences for A Rod. He can blame his agent all he wants, but his agent works for him, not the other way around. When he chose Scott Boras as his agent, he knew exactly what he was getting. A Rod is ultimately responsible for every ridiculous thing to come out of Boras's mouth on his behalf. As the expression goes, if you lie down with dogs like Boras, you wake up reviled by everyone. Okay, that's not exactly how the expression goes, but you know what I mean.

In the end, since Game Four of the World Series, A Rod's decisions and messages have been clear and consistent: Money was paramount for him. As I wrote in that October 29 column, it is his right to maximize his earnings, but he can't have it both ways. You can't go for the money, but pretend not to be a mercenary. But thanks to Hank Steinbrenner, A Rod is getting it both ways. He took the path of securing the most money at all costs, and when it didn't work out, he played the "I want to be a Yankee card" and got to come back to New York, all while still breaking the bank. A Rod was not asked to pay any price -- that is, to give any discount -- for his miscalculation. And that just feels wrong.

I'm feeling sad that for the next ten years, when I go to Yankee Stadium (old or new) to watch the Bombers, I will have trouble rooting for my own club's clean-up hitter. And I'm not the only loyal fan that will feel that way. With one cave-in to Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees have destroyed two years of Cashman's building. I am not feeling pride in my favorite baseball team right now. And that's a shame.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

SNL Will Be Missed During Strike, But Not Too Much

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

For most of the television universe, when it comes to viewers, the writers strike is kind of like eating Doritos: We know it’s bad for us, but we put it out of our minds because the damage will occur down the road. Despite the strike, networks have enough episodes of most of their prime time series to make it through the calendar year. So, the strike has limited immediate impact in prime time. While the daily talk shows have been a casualty of the walkout, it looks like we will soon see the first weekly program to be shut down: “Saturday Night Live.”

It took me a while to realize that SNL would be waylaid by the strike, because, really, I didn’t really care that much. Tell me that I have to go weeks without “30 Rock” or “The Office,” or even without new favorites like “Aliens in America” and “Samantha Who?”, and I would immediately start reaching for the Xanax. But no SNL? Well, that’s 40 minutes saved on Sundays, when I generally buzz through the previous night’s episode on my TiVo.

Taking the position that SNL isn’t as good as it used to be is about as current, groundbreaking and interesting as a Dan Quayle joke. But that doesn’t change the fact that SNL isn’t as good as it used to be.

In the past, SNL has gone through its ups and downs. But the current downward trend has been longer than any other in the sketch pioneer’s more than 30-year history. Will Ferrell left the show in May 2001, beginning a talent drain that has not been reversed. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Weekend Update chair, where the Ferrell-era team of Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon has evolved into a pairing of Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers. The Fey/Fallon Update segment was must-see television. The Poehler-Meyers edition is occasionally amusing.

And that is really the problem with SNL. When it started, it was so daring and new, it became appointment television. I remember being a kid and looking forward all week to the next episode to see what craziness would go on (yeah, I know, I needed to get a life, but I digress ...). Even as SNL became more formulaic and corporate, the show still managed to feel the pulse of the culture and deliver funny and cutting observations, from Dana Carvery’s George Bush, to Phil Hartman’s (and later Darrell Hammond’s) Bill Clinton, and with all the pop culture of-the-moment figures in between (for some reason, Ben Affleck lusting after Chris Kattan’s male stripper Mango leaps to mind). But now? Other than a handful of exceptions I’ll get to later, what does SNL do that gets people talking anymore?

This year has featured four original episodes, three of which were hosted by men who were not primarily actors or comics (LeBron James, Jon Bon Jovi and Brian Williams). Again, putting aside some select exceptions, how many memorable moments has the season offered? Can you think of one sketch from any of those episodes that made you laugh (other than ones that started the show)? I’m hard-pressed. I liked the 2007 National Douchebag Championships during Seth Rogen’s show, especially the different types of annoying guys featured. I can’t think of another segment from this season that I thought rose above the level of mildly amusing. I went back and looked at a list of this season’s sketches to refresh my memory, figuring I must have forgotten something, but I really didn’t. I thought Williams did a good job as the fireman guest on “Bronx Beat.” After that, I’m out.

