Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Smart TV - Part Two

I bought the hype, took the bait, and last night at 10:00 E.S.T., tuned in to the new Aaron Sorkin show, "Saturday Night West Wing." I know, I know, it's called "Studio 60 Live on the Sunset Strip," but that title is so cumbersome. For those who haven't been tracking the new fall TV season like the arrival of the Mackinaw peaches, "S60LotSS" (it doesn't even acronym well) is one of two shows on NBC this fall that offer a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional show that bears a strong resemblance to "Saturday Night Live."

I have always liked Sorkin's movies (A Few Good Men, The American President, Malice) and his TV shows (Sports Night, West Wing). If he gets a little preachy, that's okay with me because I often share his political perspective. He's generally willing to take on serious topics with intelligent characters and dialogue, even if he tends to pat himself on the back at times. The West Wing Christmas episode where the homeless veteran is given an honor guard funeral at Arlington Cemetery remains one of my favorite hours of television.

"Studio 60" is replete with familiar Sorkin touches. The credits appear in the same typeface as the West Wing, and we often hear conversation snippets or background noise before the camera lets us in on the visual action. The dialogue is snappy, with actors saying lots of things most of us would only think of hours or days after the initial conversation.

I found a lot to like in the pilot. Sorkin's topic is going to be modern broadcast television and he secured the services of some well-known TV heavyweights to open big. Judd Hirsch is the show's producer, who delivers a Howard Bealesque on-air diatribe that sets the tone and gets him fired. Ed Asner appears briefly as the CEO of the network's corporate parent. And Timothy Busfield plays the control room director who allows Hirsch's tirade to stay on the air for nearly a minute, against the hysterical protestations of the network's "Standards and Protocols" suit. Okay, if you're keeping score, that's representation from "Taxi," "Mary Tyler Moore," and "Thirtysomething" in the first ten minutes of a show about the quality of broadcast television. Well played, Mr. Sorkin, well played.

The bulk of the acting load was carried by Amanda Peet as the new network President, Stephen Weber as her boss, and Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry as the writing and directing duo Peet decides to bring back to the show to replace Hirsch. To my surprise, Perry gave the best performance of these four. He had a few Chandler Bing moments, but not so many to overwhelm his character. Whitford, on the other hand, still seemed to be hitting all his Josh Lyman marks; I half-expected him to scream out, "Donna!" every time he entered a room. (Note to Wardrobe: Try putting Whitford in something other than a dark suit if you want us to forget he played a high-powered Washington political operative just last season). Weber's character was too one-dimensional to offer much, and Peet could be in trouble if she ever has to do any but smile pretty between clever lines.

Except for the Hirsch meltdown, we saw none of the show itself in the pilot. Instead, Sorkin used the hour to introduce the characters and establish some of the history, including a failed relationship between Perry and one of the show's stars, played by Sarah Paulson. The Perry and Whitford friendship came off well, and, not suprisingly, Sorkin's writing for Whitford's character's confession of a cocaine relapse rang quite true.

Lots of nice details fill out the shape of show, including the cloud of marijuana smoke in the Three 6 Mafia dressing room and the caste system of star power within the show's cast. And the deconstruction of the demise of Perry and Paulson's couplehood shows that even in Hollywood, you still have "to be there" for your significant other, even if "there" is a red carpet at a premiere or a CD release publicity junket.

While Paulson does a nice job with her character whether she's putting a minor cast member in his place or immediately reengaging Perry in a bitter rehash of their breakup, I'm not quite sold on her character also being a Christian spiritual music recording artist. Maybe it's not such a big deal but we are made to believe it is important in the plot of the pilot episode. The sordid personality traits of the various characters are plausible, but isn't it ironic that her wholesome side is the hard pill to swallow? Then again, Sorkin put a religious Democrat in the White House and a non-churchgoing Republican presidential candidate on the campaign trail, so I guess anything is possible.

So, while I don't think we'll see Sinead O'Connor tearing up any pictures of the pope or even Father Guido Sarducci promoting "Popes in the Pizza," I do think this one is worth at least a second look.

