Crossing Pumpkins

We won’t be putting out pumpkins on the front porch this October. Two years ago, we went outside one crisp, early October morning to find our three pumpkins in various states of distress and eaten-ness. Our squirrels apparently decided there weren’t enough nuts out there in the world to nosh on, so they turned their attention to our vulnerable decorations. It was not a fair fight. It was not a pretty sight.

The irony is those three pumpkins may have been doomed from the start anyway. They barely survived the trip home.

We have a Wegmans grocery store nearby, where we bought those three pumpkins. If you have a Wegmans in your area, you know how ginormous they are. Many people are coming and going, with a front entrance that goes on forever. After we checked out a handful of groceries and the three pumpkins, we headed out the front doors and headed for the relative safety of the crosswalk. I say relative because everyone gets a little crazy whether they are coming or going from the Wegmans, driving by or walking to and from their cars, etc. And at the crosswalk, you can clearly see many drivers glaring at you as they reluctantly stop for the foot traffic to proceed.

I went to put my sunglasses on just as we got to the crosswalk…while awaiting those not-very-compassionate drivers to stop in both directions… so we could get to the parking lot. Two hands on the sunglasses. No hands on the cart. We were on a slope at that point, and I didn’t compensate for the additional weight of the pumpkins we had with us that day.

The shopping cart started to cross the crosswalk…without…me.

My wife gasped as I executed an impromptu jog to catch up to the cart. By the grace of the Holy Great Pumpkin himself, there were no cars immediately in the vicinity of the crosswalk and I regained control of the wayward cart. Little did we know the pumpkins wouldn’t be as lucky crossing paths again with the Grim Reaper just a couple of days later.

Ah yes, October. Days are getting noticeably shorter (am I the only person who likes that?). Leaves start to fall (they usually all wind up in our yard even though we have no trees). Air feels crisper (the air where I live, at least).

The following represents a handful of entertainment items I’ve noticed are on the way in October. As always, please share your comments on these (good or bad – this is a safe space!), and most definitely let me know anything you might be looking forward to.

October 3 – The Good Doctor returns on ABC – My wife is always down for watching medical shows. I’m not a big fan of them, in part because of the great lengths shows like this now go to show as close to an actual surgery as possible. It’s very hard for me to sleep after being deep inside a chest cavity late at night.

October 4 – The First To Die At The End is released – A prequel to the best-selling They Both Die At The End, Adam Silvera writes a new tale regarding the new app named Death-Cast, which promises it can predict the date of your death. When strangers meet, their lives are forever altered when one gets the call from Death-Cast…the other doesn’t. Didn’t read the first book, but might give both a read now. The biggest complaint I have heard about the original novel was they both died at the end.

October 5 – Reginald The Vampire debuts on Syfy – My wife and I are suckers for anything Syfy puts out there, aside from the relatively-new Chucky series and reruns of their “classic” Sharknado movies. I myself have never connected with the Chucky vibe, and my wife would rather be married to Chucky than watch shark movies. Sharks are her kryptonite. It doesn’t matter if they aren’t real sharks. Trust me, it doesn’t matter.

October 6 – Walker returns on The CW – We are huge, fanatical fans of The CW’s recently-concluded Supernatural series and Jared Padalecki, who played Sam Winchester on that show, is the lead character on Walker. This show is similar to Chuck Norris’ Walker, Texas Ranger in name only. I like Padalecki, but I’m not sure yet if I like his acting choice-post Supernatural.

October 6 – Walker: Independence debuts on The CW – Even my wife agrees the last show that needed a prequel was the above-mentioned Walker. It’s only been on for two freakin’ seasons. I will say this show will feature a good leading lady in Katherine McNamara, a star on Freeform’s Shadowhunters, as well as a co-star on The CW’s Arrow when that show was winding down. I’ll watch the first episode and see what kind of world-building they do.

October 7 – Amsterdam debuts in the theatres – Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Anya Taylor-Joy, Taylor Swift, Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Robert De Niro. Yes, please. Loosely based on a true story, it follows three friends in the 1930’s who saw a murder, got framed for it, and now are the prime suspects. With this cast, I am all in.

October 7 – MLB Playoffs start…NHL Regular Season starts – I remember as a little kid coming home from school as soon as possible to watch playoff games, especially when they involved my favorite childhood team (aside from the Phillies), the Oakland Athletics. Not a bad team at all to be rooting for as a child, as they won three straight World Championships from 1972-74. The Phillies may yet find their way into the playoffs this year (courtesy of Major League Baseball adding an extra Wild Card berth). The chances for the Flyers to win a Stanley Cup this year? None. Playoffs? None. We won the Cup back in 1973-74 and 1974-75. I went into Center City for both of the massive parades honoring the team. Who knew they’d be the only parades? Sigh.

October 9 – Full Moon – Called the Full Hunter’s or Harvest Moon. I always pause to check out the Full Moon. The Moon has always fascinated me, and it’s hard to believe we landed on it in 1969 and still no one lives there. Then again, it’s even harder to believe we’re now going to spend a gazillion dollars to start going there again. I think my fascination with the Moon goes back to when I was a kid and somehow the Moon wound up representing Heaven to me. At least I got the direction right.

October 11 – The Winchesters debuts on The CW – You’ll recall I mentioned the TV series Supernatural earlier. That show ran for 327 episodes…a whopping 15 seasons. Now THIS is a show you can have a prequel for. It will tell the early stories of John & Mary Winchester, the parents of Sam & Dean, who Supernatural was all about. Jensen Ackles, who played Dean is – along with his wife – an executive producer of this new series. Jensen will also be narrating this show. His time invested behind the scenes and his active participation on the show has we fans of Supernatural very hopeful the spirit of the original series will be honored and extended within this prequel.

