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Monthly Archives: August 2013

How to pick an English Premier League team for the rest of your life (or at least for this weekend)

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Dad and Son baseball

For most young boys, it was never a choice but an expectation. When you’re growing up, provided you’re not some sort of Satanic spawn that crawled out of your mother’s womb with frosted tips and a pair of sunglasses on backward, you want to do whatever you can to please your father.

You want to walk like him, talk like him, burp like him, swing a baseball bat like him, occasionally talk back to mom like him and most importantly – even more important than running naked through the house whenever possible – cheer at the large rectangular moving picture window on cue, whenever he does.

Generally, good ol’ dad is taking a keen interest in that magical electronic paradise whenever men in short shorts or helmets and shoulder pads are running into one another, and even for a kid who can’t yet pronounce spaghetti, it’s not hard to catch on. He’s happy when the white team does well. He’s upset when the team in blue scores a goal. He makes faces and points his tallest fingers toward the moving picture window whenever the men in vertical black and white stripes make sounds like birds.

Bonding with your dad over a sports team is something a kid can do before he even realizes what he’s doing. It’s not totally important what you’re watching. It’s that you’re there and he’s there, and soon enough you’re mimicking exactly what he does. You get a little bit older and you realize that the white team’s transition defense stinks or the blue team is getting carved up in the short passing game. Your disdain for referees is such that you won’t shop at Foot Locker on the off chance that the mall shoe store is a minor league training ground for officials who don’t call tripping penalties.

My dad and I weren't always playing soccer, but when we did, I imagine we always stopped in to Sears to pose for pictures.

My dad and I weren’t always playing soccer, but when we did, I imagine we always stopped in to Sears to pose for pictures.

The colors morph to nicknames, the nicknames are associated with cities and soon enough you start learning how to pronounce the names on the back of that uniform you got for Christmas. You’re watching your team on TV, you’re hanging on every pitch on the radio and you’re cracking open the newspaper every morning to check the standings. You’re even dreaming about the day someone will invent a cyberspace gathering place for you to read about your quarterback’s sexual deviance or your tight end’s propensity to murder people. (And now it’s here! The Internet is grand.)

The point is, this is all happening fast. It’s happening before you’re old enough to make real-life choices. Before you can decide who you’re going to be friends with, who you want to ask to a dance where you want to go to college or when you’re going to get married.

It’s possible that picking favorite sports teams is the earliest critical decision one can make. Choose wisely and you’re set for life. Choose poorly and there’s a good chance your life will be one miserable disappointment after the next.

(Or you’ll read more books. And probably be much more intelligent and well-rounded. And get scholarship offers to Ivy League schools and be choosing between Miss Oklahoma and Miss Colorado as your date to the dinner where you accept your first Pulitzer Prize. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about).

The thing is, you’re NOT choosing. If your dad has any sense of pride and self-worth, that man is choosing your teams for you. He’s buying you hats, shirts, gloves, bats, pennants, sweatbands, cereals, video games, notebooks and Gatorade bottles with HIS team’s logos on them. He’s taking you to games against HIS team’s biggest rivals, helping you get autographs of HIS favorite players and making sure you have no choice but to love exactly what he loves.

I was not hard to convince. My dad grew up in Pittsburgh and within 3 or 4 minutes of watching whatever my first baseball, basketball or hockey game was with him, I wanted to wear black and gold. No basketball team in the Steel City? Didn’t matter. I grew up near Cleveland, and I needed to root for at least one franchise that would teach me that there’s much to be learned from failure. Continued, unabashed, neverending failure.

The first moment when I realized the perils of being a fan of a Cleveland sports team. Thanks, MJ. (Chicago Tribune)

The first moment when I realized the perils of being a fan of a Cleveland sports team. Thanks, MJ. (Chicago Tribune)

I’ve never once wavered. Despite many dry spells and near misses from the Cavs, two decades of historic futility from the Pirates, enough home playoff losses to fill the Smithsosnian from the Steelers and a near relocation from the Penguins, I wasn’t jumping ship. The chance to watch LeBron James, see my team play in four Super Bowls since I was a teenager, root for Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby on their way to three Stanley Cups and have a team that plays in the Taj Mahal of baseball stadiums more than made up for anything bad that happened along the way. I’ve been on board with all four since I was in diapers and intend to stay on board until I’m in diapers again.

