Thursday, January 28, 2010

What To Watch During The All-Star Break

Now that television has, for some reason or another, decided it needed to take a late Christmas vacation, many of the fall shows are off the air until spring. But, never fear: There are still new shows to watch in the interim. Here's some you can check out:

Damages, Archer, and Justified (all on FX)
FX has one old show (Nip/Tuck) nearing its series finale, and has already replaced it with three new ones. Damages is a perennial Emmy nominee and winner, so you know that's some quality programming. Archer is a hilarious trifle of a cartoon that's just as funny but more focused than creator Adam Reed's previous shows, Frisky Dingo and Sealab 2021. And while Justified doesn't air until March, I know I'll be watching, as it chronicles the exploits of one of my favorite Elmore Leonard characters, US Marshal Raylan Givens. Really, I defy anyone to find better programming than that on FX.

24 (Fox)
The most ridiculous show on TV gets more ridiculous every year. If nothing else, it's always interesting to see what kind of nonsense will call Jack Bauer back to duty, and equally stupefying to see how no one believes anything Bauer says, even though he's never been wrong and has saved the world countless times. I am pleased to see that Elisha Cuthbert is being allowed to merely play Jack Bauer's daughter, as Katee Sackhoff has been cast as the "Girl Who Gets into Some Silly Predicament," a role that Cuthbert was forced to endure for years. If nothing else, I'll keep watching to see how they manage to shoehorn Aaron Pierce back into the show, as he's the only character other than Bauer to appear in every season.

Lost (ABC)
Is there anyone who's not anticipating what's going to happen on this mess?

Spartacus: Blood and Sand (Starz)
It's called Spartacus, but it's more along the lines of Gladiator. Actually, it's exactly like Gladiator, except with more profanity, violence, and nudity. And, seeing as I absolutely fucking hated Gladiator, I think you can guess my feelings on this one. Oh, and for those of you that don't have premium cable, Starz is nice enough to show episodes for free on their website. If it's always been your desire to see Lucy Lawless naked, watch away; otherwise, pass.

Kitchen Nightmares (Fox)
It's always hilarious to see how Fox is going to make Gordon Ramsay seem like the world's biggest asshole. Talk about overamped. (By the way, there's a Billy Mays infomercial on TV right now, even though he's been dead for six months. Some guys can sell anything, even from beyond the grave.)

Caprica (SyFy)
Find out who and what created the robots that will eventually annihilate the human race in this prequel to Battlestar Galactica. So far, I'm hooked.

Human Target (Fox)
A while back, I mentioned my interest in this show. Now that I've seen the first three episodes, I'm still interested, even if the last two episodes haven't been as strong as the pilot. It's nice to see a big name like Jackie Earle Haley get more screentime, but I still fear the show will get canceled. While Fox has set it up to succeed by airing it directly after the #1 show on TV (American Idol), it competes directly against the #5 show on TV (NCIS: Wherethefuckever). We'll just have to see if it can keep up its currently strong ratings.

If I come across anything else watch-worthy, I'll let you know.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Everything Goes (Mostly) Back To Normal

Now that Conan O'Brien has aired his final Tonight Show, late night television will soon return to its previous state, except with Jimmy Fallon in place of Conan.

I don't watch late night programming. I haven't watched with any regularity since Letterman went to CBS. In fact, it seems the only time I watch is when someone hosts their last show. (I've seen Carson, Letterman, and now Conan's last NBC shows. I also saw Dennis Miller's last show, which has nothing to do with this, but...last show.)

I'll say upfront that I don't like Jay Leno; I really don't think he's funny. I think Conan and Letterman are funny, but their shows air when I'm catching up on all the primetime shows I missed during the night, so I don't watch them either. I have no horses in this race. And I suspect that a lot of people don't either. Yet they're very quick to blame Leno for this whole mess.

As I mentioned, I am not a Leno fan, but, as was the case with the post directly under this one, I'm going to prove that I'm a sucker for lost causes and plead Leno's side on this one.

Basically, the facts of the case are this: Five years ago, NBC re-signed Conan O'Brien, with the promise that O'Brien would get The Tonight Show in 2009. Leno, being a good company man, agreed to step aside.

Flash forward to 2009. Leno's Tonight Show run is done; Conan is poised to ascend the throne. All seems pretty straight-forward, right?

It was, except for one small problem. Actually, a pretty fucking huge problem: Leno was still number one in late night and really had no plans on retiring, much to the chagrin of NBC, which had suspected he would. NBC realized, five years too late, that losing a top-rated program that was still vital to another network would be a problem. So, they canceled five hours of primetime programming to make room for Jay so that they could also honor their deal with Conan.

And of course it turned out to be a failure. Everyone predicted it would, And not just Leno's new show, but Conan's Tonight Show run was a flop as well. So, NBC was forced to eat crow and put everything back the way it was, showing Conan the door in the process.

This is where everyone blames Leno. "Oh, Jay failed and wanted The Tonight Show back, so they fired Conan." What people who say nonsense like this fail to realize that television is all about ratings, and if you don't have the ratings, you get shown the door.