October 14 – Halloween Ends debuts in the theatres and on Peacock – The 1978 original film for me is a cinematic classic. The director, John Carpenter, is one of my all-time favorites. In 2018, a reboot of the Halloween franchise (for the umpteenth time) provided the first film of a promised trilogy. I thought that movie modestly captured the spirit which made the first film successful, and I was ok with it being made. It was good enough I thought they should just forget the idea of making the next two movies and just call it a day. Unfortunately, the second film released last year was a complete and utter failure for me. I think it is an embarrassment to the franchise. I do hope that – as this new release is named – Halloween Ends.

October 18 – The Last Chairlift is released – John Irving’s first novel in seven years deals with a skier who becomes pregnant after competing in the National Championships in Aspen. She returns to New England and becomes a ski instructor, raising her son Adam in an unusual manner. As an adult, Adam travels to Aspen looking for answers in the hotel he was conceived within. The main themes here are sexual politics, a love story…and a ghost story.

October 19 – NBA Regular Season starts – Our 76ers will most definitely make the playoffs again this season, but it is hard to see them winning the Eastern Conference and getting to the Finals. That being said, I don’t have an opinion yet who will be the last teams standing at season’s end. Do however keep an eye on those Cleveland Cavaliers. No, they did not get Lebron back again. They’re going to be just fine without him. My sleeper team in the NBA this season.

October 21 – Black Adam debuts in the theatres – Dwayne Johnson is as big (literally) a movie star there is, but will he be believable and welcomed as a DC Comics mega-superhero? We shall see. I like Dwayne a lot and am hoping he and this film do great things. The Peacemaker series with John Cena recently turned out well for DC. Maybe the Black Adam movie will do the same.

October 21 – Taylor Swift’s Midnights drops – I am not a Swiftie (even though she’s from nearby Reading PA), but I will take note if any notes on this new release resonate with me. I will tell you her ten minute song and short film All Too Well is one of the very best musical concoctions I have heard and seen in the past year. She performed it on Saturday Night Live last Fall and just crushed it.

October 21 – Hallmark Christmas 2022 Readers here may recall my admitted weakness for having Hallmark Christmas movies on as we begin Christmas prep. I’ll be honest, I more often steer towards their older films made before the Hallmark “formula” became a standard for all their movies…which some folks legitimately can find repetitive. Some of the earlier entries took a much bigger creative swing and were a bit less predictable. Hey, Hallmark storylines and families aren’t anything like I’ve ever experienced, but I guess that’s the appeal.

October 22 – World Cup Alpine Skiing begins – This sport may have to rethink its locations as snow continues to disappear around the globe and man-made snow becomes ever more challenging to maintain. I never learned how to ski, but I always wanted to (still do, but the wife just shakes her head). As a kid I loved taking in skiing during the Winter Olympics, and have been hooked on watching it ever since.

October 30 – The White Lotus returns on HBO and HBO Max – The first season of this series had a super-great cast, but to me came across as slow and plodding. And then the finale came and it was – wait for it – slow and plodding. This show has garnered wide critical acclaim, but to me Season 1 was just a slow burn of a show that never got hot, and its finale left me ice cold.

October 31 – Halloween – Loved this holiday as a kid, and I do appreciate it even more as an adult. It’s great to see what characters come up to the front door for their treats. In addition, my wife does not enforce the cut-off number Mom did on candy consumption Halloween Night.

Happy October!

 

Pictures Courtesy City of Salisbury MD/The CW

Adapting To Death – Neil Gaiman Brings The Sandman To Netflix

In this age of “social” media, offering a review or opinion of just about anything creative can yield comments and responses supporting your take, but more often than not you’ll also generate opinions which are not only the polar opposite, but served up with a heaping side of snark and venom.

It is also a time that when creative works are adapted into different mediums, that fact alone can inspire an outpouring of fiery anger and hatred.

I find it ironic whenever a baby boomer guy like myself complains about something, we’re designated as “the old man on the porch,” supposedly resistant to change and complaining just for the sake of complaining. Yet, it seems to me people now learn at a very early age to come for and declare war on anyone who doesn’t completely agree with their views…or wants to mess with something they love.

When I was in college, I took a course on Film Criticism. One of the takeaways I still abide by is to not only be tolerant but inquisitive when someone views films/series/plays/books/art differently than I. My feeling is reviews and opinions of creative work are subjective in every way (unless or course the company that employs you also owns the creative property you’re reviewing but I digress). Further, you might actually learn something from differing viewpoints which could lead to your modifying or even changing your thoughts about the work. Finally, creative forms or mediums provide vastly different experiences, even if the subject matter is essentially the same.

I recently saw the movie “Where the Crawdads Sing,” based on a best-selling book by Delia Owens. I never read the novel, but was drawn to seeing the film because of the book’s overwhelming success. For a number of reasons, I did not enjoy the movie. However, in leaving the theatre with my wife I mentioned it probably made for a very good book. While I didn’t like the way it was portrayed on the big screen, I considered what I saw as it might have played out in written form – in other medium – and could see where it might well be a most compelling novel. In fact, my suspicion in the instance of “Where The Crawdads Sing” was and is the filmmakers stayed quite true to those written words…which may be why I felt it wasn’t a very good watch.

I later read reviews which highly praised the movie, but I didn’t feel there were any opinions or observations that altered my feelings about it. Yet, I did do that personal due diligence and seek out positive reviews to see what those folks had taken away from the film, what experiences they had. And in my comments back to those reviewers, I was respectful of their opinions while expressing mine.

The release of the Netflix series “The Sandman” has garnered much reaction on social media over the past couple of weeks. For decades, this distinguished work in the world of comics languished in development hell until its creator, Neil Gaiman, found just the right folks to help bring his adaptation to the screen. Yet, even though Gaiman was fully immersed in developing this project, there were those who began tirades the moment it came out saying the comic is still great, but the TV adaptation is rubbish, and don’t even give it a look. You would have thought they owned the property themselves and hadn’t gotten paid for it. Of course, there were others who absolutely loved the series and they raved about it, heaping over-the-top, God-like praise upon it. Indeed, yet another social media flexing of the extremes had broken out. People these days can’t just calmly state they like or dislike creative work, and sometimes can’t even remain civil when opposite opinions appear.

