Monday, March 19, 2018

On UMBC, just UMBC

For years, I remember hearing that it was somewhat inevitable that at some point a #16 seed would beat a #1 seed, that it was bound to happen. I mean, the talent difference between 16 & 1 is not that much larger than 15 & 2, and we saw a run of them since 2012, as it's happened four times since then, including twice in 2012.

Certainly, it was odd that it never had happened. And then it did; and not only did a #16 seed beat a #1 seed, they crushed them. They hung with them in the first half, ending tied 21-21, took an early lead in the second and never looked back. Virginia never made anything approaching a run all game. It was incredible. One of the last sports final frontiers has been reached, and they tore down that wall like nothing else.

I watched the game half-drunk at a New York bar filled with Syracuse fans cheering on their team during their game, but people slowly started directing their eyes to the one screen tucked in the corner end of the bar that was showing the Virginia game. At first it was 'Hey, that's cute, UMBC is tied at halftime.' Then it became 'Oh my God, they're up by 10+ deep into the second half.' At some point, it became 'You know what, this is going to happen!' and by then that one screen started to drown out the rest.

I've thought a lot about it. On the one hand, it is cool that a 16 finally won a game. Sure, it would have been more fun had it happen to a more blue-blood #1 than Virginia (there was a period on Thursday where it seemed like an over-seeded Penn might be able to do it to Kansas), but what was helpful was that this was no fluke, both in UMBC's ridiculous performance and the fact that UMBC very much deserved a #16 seed, and Virginia very much deserved the #1 overall seed.

Virginia was a great team all season long, losing just two games, going through the gauntlet of the ACC dropping just one, a 1-point loss to Virginia Tech in OT. The ACC sent four teams to the Sweet 16 (Duke, Syracuse, Clemson and Florida State). Virginia went a ridiculous 7-0 against those teams. Alas, none of it matters now.

Honestly, in my time watching sports, almost nothings seems so incredible unlikely as this. The only arena I can begin to compare this to is tennis, a similarly large bracketed tournament, with also similar displays of inequality even among its top 128. Maybe Sirgey Stakhovsky beating a gimpy Federer in Wimbledon 2013 in the 2nd round, or Rafael Nadal losing to Lukas Rosol in the same 2nd round in 2012? Maybe Novak Djokovic, when he was still the clear #1, losing to Denis Istomin in the 2nd round. That's probably the closest, but that is it.

This was more unlikely than Super Bowl XLII, or Super Bowl XXXVI, or any other football game. This is more unlikely than the 73-9 Warriors not winning the NBA Finals. Honestly, you could make the case that was more unlikely than the Miracle on Ice. People forget the USSR struggled at times in that tournament, and while they did humiliate the USA a few weeks before the start of the Winter Olympics, my guess is if Virginia played UMBC two weeks back they probably would have humiliated them too.

I think the last time I was this shocked about a result in a team sport was when Michigan lost to Appalachian State in the 2007 College Football opener. That may have been more stunning in theory, but that ended up being not so good a Michigan team, and that Appalachian State team had a few future pros on it. Still, I do have to think if this still was even more shocking.

It is so ingrained in your mind as a bracket-filler that #16s never come close to beating #1 seeds. I can even remember the few times it seemed remotely possible in recent years, with one of the most famous examples being in 2006, when UCONN struggled to put away Albany. Hell, as mentioned, Penn's brief 10-point lead in the first half was enough to make major headlines. The fact a team actually pulled it off, and dominated while doing so, is almost unconsciable.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Rediscovering Beauty in March Madness

I don't know when I fully bought back into March Madness, and when I say bought back in I don't mean as a sporting spectacle, or a gauntlet of a tournament, but as one of the most entertaining spectacles in America. What I mean more is it is a perfect event to gather a country together, to make people take off work, to drink during the day, to going out late in the night. Any bar, any restaurant, in every city that has at least one TV will have it on. I watched parts of March Madness games from myriad locations these last few days, from an empty cubicle in a corner of an empty room, a bar in my home-town, multiple establishments in New York, and even two different apartments. No matter where, the games were on, and the energy was palpable. The more I realized, the more it made sense, March Madness is our country's World Cup, but we get to do it every year.

In reality it all makes sense. Given the largesse of the bracket, millions have some personal connection and deep rooting interest in one of the teams in the tournament, a connection that seems more familial than sporting. Even for those that don't, picking a team based on mascots, or size (David vs. Goliath) is all part of the fun. The tournament is a quick burst of energy, an excuse to care about sports during the day to give a reason for needing to skip work or school. Even like the World Cup, the most fun is the earlier rounds, when games are on all day, and when it winnows down to the Final 4, and actual sporting interests start to take more prominence, its effect gets lessened.

March Madness does a better job, regardless of whether TV ratings actually bear this out or not, of making people care about sports. The bracket such a perfect invention, the probabilities so outrageous that it allows people who know nothing do as well as those who follow the sport day in and day out for the four preceding months. I have a few close friends that not only went to schools that had reasonable to good basketball programs, but cared about the sport to follow the recruiting trail to breaking down each teams strengths and weaknesses. But they don't do any better in the brackets than I or anyone else does.

Yesterday coupled as St. Patrick's Day, so the day-drinking and "merriment" was anyway turned up to inconsciable levels in New York, but still every bar had the games on, easily switching back and forth between CBS, TNT and TBS to where each game was. The best part is as always, it's there more for background but at the end, if its a close game, and there's drama, which there always is, the game takes over. Yesterday's crazy Michigan game with an off-balance three at the gun to win was astonishing. The day before, with UMBC's incredible blowout of top seed Virginia, was enthralling even in a bar that was full of Syracuse fans cheering on their team's close win. Sports really can bring people together more than any other public entertainment experience.

This first weekend of March Madness is just a joyous celebration in every way. Games start at 12 and end at 1AM. Because of the high volume, there always seems to be 3-5 great games each day, especially in the first two days when there's always 4 games going on simultaneously and even if one is bad one of the other three will be great.

As said, the biggest, and ultimately best, difference between the World Cup and March Madness is one is each year, and the other is one in four. People may claim that there is value in the World Cup's scarcity, but in this case I disagree. Having March Madness each year almost adds to its appeal. It allows it to be less about the basketball and more about the fun, the annual explosion of sports, parties, revelry and fun. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The End of the Legion of Boom

My last entry in the 'Nostalgia Diaries' was the Seattle Seahawks' triumphant win over their rivals the San Francisco 49ers in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. At that moment, they were on top of the world, a status cemented when they humiliated Denver two weeks later in their 43-8 thrashing in Super Bowl XLVIII. They had a young QB who would become a superstar, but what made them great was a revolutionary defense with incredible talent at every level.

Five years later, they've traded Michael Bennett, are about to cut Richard Sherman and have officially moved on from the Legion of Boom era. They aren't done as a great team, because Russell Wilson has improved - necessary as he moved from a 3rd round rookie salary to a top-flight QB salary, but that distinct era of Seahawks football is over, and I can't stand it.

Maybe it's because those damn Patriots are still a great team, or that the Seahawks were a team that owned my QB back when he was playing, but the tear down of Seattle is hitting me hard. In some ways, the NFL came back to Seattle, with more teams matching the Seahawks strategy of big corners and cover-3 and pattern matching, culminating in a season where offense dropped to its lowest level since pre-2011 lockout (regardless of what transpired in the Super Bowl), but the Seahawks succeeded in a league built to beat it, and it was beautiful.

I don't know if I truly loved the Seahawks as much as I should, being a football fan with a natural leaning towards defense. It probably is because they had the audacity to beat Peyton in a Super Bowl, flexing every ounce of that defensive dominance. Also, they had the opposite of audacity to not beat New England a year later. If anything, their loss to New England was quietly the beginning of the end for the Seahawks dynasty, with two Divisional Round exits and a missed playoffs to follow.

When Pete Carroll and Co. built the Legion of Boom, starting in earnest in 2012, it was the greatest thing ever. An incredible defense, with ridiculous talent from a dominant front rotation to the best secondary in years. The hidden secret of the Seaawks was that front, with Michael Bennett (now traded to Philly), Cliff Avril, Red Bryant, Tony McDaniel and Co. leading the league's best pass rush in generating pressures in 2012-2014. The Linebackers, with KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner, were just as good. And of course the secondary. The real 'Legion of Boom' actually only played in 2012 and the first half of 2013, before Brandon Browner got popped for a PED suspension. They replaced Browner well with Maxwell then a cast of others, but the stars were Sherman and Thomas.

