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Awfully Fond (and Proud): Sesame Street’s Founding Generation

I have a distinct memory (among my very earliest) of my mother describing a new TV show that was about to air on PBS. “It’s for kids exactly your age,” she told me, and so it was. Sesame Street debuted in late 1969, when I was 5. In a home where screen time was highly restricted (our Sony Trinitron representing the only screen), Grover, Ernie, Bert, Maria, Mr. Hooper, Kermit, Gordon, Guy Smiley & Co. proved a staple of my early cultural sentience. It occurred to me recently that without the enthusiastic approval of kids my age — this founding Sesame Street cohort — the show might not have survived or become such a thing. And what a thing: 48 years and counting.

While channel surfing through the upper, premium reaches of my cable guide, I never seem to happen upon Sesame Street. Yes, today the show airs on HBO. You may have read about this arrangement whereby first-run episodes can be found there on Saturday mornings; eventually, they cycle back onto PBS in a post-modern form of syndication. I never see it there either, to be honest (my viewing habits are too nocturnal). It made this transition 2 years ago and I gather the show continues to wear extremely well.

Buoyed by the idea that this hugely influential, 50-year old show retains “the brassy splendor of The Bugs Bunny Show and the institutional dignity of a secular Sabbath school,” I’ve been conducting an experiment these last few weeks: I’ve been mentioning Sesame Street to folks generally my age and paying attention to their mood in reaction. If it generally brightens, I know they are fellow members of this my cohort… If I make a Cookie Monster or Roosevelt Franklin reference to someone just 4 years older, however, the reactions differ quite markedly. Often they don’t get it, or they will roll their eyes and make it clear they didn’t really watch Sesame Street. This makes sense: When the show debuted, these elder folks had already aged out.

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Palestra Tales, 40 Years in the Making


PHILADELPHIA — When we learned my daughter Clara would matriculate at the University of Pennsylvania, naturally her dad was thrilled: Here was my chance to make a proper pilgrimage to The Palestra, the most storied college basketball venue of the 20th Century.

As I’ve written here before, while my hoops allegiance today favors the overtly professional NBA, there was a two-decade period starting in the mid-1970s (just as John Wooden’s run at UCLA came to end) when I was a far more fervent college basketball junkie. The Palestra was central to that emerging fandom, which just happened to coincide with the sport’s surge into the national sporting consciousness.

College basketball and the NCAA Tournament are so popular today, so ubiquitous on television, it’s easy to forget their dual ascension is relatively recent. For all intents and purposes, UCLA and its 10 NCAA titles from 1962-75 effectively stunted the sport’s broader popularity (when certain teams/programs utterly dominate an underexposed sport, big cultural awareness only comes when some ridiculous win streak is snapped; think UConn, whose dominance has stunted women’ college basketball in the same way). Men’s college basketball should have taken off in the 1960s, but it didn’t because the only time anyone paid attention was when UCLA got beaten: first by Houston (1968’s famous Astrodome game), then by Notre Dame in 1973. These losses proved to be mere blips; the Bruins eventually won national titles both years. But someone finally did beat them when it counted (NC State, in the 1974 national semifinal). Then Wooden retired with one last title, in 1975. Suddenly the field was open and seeded. Take it from someone who was there: The idea that some team other than UCLA could win it all each year was novel and beguiling (!) — only then did the sport truly take off.

The Palestra (bottom right) sits directly beside historic Franklin Field, home of the Penn Relays and where Santa got booed in 1968. It also hosted the Philadelphia Eagles’ last NFL championship (1960). We visited Feb. 3, 2018, one day before the Eagles did it again.

Growing up in New England at this time,  our interest had already been piqued by a Providence College team led by Ernie D, Kevin Stacom and Marvin Barnes. The Friars went all the way to the Final Four in 1973 — that year WJAR Channel 10 out of Providence started televising a bunch of PC games. The following year, rival WPRI Channel 12 took the talented University of Rhode Island teams (led by Sly Williams) under its broadcasting wing. Even obscure UHF stations like Channel 27 out of Worcester aired weekly games (each of them called by Bob Fouracre and his magnificent toupée) featuring Holy Cross mainly but also Boston College — even tiny Assumption College, led by the immortal Billy Worm (look him up; he was a stud).

Soon the national networks and their affiliates in Boston got wise and started televising big regional games every Saturday afternoon. Here is where I got to know The Palestra. Hoop-rich Philadelphia was home to The Big 5, a city series featuring local rivals Villanova, Penn, St. Joseph’s, Temple and LaSalle. Every Big 5 game was played at The Palestra and these were the games I watched with manic intensity each weekend. These were the memories dislodged to glorious effect earlier this month, when Clara, Sharon and Philly-born, erstwhile golf freak Mike Sweeney watched the Quakers beat Yale, 58-50.