Fandom on social media seems to me to be fairly toxic most of the time. If you don’t like something someone else does, you’re right and they’re wrong. The actor and comedian Patton Oswalt, who lends his voice to the character Raven in “The Sandman,” had this to say to IndieWire regarding current fan culture:

“This happens with everything, including sports and music. There are fans out there who unfortunately look at everything they love as showing the person how much they love them by hating other things. If I express hatred toward the thing that’s not them, that shows them how much I love them. It’s a sad and ugly way to show how you love things, but unfortunately that’s how a lot of people are being taught and how people are being modeled by our leaders now, which sucks.”

Oswalt also had this to say regarding the priorities of people in our world today versus being opposed against any adaptation of “The Sandman”:

“If you can look out your window and this is what you’re mad about, then you have way bigger pathologies to deal with than I can handle. If you are looking at the headlines and going, “I am planting my flag on the hill of “don’t fuck with The Sandman” well then, you’ve got some really serious problems. You’ll love this show, especially Episode Six, “The Sound of Her Wings,” which is so goddamn beautiful.” (Do hold that thought about Episode Six…I’ll circle back to that in a moment…)

The following is an excerpt from The Nerdist where Michael Walsh wrote about why adaptations are done in the first place:

“Why does anyone bother making or watching adaptations of great stories? If we already love something, why do we need to experience it in a different medium? Especially, when adaptations so often disappoint the people who care about the source material the most. “The Sandman’s” sixth episode, “The Sound of Her Wings,” is why. The Netflix series did more than introduce new fans to the beauty of Neil Gaiman’s Death. “The Sandman” gave old fans new ways to appreciate a beloved character with an episode and performance that exemplifies the best of what adaptations can and should be.”

I thoroughly enjoyed Netflix’s “The Sandman.” I didn’t find it perfect in every way, but to me it’s a very high-quality production. I am only diving into the source material now, but I was already aware there were several significant changes from the comics which were made in bringing this to the screen. Why? Because it’s a completely different medium, designed for a global streaming audience.

And for fans of Gaiman’s original comics, considering they surely knew he was involved in every aspect of this television project, why would they not be thrilled which the fact millions of more folks now get exposure to his stories, his characters?

Since I recently asked readers to give “Evil” a watch, knowing everyone has thousands of entertainment options these days, it’s downright obscene of me so soon thereafter to now suggest you give this series a look if you weren’t otherwise inclined…but before I wrap this up I must give Episode Six of “The Sandman” its due.

It is one of the most moving episodes of television I have ever experienced. It’s about dying and Death, but equal measures of dignity, faith, and hope are baked in as well. Here’s another excerpt from Walsh regarding that particular episode, and how seeing scenes play out is such a different dynamic than reading them:

“Dying doesn’t seem as terrifying when you imagine this Death will be by your side. The act of dying on “The Sandman” – whether in old age doing what you love, or alone in an alleyway far too young – certainly wasn’t horrible, it wasn’t defined by sadness or anger, nor even by the finality of life. Instead, it was about the comfort of holding a hand and the soft sound of wings. And seeing and hearing all of that in “The Sandman” was powerful in a way than reading about them isn’t. Not better or worse, just different. Because while no TV show or movie can ever fully capture every aspect of what makes a book or comic great, live-action adaptations bring elements the written word or a static illustration inherently can’t.”

“The existence of Netflix’s “The Sandman” will never change the existence of Neil Gaiman’s comic book. Nor will Netflix’s Death change how you think about the version you first met on the page. All that’s changed is that we now have two versions of Death to appreciate, each in a different medium that offer elements the other one can’t. The two aren’t competing with each other or for our admiration, either. They complement one another, and in doing each elevates their counterpart. That’s the best you can hope from any adaptation of a great story. That’s the reason adaptations are worth attempting even if they so often disappoint us. When done right, they give us something new to love while reminding us why we loved the original in the first place. And you can’t do that better than “The Sound of Her Wings.”

We all die. We all have our own ideas about the moment life will end. One thought on that subject is offered in “The Sandman,” and it is one worth considering.

In any medium.

 

Picture Courtesy Netflix

Robust August

Seeing a rabbit in the front yard this morning…not unusual.

Seeing a rabbit in the front yard with geese marching down the street…this is unusual. The geese spend most of their day at the golf course next to our development. I can only assume air traffic control told them to land on an auxiliary runway…our street.

August has finally arrived. With it, the welcome return of all the Fall and Winter sports I love. I’m definitely Team Fall/Winter, so this month is the gateway to the time of year I enjoy the most.

And regular readers know no matter what month it is I love watching shows…here’s the line-up for August. Let me know if anything looks familiar or intriguing:

CURRENT REWATCHES (Started in July…)

On Syfy Channel…

Warehouse 13 (2009-2014) – Great cast (Eddie McClintock, Joanne Kelly, Saul Rubinek, Allison Scagliotti, Aaron Ashmore) and a very impressive list of guest stars. The network caught lightning in a bottle with this series, which they decided to rerun in its entirety starting last month.

The premise: Two Secret Service Agents are reassigned to a mysterious warehouse located in the middle of South Dakota that holds every artifact, relic, and object collected and stored by the U.S. Government.

The rewatch takeaway: It has been great seeing Warehouse 13 again, so much so if someone asked me for a viewing recommendation on a series which is no longer airing, this would be right up there.

The moment worth a mention: At the end of the first hour of a two-part Season 3 finale, there is a scene so hard-hitting and emotional it usually tops anyone’s list of memorable moments from this series. This scene also features a slower, stripped-down, piano-driven masterpiece of the Kate Bush song “Running Up That Hill,” which recently played a big part in Stranger Things Season 4. I am not exaggerating in saying the scene is one of the very best I’ve ever experienced on television. And if you admire that song, please do give the version by Track and Field a listen.

On Comet Channel…

The X-Files (1993-2002; 2016-2018) – David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s chemistry shined brightly in this series, which a lot of folks have on their All-Time Greatest TV Show lists.

