Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hit the road, Jack

Talk about a double whammy. Just under 24 hours from the end of Lost, another ground-breaking drama left our airwaves. If you know me at all, you know this goodbye was especially taxing on my fragile soul.

For nearly a decade, I've watched and re-watched every episode of 24. Nine years ago, in November of 2001, this Fox drama debuted with a pilot episode containing a blown-up passenger jet just weeks after 9/11. Gutsy. As each episode ticked by in real time and the producers raised the ante with each hour, I quickly realized this was no ordinary show.

Unfortunately, they decided to end this series the day after Lost's send off. Both shows were equally revolutionary, but Lost received a hero's goodbye while 24 sort of whimpered away. It's a shame really, and despite the drop in quality in the last few seasons, Jack Bauer and company deserved better.

The two-hour finale did not measure up to Lost's. It did not pack the punch that I was hoping for since it basically served as a set-up for the potential movie. On a murderous rampage the past few weeks, they brought Jack Bauer back to sanity, but not convincingly. About to assassinate the president of Russia, Jack decides against it with help from trusted sidekick Chloe O'Brian. And that was it. The psycho Jack that took the show in a daring new direction disappeared. They took the cheap and easy way out.

The final scene did serve as a fitting tribute to the core relationship of the show the past four seasons - Chloe and Jack. They say goodbye via video camera and Jack wanders off in exile, a bloody and battered mess, hunted by the country he served his whole life. An ending reminiscent to Season 4. Chloe says "shut it down" and the camera flickers off Jack, revealing the famous clock counting down to zero.

The final two hours felt more like a season finale than a series ender, which I should have expected. Nonetheless, it left me wanting. Maybe this is just my form of denial. Maybe I just can't accept the fact that the ticking clock and Bauer's bulging veins will not be on my TV anymore.

But enough about Season 8, a fine, yet unspectacular offering of the JB saga. I admit I watch too much TV, but what it detracts from my social life it adds to my TV expertize. 24, especially its debut season, changed the manner in which I watch and digest television.

From the death of Janet York to the reveal of the mole, the inaugural season just kicked my ass. I did not expect American TV shows to coldly kill innocent characters like 24 did. I could never predict it would turn a heroic character into the season's biggest traitor. It broke every rule I was weaned on watching ER and Law & Order during high school.

Then it ended with Jack discovering his murdered pregnant wife and I still vividly remember the feeling I had watching that moment. A kick to the stomach. I was almost breathless. It still stands as the greatest hour of episodic TV I've seen. From there, Season 2 started with the show's best plot arc, the search for the nuclear bomb. Year after year, 24 dealt with terrorism, torture, action and espionage with a skill and style usually reserved for Jason Bourne movies.

What makes the show stand the test of time is it's unflinching insistence on sacrifice. Good people die. Good people have tragic endings. Bad guys win sometimes. James Bond always gets the girl at the end and only gets a few scratches. Jack Bauer lost his pregnant wife, his relationship with his daughter, several girlfriends, countless partners and colleagues and even his best sidekick in Tony Almaeda.

His story is tragic. Happiness was never in the cards for him. For a network TV show, this is extremely rare. Enormous credit goes to Kiefer Sutherland, who brought a volcanic intensity to this character every hour while also giving him a heart and soul slowly eroded by each and every tragic choice he made in each season. He turned Jack Bauer from a man doing everything to protect his family and his country into a popular culture icon.

It's corny, I know, but I'm going to miss this show. While it wasn't the best acted, best written and while it wasn't the deepest or most thoughtful show of the past 10 years, it's by far the most entertaining. It never lost it's forward momentum. It never got muddled in minutiae like The Sopranos or lost in crazy mythology like Lost or Alias. 24 served at the alter of its kinetic plot and never wavered.

So thank you, 24, for giving us Jack Bauer, Nina Myers, David Palmer (who played Barack Obama way back in 2001), Chloe O'Brian, Sherry Palmer, Charles Logan, Tony Almeida, Michelle Dessler, Aaron Pierce, Stephen Saunders, Renee Walker, Allison Taylor and many other memorable characters. Thanks for the twists, the ticking clock and the Bauer kill count. Thanks most of all for being fun to watch all these years.

I can't believe you're gone (sort of). It's enough to make even a tough, hard-as-nails guy like me shed a tear.

See ya, Jack.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Time to let go

Closing a TV series is a dicey business. Questions and cliffhangers propel TV shows. A movie dispatches its plot and characters in two hours. Lost sustained its spinning (donkey) wheels for six years.

So when something that is meant to keep going and going finally stops, what do you do?

It had to end somehow, which will surely leave people who invested years into the show feeling empty. There's no way to please them all, but one thing is certain: Lost had to move on, and now its obsessive, manic fan base must follow suit.