Smart TV - Part One

It sounds to me like Tony Kornheiser is settling into his new role on Monday Night Football. During last night's Steelers-Jaguars game, Jags quarterback Byron Leftwich scrambled for a six-yard gain. After exclaiming that this was a rare event for Leftwich, Kornheiser went on to say that the QB had stated earlier that he might be the slowest black QB in the league, but he was no worse than tenth overall.

Play-by-play man Mike Tirico confirmed the quote and they went on to share a the humorous story in which Leftwich singled out his former teammate at Marshall University, Chad Pennington, who is white, as being slower than he. Most any other sports broadcaster would not have been able to handle this exchange and probably would have not used it at all for fear of saying something racially impolitic or offensive, but Kornheiser's daily arguments with Michael Wilbon on PTI touch on nearly any topic imaginable, including race.

This was a perfect example to those who questioned what TK would bring to the booth. Not only was he not afraid to bring it up, he was prepared and excited to do so. It's not X-and-O analysis, but it's football-related, it's funny, and it's candid. And in a game featuring two of the top teams in the league scoring zero touchdowns, ESPN should be thrilled to have somebody who can do more than diagram a zone blitz with sound effects.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Raveskins Report

"No man can serve two masters."

- Matthew 6:24

Before NFL training camps started this summer, ESPN's power ratings ranked the Baltimore Ravens fifth and the Washington Redskins third. Two weeks onto the regular season, I think it's safe to say that the experts at the Worldwide Leader were half right. And while I am happy that the Ravens appear to be blowing up, as the kids like to say, my primary emotion for the Redskins is not anger, but sorrow.

I moved to Baltimore area 11 years ago but have clung to my Northern Virginia sports roots. Growing up outside Washington, D.C., I was a typical fan. I lived and died with the 'Skins, cheered the Bullets to their lone NBA Championship, and pretty much ignored the Capitals. One of my earliest childhood memories is of Mike Bass scoring Washington's only touchdown in Super Bowl VII, an intereception return after Miami placekicker Garo Yepremian tried to throw a pass on a botched field goal attempt; but I came of age in the glorious Joe Gibbs era, watching the Redskins won three Super Bowls. My blood ran burgundy and gold, and I will be a fan for life.

But the regime of Daniel Snyder has left my football faith shaking like old RFK Stadium in an NFC Championship Game. In a tragedy worthy of Sophocles, Snyder is the boy who grew up to realize the dream of owning his favorite sports team only to set it on a course for failure. From dumping Marty Schottenheimer for Steve Spurrier to signing multiple free agents long past their primes, Snyder has mismanaged his franchise like a perennially bottom-dwelling fantasy football owner (ironically, the market value of the franchise has skyrocketed since he took over). Even the moves that looked like they might work out ended up backfiring.

And so, when he brought Joe Gibbs back to town last year, I did not rejoice as so many did. Indeed, my first thought was, "If this doesn't work, he must sell the team and will never be able to watch football again." Because if Gibbs fails, Snyder will have marred the greatest chapter in Washington sports history, and even if he finds success after Gibbs, he will never make up for the damage. This is not like Jerry Jones bouncing Tom Landry to make way for the Jimmy Johnson in Dallas. That was typical of the Darwinian nature of professional sports. This would be like Red Auerbach returning to the Celtics' bench and floundering in the middle of the league. It's unthinkable.

But that appears to be what will happen. When the Redskins visited Texas Stadium last season, Redskins QB Mark Brunell shocked the Cowboys with two astonishing touchdown passes in the final minutes of a Monday night game, setting the tone for a respectable season which carried over to high hopes for this one. And so, as the Redskins again struggled to find any kind of offense at Dallas on Sunday night, I harkened back to that unlikely miracle. But that's the thing about miracles, you're not allowed to expect them, they have to catch you by surprise. With no miracle, the Redskins are now 0-2 in what some think is the league's toughest division. Clinton Portis is hurt, Brunell has no one's confidence, and the defense that kept the Redskins in so many games appears to be vulnerable. I know they rallied to make the playoffs after a slow start last season, but my inner classicist tells me that this tragedy will only end when Daniel Snyder blinds himself with his Redskins belt buckle.

