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Eugoogly: Don LaFontaine, The Voice of America

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 3, 2008

This time, it’s for real

On the list of people who have most shaped the pop culture of these United States while remaining completely anonymous to 99.9% of American audiences, the recently deceased Don LaFontaine would really have to rank up there with 2 Unlimited, Ivan Reitman (pre-son Jason’s oscar nod, anyways) and John de Mol–and he didn’t even have the excuse of being European. But if you don’t recognize the name, or the picture above, there’s probably a pretty good reason for it (besides the fact that he looks like recent Billy Joel, except even older and having gone through an even more harrowing adolescence)–LaFontaine’s claim to immortality is his work in counelss numbers of movie previews, where his booming, gravitas-laden voice would lend excitement and credibility to literally thousands of movie previews, ranging from Oscar-winning classics like The Godfather Part II to mediocre blockbusters like Cheaper By the Dozen.

If the name still isn’t ringing any bells, and you imagine that LaFontaine’s contributions were likely interchangable and inconsequential, I have but three words to offer you:


Got it now, huh? Well, if you don’t see those three words and instantly hear the thunderous timbre and musical cadence of LaFontaine’s voice in your head, then you better minimize this window quickly so that your boss doesn’t see you futzing around on the internet and fire you, thus ending the only thing lending meaning to your heartless, joyless existence, you fucking drone. The three words that kicked off a countless number of sci-fi, horror and heavy drama flicks, they also function as LaFontaine’s de facto catchprhase, the appeal of which LaFontaine had recently tried to summarize:

We have to very rapidly establish the world we are transporting them to. That’s very easily done by saying, `In a world where … violence rules.’ `In a world where … men are slaves and women are the conquerors.’ You very rapidly set the scene.

Literal enough. In any event, even though I probably couldn’t point to a single movie that actually used the phrase to sell itself, the phrase quickly entered my cinematic subconscious, and when me and my brother finally found out that the same guy did the voiceover for all of these, we started sending each other random “IN A WORLD…” text messages and cracked up every time.

The interesting thing, sort of, is that LaFontaine had actually started to achieve a kind of reluctant visibility by the time of his death. His voiceovers became more self-referential, as when he berated Homer for copying his narration in the Simpsons Movie preview–banking on the fact that his voiceover technique was so well batted into the public’s brains that no further explanation was necessary. More notably, the man started showing his smiling face on TV as well, most visibly in GEICO’s IITS #1-rated celebrity commercial, which would later be referenced by LaFontaine in appearances on both The Tonight Show and Frank TV.¬† We might’ve only been a few years away from cameos in the Apatowverse.

Sadly, LaFontaine died yesterday, resulting from a collapsed lung. It’s hard to imagine who will be expected to take over the action movie trailer mantle now–Morgan Freeman seems the most obvious choice, but he’s no spring chicken himself, and the workload may just be too much for any one man to take over without some sort of platooning. It’s doubtful it’ll be the same, anyways.

R.I.P. Don “IN A WORLD…” Fontaine, 1940-2008

(By the way, for those curious–“Let’s hope he now lives ‘in a world’ where people know his name is Don LaFontaine” is the best the Celebrity Death Pun & Conundrum Society could come up with. Feel free to try to better it.)

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Clap Clap ClapClapClap/Eugoogly: Celtics vs. Lakers, ’08

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 18, 2008


All I wanted was a series. I mean, I had some other things I kind of wanted to see. I wanted to see Ray Allen, possibly my favorite player on either team, redeem himself after a terrible Cleveland series and a shaky Detroit series. I wanted to see some legend-worthy performances from Kobe Bryant, easily the most fascinating player on either team, to prove he was worthy of the adulation poured upon him up to that point in the season. I wanted to see a couple close games, a couple grind-’em out wins, and a couple embarrassing blowouts. I wanted to see quality, game-changing minutes for Brian Scalabrine and D.J. M’Benga. Some of those things ended up happening, and some of them didn’t. But really, all I wanted was something exciting, something significant, something to live up to the history that’s been shoved down my throat for the last three weeks, and to a lesser extent, the whole season. All I wanted was a series.

And really, I didn’t care too much who ended up on top. Chuck Klosterman, and likely many other fans of the dynasty teams in the 80s, has often suggested that to not have a rooting interest in the Celtics / Lakers rivalry is roughly equivalent to not having a soul, and maybe he has a point. But coming into this fresh, I legitimately liked both of these teams about equally. The heart, the hustle and the high basketball IQ (I know, I hate this phrase too, but it does start with the letter ‘H’) of the Celtics, and the thrilling, fluent, purple-in-dress-and-style zip of the Lakers–to have to choose between the two would be like having to choose between Blur and Oasis for me. It’s all basketball–it’s all love, baby. And I just wanted to see it play out as brilliantly as possible.

Now I just feel cheated. I mean, I don’t begrudge the Celtics their win, or their spectacular performance–these are all such high-character, likeable (by NBA standards, anyways) guys, and they so genuinely care not only about winning, but about each other, and even about their coach. And really, you can’t say that the Lakers deserve much more than they got for what they put in to this series–they showed some heart in that seemingly impossible Game Two comeback that they very nearly pulled off, but after that, they seemed lazy, selfish and discombobulated. By just about any standards, the Celtics turned out to be the superior team in this series, and that’s perfectly cool with me.

But it just didn’t feel special to me. It was a messy, sloppy series, almost completely bereft of the kind of magic I would have expected from such a dynastic rivalry. At only two points in the series was there the kind of beauty I expected to be stretched over six or seven games–that Paul Pierce third-quarter comeback with the two straight three pointers after the injury that looked like it could end the series before it even began (of course, if I knew that just about every Celtic was going to do the “oh noes I’m injured BUT HERE I COME BACK STANDING OVATION YAHHHH!!” thing before the series was over, that might not even have counted), and in the fourth quarter tonight, where the Celtic energy was so electric that even Eddie House and Tony Allen were throwing down backwards-slam alley-oops.

The rest? Well, there were mostly times when it felt like it should have been more exciting than it was. When Kobe took over with his 36 in G3, it didn’t feel like the league’s best player playing on an untouchable level, it just felt like a good shooter having a better game than he should have been forced to have. When the C’s came back with the biggest comeback in finals history in G4, it didn’t feel shocking and inspiring, it just felt confusing and kind of surreal. I guess maybe I should have expected it–when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable wall, of course things are going to get flustered–but this finals just wasn’t that much fun to watch. It’s hard to explain, but I get the general feeling that for people who weren’t die hard Lakers or Celtics fans, there was a feeling of malaise over this series for them too. It’s bizarre.