If you hadn't heard, Lost came to an end in an epic, 2 1/2-hour orgy of sentimentality and spiritual affirmation. All questions weren't answered. All fates weren't spelled out. However, the finale did give us a satisfactory, intensely emotional conclusion, one that won't have me second-guessing my devotion to this one-of-a-kind series.

It was all worth it.

So where to begin? The highlight has to be the grand, messianic sacrifice of Jack Shephard. Always a divisive character, Jack is the well-meaning leader who proved that hell is indeed paved with good intentions. He tried to bring the castaways together from the very first season and failed. He tried to get everyone off the island and failed. He was divorced, destitute and even suicidal after escaping the island for the first time, proving to himself that his father was right to think very little of him.

Then he saw the light. He came back to the island having converted from a man of science to a man of faith. Jack, the tortured, failed hero found his salvation and ultimate redemption by claiming the protectorship mantle of the island from Jacob, taking down the island's force of evil and ultimately sacrificing himself for the sake of his friends and the world. What he couldn't find in life, he found in death.

The final scene, showing Jack stumbling through the bamboo forest until he collapsed provoked some manly tears. He ends up like we first saw him, lying on his back and gazing skyward. And then old friend Vincent appeared to be with Jack in his last moments. (If you've ever had a dog and did not get emotional when that happened, check your pulse.) Jack spots his friends escaping the island in the Ajira plane and smiles, a grin he earned through six bumpy seasons.

And his eye closed.

Before he died, he appointed Hurley as the new protector in what may be one of the most satisfying, memorable scenes in the show's history. Hurley, always full of self-doubt, bitterly argued that Jack didn't have to die. But he eventually knew what had to be done. (The minute he said, "I'm glad it wasn't me" during the last episode, you knew this might happen tonight.)
I bet the Hurley administration was much cooler than Jacob's.

The redemption carousel wasn't about to stop since Hurley needed a right-hand man, and who better than Ben? A perfect ending for Ben, a character who did more than enough evil things to merit infinite hatred from the fans, but through the sheer force of an all-time performance from Michael Emerson, he was always strangely likable. The fact that he came around to being a decent person really made me smile during that scene. He always wanted to be special on the island, which drove him to do many heinous things. Good ol' Hurley made his dream come true at last, right when Ben deserved it the most.

Off the island, we finally find out that the Sideways universe was actually a purgatory-esque waiting room for heaven. All the characters, dead or alive, lived out their fears/doubts/faults/dreams in this spiritual construct throughout the season. They made peace with their real lives and with those they loved the most. Each awakening, from Charlie/Claire to Sawyer/Juliet did its best to draw some tears and raise some goosebumps. While the mythology was always the most interesting facet of the show, the characters and their relationships were the most important. This episode made sure we understood that.

Many of the Lost-aways gathered in a church and waited for Jack to finally come around and accept his death. His scene with his dead father will be parsed like the Zapruder film for the next few decades as it served as the Rossetta Stone for this final season. Some of the characters died before Jack, like Charlie and Sayid, and some died after, like Hurley and Desmond, but they all died at some point. What we saw on the island did happen. There were no do-overs. No re-set button. They just all needed to come to grips before they could all move on to the heavenly white light that awaited them.

Sawyer got to hold Juliet one last time. Sayid got one last kiss with Shannon. Ben apologized for murdering Locke - my favorite scene from the episode. This was the last duet between Terry O'Quinn and Michael Emerson and I'll be damned if it wasn't fitting. They provided us two of the best and most enduring characters in TV history and I loved that they got closure.
I loved that everyone got closure.

So the phenomenon that was Lost is finally over. Our characters didn't die alone. They all waited for each other in the afterlife because their time together was the most important part of their lives. And meanwhile the island remains, ever mysterious. The "Light" still shines. The wreckage of Oceanic 815 still litters the lonely beach, a memento of the gigantic imprint these people left there on that rock and in our TV-watching lives.

"The End" goes up there with Six Feet Under's finale as the best series closer I've seen. All the debate, all the 25-page Doc Jensen recaps, all the Lostpedia browsing was worth it.

Yeah, I can move on now.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tardy to the party

Before we get into this, let me remind you that I was on the Barack Obama train very early.

With that out of the way, I have the uncanny ability to be late on fads or technology or movies or music. I still don't have a smart phone. I just recently bought an HDTV. I don't own a Lady Gaga CD. I'm always tardy to the party.

This struck my mind as I watched the season finale of HBO's "The Ricky Gervais Show." I laughed so much my chest ached and my eyes watered. The show gives an animated interpretation to the podcasts of Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington.