When the 10,000-seat Palestra opened in 1927, it was among the largest indoor sporting venues on Earth (the name is derived from the ancient Greek term palæstra, a rectangular space attached to a training facility, or gymnasium, where athletes would compete in public, before an audience). Today it’s a bandbox but still all I could have hoped for: seating stacked steeply with front rows right on the baselines/endlines; vaulted ceilings filled with banners; exposed brick everywhere — pretty much exactly as I remember it from the mid to late ‘70s.

But there was more to our Feb. 3 visit. Quite a bit more.


James Salters, point guard on Penn’s 1979 Final Four team, glides across The Palestra hardwood one more time.

One of college basketball’s enduring appeals is the Cinderella narrative, an unlikely NCAA run that propels some unlikely team deep into the tournament, perhaps all the way to the Final Four. Providence in ’73, for example. Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, who came within a game of going undefeated and winning it all in 1979. Later, any sort of unlikely tourney run qualified for Cinderella status. Starting in the 1980s, hoop junkies would go gaga every time Penn’s great rival, Princeton, would almost beat some highly-seeded team in the tournament’s opening round; Tiger coach Pete Carril became something of a folk legend based on this run of compelling near-misses. Well, as a student of the game (and father of future Penn alum), I’m obliged to point out that back in 1979, an Ivy League team went all the way to the Final Four! Yeah, the Quakers were summarily bludgeoned there by Magic Johnson, Greg Kelser and Michigan State, 101-67. But still… This was a great team; the year before, it lost to national runner-up Duke in the regional final.

Guess who was honored at halftime of the Penn-Yale game earlier this month? That’s right, this very Quaker cohort. They were all there: James “Peanut” Salters, the silky, sinewy point guard; Ronnie Price, the 6’5” scoring machine who seemed way too good for the Ivy League; Matt White, whose awkward-but-effective 6’10” frame allowed Penn to truly play with (and beat) the big boys… To think that I would see them all again, 40 years later, at The Palestra, because my own daughter was a student there? Pretty fuckin’ cool.

The Palestra, I would learn, isn’t famous just for being old (à la the original Boston Garden, a rat-infested dump where I covered many games as a young sportswriter). Unlike Delaware North, the University has done an formidable job keeping the place up: squeaky clean and not a brick out of place. But the history is inescapable… For many years, the same outfit owned both The Palestra and Madison Square Garden; in order to play MSG in NYC, teams were often obliged to schedule games in Philadelphia, as well. Penn would acquire the facility in 1939, and Philly would soon develop a storied basketball tradition of its own. Even today, when there’s a big college or high school game to be played, The Palestra serves as host.

This long, diverse, illustrious history doesn’t merely waft about in the rafters. It is scrupulously catalogued by a series of pictorial exhibits located all around the concourse. There are life-sized images of all the great college stars who played here through the ages, from LaSalle’s Tom Gola and Michael Brooks to Princeton’s Bill Bradley; from Villanova’s Rory Sparrow and Easy Ed Pinckney to Temple’s immortal Mark Shakin’ Bakin’ Macon. All the Penn greats get extra attention, of course — not just the cagers, but the wrestlers and volleyball players who starred here, too. The high school exhibit features a bunch of guys I’ve never heard of, but several anybody would (Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant). And lest we forget, a whole raft of famous coaches cut their teeth or made their bones at The Palestra: Dr. Jack Ramsey (at St. Joe’s), Chuck Daly (Penn), Jon Chaney (Temple) and Rollie Massamino (‘Nova) are but a few to earn oversized pictures on the concourse.

There was even a displaying honoring notable Philly sportswriters, the ink-stained wretches who labored here at courtside, including the immortal Dick Weiss who covered hoops for The Daily News but also, in the early 1980s, single-handedly produced Eastern Basketball magazine. Further warmed to the college basketball phenomenon up by emergence of the Big East Conference in 1979, I subscribed to this publication in the early 1980s, at college. I recall that my housemates couldn’t believe anything so arcane even existed — frankly neither could I. Accordingly, Dick Weiss would become one of my sportswriting heroes and role models. I never had a clue what he looked like until Feb. 3, 2018 (he’s still at it, for the record).

