October 25, 2011

The Walking Dead is not as good as you think.

If you're a male between the ages of 18 and 45, you probably spend an hour every Sunday night watching The Walking Dead on AMC. This is not the worst way to end your weekend, as it prominently features gratuitous zombie killing. But is The Walking Dead "good television"? Is it deserving of all the attention it's gotten?

In my opinion, it's actually pretty darn mediocre. Borderline bad. The concept's top-notch, it's beautifully filmed and the zombie makeup deserves a boatload of awards. But once you get past all that, the gore and the occasional moment of well-plotted tension, there's not a lot of substance there.

Ostensibly, the show is about a group of people attempting to band together in a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world, but you wouldn't know that they're banding together or that the world has ended by listening to some of the petty arguments between assorted characters.

The writers have focused on how human interaction -- the "core" of society -- continually frays under the pressure of the end of the world, but the characters aren't constantly hovering at the edge of sanity, like you or I might be. Instead, they blindly trudge through a desolated landscape, wasting precious minutes deliberating about the most inane things.

For example, Shane drunkenly tried to rape Rick's wife near the end of last season, but instead of it being a horrific moment that defines their relationship going forward, she mostly ends up perturbed that Shane has begun treating Carl poorly. He tried to rape you! Who cares if he's also being cold towards your son? (For more wonderfully apt observations like these, consult the mockery-heavy weekly reviews at videogum.com.)

They extend discussions for twice the reasonable amount of time, usually just enough to fill out an episode, while continually refusing to respond like actual human beings up against such a terrible, mind-shattering scenario. One of the things my dad hated about Lost was that no one ever asked the right questions; the writers had everyone dance around the real issues to keep the mystique of the island alive. Well, on Walking Dead, no one ever does the right thing, which is "stop blathering, gather weapons and run like hell, the zombie army is all around you." This may keep the show on track, but at what cost?

So the characters are poorly written; they're also not particularly memorable. I think we all know Rick, Shane and Carl (may he, hopefully, rest in peace), but what is Rick's wife's name? I only found out two days ago that it's Lori. What about the old guy who drives the RV? The black guy? The racist hick with the crossbow? The attractive blonde girl who wants to die? The mom with the lesbian haircut? The stupid daughter who has gone missing?

I have no idea who any of them are. And this isn't because the show is overly complicated like The Wire; it's because they're all bland, stereotypical, and irrelevant. You don't need to learn their names because it's not worth the effort; most of them are only interesting when they're running away from undead creatures, and even then it's fleeting.

The old man is given a few good lines an episode, but he's mostly there to be wise and offer counsel. The daughter disappearing was meant to create tension, but I don't think anyone's overly concerned with her survival. Carl getting shot was mildly interesting, but after the original shock it was just another plot-forwarding element.

Basically, the show works when the characters are encountering/evading zombie attacks. Or when they're learning more about the zombies. Or when someone's stabbing a zombie in the head with a screwdriver. Moments like that make The Walking Dead a fun show to watch.

But when characters are talking, or arguing, or engaging in a drawn-out love triangle that'll seemingly never end, The Walking Dead's flaws are exposed. And they are ample.

This isn't to say that people shouldn't watch the show; just don't pretend like it's God's gift to television. There are plenty of wonderful shows on TV nowadays, but The Walking Dead isn't one of them.

October 19, 2011

Bill Simmons went to a hockey game and a basketball lockout broke out.

Bill Simmons is now a hockey fan. Hooray?

For all of Simmons's flaws, he's a very knowledgeable basketball fan and an excellent writer on the sport and its inner workings. But hockey? Him? I don't see it.

So let's examine Bill's first "hockey-oriented" piece of the season. Join me, if you will, for yet another Fire Joe Morgan-esque adventure on King Myno's Court.

During the NBA's latest "crucial" labor meeting in New York City yesterday, I was attending the home opener for the Los Angeles Kings 3,000 miles away.

Only a true hockey fan would skip out on, uh, tweeting about a labor meeting for the first regular season game of the year. Good start, Bill.

Let's leave the idiocy of the lockout aside for a second.

