Sunday, January 26, 2014

Bad winds

Clara Paget as Anne Bonny
Pirates are alluring. There's no doubt about it. It's a recurrent theme in adventure fiction and a geek standby as notable as ninjas. Everyone likes pirates (unless you happen to be sailing the Red Sea these days.) So when Starz began advertising their new series, Black Sails, last year, a lot of people sat up and took notice.

Unlike HBO, Starz and Showtime tend to be noticed for pseudo-porn: nominally adult themes that are basically just excuses to show tits and a certain level of gratuitous gore. Spartacus is perhaps their most successful offering in that respect and no one (that I know of) watched it for the acting or the history. It was with that reluctant mindset that I sat down to give Black Sails as much of the benefit of the doubt as I possibly could. Acknowledging that most first episodes are a little rocky, it still sorely needs that benefit to get through an hour of the show and it may not be enough to convince me to watch any more.

Give it up for Z-Man

I'm a geek. I like pirates and ninjas and zombies and Martians and the whole nine yards (I'm even more fascinated by the mysterious etymology of the phrase "the whole nine yards" but that's just me.) I love Merchants and Marauders, a boardgame based on precisely the historical era presented in Black Sails (it's honestly much easier to win as a merchant, as any drug dealer will tell you; putting aside the coolness factor, would you rather try to make a living as Omar or Avon?) This is the deck I'm currently tooling around the Hearthstone beta with. Pirates. Pirates everywhere.

And I honestly appreciate the fact that the producers put in serious effort to not only draw from the most famous fictional work about pirates in the English-speaking world, Treasure Island (a book I probably read a dozen times as a kid) in Captain Flint, Billy Bones, and John Silver, but also are presenting characters based on actual people from that time in John Rackham (Calico Jack) and Anne Bonny. There is some attention to detail in plain sight. The costuming seems relatively appropriate. They clearly dropped some coin on the ship sets and the CGI-renderings of same.

Don't raise your heels when parrying

But having just finished watching the debut episode within the last hour, I can state that not a single line of the screenplay comes to memory. Not one. Nothing that anyone said ventured outside of boilerplate drama and/or blatant exposition. Even worse, the show is clearly trying to step outside the standard "heroic" dramatic structure in that Captain Flint seems to be the hero of the piece and the one that audiences should sympathize with, but when you're dealing with an entire cast of fairly self-centered people, it's more difficult to develop those attachments. Flint is kind of a cipher, just as he is in Treasure Island. He's legendary only because people say he is; just as in the show he appears to be a leader who inspires his men only because people say he is. The other potential audience attachment, John Silver (not quite "Long" yet), has an additional hurdle to overcome in that not only is he as grasping and opportunistic as anyone else, but he's also one of the more contemptible figures in Robert Louis Stevenson's work, so that anyone who is familiar with the book can pretty much instantly identify him with the concept of "schmuck."

Or if you wanna go there...

This isn't to say that there's anything unique about Black Sails' structure (regrettably.) After all, TV series casts made up of repellent or dark figures have been around since the Sopranos, at the very least. Boardwalk Empire has no trouble proceeding in that fashion. However, both of those shows also have solid writing that makes otherwise non-heroic figures into someone the audience appreciates for their intelligence and wit and unusual responses, if nothing else. Black Sails' cast presented none of that in the first episode. Indeed, the most interesting person to me was Hakeem Kae-Kazim, playing Mr. Scott (not that Mr. Scott...) because I recognized him from his notorious role as George Rutaganda in Hotel Rwanda, which will forever be burned into my brain. I recognized no one else and they did nothing to make me want to come back and see them again.

OK, admittedly, Paget's eyes are kinda fascinating
The usual caveat is attached ("it's just the first episode") but I have severe doubts (benefit gone!) that the show can become significantly less hollow soon enough for me to want to continue. I never saw Spartacus because I'm touchy about Roman history (speaking of boardgames, that one is excellent) but I tried watching Starz's Da Vinci's Demons and just couldn't get past the shallowness of the performances and the vanilla scriptwriting. By the same token, given my attachment to Westerns, I've given Hell on Wheels three seasons to try to keep me and Black Sails may be suffering under the weight of that commitment. I'm just not interested in taking the time to watch something that I'm quite confident will be completely disappointing.

I'd rather win another game of M&M

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Some of you are Michigan fans who had the temerity to endure the most recent season of a fairly-talented team looking about as inept as any produced by Michigan in the history of the program, including the disaster-laden Rodriguez years. The dreary minor-league bowl game produced a suitable performance and came within a final drive of being the fifth game under Brady Hoke in which Michigan produced less than 200 yards of offense and the sixth to fail to score a touchdown (Number of such games under Rodriguez? Zero.) Even so, it became the 11th under Hoke to produce less than 300 yards of offense. In the modern game, 300 yards is a pretty pedestrian number, even against solid defenses. But the key phrase in that sentence is the first: "In the modern game" because that's precisely what Hoke and his offensive coordinator, Al Borges, are seemingly doing their best to avoid.