Still, there’s part of me that can’t help but wonder what if things had gone even slightly differently. What if my dad hadn’t cared about sports? What if he was merely ambivalent? What if he … actually MADE me choose?!?!

Would this have been me without a little guidance from the old man? Quite possibly. (Deadspin)

Would this have been me without a little guidance from the old man? Quite possibly. (Deadspin)

Would I have ended up being that guy who walks around with a Yankees hat and a Cowboys jersey all the time? Would I have moved to LA to stalk Jack Nicholson and con him into letting me sit courtside with him at Lakers games? Would I have sold my fan allegiance on eBay? Aside from a brief period of time when it seemed like the Penguins might be calling the Chiefs and Royals neighbors in Kansas City, these are never thoughts that crossed my mind.


Manchester United

But in a way, now seems like the perfect time to do what I gladly never had to do 25 years ago. Soccer, once only associated with orange slices and suburban moms, has been gradually gaining steam, turning from a sport with a niche audience to one that’s at least in the same time zone in terms of popularity as it is in the rest of the world. We have one domestic league that’s finally starting to come into its own as a marketing force and as a destination for at least some top-end talent. The national team is beginning to turn out a bevy of impressive players and some feel there’s at least a chance for a deep World Cup run in 2018 or 2022.

That’s all a bit down the road, though. What’s here now, and on Saturday available in completely and utter oversaturation, is the Barclays Premier League, England’s top tier and by all accounts the most popular soccer league in the world. In October, NBC Sports won the right to televise the Premier League for the next three seasons for a price of $250 million.

The difference between NBC’s coverage and the coverage the league used to receive is that NBC plans on, well, actually showing the games. Fox held the previous rights to the EPL, and while the occasional game aired on ESPN, most were on Fox Soccer and Fox Soccer Plus, premium channels unavailable in many homes. Even in areas where they were available, both Fox channels typically showed only four to five games a week (in a league of 20 teams). Whether online, streaming or on NBC Sports or its alternate networks, every game in the 2013-14 season will be readily available for American consumption.

So that got me thinking. I like competition. I like information I can consume easily in quantities I choose, whenever and wherever I want. Most importantly, I like soccer. My dad coached at the high school level for more than 20 years.  I played it from the time I was mobile enough to walk until I realized in high school that my knees were made of equal parts plywood and orange Jell-O.

Look, I’m never going to be “soccer guy.” The guy who refers to everything as a pitch, calls his team a side, calls something other than a loss a result, refers to fixtures rather than schedules and tables instead of standings.

But what I can do – after all these years – is pick a team.

Joe Posnanski wrote a piece this week on how to pick a Premier League team, which is hardly like choosing where one’s NFL allegiances should lie. Four teams have won the last EIGHTEEN EPL titles, and believe it or not, those same four – Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal – are the four favorites again this year. If your team is bad – think Bobcats, Astros or Jaguars bad – it will be relegated to the second division the following year. Its games will then only be televised on closed-circuit, standard definition screens in British prisons where people who don’t know how to make a proper bubble and squeak go.

The winner of the league is simply the team with the most points, not the team who sneaks into that second wild-card and goes on an October run. There are no playoffs in most non-American soccer leagues, though  a top-four finish is highly coveted as it earns a team a spot in the following year’s UEFA Champions League. Up to three others will play in the Europa League, which is sort of college basketball’s equivalent of the NIT to the Champions League’s NCAAs.

Posnanski’s column gave an American comparison to each of the 20 EPL clubs, finding a domestic team that’s at least roughly equivalent based on history, style of play, location and financial situations.

It was easy for me to discount the four favorites and the six or eight expected bottom feeders, because A) who wants to root for the Yankees or Dodgers? and B) who wants to immediately have to worry about relegation? If I’m going to try to get into this, I might as well do it with a team that has a chance to stick around without already having a reputation as a free-spending Darth Vader.