You see, this whole mess is a very simple game of numbers. Let's say, for example, that the Leno version of The Tonight Show drew four million viewers on a nightly basis. Let's also say, for argument's sake, that Conan drew a million viewers on his post-Leno Late Night show. Now, let's say that when Leno moves into primetime, he brings his entire viewership with him, and, because there's more viewers in primetime, picks up an additional million. So, Leno now has five million viewers, which would be great in late night, but is pathetic up against primetime shows that draw 15-20 million. Same thing for Conan. If he brings his entire viewership and gains a million by moving earlier, he'd have his best ratings ever, but he'd still be two million viewers short of what Leno drew. So, two somewhat-new shows failed, and the one that failed the worst, which was Conan's, got canceled.

Every fall, dozens of new shows premiere on TV. If they don't get ratings, they get canceled, even if they've aired only one episode or a whole season. Hell, CBS will cancel a show if it fails to finish in the Top 15. The same is true of late night. Remember Magic Johnson's late night show? Or Chevy Chase's? No? You can't be blamed if you don't, as both only aired for a couple of months before being canceled. The same was true for Conan. He was on for seven months, lost half of The Tonight Show's audience, and regularly finished last in his timeslot. It doesn't matter if you really like Conan and really hate Leno. Conan's show failed. And NBC killed it and gave The Tonight Show back to Leno.

This is another point that's a point of ire for Conan fans. "Well, Jay's show was a failure too. Why does Conan have to suffer for that?" Yes, Leno was a primetime. On The Tonight Show, he was number one. Of course NBC is going to keep the guy who was able to beat Letterman and put him back on The Tonight Show. Because losing to Letterman is not an option for NBC. And putting Conan back after The Tonight Show really isn't an option, since Jimmy Fallon is doing as well as Conan did in that timeslot.

And of course Jay is going to take the show back. What's he going to say, "No, I actually enjoy finishing last in five different time slots"? NBC offered him the show he was number one on, and he took it. He's not dumb. Business is business.

What it all comes down to is that this whole thing is not Jay Leno's fault. If you want to blame someone, blame NBC, which made an incredibly stupid mistake, backpedaled like crazy to fix it, and fucked Conan O'Brien in the process. Did Jay take advantage of the situation? Why wouldn't he? Other than Conan's fans hating him, there's no downside for him. He's still on TV, doing what he loves, back in the timeslot where he was number one. And he won't have to worry about destroying Conan's career, because Conan will get a show somewhere else and succeed or fail on his own merits and not upon those of his predecessor.

So, if you hate Leno, now you'll have to hate him in late night. Just don't blame him for this whole mess.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Big Mac Admits What We Already Knew

Mark McGwire has finally admitted what everyone has expected for the better part of 10 years: that he used performance-enhancing steroids while he was playing baseball. The fact that he went from a guy who had the physique of a basketball player to a guy who looked like he could punch through an engine block all but convinced everyone that McGwire was on the juice. Five years ago, when he was called in front of Congress to testify about steroids, he bebopped and scatted all around the issue (as opposed to Sosa and Palmeiro, who outright lied). Since he retired, he's been in virtual seclusion, lending more credence to the fact that maybe he had something important weighing on his mind. And now, he's come out and spilled the beans. And I'm going to do something nutty and defend the guy a little bit.

Remember Skinny McGwire, the one that went to three World Series in the late '80s/early '90s?

That McGwire averaged 36 HRs and 100 RBI a year. Obviously, he had some power hitting ability. And this was before the juice.

But then, in '93, McGwire had a foot injury that put him out of commission for two years. This is approximately when McGwire admits he started using steroids in order to speed up his recovery.

Now, steroid treatment, particularly after surgery, is a very commonplace recovery therapy. I'm willing to bet that a lot of people have taken the steroid Prednisone at some point in their lives. Remember when Jerry Lewis got really fat around the turn of the millennium? That was from Prednisone. That's one of the side effects of steroids: You bulk up. When McGwire took steroids, he bulked up too. The difference between him and Lewis was that McGwire took better steroids and hit the gym like a motherfucker.

Which led to Incredible Hulk McGwire:

(Nice mustache, douche.)

This is the McGwire that would break Roger Maris' HR mark of 61 twice in two years. This is the McGwire that hit 284 HRs over the next five years, almost 50 more than in the previous nine. Now he really had some power hitting ability.

But...what if?

What if he hadn't gotten injured? What if he hadn't needed the steroids to recover? What if he'd continued along the path he'd set in his early years? He'd still have about 530 HRs, plus he might have played longer than 16 years, as nagging injuries wouldn't have shortened his career. In this bizarro world, where baseball players don't take steroids, McGwire may have hit 583 HRs without any sort of performance enhancement.

See, the thing with steroids soon as that word "steroids" comes out, everyone immediately forgets that the offending player had any baseball ability to begin with. It's as though a 98-pound weakling who couldn't even lift a bat took steroids and was suddenly better than Hank Aaron.