I still remember watching the 2013 Championship Game, the Seahawks incredible defense, and Richard Sherman's brash interview with Erin Andrews after the game. It was glorious, in retrospect. The best part of those Seahawks, and especially the guy just traded (Bennett) and the guy about the get cut (Sherman) was how smart they were. Bennett over time proved himself to be a bright, honest guy who spoke openly about mental health issues and then sociological ones. Sherman of course was a Stanford graduate, and more erudite than he ever gave off. They were smart, they were brash, and secretly I loved the Seahawks and should have loved them more.

I'm at a stage in my life where the strongest sports memories are all 5+ years old (Astros World Series Win excepted). All my favorite players I've rooted for have retired. The best games I've watched were all in the past. And losing the Seahawks, the L-O-B Seahawks, is losing another piece of that. Memories that seemed so recent have become more than half a decade in the past, and having direct ties to those days has become increasingly rare, and with the Seahawks latest moves, even more so. I never loved the Seahawks, but looking back I should have, it's worth it to hold on to any part of the past as possible.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The End of the Spurs

Maybe it is a one year downturn, after a series of incredible years. Maybe it is a bump in the road, and they start their next assault on an otherworldly 50+ win season streak. Maybe Kawhi Leonard comes back healthy, motivated and most of all, happy, and none of this matters a year from now when they are challenging the Warriors and Rockets, instead of seeing if they can hang on to be first round catnip for those teams. But maybe none of that is true, and what we are seeing is real.

The Spurs won't win 50 games for a 19th(!) straight season. By the way, if not for the 1998-99 lockout shortening the season to just 50 games, it probably would be 21 straight. More startlingly though, there is a legitimate chance they miss the playoffs, coming into Monday, March 5th, just 1.5 games ahead of 9th place. More than the ending of the 50-win streak, and the potential to miss the playoffs, the bigger issues are larger, the Spurs, for the first time, seem a bit rudderless.

Years from now, if we need to draw a 'last moment of the Spurs dynasty' moment, it will be when Zaza Pachulia stepped under Kawhi Leonard on a 3-pointer in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. To that point, the Spurs were hammering the Warriors. They lost that game, the next three without Kawhi, and have had Leonard in action for just nine games since. They've also finally seen Tony Parker get old, LaMarcus Aldridge get injured, other players struggle, and Kawhi Leonard being mentally flighty after years of being the next Tim Duncan. These are not normal occurrences in San Antonio.

In a vacuum, the Spurs even being 36-27 with Leonard for just nine games, and numerous other injuries throughout the season is fairly remarkable. This is the lightest the roster has been, even with Leonard, in a number of years. This is probably in isolation one of Pop's best coaching jobs, but after so many years of plug-and-play to 56-67 wins, it seems so out of the blue to fail backwards towards the 45-48 win range. And more than that, it seems like Pop's lost control for of a narrative for the first time.

The Leonard situation is just bizarre in every way; here seemingly is a guy totally content in his situation, beloved by his team, his teammates and his fans, but somewhere in that perfect situation, imperfect cracks appeared and then broke wide open. How else to explain a player with the drive to become Finals MVP at 23 reportedly refusing to play after being medically cleared. How else to explain Popovich essentially outing him in a public presser? For years, the Spurs were a perfect franchise, who seamlessly went from one stoic, humble superstar in David Robinson, to an even better one in Duncan, and the line seemed to continue with Kawhi. It hasn't.

The Spurs will try to repair the relationship, and there still remains an outside chance Kawhi makes it back in time to save the season, but there seems to be an end point to that relationship. Whether it be his issues with management, or even the recent report that he's unhappy he isn't getting the type of shoe deal commensurrate with an All Pro and Top-5 player when healthy. Kawhi seems to want more than what the San Antonio life can offer him, which is not a bad desire, but one a bit out of the blue.

The Spurs dynasty was not long for the world. Parker was already benched earlier this year. Ginobili seemingly is about done. Pau Gasol aged before our eyes. The best player is an always moody LaMarcus Aldridge. Most of all Pop is 69, though his 'wokeness' and genius seems ageless, he is aged, he is grayed, he may not want to deal with a post-Kawhi world where he's piecing things together for the first time ever.

Again, just like we did with New England in 2014, or even earlier this season when they started 2-2, it is probably foolhardy to write off the Spurs. The idea of Pop and Kawhi breaking bread, everyone on the team singing Kumbaya, and them making the playoffs, even scaring a top seed Warriors or Rockets team, before a 59-23 season in 2018-19 is completely within the realm of possibility. But maybe the reverse is possible to, and if so, we may be witnessing the end of the greatest run of consistent brilliance in NBA history.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Honestly, Peak TV is Killing Me

The first year that I ranked my favorite TV shows, I capped it at 10. That was 2014. There were only one NETFLIX show on the list: Orange is the New Black. The next year I raised it to 15, which I held for 2016. Last year, I bumped it to 20, and honestly it could have been 25. We've heard for years that 'Peak TV' is a thing now, not in terms of quality but unabashed quantity just flooding both cable, and now streaming. I'm not going to make some grand sweeping judgement, apart from this: it is purely a quantity issue, and it is starting to reach diminishing returns, I think.

My #1 show of 2014 was Fargo Season 1. In 2015, it was Veep. Those are essentially pre-Peak TV shows, particularly Veep, which was on its 4th season at the time. In 2016, it was The People vs OJ Simpson, a true peak-TV treat. And in 2017, it was The Young Pope, again a pure Peak TV creation where the rise of TV was able to get Jude Law on board. All four are great shows and in the case of Fargo and Veep had great seasons. But would I say either of the 'Peak TV' creations are better than their predecessors atop my list? No.

Last year, between NETFLIX and Amazon, 7 of my 20 were streaming based, and honestly one that I just forgot about that absolutely should have been on my list was Mindhunter. But as 10 became 15 became 20 and may become 25, I do ask myself are we better off. Do we need this many shows. Certainly, from a time perspective I can still manage, but doing so I know I'm also missing out on shows I'm sure are great (Americans, Crazy Ex Girlfriend, whatever that Pamela Adlon show was), but I can't manage.

Already in 2018 I'm facing down a guantlet. Out of my 20 shows from last year, only two are definitely not returning in 2018: Game of Thrones and Fargo, and two others may spill into 2019: Always Sinny and Curb Your Enthusiasm. One more is slated to end its run in 2018: Veep. The rest are continuing, and honestly half of them shouldn't. This is the biggest problem right now. No one knows when to stop.

When 'Peak TV' started off, it was highlighted by a slew of anthology shows that featured superstar casts with the idea it was a short run - take Fargo Season 1, or even True Detective. Even if those shows returned, it would be a different story. Somehow, we still get those shows, but there is always a push, far too often ceded to, for it to continue.

There is no reason for another season of Big Little Lies, or The Young Pope coming back without Jude Law but with others. There is no reason for a second season of 13 Reasons Why. But the groundswell was too much for the companies to shut them down. What that creates is a too many shows returning on top of too many new shows.

This early in 2018, I already have a few new entrants I feel could make a Top-25 type list (and maybe Top-20), in Everything Sucks, NETFLIX's strange B-version of Freaks and Geeks, the second American Crime Story, and the strangest one: Babylon Berlin, a german produced period piece on NETFLIX. And this again is two months into the year and before any of my shows that return from last year's list even debut (iZombie does so tonight). This is getting into madness.

What also hurts is it is hard to walk away from a show. Out of all those returning shows, the only one I wouldn't really care to watch is another season of 13 Reasons Why. I'll probably check out a Jude Law-less 'The New Pope', despite having low expectations. Even when starting it is always hard to go away from something. I hope I can with Legion, a show that just didn't work for me, and I'm sure there were others, but having the willpower to just remove a show from the rotation is always a struggle.

On the whole, there seems to be no end in sight. More and more shows start each week. NETFLIX drops a motherload seemingly each week. Picking and Choosing is tough, but necessary. Going away from something that isn't working is even more important. But what's also important to recognize is that quantity does not equal quality. I don't know if my Top-10 of 2017 is any better of what it was in 2014. The best shows that I've ever watched were all in the mid-00's, or at least started then (putting aside like Seinfeld). It is spread so thin now. And there's always a concern to worry about losing what made TV so great that peak TV was born anyway.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Defense Begins

Until last year, I had never seen my team win a World Series. Because of this, until this year I have never entered a new baseball season, seen pitchers and catchers report, with my team as a defending champion that the rest of the league is trying to catch up to. For the first time, I can dream of a dynasty, dream of going back to back, something non baseball team has been able to do since the 1998-2000 Yankees. And that thought is real, the Astros are still at the beginning of their run, they've gotten better. Spring always brings out the dreamers in the baseball world, but this is not a dream, this is a defense.

