Disney Plus

It’s a capitalist truism that commercial success in any new economic sector will generate copy-cat competitors who will then try to steal market share through relentless competition and predatory pricing until the market collapses under the weight of too much product.

We are on the verge of that point now with streaming services.  Already the market seems glutted with Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, which started out by distributing programming created by others and have morphed into content originators themselves. Still, if there were just a “Big Three” of streaming services, it would be a little pricey but manageable to buy all of them and have access to the vast majority of video programming.

Unfortunately, a lot of content producers are increasingly reluctant to license their TV shows and movies to the big streaming services.  They want to cut out the middleman and sell programming directly to consumers through their own businesses.  Thus we now have CBS All Access, ESPN+, and AT&T WatchTV (the latter of which offers Turner content). These are services that no one really asked for.  OK, maybe a sports fanatic who wanted to watch nothing but sports would be interested in completely cutting the cord and signing up for ESPN+, but is there really anyone who can’t live without the CBS video vault?

Now comes Disney+, the most formidable of the burgeoning new streaming services.  Set to launch at the end of next year, the new service will offer up the film and television libraries for some of the most iconic brands in the business, including Disney, Pixar, Marvel, “Star Wars,” and National Geographic, the latter of which will join the Disney fold through its pending acquisition of 21st Century Fox.

Enough is enough.  Let’s strangle this monster in its cradle.  Boycott Disney+.  If Disney successfully launches its own streaming service will NBC Universal be far behind?  Or Sony?  Pretty soon we’ll be overrun with specialty streaming services all offering their own sliver of the content universe.

A world with dozens of narrow streaming services might be the dream of “ala carte” advocates, who believe we should only pay for the specific programming we want to watch.  I understand the attraction of ala cart, since the average cable bill is ridiculously expensive.  And as hater of the New York Yankees it bugs me no end that I pay about $5 a month for the YES Network, thereby indirectly subsidizing a team I loathe.

And yet if you did cut the cable cord and tried to recreate the portfolio of channels, networks and content you currently get by buying their various streaming services, the cost would be even higher, with a lot more aggravation in trying to track down each service.

I’m under no illusion that my own personal boycott of Disney+ will hold back the tide.  Capitalism abhors the status quo and CEOs don’t stay in their job long without making and winning big bets on market disrupters.  Never mind that ESPN+, another streaming service from Disney, is already losing $100 million a quarter and that Disney+ will probably lose money for a long time too (to say nothing of the lost revenue from pulling out of its licensing deal with Netflix).  Starting your own streaming service is a Big Idea and companies like to be “bold,” “visionary,” and “strategic.”

Whenever there’s a glut of any product the producers usually respond with a round of price cutting, which can temporarily lower the cost of the product to the consumer, even as the providers continue to lose money.  Usually a price war benefits consumers, but Disney, Netflix, Amazon, etc. probably can’t lower their prices enough to offset the fact that we will need to buy multiple services if we want to replicate the access we now have.

It doesn’t take futurist to predict how this will play out.  It will be the same scenario that played out in the auto, telecom, electricity, cable, ISP, film, airline, and online search sectors: pretty soon there will be a dozen streaming services, many of which will be awash in red ink.  When shareholders think they’ve lost enough money there will be industry consolidation and we’ll back where we are now, with just a handful of providers.

To accelerate this process, don’t sign up for any of these new services.  It will only encourage them and delay the day when we can return to a saner streaming system.

 

 

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love actually

There are Christmas movies that I love, there are some I find crude and unfunny, and others that are boring or sickly sweet.  But there’s only one that I actually hate: “Love Actually.”

I hated this movie the moment I saw it in the theater 15 years ago and have nurtured that disregard ever since.  But since I’m an open-minded person I recently gave it another shot to see if I had been wrong all these years.  Nope.

“Love, Actually” is an ensemble piece featuring the cream of the English acting establishment (minus Maggie Smith for some reason.  How she escaped is beyond me.)  Set in upper-middle-class London the movie purports to illuminate the various aspects of love through nine case studies.  Most of the characters are interrelated in some unexplained way that seems to revolve around an elementary school attended by everyone’s kids or the kids of their friends.

The movie is bracketed at the beginning and end with genuinely affecting scenes of people joyously reuniting at the airport: grandparents and grandchildren, friends, lovers, parents and children, spouses.  Fair enough. That’s very touching.  And because the movie is set during the four weeks leading up to Christmas, the movie purports to examine love through the prism of Christmas.

And yes, love is all around us at Christmas.  Love for your fellow man.  Love for your family.  Love for your community.  But “Love Actually” has the narrowest definition of love, emphasizing romantic love at the expense of all else.  Of the nine stories, seven are about love between one male and one female and only two depict all the other kinds of love in the world (one is about love between old friends and the other depicts a sister lovingly caring for her brother.)