On the other end of the pigskin spectrum, I find the Ravens, and a slowly growing affinity. I was not an instant fan when they came to town in 1996, not like the legions of hungry Colts' fans who had been licking their wounds since Bob Irsay hijacked their treasured franchise to Indianapolis. I had my Redskins and didn't need another team to root for. I cheered for them when they won the Super Bowl, mainly because it came against the hated Giants, but still they were not my team.

But having children changes everything, even your sports allegiances. My sons are surrounded by Ravens fans and Ravens propaganda. We have been to a Ravens training camp and last season we went to a game. So, like my father before me, who left the Knicks for the Bullets, I find myself more and more interested in the prospects of the local team.

And they play a style of defense-first, grind-it-out offense that I like, and while many pillory Brian Billick for the ineptitude of his offensive game plan, I really don't mind it. For all his record-breaking performances, Peyton Manning has yet to get to the Super Bowl (he has, however, run roughshod over the league in commercial endorsements).

This year's Ravens team is intriguing. The defense is still at the heart of its success, even though Marvin Lewis left years ago. And while Ray Lewis is only the third-best linebacker, he remains the public face of the team, the guy the cameras go to even as Ed Reed, Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott make the big plays

(In fairness, Lewis still gets it done sometimes; his fourth quarter sack of Tampa Bay's Chris Simms will stay with the young QB for quite some time. The camera from the backfield captured the play perfectly: one moment Simms was calmly looking at a wall of protection from his offensive linemen, trying to read the defense, and in the next instant, Lewis was roaring up the middle, leaving no time for Simms to do anything but fetalize.)

The signing of Steve McNair this summer energized the hopes of Ravens fans, but the first two games have shown that McNair is not going to change the way this team wins. They shut out Tampa Bay and held Oakland to six points. The offense has been inconsistent in almost every aspect; the line has been just okay, Jamal Lewis still looks tentative at times and McNair's throws are more out-of-sync than I had expected. But the defense has devoured ts opponents. Of course it helps when the other team fumbles two snaps from center in the first quarter, as the Raiders' Aaron Brooks did on Sunday. The Ravens first three possessions began inside the Raiders 40 and they came away with three field goals. At some point, that's more pressure than a defense can handle.

I'll be tracking both teams closely from here on out, the Ravens because I think they might be for real this year, the Redskins because, hey, they are still my team.

Monday, September 11, 2006


This morning began quite normally. The walk with the dog was cut short by rain, but by the time I came home, showered, and dressed, the Doc was out the door and the boys were awake and getting ready for breakfast and school. By 9:00, they were on the bus, and I was back in the house, just like any other Monday during the school year.

And so it was five years ago today. I had dropped the boys at daycare and driven to my office, arriving at about 9:00. I saw a colleague in the parking lot; he was a transplanted New Yorker, and we talked briefly about the news on the radio that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. It took only a few minutes to get from there to my office, but in that time, what first seemed just another odd bit of news on an average day became the first of several cataclysmic events that continue to have an enormous impact on the world.

I knew two people who died that day: Steve Jacoby, who was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon; and Matt O'Mahony, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in the World Trade Center. I knew them peripherally, through professional relationships, but they were close friends of people I consider friends. I had met Matt once, when I was working at Johns Hopkins. He was an alumnus and had played varsity basketball, so I sat with him for a few minutes at his desk, 105 floors above Manhattan. He was just as gregarious as his friends had said he would be, reminiscing about his days at JHU.

Matt's best friend and former basketball teammate, Glen Wall, also died that day. Early in 2002, I helped several of their friends organize a tribute dinner and memorial fund at Hopkins. We had a halftime ceremony at a basketball game, where we presented the families with framed photos, and the crowd rose to their feet for a long standing ovation. That night, friends and family spoke fondly and emotionally of both men at the dinner. The basketball team locker room is named for Matt and Glen, and each year the University awards a scholarship in their name from the memorial fund.