The Astros enter this season with all the possibilities ahead of them. Fangraphs projects them to win 101 games, which is the first time they've projected a team to win 100 since the 2005 Cardinals (who went 101-61). They project the Astros to have the best offense, and allow the fewest runs. They project them to have the best position players by WAR, and best pitchers by WAR. Aside from injury, there are no holes. Of course, what gives me pause, aside from my normal pessimism, is that it is never so easy in baseball.

we only have to look one year back, and the Cubs were seen to be on the cusp of a truly special run. Instead, the Cubs languished around .500 for the first half of the season, barely won the division, and while they did go to the NLCS they were tossed aside. Surrounding their relative disappointment from a results perspective was a larger one from a general atmosphere or feeling perspective. Gone were the lovably Cubbies, in were players that didn't have the same verve, or guys like Jake Arrieta falling apart. The dream turned into a disaster. The Astros need to avoid this fate.

They have the tools to do so. The 2016 Cubs were built on a good offense to be sure, but a great year from a lot of pitchers, and one of the best team defenses ever. Their pitching was much more spotty in 2017, the defense fell to merely good, and they fell off. The 2017 Astros were built on a historic level of offense, and while they probably won't collectively be as good, there are signs for improvement. Sure, Marwin Gonzalez and Josh Reddick will likely fall off a bit, but maybe Carlos Correa doesn't miss 40 games, and Alex Bregman picks up where he left off. 

Then there's the pitching. It will be great watching these bevy of good starting pitcher. They have their keys in Verlander and Keuchel, but McCullers is great when healthy, Charlie Morton throws 95+ now, and of course they brought in Gerritt Cole, former #1 overall pick, and look to rebuild him the way they rebuilt the last ex-Pirate (Morton). Of course, injuries will occur, which is why it is so good they have other starting pitching options masquerading in the bullpen (Colin McHugh and Brad Peacock). No, the Astros are without weakness. 

But baseball doesn't care for perfection in that way. Even the best teams will lose 35-40% of their games. Baseball will test those limits of infallibity the Astros seem to be operating under, and I can't wait for it to get started all over again. The one hope I have is that the Astros don't get the Red Sox or Cubs post-World Series commercialization bug. I don't want a bunch of pink hats and certainly don'
t want the Astros fans to start being seen as spoiled, entitled and brattish. Leave that for Boston.

The Astros  broke camp with so much potential, and I want to soak all of it up, from pitchers and catchers reporting, to hopefully another long run into October. This won't last forever. I know that. The first fork in the road is coming this upcoming offseason, when Dallas Keuchel hits free agency. Jose Altuve the year after. Then Springer, Correa, McCullers, Bregman. in the years to come. Hopefully they can keep some of these guys, but there's a chance they don't or pick the wrong ones. Hard decisions are coming, but not for now.

For now, the Astros are potentially a special team, with special players, defending a title they rightfully earned, and while despite how good they are the chances remain they won't earn it back this time, I'm ready to see them go out and try.

Monday, February 19, 2018

My Top 40 Favorite TV Shows

40.)  Shameless

Shameless is now on its 4th Season, and it is going through some large changes making it very different from what the show used to be. Jimmy(Steve) is no longer a character, Fiona is in a steady job (for now), Lip is in college, and, of course, Frank can't drink, but the lifeblood of the show remains. Shameless showed a really unique side of America, the lower-class white community, that hadn't really been shown before. It wasn't always shown well (almost anything involving Sheila in Seasons 1-3 didn't work for me), but it was unendingly entertaining.

39.) Oz

Just like The Larry Sanders Show, I haven't seen all of Oz, but I've seen enough to get a good idea of what it is all about. Oz was the first real HBO drama to be critically acclaimed, coming a good three years before The Sopranos and five years before The Wire. Telling the story of an experimental unit of a prison, Oz was able to combine the exploration of different themes and thoughts with drama and prison intrigue. It was always informative, but a little slow at times.

38.) iZombie

I don't know if any show has ever had a more ludicrous plot as iZombie. For a quick recap, the show centers around a girl who gets turned into a Zombie, but in this case zombies can live a normal life... if they eat brains. To eat brains, she becomes a coroner, but in this world, eating brains makes you take over some characteristics of the dead persons life. Got all that? Anyway, what the show really is about is a cutting procedural, with an incredible amount of world building, including insightful views of corporate greed, family disputes, the medical industry, and so much more. The show gradually made the world know about the Zombie problem, which should only increase the depths it can plough. Rob Thomas did it again with iZombie, a show that could rise up the list as ti continues - somehow getting more seasons on air than Veronica Mars.

37.) How I Met Your Mother

If the show stopped and never came back at the end of Season 2, well before we met the mother, and it ended with Barney mid-word, it would be a good 15 or so spots up the list. The first, to be fair, four seasons of HIMYM were such a breath of fresh air, the first 'Friends' clone to creatively tweak the same formula. The way the show played with timelines, and narration and mystery was so good. The characters were all interesting and hilarious. Of course, the show did not stop after two or four seasons, and devolved into a mess in its later years, but the first few years were about perfect for a 'traditional' comedy in a world where mockumentaries reigned supreme. Plus, Seasons 1-4 Barney may have been one of the great sitcom characters ever, with a brilliant performance by Neil Patrick Harris, and secondly the show did a great job of mining comedy out of a happy marriage. No small feat, making its slow devolution in its 2nd half all the more sad and unexpected.

36.) The Good Place

There's a few shows on this list that are still in their early stages of what could, and hopefully will, be long runs. The Good Place is truly a unicorn, a comedy on a broadcast network that was so unexpected. Michael Schur can rarely do wrong, but he hit it out of the park here. The serialized nature of the show is unlike anything I've seen, and the show is so smart in its comedy, even in a case where one of the main characters is riotously dumb. I don't know how many times they can pull the rug out, but each plot twist has worked. Ted Danson and Kristen Bell are both great in their roles, but the real stars are the visual gags. I do wonder how far they can take it, but in a world where broadcast comedy seems dead, Michael Schur uncovered something great.

35.) Orange is the New Black

NETFLIX's first great original series hit back in 2013 (if we're not counting House of Cards), Orange is the New Black was so unique when it started, for so many good reasons, highlighting strong female characters, a variety of ethnicities, all played quite well, and just enough hard moments to remind people these people are all in prison. The flashbacks only worked about half the time, and the seasons varied in quality quite heavily (largest mis-step to me was the 2nd season, with the drama centering around Red vs. Vee), but the long story of privatization was a cutting social commentary, and the show was smart enough to shift focus away from Piper as it went on. She was out entry point, but Kenji Johan drew enough interesting characters to take the focus anyway.

34.) Parenthood

There shouldn't be a place for family dramas in the current TV landscape, but Parenthood continues to work. Sure, they've had their missteps over the years (let's just pretend Kristina never ran for mayor of Berkeley), but they've also had some incredible shining moments. All the early material with Max's asperbergers was brilliant, grounded a show that took a while to flesh out its other characters. Like most shows on this list, the acting was brilliant from the beginning. Every character was well cast, even Ann-hog/Beal/Plant/Annabeal Veal herself, Mrs. Mae Whitman. All the stuff with the Siblings Braverman has been awesome from the beginning, including every scene when the four of them are together. They've touched upon basically ever family conflict (divorce, affairs, adoption, child rearing, illness, cancer, money, moving) and done almost all of them well. The show will probably end soon, and just in time to finish off that Bingo! of Family Drama topics with a perfect A- average.

33.) The Larry Sanders Show

I haven't finished the entire show, but from what I have seen, it does 'Behind-the-Scenes of Show Business' better than any show I've seen. It isn't the absurdist show that 30 Rock is, but had a great cast of characters, and used guest stars, which it had basically every episode, quite well. It just wasn't always funny all the time.

32.) Men of a Certain Age 

Just like the show at #19, Men of a Certain Age lasted just two seasons on the air, before it could make a real lasting impact and totally figure itself out. But whatever it did, it worked incredibly well. Ray Romano was always underrated in his acting on ELR, but he proved just how good an actor he was on this show. Of course, it was hard him to even stand out next to Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher, all getting good material and playing the hell out of it. This show probably had the lightest stakes of any drama, but those light stakes just made it realistic, really, incredibly, realistic. Romano gave each of the main three characters some interesting beats to play, but the overarching tone was to get over disappointment and enjoy whatever you can about that 'Certain Age'. What I really loved about the show was the small set of recurring characters it had, but how well placed they all were inside that shows ecosystem. A great blend of overarching darkness and small moments of joy.