Then again, maybe this is all just a lesson in how history gets spun. I already knew that the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 80s was blown ridiculously out of proportion on an objective level, even by the players themselves–in reality, the Sixers faced the Lakers in the finals as many times as the C’s did (three), and the C’s beat the Rockets (twice) more times than they did the Lakers (once). And while everyone remembers the classic moments from the two teams’ three series together–Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis in ’84, Magic’s baby skyhook in ’87, so on–maybe most of the other games in those series were actually extremely underwhelming too, games where Bird and Magic went a combined 13-42, where Kareem got into foul trouble early and Parish disappeared on offense, games where Byron Scott and Danny Ainge were hoisting up nothing shots like Sasha Vujacic and Sam Cassell. Maybe the whole thing never felt as exciting and fateful at the time as it did twenty years in retrospect. And maybe twenty years from now, all we’ll remember from this series is Paul Pierce and the Comeback Game. Maybe that’s just how sports works.

Most interesting to me is what this means for the future, especially for the Lakers. It seems like years ago now, but at the beginning of this series, it looked like not only were the Lakers going to take this one in a walk, but that it would be the start of a Laker run of championships that could last another four or five years. What’s more, people were starting to elevate Kobe from being the best player in the game to being one of the all-time greats, even invoking MJ’s rarified name in potential comparisons. Now, just a couple weeks later, the Lakers seem like an outclassed, second-tier basketball team, and Kobe seems like he’s basically undone all the progress he’s made since the ’04 Laker meltdown. Of course, a lot of this isn’t actually true, or is at least somewhat exaggerated, and with the (hopeful) return of Andrew Bynum next year, they’ll probably be able to elevate their frontcourt to be able to better hang with bigger, more physical teams next year. But for Kobe and Phil Jackson at least, it’s going to be an interesting, and significantly undewhelming summer.

The hardest thing about this for me, when all is said and done, is that the NBA season is finally over. All throughout the season, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have chosen this time to get into the sport, as it seemed like every day brought with it new excitement, new drama, new possibilities. The blockbuster trades, the epic Western Conference race, the turnaround seasons–it was very nearly socially dehabilitating how much I fell in love with pro basketball this year. Now, I know summer is supposed to be the time of baseball, and I’m definitely thrilled for the rest of the season, but I just don’t know if it can match the excitement, the unbelievable urgency the NBA presented with this season. I pray it can, though, because it’s going to be a long five months of reading trade rumors and rookie speculations otherwise.

In the meantime, congrats to the Celtics. You guys deserved it, certainly, and I just hope that now you have the deceny to get old real quick and let some other dudes in the East get a shot at it next year.

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Clap Clap ClapClapClap / Eugoogly: The ’07-’08 San Antonio Spurs

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 30, 2008

Hi-o Silver, Away

I do vaguely remember in my sports-blackout period hearing about the San Antonio Spurs winning a championship or two, and it surprised me at the time. I didn’t remember them seeming like a team destined for greatness when I was paying attention in the mid-90s, and unlike the three-peating Lakers, where I knew about Shaq and Kobe and understood completely how they could become dynastic, I couldn’t name a single player on the Spurs, and had no idea what they were supposed to be about. I figured that they were just one of those teams that sort of lucked into a championship due to luck and a weak pool of competition–it seemed to happen all the time in baseball, anyway–and didn’t have anything near that sort of legendary caliber, certainly nothing necessitating use of the D word.

Now that I’ve been paying attention and learned a little bit about the last ten years of basketball, I can’t say that the Spurs make any more sense to me. You’re telling me that a team centered around a perpetually sullen power forward who seems like he’d shy away from a fight with Tiger Woods, a French point guard who looks like a dead ringer for The Brain (cartoon mouse, not anatomical organ), and an Argentinian bench player that’s already going bald–you’re telling me these guys have won four of the last nine championships? All right, the team’s evolved a little over the last nine years, the first one was more about Duncan and David Robinson, and players like Stephen Jackson, Avery Johnson, Speedy Claxton, Sean Elliot and Glenn Robinson have all played parts passing through their championship runs. But when people think back on the Spur superpower of the last ten years, it’ll be Tony, Timmy and Manu that immediately come to mind. And that’s just weird.

The Spurs’ activity during the Western Conference’s arms race in the second half of the season told me everything I really needed to know about the team. While the Jazz and Rockets were sliding their final pieces into place, Lakers were stealing all-stars from the Grizzlies, and the Suns and the Mavs were mortgaging their futures on ancient future-Hall-of-Famers, what did the Spurs do? They added Damon Stoudamire and Kurt Thomas–two solid, reliable veterans that probably weren’t going to add anything to the team but fundamentals and stability. And that, I realized, was the San Antonio Spurs. No flash, no risk/reward, no headlines, no fun. Just results.

The New England Patriots were the obvious point of comparison for me–another perennial title contender constructed with factory-like precision and role delegation. This is especially apt when considering the coach/puppeteers of both teams–both are cold, no-nonsense, do-what-it-takes figures that always seem to be a step or two ahead of their red-blooded brethren. But I didn’t realize just how similar Gregg Popovich was to Bill Belichick until I saw Popovich signaling for the Hack-a-Shaq in game three of the Suns-Spurs series, and I got flashes of The Emperor, which happened at least once a game when I was watching the Pats in the post-season.

Nonetheless, I’m not sure the comparison is completely accurate, because the feeling of threat I got from the two teams was quitnessentially different. When I was watching the Patriots, it felt like they were always going to win. When I was watching the Spurs, it felt they were never going to lose. And there’s a difference there–the Patriots were a team that wowed, a team that regularly had blow-out wins that felt like they were never going to end, a team that obviously had the most talented roster in the NFL and by all rights, should win every game. The Spurs, on the other hand, didn’t really wow, barely ever blew out the other team, and often seemed outskilled by the competition–I remember a game this year when they were down three with seconds to go to the fucking Knicks. But they came back to win in that game, just like they always seemed to come back to win. I never understood it, I never wanted to believe in it, but it always seemed to happen–cemented recently by their Game 7 victory in New Orleans, after being down 2-0 and 3-2 earlier in the series. Couldn’t anyone put these guys away for good?

This really must be the Lakers’ year, then, and Kobe’s specifically. The Spurs are the team that’s supposed to come back from 17 in two different games in the same series to win squeakers–hell, they did it earlier this postseason against the Suns, which was like the basketball equivalent of watching Barack Obama lose close margins in several key states to a suddenly steamrolling John McCain. And yet somehow the Lakers were able to turn the tables on the Black and Silver, thanks mostly to two titanic second-half performances by Kobe Bryant, who re-affirmed his MVP status and then some in this series, closing in a way even the mighty Chris Paul was seemingly unable to do. Before the playoffs, everyone was talking about the possibility of a Celts-Lakers finale, but I never believed it would actually happen, especially with the league’s worst-case scenario–another Spurs/Pistons finals–still an all-too-feasible possibility. Now the C’s are one game away from making the dream a reality. Maybe it all just had to happen like this.

I’d like to believe that this loss signals, as some have suggested, not only the end of the Spurs’ season, but the end of their reign in general. And with most of the team seemingly in their 50s, the ascending teams in the west (Jazz, Hornets) strong and getting stronger, young teams like the Warriors and the Blazers possibly poised to take the next big step in ’08-’09, and now the Lakers looking like an emerging¬† NBA superpower, it seems like the changing of the guard might finally have arrived. But despite the loss here, I’ve learned my lesson this year about counting the Spurs out. Or before you know it, we could be talking about five of the last eleven.