Ironically, The Big East — for all its successes — would eventually overshadow and ultimately diminish eastern basketball in general and The Palestra in particular. When the league hijacked St. John’s, Syracuse, Providence and UConn from the old ECAC and Yankee conferences, each of these lesser leagues splintered into even weaker sisterhood, or extinction. When The Big East plucked Villanova from the old Eastern 8 conference (which then became the perennially outgunned Atlantic 10), the Wildcats used their new riches to build a fancy, new, on-campus gym. In this diversified, enriched media/conference universe, the Big 5 would lose much of its cachet. Today, only a few rivalry games are played here. In many ways, The Palestra in 2018 is simply Penn’s home court.

It seems as though Penn is content with this evolution — eager to tout The Palestra’s broader history but just as happy the old barn still so ably serves the university’s many athletic programs. As the Big 5 has ebbed, Ivy League games have taken on more importance — they are one’s ticket to the NCAA tournament, after all. At this writing, the Quakers are 19-6 overall, 9-1 in conference, poised to earn yet another bid (after many years of holding out, the Ivy will conduct its first conference tournament in 2018, with the winner advancing to the Big Dance). More important perhaps: Penn swept Princeton this year. The Tigers are 3-7 in the league and the Quakers are loving it.

Out on the concourse is yet another display, this one a simple tally board that tracks this long and bitter rivalry between the Ivy League’s two traditional powers. Following the Quakers’ win on Feb. 6, it reads, “Penn 126, Princeton 113”.

Professor Nat Greene: Come on Down!

The inimitable Bob Barker, flanked by “Price is Right” eye candy Janice Pennington (left) and Anitra Ford.

As yours probably does, my alma mater hits me all too frequently with some manner of e-newsletter cum fund-raising communiqué. One can hardly escape the memories stirred/jarred by all this WesContact, which is surely the way they want it. In any case, a recent MailChimp morsel revealed, among other things, that three Wesleyan faculty had received The Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. While this particular tidbit proved interesting enough to peruse, I’m only now addressing the nostalgia it prompted — immersed as I am, third party, in the college experience of both my kids.

The first thing to say is that my cohort and I attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., alongside an actual Binswanger — Benjamin Pennypacker Binswanger to be exact. Never knew him but my housemates and I made note of his titanically pretentious name the first week of school freshman year and never forgot it — never tired of mocking it, either. Always wondered if he was related to Princeton’s Jay Binswanger, winner of the first Heisman Trophy…

Wesleyan Professor Nat Greene

More to the point, Nat Greene was one of these recent Binswanger honorees. I took a couple classes with him at Wes, but the first was a survey of European history 1815-1945, and I remember it best because it was the only one I ever took with my housemate Dennis Carboni, an art history major whose course load never again overlapped with mine (classical history/modern American lit).

Greene didn’t necessarily tilt the material toward “social” history, an approach then sweeping uber-liberal bastions like Wesleyan. His hewed more to the traditional “Great Men, Great Events” approach. I remember the syllabus included a book of his own scholarship, “From Versailles to Vichy: The Third French Republic, 1919–1940”, which a) struck me at the time as being pretty awesome, that this guy was teaching from his own work; and b) still resides in a bookcase somewhere here in my house, for reasons completely bewildering to my wife. An entertaining lecturer and no-nonsense grader of essays (all testing was conducted via manic, long-hand scribbling in those little blue booklets), Greene was a fine professor — the sort I hope Silas and Clara will experience at some point in their academic careers.

But here’s what I remember most from my class with Nat Greene: It ran from 10 to 10:50 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings in the old PAC building (a few steps from the manhole where we plunged down into Wesleyan’s famous tunnel system, the subject of another remembrance perhaps). If Dennis and I didn’t dawdle after class, we could race home to my off-campus apartment and catch The Price Is Right at 11 a.m.

Yes, The Price Is Right. It became a sort of ironic obsession for me but something more than that for Dennis, as many things did. It gave me great pleasure to watch him obsessively game this once-seminal game show.

I’m not sure that college kids go in for this sort of thing today, awash as they are in video content and on-demand entertainment delivery choices. However, during the early 1980s, TV was a sort of novel diversion for college kids. We had grown up with it, of course, but had virtually no access to it at school. And so, great delight was taken in the ironic devotion to retrograde programming like soap operas in dorm lounges and late-night reruns of shows like the Rockford Files and Star Trek — things we would never bother watching when home with our families. My sophomore year, my housemate and I came by a tiny black-and-white TV that I’m pretty sure we carried with us the next three years, to three different houses, deploying along the way a staggering array of make-shift aerials including one that involved a pumpkin wrapped in tin foil.

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Let’s take the NCAA Tournament up a few notches — to 351 (Fahrenheit)

Let’s take the NCAA Tournament up a few notches — to 351 (Fahrenheit)

351 image

Let’s just take the gloves off and hash this out — right here, right now, for the greater basketball good.