OK, sure. Romantic love sells tickets, but what the movie calls love is frequently just infatuation between people who barely know each other, including:

  • Two strangers (Colin Firth and his Portuguese housekeeper) who don’t even speak a word of the same language
  • An 11-year-old boy with a crush on a girl he’s never spoken to
  • A bloke who’s so infatuated with his best friend’s new wife that he’s barely spoken to her
  • The prime Minister of the UK, who is enamored by the woman who brings him tea and crumpets despite never having had a serious conversation in the two weeks she was waiting on him
  • A guy who goes to America to pick up women in bars and apparently manages to snag one, although we are not shown how he accomplishes it

This bizarre definition of love is bad enough but here are six other things to which I object:

1. The elevation of puppy love to the highest echelons of human feeling

One of the main stories involves a school boy, Sam (now more famous as Jojen Reed in Game of Thrones!), who we meet at his mother’s funeral.  His stepfather, Liam Neeson, is concerned that the boy is distraught, but in a surprise twist it turns out that the reason for Sam’s despondency is his crush on a classmate who is moving to America.

This is the moment when I actively began to despise this movie above all others.  Losing your mother is about the worst tragedy that can befall a child and yet the movie completely blows off that loss.  And Sam’s situation is definitely not a case where the kid is compensating for losing Mom by channeling his grief into another love object because he declares that he’s felt this way since “before Mom died.”

Throughout the movie Sam talks like a sophisticated, hyper-self-aware 45-year-old. About three weeks after the funeral, he asks Liam Neeson when he’s going to start dating again, which Neeson actually does after meeting another single mom (who happens to be Claudia Schiffer!) at the school’s Christmas pageant.  I don’t know who this Mom/wife was but she must have been a cipher if she is so easily forgotten.

2. The insult to the United States

To the extent there’s a main story it revolves around the the new prime minister, the dorkishly cute Hugh Grant.  Almost immediately after taking office he meets with the American president Billy Bob Thornton, a bully and a womanizer who hits on Natalie, the assistant that Hugh Grant himself covets.  In his first cabinet meeting the PM tells his advisers he’s going to go along with whatever the president wants because the US is so powerful.  But after catching Billy Bob making a pass at Natalie he grows a spine and dresses down President Predator in a press conference that causes everyone in the UK to beam with pride.

This episode is clearly wish fulfillment by the post-9/11 filmmakers.  At the time the movie came out George W. Bush and Tony Blair were staunchly allied in fighting terrorism and there were some in the UK who just hated the alliance.  The “Love, Actually” Hugh Grant is a PM that British leftists could only dream of, but rather than make a substantive political argument, the filmmakers load the deck by making the U.S. president personally repulsive.  Thanks a lot Britain.  You’re welcome for D-Day.

(And speaking of the film’s strange view of America, there’s also the story about Colin the Incel, who goes to America to get lucky.  He walks into a bar and flashes his English accent and three gorgeous girls — including January Jones! — immediately fall for him.  So that’s America for you — boorish men and loose women.)

3. Situations that would never happen in real life

The movie seems to take place in an alternative universe where people do things that would never happen in any world resembling reality.

There is, for example, the story involving a couple who meet as stand-ins during the filming of a porn movie.  I’m not an expert but I don’t think pornos bother with the niceties of gaffers, best boys, and stand-ins.  We’re supposed to believe that these otherwise completely normal lovebirds are unaffected by spending half their time together in nude simulated sex and can go on to have a completely average courtship despite having been naked together for hours on end.

Also unworldly is the example of the groovy Prime Minister dancing by himself in his first night in 10 Downing Street.  The scene is funny, of course, but preposterous (and stolen from Ricky Business too.)

Or what are we to make of Colin Firth’s ability to learn Portuguese in two weeks? Coincidentally, this is also the same amount of time it takes 11-year-old Sam to become a great drummer.

And then there are the big dramatic scenes that would never happen in any sane world — like Sam breaching airport security and getting chased all the way to the gate where his plan is about to take off.

Or Colin Firth proposing to a woman he’s known for two weeks in front of an entire restaurant.  Or an aging rock star telling his long-time manager, “You are the f***ing love of my life.”   Or the prime minister sneaking backstage in a elementary school auditorium to lay a lip lock on one of his assistants?

And probably the most unbelievable development of all is that Alan Rickman’s slutty secretary manages to plan a great holiday office party in less that two weeks! What fantasyland is that?

4. The crudity

This is supposed to be a Christmas movie but it’s not something to which you could take your kids or mother.  The script is littered with unnecessary F-bombs and nude scenes.  We also have the moment when Sam high-fives Liam Neeson and exclaims “Let’s get the shit kicked out of us by love.”  First of all, that is a sentence that no person, much less a child, has ever uttered, and secondly, I am uncomfortable knowing that some stage mother let her little boy say those words in a movie.  I am also uncomfortable that a climatic scene revolves around a little girl suggestively singing and dancing to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas.”