Everton FulhamSwanseaTottenham

I narrowed it down to four clubs: Everton, Fulham, Swansea City and Tottenham, with a few reasons for each. Everton has American goalie Tim Howard, plays in London, is generally competitive and entertaining and has a penchant for using advanced metrics in looking at the game. Posnanski compared Fulham to the Pirates, in that they had success long ago, have a lot of tradition and play in a lovely stadium on the water. Swansea has been likened to a poor man’s, Welsh version of Spanish juggernaut Barcelona for its crisp passing and attacking style of play. Tottenham, also in London, has turned into an annual threat to the top four, plays a fun and open style and isn’t afraid to spend some money.

I threw out Tottenham, because they seem to have become somewhat of the hipster’s choice of EPL clubs. They’re on the rise but also threaten to be a sort of flavor of the week, and I have a few friends who are Tottenham fans. Remember, this is about me attempting to make a decision. Plus, if there aren’t friends you can hurl insults at in the name of true hooliganism, where’s the fun?

Swansea didn’t make the cut either. They play in the smallest stadium in the league, don’t have a whole lot of positive history, and although Catherine Zeta-Jones is a fan, there was no guarantee of being able to watch a game with her that I could find in combing over their website.

So I was down to Everton and Fulham. One in Liverpool, one In London. I initially thought Fulham might be the right choice. They supposedly have some of the friendliest fans in the league and a welcoming atmosphere inside their cozy stadium, Craven Cottage. Plus, who wouldn’t want to root for a team that plays in a place called Craven Cottage? It sounds like a log cabin vacation home in the deep woods of Oregon, not the latest corporate BestbuyMobileStaplesAirlinesCellular Center du jour.

Plus, Posnanski compared them to the Pirates. How could I possible turn down the chance to … wait, WHAT?!??! This year notwithstanding, the Pirates have provided enough angst over the past 20 years that even Taylor Swift could pen some sort of anthology (though I’ve told them we were never, ever, ever getting back together, I always cave). How could I do that to myself twice? Plus they finished 12th last year and are generally thought to be a middle-of-the-pack team at best. It’d be nice to root for someone who’s at least a threat to win something on occasion.

That means, as a result of my very limited knowledge and the extremely arbitrary process that helped me arrive at this decision, Everton it is! And really, it couldn’t be a better choice, for a few reasons.

This man isn't focused on killing his North Vietnamese captors. He's mentally preparing for Everton's next match.

This man isn’t focused on killing his North Vietnamese captors. He’s mentally preparing for Everton’s next match.

1) Sylvester Stallone is a fan

2) They’re nicknamed the Toffees, and I occasionally enjoy Heath bars

3) Paul McCartney is a fan

4) Their best up-and-coming player is named Ross Barkley. My dog, who’s basically the canine version of Lionel Messi – speedy, short, chases balls in open spaces, amazing at everything – is named Barkley.

5) Can’t dwell on the Sly Stallone thing enough. The consistent ability to say “We drew First Blood!” in a sport where one goal is often enough to win cannot be overstated. Sly Everton

So there you have it. It’s not just about rooting for the teams you were born and raised to love. You, too, can make a choice through not-at-all scientific and generally absurd means to find a team that you’ll pull for through thick and thin, in good times and bad, in victory and in relegation.

I’m on board. I’m all in.

Unless they lose to Norwich City on Saturday.


Orange Is The New Black Brings Netflix to the Big Leagues

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The so-called Golden Age of television is supposedly on its way out. An era that began with The Sopranos and The Wire and is well into its back nine with the upcoming conclusions to Breaking Bad and Mad Men gave us a new age of storytelling on the small screen. Laugh-track heavy, three-camera sitcoms and ubiquitous procedural dramas were no longer the best American television could offer. Those things still exist, but plot-rich, character-driven, high-stakes cable serials began to take over.

Tony Soprano. Jimmy McNulty. Walter White. Don Draper. They may have started as fictional characters, but they’re now icons, representing the very peak of a time when TV began to regularly churn out classic novels in high definition. They were the ideal antiheroes, deeply flawed protagonists who had a penchant for killing people, drinking too much, sleeping around, becoming the Southwest’s premium meth supplier or poorly disguising his Yorkshire accent to pretend he’s from Baltimore.

They were also all men.

GQ’s Brett Martin tackled these four and more in his recently released “Difficult Men,” an excellent accompaniment to the fantastic Alan Sepinwall’s “The Revolution Was Televised,” which tackled 12 series that were primarily responsible for that Golden Age of TV. Of Sepinwall’s subjects, eight are shows that focused heavily or entirely on male protagonists or ensembles, with Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Friday Night Lights the exceptions.