I wasn't sure whether to write about any of this today. For many people, the pain is still difficult and the annual media hype must feel invasive and exploitative. But I also know that I learned a lot about friendship from Matt and Glen's friends, and I know that some of what we did and continue to do in their memory helps to heal the pain. Two years ago, I brought my boys to the annual basketball game and reception.

After the bus took my sons to school this morning, I joined them for an assembly and "Freedom Walk." We gathered in the gym, and one of the teachers introduced her husband, a soldier who had recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The students had sent letters and packages while he was there, and he introduced another member of his team and thanked the students for their support. After his brief remarks, the teacher introduced several members of the local volunteer fire department. Led by the soldiers carrying an American flag, we all then marched in a parade around the school grounds. Most of the children wore red, white and blue, and many waved small flags as they walked.

My boys are too young to really remember 9/11, and we sheltered them from it, just as we protect them from other harsh realities until we think they are ready. The best I can do at this point is try to get them to understand how personal this is, that the people who died had had families and friends just like we do, and so do the people who are trying to protect us. And tomorrow, I will take my sons with me when I go to vote in the primary.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

FitzFilm Festival

An unplanned FitzFilm Festival over the weekend took an unexpected and ironic thematic turn. We started with "Capote" on Saturday night. This was my choice, and the Doc drifted in and out of sleep as I watched Philip Seymour Hoffman show his Oscar-winning form. Great movie, beautifully filmed, and somewhat troubling to those of us who harbor a writer's aspirations. Brillliant writer publishes an astonishing work in an entirely new genre and achieves fame and celebrity of a level he has always dreamed. Over the next twenty years, he never finishes another book and slowly drinks himself to death. "Isn't there something else you could do?" the Doc asks as we get ready to go to sleep.

The next night, the Doc selects "The Weather Man," starring Nicholas Cage, Hope Davis and Michael Caine. Maybe it's not on your must see list, but I have liked Cage since "Raising Arizona" and the Doc's affection for him goes all the back to "Valley Girl." So, here again we find a protagonist on the cusp of greatness in his field; Cage's character is on the short list for weatherman on a national morning show hosted by Bryant Gumbel, cleverly titled "Hello America." So that's wonderful, except that his marriage is over, his teenage kids are struggling, people keep pelting him with fast food leftovers, and his father (Caine), winner of both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, is dying.

(Let me just stray here a moment to say that it would be nice to see Hope Davis in a happy marriage just once. "The Secret Lives of Dentists" - husband thinks she's cheating on him. "The Matador" - child dies and a tree crashes though her house. "About Schmidt" - marries a big loser. Okay, she's happy with Harvey Pekar in "American Splendor," but in almost all her other movies, she embodies angst or agony. Very odd for a woman named Hope)

So back to "The Weather Man." Is splitting the title into three words supposed to make us think he's some sort of superhero? Cage has tried to follow his father's path to success, but the one novel he labored to finish is terrible, even his wife hated it, and every step he tries to take forward becomes a stumble in the wrong direction. He finally ponders homicide as a solution, but the film's lighter moments don't let us take this seriously. In the end he trashes the novel, takes the national job, lets his marriage go, buries his father and reconnects with his kids. Oh, and carries a bow and arrow around New York City, which seems to ward off the food throwers.

So the inspiring message to writers is what? Don't try to be a writer? It will destroy your family and make you feel worthless? Caine dismisses writing as "Just something I'm good at because I've had a lot of practice." So Cage embraces his role as a grossly overcompensated TV clown who brings pleasure to millions. Maybe it's because I don't watch morning news shows, but I found the plot resolution pretty annoying.