What’s surprising about this is that none of the storylines culminate in anyone having actual sexual relations.  Even the porn stand-ins make a point of telling people they haven’t had sex yet.  So the movie is chastely crude, or crudely chaste. One or the other.

5. The overuse and abuse of the soundtrack

It’s hard to think of a movie that makes the soundtrack work harder at evoking the emotions that should evolve out of the character, plot, acting and directing.  In many ordinary cheesy movies there’s a climax during the concluding moments that comes larded larded with orchestral swells and other uplifting music.  The problem with “Love, Actually,” is that it is promiscuous with climaxes, all of which have suitable triumphant scores.

Consider this garbage scene, where Hugh Grant tells off the U.S. president in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. The background music is more appropriate for a “winning the 100-meter-dash in the Olympics” moment. (And while we’re at it, what kind of statesman makes an agreement in face-to-face meetings and then denounces it once he gets in front of the cameras.)

But it’s not only the score that is over-used.  The movie also relies heavily on popular music to piggyback on our emotional connection to these songs. Who doesn’t viscerally respond to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” Norah Jones’ “Turn Me On,” The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump,” or The Calling’s “Wherever You Will Go”?  This is just cheap manipulation.

6. The movie’s bizarre understanding of employer/employee relationships

I know this movie was made before the #MeToo movement, but some of the employer/employee dynamics are weird even by 2003 standards.  Many of the love relationships involve men and their employees: Prime Minister Hugh Grant and his lowly tea-bringer; the rock star Bill Nighy and his manager; Colin Firth and his non-English-speaking housekeeper.  These power dynamics are bad.

Then there’s Alan Rickman, the head of some kind of agency, who, in addition to giving his secretary an expensive gift, actively encourages Laura Linney to make a pass at a co-worker.  Aren’t companies supposed to discourage dating between co-workers? This sounds like an HR fiasco waiting to happen.

On the other hand, a few things do work

To give the movie its due, two storylines actually do have the ring of truth: the Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson marriage and Laura Linney’s relationship with her brother.  These are heartbreaking and realistic depictions of the effort that needs to go into making mature love work.

The Laura Linney story is particularly poignant because her situation is so intractable and something that many people can relate to.  Hardly anyone who has met a significant other as a stand-in on a pornographic movie but there are millions who feel stuck as the main caretaker for a disabled relative.  I’m a little frustrated, however, that Laura and the object of her desire cannot have a serious conversation about her brother to see see if they can work something out, but this is far from the most objectionable part of the movie.

As for Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, let’s skip over the fact that despite being the the Prime Minister’s sister and very posh, she sends her kids to the local public school, which has a distinctly lower-middle-class vibe.  Putting that ridiculousness aside, their story is as old as the hills — the husband is beguiled by the young new secretary who’s coming on to him.  As sexy as this Mia person is, why anyone would consider cheating on Emma Thompson is beyond me! Idiot!!

In any event, the moment when the wife discovers her husband is straying is genuinely sad.  This is one time the filmmakers use background music appropriately to advance a legitimately earned emotion.  When she plays “Both Sides Now,” as sung by a much older and world-wearier Joni Mitchell than the one who first recorded it in the 1960s, you feel the hurt and pain of an adult woman who’s really lived life and, frankly, deserves a lot better.   This is a world-class scene trapped in a pile of dreck. So watch this clip alone for a shock of honesty and throw out the rest of the movie.  That would be the best Christmas present you could give yourself.

 

SNL SEason 44.4

It’s kind of a miracle but 44 years after its debut, Saturday Night Live is still going strong and even more essential to the national psyche than it’s ever been.

At a troubled time, when Americans are at each other’s throats, SNL somehow manages to thread the needle and deliver sharp social commentary that might offend the most extreme and humorless partisans across the spectrum but gives the majority of the country — from center-right to center-left — something to laugh about.

Television is awash in so-called satire, but most of the other late night comedy shows — from Colbert to Kimmel to Trevor Noah — have become so bitterly anti-Trump that the sketches are little more than rants, applauded by those who agree with their politics and written off by everyone else.

By contrast, when an SNL skit goes viral, it’s usually subtle enough that both sides can get the joke – and maybe even concede that the other side has a tiny point too.  Whether by luck or design, the show has managed to stay front and center of the national conversation since the beginning of its new season in September.

Consider these examples.

The most important comedy moment of the year was the cold open of the very first episode of the season.  Coming on the heels of the wrenching Supreme Court hearing, at a time when it seemed we might never laugh again, Matt Damon made a surprise appearance as Judge Brett Kavanaugh and nailed the essential absurdity of those proceedings.  From the constant invocation of his friend “Squee” to the refrain “I like beer,” Damon was all-in as the aggressively put-upon Kavanaugh.  And everyone did laugh again – at least those who don’t think politics is a matter of life and death.