The premise: Two FBI Special Agents investigate unexplained events and government conspiracies alike.

The rewatch takeaway: In general, the show holds up really well over all this time when it comes to the stand-alone, “monster-of-the-week” episodes. They feature some of the best acting, writing, and editing you’ll see. However, the recurring, overarching plots regarding government conspiracy and paranoia interrupts the momentum our dynamic duo creates when digging into the paranormal, the supernatural…the weirdness. Every time the “Cigarette Smoking Man” came on-screen, I didn’t feel engaged. I also grew weary of him when it first aired.

The moment worth a mention: Season 5, Episode 12’s “Bad Blood.” Duchovny’s Fox Mulder kills what he thought was a vampire, but turns out to be a young man flashing some false teeth. The differences in how he and Anderson’s Dana Scully recall and remember what went down in their separate reports to their boss are wildly different…and quite humorous. This series features several other episodes which are welcome, funny breaks.

On Comet Channel…

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) – Sarah Michelle Gellar and her “Scooby” gang became pop culture icons for many teenagers and young adults during their run. Like The X-Files, this show appears on some All-Time Greatest TV Show lists.

The premise: Destined to slaying otherworldly invaders of Sunnydale CA, Gellar’s Buffy enlists her Watcher and friends in trying to keep their town from being taken over by a wide variety of dark forces.

The rewatch takeaway: While the sets, special effects and make-up of the various creatures look silly at times, the whip-smart dialogue, camaraderie, and friendship of the characters – as well as outstanding acting – makes this a very satisfying rewatch.

The moment worth a mention: The 10th episode of Season 4, “Hush.” One of the most fascinating, unique episodes in television history. Over half of the episode’s running time features no dialogue. And with most of the episode having no spoken words, the show was actually nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series. Even if you don’t know a blessed thing about the Buffyverse, if you ever get the chance to watch “Hush” do it.

RETURNING SHOWS

On Syfy Channel…

Resident Alien (2021-Current) – New episodes in Season 2 return on August 10th. It has become a breakout hit for Syfy due to solid writing and a great cast of characters, led by veteran actor Alan Tudyk. The concept is simple and straight-forward…an alien’s original mission was to kill everyone on Earth…but now he’s the Earth’s only hope for survival. Tudyk’s portrayal of an alien trying to not look out of place in a small town in Colorado includes some of the best physical comedy you’ll see. It’s a show that has me smiling throughout.

ONGOING SHOWS

On HBO…

Westworld (2016-Current) – Season 4 has a couple of episodes left in it. This year has been a wild ride. One week I love it, one week I hate it…and that’s how the WHOLE series has been for me since Season 1 ended.

On Paramount +…

Evil (2019-Current) – Season 3 has a couple of episodes left in it. Regular readers here know how special I think this one is.

On Amazon Prime…

Paper Girls (2022) – Season 1 episodes just dropped a few days ago, and based on reviews that mentioned a faint resemblance to Stranger Things, I took a look. I still have three episodes to watch, but it has been a very pleasant late-summer surprise. It is set in the 80’s, and it has kids on bikes fighting sci-fi elements, but that’s about it for the similarities to Stranger Things. It starts out with four girls delivering newspapers in the early AM hours after Halloween in 1988, when they accidentally become caught up in a time-traveler war and their lives are changed forever.

NEW SHOWS

On Netflix…

The Sandman (2022) – Season 1 episodes debut August 5th. This series was in product development hell forever but this show – based on one of the most decorated comics of all time – is ready to roll now. I know next to nothing about it other than, 1) how very highly the comic is revered, 2) how creator Neil Gaiman waited a really, really long time before he found folks who could best translate his source material to TV and, 3) my very favorite Doctor Who companion is in it – Jenna Coleman. I’m going to give this one a go.

On Disney +…

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (2022) – Season 1 episodes debut August 17th. Readers know Marvel is on very thin ice with me, but I’m going to go ahead and give this one a go also. The Hulk himself (Mark Ruffalo) is in it…so we’ll see.

Premier League 2022-23: Soccer’s Calling

My love of soccer goes back to a time when my high school hadn’t even yet sponsored it as a varsity sport. That was likely because soccer was still in the process of trying to get any kind of foothold at all in the United States on the professional level. I wound up playing goal one season for our school’s club team, playing other schools who had yet to formally sponsor soccer squads.

In that season, I learned a pretty cool life lesson during one match when I spectacularly stopped a penalty shot…only to relax a bit, not control the rebound, and the other squad scored a goal anyway. Lesson learned – never take anything for granted and don’t celebrate too soon. Well, maybe that was two life lessons…

My interest in what the rest of Planet Earth calls football did not start more recently with the popular TV series Ted Lasso, as I suspect was the case for some Americans…although I think that’s an excellent show and anything that helps people in the States connect with soccer is great.

By the way, did you know the genesis of Ted Lasso came about when star Jason Sudeikis did a couple of sketch-length commercials for the Premier League’s broadcast coverage in the US? The basis for the series about an American football coach using his skill set to embark on a career as an English club soccer coach came about from two promos Sudeikis did. By the way, I think NBC Sports does a really fine job covering the PL. Watching matches on Saturday and Sunday mornings has become a tradition for a lot of folks in the States, with many gathering at their favorite watering holes to enjoy the action with fellow fans.