31.) Narcos

30.) The Deuce

Of the few shows that have just started, I don't know if any can rise higher than The Deuce. David Simon knocked it out of the park in the first season. Yes, the stakes aren't as life or death as The Wire, and the gratuitous sex is almost tiresome, but just like in The Wire, the varying shades of gray in the characters is so good. The rise of both the porn industry as it relates to prostitutoin is a bottomless well of interesting plot. It was so great to get so many ex-Wire actors back on stage together, but the real stars to me are the newbies, in both of James Franco's characters, the mobster Vinnie Poppilo, and Magie Gyllenhall as the enterprising ex-prostitute. The show is supposed to include some time-jumps to come, which may make the show lose some of these characters. We'll see if that works, but for now, the show hit on something special.

29.) Archer

I've backlogged Archer Vice right now, but through four seasons, Archer has become one of my favorite wasting-time shows that I put on in the background. I can't get enough of the fast-paced dialogue, the ridiculousness of Sterling, the brilliance of what is essentially Lucille Bluth, and everything else that makes Archer so damn funny. My only quibble is I'm not always a fan of the HR people back at the office like Pam and Cheryl.

28.) The Young Pope

Even if the show does come back as 'The New Pope', I'll consider that separate and The Young Pope a single installment, and man was it great. struggle to put shows too high that only go one year, because quality across more volume is more impressive, but The Young Pope was so good in its limited run. Surrealism doesn't always work on TV, but The Young Pope toed the line between realism and surrealism, with teh way it was shot, the airy quality. Jude Law's performance was amazing, but no better than the actor that played Cardinal Voiello and even Diane Keaton as Lenny's surrogate mother. The show was able to also provide an incredible view of religion vs. capitalism and corruption, in the best way possible, with the smarmy, caustic, cool Young Pope wanting to turn the church back centuries and getting stopped by the older guard ready to move forward. It wasn't great because of the religious commentary, it was great because it could go so far beyond that.

27.) Nathan For You

After the reality boom of the early 2000's, it was no surprise that that was folowed by the faux-reality show era - and to me no show did that better than Nathan For You. The show started with a consistently brilliant formula, with Nathan Fielder going t some small business owner in the LA area, posing as a 'business consultant' and coming up with some ridiculous, yet somehow brilliant, scheme to make the business grown. That show was very good, yet Fielder turned the show into something bigger, deeper, and better, by starting to grow beyond that set-up and investigate himself. The 3rd season wa the best yet, peeling the onion back on Fielder himself and his loneliness and isolation. The show got a, most likely final, 4th season, and a good finish could really move it up the list.

26.) American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson

Again, really tough to name any show that was just one season, but The People vs OJ Simpson was so incredibly well done, just an incredible show of art, mixing great dramatic moments and a whole lot of fun. The performances were across the board fantastic, especially those portraying Marcia Clark, Johnny Cochrane and Chris Darden. The other members of the dream team, including even Travolta's at times strange portrayal of Bob Shapiro, were fantastic. The pacing of the show was excellenet. Despite knowing so much about the case and the events around it, the episodes were all still riveting, just great television entertainment.

25.) Everybody Loves Raymond

The best traditional sitcom I have seen still gets high praise for me. Everybody Loves Raymond was more like a series of little plays, using a few characters and even fewer sets. Everyone's role was well-defined and consistent. There was little character growth but there never needed to be. Instead of put the family in funny situations, they made the family respond to normal situations in the funniest of ways. A consistently good traditional family sitcom should not work in this environment, but Raymond not only worked, but got better as it went on.

24.) Better Call Saul

No, the show is not going to approach Breaking Bad, but could find its way quite a bit up the list as time moves on, especially as the Mike and Jimmy/Saul halves start to coalesce. So far, they've been mostly two separate stories, both told with exacting detail. It's interesting that the Saul half has largely stayed outside the Breaking Bad story, and for that I actually find it more entertaining. Bob Odenkirk has been so good, and Michael McKean as good as Chuck, creating an incredibly suspenseful story arc about mostly legalese and strange picadillos (Chuck's fear of electricity). With Chuck potentially dead as Season 4 starts, it may start heading towards Jimmy teaming up with Mike, and how that plays out should cement how the series is remembered.

23.) Friday Night Lights

If you took Season 2 away, the show makes the Top 20. That season was such a mis-step, but even then it can't ruin how good the rest of the show was. The first season was about as good a season of family drama ever. The way the showed weaved so much small town drama and life through football was incredible, and the way the Taylor's marriage was played out might have been the best TV marriage ever. I felt the 2nd round of kids, mainly the East Dillon folks, from Season 4-5 never worked as well as the first set with Saracen, Smash, and the rest. Few other aspects of the show to cover are how well they showcased religion without proselytizing it, and how well the football, outside of the game action, played out.

22.) Happy Endings

Man, if only Happy Endings was on NBC, it would have been easily entering its 4th season right now. I've never seen a show start out aimless but find itself so quickly and so effectively. The show started out as a romantic comedy of a group of six friends reacting to one of them leaving another at the alter. That version ended in about 4 episodes. After that, it became a brilliant, pop-culture, caustic joke-machine. I've never seen a show mine so much comedy out of friends being mean to each other. They also quickly defined each character into solid, separate roles that all worked. It's extremely rewatchable, as you pick up little nuances in the performances that make it so damn joyful. It would be higher if it lasted more seasons, and if the first eighth of the show didn't suck. In retrospect, it would have been amazing to see how long they could have kept the pace up,. Even at times in third season it slowed down, but just for an episode or two. After that, they would return to being the most rapid-fire joke show in the last 10 years.

21.) Party Down

It's odd to hold a show back for only lasting three seasons only to extol the virtues of a show that lasted just two, but Party Down was really, really good. It's a pretty novel idea created initially by Paul Rudd, and then by his friends Rob Thomas (not the singer) and Dan Etheridge. They, combined with one of the most talented casts you will see, created a really good show that did not ever have a bad episode. They took eight people that were extremely talented, gave them good material, and let the talent do what talent will do. What killed the show, ironically, was that incredible cast, as they couldn't hold such talent forever on a show on Starz that no one watched live. First, it was Jane Lynch getting called for Glee, but what ended the show effectively was losing Adam Scott to Parks and Recreation. They did leave behind 20 episodes of pure gold, detailing the lives of cater-waiters just trying to have fun in whatever ridiculous situation their job puts them in.

20.) Bojack Horseman

After two seasons, Bojack Horseman has quickly become my favorite animated comedy yet. Archer may be more rewatchable, but no show is better, no show is more impressive at mining emotional and dramatic material despite being an animated show. Centered around an anthropomorphic horse in an anthropomorphic world who was an ex-star of a TV show, Bojack brilliantly satirizes Hollywood while also examining deeply the emotions and realities of success, happiness and content. The second season went deeper into the world outside of just Bojack and with that created an even more vivid tapestry. It will be interesting to see how far they can go with mixing such random irreverance and real emotions.

19.) Silicon Valley

Three seasons in, and Silicon Valley continues to be a laugh riot, despite how often they go to the whole 'this is the biggest day in Pied Piper's History' theme. It really all comes down to the insane talent on hand in the cast. The breakout star is TJ Miller, but adding comedy vet Martin Starr, with improv great Tomas Middletich, and stand-up vet Kumail Nanjiani, and other improv-great Zach Woods, you get an incredible result. Few shows can assemble that type of roster, hand them good material, and let them improve on it. Having Pied Piper stay in a status quo has helped keep the show grounded, and you have to think that places an expiration date, but until then, we can just enjoy watching these extremely talented people have a blast making each other and us laugh.

18.) Whose Line is it Anyway

It's a show that still works better in Youtube form when you can pick and choose your favorite sketches (or just watch loops of Colin and Ryan bantering in the intros to various sketches), but the show was ahead of its time. It was when UCB and the alt. comedy/improve was just becoming mainstream in clubs, but far before the same was true on air. Still, Whose Line left us with tons of episode of laughs upon laughs. Sure, it wasn't totally improv (the cast members knew what games were being played, and the show was edited), but it was pretty much improv, and showcased a bunch of talented people. Apart from Wayne Brady, and to a point, Greg Proops, none of them have found lasting success outside the show, but my God they were gold on the show. Whose Line should have been more successful, but it was always a cult hit with tweens (I was among that group when the show was on the air), and found a lasting presence online.