Oh, wonderful. Simmons and his lockout rants are certainly entertaining, but it'll be nice to read his opinion on a different subject, one that he can really sink his teeth into. The Kings are certainly an interesting team to write about: studmuffin Anze Kopitar, the trade that brought former Flyers captain Mike Richards to LA, Dustin Penner's struggles, Drew Doughty's post-holdout injury...

(one paragraph later)

Of course, I never would have bought Kings tickets without a lockout. And that's the part these NBA numbskulls are missing.

Fuck. Let's fast-forward a little here, as you probably know the drill by now:

(strained reference to new favorite television drama)

(attempt to speak for a sport's entire fanbase)

(brief anecdote involving chat with super plugged-in source)

...you know how in hockey when two guys screw up the faceoff - either they keep jumping the gun, or they keep hitting each other's sticks - and the official finally gets pissed off and kicks them out of the faceoff? That should have happened with this lockout weeks ago.

And there we are, back to hockey. Sort of. It's actually just a brief comparison that immediately leads into almost 1,000 more words on the lockout. This piece is entirely about the goddamn NBA lockout!

The fact of the matter is, he's probably right on all points. The leadership of both the NBA and the NBPA sound like they're being shortsighted and idiotic; there are no winners when a professional sports league cancels games; and only the NFL could survive a drawn-out work stoppage, because they're that big and powerful.

But if you say you're gonna write about hockey, Bill, write about fucking hockey. I bet a decent amount of people were intrigued by how you'd respond to being forced into a chilly arena, attempting to enjoy a sport that you've publicly sworn off in the past, but you spent maybe two sentences on the game itself.

Fans adapt. Habits change. People like me say, "Screw it, I'll give hockey a real chance."

You wouldn't be able to tell by reading these last 2,000 words.

Right now? The door has swung wide-open for the Kings.

It may have, for the Kings and every other prominent NHL team. Not since 1994 has the league had this kind of moment in the spotlight. Hockey leadership seems to finally understand how to market the sport; the rule changes post-lockout emphasis offense and talent; stars like Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Miller and Sidney Crosby (if he ever plays again) are ones that every sports fan now knows.

But, by using hockey mostly to talk about basketball, Simmons offers up the real issue: People won't start watching and discussing hockey, they'll just talk about how the possibility of watching and discussing hockey. For whatever reason, hockey isn't for everyone. Even if the NBA shuts down forever, I imagine hockey would get the same solid ratings on the same mediocre cable channel and draw the same 18,000 fans every single night.

This doesn't bother anyone who truly likes hockey; the sport and all its major teams aren't going anywhere. But to act like its about to explode, that America is going to embrace hockey, is just silly. I'm glad that it'll have a little more time on SportsCenter, and maybe a handful of fans will be quicker to recognize names like Henrik Lundqvist and Claude Giroux. For now, though, it'll remain more a talking point and less a surging enterprise.

Keep up the good work, Bill. Your first hockey piece was everything we expected and more.

October 10, 2011

There's gonna be no dancing.

Honestly, it's been three days and I'm still not sure what to say. So I'll just ramble, which is pretty much what I do anyway.

I imagine this is how some of the more levelheaded Boston Red Sox fans felt after their team crapped the bed in the last game of this year's regular season: A grim realization that, even if they'd made it to the dance, they weren't staying out too late.

Because at the end of the day, even if Raul Ibanez's shot in the fourth inning gets over the outfield fence and Roy Halladay helps to steal a win, the Philadelphia Phillies weren't getting by Zack Greinke, Shawn Marcum, Yovani Gallardo and the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLCS. Blame it on injuries, bad approaches at the plate or just a general, team-wide awfulness; this pitiful, beaten-down Phillies offense was out of gas.

Six runs in the final 34 innings of the series, three of those on an out-of-nowhere Ben Francisco pinch-hit home-run. That's not gonna beat the hapless San Diego Padres in spacious Petco Park, let alone the Cardinals, a team that led the National League in runs scored.

And, to a lesser but still valid extent, let's not ignore Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt coming up very small in Games 2 and 4, respectively. This team won plenty of 1-0 or 2-1 suckfests in the regular season, but only Halladay and Cole Hamels threw like the aces we expected -- and desperately needed -- in the playoffs. This, unfortunately, will be Roy Oswalt's legacy in Philadelphia: "Not quite good enough anymore."