Each of those four casts was quite balanced, but we’ve seen precious little over the past decade and a half that featured essentially an entirely female cast. When we have seen lady-centric serialized TV, it’s in the vein of Sex and the City, appealing almost exclusively to the double-X chromosome set.

That’s not the case with Orange is the New Black.

Network TV certainly didn’t want to dip its foot in the pool first, and it’s even a tough sell for basic or premium cable to design a series around a cast full of females, but as a relative newcomer to original programming Netflix could take that chance. And does it ever pay off.

I’ve yet to jump into House of Cards, which, at least based on its nine Emmy nominations, is clearly doing something right, but I can’t imagine it being any better than Orange is the New Black. After 13 episodes of one season, it’s earned a spot on lists of transformative TV such as Sepinwall’s and firmly put an end to the belief that the Golden Age is popping 30 pills a day and creaking around with a cane.

There's not a large market for artisanal soaps in prison. (Netflix)

There’s not a large market for artisanal soaps in prison. (Netflix)

OITNB popped up on Netflix with virtually no fanfare and even fewer expectations. House of Cards was the big fish, the one the streaming media provider bet heavily on as its original programming flagship, and Arrested Development’s relaunch was the fan favorite that kept Netflix at the forefront of the public consciousness through the summer despite the quality clearly failing to match the three original seasons that aired on FOX.

I’d watched the trailer of OITNB and found myself unaffected, though I later decided to check out the pilot in my thirst for something watchable between the season finale of Mad Men and the season premiere of Breaking Bad. My level of background knowledge of the series extended no further than hearing it was adapted from a novel by Jenji Kohan, the showrunner on Showtime’s Weeds, a show that, like OITNB, featured a female protagonist who became involved with trafficking drugs.

But while Nancy Botwin made a career of pushing marijuana on a fictional suburb of Los Angeles, Piper Chapman made a simple mistake nearly a decade ago that wound up earning her a 15-month sentence in the women’s federal prison in Litchfield, N.Y. So long to a pleasant engagement to fiancé Larry, played by perennial masturbator Jason Biggs, and adieu to a yuppie Brooklyn lifestyle trying to pitch artisanal soap to high-end retailers.

This looks like a man who's thinking of advice from Eugene Levy and planning his next masturbatory session with a dessert. (Netflix)

This looks like a man who’s thinking of advice from Eugene Levy and planning his next masturbatory session with a dessert. (Netflix)

Chapman is played by Taylor Schilling, who’s a relative newcomer to anyone but the tweens who saw her star in the Nicholas Sparks’ adapted screen version of The Lucky One or the few folks who didn’t blink during her brief appearance as Ben Affleck’s estranged wife in Oscar-winning Argo.

She’ll be unknown no more after this role. It’s not hard to picture Schilling in the role of upper-middle class Piper, but as soon as she appears in her orange jumpsuit for the first time the game changes. Schilling handles the fish-out-of-water switch with aplomb, walking back and forth on the fine line of terror in being a prison newcomer while developing enough of a prickly exterior to help her survive.

Piper enters prison with nothing but a glowing self-image, thinking of herself as a rose among thorns, a girl on the rise who was the victim of unfortunate luck as the result of one bad decision. But being behind bars offers plenty of time for self-evaluation, and it’s the moments where Piper begins to come to terms with her own costly decisions when she truly gets a grasp on who she is. That’s where Schilling is at her best.

Nick Sobotka, you've come a long way. Or maybe it's just the facial hair. (Netflix)

Nick Sobotka, you’ve come a long way. Or maybe it’s just the facial hair. (Netflix)