As for how the Premier League may shake out in its upcoming season, the pre-season rankings below are from analytics site FiveThirtyEight. They use a number of metrics to determine each squad’s soccer power rating (SPI), and then refines them throughout the season as results accumulate. With the kickoff of the new campaign less than two weeks away, here is how they have each of the 20 clubs ranked:

Manchester City (92.3)

Liverpool (90.5)

Chelsea (85.7)

Tottenham Hotspur (81.9)

Arsenal (78.5)

Manchester United (75.2)

Aston Villa (74.1)

Brighton & Hove Albion (73.7)

Crystal Palace (71.4)

Leicester City (71.2)

West Ham United (70.6)

Brentford (68.6)

Newcastle United (68.6)

Wolverhampton Wanderers (67.7)

Everton (63.8)

Leeds United (62.2)

Southampton (61.3)

Fulham (58.7)

Bournemouth (57.9)

Nottingham Forest (57.3)

The site ultimately feels defending champ Manchester City has a 46% probability to win the league, with Liverpool given a 30% chance and Chelsea 11%. Last season, a thrilling final day of the campaign saw Manchester City score three goals in under six minutes to snatch victory from Aston Villa and claim their fourth championship in five seasons. They finished a lone one point ahead of second-place Liverpool. Chelsea was third, Tottenham Hotspur fourth, Arsenal fifth, and Manchester United sixth.

So…in comparing last season’s results to those pre-season rankings it looks like nothing is expected to change in terms of the squads at the top. More on that in a moment. Of course, there is always the question of Premier League relegation, which is I feel one of the coolest aspects of many soccer leagues. It often presents as much drama as who all may be fighting it out for first. For those unfamiliar with relegation, the teams that finish in the bottom three positions in the Premier League standings each season leave the league and are relegated one level/tier down to what is known as the EFL Championship. The EFL Championship in turn promotes three teams up to the PL for the following campaign. Burnley, Watford, and Norwich City were the Premier League clubs sent down last season…replaced this year by Fulham, Bournemouth, and Nottingham Forest. There is always a fair amount of stress among the lesser squads each year with the potential to be relegated. Residence in the Premier League each season provides a cash windfall for its participants.

There has always been debate about whether or not dynasties are good for a sport. In the Premier League, there certainly are the haves and have-nots based on cash to spend, the quality of their facilities, historical prestige, etc. It’s no accident the same teams that finished at the top of last season are the ones favored at the top this year. Manchester City certainly is in dynasty-mode right now with those four titles in the past five seasons. Yet, I still recall the incredible run of Leicester City in the 2015-16 campaign, considered by many to be one of the greatest team sporting stories of all time. Rated at 5000-1 to win the Premier League at the beginning of that year, they did just that. Indeed, it is unlikely a club will pull of a miracle like Leicester City did that season, but it is great fun each year watching lesser squads sometimes give the big boys all they can handle in a match…potentially denying them what they thought going in would be an easy victory and three points in the standings.

What I like most about the Premier League is the passion of the fans. They are devoted to their clubs, and it is fantastic to see the joy in their faces when their squads do well. These clubs have been at it for a long time now, and the love they have for their teams has been passed down from generation to generation.

Other PL likes…I am ok with ties, which probably puts me in a very small minority. I know it may sound strange, but I honestly never had a problem with ties in either the NFL or NHL regular seasons before they moved to overtime periods. In the Premier League, where there is an acknowledged uneven amount of resources among the membership, I like the fact those have-nots have the ability to forge a tie and take away something against the favorites. I also think it is neat the PL, like many other leagues in world soccer, has no post-season. The season IS the season. A true champion, not diluted by an over-abundance of playoff teams like we allow in American sports. I find that refreshing. Each August, fans of the Premier League heed the call back to their club’s pitch knowing every match means so much.

One additional note about the Premier League for this season. There will be an unusual interruption to the schedule in November-December as players are allowed to compete for their national teams at the World Cup in Qatar. If interested, you’ll be able to find information online about how Qatar was selected to host this championship in the first place, as well as troubling reports of poor safety conditions there while construction of stadiums and facilities was going on. The positioning of this World Cup in Qatar also means not just the Premier League, but leagues around the world, have to suspend their seasons. To have the Cup played at its usual time, in the middle of the calendar year, would have been the equivalent of playing soccer on the sun. The whole planet seems to be heating up these days, but Qatar always features scorching summertime temps, so the decision was made to move the World Cup to the fall. Hopefully, all players who compete there come out of the competition in good health and ready to resume their seasons.

The most powerful, most watched soccer league in the world begins its new season on August 5th.

 

Picture Courtesy iStock

Is There Good In Evil?

I have recently been hesitant to make TV recommendations in what is supposedly our current “golden era” of television. The fact is there are so many good, quality shows out there I suspect some folks occasionally wind up feeling a bit frustrated because they know they’ll never be able to watch everything of interest. I know in my case there is a lot of sensational TV I’ll flat-out never get to, but I’m resigned to that fate.

I recently came across an article titled “Please Stop Forcing Your Favorite TV Show On Me.” It expresses a couple of theories regarding human behavior which I see merit in, behavior which presents at an early age:

Nobody wants to be told to do something.

If you tell somebody not to get involved with something, they’ll likely try to.

So, for heaven’s sake please do not watch Evil, a series which just got renewed for a fourth season on Paramount +. Currently in Season 3, new episodes of Evil drop on Sundays.

My wife and I started watching from the very first episode in September 2019 when it debuted on CBS. Thirteen episodes later, my wife wasn’t quite sure how she felt about watching it going forward. I definitely wanted to see what was next, especially when it was announced later the show was shifting from CBS over to Paramount +. The creators of the show, Robert & Michelle King (The Good Wife, The Good Fight), were now being given a much bigger canvas to paint upon. The broadcast censorship reins were taken off, and their characters could now live more realistic lives when it comes to having no subject being off limits, foul language, expressions of physical intimacy…as well as depicting more…pure…evil.

The show’s premise is simple enough. Three diverse personalities come together to form a “dream team” of sorts investigating extraordinary events. The goal – to determine if there is a rational, scientific explanation behind these events…or not. A prospective priest wrestling with his career path, a cynical psychologist juggling work while serving as both parents for her children, and a no-nonsense contractor who offers an “Earthly” reason for all he encounters.

That decision to move to a streaming service and engage with the full velocity of the Kings’ creative storytelling skill set has paid off. I am sure you’ve also heard this line from friends and relatives about their favorite TV series. “There is nothing like it on television right now.”

As far as I know, there is NOTHING like Evil on TV right now.