As always, the Phillies will remain competitive next year. Halladay, Lee and Hamels remain the most talented starting pitcher trio in baseball, and the always-aggressive Ruben Amaro Jr. saw, just like the rest of us, that sometimes "veteran hitter" is just code for "old guy with slow bat." He has to know that trotting this same offense back out there in 2012 isn't going to work.

But how much magic can he really perform? The team's already got an extremely high payroll; how flexible will ownership be when it comes to upgrading this increasingly elderly group of bats?

Since 2007, the year of their first National League East title, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz have been the cornerstones of the Phillies offense. All of them are now at least 30 years old, and considering that Victorino just wrapped up a career year that he'll probably never match, all of them have seen better days.

Does the offense need an injection of youth? A better approach at the plate? Or just more talented hitters in general?

Is Howard, the renowned slugger whom Tony La Russa and his pitchers challenged without fear after Game 1 of the series, as replaceable as certain sabermetricians would have you believe? (I say no, but for the sake of argument...) Considering that he'll probably be out until at least the summer with a torn Achilles tendon, I guess we'll find out once and for all.

Is Placido Polanco finished as an every-day player? His defense at third base remains sterling, but his bat has worn down almost to a nub by the end of the last two seasons. If Amaro chooses being realistic over counting dollars and cents, Polly should probably act as the most expensive ($6 million in 2012) utility man in baseball next year.

Bring back Rollins? Resign Ryan Madson? I'm onboard with both, if the years are right and if Amaro has no better use for the money. Bring in a stud third baseman somehow and I'm suddenly OK with the two guys walking.

Start Dom Brown every day in left field? Start Dom Brown every day in left field. Or trade him for Logan Morrison. Either way, lower the age of this starting lineup and start trusting in some young players.

It's a lot of questions for a 102-win team to answer. But all I know is that I spent all of Friday night screaming at the never-ending stream of ground balls weakly hit to the right side -- I'll have nightmares about those softly rolling baseballs for years to come -- so just imagine how nuts they must've driven Amaro and Charlie Manuel. It's one thing to lose; it's another thing to come up unspeakably feeble against a team you could've easily beaten. To paraphrase Harry Doyle, "one goddamn run." That's all they needed.

I believed in this team; I told everyone not to worry a boatload of times. But it turned out that a Halladay gem couldn't save them after all; it turns out everyone else was right. Maybe for the wrong reasons, but in the playoffs, a win's a win and a loss is a loss. I never expected to say this, but the Phillies really and truly choked on Friday night; only the goodwill left over from 2008 kept us all from going mad in the process. Let's hope we don't suffer the same fate in 2012.

October 7, 2011

This one's on you, Doc.

Why did the Philadelphia Phillies battle for 102 wins and home-field advantage throughout the postseason?

For a game like tonight; to host a deciding showdown at Citizens Bank Park with their ace on the mound.

Am I nervous? Absolutely. All of a sudden it's do or die, and I'd hate to see a team this skilled (not to mention beloved by me) go out so early.

But am I worried? No. Roy Halladay's on the mound. 43,000 screaming fans will have his back. It's the best-case scenario for the Phillies.

Sure, they could lose, and that would be disappointing. But the Major League Baseball playoffs often turn out to be a crapshoot. Maybe you run into a scalding-hot team, like the San Francisco Giants last year. Maybe you burn out after a grueling regular season, like the Phillies in 2007.

Only eight teams out of 32 make it to the big dance, which is awesome, and so much unlike how basketball and hockey do it. The regular season holds purpose; you can't sneak in as an eight seed with a record under .500. After 162 games, any franchise that makes the postseason should pat themselves on the back for a successful year.

Obviously, you'd love to win it all. Unfortunately, only one team gets that privilege, and it's not always the most talented one. Should Cody Ross and Edgar Renteria have carried the Giants past the Phillies and Cliff Lee's Rangers last year? Not on paper, but they did. And at the end of the day, they deserved it.

The teams that don't take it home, however, are often unfairly and derogatorily labeled as losers by fans and the media. As an astute commenter put it on Beerleaguer early this morning, the slogan for the MLB postseason might as well be "8 TEAMS-7 CHOKERS-1 LUCKY SURVIVOR." When Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Howard end a playoff run by striking out, it doesn't matter that they've each brought their teams a World Series trophy and hit hundreds upon hundreds of home runs. They blew the big game, and that's the narrative that sticks.