17 & 16.) Veronica Mars & Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I'll admit, I've seen every episode of these shows. They're hard to really place apart from each other, as they follow similar constructs: a strong, beautiful female high-school girl who has a special talent but lives as an outcast. She befriends some other strange people, has an older male guide, and solves everyone's problems. There are major differences. Veronica Mars was far more grounded. It did a lot better actually showing the dynamics of a high-school environemnt. Buffy added fantasy to the mix, but also did better in romantic storytelling. They're both excellent shows. Buffy probably reaches higher peaks, but Buffy also lasted past its expiration date and suffered with lackluster Seasons 5 and 6. Veronica Mars, coming a good seven years after Buffy premiered, never got the chance to last that long, but that allowed it to leave before it got dated. Both the lead actresses were wonderful in their roles. Buffy had a stronger core group of supporting characters (Xander, Willow, Giles, Angel for a period, Spike for  period), but Veronica Mars had a deeper stable of dependable, if not true supporting, characters. Buffy kind of perfected the 'Big Bad' style of storytelling, while Veronica Mars did as good a job of playing out a murder mystery as anything you will see on a more adult show. Two great shows, and I'm not even close to joking.

Some Really Great Shows

15.) Boardwalk Empire

Full disclosure, I've only finished watching the first two seasons and two episodes of Season 3, but I think it's time I can judge what I have seen. I'm fascinated by this world, by the show, by the deliberate pacing, the touches of the 20's. Boardwalk Empire is to me what Mad Men is to so many: a brilliant period piece showing a fascinating time in American History. It is slow, but so many of the greatest crime and mafia works of art in US history have been slow (The Godfather, Pt. 1 and 2). The show is tremendously well acted, and well paced. I would never have imagined Steve Buscemi being so good as such a tough man but it works brilliantly. It's one of the rare shows were I have really no complaints with anything they've done. It was pretty much all 'A-minus' work, and that is really hard to do so consistently. I also love how they've worked in real life event and people (Al Capone, Arnold  Rothstein, the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, and so much more). The show has woven a deep, timeless tapestry of life in The Prohibition Era.

14.) Curb Your Enthusiasm

There is a non-trivial chance that Curb never returns. Of course this will be a sad-thing, but Larry David has generally said that he'll stop when he no longer has ideas, so it's probably better for him to stop off a solid season. Curb probably isn't as consistent as many of these shows, but few reached the heights it did. Few were able to feature such well-to-do characters and still make them grounded. Making Larry single kicked the show in the ass after some less than stellar seasons in Season 5 and 6, and returned the show to its old glory (reuniting Seinfield did that as well). It's stunning that the show is mostly improvised, as the jokes are so sharp, so witty. Also, no show has used guest stars better. Sure, Curb gets to use recurring characters playing themself, but they've made those characters almost always seem more than just stunt-casting. Curb's left a lasting impression on the comedy world for a lot of other shows to copy. Hopefully just one of them can come to close to matching it.

13.) The Colbert Report

The Colbert Report will never be better or worse than it is right now and what it was five years ago. It hasn't really ever changed apart from some segments replacing others. It's about Stephen, it is about him being incredibly talented and great in character, and challenging people to know how to enjoy satire. The writers are brilliant in being able to have genius takes on obscure news stories, but the researchers are the key. It is a lot easier to satirize a story and make the host the start when you are talking about asininely ridiculous things as they do. Anyway, The Colbert Report also found its foothold in giving us some of the most interesting interviews you can see anywhere. Colbert does use  an unfair tactic about defending his position in character (see: ridiculous), but prosecuting his interviewee's position out of character (see: realist), but that just leads to some awesome, awkward, hilarious interviews. Because of Jon Stewart's summer hiatus, The Colbert Report finally won the 'best variety show' Emmy last year, and better late than never, as it definitely has deserved more than just one over its almost nine-year run.

12.) Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn

The Colbert Report essentially replaced Tough Crowd after two seasons, and thankfully they kicked Tough Crowd off the air for something worthy. A while ago I wrote that Tough Crowd would do much better today when standups are more notable in the public. I'm not so sure that is true. These were mainly the East Coast comics, the one's that burnt each other all the time, that responded with completely politically incorrect insults. It wasn't the West Coast let's-all-be-happy comedian group that kind of dominates today. Also, it featured conservatives. Big conservatives. But that's what made Tough Crowd so great. It didn't only have liberals, it didn't stick to any talking points. In fact, Colin Quinn quit the show than accept Comedy Central's directions to focus more on pop culture and less on politics and race. The show debated some interesting topics, but the real joy of watching the show was it shined a light on the famous back-room table discussions at The Comedy Cellar. It showed comedians just riffing on each other, pounding the comedian who told a bad, pandering joke, making fun of each other all the time. Sometimes the discussions went off the rails, but there was alwaays some jokes to be found. Colin Quinn cut as little as possible to show the jokes that bombed, showed the negative reactions, but also show just how much great comedians made each other laugh, and they made us laugh too.

11.) Parks and Recreation

Like many shows that lasted over four seasons, Parks and Recreation settled into a nice little groove, consistently churning out B episodes. They're still doing it too. What's nice about Parks is there has actually been character development that seemed really natural. Ron's now married. Tom's a semi-successful entrepreneur. Leslie's achieved her dream and now lost it. Beyond all this plot development laid an extremely funny show. Parks and Recreation did a far better job satirizing politics than people gave it credit for, but more notable was just how well they wrote that world. Nothing seemed more funny and eccentric than the town of Pawnee. They also were smart enough to limit the use of Ron Swanson, an unending pot of comedy Gold. Like HIMYM, Parks and Recreation is nowhere near as good of a show post Season 4, but unlike HIMYM, it is still a good show, and good enough to basically hold this ranking going forward.

10.) Fargo

Fargo's upside is huge. Another great season with a disconnected, but fully contained storyline can move it way up the list. Few shows have ever hit home runs the way Fargo has in both its first and second season... and none of those shows tried to do what Fargo did, first put on a show inspired by a beloved movie, and then change course completely, make something unconnected, and be as good if not better. Fargo has excelled at everything so far, from tone, to visual brilliance, to the acting of all the regulars in Season 1 and 2. It has also managed to maintain some of its connection to the thematic elements of the Coen Brothers, from extended parables, to mass violence, to fully off-beat characters. Fargo followed up a brillaitn first season with a brilliant period piece. The expectations are fully high now, and it will be interesting to see how Season 3 plays out. Either way, Fargo has put up the best contained storytelling since Breaking Bad.

9.) Game of Thrones

Full disclosure, I haven't ready any of the books, and apart from one spoiler I know nothing of what is coming forward. Anyway, the show rebounded from a slightly (relatively) disappointing 2nd season with a great 3rd season and a real hope for a great future of the show. There's a couple things this show does better than any I have scene: shoot the show in incredibly beautiful locations, and create lovable, hateable characters. They force people to accept the bad guy, but they make the bad guys so damn good. Game of Thrones has a large cast but they've done a great job of casting the show. There are few weak links in that cast, which matters a lot when they're given odd literary material to play with. This is one of the few film projects based off a book series that will probably be better in live-action form.

8.) Veep

With Armando Ianucci leaving, Veep is at a crossroads; and luckily if it falls down without its creator and guide, the show has put up four seasons of brillaint satirical comedy. Veep started the same year House of Cards did, and despite the critical acclaim the latter received, multiple DC insiders said Veep actually did a better job of portraying Washington. Since then, Veep has gone bigger, from Selina Meyer taking a larger role, to starting to campaign for President, to actually becoming President (and invalidating the actual name of the show), and it has gotten better at every step. Liek it's HBO mate Silicon Valley, the real brilliance lies in teh cast. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is making a good case that Elaine Benes should be 1A on her resume. The rest of the cast combines comedy veteran greats like Matt Walsh, Tony Hale, Gary Clark, and now Hugh Laurie, and uncovering some new stars, the best being XXXXX as Jonah Ryan. It will be interesting to see where Veep goes wthout Ianucci, but even if it falls slightly, it has made its mark satirizing politics at a time where politics became a more polarizing area of the mainstream conscious.

7.) It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

I said two years ago during my Comedy Power Rankings that It's Always Sunny was the best cable sitcom of all time. I still believe that to be true, and the two seasons that have happened since then only strengthened its position. It's Always Sunny, despite becoming more and more mature, has still been able to tie itself to its amazingly raw beginnings. Always Sunny has been able to satirize everything quite brilliantly and still show itself to be the raw, fast-paced dialogue based show it was in the beginning. They incorporated Danny DeVito brilliantly. Always Sunny has proven itself to be far smarter than anyone could have imagined. Rob McElhenny, Charlie Day, and Glenn Howerton have shown themselves to be as adept as writers and show-runners as they are as actors. It may mask itself as a show about five doofuses 'running a bar' while coming up with crazy schemes of the week, but the show is showing the idiocy in everything in the world.

