Archive for September, 2009

Jonathan Ames Is Bored to Death

The following is an entirely true and somewhat amazing cascade of events:

Sometime early this decade, probably right around when I finished reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, I decided I wanted to write my own detective novel. It was to be nothing short of a blatant rip-off of Christie’s concept—people dying one by one on an island cut off from the rest of civilization—with the small twist that a tried-and-true detective would be there, doubling as the role of the murderer. And because detectives always had such austere names and I had always liked the sound of “Jonathan,” I decided to name my main character Jonathan Ames.

Fast forward two years or so to a shot of me walking through my favorite bookstore. There, on the discount rack with a bright yellow spine, was a book called Wake Up, Sir! by a man named Jonathan Ames. Two days later, I finished reading the funniest book I’d ever picked up.

Now in the fall of 2009, we’ve come full circle. HBO has a new television series based off Ames’ short story, “Bored to Death.” And the main character is none other than a detective named Jonathan Ames.

Crazy, right?

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The Return of The Hills

The Hills KristinThe appeal of The Hills has always been its delicate balance of a few very key contradictions: the show is “real life” but quite obviously staged, these characters are on a very successful and invasive TV show that they can never explicitly acknowledge, the people on the show constantly talk about how much is going on in their lives while nothing actually happens on the show, and they all have to lead very dramatic lives while simultaneously professing a deep aversion to said “drama.”

The introduction of Kristin Cavallari, though, threatens to throw this symbiosis all out of whack.

In last night’s season premiere (called “It’s On, Bitch,” except MTV didn’t punctuate it, so it read as if something was on top of “bitch”), Kristin was treated as if her reputation preceded her like Winston Wolf, except instead of solving problems, she steals boyfriends. And in short order she starts pursuing Audrina’s ex, Justin Bobby.

Except Kristin’s reputation is repeated so often by so many characters that they sound as if they were reading MTV Production Notes (particularly Stephanie, who says both “This is the girl that’s going to stab us all in the back!” and “How is it possible that one girl can turn all of our lives upside down?”). Also, the only reason Kristin is pursuing Justin, as she more or less admits, is to cause drama and upset Audrina, which A) violates the rule that all characters must profess a “no drama” ethos; and B) highlights how forced Kristin’s inclusion is. She’s not actually friends with anyone on the show, as both she and Lo make clear at various points during the episode, which makes any interaction she has with the rest of the cast seem manipulated and contrived (even more so than usual). Continue reading

Unabated to the QB, Week 3: The Rejuvenation of the Cover Corner

“Stick with him! Think of chewing gum … if he’s chewing some, by the end of the game, I want to know what flavor it is!”

—Coach Norman Dale

A few years ago, the Washington Redskins traded young but established star cornerback named Champ Bailey to the Denver Broncos for a young but established star running back named Clinton Portis. Most people thought the Broncos won the trade; even if Portis was a better player, Bailey was a star at a position that didn’t have any (and, of course, with their borderline illegal blocking scheme, the Broncos would have no trouble producing another 1,000-yard rusher. His name was Reuben Droughns).

Now, there haven’t been any clear winners in that deal. Each team has won a single playoff game, and both guys played a fairly significant part in those respective wins (gratuitous linking to that Bailey interception…NOW!). My hard-to-get-to point is this: At the time of the trade, Champ Bailey was the best cornerback in football and the only one who could even be considered a shutdown guy. Bailey was the only player who made teams think twice about throwing his way. And he wasn’t even that good, at least not by “Best Cornerback in the League” standards. (No offense to Champ, but he couldn’t hold a candle to guys like Darrell Green, Deion Sanders, even Aeneas Williams.)

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Should School Be Out for Summer?

EDUCATION Gap 1Contrary to the opinions of Roger Waters and David Gilmour, we do, in fact, need education. In fact, according to President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, we need more education. This weekend, the two of them floated the ever-unpopular ideas of expanding the school day and eliminating or shortening summer break.

Now, since I am no longer in school, I can admit it: They’re right. There is no reason for the school schedule to remain as it is. The current academic schedule is based on the socio-economic conditions that were prevalent when public schools were being established, over 100 years ago. But things have changed; as Duncan put it, “Not too many of our kids are working the fields today.”

Ignoring Duncan’s blatant disrespect for the <1% of the country that still farms, he’s right that the calendar should be changed. But simply expanding the length of the school day or school year is not all that should be changed. Continue reading

Monday Medley

What we read while Google Earth-ing the rest of the Middle East:

  • Our friends over at The Millions got a jump start on decade-in-review countdowns, ranking the best novels of the last 10 years. For those who, like us, enjoyed Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, No. 4 on The Millions’ list, they offer a complete “Bolaño syllabus” for how to read more of the still-being-translated Chilean. And if decade-in-review countdowns are up your alley, get pumped for December, when we exercise our own love of rankings and unleash a massive retrospective on the last 10 years.
  • We’ve known about Tampa Bay Rays’ outfielder-cum-poet Fernando Perez for over a year now. Perez, a Jersey Guy and Columbia alum, is one of the most articulate athletes to come along in some time, a talent he showcases in an essay on poetry he wrote for the latest issue of Poetry Magazine. Perez has also written glimpses at Major League life for The New York Times‘ Bats blog and at Minor League life for MiLB.com.
  • It was more than a week ago that Fire Joe Morgan staged a one-day reunion on Deadspin, but this takedown of Derek Jeter is, to some of us, timeless.

Asterios Polyp and the Function of Form

Back when I was a hard-working student, I took two very different classes. One was high school biology, and the other was on James Joyce. I got through the former by remembering one of the life sciences’ simplest platitudes: Form equals function. I got through the latter by pretending I understood what that meant when applied to literature.