In a sense, I understand; the 2011 season won't be a true success unless the Phillies win the World Series. But after making the playoffs five years in a row and winning only one championship, I think most Philadelphia fans realize how hard it really is.

So then we come back to Roy Halladay. I've thought a lot about how I'd love for the Phillies to "win one for Doc" or "win one for Cliffy," but it's only recently, after watching the starters struggle through a few games of this series, that I realized the team isn't gonna win one for them. They need to win for the team.

Roy Halladay's getting paid a lot of money, mostly to win Philadelphia at least one more title. Cy Young awards are nice, 20-win seasons are neato, but championships are the ultimate goal. Halladay and Lee and Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt are here to out-pitch the other team's best starters, whether the Phillies offense puts up zero runs or a hundred. So far, Halladay and Hamels are the only ones living up to their end of the bargain.

With that in mind, tonight is Halladay's chance to add one more notch to his lengthy belt of a career. I can't tell you whether the Phillies offense will wake up and hit Chris Carpenter again, but I do know that another gem from Doc will make moving onto the next round that much easier. The Cardinals are a pesky offensive team, but that didn't stop Harry Leroy Halladay from mowing them down six days ago.

If he can do it once more, and give Lee a chance to redeem himself in the NLCS, maybe baseball's most talented team can live up to the promise, and the hype, that they earned with those 102 wins.

October 5, 2011

The haphazardness of Anytober.

I'd like to extend Major League Baseball a rare "thank you" for scheduling its postseason games so haphazardly.

For most people, the random start times bring nothing but consternation and frustration. But for me, it offers up a bit of strategizing that's been severely lacking since fantasy baseball ended.

"Alright, the game's at 5," I'll think. "That means I need to get out of work precisely on time, grab food, maybe pick up some beer -- if I can fit it in -- and get onto the couch by at least five past five." Because it's the playoffs, you guys, and missing something crazy like a leadoff homer might mean missing the game's most crucial play.

Luckily, yesterday unfolded just as I hoped. I busted out of work at 4:28 PM (cushy life, I know) and the race was on. A quick walk to Subway for a footlong (it's Anytober!), a dash to the Metro when I spotted my train pulling into the station, a very brief stop at the market attached to my apartment complex for a six-pack of beer, and bam. Home at 5:05 PM on the nose, ready for the game.

And what a game. Jaime Garcia mowed the Phillies down, just like everyone expected, but Cole Hamels battled through 117 pitches and kept the game at zeros until Ben Francisco's miraculous homer. Cole had a bit of trouble putting some Cardinals hitters away, but so have a lot of the pitchers in this series. The most important thing was limiting the damage; giving the Cardinals a lead, with Garcia rolling and the ballpark going wild, might have crushed any team's spirit. Luckily, the battle-tested playoff ace gave them no such chance.

But he did only go six innings, which the Phillies need to avoid as much as possible throughout this postseason run. Vance Worley, Antonio Bastardo and Brad Lidge don't inspire much confidence; Worley's stuff isn't exactly perfect for the bullpen, Bastardo still looks a little shaky, and Lidge walks that tightrope every single time he steps onto the field. One day, all those runners won't end up stranded.

I don't want any of the three on the mound for any more than one inning with anything less than a two-run lead, and they're our best non-Madson bullpen guys by far. Luckily, the Phillies have enough stud starters to limit that concern.

Tonight, that "pitch long and well" responsibility falls on Roy Oswalt, who is gonna be asked to give the Phillies at least seven innings. And you know what? I think he will. I know his numbers against Albert Pujols are pretty darn awful (26 for 86 with 5 homers, a more-than-reasonable sample size), but I doubt many pitchers could force one by big Albert at this point. His slash line for the series, .538/.571/.769, is "Manny Ramirez in the 2008 NLCS" all over again.

