Thursday, August 11, 2016

Grasping at Straws: An Orioles Fan Reflects

photo by Kim Klement for USA Today.
The worst part is, there's always hope. Sisyphus wouldn't roll that rock if he never saw the crest of the mountain.

Professional sports are littered with perennially moribund franchises. Look to the Cleveland Browns, the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets, the Milwaukee Brewers. Teams so soundly rooted in mediocrity that their fans speak of them with the same rueful helplessness parents use when discussing their son's decision to pursue improv comedy as a career. What are you gonna do? These teams' woeful returns are dispiriting, but they offer a bizarre form of certainty. Death, taxes, a sub .500 season.

The Baltimore Orioles are not these teams. Or, at least, they aren't any more.

They were for a brutal stretch. It began roughly in the 1996 ALCS, when 12 year-old ne'er-do-well Jeffrey Maier reached into the field of play to corral a Derek Jeter flyout into the stands and umpire Rich Garcia, vested with the solemn authority of a league that had yet to adopt even the most cursory of replay systems, incorrectly ruled it a home run and set 20 years of Yankee fan insufferability into motion. A petty fan might note that Garcia had received a slap on the risk for gambling and was given the boot years later for, of all things, blowing important calls. The Orioles stumbled forward for one more season, then took a nose-dive for the next fifteen years, blowing through GMs, skippers, and talent as our free-spending division counterparts enjoyed the spoils of their expenditures. Hell, even the Rays clawed their way to the World Series in 2008. The Rays!

But then, in 2012, the winds began to shift. The previous season's highlight had been, in the tremendous spiteful nature of perpetual underdogs, a meaningless final game in which the Orioles were able to rob the promising Red Sox of a playoff berth. I mention this both to revel in our small-minded victory and to illustrate the size of the cloud in which we fans labored to find silver linings. The 2012 season also overlapped with my first full year living in Boston. As a Baltimore resident, the Orioles' bumbling performances made them easy to ignore in favor of schoolwork and other interests. I'd flip through the Sun's sports section on weekends, and grant the doleful baseball recap a grimace on my way to the comics. But a new job and city with few acquaintances left me with an abundance of free time. This, coupled with the bombast of Boston sports fans, caused my tribalist hackles to rise in defiant support of Baltimore's orange-and-black ambassadors.

And it was my (mis)fortune that I tuned in just as the O's began to find their feet. 2012 featured the introduction of Manny Machado and brief glimpses at Dylan Bundy, the two prize jewels in our dust bowl of a farm system. Buck Showalter, our erudite skipper, found his footing in managing a roster of free-swinging batters, inept starting pitchers, and wildly effective bullpen. After fifteen years of a broken record looping the same funeral dirge, that year jerked the needle off-track in a myriad of ways. A position player earned an extra-innings win over another position player. Their record in close games was miraculous. Their roster was composed of misfit toys, castoffs, and the smoldering remains of Jim Thome.

They arrived in the playoffs with all the gravitas of the Kool-Aid man and sent the Texas Rangers packing in the wild card game. The losing pitcher was Yu Darvish, a strikeout golem for whom the Rangers had coughed up 110 million dollars. We won with Joe Saunders, whose name and career ERA are both so unassuming one might have reasonably assumed he sold pretzels between innings to earn a little extra money. The postseason run was cut short in the divisional series, by a combination of the highest MLB payroll and a demonic possession of Raul Ibanez. But it was enough.

Improbable turns in sports are often dubbed "Cinderella stories," but the Orioles felt much more like an episode of Mr. Magoo. The charming, clunky way in which they eked out close wins and goofed around with one another gave Baltimore fans the worst possible feeling: hope. They'd conjured this season out of thin air - why couldn't they do it again? This optimism is the same strain that convinces people in quicksand that escape is just a matter of struggling hard enough and we huffed it like spray paint.

And so it began. 2013 saw the motley crew reassemble with a winning record, but less success. That year was dominated by the feel-great Red Sox, who rode a team-wide statistical aberration and the best sports quote in a generation to a World Series title. The Orioles finished tied for 3rd in the division, and the fans were disappointed but optimistic. Two winning seasons in a row? The MLB home run leader? Everything's coming up Milhouse! The enthusiasm caught on in the front office, where Dan Duquette jettisoned struggling young pitcher Jake Arrieta in the hopes that proven veteran rental Scott Feldman would be the firestarter that propelled the Orioles to their championship destiny. Feldman pitched passably. Arrieta was never heard from again. Picking the farm system clean for a shot at a trophy is a bit like robbing Future Peter to pay Present Peter, but the Orioles had 18 months of above-average play under their belts - the future was clearly now.