The Pantheon

6.) The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

In one sense, The Daily Show isn't long for this world. Hints have been dropped that Stewart is far closer to leaving than staying. There's rumors that he will replace Dave Letterman as the Late Show host whenever he decides to retire, or maybe leave to produce movies. Still, as long as he's on The Daily Show, Stewart gives it the commanding presence it deserves and has always maintained since he took over 15 years ago. The show's definitely changed to a more overt criticism of news media and not just news, but remains the standard for political comedy discourse. His stable of correspondents have gone on to have success much the same way SNL players used to, and Stewart always used them well when they were on the show. The Daily Show has somehow kept its sense of purpose and Stewart has kept his enjoyment for all 15 years, which is an amazing feat given the amount of political turmoil the country has been through since he was hired. The show likely will carry on after Stewart leaves, and likely won't be as good, but The Daily Show, under Stewart's reign, has already made its mark on American TV history.

5.) Chappelle's Show

Chappelle's Show has fewer episodes of any show in this Top-10, but it didn't need to make any more to establish itself as one of the great shows of the 2000s, and one of the lasting culturally important comedy shows ever. Obviously, the part people remember about te show is the way it challenged race perceptions in the US, but that really is missing the forest for the trees. The show really excelled at just pointing out how different Black and White America was, and mining and incredible amount of comedy from just juxtaposing those cultures. Of course, when it just decided to focus on something random, not really pointedly connected to race, the show remained incredibly funny still. The amount  of famous sketches are there, but they are backed up by a host of forgotten sketches that were just as funny. Chappelle left quietly under the night sky to Africa instead of doing a Season 3, and maybe just in time, as he left 24 great episodes, hours upon hours of great, rewatchable sketches, and a lasting comedic memory that will never leave.

4.) Seinfeld

For years I never watched Seinfield, never understood its appeal. Of course, the fact that I hadn't watched it made that second fact a little obvious. Then I started watching it. I started watching all the episodes. I started understanding its appeal, understanding what made it one of the best shows ever. I finally reached the point where I kind of figured it out. Seinfield was the best traditional sitcom because it found comedy in the most un-traditional of ways. It made its comedy in dialogue, in characters, in oddities, not in situations, not in romance, not in plot. It also got together four absolutely brilliant comedic actors/minds. Jason Alexander was amazing. Michael Richards was amazing. Julia Louis-Dreyfus was (and still is) amazing. Jerry and Larry co-wrote the thing. What do you get when you combine the creator or Curb Your Enthusiasm with another brilliant comedic mind of their generation? You get Seinfield, a show immensely rewatchable, a show that stayed funny over 150 episodes, over 10 years. No show on this list apart from The Daily Show ran longer, and few were better.

3.) Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad's incredible success commercially in its final season was odd to see as someone who had watched the show far earlier. It went from being a solidly watched show for cable (about 2 million) to being the most watched thing not on a network just like that. There's no show you can point to social media and Internet 2.0 being the catalyst of its success like Breaking Bad,. Of course, it helps that it was absolutely amazing. There may never have been a character short of Tony Soprano (a show I have yet to see) that was so well constructed, let alone well acted, as Walther H. White. The rest of the show had a nice, small, but well constructed cast, but it comes down to Walter White. In its  totality, it is a perfect character piece, a great look at what really drives man, greed, love or desire. The meth (the science) went from the forefront to the background as the show went on, but what replaced it was more drama, more intensity, and more incredibly acted scenes. So much of what Breaking Bad was an exercise in the science of a TV show, in the creation of great moments, like the brilliant photography, the one-on-one dialogue, the interesting locations. Breaking Bad was a perfect showcase for what the medium can be.

2.) Arrested Development

I've written a lot about Arrested Development, and deservedly so. The show was that good at times, just a perfect show that encompassed everything you could ask from a comedy program. They could wear any hat, do any type of comedy. But the real differentiating factor was the show's tone, that it found almost immediately. It was that tone, that life, that allowed the show to portray what was seemingly a believable family made up of absolute narcissistic idiots. They were able to have absurdist ideas and dialogues and ground it in a relatble way. They did something impossible: essentially be a plot driven and joke driven show at the same time. They wrapped reference upon reference in the show, hid jokes behind jokes. I still find new jokes each time I watch episodes. The show was just so well written, so amazingly cast, and so well put together. It really comes back to that tone. Put on any random episode of Arrested Development and within five minutes you get that tone, you get the feeling you are watching a show unlike any other. 30 Rock tried to be that way, but it never got as grounded (or as funny). Arrested Development was pretty damn perfect. I highly doubt I'll ever watch any comedy that is simply just that good.

1.) The Wire

I've written way too much about The Wire, especially with a certain 50 Top Characters ranking back in the February-March of 2012, but I could probably pump out 10,000 more words. Here's the best thing about The Wire: It has essentially ruined shows for me forever. Nothing will really live up to the standarad that The Wire set about how good the TV Mdium can be. Nothing will match it's character complexity, it's plot complexity, it's mix of dialogue and style. Nothing will match it. Stuff comes close. Breaking Bad came about as close as I can imagine a drama coming. I will never give up hope for a show to match The Wire, but it's pretty damn unlikely.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Trips I Want to Take

10.) Brazil

My interest and desire to go to Brazil has waned slightly over time. I used to be really interested to take a river-boat down the Amazon, and probably still am, but the more I read about the dangers and ills of Brazil’s primary two ports (Rio and Sao Paulo), the less I want to go there. I still would love a trip to Brazil, to experience that fun culture, to eat their nice food, to take that river-boat trip down the Amazon and come across some exotic animals. These are all things I would still do, but when you combine the present dangers and economic crises, and the weather that I am not too much a fan of, there are a few more that have jumped where Brazil would have been had a done this a few years back.

9.) Morocco

I've actually been to Morocco once. It was for less than a day, ferrying over from Spain & Gibraltar, going to the city of Tangier. This isn't that. That (Tangier) wasn't real Morocco, it was a hawkery show, much like the Bahamas, but more desert. Anyway, the real Morocco, of Casablanca and Marrakech, or Rabat, that is what I'm really talking about. It seems like a fascinating country, with a great cuisine, a long history to unwrap. Also, it's fairly close, and can add a nice corner of Africa to my list of countries (to be fair, I count Morocco today).

8.) Scandinavia

Look, I get all the negative aspects of Scandinavia. The cold, the long nights (hint: probably better to just not go in winter?), the seemingly average food. But remove all those trappings, and you get one of the few corners of the world I haven't experienced. I've been to Canada, to Patagonia, to Australia, but not to that scintillating bit of northern country-side. From people I know who've been there, both Copenhagen and Stockholm come well regarded, but I'm more interested in Oslo and rural Norway or Sweden, maybe even visit Faviken, of Chef's Table fame. I mean, when you go to an expensive place, may as well steer into the skids I'm sure to encounter in the snowy Scandinavian countryside.

7.) Safari Trip (Botswana/Tanzania/Kenya)

There is no specific place that I have pinpointed so I just threw three countries that I have heard good things about up there. If price were not an issue, this is probably #1, but now that I understand how much it costs to go on a good safari trip (thinking like 5-7 days), I have to be somewhat reasonable. The allure of roaming around in a jeep and tent among Elephants, Rhinos, Hippos, Giraffes and your odd Predator is obviously alluring – probably nothing would be better on this list, but knowing it cost a months salary (guessing) is less so. I do want to make a point that I know you can go for safaris that are cheaper due to being shorter or in places like South Africa / Zimbabwe – but those places are cheaper for a reason. If I’m doing a safari, I’m doing the real thing. And if I’m doing the real thing, it’ll probably have to wait a while.

6.) The Baltics

Previously, I had put the Baltics as similar to the Balkans. Since I last wrote this, I've visited the Balkans, traveling to Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. The trio of Baltic countries, in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, are similar in looks and views, and somewhat similar in culture, in at least both being fun, relatively cheap, and untested. The Baltics have also been sold to me as a great beer market, a great fun-loving set of countries, with an interested history with many European and Euro-Asian influences. I'm not sure which of the three I'm most interested to see, and more than that, not sure I want to have any preconceived notions. Let's go in and discover the small differences that make each of the three unique and special.

5.) New Zealand

I missed a chance to go to New Zealand during my Round the World Trip in 2013. It is my one regret of that trip from a scheduling perspective. And ever since, I've wanted to go back, to see somewhat the Eastern Hemisphere's version of Patagonia. I think it would be better now, with my a bit more adventurous, bent since then, mainly again my time in Patagonia, I'm more ready to take on all the adventurous glory of New Zealand. The one pause I have is being able to drive on the other side of the road, still something I haven't done. New Zealand also appeals with the food, all those damn sheep and lambs. More than anything, you actually get reasonable deals down to New Zealand from the US at times, so it can even be somewhat affordable.