Moving from Oscar nominated fare to forgettable to largely unknown, the Doc picked out "Winter Passing," with Zooey Deschanel as a young stage actress in New York City who is estranged from her father, a former National Book Award winner who hasn't published anything for seven years. Hmm. Note for the future: movies advertised as quirky and offbeat are usually not sidesplitters. So poor Zooey's doing okay as an actress, but she's got some real problems with men and cocaine, and when she goes home to Michigan to try to find some of her parents' love letters to sell to a publishing house, she finds that her dad (Ed Miller), who's an old school academic radical, has gone loopy. How loopy? He has moved into the garage, although sometimes he sleeps in the backyard, where all his bedroom furniture is, because the bedroom is where he plays golf. Will Ferrell plays his live-in caddie, handyman, and bodyguard (asking Zooey for some ID before he will let her into the house), and Amelia Warner handles the cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping, including a steady supply of bourbon for Miller. The acting is fine, except for Ferrell, whose celebrity prevents him from contributing quietly. But the story ends wrapped in a tidy bow as Zooey easily kicks the coke, starts jogging and makes friends with her dad's pals. She also comes to terms with her mother's suicide, saves her father from the same fate, and decides not to publish the letters. And when she returns to New York, she gets the role she auditioned for, and the nice boy brings her flowers on opening night.

Now, this final installment of the festival worked out better for the writer character (first of all, he lives, and, it appears, happily), but, the fantasy ending reminds me of the John Grisham novels where the protagonists live out their days on a sunny tropical beach without a care. It turns out "Winter Passing" is writer and director Adam Rapp's first effort as a filmmaker. His film credits heretofor are as a "Creative Consultant" on "The L Word," but he has published numerous plays and novels for young adults. So, he writes novels for kids, TV dramas about lesbians, and this movie appeals to which of those audiences? It's actually a nicely filmed movie, but even before I checked Rapp's resume, I thought he needed to grow up. I just pity the poor kid who's read this guy's books, sees Deschanel and Ferrell on the cover and grabs what he thinks will a be a hip reteaming of the successful duo from "Elf."

So, I think we'll take a little break from the movie rentals, at least until I find out if there are any writers in "King Kong."

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

September Morn

Just a couple quick notes for this morning before I tackle a larger topic.

The writer Edward P. Jones has a new collection of short stories out, titled All Aunt Hagar's Children. I've seen and heard some of what serves as the publicity blitz for this lesser known fiction writer, including a review in the Baltimore Sun by a Chicago Tribune writer and a long interview on
NPR. Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Known World, but I have always enjoyed his stories, which are almost always about the everyday life of African-American residents of Washington, D.C. Anyone who has lived in Washington long enough to appreciate that the city is made up of much more than a power struggle for the federal government will enjoy reading Jones' work.

Rodin, Renoir, Rocky?
Philadelphia has a lively debate going about the appropriate location for a statue of Rocky Balboa. Now, I, too, have run up the steps of the museum and done the shadowboxing Rocky dance at the top, but I tend to agree that this statue doesn't really deserve the company of great works of art. However, I would be interested to learn more about the cultural significance of the statues of Prometheus, John Paul Jones, and Lafayette that are displayed outside the musem. If none of those rise to the level of the works by Rodin and Renoir that are inside the museum, then I think there is room for Rocky.

Tiger wins again (yawn)
The somewhat blase reaction to Tiger Woods' fifth straight PGA Tour victory only puts into perspective how much his greatness no longer surprises us. He's not even halfway to Byron Nelson's record of 11 straight, a record that has DiMaggio hit-streak status in the golf world, but one more win would tie him for the second longest streak. Woods' own reaction? "It's nice when you get on a roll like this where things are just happening." You know, Tiger, for most of us, a nice roll is par-birdie-par, not five weeks of playing better than anyone on the planet.

Farewell to Andre
Andre Agassi lost in the third round of the U.S Open. I doubt I'll watch another match in the tournament. When I was a kid, Grand Slam events were appointment television, but unless there is a dramatic storyline, it's hard for me to muster any interest.

Must Not See TV
Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin's death was apparently videotaped. I hope I never see this tape.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Tony too tentative

I have had some inquiries as to my impressions of Tony Kornheiser's performance in his role as the new third man in the booth on Monday Night Football. The short answer is that I really haven't seen enough to judge. Although I was an obsessed devotee of the TK Radio Show, I am not nearly as compulsive with regard to his writing in the Washington Post or his TV work on ESPN's PTI, and besides, it's preseason.