The current NCAA tournament format — 68 teams, with 8 playing off/in to create a field of 64 — is the worst sort of folly, both competitively arbitrary and financially capricious. From the moment the initial “play-in” gambit was instituted, in 2001, the slope proved slippery. At first, just two small-conference champions played off for the right to get boned, on 48 hours’ rest, by a top regional seed. The 8-team, 4-game play-in we’ve endured since 2011 is merely that much more arbitrary and capricious.

I wish I could tell you this “expansion” of the tournament was done in the name of inclusiveness and equity. But honestly, “arbitrary and capricious” is more accurate, for this peculiar tack was undertaken in service of the entirely arbitrary and capricious need to preserve NCAA tourney revenue and exposure for a dozen or so would-be, at-large, major-conference also-rans, each year, at the expense small-conference champions. In other words, the Atlantic Sun Conference champion is obliged to play-in against the winner of the Summit Conference, because if they did not, there would be no room in the field of 64 for some 5th or 6th place team from the Big Ten.

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International Olympic Committee Learning the Hard Truths of PGA Tour Attendance

International Olympic Committee Learning the Hard Truths of PGA Tour Attendance

The life of an elite professional golfer is one of great privilege, born of great skill. And now the International Olympic Committee is learning what organizers of PGA Tour events have known for several years: Getting the elite to schedule your event is like trying to lure multi-millionaires to time-share presentations.

The news that Adam Scott won’t be competing in Rio broke just as the Tour’s traveling road show stops this week in Charlotte for the Wells Fargo Championship, a top-tier event not just on account of its huge purse and quality golf course (Quail Hollow GC), but for the way it has traditionally pampered competitors. This aspect of tour life is seldom discussed outside the most wonky, Tour-obsessed websites and cable channels. However, the last decade has witnessed a startling arms race of perks and incentives, all bestowed with an eye toward delivering “name” players to individual PGA Tour events.

It’s a hard trick to turn. As the IOC is now learning, elite professional golfers have no real incentive to show up anywhere outside the Majors and World Golf Championship events, as they set their own schedules and money no longer interests them. Olympic glory? Representing your country? Cementing golf as an Olympic sport after a 112-year hiatus? A familiar 72-hole stroke-play format (as opposed to the team formats first advanced by Olympic organizers)? Today, all are likely to be met with indifferent yawns.

And why wouldn’t they yawn? Top players are so well compensated, the incentive to play 25-30 events per year (thus spreading around to many events the Tour’s considerable star power) has largely been removed. The fallback position for event organizers has been the lavishing of perks and niceties on players and their families.

At The Players Championship, conducted over Pete Dye’s TPC Sawgrass course each May, a purpose-built 77,000-square-foot clubhouse sports a cavernous locker room, a separate champions locker room, and a full-on spa that, during the tournament, dispenses free services (not just massage but manicures, pedicures and hot shaves) to players and their family members. The gourmet vittles served here are also considered the best on Tour.

There was a time when tour events burnished reputations by serving really good milk shakes and providing courtesy cars. Courtesy cars are today de riguer for all players, at every tour stop, but Charlotte takes it up a notch. Each golfer is provided a silver Mercedes-Benz S-300 or S-500 for the week. They are also entitled to police escorts if they happen to encounter something unseemly, like traffic. Free valet parking at Quail Hollow? Of course — even the caddies get that!

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How MadMen Should Finale, Ultimately

How MadMen Should Finale, Ultimately


It doesn’t matter where Matthew Weiner & Co. pick up the seventh and final season of MadMen. Some might insist on 1969, to keep the 1960s ethos in tact (though the series actually started in the late ‘50s), others 1974, to neatly bookend the Dick Nixon Era. But it doesn’t really matter because halfway through the 2-hour finale of the seventh-and-final season, the show should jump from a 1970something tableau to a recognizably modern day. In keeping with the way other MM seasons have begun, it’s not exactly clear what year it is.

What is clear is this: Sterling Cooper & Partners has survived and thrived, perhaps added a name or two, and the agency has taken up residence in chic modern offices high in a glittering Manhattan tower of glass and steel. For 50 minutes of this final hour, in the course of a normal business day, we learn what’s happened to most all the characters who matter, i.e. who remains at the firm, how the hierarchical machinations have shaken out, who’s moved over to or formed competitors, who no longer remains on this mortal coil, who has divorced and remarried whom, who’s aged well and who hasn’t… The pacing is pointedly brisk, recalling the Season 3 episode “Shut the Door. Have a Seat”, when the gang reboots the firm. This pacing is important because frankly there’s a lot of ground to cover (for the viewer, absent all these years) and we want to make clear the agency’s ongoing vitality.