4.) Egypt

I had a near miss in going to Egypt, as when I first planned my around the world trip in 2013, my initial first destination was Egypt. About three weeks before leaving, I switched it to South Africa after being a little concerned of the danger at the time. The danger has increased since – though Egypt has been pretty calm in recent years. I would still love to go there as few places, apart from the one to come next, can match Egypt in terms of history. I want few things more than to cruise down the Nile, to go to the ruins in Alexandria, to visit the Pyramids in Giza and the Sphinx and the Valley of the Kings and everything else. Add to that a good cuisine and a great culture beyond its history and few places see so alluring as Egpyt to travel to. Technically I did fly through Egypt, and ideally when I get around to going there I wouldn’t take Egyptair again, but I still want to leave the confines of Cairo airport and see what treasures of the Ancient Egyptians still exist.

3.) China

And of course, China has to be on this list. The problem with countries like China are that their massive size would necessitate 2-3 trips to see it all, but even a chance to see Beijing, Shanghai, the Yellow River, maybe some of the secondary cities is quite the itenirary. Of course we add to that the Great Wall, the Terracotta soldiers, the highlands and everything else. China of course has the other aspects like the cuisine. I have so often heard how real Chinese food from China is so different than what we get in the US, and I'm sure that is true and ready to experience what the real Chinese food is like. It is a fascinating, growing culture that gets more impressive each year, and I really can't wait to experience it sometime.

2.) Israel

Being a Catholic, probably no place has more historical draw to it than Israel, what with it being the birthplace of the religion and housing the site of basically every major event in the history of the religion as well. Beyond the historical significance and sites, there is a lot to see with the other two religions who see this place as a living memorial and even things like the Dead Sea. I honestly have no idea what the food scene is like in Israel, nor do I know a lot about the culture outside of the history and sightseeing, but there is no place I would rather go to sightsee than Israel.

1.) Russia

I almost went to Russia on an High School Orchestra trip in 2007, and while it would have been memorable, I am kind of glad I can go for the first time as an adult. Russia is a fascinating place for me. The people, the history, the beauty of the country is forever understood, hidden behind the rough exterior presence that clouds the country. My parents have been to Russia and raved about it, from the incredible museums and artifacts and culture. Of course, the drinking aspect seems nice as well. Russia also represents a chance to go to a World Cup in 2018 - which given I want go within 2,000 miles of Qatar in 2022 and by 2026 who knows if I'll have kids or, you know, real responsibilities. Anyway, Russia is a place that draws me way more than I could have imagined given all we Americans hear about this country.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Good Riddance, McNasty

I never wanted Josh McDaniels as the Colts head coach. I don't care how much Tom Brady loves him, how great those offenses in New England have been. I didn't want him. And after he spurned the Colts at the 11th hour, I'm grateful because we get to avoid him, gleefully happy that weasel burned more bridges, and of course a little mad at the Patriots pulling some shenanigans again. But more than anything, that first emotion is the most present: grateful. I didn't want him. We're not going to get him.

People may think the Colts are losers in this, and in a way they do end up with quite a bit of egg on their faces. They were left at the alter right as the music started playing and the crowd turned towards the back. But given that they probably avoided an inevitable divorce, they dodged a bullet. Josh McDaniels is a great offensive mind (though his tenure as OC in St. Louis say otherwise), but he lacks the leadership to be a head coach. He lacks the mental fortitude to make a decision and keep to it. He ran right back to his binky in New England, the only place that will ever call him home now.

I feel bad for the Colts. I feel bad for GM Chris Ballard. But more than anything, I feel so bad for those three assistant coaches that came and signed with the Colts thinking they were going to coach alongside Josh McDaniels. Apparently, McDaniels, that snake, didn't even call those three guys to tell them he changed his mind. They're stuck now in a situation where they'll have a coach who didn't pick them, and a boss they didn't sign up for. And all because Josh McDaniels couldn't face the music.

The Pats aren't innocent in this, though I don't buy the conspiracy that this was some masterful troll job by Bob Kraft. They probably could have came to McDaniels with the 'sweetheart' offer weeks ago, before he started building a staff he would never lead. They hurt him more than anything. They better pay him back with the head coaching job after Belichick leaves, because McDaniels isn't getting a job anywhere else now. He's toxic, seen as a deserter and a child. The only job he'll get again is coaching a Patriots team where he'll be following one of the Greatest Game of All Time and coaching a QB who will either age before his eyes, or retire and get replaced. Is that really a better situation.

There are some defense. Maybe he did get cold feet. Maybe comfort matters for him, or more forgivingly his family. But what about the comfort of the families he made move to Indianapolis, the one's whose fathers he was speaking to the same day he walked away? What about them? It's simple really: Josh McDaniels doesn't care about them.

Again, at the end of the day, I'm happy the Colts rid themselves of McDaniels before he got the chance to infect them. McDaniels was truly awful in every way in Denver. His record - 11-17 - seems merely bad rather then terrible, but it was 5-17 after a shock 6-0 start mostly built off of Mike Nolan's defense. His draft decision, even beyond the lunacy that was Tim Tebow with the 23rd pick, were pathetic. His players hated him, as did the media and seemingly the organization. He poisoned everything he touched in Denver. People like to compare this to Belichick's Cleveland tenure, but that had an 11-5 season tucked in there. McDaniels didn't come close.

Maybe he's matured, and I would think so because there's nowhere to go but up, but he inhereted all of Belichick's bad qualities with few of the good ones. I have no doubt he works well with Brady, and maybe it is unfair to judge him off of just the Denver years and one year with Sam Bradford in St. Louis (where they were literally the worst offense in the NFL), but combined with the lack of success any of Belichick's disciples have had since leaving Foxboro, it paints a stark figure.

In the end, the Colts will be OK - assuming of course Andrew Luck comes back. Their prime target right now seems to be Frank Reich, who to me is a better coordinator, better fit, and better future coach than McDaniels, a man who succeeded in that role in multiple places (San Diego & Philadelphia, not to mention a brief stint as Manning's last QB Coach in Indianapolis). McDaniels has a bright future as an OC for Brady and under Belichick, and will get his chance to fail when he finally ascends to the head job, and I'll love every moment of that.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

NFL 2017: 5 + 2 Thoughts on Super Bowl 52

1.) That wasn't the best Super Bowl ever, but the difference in how it was viewed to Super Bowl 50 is an interesting thought experiment

That was a really good game. The offenses on each team were insane. Sure, neither team could play any defense, but sometimes when you have offenses that execute at such a brilliant level it doesn't really matter. Watching those two offenses carve it up was incredibly fun to watch. The consensus is that it was one of the great Super Bowls in recent memory.

Other than the last statement about the consensus view of the game, if you replace 'offense' for 'defense' in that last paragraph, it would be a perfectly apt description of Super Bowl 50. That game, Broncos vs. Panthers, was the inverse, an incredible defensive game with two defenses that operated at ridiculous levels, featuring multiple HOF or on the path to HOF defensive players all playing great. Of course, few saw that as a great game, despite it also being a 1-score game throughout. The one difference is a late strip sack made Super Bowl 50 24-10 as the Broncos cashed in with a TD, while here the Eagles got just a field goal.

It's interesting that Super Bowl 50 was largely written off despite it being close throughout and having some transcendent talents play transcendentally (Von Miller, Demarcus Ware, Luke Kuechly), while this game will get put on a pedestal. Both games featured one side of the ball playing pristinely, and the other side just not showing up, including two units that had been great all year (Eagles defense, Panthers offense). But there is an inherent bias towards offense. That is fine, but it's never seemed more stark than with this game.

Look, even for me as a person who likes defensive football, who liked the fact that this season saw, for the most part, a return to pre-2011 offensive levels, was exhilerated by that game. But no more so than watching the Broncos and Panthers defenses dominate each other two years ago, watching Von Miller explode on Cam Newton, watching Kony Ealy take over the game. That too was a great game. We've all gotten spoiled these last 11 years, starting with Super Bowl XLII, with a crazy run of games. I put this one 5th since then, behind both Pats-Giants games, Pats-Seahawks and Steelers-Cardinals.