Look, I know that every era of SNL, even the vaunted Belushi years, had a ton of lame sketches that didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t a sea of Coneheads, “Sprockets” episodes and wannabe cheerleaders. The difference was that you knew that in most cases, there would be at least one bit (if not more) during the show that everyone would be talking about the next few days. In other words, there was an Aerosmith on “Wayne’s World” or “Sinatra Group” moment to make it all worthwhile. That quality is missing from this year’s sketches, and has been for quite some time.

It is fitting that the first sketch after the monologue on the season premiere revolved around Kristen Wiig’s Penelope character, the annoyingly high-pitched woman who has the need to one-up everyone. The character is tired, and the Penelope sketches have one joke and nowhere to go. It’s enough already. Similarly, this year we’ve had to endure Will Forte’s MacGyver parody, McGruber, again, which literally plays out the same one joke (McGruber gets distracted from disabling a bomb and it blows up) over and over again. Same for Bill Hader’s Italian talk show host. Doing an entire sketch in Italian with a bewildered American guest might have been on the brave side when it debuted last season, but, again, now it just beats its one-joke premise into the ground. Even “Bronx Beat,” featuring Poehler and Maya Rudolph as bored, middle-aged Bronx natives hosting a talk show, is starting to feel played out. If I never again have to hear Rudolph say terrible things about her husband but then get choked up because she loves him, I can still live a full and satisfying life. Which really applies to nearly every SNL sketch this season.

So, if I think so little of the show, why do I TiVo it every week? Habit, sure, but there are three things that I actually think still generally work: The fake commercials, the cold opens and the digital shorts.

The fake commercials still manage to occasionally come up with something edgy enough not to demean a long tradition that includes classics like the Bass-O-Matic, Puppy Uppers and Oops I Crapped My Pants, just to name three. This season has included a clever send-up of the spots for the Sundance Channel’s “Iconoclasts” series, with SNL pairing Charles Barkley (Keenan Thompson) and Bjork (Wiig); Jason Sudeikis skewering Dane Cook’s incredibly annoying promos for the baseball playoffs was dead-on; and my favorite of all, the Veritas Ultrasound HD, so expectant fathers can actually see what their fetuses look like (with picture-in-picture, so father’s can also watch the game).

The cold open is the first sketch that airs, before the opening credits. On an episode of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” last season, Matthew Perry’s character, the head writer, spends an entire episode obsessing about the cold open of the first episode since he returned to run the show. (Incidentally, the bit he comes up with is brilliant. Check it out on the DVD.) I feel like the current SNL takes the same approach. It’s as if they consciously want to make sure the cold open is memorable. If only they took the same attitude with the rest of the show.

The season premiere’s cold open was an address from the All-But-Certain-to-be-Next President, Hilary Clinton (Poehler). It was funny, and it cleverly lampooned the air of inevitability surrounding Clinton’s campaign. The next week, Andy Samberg opened the show as Kevin Federline, having fun with the idea that he was judged by a court to be a more-fit parent, which shows how far down Britney Spears’s life has spiraled. While less topical, the sketch that kicked of Bon Jovi’s turn as host featured Poehler as herself, circa 1986, angry because, among other things, she could not go to that night’s Bon Jovi show. The sketch was filled with cleverly observant comedy about the era and teenagers, with my favorite bit being Poehler bathing herself in enough hair spray to take down a good chunk of the ozone layer (it was 1986, after all). Finally, the cold open for the Brian Williams week, featuring a Halloween costume party at the Clintons’ house, was saved by the surprise of Barack Obama in a Barack Obama mask (poking fun at claims of Clinton’s lack of authenticity).