The second-most important TV moment of the year was Pete Davidson’s apology to GOP Congressional candidate and Afghan war veteran Ben Crenshaw, whose physical appearance – including an eyepatch – he’d mocked the previous week.  Crenshaw had lost an eye in combat, but he graciously accepted Davidson’s apology and appeared on “Weekend Update” to make a few mild jokes and plead for Americans to both forgive each other and to remember war veterans and the heroes of September 11, including Davidson’s own firefighter father, who died in the World Trade Center.  If I were king of the universe I would make every American watch that clip at least five times.

In a way this is Davidson’s season, even though he hasn’t appeared in a lot of sketches.  He entered the season engaged to pop star Arianna Grande, which occasioned a lot of jokes.  And then they broke up, which wasn’t funny, but did generate a huge amount of media attention.

Or maybe it’s Kate McKinnon’s season, whose impersonations of a rapping, break-dancing Ruth Bader Ginsburg have been an Internet sensation.

Speaking of media attention, in that first episode of the season, Kanye West appeared as a musical guest wearing a MAGA hat, then lectured the audience at the episode’s conclusion about President Trump’s merits.  As if that wasn’t weird enough, the rap star then visited Trump in the Oval Office, ostensibly to talk about prison reform, but really to monologue about all the ideas percolating in Kanye World. The media ate this up too.  Needless to say, SNL then did hilarious a sketch about the Trump/Kanye meeting. Sometimes with SNL, it’s hard to tell where the parody begins and ends.

Saturday Night Live also managed to stay in the news for reasons that had nothing to do with the new season.  When actor Alec Baldwin was arrested – bizarrely – for an altercation over a parking space in Greenwich Village, he was widely identified with his impersonation of Trump on SNL.  Baldwin’s been a movie and TV star for thirty years but his main identification in the public mind now is with SNL.

SNL is also the subject of a pivotal scene in the hugely popular “A Star is Born.”  When the movie-makers want to demonstrate that Lady Gaga’s character, Ally, has sold out her musical roots, they have her appear as a flashy lip-synching performer on the late night show. This is another case of art imitating life, because Lady Gaga herself has appeared on SNL (as herself) a number of times.

Given the show’s notoriety, the ratings have been stronger than usually this year.  All this is a bit surprising because the cast for the past few years has not really been that strong, with only McKinnon and long-time cast member Kennan Thompson consistently providing the zaniness of the best SNL ensembles.

All this goes to show is that SNL has become bigger than any single cast member.  When it keeps its eye on the ball and remembers that its job is to produce a mainstream comedy show it can keep the laughs coming and the viewers tuned in.

 

streaming services

We live in anxious times, although it will take a thousand social scientists to explain why that’s the case at a time of relative peace, general prosperity, and mostly miraculous medical care.

You would think that the television, once derided as a national narcotic and a place where couch potatoes go to veg out, would provide an escape from anxiety, but it doesn’t.  And I’m not just talking about the content of television programming, which itself leans to the alarming.

No, what I find anxiety-inducing on TV is the 21st Century phenomenon called “Fear Of Missing Out” or FOMO.  There’s just too much television to watch or even keep straight.  This leads to the sense that we’re missing out on interesting television content that other people are enjoying.  This feeling is only exacerbated by the many podcasts, blogs, websites and Twitter accounts dedicated to helping us navigate through the best of TV.  They’re always marveling at shows we’ve barely heard of.

It seems like a lifetime distant, but just ten years ago a reasonably alert person could keep a list of all the great TV shows to watch in his head. Not so today.  As TV content has expanded exponentially there are must-see TV shows hidden all over the TV spectrum, if I can only remember what they are or where thye’re located. Unless I literally write them down on a list I keep on my phone, I never think about them again – until the NEXT time someone mentions them.

In this regard, the streaming services are singularly unhelpful.  Netflix in particular does not believe in advertising its shows – indeed there are so many of them that it would be impractical.  (Although I did read in the Wall Street Journal that Netflix does post a lot of billboards in Los Angeles to mollify its stars.)

Instead of traditional advertising or marketing, Netflix makes you aware of new content by prominently placing on your welcoming screen the shows its algorithm thinks you want to see.

First of all, I don’t have that much faith in these “if you like this, you might like that” algorithms. They are nowhere near as sophisticated as they seem.  But more important, there’s such a gush of new content that you’re likely to miss a fantastic new series if you don’t log on for a couple of days and they’ve moved on to promoting something else.

Counterintuitively, our TV-related anxiety is rising even as it’s easier to watch TV any time, any place.  Given the rise of time-shifting and multiple video platforms, there’s no reason to ever miss a program.  In the pre-DVR age, if you skipped an episode of your favorite show, that was it – it disappeared into the broadcast ether and you’d never see it unless you were lucky enough to catch it on reruns or wait several years for syndication.