2.) Tom Brady finally has his Manning/Rodgers/Marino moment

Look, Tom Brady was fantastic. Now, he wasn't pressured too often, and when he was he was generally inaccurate (did have 20 incompletions), and there were so many receivers running free, but still Brady was amazing. He never backed down despite needing to essentially lead a TD drive every drive of the game. In general, if a QB throws a ton in games, they don't win that often. So many times, high passing yard days are in losses when teams pass to catch up. We've seen that with Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodger, and more than anyone Peyton Manning. We never see it with Brady. His record when throwing 50+ times, or 400+ yards is great. Well, for once he got to experience what it is like to be those other guys, to have a defense absolutely fail you, to play out of your mind and still lose. Brady was great. The team still lost. Brady arguably had his best Super Bowl performance and he lost. For all of us who've watched his career, it is about time.

One little quibble, I do wonder if Manning (or Rodgers now as he's starting to catch flak for playoff disappointments) has that exact same game then gets the ball with 2:13 left needing a TD to score and gets strip-sacked, he catches a lot of flak. People look over the 450 (at that point) yards and focus on him turning the ball over. Rightfully so, few are criticizing Brady for this, but it would be good if at least some of the people that went insane when Manning threw the pick-6 to Tracy Porter do the same with Brady now.

3.) Philadelphia deserves this

I have a soft spot for fanbases that have never experienced the joy of winning a title; even moreso than the ones that had won a title and just gone decades without doing so again. My Astros were like this last November, and the Eagles are one of the franchises who haven't won a Super Bowl, this despite a really strong run of success most years. The Eagles fans have endured a lot in the last 20 years, from three straight losses in the NFC Championship Game, to a close loss in the Super Bowl previously, to the odd run that was the Chip Kelly era. They've had their great players, including HOF enshrinee Brian Dawkins. But they never had this. Winning a title for that first time is truly exhilarating.

Unsurprisingly, the city 'celebrated' in that they 'rioted', but even that is part of the fun. Cities like Chicago and Boston (the Red Sox 2004 World Series Title) both had a few riots in their past. No one died, there were few fires. Let's not go too hard. Philadelphia is a hard city, that loves their teams and loves their Eagles, and they've been through a lot. Not that they haven't had success. The Phillies won the World Series in 2008, made another in 2009; the 76ers made a finals in 2001, the Flyers have long been competitive. But still, more than anything that is a football town, like Boston and Chicago were baselball towns, and their football team got the win.

4.) Nick Foles was insane

Years from now, assuming Carson Wentz comes back healthy and has a long and successful career, this may seem as one of the weirdest runs of all time, but let's be real: Carson Wentz was no Jeff Hostettler, he was no last minute replacement that played caretaker, he was incredible, obliterating a great Minnesota defense and then a craft New England defense, in one of the great back-to-back performances in the sports history.

Foles wasn't just statistically great, he put up those numbers with a series of high difficulty throws. Against Minnesota he launched deep to partially covered receivers and fit those throws beautifully. The best example were his bombs to Torrey Smith last week and Alshon Jefferey this week. Then there were so many other great throws, like the pinpoint pass to Chris Clement, or the great play on the 4th down to avoid pressure. Nick Foles was in control, he was poised, he was certainly a bit out of his head with the success on his long throws, but sometimes fortune favors the bold.

It is certainly interesting to see what happens next for him; I can easily see him just wanting to stay in Philadelphia, a place that may need him if Carson Wentz hits any snags in his rehab. Of course, I can as easily see some team giving up a high 2nd or even 1st round pick. Foles has a longer track record of success than Jimmy G, with an insane full season and now an insane playoff run on his resume. Foles was seemingly accepting of his fate to not lead the Eagles come 2018, but he's forever locked a place in the pantheon of Philadelphia athletes, if one of the more flash-in-the-pan ones.

5.) Something odd is brewing in New England

Look, I may regret everything I write in this paragraph. This could look really wrong and/or really reactionary next February if BB and Brady are hoisting their 6th Lombardi trophy, but right now it is unavoidable. Here's what we know: Malcolm Butler was benched for some reason that the team doesn't want to disclose, in a move that apparently pissed off a few Patriots defenders. Bill Belichick was noncommital after the game about coming back for another season, contrasted with Tom Brady that said he is going to come back. Rob Gronkowski is openly pondering retirement. There was the story before the playoffs of a rift with their Holy Trinity. Josh McDaniels is leaving despite a strange 11th hour story on him staying back in New England. Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia is leaving. There's a lot of change and weird feelings throughout New England right now.

Of course, it should be said they still came fairly close to winning the game, and Brady looks as good as ever, but this feels a bit different. The outcome (and outcry) of the Butler benching deserves a lot of monitoring going forward. Something had to happen last minute for him to be active, but I don't understand why hold him out for defense but then let him get a few snaps on Special Teams. I don't know how much impact it has, but in a game where their defense was the primary issue, it was odd to see him on the bench the entire game. The Patriots did a great job of avoiding the drama of the ESPN report right before the playoffs, but where there's smoke, there's fire.

I have no idea what to expect. I don't really buy Gronk retiring, though I guess I would not be shocked. Maybe think it is a 10% chance he really retires. The bigger one to watch is Belichick. He'll be 66 by next season. He's losing both coordinators who have been entrenched in their roles for years (especially Patricia), with a team that has Brady, but a 41-year old Brady that showed some signs of physically slowing late in the season (a fear abated well by his great play the last two games), and no current back-up plan. Put it a 20% chance that he retires. Whatever it is, there is a chance things are very different going forward for New England. Of course, there's a chance nothing changes but the coordinators and they're right back here.

6.) Doug Pedersen and the Eagles Staff had one of the most impressive days in recent memory

It's a bit reductive to say that the Eagles Coaching Staff won the game because they were aggressive. I mean, people were rightfully criticizing Kyle Shanahan's play-calling last year for being too aggressive in the 2nd half. It wasn't really aggression that ruled the day, it was calmness and conviction. Doug Pedersen is a great head coach. This was a great staff. And this playoff run, if not the season, was their masterpiece.

Whether it was going for it on 4th down, mixing in RPOs, not losing the run even on their game winning TD drive, and of course the 'Philly Special' play, Doug Pedersen and his offensive staff had this game in control. We've never seen an offense run over the Patriots from beginning to end like that before, though Pedersen's mentor Andy Reid came close in Week 1. Generally teams with the best coaching staffs more than the best talent are the ones best able to hang with New England, see the Ravens in the Harbaugh era, or Tom Coughlin's Giants, or even Ron Rivera's Panthers (2-0 against the Patriots). Pedersen's Eagles fall easily into that camp.

My favorite drive was their drive to score the TD to make it 38-33. It had it all, with great playcalling, great plays, great identification of matchups (Ertz owning McCourty at the end a prime example). But my favorite part of the drive was Pederson being smart enough to slow the tempo down and still run the ball, understanding a quick score is not too helpful, and smarter even so to understand the math and go for it on 4th down and 1 near midfield. Pederson was brilliant, never backing down to the challenge.

I compared Doug Pederson to Jim Harbaugh in terms of the energy and clarity he brought to the Eagles early in 2016. That season ended up with them at 7-9, but the underlying numbers had them as a better team, and they were rolled a bit with injuries late. But I loved what he was doing, what Frank Reich and John DeFillipo were doing with the offense, and even for most of the last two years Jim Schwartz and the defense. But Pederson is a star, and while this could easily be the peak of his career, I think he'll be spending a lot of time at this altitude.

7.) The Eagles could be on the cusp of something special

Not counting the Nick Foles situation, the Eagles have 21 of their 22 starters under contract for next year. They won the Super Bowl without their MVP QB (who admittedly could not have done better than Foles these last two games), their all-pro LT in Jason Peters, and a few other key cogs. The Eagles have a loaded roster, where apart from a few standouts (Wentz, Peters, Fletcher Cox) there are few indispensable parts, but a ton of quality players and depth. They can roll 6-7 players on their front, and have athletic linebackers, and a young secondary that played great all year until the Super Bowl. The offense has the league's most athletic, if not outright best, offensive line, and a cadre of weapons that mesh well with each other. The team is loaded.

The problem for the Eagles is so is the rest of the NFC. Even in a year where the Seahawks and Packers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and 2008 respectively, the NFC was the tougher conference, and for those two they seem in good position to make it back. Alex Smith could improve Washington. You figure Dallas should bounce back. But Philadelphia has the combination of roster talent and coaching to really make a run at this again.

Can they become a dynasty? Getting the most out of the next three years with Wentz still somewhat cost controlled. Things could spiral quickly, just like it did for the last few NFC Champions like the 2010 Packers (Rodgers got expensive) and 2013 Seahawks (defense got expensive, and old). But even those teams had a great run of playoffs year after year. The Eagles look to be on the cusp of that type of run. The Patriots have set a ridiculous standard when it comes to continual success, and it is unfair to hold any team to that benchmark, but the Eagles can forge a pretty impressive path all their own in the coming years.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.