But even while noticing her own warts, Piper is no Walter White – in severity or screen dominance. The series is so outstanding because of the storylines and supporting characters, and that’s not a dig at the protagonist. There’s Laura Prepon of That 70’s Show fame as Alex Vause, Piper’s ex-lesbian fling and the heroin-smuggling reason both of them wound up in the slammer. There’s Star Trek veteran Kate Mulgrew as Red, the Russian kitchen cook who develops an immediately tenacious relationship with Piper. There’s little-known Michelle Hurst as Miss Claudette, one of Piper’s prison roommates, Natasha Lyonne, no stranger to real-life troubles, playing essentially Natasha Lyonne, and a cast of other inmates too long to list. Taryn Manning’s hillbilly Pennsatucky, Uzo Aduba’s Crazy Eyes, Samira Wiley’s Poussey and Danielle Brooks’ Taystee are the standouts, each with significant storylines throughout Season 1. Poussey and Taystee probably get the least screen time of any of the above characters, yet they still shared my favorite scene from across all 13 episodes – one that I think defines the show as well as any other. I also can’t forget Constance Shulman’s Yoga Jones, whose voice may sound familiar to any fans of Nickelodeon’s Doug, and The Wire alum Pablo Schreiber, who steals every scene he’s in as Super Troopers-esque prison guard Pornstache.

Yoga? Patty. Patty? Yoga? (Nickelodeon)

Yoga? Patty. Patty? Yoga. (Nickelodeon)

OITNB utilizes a Lost-type flashback arc, focusing most of the early episodes on one particular character’s path to prison while continually prodding Piper’s past with flashbacks revolving around her relationship with Larry or, more notably, her lesbian liaison with Alex. That’s a type of storytelling that’s not always prudent, but it worked well on Lost despite a penchant for overuse and is strong here in another environment where we have no preconceived notions of these characters and need to know how they earned their sentence. The best aspect of the flashbacks is that they don’t just offer excuses for our inmates but instead provide depth of character. Some were headed down a dangerous road and just needed that final push to prison. Others were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But all of them made decisions that make it perfectly clear these are more than just victims of circumstance.

Schilling likely isn’t going to win any awards for her performance, but it’s more layered than you expect and never showy in a role that could have been little more than screen candy for a more established actress. Biggs essentially plays Jim from American Pie, a role he’s never going to outgrow and one that he isn’t even really trying to considering he seems to have a clause that prohibits him from playing a character without polishing his skin flute on screen. He’s a normal guy who just wants to watch Mad Men and have a successful journalism career, an ongoing development that doesn’t necessarily make Larry a great character but provides a much-needed plot advancement in the prison.

Laura Prepon is a bit out of her depth away from Point Place, Wisconsin. (Netflix)

Laura Prepon is a bit out of her depth away from Point Place, Wisconsin. (Netflix)

My lone complaint is the casting of Prepon, who is playing a somewhat grown-up version of tomboy Donna Pinciotti. I wanted the character of Alex to be someone a bit older and at least a touch more dangerous than what Prepon provided, and I feel like that lack of edge made her relationship with Piper a bit less believable from Piper’s perspective. It’s no spoiler to say that the Alex-Piper relationship is perhaps the show’s most significant, and that means the audience needs to be able to buy the decisions Piper makes. I didn’t necessarily not buy them, but I didn’t feel like Prepon was a great match for Schilling here.

All that amounts to, though, is a minor quibble. The Wire had Herc, Breaking Bad has Skylar and Mad Men has Betty Draper – all questionable actor-character connections, none of which bring down the final product in any way.

OITNB is a comedy in the same way The Wire was, with light moments popping up that feel earned and not forced. But it’s 90 percent drama, a character study of consequences, self-realization and self-preservation. Piper may have only been a one-time drug money trafficker, but she has far more in common with those she shares company with behind bars than she does with her own fiancé.

It’s almost sacrilege to compare a show to The Wire, and I won’t go as far as making that leap here – particularly after only one season. Kohan’s other well-known dramedy, after all, chugged along for three or four enjoyable seasons before hanging on for four too many, but Weeds was a far inferior premise compared to OITNB’s.  

What The Wire did so successfully was reinvent itself, steadily keeping the central themes of capitalism, decay, violence and the impossibility of change the same while providing a look at different layers of the same problems within one stagnant environment. I don’t think OITNB is that ambitious, but there’s the potential for it to provide four or five more seasons of examinations of the prison system and rehabilitation to put it just a level below. This isn’t Oz, as Piper is reminded early on, but it doesn’t need to be. Minimum security doesn’t have to equate to smaller stakes.

With 15 months behind minimum-security bars and a fiancé in wait, though, is a lengthy run even a possibility?

That’s the thing about prison sentences. They’re subject to change.

CHECKING THE SCORE: 5 stars out of 5