Bill O'Brien recently left his job at Penn State after two years to become the new head coach of the Houston Texans (Only the NFL could produce a team name that's essentially a tautology: "We're the Texans. From Houston." It's like going to Europe and telling people that you're Americans. From, you know, 'Murica!) While few had high hopes for O'Brien, taking over the presumed crater that would be the whole of Penn St. football for the next decade, he actually did remarkably well there and one would assume that the fanbase would be more than appreciative for what he was able to accomplish with a team full of no-one-wants and walk-ons.

But O'Brien was saddled with the expectations of a segment of the PSU fanbase who had grown so long in the tooth with their former coach that they apparently have a hard time imagining anyone else doing as well as the old man. O'Brien went 8-4 and 7-5 in his two years there. Paterno went 7-6 and 8-4 in his last two years. But it's not so much about the records as it is the preservation or calcification of "the way things are done around here." (I'm not even going to get into the Sandusky scandal. This is just about football and institutional blindness, thanks.) So, when he left, O'Brien allowed some derogatory comments about "the Paterno people" to be printed:
“You can print this: You can print that I don’t really give a (expletive) what the ‘Paterno people’ think about what I do with this program. I’ve done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno. Everything in my power. So I could really care less about what the Paterno faction of people, or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I’m tired of it,”
This was apparently in response to fans complaining about the departure of Ron Vanderlinden, Paterno's last hire, from O'Brien's staff. So, you're giving grief to the guy who has done a better job with your undermanned team than anyone else could expect, because he didn't keep an assistant that the old man hired? Is it because Vanderlinden was, by fiat, a "Penn State man" and O'Brien somehow wasn't? Where have I heard that before?

Oh. Right.

Michigan has a similar problem in that there's a fairly large segment of the fanbase, alumni and, most notoriously, former players and the athletic director, who live in the fantasy of the "Michigan Man." Spencer Hall at EDSBS has turned the "Michigan Man" concept into a favorite punchline because that's really what fantasies are often suited for. The idea is that no one can truly understand what it takes to lead Michigan football to success if he isn't a "Michigan Man", mostly because they think that Bo Schembechler, the man who revived Michigan football from its dolor of the 60s, was a "Michigan Man."

Except that he wasn't.

Bo had been an assistant at Ohio State(!) and the head coach at Miami (not that Miami) of Ohio, a rather pronounced unMichigan Man. So was Fritz Crisler, who came from Princeton. And Fielding Yost, who came from West Virginia. There were no "Michigan Men" until Bo inadvertently popularized the term before the 1989 NCAA basketball tournament. Bill Frieder had announced his departure to Arizona State and Bo appointed Steve Fisher as interim coach, saying he wanted a "Michigan man" to lead a Michigan team. It was only later that it became like a religion, mostly promoted by Lloyd Carr and his sycophants, such that "Michigan Men" became very like the "Paterno people"; both quite pod-like and equally disturbed by those who were not like them (read: everyone.)

The casual reference becomes tradition and then ironclad law. When Rich Rodriguez became the head coach at Michigan, he was immediately treated with outright disdain, with several of Carr's former players openly stating that he was not welcome until he had earned his way in and that the program was "theirs".

And so we come to the present day, where former Carr assistant, Brady Hoke, is now the coach and the cheerleading athletic director and former Bo benchwarmer, Dave Brandon™, is busy making excuses for his rather lackluster performance. That performance is largely based on a perception of what Michigan football should be and, of course, really never was. The modern game moves faster. The modern game incorporates new ideas on an almost monthly basis. The modern game learns and adapts and realizes that opponents will be doing the same on a weekly basis. Michigan football currently does none of those things but instead plunges ahead as only a stalwart "Michigan Man" can.

Just like water pipes, too much time doing the same thing in the same way leads to a slowing down of the flow of information, a buildup of detritus that inhibits the overall structure from functioning. The "Paterno people" are wedded to a distorted ideal of a coach who created their program 60 years ago and have driven out a capable coach in the process. The "Michigan Men" are wedded to a distorted ideal they've created around the coach who revived the program 45 years ago and they're helping to retain a coach who should have never been given the job in the first place and wouldn't have if he was not numbered among the carriers of pods.

The Rose Bowl kind of brought that problem to the fore again in an oblique manner, won as it was by the former Little Brother of football in the state of Michigan. I say "former" because it's highly unlikely that Michigan will be able to regain its former status under Hoke, whether nationally, in the conference, or in its own state. But the problem was brought into sharpest focus by watching the offense of MSU's opponent, Stanford. Stanford was brought to its recent run of glory by one Jim Harbaugh, former quarterback for Bo and latterly-heralded "Michigan Man." Harbaugh, who actually played for Bo (unlike most currently outspoken "Michigan Men"), installed a power running game at Stanford with a rather complicated system of checks and blocking, just like the old man. David Shaw, his successor, has reverted to the style seemingly favored by Hoke and Borges; that of "manball", often cited by ignorant football fans as a way to "impose your will on the defense" by hammering away at the line even when the defense is clearly lined up to stop just that kind of play. It's more like "imposing your willingness (to give up and die)" on the defense than anything else. Shaw tried it, MSU ate it alive (just like they did to us this season!) and Stanford lost. Michigan tried that, too, and gave up more plays for negative yardage than any other team in the nation.

Oh, but they were "Michigan Man" plays and that, for some, makes all the difference.