By the way, that means that in two of the four weeks, the show’s feature segment had Darrell Hammond playing Bill Clinton. Don’t get me wrong, Hammond does a great job portraying the former president as a fun-loving, women-chasing, wife-hating operator, but the fact that the show is still relying on its 90s stars to carry the load shows the dearth of new talent.

Except, that is, when it comes to the SNL Digital Shorts. Samberg, along with his writing partners Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, put the feature on the map in December of 2005 with “Lazy Sunday,” a rap video parody about two guys who want to see “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The buzz really took off last season when Samberg teamed with Justin Timberlake for “Dick in a Box,” another music video, this time in a boy band style, that extolled the virtues of men gifting their manhood to their women. The digital shorts, despite low budgets and rushed schedules, manage to carry the bite and relevance that are missing in the rest of the program. This season’s highlight has been the music video “Iran So Far,” a comedic ode to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The “Punk’d” parody “People Getting Punched Right Before Eating” was pretty funny, and “A Day in the Life of Brian Williams” was even better. The digital short is the one must-see element of each episode, and one of the only reasons to keep watching SNL, much in the way Fey’s Update segment was earlier in the decade.

As an aside, I don’t have much to say about the music acts on SNL, but that has more to do with the current state of the music business than the artists invited onto the show. This season, SNL gets points for mixing quality established artists like Foo Fighters and Kanye West with less well-known critics’ darlings like Spoon and Feist.

So with the writers out on strike, I miss David Letterman and Jon Stewart far more than SNL. If only Samberg could post a weekly SNL Digital Short directly to YouTube. It would almost be like the show never left.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Bernstein Blames "Idiot Culture" for Political Mess, and I Agree

It’s so simple and tempting. You are on a news Web site, you see the link “Court Papers Reveal How Spears Spends,” and you think to yourself, “Why not?” I’ll admit it. I saw that headline and was tempted. A part of me wondered, “How does that talentless waste of flesh, bone and spandex blow her ill-gotten gain?” In the past, from time to time, I’d indulge my morbid curiosity and click on a story like that. Not anymore. It’s time to make a stand.

I was inspired by an article I read today about a speech given at a Connecticut prep school by Carl Bernstein, known to a generation as “the guy Dustin Hoffman played in ‘All the President’s Men,’” and, more importantly, a longtime editor and reporter for the Washington Post responsible for breaking the Watergate story. In the lecture, Bernstein partially defended the news media, blaming the “idiot culture” in the U.S. for creating a dysfunctional political environment in the country. He noted that news organizations are devoting more resources to celebrity stories, so serious issues, like Iraq and the Bush administration’s assault on the Constitution, have been shunted to the side.

I am a frequent basher of the news outlets, especially CNN, for wasting so much of their air time and/or space on sensational and celebrity-driven stories that are not really news. And I stand by my position. But it’s interesting that Bernstein has approached the issue from the other side, putting the blame at the feet of the culture that demands that the media cover nonsense. I have not let Americans off the hook, but, again, I find it remarkable (and, frankly, refreshing) that he has taken aim directly at the consumers of trash news.

“You can't separate the appetites and demands of the people themselves and what they are given," Bernstein was quoted as saying in an AP/Yahoo! News article. "The blame simply can't all be put at the feet of those who present news."

Bernstein admits that the “problems we have in news and journalism are about us not doing our job well enough." But he notes that the "ideal of providing the best available version of the truth is being affected by the dominance of a journalistic culture that has less and less to do with reality and context.”

And that is why I didn’t click on the article about Britney’s spending habits. I won’t be responsible for pumping up the number of clicks on the story, nor will I allow Yahoo! to earn one more penny of ad revenue from the companies putting banners next to the article. Below the Britney link, there were headlines for stories on the confirmation of the Attorney General nominee and a report identifying the source of bad pre-war intelligence on Iraq. These are the articles that need to be clicked. Of course, I have no doubt that their click-through numbers were dwarfed by the Britney story.