Clues re. the time period dribble out via scene details and workaday conversations at SC&P. For example, the Justice Dept. has just announced it would no longer seek to break-up Microsoft — a fact germane to SC because the firm is courting Netscape, which is jittery because a company called Google has just been awarded US Patent 6,259,999 for the PageRank algorithm used in its search engine. The codgers at Sterling Cooper aren’t at all sure what a search engine is.

Bobby Draper has grown up to be a political operative. We see him on TV as chief of staff to Congressman Gary Condit, steadfastly defending a man who would appear to be dying a slow political death while denying an affair with 24-year-old Chandra Levy, now missing for 133 days.

All this catch-up takes place on a single day, a Monday.

The next morning, standing in his Upper East Side apartment, an appropriately aged Don Draper reads the paper in his stylish breakfast nook while a radio plays in the background: Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance, has been assassinated in Takhar Province. His young wife doesn’t know who that is. She’s the spitting image of Betty Draper. Or maybe it’s another brunette…

It’s a late-summer day under a bright, blue, cloudless sky. Don gets out of a cab and bumps into a colleague (Peggy? Roger? Dawn?) outside their office tower. They’ve got a conference call at 9 a.m. and running late. As they hustle inside, the camera pans back from the monolithic revolving doors and reveals, for the first time, that the Sterling Cooper offices are housed inside the World Trade Center.

Cut immediately to the Sterling Cooper offices burning out of control. Don is knocked out beside his own desk, lying amid the debris (which includes a bottle of bourbon, a tumbler and a slide carousel). The only real sounds are low-licking flames and the eerie, reedy hum of steady winds, as several ceiling-to-floor windowpanes have been shattered/knocked out by the impact and subsequent blasts of jet fuel. The whole scene is staged and blocked to recall MadMen’s seminal Korean War flashbacks.

Don ultimately comes to, and things are suddenly moving really fast again. MM characters dart in and out, to see if Don’s alive, to express ignorance or disagreement as to what has actually happened, to tell him so-and-so is dead, to inform him they can no longer stay put. Indeed, a group has decided to ignore the “stay put” advice of emergency personnel on the ground — they’re leaving, and they’re taking the stairs. Draper says he’ll be right there.

Alone now, he grabs the bourbon, pours himself a drink and downs it. As he takes one last look around the wreckage that was his office/firm/life, the episode-ending music begins (“Be My Baby”, by Ronnie Spector and the Ronnettes). Don walks past the camera toward what we assume is the door. Instead, he walks to the open window and calmly steps out.

No need to show the trag-iconic footage of that businessman falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11. It is immediately recalled — and provides new meaning to the animated version of that footage we’ve seen at the start of this and every other MadMen episode, including the final one.









McShane Deserves a Bust in Rogue’s Gallery

McShane Deserves a Bust in Rogue’s Gallery


For reasons I’ve never quite understood, I’ve maintained an odd recollection of and attachment to the 1969 film, If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium. It was on TV when I was a kid, but no more than any other junkie films that populated the late-night film archives of local Boston affiliates. Why would I fixate this film? For a while I assumed it was the presence of a youngish, sneaky hot Suzanne Pleshette, and maybe that’s it. But maybe, just maybe, it was the fact that her love interest was played by Ian McShane.

I keep running into this guy. I just plowed through three seasons of Deadwood, in which he hit it out of the park as iconic Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen. Now I’m onto a British mini-series production of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Fall, where McShane presides as the conniving Bishop Waleran. This son of Blackburn, Lancashire has been around forever but it wasn’t till the other day that I realized what a long screen relationship I had with him.

His big screen credits frankly leave a bit to be desired. I wouldn’t call them four thousand holes in the resume, but several decades of nothing films have been followed, of late, by a series of grey eminence roles (Coraline, The Golden Compass) and bit parts in animated features (Shrek the Third, Kung Fu Panda). This may be the only British actor who failed to land a sinecure via the Harry Potter franchise. Sexy Beast was a fine film, though his solid portrayal of Teddy Bass was overshadowed (along with everything else in this 2000 feature) by the sublimely, astonishingly evil Ben Kingsley character (yeah, he’s got range but who knew Ben had that in him?). McShane’s Blackbeard in the latest installment of Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides, was probably a nice payday but it ain’t gonna win him any Best Supporting Actor nominations.