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Eugoogly: The ’07-’08 Philadelphia 76ers

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 2, 2008

Level XVI: The Princeton Principle. Definition: When a Cinderella team hangs tough against a heavy favorite, but the favorite somehow prevails in the end (like Princeton almost toppling Georgetown in the ’89 NCAAs). … This one stings because you had low expectations, but those gritty underdogs raised your hopes. …”

If you had told me two weeks ago that the Sixers were going to end their season tonight, after getting two games away from Detroit (including one at the Palace of Auburn Hills), I might not have been thrilled, exactly, but I would’ve certainly been content. Nobody expected the Sixers to win more than one game, and a large percentage of the experts didn’t even expect that–they were, after all, a sub-.500 team that was supposed to be out of the playoff picture by February. To swipe two from Detroit, a 59-23 team roundly considered one of the NBA’s elite, including a come from behind away victory in the season opener…hey, not too bad, right?

Sure doesn’t feel that way, though. Bill Simmons seems to think there are 15 levels of losing worse than this one, but at the moment I’m finding that kind of hard to believe. Maybe because the Sixers didn’t just “hang tough” against the Pistons, they were 24 minutes away from delivering a near death-blow. If the Sixers had managed to maintain their ten-point halftime lead in Game Four, they go back to Detroit 3-1 leaders, and the Pistons might not have regained their rhythm in time. But they started stepping in unison (or, to use a tired pun, firing on all cylinders) in that third quarter, and they never lost their stride again. In one quarter, the series went from “hey, why shouldn’t we be able to beat those guys?” to “oh yeah, that’s why.”

Honestly, Games 1 and 3 (and the first half of Game 4, for that matter) feel like they were from an entirely different series. The Sixers I saw in the last two and a half games were the Sixers of before the All-Star break, where they clumsily ground out games against mediocre teams and layed down for better teams, shooting abysmally, displaying little team chemistry and playing shamefully porous defense. Andre Miller had maybe four assists for the entire second-half of the series, Willie Green and Thaddeus Young were about a combined 7 – 63, and Andre Iguodala shot approximately 15% from the line. It was a thorough reality check for a team that had been playing above themselves for half a season, and it sucked to watch.

Making it worse, of course, was the fact that the Pistons were the team beating them. I had nothing in particular against the Pistons going into the series aside from a minor begrudging of their near-communistic level of ball-sharing (how does a supposed “elite” team not have a single player above 18 a game?), but now they’re unquestioned for me as Public Enemy No. 2 (The Spurs, for dispatching the Suns for the fourth time in six seasons, are still #1 for the forseeable future). I’d heard about Piston arrogance before–how they get bored in the regular season, how they just “show up” and go through the motions in games they think are beneath them, and how they believe they can turn their elite play on and off at will–but I had never witnessed it beforehand, and never dreamed I’d witness it quite so much in this series.

Well, congratulations, you fucking assholes, because yes, you proved that you have the ability to dump games to lesser teams just because why not, while still having enough fire in their reserves to jump out and steal a series’ momentum whenever necessary. It really was like they turned on a switch at halftime in G4, which not only made those last three defeats so frustrating to watch, it cheapens the moral victory of having won two of the first three, since Chauncy and ‘Sheed can always pull the “Oh yeah, were those even playoff games?” card whenever they want. I don’t much care for the Orlando Magic–beyond D-12, what is there to root for besides the second-goofiest Eurostar in the NBA and the most ridiculous max contract in all pro sports?–but I’ll be pulling for them pretty hardcore in the upcoming weeks, because I just want someone, anyone, to put these dudes in their place.

And in the meantime, if you want to look at things objectively, The Sixers really aren’t in a bad position for the future. The trades of Allen Iverson and Kyle Korver have freed up cap space beyond GM Ed Stefanski’s wildest dreams, and they’ll pretty much have their pick of the free agent litter in the off-season. I don’t know if this’ll mean a couple small signings, the signing of a legitimate all-star like Elton Brand or Antawn Jamison (and the thought of having a 4 who can shoot is indeed tantalizing), or if it might mean holding off and waiting for the supposedly far richer ’09 off-season to really bring the goods. Any way, the Sixers really have nothing to lose and everything to gain, considering nearly all their core players are still young and constantly improving, hopefully to the point in the next year or two, Louis Williams learns to be a legitimate playmaker, Rodney Carney develops into the outside threat the team so badly needs, and Thaddeus Young becomes the Sixers’ own Shawn Marion. If Iguodala sticks around, which I think he will, the team might not even need Andre Miller, who had maybe the largest part in leading the team to the postseason year, but who has often acted like he feels like a babysitter to all these green young’uns and might feel more at home elsewhere.

Yes, the future is bright for the Sixers, and hopefully by next year, a mere two first-round wins won’t be perceived as anything but a disappointment. But right now, it’s hard to focus on anything but mourning the present.

R.I.P. The Philadelphia 76ers, 2007-2008

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Eugoogly: The Houston Rockets’ Winning Streak

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 19, 2008

“The worst team ever to win 20 in a row”

Check that video, a tribue to the ’07-’08 Houston Rockets entitled “That’s My Team.” As far as single-team/single-season tributes it ranks below Jim Jones’ ’06 Giantsified “We Fly High” and far above the ’86 Dodgers’ recent YouTube sensation “Baseball Boogie,” but less important than how good or bad the song actually is–what a weird team to have a song devoted to. Listen to some of those names. Steve Novak. Aaron Brooks. Carl Landry. Luther Head. If this song had been leaked a mere month and a half ago, it would’ve seen hilariously over-optimistic. Now some of these jobbers are practically household names.

And that was the 22-0 Houston Rockets. Of the dozen or so players namechecked namechecked in “That’s My Team,” I think it’s relatively safe to say that only four of them–Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Dikembe Mutumbo and Steve Francis–are likely to endure in the public memory 15-20 years from now. And three of those dudes couldn’t even be considered steady contributors to the streak. Yao peaced out for the season 12 games into the streak, causing many (including myself) to predict the end not only of their streak but of their playoff chances, Deke only came in at Center after Yao’s absence and then rarely played more than 20 minutes a game, and of course Steve Francis was never even a factor at all, having season-ending surgery well before the streak started. T-Mac was the only star throughout the streak, and even he was no LeBron in terms of game-owning consistency, scoring 11 points or less four times throughout the streak.

Yet, 22 in a row. One more than a Bucks team with Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson could manage, and knocking on the door of the Lakers team with Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain. And they did it with a sole unreliable superstar, a 27-year-old Argentinian NBA n00b, a fundamentals-first ex-college star, a point guard who peaked on the New York playgrounds, a D-League pickup, an underappreciated rookie and a couple three-point shooters. To quoth Marlo Stanfield for the billionth time, “It just don’t seem possible.”