People should click important news headlines, and bypass the trashy ones, every day, much like some people do on those sites that purport to donate a specified amount of money to a certain charity for each person that clicks on a designated icon. We live in a time (and under the rule of an administration) that values profits above all else. Money talks, and, well, everything else (product safety, national security and our national soul, just to name three things) walks. Let’s turn that idea on its head. If the American people made important news stories more profitable than tales of celebrities and their rehab trips, late night partying, and penchant for appearing in public sans underwear, then the news outlets would give us more news on Iraq and the daily misdeeds of the Bush administration.

Do I think this will ever happen? Of course not. The behavior Bernstein decries is not a passing fad, but rather what the nation has become. The values of American society have shifted. But you have to try, right? For those people who are unhappy with living in a world where Paris, Lindsay and Britney get more scrutiny than George, Dick and Condi, the least you can do is act with your mouse and remote control to send a message.

The story goes that thousands of years ago, while Rome burned, its emperor, Nero, did nothing, other than play his violin. How times have changed. Now, the American empire is burning, our emperor started the fire, and it is the American people who are sitting around doing nothing, only instead of fiddling, they’re playing video games, wasting time on MySpace and reading celebrity news.

That is why it’s not okay to just check and see where Britney has crashed her SUV today, or which bar Lindsay tried to get a drink in (yes, I know Lindsay was in a bar with her friends despite spending a baseball season in rehab, that’s how deeply this crap permeates the national culture). Mindless entertainment has become mindless politics, with calamitous results. Don’t be one of the masses telling the news outlets that it’s okay to cover garbage. As Nancy Reagan once famously said, “Just say no.” Although, I have no illusions that my campaign will be as unsuccessful as hers was.

NOTE: After I posted this article, I clicked on Yahoo!, and saw this headline:

U.S. driving Turkey, Iran together, former U.S. envoy warns

Essentially, the Bush administration's failure to confront the Kurdistan Workers' Party is pushing Turkey towards military action in Iraq, as well as driving our long-time ally away from us and toward Iran.

Stories like this are appearing daily. We live in a time in which we have a president that is making one horrendous decision after another (some "decider," huh?), all while providing attack sound bites with no basis in reality to ward off criticism. Isn't it time we started paying attention?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

“The Next Great American Band” Can’t Stand Up to a Great Old One

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

In Peter Bogdanovich's epic (four-hour), exhaustive, informative and exhilarating documentary "Runnin' Down a Dream," a comprehensive look at the first 30 years of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Petty makes the observation "Now, they choose rock stars on television," with a sense of disbelief and disgust. The film, which enjoyed a one-day theatrical release on October 15 before being released on DVD, premiered on the Sundance Channel on October 29. Petty's honest and astute observation ran through my head as I watched the first two episodes of Fox's "The Next Great American Band" (8 p.m. Eastern on Fridays).

“American Band” was created by Simon Fuller, the man who brought us "American Idol," but even if he used an alias, there would be no doubt about the pedigree of "American Band." From the lighting, to the graphics, to the format, to the host, to the judges, it could not be more clear that the show is "American Idol" for groups. The first show even showed auditions, just like "Idol" (only, inexplicably, they were held outdoors in a desert near Las Vegas), including a lot of acts chosen just because they were comically awful.

The “Idol” imprint is everywhere. The host of “American Band” is Dominic Bowden, whose only major previous credit is serving as the host of “New Zealand Idol.” Bowden is a loud, clueless, vapid presence, providing nothing aside from annoyance, as well as making me constantly wonder if he looks at himself in a mirror before walking out on stage (everything from his clothing to his hair screams ambitions for a self-consciously, over-styled too-cool-for-school status). He is so off-putting, you’ll find yourself missing Ryan Seacrest, and that, my friends, is no easy task.