God vs. Satan is fought on cerebral and hand-to-hand levels alike. This show questions and challenges beliefs in religion, relationships…and reality. Twists and turns exist along the way. Some sudden shocks and jump scares, but other frights proceed at a slow burn. Yet, there are guardrails built into the scripts which ensure a balance between at least two…but often three…viewpoints and reasoning on whether events, possessions, demons, miracles, etc. have explanations that are faith-based, science-based…or somewhere “in between.”

Several critics have compared it to The X-Files series from the 90’s. I think that’s fine if you’re trying to give people familiar with that show a general idea of what is going on in this one, but I believe there are more layers to the characters in Evil…as well as more protagonists.

I don’t know if you put any stock at all in the Rotten Tomatoes site, but critics there currently have Season 1 rated at 92%, Season 2 at 95%…and Season 3 at 100%. The numbers are trending upwards, and that tracks for me.

Season 1 does start very slowly, and there is some real weirdness which will have you questioning your decision to even give it a go. If you do start watching Evil, do give it time to produce a return on your investment. Get to Season 2.

The writing, editing, score, and direction are all top-shelf. The cast is stellar: Mike Colter (The Good Wife, Luke Cage), Katja Herbers (The Leftovers, Westworld), Aasif Mandvi (The Proposal, Million Dollar Arm), Michael Emerson (Lost, Person Of Interest), Christine Lahti (Chicago Hope), Kurt Fuller (Psych), and Andrea Martin (My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

Colter, Herbers, and Mandvi come together to investigate and navigate all kinds of crazy. Within an episode you have your case-of-the-week (like…how much does a soul actually weigh?), but there are also character storylines with no quick, one-episode conclusion which continue to develop.

Emerson’s portrayal of forensic psychologist Leland Townsend is a candidate for the most vile, evil villain on any current series. Yet, this show provides its fair share of laughs…especially with a family whose well-meaning kids have a habit of all talking at the same time.

As it turns out…I am suggesting you give Evil a look. If the timing or circumstances aren’t right, write it down for future consideration. Keep it in mind. There’s an awful lot of good…in Evil.

 

Picture Courtesy Paramount +

Chaos Isn’t A Pit. Chaos Is A Ladder.

That title is a quote from the HBO series Game Of Thrones. I was reminded of it the other day when someone used it as their reply in a comments section of an article about the current health of college football.

Many fans have been lamenting the fact yet another conference realignment move is now being made. Schools have been switching allegiance from one conference to the other for years now, but the recent decision by California schools USC and UCLA to have their athletic teams participate in the Big Ten Conference has many followers feeling this is the end of college football. They claim college football is dead.

It is.

But…who knows what the sport’s landscape will eventually look like? We are talking about a viewing activity second in popularity only to the National Football League. It’s morphing into something else…what else, who knows?

When collegiate athletic conferences were first organized many moons ago they were for the most part geographical in nature, allowing for regional rivalries to be created or enhanced, as well as to reduce team travel requirements. This also allowed fans to see their teams play home and away in certain instances.

But then TV came along. And with it, the arms race of college football was spawned where television simply couldn’t get enough of college football… and many schools spared absolutely no expense to get on television.

And that’s why we can’t have nice things like traditional college football. Television.

A quote from Drew Hamm of SBNation:

“College football going away from being a fiercely regional sport will eventually kill all that is fun and different about it. The path to becoming NFL Lite is paved with gold for TV execs, the coffers of major athletic departments and the various other power brokers in college sports who do not care what they break in their quest for one more dollar.”

For me, college football certainly was more fun and different when it was regional. My high school’s athletic teams were in a conference and always had annual rivalries with nearby towns. You looked forward each year to hosting and/or visiting your opponents, knowing fans would be with you no matter where you were playing. That’s similar to the college football we all grew up with.

Now, mega-conferences like the Big Ten and the SEC generate their universities massive revenues from television rights fees. This increased exposure on TV helps schools attract athletes and students alike, as well as motivate their alumni to donate more cash. In many instances, football-generated money pays for every other sport these universities sponsor for their students. With these changes in conference allegiance as schools try to align with the best television partners they can, some traditional rivalries have remained…but stakes have been lowered…others eliminated completely. Not just in football, but in all sports.

TV executives have decreed football – all college sports for that matter – do not need ties to geography or history or tradition. When it comes to college football, schools do need to have viewership. Lots of viewers. Some college football teams don’t have as strong a following, and their university athletic departments will wind up in a pit of schools not invited to participate in the newly-configured, upper echelon of college football.

College football is dead, but only for the version a lot of us grew up with. It wasn’t a mega-business then. It is now. Money changes everything. For two California universities to switch allegiances to a conference whose members are in the Midwest and Eastern part of the US, it is a chaotic time for some fans.

From this chaos, the ladder television provides extends upwards towards even more money and exposure.

We need to see who all makes it to the top, and what may be available for those not invited to climb. Then, we can better assess the health of college football.

 

Picture Courtesy iStock

MCU Phase Four – Staying Connected

Contains Spoilers…

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – for those who have not traversed it – is a reference to the collection of theatrical movies and streaming series featuring their comic book superhero characters. The basic template Marvel has utilized is telling distinct stories about their characters, while also interweaving those experiences into the experiences of other characters, forming a team narrative.

The discussions among Marvel fans in my little corner of the world these days are two-fold…does Marvel recognize what they need to do to keep a large, global audience fully engaged…and if they do…does that audience feel inclined to continue their investment in all things Marvel based on their recent content?

In 2018-2019, Marvel released Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame in theatres, which served as the culmination of what they call Phase Three of their planned storytelling. Phase Four of their theatrical schedule began with the release of Black Widow last year. Since then, they’ve released Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and the recently released Thor: Love and Thunder.

In this new Phase, Marvel also has released a great deal of existing and new character storylines within their streaming series: WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, What If?, Hawkeye, Moon Knight, and Ms. Marvel.