I guess that’s why everyone took so much to this story. When the Blazers won 13 in a row earlier this season, I got similarly swept up–a young team that no one expected much from managing to band together, overcome all odds and force the world to take notice. And it’s not like the Rockets lacked that kind of underdog likeability, whether it was Tracy bringing on the doubters, Shane Battier making sarcastically self-depcrecating comments about the team’s standing with the NBA’s other great streakers (is there any other NBA player right now whose career seems a mere prelude to a long and fruitful career doing color commentary on TNT?) or the entire team trying on their best Mutumbo voices–these were the kind of guys you wanted to root for, surely.

But I just couldn’t get into it. Possibly it was just my anti-Yao prejudice for the first 12 games, and my distress at their disrupting my otherwise potentially picture-perfect Western Conference playoff projections. Maybe it was that some of their more impressive wins just felt a little too convenient–facing the Hornets without David West, the Mavs the day of Dirk’s one-day suspension, and the Lakers a game after Pau’s twisted ankle, never getting that one solidifying win against a truly elite team at full power. Mostly, though, I just don’t think I could wrap my head around it. The Blazers going for 13, OK, good luck and a better schedule could explain that. But the Rockets, a team that was barely flirting with .500 halfway through the season, going for 22 with one-and-a-half stars and a bunch of role players? The cognitive dissonance was just too much for me to handle. It just didn’t feel like it should’ve been history.

That’s why it’s only fitting, I think, that their first loss in 23 games should come as it did last night. Not in some epic cross-state bout with the Mavericks, not in a down-to-the-wire shooters’ duel between T-Mac and Kobe, not even in an ironic loss to an even bigger underdog like the Hawks or Bobcats. Rather, it came at the hands of an utterly graceless trouncing by a shorthanded Celtics, a team that just straight-up outplayed the Rockets across the board for the entire second half. Because despite the confidence, despite the momentum, despite the synergy (dear lord, why would anyone outside of Dilbert willingly use this word), these were, with one or two exceptions, the same group of human beings that were barely even being considered as top eight contenders in the West just a month and a half ago. And teams like that have a tendency to get crushed by a 50+-win team every now and then.

Now, in my opinion, is when the real story begins. Do the Rockets manage to mostly keep it up? Does their sudden reversal in momentum end up sinking them in their potentially-deadly upcoming West tour of the Hornets, Suns and Warriors? Do they stay a #1 seed, or do they fall out of the playoffs entirely? In any event, now that all the hype is sure to die down, I’ll be interested in evaluating the team on its own merits, and see if they really are a group of loveable underdogs worth rooting for against a favorite like the Lakers or Spurs, or just a bunch of serendipitous supporting players lucky enough to have 22 games break their way in a row. Yet another reason to stay glued to the NBA for the next month and a half.

The Houston Rockets’ 22-Game Undefeated Streak, Jan 29. 2008 – Mar 19. 2008

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Eugoogly / Time of the Season: S5 of The Wire

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 10, 2008

Yeah, might be one or two spoilers ahead

It wasn’t going to be like The Sopranos. No matter what you expected from the series finale of The Wire, the one thing everyone seemed to sense was that it wouldn’t be nearly as maddening, hard to read or (arguably) brilliant as Tony, Carmela, AJ and Meadow eating onion rings in a diner. That just wasn’t David Simon’s style–though it’s probably the less commercial show of the two, The Wire was in essence a more conventional series than The Sopranos–just like you wouldn’t have episodes where McNulty kills one of his relatives, or entire episodes based around characters’ dreams, you wouldn’t have a series finale that ended in a ellipsis. The Sopranos was often purposefully ambiguous, but The Wire was always a show that had something to say. Regardless of what the finale was, you knew that it would feel like a finale.

But before we start talking about the finale, let’s size up Season Five a bit. It seems likely to me that Season Five will go down as the weakest thusfar, with its only real competition coming from S2, which continues to polarize audiences in its feeling of separation from the themes and characters of the other four seasons. And I agree-it’s the worst season of The Wire yet.

A lot of the blame for this can be attributed to the focus on the news room, which while introducing one of the show’s better characters in Gus Haynes (played, of course, by the inimitable Clark Johnson), never really developed the sense of urgency that the subplots of other seasons possessed. Yeah, OK, so it’s a hard world for journalists, and tightening of costs puts pressure on writers which causes them to resort to desperate measures which ends up making ethics increasingly stringent. Fair enough, but this is The Wire, a show where characters are actually killed in practically every episode. So the stakes don’t exactly feel too high when we’re talking about the death of journalistic integrity as opposed to the death of, y’know, people. It was well-handled, but it felt ultimately inconsequential.

(One side note I will say in this plot’s defense: It did a great job of illustrating why Journalists cheat. Most actual news writers will talk about how realistic the newsroom stuff is, and I can’t really comment on that, but as a Journalism student, I can say that the show got spot on why the straight up journalistic process can be so frustrating. The scene where Gus gets Templeton to go out and interview a bunch of homeless people, they give him absolute shit to work with, and after a day of increasingly useless interviews, he just makes up his own stuff. That’s journalism–you interview a dozen people just hoping that they say what you already want to write, they probably don’t, and you’re stuck trying to squeeze square pegs into round holes for a whole article. Not saying I condone his actions, or that I’d act similarly–actually, I wouldn’t act at all, since I pretty much don’t plan on doing legit Journalism ever again, largely for these reasons–but I doubt there’s a journalist alive that doesn’t feel the temptation to do what Templeton did on a regular basis, and this season did a great job showing why.)

Anyway, that wasn’t even the main problem of this season. The real issue was the lack of an emotional connection to work with. Season one had the tragedies of Wallace and D’Angelo, two had the Sobotka family drama, three had the dissolution of Stringer and Avon, four had all them kids, and five…well, we were still rooting for Michael and Dookie, we wanted Bubs to get let out of the basement, and we wanted to see Omar take down Marlo, sure. But none of those plotlines were given enough attention or enough focus to hang an entire season on–they were supporting plots, not the driving drama of the season.

Instead, we got Jimmy McNulty the Serial Killer. I don’t think this plot was as much of a misstep as some–really, it was McNulty and Lester’s equivalent of Hamsterdam, a couple characters (and Simon, by proxy) experiment with what happens when, as Pearlman puts it, they start “coloring outside the lines”. And while it was a little ridiculous at times, and while I don’t believe for a second that Lester would have let himself ever get suckered in to a plot with such a high potential for failure, it was an interesting “what if?” as McNulty realizes that making a police department care about a serial killer (or indeed, even notice its existence) is harder than he thought, and then getting them to calm down from the mania afterwards is even harder. If nothing else, the plot was worth it for the scene where McNulty and Greggs hear the FBI’s profile of the serial killer and their description (loner, alcoholic, problem with authority) nails McNulty to a tee (“They’re not far off,” he comments).