Yet the truth is, if you missed an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “All in the Family,” you didn’t really care that much.  All the episodes were more or less interchangeable.  Since there was no narrative arc over the series, you weren’t being deprived of important plot developments if you had better things to do Saturday night than to sit around watching TV.  In other words, because TV was just entertainment and not “art,” you didn’t need to sweat seeing every episode.

A related challenge for watching TV these days is too much choice.  People think they want a lot of options but they don’t really.  There’s nothing quite a paralyzing as going into an ice cream story with 60 flavors and trying to pick the one that will give you the richest, most sensational ice cream experience.  Same with TV.  When I look at all the shows on Netflix, they all seem pretty good but I worry that I’ll be wasting my precious TV-consuming time by not watching the very highest-quality show.    We’d be better off with fewer shows and more obviously terrific ones.

Needless to say, my complaint falls under the category of “first world problems.”  With all the despair in the world, am I really going to feel sorry for myself because I feel overwhelmed by the TV landscape?  Uh. Yeah.  Maybe it doesn’t rise to the level of justified anxiety, like fear of losing a job or getting a disease, but there’s no question that whenever my wife and I sit down to watch TV at night, I feel a sense of pressure to pick the “right” show for us to watch.  Life is too short to waste on “only OK” television.

What I really need is an app to help me find and remember content regardless of whether it’s broadcast, cable, or streaming.  Can someone invent that and give me some piece of mind?

red-sox world series winners

If you had told me last March that this would be the greatest Red Sox team of all time I would have been incredulous.  THAT grab-bag of high-priced, under-performing free agents, younthful home-grown talent, and journeyman cast-offs with the miserable bullpen?  Sure, they had won the division the previous two years but quickly folded in the glare of the play-offs.

And yet here we are, with pundits arguing not just whether this is the greatest Red Sox team ever but where it ranks as the greatest baseball team of all time.  (The consensus seems to be that since expansion in 1961, they are second only to the 1998 Yankees — see FiveThirtyEight’s analysis here.) I’ll leave it to the historians to properly place them — at the moment I am more interested in how we got where we are.  Here are 16 thoughts and observations.

1.It took me a long time to warm up to this team.  For nearly a decade the Patriots — not the Sox — have been the team of sustained excellence and a lot of my emotional energy went there.  But more important, there was no one on the team that I really loved, the way I once loved Yaz, Fred Lynn, Nomar, Pedro, or Big Papi.  If I had a favorite player in 2018, it was Dustin Pedroia, who’s connected back to the 2007 World Champions but was injured most of the year and barely played.  The next longest-serving player was Brock Holt — a dirt dog for whom I do have a lot of affection, but hardly the player to anchor your undying loyalty to a team.  To really love a professional athlete, he needs to have delivered for you in numerous high pressure situations, so it’s likely that I will come to love Mookie Betts or Andrew Benintendi in the years ahead based on this season alone.

2.  One thing I hate in sports — as in real life — is second-guessing. That was on display in Game One of the season, back on March 29, when the Red Sox blew a 4-0 lead to the Tampa Bay Ray.  The Boston media were ballistic that the new manager — that idiot Alex Cora — had not brought in closer Craig Kimbrel in the eighth inning to get a six-out save, but had instead called on that other idiot Joe Kelly, who promptly coughed up the lead and blew the game.  The vitriol was barely lessened when Cora explained that Kimbrel was not yet in mid-season shape yet because he’d been attending to the numerous heart operations his daughter was undergoing back in Boston.  And besides, he argued, why should he be managing the first game of the season like it’s the play-offs anyway. This didn’t assuage his critics.  It took a winning streak to do that.

Joe Kelly

Joe Kelly — from the goat of the season’s first game to World Series hero

3. Probably the key development of the season is unremarked on now — the release of former superstar Hanley Ramirez in May.  Ramirez was a former high-impact player making over $20 million when the Sox cut him loose.  He was playing fine, but was not going to be a playing full-time, and Cora decided that he would be disgruntled sitting on the bench.  Baseball teams, like most organizations, hate to admit mistakes and cut their losses but they did swallow Ramirez’s salary to avoid clubhouse discontent.  And releasing Ramirez gave them room to sign World Series hero Steve Pearce a few months later.

4. Baseball teams always talk about the importance of “character” and the Ramirez release showed that the Red Sox really meant it.  Ramirez wasn’t a bad guy but he had a history of being selfish and moody. That is NOT what the Red Sox wanted this year.  Cora wanted players who would sit on the bench and like it if they were told it could help the team.  He also wanted players who were willing to do things outside their comfort zone, like pitch in relief if he needed that.  In other words, he wanted players like the modern Patriots and Celtics.

5. Although the team roared back from that Game One loss and went on an early winning streak, I didn’t become a true believer until the summer.  They really were winning a lot and, more important, they were coming from behind — the sign of a team that doesn’t give up — one of the definitions of “character.”  They were fun to watch because you never knew what would happen.