But that's not the case. The shitty players that take steroids, like Jason Grimsley and David Segui, for example, continue to be shitty. As I've mentioned before, if I took steroids, I'd probably turn into a fatass. But if I got really motivated, I could hit the gym and turn that bulk into a serious muscular situation. In my current drug-free form, I can't hit a goddamn ball off a tee; what's adding 40 pounds of muscle mass going to do to improve that?

The All-Star players that have all been busted for or accused of steroid use, like McGwire, Petitte, Clemens, Bonds, A-Rod, etc, etc, were great before they even got on steroids. The steroids made them greater. But, without that initial greatness, they'd just be average Joes trying to get an edge. I know this is hard for many to believe, but, if that list of 104 that tested positive for steroids is ever made public, I don't think it will be composed entirely of the last 15 years' All-Star lineups. It's a handful of superstars, most of whom we already know, and a whole lot of guys who are more likely to make the waivers list than the All-Star team.

And this is where we come back to McGwire. Would he have been great without steroids? He was a six-time All-Star before he used steroids. He was one of the best HR hitters in baseball. But, as I mentioned earlier, that all gets forgotten as soon as he's labeled a steroid user. He wouldn't have hit 70 HRs in '98 without steroids, that's for sure. But he would still have hit a ton. And that's the tragedy: All of his accomplishments, clean or not, get shit on. His whole career gets tainted, regardless of when he started the steroids.

That's a damn shame.

Speaking of shames, I don't think it's a coincidence that McGwire made this announcement less than a week after his fourth consecutive poor showing on the Hall of Fame ballot. I think he figured he's not going to make it anyway, why not forego the inevitable and completely close that door. Yet these sportswriter dummies, some of whom can't even be bothered to fill out their ballots, are still talking about whether or not this steroid revelation will hurt his Hall of Fame chances. I'm going to answer that question with three short words: not at all. What really hurts his Hall of Fame chances is the fact that the non-HR part of his stat line stinks. Rob Deer hit a lot of homers, and, well...did he even make it to a second ballot?

Sorry, Mac. You were a great player, but 1600 hits just doesn't cut it. And that's got nothing to do with steroids.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Get Ready To Have Your Eyes Blown Off

The big movie out right now, without a doubt, is Avatar. This is the movie that everyone's seeing. At my local theatre, every 3-D IMAX showing has been sold out since its release. It's made over $300 million in two weeks. Needless to say, this movie has some heat.

From the beginning, I've never been all that stoked to see it. I don't think anybody would disagree with me in saying that the trailers looked stupid. And it's the product of a megalomaniacal director who hasn't made a feature film in 12 years. There's a lot of factors (one of which is a reportedly astronomical budget) at work here that make this thing seem like a failure in the making. But, everyone is going to see it, so I figured maybe I should go see what all the fuss is about.

Now, I won't lie to you: I'm gonna shit on this thing right away. The plot of the movie leaves a lot to be desired. It's no secret that James Cameron is not the "King of the World" when it comes to writing. There's a lot of goofy plot elements and terrible clich├ęs and cutesy touchy-feely moments that seemed hackneyed back when the Ewoks where dancing around in Return of the Jedi. That was 27 years ago; that corniness hasn't aged well. And speaking of using the WABAC Machine for inspiration, Cameron steals quite liberally from his own filmography. He's like a not-as-talented Quentin Tarantino who's not creative enough to steal from other peoples' movies. So, in terms of being a movie that engages you at a human, intellectual level, you're looking in the wrong place.

Now, as for being a stunning action movie with 3-D visuals that will kill a lesser man...


Remember when you saw Star Wars as a kid, and were completely awestruck by what you were seeing on the screen? This is like that, except about a trillion times more impressive.

This may be one of the most visually-beautiful movies I have ever seen. There are times when so much is going on on the screen that it is possible your head might explode if you attempt to take it all in. It's all amplified by the 3-D, which is the best I've seen so far. (Mind you, the last movie I saw in 3-D was House of Wax, so anything better than that will impress me.) There were times during the final reel when I actually jerked back in my seat to avoid being hit in the face by...well, the screen, apparently. If you're not going to see this in 3-D, you might as well see it with your eyes closed, because that's how much you're missing.

If you can manage to completely disregard the plot and enjoy this as a purely sensory experience, you will not be disappointed. I left the theatre with a smile on my face and an urge to see it again. The action and the visuals are so good that they actually make up for the weakness of the story. (Those of you who have seen Transformers 2 know this is no easy feat.) I'll even go so far as to say that if the Best Picture Oscar was awarded purely for the technical merits of a movie and had nothing to do with storytelling, this would win Best Picture of 2009.

Once the line for the IMAX showings goes down a little, I know what I'll be seeing again.

Oh, and if you've seen The League of Extraordinary Gentleman or Van Helsing or any other action movie that takes place in turn-of-the-century London, you've essentially seen Sherlock Holmes. Downey, Jr. is entertaining, but the rest is a lot of been there, done that.