But with all the things I liked about this plot, it just didn’t carry the emotional weight of the main arcs of the first four seasons. I mean, I wanted to see Lester and McNulty get away with it, but given the fall McNulty has (re-)experienced since the Changed Man of S4, I also kinda wanted to see him get his comeuppance for treating Beadie like shit, fucking over his partners, and just generally having no regard for anyone or anything besides himself and his personal vendetta (“Marlo doesn’t get to win, we get to win!”) It arguably made his character richer, but it meant I didn’t have half the investment in his project that I did in Bunny’s innovations.

To offset the lack of emotional connection here, the show needed to have more going on in the streets. In 3 or 4, even if you didn’t find stuff like Hamsterdam or Carcetti’s run for Mayor particularly riveting, you still had Avon and Stringer, or Bode revolting against Marlo’s reign of tyranny, or Omar waging war against whoever had tried to kill him or his people that week. This season, though, all we really had left were Marlo, Chris and Snoop–three of the show’s all-time great characters, no doubt, but none whose success you were particularly anxious to see. Michael’s battle with soullessness was occasionally brilliant, and for a while we had the tantalizing prospect of an Omar-Marlo showdown, but the latter ended too early and the former wasn’t given enough time to be a primary arc.

So, the weakest season of The Wire? Almost certainly. But I don’t mean that to sound nearly as much like a knock as it probably does. TV does not get better than Seasons Three or Four of this show–it just doesn’t, and I question if it ever will–and to expect the show to continue to play on that level…well, if anyone could do it, it’d be The Wire, but Memphis couldn’t stay perfect, the Patriots couldn’t stay perfect, and The Wire couldn’t quite do it either. Honestly, though, I felt like after the way S4 ended–as complete a season of TV that could possibly be produced–that anything afterwards would just be a bonus, a sort of coda after the grand finale of 4. And so that’s how I approach this season–a solid bonus track, not quite up to par with the rest of the LP, but with occasional moments of brilliance that remind you of how amazing the whole album is. And I just don’t think it’d be fair to have expected anything more.

With all this in mind, my take on the finale is that it was exactly what the season, and in turn, the show, deserved. Like I said before, this wasn’t going to be the Sopranos finale, and indeed, it won’t be–it’s not the kind of episode that people are going to be talking about for years to come, not the kind of episode that sparks up a seemingly ceaseless series of blog debates, not the kind of episode that’ll make you question your entire conception of the series and fill your head for days afterwards. What it was is exactly what it needed to be–a neat ending to all the main plots of the season, a brief look into the future, and a summation of what the series was about in the first place.

And I gotta say, even though most people (including myself) seemed to be predicting a gloom and doom finale for The Wire‘s final act, I left “-30-” with a strange feeling of optimism. Sure, there was minorly some soul-crushing stuff in there–Carcetti officially succumbing to puppet status, Valchek stepping in as Commish over Daniels’ forced retirement, and of course, Dookie’s descent into full-fledged junkiedom among them. But I expected it to be a finale strewn with deaths and ruined lives, and aside from Dookie’s miserbale fate, you didn’t really get too much of that.

In fact, there were a handful of moments so joyous that made me literally squeal with glee. Pearlman and Daniels winking at each other from across the courtroom bench. Marlo taking about 1/16th the time it took Avon to conclude that the straight life wasn’t for him, and ditching his bishness man outfit for a white tee. Levy pinching Herc’s cheek and deeming him mishpacha. And, best of all, Slim Charles interrupting Cheese in the middle of his best Tony Montana rant with a bullet to the head–possibly the biggest SHIT YEAH moment in the entire series. These were some beautiful scenes, and they made me so relieved that Simon didn’t just try to bully his loyal subjects with Truth in the series’ last 90 minutes on earth–we’ve had plenty of that over five seasons, it’s nice to know that there’s room for hope as well.

Actually, at times it felt like the show let up a little too much, especially in the case of McNulty. Over the first three-quarters of this season, McNulty fucked up about as he’s ever fucked up in the history of the show (which, needless to say, is a pretty high fuck-up density), yet at the end of the line, not only does he not end up dead or in prison, he gets to keep his job, his cop friends and even his long-suffering girlfriend, the worst consequence being a transfer to a realtively inconsequential unit. For a guy that invented a serial killer, and even inspired a few real-life killings, that seems like a pretty light punishment (not to mention that his conflict-free reconciliation scene with Greggs, whose diming on him and Lester could’ve very well ended up landing ’em in the slammer, felt like one of the finale’s several “Oh shit, we only have thirty minutes left? Better wrap this one up quick” scenes).

Ultimately, though, the pervading feeling leaving the finale was one of satisfaction. Seeing the capable but not quite sociopathic Slim Charles take over the connect while Marlo goes back to low-level grindin’, seeing Bubs sit down to family dinner with his sister and her kid, even seeing Chris find his prison soulmate in Wee Bay–it all just felt sort of right, the perfect epilogue. Plus, one thing this season has been great with is in ensuring that all the old faces make at least one final appearances, and with Pres’s cameo (Dookie hits him up for drug money, effectively burning the last bridge he had left), we’ve now seen from just about all of ’em. What more could you really want from a final episode (or a final season, for that matter)?

Ironically, though, with all the differences between this finale and the Sopranos ending, the message of the two is ultimately the same–life goes on. The Sopranos showed it by demonstrating how though Tony Soprano had escaped a close call, he wasn’t out of the woods yet and likely never would be, always wondering whether that shady-looking guy going to the bathroom while you’re eating will come back with a gun and blow your head off. The Wire shows it by demonstrating how everything is cyclical, how Sydnor’s experience in Special Crimes lead to his overambition and ultimately his becoming the new McNulty, how Dookie’s lack of options have him becoming the new Bubbles, and how Michael’s alienation from his family and outlaw status on the streets have him becoming the new Omar (how I didn’t see this one coming I have no idea, but man am I glad I didn’t–awesome). The cops still care primarily about their stats, the politicians still care primarily about getting re-elected, and ain’t nobody gonna stop the hustlers from hustlin’ and the ‘yos from ‘yoin’. Shit in Bodymore, Murdaland is the same as it ever was.

“-30-” is not one of the Great Wire Episodes. Indeed, it even pales in comparison slightly to “Late Editions,” the previous episode, which felt far more like the season’s climax (Simon always did blow his show’s Big Moments in the season’s pentultimate episodes). And it’s definitely not the best Wire finale–that’s “Final Grades,” the S4 finale, a front-runner for not only my favorite Wire episode but a top fiver for any TV episode ever. But like the season on the whole, it’s hard to complain. In a world where most brilliant but challenging TV shows are lucky to get a full season, we were blessed to get four full, uncompromised, virtually flawless seasons of this show, and to get another season on top of that is a veritable godsend. The fact that S5 was often brilliant, and never less than thoroughly compelling television…well, it’s almost too much to ask for.

Thanks for the memories, guys.