6. What also made them a joy to watch was that they played “the right way.”  The latest analytics-driven fad has teams trying to hit a lot of home runs, which also means striking out a lot.  And sure enough the Yankees hit more homers this year than any other Yankee team (and that’s saying a lot.)  But they didn’t score the most runs in the league.  That would be the Red Sox, who hit to the opposite field, took the extra base, stole bases when they could and had tremendous plate discipline.  They would annihilate other teams by stringing together hits, walks, long at-bats and the occasional soul-crushing home run.

7. The summer fun was darkened by the absence of beloved broadcaster Jerry Remy, however.  Remy has deep roots in New England, growing up in Somerset Mass and playing on the ill-fated 1978 Sox.  Remy is the best color commentator in baseball (in all of sports, as far as I’m concerned) and he’s a lot of fun in the booth.  But he’s had a tough few years, with various bouts of cancer.  The illness returned this year and he was gone most of the season for treatment.  I really missed him.  He would have loved calling the the rest of the games for this team.

Jerry Remy

We missed the RemDog this summer

8. As much we love it when the Sox make it into the play-offs, it’s exhausting and murderous for the fans.  There’s nothing in sports as stressful as post-season baseball.  The Red Sox played 15 high-pressure games against the three other toughest teams in the sport (The Yankees, Astros and Dodgers.) In football it takes four months to play 15 games and the Sox had to do it in fewer than four weeks. And the pressure during a game usually builds and builds to the last out because the tying run is almost always just a few batters away.  During the regular season, the time it takes to throw a pitch can be boring but in the post season, the long intervals between pitches is just heightened tension, with no let-up.

9. For all the criticism that social media gets for ruining the 21st Century, I have to admit that it was my loyal friend during the play-offs.  I watched most of these games alone, with my phone open to the running commentary on Twitter (and to a lesser extent, Facebook). It was a little like being in a sports bar, with people saying a variety of inane, funny and smart things.

Benintendi ballet

Thanks to Twitter for tipping me off to this funny juxtaposition of Andrew Benintendi and Mikhail Baryshnikov

10. The length of the games combined with the late starts is a crime against humanity. Hasn’t it been proven time and again that sleep-deprivation causes a myriad of health problems?  And yet we are expected to stay up past midnight night after night.  So many ads!  So many foul balls and pitching changes!  And the new thing this year — fear of sign-stealing, resulting in multiple signs by the catcher, leading to the pitcher staring in for minutes on end trying to figure out what to throw.  And even when you do get to bed it’s impossible to sleep with all that adrenaline coursing through your veins.

11. Speaking of which, that 18-inning game was the worst killer of all time! I gave up at 2:30 a.m. when it became apparent that the Sox would not win, having used up all the most productive players as pinch-hitters and pinch-runners.  Poor Ian Kinsler almost ended up as the 21st Century’s Bill Buckner when he inexplicably threw the ball away with two out in the 13th and the Sox up by a run.  Years from now — if we leave that long! — we will brag that we survived that game, but I am only now returning to normal.

12. Steve Pearce was named series MVP — and why not?  He hit some crucial home runs.  But the unsung MVP was Nathan Eovaldi, the losing pitcher from Game Three, who hung in there as a reliever, tossing 97 pitches through the 18th inning in a Sisyphean effort, knowing he had to pitch until the end of the game because the bullpen was depleted.  Having relieved in both Games One and Two he was putting his arm at risk with every pitch but was throwing over a hundred miles an hour until the end.  This potential sacrifice moved fellow pitcher Rick Porcello to tears and inspired the rest of the team not to be disheartened by what could have been a demoralizing loss.  In a quick team meeting after the game, Alex Cora singled out Eovaldi’s effort and his teammates gave him a rousing standing ovation and vowed to avenge his loss.

13. Now that the Dodgers have safely lost, we can be grateful that we had a super-villain to root against — Manny Machado.  This is the guy who spiked and injured Dustin Pedroia’s ankle, who stepped on Pearce’s foot at first base, twice hit catcher Christian Vasquez in the head with his bat, and failed to run hard on a ball he thought was a homer and ended up a single  I am sooo glad that guy is on the losing side and actually struck out to end the final game. (Here’s a seriously incomplete compilation of his various sins against good sportsmanship.)

14. I am not a fan of “bullpenning,” the practice of pulling a starter early and turning the game over to the relievers.  Supposedly this is another analytics-driven strategy, but for it to succeed you need a bullpen full of great pitchers.  If you put in four relievers and even one of them has a bad day, then you’ve blown the game.  This strategy bit Dodgers manager Dave Roberts in the ass a couple of times, most notoriously in Game Four, when he removed the cruising Rich Hill in favor of some guys who coughed up the lead.  President Trump, the Second-Guesser-in-Chief even tweeted about it.  But let’s remember that later in the same game Alex Cora was blistered for leaving his own started Edgar Rodriquez in TOO long.  So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

15.  I know that David Price came up big and had a big redemption story but I still don’t really like the guy.  He never apologized for dissing Dennis Eckersley, and immediately after winning the World Series he met with the media and basically pulled a Nixonian “You won’t have me to kick around any more.” The actually quote was: “I can’t tell you how good it feels to hold that trump card. And you guys have had it for a long time. You’ve played that card extremely well. But you don’t have it anymore — none of you do — and that feels really good.” Talk about being a sore winner.