The judges, too, are cast straight out of the “Idol” playbook, with Ian “Dicko” Dickson assuming the part of an Australian Simon Cowell, laying harsh truth on the contestants and basking in the boos showered on him by the audience; Goo Goo Dolls lead singer John Rzeznik taking on the Randy Jackson role of the generally easy-going-but-tokenly-critical music industry veteran; and Sheila E., far from her role as drummer and music director for Prince (a fact we are reminded of again and again), sliding into Paula Abdul’s seat as the nurturing female presence, only, thankfully, Sheila E. is far more coherent than Abdul.

The real problem, though, with “American Band” is the bands themselves. I mean, the show is called “The Next Great American Band,” which is a problem when few of the 12 finalists even approach the level of decent, let alone great. As Petty’s quote illustrates, there is something inherently wrong with developing a band through a television program. Truly great bands come from a place of integrity. The Ramones may have barely been able to play their instruments, but their music was genuine and heartfelt, and it showed.

The bands on “American Band,” as a rule, feel prefabricated. In a telling moment from the show’s second episode, during Dicko’s critique of Dot Dot Dot, a co-ed five-piece outfit that resembles, sounds and acts like Fall Out Boy, he noted that the group "looked like an ad executive’s idea of a rock band." He was right, and he could have made the same observation about any number of the night’s performers.

The glitzy approach of “Idol” is actually perfect for the mindless pop singers that the show promotes. But that same corporate attitude fails miserably in the context of bands, certainly ones that are supposed to be great.

The only rock band of the 12 finalists that seems to have any kind of genuine spirit is a Detroit trio called the Muggs, a garage band in the vein of the MC5. That’s not to say that the Muggs are a great group. The lead singer struggles for competence, and while the band is tight, their songs meander. At least the Muggs felt like a real rock band to me, really the only one on the show. Unfortunately, “American Band” would rather concentrate on the fact that the bass player survived a stroke, is now partially paralyzed, and now bangs out the bass lines on a keyboard.

The only other groups that feel at all genuine are the bluegrass outfit Cliff Wagner and the Old #7, the Clark Brothers (think an acoustic country/heritage version of Hanson), and funk rockers Franklin Bridge. These groups, along with the big band consortium Denver and the Mile High Orchestra (who feature one of the least interesting front men of all time), aren’t bad, but they seem like they belong on a different program.

The other seven finalists are all rock bands, and while many of them can play, and many of them are marginally entertaining in their own ways, not one of them has a lick of genuine star quality, and all of them lack originality. Rock music has always borrowed from its predecessors, but too often the competitors on “American Band” feel like they are actors playing the role of bands they would like to be.

Tres Bien, from Clearwater, Florida, slavishly performs 1960s Britpop, but adds nothing at all to the equation. L.A.-based girl band Rocket wants to be the Donnas, but they’re way sloppier and the lead singer can’t sing, which, as you can guess, is a big problem. Sixwire is a Nashville country rock outfit that is so nondescript, they’d fit in great at any southern bar, but they will be hard-pressed to find a wider audience. And Brooklyn’s the Hatch so want to be Maroon 5, I wouldn’t be surprised if the lead singer, in some kind of method acting stupor, makes his bandmates call him Adam (as in Levine, Maroon’s vocalist).

Light of Doom is made up of five 13-year-olds who sound like Iron Maiden if the heavy metal icons were fronted by, well, a 13-year-old who can’t sing. It is annoying and somewhat disturbing to watch a bunch of suburban kids from the San Diego area pretend to be badasses. When both Sheila E. and Dicko told the kids to put their shirts on, they spoke for most viewers, I’m sure.