R.I.P. The Wire, 2002-2008

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Eugoogly: [Wire Spoiler Alert]

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 3, 2008

“I heard that one before…”

Before I get into eugooglizing two of the greatest characters in arguably the greatest TV show of the 21st century, I would like to send a big ol’ fuck you to HBO for making this show so difficult to write about in a timely fashion. The fact that episodes are made to some viewers a week ahead of the rest (via the On Demand service) ends up creating a sort of hierarchy among viewers, and results in it being almost impossible to discuss the show with fellow viewers, since you never know what episode they’re up to. Yeah, it’s nice to be able to get the show a week ahead of time, but I’d much rather everyone be on the same page. Thank god apaprently the finale is not being leaked ahead of time–if that had been ruined for me (as the death of Prop Joe was, for instance), I never would’ve forgiven the channel.

But anyway, I think both of these episodes have aired in all formats now, so let’s talk about the lifes and deaths of Omar and Snoop. Two obvious fan-favorites from the show, their characters are also linked by being possibly the two greatest hitters that the show ever saw and by being two of the only three openly gay main characters in the show’s history (and yes, there is one unopenly gay character, whose subtle outing I won’t reveal for those of you who, like me, missed it the first time). Their deaths might not quite be considerable as parallel, but the fact that they come so close together (and so close to the show’s end) doesn’t strike me as coincidence.

Over five seasons of The Wire, it’s hard to argue against Mistah Omar being the show’s most consistently great, and perhaps just as importantly, consistently visible character. McNulty disappeared for large chunks of season four, Marlo and his crew didn’t show up until season three, and Stringer (and for the most part, Avon) peaced after the season three finale. But since his debut a couple episodes into season one (for what was initially only supposed to be a seven-episode arc, until fan support proved too great for the character to be so quickly disposed of), Omar has always been lurking in the shadows, ready to strike when the need arose.

Part of what made Omar stand out so much from the rest of the cast was that unlike the great majority of the show’s characters, he was a man alone. He had help, sure, in the form of a rotating cast of like-minded gay stick-up boys that also acted as his lovers (which always made me wonder how exactly Omar advertised for such a position–is there a section in the classifieds for this sort of thing?), but unlike the show’s police, who had to answer to the city, and the show’s soldiers, who had to answer to the lieutenants and kingpins, Omar was in business only for himself, seemingly immune to the laws, standards and effects of society. Since we spent so much of the show seeing how these organizations end up tainting souls and destroying lives, it was inspirational to see someone as impervious as Omar, and thus it only made sense that while cops and robbers disappeared around him, Omar should remain the show’s one constant.

But ask an average fan why Omar is such a great character, and they won’t come up with any of this stuff. That’s because the appeal of Omar doesn’t need to be symbolic–he’s simply an undeniable presence in his own right. Omar has been called the ghetto Robin Hood (for his tendency to take from the rich and give to the poor–or, at least, to himself), but more of the time, he was the ghetto James Bond, a character who just wowed you with his skills, swagger and charisma, the kind of guy who’d meander casually into a burning building just to save a box of Cheerios. There didn’t seem to be any situation too sticky for him to get out of, an almost-superhuman resilliency evidenced beautifully this season from Marlo’s reaction to the scene of Omar’s six-story fall and escape from a high-rise shootout, “It just don’t seem possible.” He seemed invincible so much of the time–and seemed so confident in his own invincibility–that eventually you became convinced that he probably was.

Which is why his death is so unbelievably infuriating. In any other show and with any other character it’d have been obvious; the episode was spending more time documenting Omar’s quest to goad Marlo into a street war than it probably needed to, and when he was seen buying cigarettes in a corner bodega–a scene with no obvious plot relevance–you should have known that some shit was about to go down. But this was Omar on The Wire, so you didn’t sweat it too much. And even when you saw that bullet go through his head, and even when he went down and didn’t get back up, and even when you saw the kid with the gun standing behind him–your immediate reaction had to have been, “shit, I wonder how Omar’s gonna get out of this one?” Omar? Actually dead? Like, dead dead? I was yelling “WHAT??!?!??!” at my screen for five minutes afterwards. Like Marlo said, it just don’t seem possible.

It’s hard not to feel like his character has been given shafted a little. Let it never be said that The Wire was predictable, or that it caved to popular opinion instead of taking the path it felt it needed to take, but come on, look at the show’s other major death scenes. Stringer yelling “WELL, GET ON WITH, MOTH—-” before Omar and Brother opened fire on him. Bode going down swinging, refusing to back off from his corner. Hell, even Prop Joe, accepting his fate, closing his eyes, realizing that he can’t talk his way out of this one. They all died with diginity, on their feet, so to speak.

And yet what does Omar, possibly the most beloved character in all The Wire, get? A bullet in the back of his head out of nowhere, from the gun of a fucking pre-adolescent. I know, or at least I think I know, what the message is–that not even someone as brilliant and cautious as Omar can be a part of this world of drugs and violence and expect to escape with his health, that no individual is ever completely in control of their own destiny, and that even a street hero like Omar goes six feet under without even a blurb in the paper or a correct tag on his toe. Fine–it all makes sense, and eventually I’ll even forgive the show for it. But it just seems like he deserves better.

Of course, as Snoop would say, likely even about her own death, “Deserve got nothin’ to do with it.” Now I’m usually not a big fan of the quotes at the beginning of The Wire–too often they either don’t make much sense out of context, or just don’t end up meaning all that much (“This ain’t Aruba, bitch,” was particularly appropos of absolutely nothing). But Snoop’s “deserve” line was a brilliant teaser, since as the episode started to wind down and it still hadn’t showed up, you started to wonder where it’d come into play–would it be the last thing that Michael would ever hear before Snoop dispatched him, as she had so many others, for his alleged storytelling?

Amazingly, it turned out to be Michael turning the tables on Snoop, partly as given away by the above quote (said about the soldier Michael was supposed to hit, which Michael correctly surmised was just a ruse on Snoop’s part to set up his own disposal). Her willingness to take out Michael unquestioningly, despite an obvious affection between the two soliders, and despite a lack of any sort of proof to the point, was what defined Snoop as a character. More ruthless than any of her male cohorts (with the possible exception of her similarly cold-blooded partner Chris), and a much better shot, Snoop didn’t just carry out orders, she relished in the opportunity to do so. From the first moment that Marlo enlisted her for a hit (“Time to earn yo’ keep, girl”), nobody looked happier to be in the Game than Snoop. Unburdened with the ambition of Marlo, the romanticism of Avon or the moral code of Omar, Snoop simply lived to be a hitter, and her enthusiasm for her work was intoxicating.

Naturally, the primary legacy of Snoop might end up being the fact that no one that looked, sounded or acted like her had ever been seen on TV before. Discovered, ironically enough, by Michael K. Williams (the actor, who plays the character Omar Little, lest we forget) at a Baltimore club, the part of Snoop was created specifically for Felicia Pearson, who is nicknamed “Snoop” in real life as well. Something tells me that a 5’2″, boyish-looking, slurrrred-talking, openly gay gangster chick isn’t exactly a role you can hold auditions for. And indeed, even beyond the name, the overlaps between Snoop the character and Snoop the actress often border on the uncomfortable–Person was a real-life thug, who even plead guilty to a murder charge at the age of 14 and went to jail for much of her teenage years. But despite the tricky morality of having a real-life convicted murderer fictionally reliving her gangster ways with aplomb on national TV, the innovation of the Snoop character is undeniable, a groundbreaker in terms of gender and sexuality and a strike for TV actors that simply aren’t like everybody else (or, indeed, like virtually no one else).