When Mr. Tony made his MNF debut, I was vacationing in a house with no cable TV access. During the second game, I joined my sons watching "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." I finally tuned in last week to watch the Bengals make Brett Favre regret his decision to put off retirement one more year.

ESPN has apparently decided to include an email segment called, "Tony, Tony, Tony." While I was a frequently-read emailer of the radio show, I am afraid I don't like your chances of hearing from "Bill in Phoenix, MD" on MNF. I did send in a lame attempt at humor before the game, something about who would last longer, Favre, Carson Palmer or TK, but I honestly couldn't sit through the game long enough to see the email segment. Furthermore, the tone of Mr. Tony's Mailbag was irreverent, subversive and either extremely intelligent or extremely stupid, and I just don't associate those qualities with an NFL telecast.

Based on what I saw, this announcing team has a chance to work, but it depends more on Joe Theismann than Mr. Tony, and I am not sure Theismann is up to the task. Mike Trico is fine as a play-by-play man; he talks too much, but in the preseason there are a lot of unfamiliar players and he has tons of biographical info to dish out. Once we get into the regular season, there will be less of a need to hear about players struggling to make the squad, etc. There also seems to be a lot of sideline reporting, not a good thing as far as I am concerned. I also expect less of that once the season starts, as players and coaches will be less available during the games.

Now, Kornheiser is best when he is arguing a point, either making a case or pointing out the fallacies in someone else's. The hallmark of his radio show was the well-informed guest with whom he would banter, but not always argue. On MNF, Theismann and he will have to do this every week. He can't really argue with Tirico because Tirico usually just gives you names and numbers. So, Theismann's the guy.

During the Bengals game, Theismann kept saying how Carson Palmer would be more comfortable once he got some contact and really tested his surgically repaired knee, to which TK replied that actually, contact might make Palmer a little bit uncomfortable. Theismann wasn't really able to explain exactly what he meant ( and I think he had a valid point), he just repeated the same thing later. He also stated repeatedly that Favre knew this was going to be a difficult season but he knew things were going to get better. Mr. Tony responded, "Well, how does he know that?" If these kinds of exchanges can go one level further, if Theismann can be more eloquent and persuasive, then we might have something here. If not, then this is a one-season gig, just as Mr. Tony predicted when he signed on.

Now, again, I'd like to remind everyone that it is still the preseason. I mean, last night, my beloved Redskins played my adopted stepteam, the Ravens. I watched a few minutes. But just one channel up,Temple was playing Buffalo (coached by former Nebraska great Turner Gill) to a scoreless game deep into the fourth quarter. And the next channel up had Andre Agassi in a fabulous U.S. Open match on USA Network. And the next channel had "Dirty Dancing, Havana Nights" with Sela Ward and Diego Luna of "Y Tu Mama Tambien." So, as you can see, quality programming all the way up the dial.

I guess I'm not as football-crazy as some. This was actually the second time the Ravens played the Redskins this fall. The first game wasa scrimmage that drew 50,000 people. A scrimmage!

Now, about Andre Agassi. I am very surprised and disappointed in the New York Post today. Last night, Agassi defeated the much younger Marcos Baghdatis in a five set match that took nearly four hours to play. Like all aging champions, Agassi was a heavy crowd favorite, especially after he took the first two sets. Baghdatis rallied to make the match a classic, but I was counting on the Post to come up with one of its bombastic, tasteless headlines for the back page, punning on Baghdatis ("Agassi bombs Baghdatis," something along those lines). Of course, the match ended after midnight, so the out-of-town edition showed only a smiling Alex Rodriguez, who broke out of his slump to lead the Yankees over the Tigers. Checking the online version of the Post, they have updated the cover to feature Agassi, but just a boring, positive, uplifting headline. This is the rag that once featured the headline, " Headless body found in topless bar?"