Back in 2006, the Schaibles tried to get me hooked on that show. For a myriad of reasons, I failed to follow the lead. I was very, very travel weary by that time in San Diego and I was in a post-gradution, pre-employment funk. Years later, I realize they were right all along, because this show (which applies to the podcasts) is hilarious.

Some may not like the cartoon aspect, but I think it makes Pilkington's odd statements that much funnier. There's the part where they talk about the ghost of Pilkington getting a rectal exam, haunting a doctor's office. The drawing of said ghost nearly had me cackling on the floor. When Pilkington talks about having a conversation with a worm, the pictorial interpretation cracks me up.

The highlights of this program are plentiful. Karl talking about finding a strange home with a note that had a list of baby items to buy, then on the back it said, "Nevermind. Baby dead." I lost it. The part where they talk about the monkey in space and Ricky asks how the monkey finds the moon and Karl says, "He turns left." Hilarious. The part when Stephen asks how Karl would walk if his head was facing the opposite direction. Would he walk backwards, which would make it forwards for him in that case? No. Karl says he'd walk sideways so no one would notice. I'm not sure that makes any sense, but it's damn funny.

How does one describe Mr. Pilkington. He's not stupid, but he says a lot of stupid things, but these stupid things have some strange logic to them. This logic plays off great with straight-laced Gervais and Merchant. I love when Pilkington says something crazy, meaning every word of it without a hint of irony, and Gervais screams at him, "You're talking absolute bollocks!" I love everything about this show.

Too bad I'm four years late.

That's not all. Last summer I bought "Only by the Night" by Kings of Leon (thanks in large part to the urging of Zach Hossem). The album grew on me quickly. They've been described as the southern Strokes, which is appropriate but not the whole story. They have a gothic, Radiohead sensibility. Finally, I purchased another album from them, "Because of the Times."

I bought it blindly, based on the strength of "Night." Lo and behold, this album gets four stars. The genesis of "Only by the Night" can be heard in this 2007 release. Catchy, moody, fresh, mid-tempo rock. In particular I enjoy "On call," "Arizona," and "Fans."

I bring up the Kings of Leon because I had the chance to see them in concert in June of 2008 and completely whiffed. They were opening for Pearl Jam in West Palm Beach. At that point, I had only heard "Bucket" and wasn't completely awed by it. So my friends and I stayed in the outside area while the Kings played. Note this was the day before my infamous trip to New Zealand.

Now that I know how great this band is, I'm very upset that I twiddled my thumbs while they played their set. Thankfully, they're returning to the area later this year.

So yeah, I'm late with many things in our popular culture. Kings of Leon have been around for years and it took me this long to discover them. Shameful. Same goes for the wonder of the world (and "round-headed buffoon") that is Karl Pilkington.

But ... I knew back in 2004 Obama would be president someday! Never forget that. I'll make sure you don't.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

There's a big game tonight

So, did you know LeBron James is playing tonight?

He is, in what promises to be one of the more intriguing sporting events we've seen in years. The storylines are overflowing, like Rasheed Wallace's pot belly.

If LeBron loses tonight, he's probably on his way out of Cleveland. If he leaves Cleveland, the next 10 or so years of the NBA landscape will change. The balance of power will shift to somewhere, be it New York or Chicago or wherever he might wind up.

There's poor, God-hates-us Cleveland. If the city's hometown icon bolts for a bigger city, the whole place could crumble. That's no joke. It could literally crumble. The Cavs would be relegated to Raptors territory and LeBron would suddenly become Art Modell Jr. The whole psychological makeup would be transformed forever. They've been through hell, but this would be Armageddon.

Oh, there's also another team playing tonight. The Celtics, if they win, could rise from the nursing home everyone sent them to (including me) as they took off January through March. The Big Three are healthy, Rajon Rondo is quickly becoming the most interesting Celtics player since Larry Bird and the whole team is playing better than it has all season. Maybe they were just waiting for the playoffs this whole time.

Win tonight, and suddenly they're a threat to win a second title in three years while also burning a Midwestern city to the ground.

I can't wait to see this game, and I haven't looked forward to a Celtics game this much since the season opener. But something is nagging at me.

Everyone is already packing LeBron's trophies and his Nike puppets, ready to ship them to a media-powered metropolis of his choosing. The post-mortems are ubiquitous. Cleveland fans sound a lot like Boston fans after Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS.

So, what if Cleveland were finally to win a championship? Wouldn't the first come after everyone had already written off its chances?

There's no way LeBron does not play with a Michael Jordan-type intensity tonight. He's just too good to stink up the court like he did Tuesday night. He could drop 40-8-8 in the New Garden and I would not be surprised. The Cavs won more than 60 games for a reason: They're very good and they have the best player in the world.