At least she gets the exit she deserves. As Michael gets the drop on her, Snoop instantly confirms Michael’s suspicions and acknowledges her fate (one thing you could never accuse the Stanfield organization of is disingenuity, a second thing you could never accuse Stanfield and Co. of is regret for their actions). After letting Michael know the reasons why the two of them had come to this, she smiles a little and asks him “How my hair look, man?” “You look good, girl,” Michael responds, before blowing her brains out on the driver’s window, the shot of which is tastefully cut away from. Snoop doesn’t even seem particularly sad or angry at her impending demise–all she ever wanted was to be a soldier, and now that she gets to die a soldier’s death, she can’t really complain.

One episode to go.

R.I.P. Omar Devone Little, 1974-2008, Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, 1980-2008

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Time of the Season / Eugoogly (?): S2 of Friday Night Lights

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 21, 2008

Clear eyes and full hearts no longer guaranteed to prevent loss

The Night the Lights Went Out in Dillon was not much unlike any other Friday we’ve spent with our favorite sons and daughters of the Lone Star State this last TV season. Coach felt jealous of a man in Mrs. Coach’s life and acted questionably as a result. Landy and Tyra had relationship quandries, and Saracen spent a couple of lonely nights. Tim made more attempts to reconnect with Tyra, whose sexual urges prove incompatible with her relationship with God Boy. Really, it was one of the least noteworthy episodes of Friday Night Lights thusfar–a pleasant ep, not one you’d tend to single out while thinking either of the classic FNL moments or the bigger “what were they thinking??” moments. In fact, so unextraordinary was the episode that it wasn’t until far after finishing that the thought really struck me:

“Wait a minute…Is that it?

Given some of the short runs the WGA strike has reduced TV’s best shows to this season, I’ve considered the 15 episodes filmed of Friday Night Lights a blessing. But what didn’t occur to me is that these 15 episodes were no doubt structured not as a season unto themselves, but as just the first 15 episodes of a 22-episode seasonal arc. But now episode #15 has aired, and it looks like that’s it for the year–NBC has already made plans to release S2 with just the eps that have already aired, so chances of the show returning before next fall seem doubtful.

Perhaps more upsettingly, it’s equally doubtful that the show will be returning after that. “I love it, you love it,” says NBC chief Ben Silverman. “Unfortunately, no one watches it. That’s the thing with shows. People have to watch them.” Kind of hard to disagree with the practicality of Silverman’s statement, especially since his estimation of an average FNL audience could probably be considered generous–Lights hasn’t produced a rating of 4.0 or better since the season premiere, and I think we’re probably beyond the “well, it just needs some time to gain it’s audience” stage. It’s time to face facts: despite everything it has going for it, this simply is not a show that was destined for mainstream success.

And so here we are, fifteen episodes down in the show’s second season, with absolutely no provided closure, and with little hope of getting any in the future. In all likelihood, we’ll never know whether or not Street’s waitress trystee decides to keep his miracle love child, whether Smash finds peace as an RB at familial but little-known Whitmore, or whether the Panthers make the playoffs and get a shot at defending their title. Hell, I don’t think we ever even found out if Julie got her driver’s license or not. Sure, there’ve been great two-season-wonder shows before–Twin Peaks, the UK Office, The Venture Bros (for now at least)–but despite their arguably premature ends, they at least got to say goodbye with a season (if not necessarily series) finale. The Twin Peaks S2 finale was like watching the end of The Empire Strikes Back with no Return of the Jedi to follow, but the FNL s2 finale was like turning off Aliens in the middle of Bill Paxton’s “GAME OVER, MAN!!” rant. No show deserves that, especially not a show as brilliant as Friday Night Lights.

But enough of all this talk about ends–let’s spend a few minutes talking about the season that was. Few would disagree that it started off a little shaky–the show could’ve ran for 14 seasons, and memories of that Landry murder storyline would’ve continued to linger unpleasantly in fan memories–and Coach being away from Dillon was just too distressing to watch a lot of the time. But once Coach reclaimed the Dillon throne, the show quickly kicked back into high gear, and if it can’t compete with the freshness of S1, there are plenty of moments in the season that rank with any of the beauts from the first–Coach telling Street how much he’s learned from him, Landry berating Tyra for acting surprised after telling her he loves her, and my personal favorite moment, Riggins listening to Lyla’s Christian talk show on his car radio and frustratedly exhorting “Damn it, Lyla!” as he realizes how much he still cares about her. Even last week’s lukewarm episode did have one all-series classic, with Coach and his ex-romantic rival (played, somewhat poetically, by show creator Peter Berg himself) agreeing “red light” at dinner before jumping across the table at each other’s throats.

You will, of course, notice a plot element missing from all these highlights–football. Indeed, with the show’s producers deciding that FNL was more marketable as a “woman’s program,” the football content took a definite backseat this season, especially once Coach was Home Sweet Home for good. It’s hard to say that the show really suffered from it–indeed, this show was never really as much about the football as it was the people whose lives it impacted–but you did kind of miss moments like Saracen’s miraculous first Hail Mary in the pilot, the unforgettable Mud Bowl episode later in the season, and even simpler moments like Riggins, Saracen, Smash and Street gathering on the field Dazed & Confused style and just goofing around in the arena where they all felt the most comfortable. With characters like this, the show could be about mini-golf, but the gradual phasing out of the athletic aspect entirely might’ve been a dangeorus trend for the show’s future.

But really, this was a show whose future could still have been very bright. I would’ve loved to see the show’s first wave of teenagers no longer being indespensible fixtures of the show, but rather being replaced in the third season by a new wave of kids, with new problems and new drama. This was the advantage the show really had moving into the future–since the true protagonists of Lights were Eric and Tami, they could’ve avoided the inevitable downfall of most Teen TV shows when the cast graduates by simpy letting them graduate and move on. It could’ve kept the show fresh through almost countless seasons, as well as allowing it to become one of the most reliable showcases of new acting talent to be found in popular entertainment.

Therein lies the problem, and maybe the solution as well. Like I said previously, Lights was never meant to be viewed as “popular entertainment”–the plot elements are there (sometimes even too much), but they’re filmed, written and acted in a way that feels far too real (gritty, unfrilled, non-televisual, whatever) for mass appeal. But what if the show just moved away from the majors? Given TNT’s oft-stated claim to Know Drama, or USA’s ofter-stated promise of Characters being Welcome, FNL could fit like a glove on either, while not having to live up to the significantly loftier ratings standards of NBC. But I think the show should maybe go even farther, and relocate all the way to IFC or Sundance, where in terms of look and rhythm, the show would be almost indistinguishable from most of the channels’ lineups. What’s more, it could set a precedent for the indie film world embracing the possibilities of the televisual format–the previous reluctance of which being one of the reasons why keeping a show like Friday Night Lights alive is so unfeasible in this day and age. Not everything can go to HBO.