The key is controlling Allen Craig before him and Lance Berkman/David Freese after him. In 2008, Manny was smashing doubles off the wall and dingers into the seats with nearly every at-bat, but he never had anyone on in front of him or hitting behind him. One slugger -- unless you're Ben Francisco -- rarely wins a baseball game by himself. And while Albert is mashing, he has only two NLDS runs and one RBI to his name. If Oswalt can keep that up, he'll bring home the game and the series.

I told Phillies fans not to worry two weeks ago, I mentioned it again yesterday afternoon, and I'm telling you once more right now: Do not worry. When the Phillies get into an elimination game, I'll get a little nervous. But even the best teams don't always sweep their opponents, especially when they're as pesky and talented as St. Louis.

It shouldn't matter after tonight anyway, as the Phillies have their foot on St. Louis' throat. Every ball the Cardinals put into play drops for a hit; every ball the Phillies smoke gets snagged by a Cardinals defender; their "ace" for the series absolutely decimated the Philadelphia offense for six innings yesterday...and they still lost. Their would-be savior is Edwin Jackson, but his career xFIP isn't much better than Kyle Kendrick's (4.38 versus 4.65). He's a back-end rotation guy, and a righty to boot. He can get wild; he can be knocked around.

A good team (and the Phillies are a very good team) will smell blood in the water and feast. This isn't like facing the Giants last year, a buzzsaw of a team with a hot offense and aces on the mound. This is a solid foe that's just a little bit worse than the Phillies, and it's starting to show. I predicted the Phillies in 4, and I'm still very much expecting some champagne to be sprayed tonight in St. Louis.

October 4, 2011

Leaving the Eagles behind?

I watched the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at a sports bar in Boston. The bar had two giant TVs, one showing Steelers/Texans and the other showing Lions/Cowboys. The Eagles game was off to the left, on a screen one-fourth the size. But rather than ask to switch seats or change channels, I kept getting caught up in the other games, forgetting to look over and check the score. I ended up leaving with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter to catch a flight back to DC.

Granted, it was one of the worst games of the Andy Reid era, an unmitigated disaster that has even the most level-headed Eagles fans up in arms. But as recently as a few years ago, this would have felt like an act of treason.

Late in high school and throughout college, from August to January I would live and breathe Eagles football. I was at the Vet for the Wild Card game in 2002 when the Eagles took down the Buccaneers 31-9, and I witnessed the backbreaking loss to Carolina in the 2003 NFC Championship Game with mine own two eyes.

Nowadays, though? I'd just as soon sit down with Scott Hanson and his wonderful NFL RedZone channel than suffer through a boring Eagles loss. If that makes me a traitor, well, I apologize for preferring a better form of entertainment.

For example, the Eagles melted down in the fourth quarter of a Week 3 showdown with the Giants and basically handed them a victory. Normally, this would be enough to ruin my day. But instead, my roommate and I switched over to RedZone and watched the underdog Bills battle back to defeat the hated Patriots. Rather than bitch and moan about the Eagles all afternoon, I savored the great ending of this meaningless (to me) game.

If I was watching a random football game and it stunk, I'd change the channel. I'm just now expanding that idea to include my own team.

A few years ago, I saw a guy in an NFL Starter jacket walking down the streets of Boston. No team; just NFL colors and a giant league logo on the back. I instantly texted this information to a few of my friends and we made fun of him for a while; why didn't he just pick a franchise to root for? Did he just cheer for every game to be fun and every player to have a good time? What a weirdo.

But now, I think I understand where he was coming from. For whatever reason, I can't get into the Eagles like I used to. And it's not because I'm frustrated with Andy Reid or the defense or Mike Vick or anything having to this with this particular Eagles squad; I felt this coming on way before Week 1, which was back when this year's team was still full of promise and not leaking gas at a tremendous rate. I'm just low on Eagles passion, and I don't know if it'll ever return. I must begrudgingly admit to becoming more of an NFL fan and less of an Eagles fan. Someone buy me a new jacket.

I still love the Flyers, and especially the Phillies, with all my heart. When they lose a big game, I'm crushed. But when the Eagles lose, I can just flip the channel. I won't sit through Brewers/Diamondbacks or Blue Jackets/Coyotes, but I do get a great deal of pleasure from Packers/Cardinals. And even though it sounds weird to admit, this doesn't bother me anymore. I guess I'll find out down the line whether this is really time to move on.