David Price

David Price, trump-holder

16. Perhaps the best thing about the Red Sox in the post-season was that almost everyone contributed in a major way.  The bench players — the guys who aren’t stars — had a bigger impact on the game than the big-name stars.  The much-maligned reliever Joe Kelly pitching great; the low-hitting Christan Vasquez stroking a double to the opposite field; journeyman Brock Holt hitting for the cycle.  All this was a important reminder that baseball is a team sport.  Boys and girls, watch how they played and try to live your life like that!!

Can the greatest team in Red Sox history repeat?  I’m not counting on it. Not because I lack faith in our young stars — Betts, Benintendi, Bradley, Bogearts, Devers, etc — or our established veterans — Martinez, Sale and Price — but because everything has to got exactly right to win a sports championship.  The players need to stay healthy, they all need to have good years at the same time, and they need to get hot when you need it most.  The Sox rampaged through the post-season but I don’t think it was because they were that much better than the Yankees, Astros or Dodgers.  It was a mix of talent, character and primarily luck.

That’s really the wrong question to ask anyway.  Next year is a year away. Let’s live in the moment and celebrate a great season.  There’s a lot of misery in life so it’s important to savor the happy times as long as possible.

2018 Sox World Series

It wasn’t really that long ago that the World Series was one of the most-watched television events of the year.  As recently as 1986, 50 million people tuned into the deciding Game Seven of the series.

No so today.  A World Series game will still generally win the night but not overwhelm the week.  And this year was no different, with lackluster ratings despite games featuring the Red Sox and Dodgers – two of the sport’s most popular teams.

The fact that I even began this piece with a discussion of ratings shows how badly we’ve all become afflicted with behind-the-scenes-ism.  In a world where the average movie-goer scans the weekend box office results on Monday and then opines on what kind of movies the studios should green-light in the future, it’s not surprising that sports radio hosts and fans want to weigh in on what match-up Major League Baseball “really” wants for the World Series.

It is widely understood that MLB not-so-secretly prays for a showdown between two big market teams with national followings and compelling story-lines. At the beginning of October, sports Twitter knowingly predicted how bad it would be if the Milwaukee Brewers ended up playing the Oakland As.   And the conventional wisdom was probably correct, if even Dodgers/Red Sox can’t draw a crowd.

The emphasis on World Series ratings seems a little misplaced, however, because baseball’s real cultural impact is at the local – not national – level.  For half a year, as spring morphs into summer and summer into fall, nightly baseball is the soundtrack for day-to-day life.  This results in high local ratings, which, because that are fragmented across 30 markets receive little national attention.

Regrettably, in the 21st Century baseball is increasingly unsuited for national prime time programming.  Most devastatingly, baseball skews toward those unwanted older viewers.  Almost as bad, baseball has failed to create national stars on par with NFL quarterbacks and NBA power forwards.  Indeed, the New York Times recently published a whole piece outlining how no one from baseball has been among the best-known sports celebrities since the retirement of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz.

And then there’s the length.  Baseball, you are killing me!  I watched a nine-inning playoff game two weeks ago that didn’t get over until 1:22 a.m. ET.   Then on Friday night I watched almost all of an 18-inning game that lasted until 3:30 in the morning! When you consistently keeping your most loyal fans up this late you are driving them into an early grave.

Play-off baseball is like regular baseball on steroids – virtually every pitch is a life or death event.  This results in pitchers staring in at the catcher for half a minute before finally throwing the damn ball.  For their part, the batters are now taught to foul off as many pitches as possible to wear down the starters.  All this prolongs the game and increases the viewing anxiety.

Those fatigued starters are on a short rope anyway, thanks to a strategy known as “bullpenning.”  That’s the game-lengthening practice of taking out starters early and calling in multiple relief pitchers from the bullpen.

Yet even with these shortcomings, baseball is arguably the most compelling and anxiety-producing post-season sport.  TheRinger.com had an interesting essay that argued that although play-off baseball amplifies what’s most annoying about the sport, it still delivers thrilling games (see here).  When you have a strong rooting interest in the outcome there is no sport that delivers such sustained high-pressure suspense.

At some point during a post-season game, each pitch becomes a walking heart attack.  With a man or two on base, and the pitcher tossing over to first, and the batter fouling off good pitches, the stress rises because you know that the very next pitch could be the one that transforms the game for good or ill.