I have seen all of these Marvel properties. While I enjoyed comics when I was young, I have little recollection of them now. When I watch Marvel movies or series, I don’t have that iconic comic book background to know what is canon to the comics or not…and I don’t have a clue what might come next. So to provide some context, the following is from a guy who only absorbs what the Marvel movies and series provide. I rarely know how it ties back to the source material, and I’m certainly unable to puzzle together where superhero stories may eventually crossover…and a common villain or villains might appear.

First off, it should be noted in concluding its prior Phases Marvel did an incredible job of putting together several blockbuster theatrical releases with a finite number of characters, in a limited number of films, then intersecting their stories together to forge a high-quality resolution to the overall, narrative arc. The bar was set really, really high for Phase Four.

It is understandable Marvel’s fan base might shrink a bit after Phase Three. There were casual fans who got aboard and enjoyed the comic book ride, but also concluded it was unique and could never be topped…and have just moved on. The graphic novel novelty was surely going to wear off for some.

Maybe they can bring those casual fans back at some point…depending on how Phase Four plays out.

It appears Marvel is ignoring the fact a chunk of their fan base, because of all that prior formulaic success, is now expecting new movies and series to at least partially bind characters’ stories together. They are looking for connections to other superhero storylines, pushing the overall narrative for this current group of superheroes forward…outside of whatever current story is being rolled out at the time. World-building is essential to Marvel’s success, but so is team-building.

I believe Marvel also needs to reconcile many fans don’t want to feel like they have to research articles covering source material just to try and find potential connections, or guess at a possible overall arc for when this next wave of superheroes will likely come together to fight an ultimate threat…as the Avengers did vs. Thanos in the last two Phase Three films. Marvel has fans who do not know a thing about the comics these characters came to life within, and still have no interest in searching for connections among superheroes.

Marvel has always enjoyed winking at their fans, dropping hints in mid-credit or end scenes of what might come next. They’ll release some still pictures here, tease a trailer there. That was fine when they were producing a relative handful of theatrical releases with a limited number of characters in earlier Phases, but with the velocity of content released early in Phase Four the firehose of information pouring out doesn’t contain relevant info connecting these superheroes. They underestimated the logical impatience many in their audience would have regarding wanting to see superheroes and their stories start team-building to at least some extent with each release.

Bottom line…I feel Marvel released too much too soon in Phase Four, and very little has been connected between the characters. And, I think that’s a problem Marvel has to pivot towards and get corrected.

Spider-Man: No Way Home was a huge hit with most Marvel fans (me included), but a lot of what has been released recently – movies and series alike – have met with mixed reactions (me included).

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was madness. Poor Scarlet Witch. That girl has been to hell and back a couple of times now. What else can they do to her? Doctor Strange has been reduced to being a reckless, dangerous hack of a sorcerer. There was mention Marvel was going to be introducing more horror into their Phase Four. Indeed, I felt this script and story were horrible.

In Thor: Love and Thunder, Marvel did not understand the prior Thor film (Thor: Ragnarok) was successful first and foremost because of its uniqueness. With tons more humor and wackiness than was seen in a Marvel film before, and set for a third of the time within a bizarro, off-the-rails rainbow world with Jeff Goldblum of all people as a villain, it was never going to be replicated. Never. Yet, that’s exactly what Marvel so blatantly, obviously tried with Love and Thunder. They got crazy lazy, and for a character that didn’t even need another solo chapter, this movie for me landed with a thud similar to Thor’s hammer. If you pushed me for a compliment, I will say that even though this journey was God-awful throughout the ending was…acceptable.

It’s my belief these last two theatrical releases have been below the quality Marvel has given us in the past – especially with the characters of Thor and Doctor Strange – and these films barely moved the needle towards where we may be headed with the rest of Phase Four.

Love and Thunder has made over $300 million worldwide. Multiverse of Madness is closing in on a global total approaching $1 billion. Cracks in Marvel’s superiority at the box office certainly haven’t appeared in ticket sales. Audience surveys and critic reviews are where some fault lines have started to develop.

I believe Marvel needs to reconcile themselves to the fact if they want to have a chance of maintaining the lofty heights of their superhero success, their theatrical and streaming products going forward must feature more guest appearances…more hints…more clues…as to how all these current superheroes will come together to save the universe.

I’m not asking them to not surprise me…and I don’t need for everything to be spelled out completely. I’m just looking for Marvel to provide superhero storylines that start to relate in at least a partial way to each other…for these characters to start moving towards each other…building a new team…towards what hopefully will be another fan-tastic finish.

I want to stay connected with Marvel’s Phase Four. I’m just asking them to start making more connections.

 

Picture Courtesy Marvel Studios

ClickClickKnow

So there I was last night, re-watching the opening episode from the fourth season of the HBO series Westworld just before the second episode of this new season was to debut, and…

(We interrupt this post to advise readers in order to get the point of this post you do not…repeat do not…have to know anything about Westworld. If you don’t know what’s going on with Westworld that’s just fine, because none of us who have watched it from the very beginning know what the hell is going on either.)

…at the end of this re-watch episode I was reminded of a beautiful piece of instrumental music playing towards its conclusion. I had initially figured it was original music recorded for the show and probably not available just yet. However, I really liked it and was determined I should try to research its origin on the chance I could get a copy somewhere. I know there are websites which list background music used on movies and shows…but that info isn’t always made available immediately and I wanted to know now.

I searched #westworld on Twitter from the week prior when the episode first aired…and what-do-ya-know…a Twitter user had in fact tweeted out last week how cool it was Westworld used an instrumental from Lana Del Rey’s song, “Video Games.”

So, then I was off to iTunes to confirm that was in fact the same piece. Yep, it was. Then, over to Wikipedia to see what if any entries were there…and what-do-ya-know…it had a new entry stating an orchestral cover of “Video Games” was played at the end of the Westworld episode, composed by Ramin Djawadi. I was familiar with him, as he is known for a slew of famous movie and television scores including Iron Man, Game Of Thrones…and Westworld. I was also familiar with Lana Del Rey, but was way less knowledgeable of her work. I wound up listening to a number of her songs and was impressed. She could be an artist I’ll be doing more “in-depth” research on.