Ulysses is the ultimate example of form overwhelming plot—of the how of the story transcending the what. Not quite coincidentally, it’s also widely considered the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Enter David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. The aim of this 344-page graphic novel is in many ways similar to Joyce’s in Ulysses: Mazzucchelli attempts to tell the story of his eccentrically named title character in a manner that reveals more about him that straight words or illustrations ever could. Asterios’ tale isn’t just what he says or how he says it; it’s also how Mazzucchelli portrays Asterios’ words and actions.

Of course, this is a little easier to do in a graphic medium than a strictly textual one. Mazzucchelli takes full advantage of that by giving each of his characters their own individual style. For instance:

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The Sports Revolution: Golf’s Major Playoffs

Let me set the scene for you: It’s the final week of the golf season, except nobody notices because the most important tournaments have already been played.

Let me reset the scene for you: It’s the final week of the golf season, and everybody’s* attention is riveted as the most important tournament wraps up six weeks of must-see golf.

*“Everybody” here does not, of course, mean “everybody,” but rather, you know, anyone somewhat enthused by the adventurous journey of that petite dimpled ball.

This is the third year of the FedEx Cup—golf’s subpar attempt at concocting end-of-season excitement with some absurd form of “playoffs.” There are four tournaments, a point system, and a reduced number of players in the field each week. But in 2007, Tiger Woods won easily because he dominated the whole year, and in 2008, Vijay Singh won easily because he won the first two of the “playoff” tournaments.

Golf’s problem is this: It wants the playoffs to be approached both by the players and its fans with the same level of seriousness and significance as the sport’s major championships, played intermittently throughout the season. But therein lies the rub: The playoffs won’t be taken this seriously while they’re competing with the major titles.

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Athletes Are Bad People

ESPN ran two stories yesterday about Michael Crabtree and his contract situation. For those unfamiliar, Crabtree was selected tenth overall, by my own San Francisco 49ers, in last spring’s NFL Draft, but he has not, as of yet, signed with the team.

The dispute stems from the fact that the team feels that Crabtree should be paid like the second wide receiver taken in the draft (i.e. slightly less than what the first receiver selected, Darrius Heyward-Bey, got paid), which he was. Crabtree, however, feels like he should be paid like the best receiver taken in the draft, which he was.

Now, I don’t intend to dwell on this particular dispute, since Bill Simmons addressed it in his inaugural “Miller Lite Great Call of the Week,” and the only person criticizing Crabtree now is the less-than-respected Scoop Jackson.

But I think it’s interesting that someone like Crabtree can have his character and intelligence questioned for employing, essentially, his only bargaining tool. The fact that Crabtree is refusing to sign and play for the 49ers is being interpreted as a sign that his inner circle is nefarious and that he is not a “team player.”

This is a ridiculous double standard that athletes are held to. The contract rules that many athletes play under, particularly in the NFL, are incredibly unfair. Continue reading

FlashBack…to FlashForward

FlashForward

JOHN S: FlashForward premiered on ABC last night (with an encore for those who missed it tonight at 8), and Tim and John S watched–we weren’t lying when we said FlashForward was the #9 reason to be excited for the Fall TV Season. So Tim, what did you think?

TIM: First off, you said it was #9. I would have had it at like #3, behind the return of Survivor and Degrassi’s Nina Dobrev in The Vampire Diaries. Those are really the only two things that could excite me more than a show in which the presentation of a friendship bracelet is accompanied by pulse-poundingly dramatic music.

JOHN S: Yeah, there was a TON of pulse-pounding dramatic music in this show. It was like 80% of the episode.

TIM: Right, and that’s one of the things I kind of expected. It reminded me a lot of the premieres of 24 and, predictably, Lost, in its explosive and perhaps overly dramatic tone. At the same time, I think that’s what shows have to do these days to survive: You rarely build an audience when you’re building characters. One of the smarter things FlashForward did was to avoid breaking for a commercial for 15 minutes. By that point, we had already seen the en medias res opening, the flash back four hours, the blackout, and the realization that it was global. It lays most of its cards on the table in those 15 minutes (two big ones left to be played later in the episode) and tries to hook you in as quickly as possible (like 24 does with its four hours in two nights with limited commercial interruptions).

Was it too dramatic? Ehh, a show that’s so conceptually driven is almost required to get it all out there in its first episode. If FlashForward were to save some of its expository twists (something like the fact that the blackout was indeed global or that everyone not only blacked out, but also saw a vision of their future) for later episodes, it probably wouldn’t create the same kind of buzz leading in. It’s not like you’re going to draw in viewers with your “…AND THEY SEE THE FUTURE!” trailers and then save that information for later.

Am I making any sense? Continue reading

The Decline of The Office

the office

 

It’s always easier to analyze things in retrospect, and the demise of The Office, my one-time favorite show on television, is no different. In retrospect it’s easy to point to the third season premiere as the moment when things went south, but at the time I didn’t feel that way at all.

First, though, I should acknowledge that I’m in the minority. Most people probably object to the very premise of my account of the “the decline of The Office,” since the show has increased in popularity and prestige since I stopped watching. The Office is a perennial Emmy nominee and is still considered one of the best and smartest shows on television.

And there was a time when I would have been the show’s most vocal defender. During seasons one and two, I preached the virtues of the show to anyone who would listen. My friends and I (Tim and Josh included) counted down to episodes of the show and made references to it in daily conversations. We were particularly eager for the premiere of season three, “Gay Witch Hunt.” Continue reading