On TV, however, McShane has turned in a hall-of-fame-caliber roster of work, on both sides of the pond. God praise Wikipedia for logging it all for posterity. This guy is a mini-series maestro — Roots, Disraeli, Pillars — and has starred and/or appeared in a laundry list of fine or otherwise noteworthy series: Space 1999, Magnum P.I., Miami Vice, Dallas, The West WingDeadwood’s well earned praise, and his centrality to the show, now overshadowed what had been the jewels in his crown: eight years as the unabashedly mulletted, somewhat slimy antique dealer, Lovejoy, and a recurring role in the equally laudable (and British) series Minder.

I’m not trying to make any monumental cultural point here. Only that no one does rogues of ambiguous motivation like Ian McShane.

Postponing the Deadwood Finale, Because I Can…

Postponing the Deadwood Finale, Because I Can…


It is possible, Virginia, to keep oneself in suspense. When playing 7-card stud, for example, and the dealer delivers the final card, down and dirty. It’s far more fun to hide it awhile behind the two existing down cards before slowly “squeezing” the last one into view, effectively teasing oneself with visual clues: Be round, baby. Be round!

In the age of TiVo, DVDs and DVRs, it’s perhaps even an easier and more common practice. I almost never watch a sporting event live on television these days; far better to DVR that sucker, skip the ads and condense a 3.5-hour Patriots game into a single 70-minute experience. What’s that? Dinner’s ready and Tom Brady’s driving New England toward winning 4th quarter touchdown? Simply pause it and mull the possibilities over a relaxing Sunday repast.

The television series on DVD offers the opportunity to raise this dynamic to high art, and I’m purposely poised at the precipice as I write you this evening. In September, I secured all three seasons of HBO’s acclaimed series, Deadwood. I brought them home from Asia (read: I bought a pirated version for a song). There are 36 shows in all. I have watched 35 and I’m savoring the possible denouements awhile before I break down and watch the final episode.

I don’t want it to end. So, for now, I’m withholding climax.

Deadwood came to this viewer with an extraordinary amount of fawning advanced billing, even from those I would judge to be hard cases and otherwise culturally snobbish. I don’t subscribe to HBO, never have. So it was going to require a DVD purchase to get a look. I managed to put that off for a long while, or otherwise blanked when rummaging through the bins of pirated DVD material during earlier visits to the side-street vendors of Saigon, Bangkok and Beijing.

Then there was the matter of having finally purchased Deadwood as part of September’s larger, stellar haul of video fodder. I also came home with Inception, Friends with Benefits, Winter’s Bone and the entire Game of Thrones series, another HBO-produced tour de force. My son and I have dipped into that one (which the Vietnamese pirate-packager endearingly labeled Game of Thorns).

One downside to HBO programming (and there aren’t many) is the interminable opening-credit sequences. I’ve not timed them, but the intro to each episode of Game of Thrones and Deadwood, for example, must run a full minute. Doesn’t sound like much, and the opening to Game of Thrones is actually quite well done — a sweeping, 3-D, helicopter-view tour of the mythical kingdoms over which rival factions fight in this absorbing epic. But it feels interminable after the first couple viewings, and here again we just fast-forward through it now.

[Digression: I heard a Fresh Air interview with Seth McFarlane the other day. He’s the force behind Family Guy, a show that has its moments but isn’t really my cup of tea. Too scatological for its own good, though the show’s opening is a clever take on the ditty Edith and Archie sang to start each episode of All in the Family. McFarlane noted that the trend today on commercial TV runs toward much shorter show openings, enabling network philistines to pack ever more advertising into a 30- or 60-minute slot.]

Okay, back on message. Having saved the best for last, I can report that Deadwood is really, really good. I’m dreading the idea that once I desist with the self-imposed suspense and watch the finale, it’ll all be over. One doesn’t get that same sense of dread when catching up on Mad Men or other worthy series still in production, where new material’s in the offing. The whiff of disappointment at finishing the final disc is tempered by the fact that there’s more to come. But it’s far worse contemplating the close of Deadwood, which, for reasons I mean to explore once I’m finished (so as not to ruin the ending), simply pulled the plug after Season III.

I’ll write more on the series itself when I’ve taken it all in. Until then, I’ll leave you in suspense.



Whitbread Headlines Intriguing TV Saturday for US Soccer Nuts

Whitbread Headlines Intriguing TV Saturday for US Soccer Nuts

Keep your DVRs at the ready. The U.S. Men’s National Soccer campaign is done for 2011, but that doesn’t mean we can’t check on the progress and form of key individual squad members, as they toil for European clubs and, in some cases, strive to catch the eye of American coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Indeed, Saturday, Nov. 26 provides us three televised games on the trot, all featuring Yanks abroad worth watching.