No matter how you look at it, though, I think it’s hard to argue that we weren’t lucky to get as much of this show as we did. For the next generation of upcoming TV mavericks, I’d like to think that FNL was around for long enough to show that not all shows about teens have to be One Tree Hill, not all shows about sports have to be Arli$$, not all shows about a married couple have to be The King of Queens, not all shows adapted from movies have to be Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and hey, not all shows about the South have to be My Name is Earl. Perhaps most importantly, Friday Night Lights showed that you didn’t have to run from TV–the cliches, the contrivances, the character types–to make television that was urgent, innovative, and unbelievably moving.

Shine on, Dillon.

R.I.P. Friday Night Lights, 2006-2008 (?)

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Eugoogly: Heath Ledger

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 23, 2008

No quitting puns please

One of my favorite things about 00s film was the way it gave me reason to full-out root for Heath Ledger. Even in his schlockiest days, I’d always suspected there was something a little more to him, and to watch him prove me righter and righter as the years went on was really a sight to behold. And that’s why when I heard of his death earlier today, I wasn’t just sad, I was downright pissed off. This wasn’t someone like Brad Renfro whose best days were clearly already behind him–this was someone who was only going to get better as the years went on, and for him to shuffle off before getting a chance to really prove that isn’t just tragic, it’s fucking annoying as hell.

Not to say that Ledger’s career was blemishless. He’s had his fair share of flops and under-performers in recent years, ranging from Ned Kelly to The Order and The Brothers Grimm (if you don’t remember what some of those were about, or that they were even released at all, you’re certainly not alone). But ignoring his missteps–and everyone besides Daniel Day-Lewis has aat least a couple of those on their resume–and Ledger accomplished with ease what seems to be virtually impossible for most. He matured from an above-average teen actor, to just an actor. And a damn good one.

Ten Things I Hate About You will always be the way I best remember Ledger (as well as Gabrielle Union, Julia Stiles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and that asshole prettyboy guy who’s in everything), and that’s not such a bad thing. It’s Ledger’s chemistry with Stiles elevated Ten Things far above She’s the Man and nearly into West Side Story or The Lion King territory for mod-day Shakespeare adaptations. A Knight’s Tale and The Patriot followed, further proving Ledger’s skill at transcending mediocre product with his charm and acting (and the fact that the latter didn’t wreck his career entirely is perhaps the kindest eulogy of all).

Were such movies the sole claims to fame for Ledger, he would certainly have been lost to time. But Ledger lucked out on two iconic roles that should provide him with legend status on their own–Ennis in Brokeback Mountain and The Joker in The Dark Knight, the latter of which some say might’ve nonetheless driven him to desperation. Most actors are unbeievably lucky to get one such role, but to get two–straddling the critical and the commercial, the cult and the mainstream–cements your status as a legend. The fact that Dark Knight isn’t even out yet barely seems relevant, the screen caps look amazing, post-prod is over, and if the teaser doesn’t at least pique your interest, you need to trurn on your respirator or ESPN in the morning type stuff.

I wouldn’t say that Heath went down in his prime, exactly–he just died on the young side. I find this find most tragic of all–Heath still had so far to go, he could’ve been a Brando or a Norton at least if he had just stuck around a little longer. Cut down in his prime? Not even afforded that luxury.

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Eugoogly: Brad Renfro

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 16, 2008


People might say that the death of Brad Renfro, struck down from as-of-yet undetermined-circumstances at the seemingly ripe age of 25, was a tragic one. And though all deaths are probably tragic, you have to remember that ex-kid stars still in the public eye age in something equivalent to dog years (making Jodie Foster probably the oldest person on the planet–which kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?). Given that Renfro first appeared on the scene in ’94 in the Joel Schumacher-directed Grisham adaptation The Client at age 12–arguably the most high-profile role he’d have until his death–he led a long, full life, comparatively. So we need not weep his demise, but rather, celebrate his existence.

Come to think of it, I never actually saw The Client–one Grisham movie adaptation was all I had room for in my life at the time, I suppose, and I had already seen The Firm about eight times. I have vague memories of some of his other kiddie roles–Huck in Tom & Huck (JTT, that media whore, got all the attention at the time as Tom), Young Michael Sullivan in Sleepers (yet another to add to the thousands of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon connections I can use with that movie, hooray) and Todd Bowden in Apt Pupil (which I also somehow never saw, despite it being Bryan Singer’s follow-up to Usual Suspects, my favorite movie ever at the time)–but really, I didn’t associate him with being a child star until a question about him poked up in a Child Star category of the first year of the WSOPC (which, incidentally, I would never have gotten right).

Rather, the Brad Renfro that endures in my memory is the young adult of two 2001 releases, Ghost World and Bully. These roles suggested Renfro’s skill at playing the male equivalent of the dumb blonde–the convenience store worker lusted after from afar (and occasionally from uncomfortably close) by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johnasson in the former, and the surfer dude hatching the dumbest murder plot in history with the help of six of his closest friends and associates in the latter. Renfro was required to do little in these roles but play dumb and look good (appropriate enough, in the case of Ghost World at least, since it would also be one of the last times Johansson was required to do more).

If his real life rap sheet–problems with alcohol and drugs, climaxing in an attempt to flee from the cops on a boat that was still tied to the dock–is any indication, Renfro probably didn’t have to act all too hard at the roles either. Still, they earn him a place in pop culture history, for me at least, given that they give him pivotal roles in both one of the best teen movies of all-time and one of the worst (but most unintentionally hilarious). Who can forget him sobbing to girlfriend Rachel Miner about what a meanie his friend Nick Stahl is, while a glob of drool hangs from his mouth the whole time? Or the hysterical sulk-walk he does before gut-punching Stahl in a moment of inexpressible fury? OK, on the off-chance you even saw the movie, you’ve probably long forgotten both these scenes by now, but Bully was one of the biggest movie-night fixtures among my group of friends in High School–topped only by Jennifer Lopez’s spousal-abuse meisterwerk Enough and Fred Williamson’s blaxploitation classic The Messenger.

And at the risk of offending the more macho contingent of IITS’s readership, I’ll admit it–I was totally gay for the dude. He was like the Mark McGrath of the film world, dark, pouty eyes, So-Cal sun-tanned skin, muscular surfer body, the whole deal. Plus, Bully being a Larry Clark movie, he (like the entire rest of the cast) was featured half-naked for the great majority of the flick–though, luckily, he escaped the venture without being the recipient quite as many gratuitous crotch shots as Bijou Phillips. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make an impression. (And yes, I’m aware that dude attractiveness has been a rather frequent subject here recently–don’t worry, got an entire week’s worth of posts about cars, cigars and whiskey coming up after this one).

So long, Brad. Maybe I’ll try to track down a copy of Deuces Wild sometime this weekend–I always suspected that movie had great potential for underrated hilarity.

RIP Brad Renfro, 1982-2008

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