And…it is in moments like this where I find myself giving silent thanks I’m living in a world with such instant access to information…as well as all the various communication platforms we have at our disposal.

I was not only born pre-Internet, but pre-Fax machine (Google “fax machine” if necessary…). It is truly mind-boggling to think back occasionally to how very little we had in all our information and communication toolkits then, and how recent technology advancements have propelled us to where we are now.

The super-basic takeaway from my research to find what that music was all about…was simply how very little research was needed.

Westworld?

I don’t think any amount of research will ever determine what it’s all about.

 

Picture Courtesy HBO

All Hands On Deck

 

Ah, it is indeed an age of sequels and reboots, isn’t it? Some are good ideas to revisit. Some…not so good. There are occasions when doing something really, really well the first time around should probably be the last time around.

In my college basketball news feed this AM:

“Gonzaga and Michigan State are now finalizing plans to play a neutral site game on an aircraft carrier in San Diego on Veterans Day.”

Back on Veterans Day 2011, a college basketball game was played aboard the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego between Michigan State and North Carolina. Carolina won 67-55 in front of over 8,000 fans and military personnel, including President Obama. Seeing two national basketball powers play in such a majestic, inspiring setting was very cool. A second court was set up in the hangar bay just in case, but the weather held up its end. Temperatures were in the 60’s and there were calm winds. This game was absolute television eye candy, although it was not great hoops…the teams managed to miss 77 of their combined 123 shots.

It turned out to be the highest-rated November college basketball game on ESPN in 19 years.

College basketball’s next season featured four games on the national television schedule from carrier settings as part of Veterans Day ceremonies. One woman’s game was slated between Ohio State and Notre Dame, with the men’s games to be Ohio State-Marquette, Georgetown-Florida and Syracuse-San Diego State.

The sequels that Veterans Day weekend did not quite live up to the original…

Ohio State-Notre Dame: On the USS Yorktown in Charleston, temperatures were still in the 50’s when the women began their game…but the temperature dropped as soon as the sun did. It was a poorly played game, with both teams combining to miss 71 of 109 shots from the floor. Notre Dame won 57-51.

Ohio State-Marquette: The second game of a scheduled doubleheader aboard the now-chilly Yorktown, it found the teams’ warm-up time occupied by coaches and players staying warm working towels and squeegees to try to get condensation off the court. The game never took flight and was canceled.

Georgetown-Florida: On the USS Bataan in Jacksonville, a badly-played first half concluded with Florida up 27-23. However, similar to the situation in Charleston, condensation got to the court. During halftime, the game was canceled.

Syracuse-San Diego State: On the USS Midway in San Diego, a threat of rain pushed the game out two days. Played during the day (instead of at night as originally scheduled), there was no rain…but it was very windy. It was also a poorly played game, with both teams combining to miss 77 out of 119 shots. Syracuse won 62-49.

Playing basketball outdoors – on an aircraft carrier – is not like playing basketball indoors in an arena. Weather takes center stage away from the players. You are trading great optics for great basketball.

And, you are also compromising player safety.

No amount of television appearance money is worth that.

Back in late February of this past college basketball season, Xavier and Providence played a thrilling, triple-overtime game. Yet, with just under three minutes left in regulation, those in charge were talking about the possibility of having to gather up the players and coaches and bus them to Providence’s practice facility to finish the game due to a leak in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center ceiling.

You can’t play basketball on water. It might be fair to ask athletes to take aim with no background behind the basket, to shoot into the wind, and to even play with a sweatshirt underneath the jersey…but it absolutely isn’t fair to ask athletes to play when there is even the slightest chance of the court not being pristine.

Since that debacle of a weekend, television and college administrators have been successfully staging Veterans Day games – indoors – from various military facilities. They’ve done a great job with them and as you might expect, the quality of play was improved.

I think people should think long and hard about pursuing sequels, especially if the original is so perfect.

I also happen to think people should learn from their mistakes.

 

Picture Courtesy US Navy/Roza Arzola

Thinking Christmas

The Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel has already started their “Merry Movie Week,” and the “mothership” Hallmark Channel will be rolling out a whole month of “Christmas in July” starting at the end of this week. When we aren’t streaming or watching sports, one of the Hallmarks is usually on our television this time of year.

You’ll see Christmas pop up here more frequently as it gets closer, but I wanted to offer three disclaimers about my outlook on the holiday itself before I/we get there. To me…

  1. Hallmark Christmas movies reflect about 15% of what real life is all about. (The % may be a bit higher for their non-Christmas fare, but not by much…)
  2. Christmas can be a truly miserable time for many people, in some cases the lowest they’ve ever felt. Others don’t acknowledge or care about it. People who go all out for Christmas should keep that in mind.
  3. I myself l-o-v-e Christmas, even though I’ve only had one or two extra-memorable ones myself.

For that matter, any holiday or “celebrated” day on our calendars can be a time of soul-crushing sadness for others. Deaths, illness, separations. They don’t follow any calendar. Much like hearing a piece of music can transport us back to a certain place in time, the calendar may do the same.

The arrival of July signifies Christmas is less than a ½ year away. Then again, several networks (including Hallmark) fire up their Yuletide offerings Halloween week (!)…which no doubt makes those who don’t enjoy the Christmas season feel worse. I myself love Halloween…and Thanksgiving…and like to give those holidays total attention before then focusing in on Christmas.

Each July, when these films come on with their over-the-top messages of Christmas, I do find myself being a little nicer to folks, a little more considerate, a little more forgiving. The movies act for me as a mid-year reminder…a reset…to aspire to be the best human possible…even within the never-gonna-be-perfect-life we all reside within.

In the real world, I think all of us should never take a holiday from trying to understand what others are going through, where they are coming from, and how we can make both their day and ours a good one.

 

Picture Courtesy iStock