As bad as Light of Doom is, and as studied as Dot Dot Dot comes off, the award for most prefabricated act has to go to generic rockers The Likes of You (think Nickelback, only wimpier, with extensive use of falsetto), whose lead singer admitted under interrogation by Dicko that the Likes of You was not, in fact, put together as a band. Rather, lead singer Geoff Byrd (whose proud claim to fame is having opened for Hall & Oates, which would have been impressive if it was 1982) put together three musicians to back him for the competition. Of course, he claims they’ve clicked, and now they really are a band. His proof? He proudly claims that the band members are splitting the publishing rights on their songs. It was a moment that crystallized the problem with this show. Do you think Tom Petty sat around his band’s shack in Gainesville, Florida, in 1973 and talked about publishing rights? As Petty points out in “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” after two Heartbreakers records, he still thought publishing referred to sheet music.

“American Band” is a mess, a lazy effort to graft the “Idol” concept onto the vague idea of a band, without the guts to limit the type of music the show is looking for (can’t tee off any demographic groups, now can they?). Pitting a bluegrass band against a heavy metal outfit is pointless. How do you compare them?

But what is even worse is that the groups fail to inspire. These can’t be the best 12 unsigned bands in America. I think even Fuller and Fox would admit that their mission was different, since they were really looking for the combination of 12 bands that would make for good television.

Fuller should stick to picking television-made pop idols. His formula is a better fit for that artificial pursuit than seeking out the next great American band.

Rather than going on a misguided search for the future of music, you are better off looking back at the history of one of the best American bands of all time in “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”

I could write thousands of words on why the documentary does an amazing job of tracking the history of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, a band that has quietly and steadily established itself as one of the most successful and influential groups in modern rock history. But to do so would limit what “Runnin’ Down a Dream” accomplishes.

Even if you’re not a fan of Petty and his band (is that possible?), the film, in a clear-sighted and entertaining fashion, shines a light on how rock bands were developed in the days before reality television. (And later, how the members hang together -- or don’t -- despite adversity.) Watching “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is a primer on why great rock bands were able to emerge in the 1970s, and why there seems to be a dearth of interesting and original bands now.

Between 1974 and 1979, Petty endured the breakup of Mudcrutch (the band that scored his first record deal), the formation of the Heartbreakers, the commercial failure of the first two Heartbreakers albums, and a protracted legal battle with MCA when it purchased Petty's contract from Shelter Records, leading to Petty having to hide the masters of the album he was recording and, later, filing for bankruptcy.

Nowadays, any one of those setbacks likely would have ended Petty’s career, or at least set him back to square one. But the Heartbreakers were nurtured and allowed to develop, so much so that in 1979, the band finally broke through with the classic album “Damn the Torpedoes,” and went on to crank out quality albums and sell out arenas for 25 more years (and counting). Petty and the Heartbreakers spent years honing their abilities and building their chemistry, putting in the hard work and effort to accomplish what they went on to achieve. Compare this to the “American Band” entrants, who are trying to reach fame via a shortcut, looking for a free pass rather than paying their dues.

Petty and the band went on to not only sell tons of records and record a string of now-classic rock songs, but Petty also established personal and musical relationships with a who's who of rock legends, including George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Del Shannon, Stevie Nicks, Dave Stewart, and Johnny Cash, all while playing a role in the careers of the next generation of artists, like Dave Grohl (who played drums for the Heartbreakers on "Saturday Night Live" before going on to form the Foo Fighters) and Eddie Vedder.

One of the truly amazing things about “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is that it is more than just interviews and cool archival performance footage (although it has both). Rather, nearly everything discussed by the talking heads is also shown in old footage, thanks to the penchant of bass player Ron Blair (and others around the band) to record everything on 8mm film. As a result, virtually nothing chronicled in “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is unaccompanied by matching images. When band members talk about Tench’s car breaking down when the band was heading out to L.A. in 1974, improbably, you get to see it. When Petty discusses how the band was detained in 1977 at a German airport by authorities who thought that they were carrying drugs (they were coming from Amsterdam), even more improbably, you get to watch these naive young rockers waiting to be set free.

I think Fuller should sit down the 12 finalists of "The Next Great American Band" and make them watch “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Maybe they would learn something. Sadly, I think they wouldn’t get it. Which is why “American Band,” in the end, is uninteresting television.