For the past three years, as soon as the World Series is over, I’ve been posting the same message on Facebook: “Baseball is the greatest game.”  I am always surprised that regardless of the late hour and ultimate winner, there can be a dozen or more “likes” and comments on these posts.  The ratings might not show it but social media amplifies that people are still passionate about baseball.

But yes, baseball is killing us.  It leaves us sleep deprived and stressed out after a roller coaster of emotions.  We are “depressed” when our teams lose or suffering from “withdrawal” when a successful season ends.  Even the end of the season feels like death, with nothing but colder and darker days to look forward to until the spring.

And yet, when your team does win it all, you don’t really care that the experience has taken years off your life.  It’s well worth it.  I already can’t wait for the 2019 season.

 

better call saul 2018

I don’t know whether Season Four of “Better Call Saul” will turn out to be the best show on television this year, but for the ten weeks this fall it provided a uniquely gripping and hypnotic viewing experience. TV needs more shows like this.

“Better Call Saul” is a TV rarity – a prequel that’s as good as the series that spun it off, in this case the acclaimed “Breaking Bad.”  It tells the origin stories of many key “Breaking Bad” characters, with a special focus on the sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman and the mob hit man Mike Ehrmantraut.  And then finally, in the last spoken line of this season we learn how the main character gets his name when he says, don’t worry, “It’s all good man.”

I was never a fan of “Breaking Bad,” which was too violent for my weak nerves. Moreover, I never found the transformation of Walter White from a meek chemistry teacher into a master drug dealer very credible.  No one changes THAT much.

Like “Breaking Bad,” “Saul” depicts the moral disintegration of its two main characters, except on a much more believable scale. We learn that “Saul Goodman” is actually Jimmy McGill, the brother of New Mexico’s most respected lawyer and a one-time screw-up who’s trying to go straight and use the law to help people.  Meanwhile Mike is a dirty ex-cop grieving his dead son – an inexperienced police officer who fatally tried to follow his father’s path into petty graft. (It’s worth noting that contrary to most TV shows, the most intense relationships on “Saul” are among blood relatives, not romantic interests.)

At the beginning of the series, Jimmy and Mike are already ethically compromised, but not excessively so.  They have consciences and are full to the brim with empathy.  It’s not predetermined that they will also “break bad” in a major way.  On “Better Call Saul,” characters don’t consciously decide to pass over to the dark side.  Instead, as in real life, their path involves a series of decisions – some of which involve attempting to do the right thing and discovering that being honest and humane can actually hurt you.

Be forewarned, though, that watching “Better Call Saul” takes a lot of work.  It’s the ultimate lean-in show, featuring a lot of ingenious schemes that require your total concentration.  I would almost recommend not watching with a spouse because at least once an episode there’s a conversation that goes like this:

“Why did he do that?”

 “I don’t know anything more than you do.”

 “But what’s he trying to accomplish?”

 “I just said: we’re both getting the same information at the same time.”

The pacing of “Better Call Saul” is also unique on TV.  Hardly an episode goes by that doesn’t slow down and demonstrate step-by-step how some mundane task is accomplished – even something as basic as assembling loose-leaf binders.  It’s like learning how to fish by reading early Hemingway. And a lot of this serious attention to detail involves the law.  I’ve learned more about the nuts and bolts of being a lawyer from this one show than from all the legal procedurals in television history combined.

There are two main mysteries at the heart of “Saul,” both involving the ultimate fate of fully developed characters who don’t exist in the “Breaking Bad” universe. One is Kim Wexler, the best character on the show and arguably one of the best characters currently on TV.  She’s Jimmy’s tightly wound girlfriend – a legitimate lawyer who likes to walk on the wild side and who’s reluctant to give up on the guy she loves.  The other is Nacho – a foot soldier in a local drug gang who risks his life to protect his sweet and innocent father from being drawn into the crime world.

Over four seasons we’ve come to care deeply about both Kim and Nacho and it’s hard not to speculate on and feel anguish over their coming fate – whatever it is.  In particular, this scene of Kim confronting a lawyer who has consistently screwed over Jimmy is my favorite scene on TV this year.

“Better Call Saul” is not a huge ratings hit and doesn’t get much buzz, but TV still needs more shows like it.  It sets the bar high for what network TV and basic cable can accomplish in an era where the momentum seems to be moving to streaming services.  With all due respect to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” or “House of Cards,” neither Amazon not Netflix have yet developed a series as visually stunning or intelligent as “Better Call Saul” (or “The Americans” for that matter.)

More important, we need more appointment television – more shows that we think about during the week.  TV needs to have people dying to watch the next episode of their favorite series.

Commercial TV can’t thrive on reality shows, cooking competitions, lazy sitcoms, obvious procedurals, and movie reruns.  We’ve got the streaming services for that. Traditional TV needs to widen the enthusiasm gap among viewers who can turn to Netflix anytime to see a pretty good show but would really prefer to see an excellent one on a weekly basis.  If TV doesn’t keep coming up with the occasional great show, it will wither away.