The problem for them is, if LeBron has an off night in any game, they're toast. If Kobe struggles, Pau Gasol or Lamar Odom can pick up the slack. If Dwight Howard sucks, Rashard Lewis or Jameer Nelson or Vince Carter can come to the rescue. Ditto for the Celtics, since they have four of the best five players in this series. The Cavs cruise when LeBron is playing like LeBron. Only then do their mediocre complimentary pieces (overweight Shaq, soft Antawn Jamison and the valedictorian of the Dan Dickau school of defense in Mo Williams) look like title contenders.

When LeBron is off, they have nothing. No contending team in decades, not even the Bulls of the 90s, has relied so heavily on just one guy. (I don't count the post-Shaq, pre-Gasol Lakers. They were never contenders).

But LeBron can't struggle tonight. There's just too much on the line. Which is why I fear this Game 6, even while I eagerly await it. Too many people are dumping on him. Too many people have penned obits on the Cavs. When this happens, I get weary. Obviously, it has nothing to do with what happens on the court, but it's still scary. I'm just a worry wart.

I hope the Celtics make my consternation look foolish. No matter what, anyone who follows sports has to watch this game.

The stakes are higher than Alyssa Milano.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

King Pong

Brookline, 2005-2006. Parkway Road. Known to house the law firm of Sears, Schaible, Hosseini & Briston. Infamous for its $100 dollar parking spot or the crazy cat lady landlord who tried to have us thrown out or the bat in the kitchen that sent me screaming to my room or the “Lost Winter” of the Sopranos or the fact I spent a good week cleaning up the apartment for the security deposit only to have the cat lady give me the money without even checking the work I had done.

(Whew, talk about a run-on sentence.)

It actually was a fine little place, even though a public toilet in Fallujah would have been the Ritz Carlton compared to that rat-infested basement we occupied in Jamaica Plain.

But this little apartment is best known for its ping pong table. Purchased on a whim by the Hossschaib duo and painted with delicate care by Schaibleangelo in a grandiose Celtics pattern, the ping pong table stood in what was supposed to be a dining room. It housed many a grand ping pong battle. You can guess who lost most of the matches. That damn Hosseini spin still gives me nightmares.

Like a band in a Behind the Music feature, the glorious early rise led to days of drug abuse and sexual diseases. Actually, the table just got covered with mail we were too lazy to open. It was followed by a bitter custody battle straight out of Kramer vs. Kramer and is now rumored to reside in Gansettshire in Rhode Island, burned out on crack but still hoping to relive the glory days.
That was my first real taste of the ping pong bug. I thought it came and went. But then CBSSports.com moved into a new office equipped with a game room. The game room has a ping pong table. Now we play on a daily basis.

You can guess who loses most of his matches. (Do I ever win at anything you might ask? Yes, English awards, Oscar pools and Royal Rumble 1994 tickets.)

One of my co-workers is crazy, Forrest-Gump good at ping pong. A few others just consistently beat me. I do have a usual playing partner, a guy named Neil who is very much like Grimey. (Another story.) Anyway, when we first started playing I beat him consistently with my strategic style. Others tend to describe me as the Jamie Moyer of ping pong.
Let’s just say my game is not known for its speed. Then something bad happened. This Neil guy got very good and now he has turned the tables. Many of our matches are instant classics, but I still end up on the losing end more often than not. He has a wicked backhand winner to go with his lefty style.
My big problem is returning fast serves. I always hit them long. Another problem is my inability to hit the ball hard and accurately. It’s not my spaghetti arms or pre-teen girlish strength. No, any time I try to hit a sharp winner, I hit the ceiling, the net or my opponent’s groin.
Lately, I’ve improved on that, but not enough to put myself in the win column consistently.
All this losing grates on me. I know it’s just a silly little game played with paddles and a small ball, but I want to win. I’m not insanely competitive, but I don’t like losing. I take it well on the outside, but on the inside I’m flailing my arms and screaming, “Not like this!”

During games with better opponents, I’ll hit several good returns and volleys only to have my moves halted. I’ll end up hitting the net or hitting it out of bounds sooner or later. This is when I get outwardly frustrated. I collapse like Eric Gange. If I were a reliever, I’d start balking guys and giving up grand slams. If I’m playing great but someone hits the bare edge of the table, I go into a big funk. I just can’t help it. I’m not cut out for such rigorous athletic competition.

I only hope I can improve to a point where I win every now and then against the big boys. And there are some big boys here. The company is even having a bracket-style ping pong tournament. I wasn’t good enough to make it, so I’m thinking of starting the CBSSports ping pong NIT. Maybe I can be the best of those who suck.

I will get better. I vow to get better, to work on my game, to train like Rocky or Rich Garces. I will become King Pong, if only to honor the Mona Lisa of ping pong tables that decorated our memorable Brookline confines. I’ll never forget you, buddy.