The most interesting game, the one I’ll be watching closest, is the 10 a.m. EST tilt featuring Norwich City and Queens Park Rangers on Fox Soccer Channel. Not the most compelling or glamorous match on its face, but it’s hoped here that City’s Zak Whitbread, the central defender and Houston native, will earn a start in the Canary back four. Whitbread is not a household name. He’s bounced around England’s lower divisions for some time. He’s no spring chicken, either: 27 years old, meaning he’d be 30 by the time Brazil 2014 rolls around and, so, hardly a more youthful alternative to either Carlos Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson. Klinsmann’s current top choices at center defense have not wowed anyone with their pace nor their ability to play the ball confidently and creatively out of the back. I’ve no idea whether Whitbread is a serious alternative to either one, but how may other Americans are playing central defense for EPL teams nowadays. Who is this guy? Whitbread spent most of his life in England and Singapore (his father, Barry Whitbread, was the coach of the Singapore national football team in the late 1990s). He matriculated via Liverpool’s respected youth academy but never caught on with the senior club. He played at Millwall and now he’s at Norwich. I can’t say that I have any real familiarity with this guy’s game. I’ll be looking to change that  Saturday.

Equally enticing is the 2:30 p.m. EST Serie A match on Fox Soccer Channel pitting Chievo against AC Milan. Michael Bradley showed everyone he deserves a place in the U.S. team with a fine performance in Slovenia last week. I think the hubbub re. whether Klinsi was somehow dissing Bradley in wake of his father being ousted as U.S. coach, in August, was way overplayed. All this fall, Bradley the Younger had been fighting for a place with his new Italian club, and Klinsi would have done him no favors by pulling him out of training for a friendly v. Honduras. Again, we don’t get to see a lot of Chievo on American television, and so we’ll see for ourselves Saturday what sort of place Bradley has fashioned for himself — against top-flight competition in Milan.

I think we know all we need to know about Clint Dempsey at this stage. He’s America’s top talent, can play anywhere in any attacking formation, and does so for both the USMNT and his EPL club, Fulham. Sandwiched between the two games noted above, The Cottagers travel to Arsenal in a 12:30 p.m. EST start on FSC. The Gunners have found their form of late, while plucky Fulham have exhibited difficulty scoring home and away. Here’s hoping FFC scores first in this London Derby, on a Dempsey goal, thereby averting what I fear could be a route.

Larry Sanders: I Never Knew Ye… Until Now

Larry Sanders: I Never Knew Ye… Until Now


I’ve never subscribed to HBO. There may have been a month or two when it was provided to us here in New Gloucester, by mistake, or as part of some promotion, but when the cable monolith inevitably attempted to charge us, we balked. The movie-watching we missed as a result of this cultural diminishment we don’t see as relevant.

However, many is the time I wish I had actually seen all those episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Larry Sanders Show.

Last year, from some Bangkok street vendor, I procured up first four seasons of Curb, for a ridiculously small sum. It was good; I had seen the odd show here and there. But I had trouble watching them en masse, to be frank. After 5-6 episodes, not even a full season, I found myself worn out but the sameness of each plot: No, Larry. No, don’t do that. Oh geez…

IFC started rebroadcasting The Larry Sanders Show in January and with a deft flick of my DVR settings, I have proceeded to record each episode, in order, from the very beginning of the show’s run in 1992. It’s hard to keep up. My family rolls its eyes when they glimpse the list of recorded shows and spy the sea of Larry. And I’ll admit that what I believe were the first two seasons were only slightly better than average and something of a letdown when contrasted with the glowing tributes this series routinely garners from

TV cognoscenti. The episodes didn’t suffer from a sameness, a la Curb, but I did find myself wondering why it was I was supposed to care about any of the main characters.

Well, I can report that in season four the show officially hits its stride. It’s not merely easy for me to sit down and watch 2-3 episodes in a sitting; I make time for it. Indeed, I recently watched the fictitious talk show’s 8th anniversary special, and it struck me that a number of things have come together, revealing the show’s genius and explaining all the accolades I’d read and listened to over the years.

First and foremost, the cast has turned over a bit and now, in the fourth season, a glut of young comic talent (well, they were young in the ‘90s, when the show ran) has been assembled and appears regularly. Phil the writer and Larry’s assistant Beverly have been joined by:

• Janeane Garafolo plays Paula the alt talent booker (in one recent episode, she’s obliged to appear on the show and, though ambivalent about the exercise, takes heart that it might be seen by members of Pavement);

• Sarah Silverman has just come aboard as the new writer;

• Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall fame has taken over as sidekick Hank Kingsley’s personal assistant, replacing the shapely but boring Darlene; and

• Bob Odenkirk, alum of both Mr. Show and The Ben Stiller Show, “guests” recurringly as Larry’s prick agent.

These characters, along with Gary Shandling’s Larry Sanders, Jeffrey Tambor’s Ed McMahon homage, Kingsley, and Rip Torn’s Artie the Producer, form the comic core of the show. As an ensemble, this small group is superb. Kingsley is one of the more hilariously execrable characters ever created for television, a vain, callow, greedy, ultimately obtuse prick who, as we learned in a recent episode involving a sex tape he made, happens to be hung like Affirmed. Shandling and Torn are priceless. It just works.

And this isn’t really the half of it, because what truly makes the show is the constant stream of talk show guests who come on and parody themselves, show business, and their particular shows/films with startling honesty, irony and profanity. Four seasons in, many of these celebrities have appeared often enough, or been pilloried by other cast members frequently enough, that they come off as minor show characters in their own right.

The 8th anniversary show drove much of this home for me. The fictitious show writers have concocted a sketch whereby guests Noah Wylie (from the ‘90s hit hospital series “ER”) and Mandy Patkinkin (from its contemporaneously rival hospital drama “Chicago Hope”) are to participate in a mock shit-slinging match, on camera, on the couch, sending up a contrived rivalry between the two shows and their respective casts. When they are briefed on all this in the Green Room, backstage, Patinkin refuses and ends up shitting all over “ER” for real: calling it superficial and a day camp for beautiful actors and actresses. What’s a put-on in this show within a show, this green room within a green room, and what’s not is difficult to discern, which is a scream. Meanwhile, another guest, CBS sportscaster Pat O’Brien, is across the green room trying to watch the show on a monitor and keeps yelling, “Would you two shut the fuck up?!” Another guest, Rosie O’Donnell sashays about, pissed off that her limo never came, obliging her to drive herself to the taping and park her own car.

KD Lang is a guest, too, and apparently she’s Hank’s neighbor in Malibu or something. They hate each other, because squirrels living in a tree on her property are dropping acorn shells into Hank’s pool — and he has responded by downing the entire overhanging branch with a chainsaw. They bump into each other backstage, getting coffee, and she dresses him down, salty as can be — adding that she wishes he’d stop vacuuming his pool in the nude. The casual profanity combined with the audience’s knowledge of Lang’s bisexuality (real), not to mention Hank’s giant schlong (?), is hysterical.

Linking all these disparate bits in a 30-minutes episode is the fact that Larry is so keyed up for the show, he forgets his ritualistic pre-show whiz. So he keeps trying to slip out between guests, or when Lang is performing, only to be foiled each time. During one break, he runs into Fred Corcoran, legendary producer of the Tonight Show and the model for Artie’s character. Larry tries to pull away, cuz he HAS to go, but Corcoran offers, offhandedly, that “Johnny says hello.” Larry’s supreme vanity trumps any discomfort, preventing him from leaving. “Johnny says hello? Really? Does he watch the show? If you could arrange a lunch sometime…”

20 seconds, Larry!

Another attempt is scotched right at the bathroom door when Farrah Fawcett shows up. She has apparently hit Rosie’s car in the parking lot and is trying to find her. She’s quite flirty with Larry, and this doesn’t help when Ryan O’Neal emerges from the bathroom — still angry with Larry for bumping him from an earlier show (the subplot of an earlier episode). This is just the sort of celeb character history that continually loops through the series. (In this same anniversary episode, George Segal stands around in a tux shamelessly hoping to fill in, in case a guest no-shows). The whole Ryan/Farrah vignette takes all of 45 seconds, and you gotta love the fact that these two would agree to show up, if only to send themselves up, for less than a minute of face time on The Larry Sanders Show. Even so, it takes long enough to foil Larry’s plan to piss.

15 seconds, Larry!

For fans of the show, none of this is news. Indeed, it’s more than a decade late. However, I’m telling you, it’s all very well done and to those who’ve been similarly remiss, I can heartily recommend a DVD purchase or perhaps the IFC/DVR route. Another sanguinary aspect? The show is set in the 90s, when some of us were still young, OJ was still on trial, ER still ruled the Thursday time slot, Boris Yeltsin jokes were still current, and Farrah still lived. It’s an entertaining window on the Clinton Era and, with season four behind me (wherein Larry slept with Ellen Degeneres and fends off the sexual advances of the X-Files’ David Duchovny), I’ve got a feeling the best may yet be to come.