2014 was better, which meant it was worse. In keeping with the proud new tradition of unsustainable success, the Orioles' normally tight-fisted owner shelled out $50 million dollars for herky-jerk pitcher  Ubaldo Jimenez, whose starts had the same stolid consistency as a rabid pitbull. New addition Nelson Cruz provided fireworks and kept the home run title in Charm City for a second consecutive year, and the team's Jenga tower of wins convinced Duquette to ship top prospect Eduardo Rodriguez for a few months of Andrew Miller. The Baltimore faithful crowed as the Birds romped through the divisional series, then were forced to invent new profanity watching the Orioles lineups get mowed down by the eventual pennant-winning Royals bullpen. Of course, we reasoned, we had gotten unlucky. Manny Machado had been hurt. Closer Zach Britton had had an off-series. They'd figure it out in 2015.

They didn't.

2015 dropped them back into 3rd place, but the team acted as though everything but their record suggested they were in the catbird seat. Dan Duquette tried to scrounge a few more runs by heaving another top pitching prospect out the door for a one-season wonder. As Zach Davies enjoys a solid season with the Brewers, one wonders if the Orioles management remembers that developmental players eventually develop. Again we fans clung to the few bright spots like buoys in the ocean. "Kevin Gausman looks pretty good!" We'd reassure each other on chat boards. "Chris Davis won the home run title again!" We gorged on the morsels and convinced ourselves the next season would be The One.

And we're here, and it's the same song. We've got 23 year-old ace Dylan Bundy, who managed to overcome horrific injuries and more horrific organizational development to emerge as a real potential star. Manny Machado is in the MVP discussion. Another bargain basement hitter is providing big dividends. And for the fans, it's enough. Enough to forget that the farm system is a ghost town and even the tumbleweeds are being traded for marginal talent. Enough to ignore that our $168 million dollar first baseman is plummeting toward the Mendoza line like Slim Pickens. Enough to convince ourselves that wearing our Orioles hats backward, no, forward, no, backward, is enough to shift the cosmic tides. Maybe just me on that last one. Anything to reassure ourselves that we've left the barren days behind, that we're out of the woods.

And as we dip out of first place and watch as better run teams enjoy better success earned from better philosophies, the little victories are enough to goad us once more into the breach, to give that rock another push up the mountain, to hope. Christ.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Rocket Man

(OPEN ON:  sounds of chaos and destruction. JOR-EL kneels by a small spaceship, cradling a swaddled baby. the chaos fades)

Alas, alas! Krypton crumbles and our very race lies forsaken. There is nothing we can do. But you, my son, my beautiful Kal-El - you, I can spare this devastation. Though parting from you is to rip my own heart out, I must commend your body to the whims of fate.

(JOR-EL places the baby into the spaceship and stands.)

Fly safe, my beloved son. I steer you on a course to Earth, full of simple, kind, creatures. In time, they may revere you as a God.

(Spaceship ignition sounds)

Goodbye, Kal-El. May you become a super man, wherever you land.

(JOR-EL exits. it's revealed that TI-NA and ER-ICK have been watching this soliloquy. ti-na is also cradling a baby. there is a long silence.)
Well, I guess *Jor-el* gets to send his son to safety.

Really? Are we gonna do this now?

Remember when we went over to the El's house and Jor-El showed us his emergency spaceship-

Oh c'mon, Tina.

and I said "honey, maybe we should get an emergency spaceship" and you said "No Tina, that's stupid."

It was stupid! The only reason you'd need an emergency spaceship is if the entire planet was destroyed.

Attention citizens of Krypton. Total planetary destruction will commence in 5 minutes. Please proceed calmly to your preferred gravesite.


Ok, sure, not buying an emergency spaceship looks bad *in hindsight.*

It looks bad now, Er-ick.

Well I'm sorry I didn't predict the end of the world. Sorry I'm not Mr. Perfect Handsome Scientist like Jor-El.

This is not you versus Jor-El. This is me wanting to invest in the future, and you not wanting to.

I do too want to invest in the future!

You spent 20,000 Krypton-dollars on a portable stereo.

No, I spent 20,000 Krypton-dollars on the BEST portable stereo on the market. The sound on this thing is incredi-

Do you know how much emergency spaceships cost?

I- that's irrelevant.

They cost 20,000 Krypton dollars.

Plus, uh, storage costs. And upkeep.

Well, I'm so glad we have a portable stereo now that the world's ending. We can put our son in it and send him to safety. No, wait, that was my thing!

Look, I'm sorry, OK? I'm sorry. But it's not like shooting our son off into space is the optimal plan.

It's better than letting him get incinerated!

Yes, fair. I'm just saying, that planet - Earth? - I've read about that place and frankly it kind of sucks. The humans there are racist, and they're cruel, and they love karaoke.

What?! They haven't outlawed that interrogation technique?

They do it for FUN, Ti-na.

But the average human is a terrible singer! What kind of psycho narcissist would subject other people to that?

They don't care! They love it! That's where Jor-El's kid is headed. To the land of karaoke. 


(beat. TI-NA considers the baby. there's more rumbling.)

I love you, Ti-na. I'm glad we're together, at least.

I love you too. Karaoke, Jesus. You dodged a bullet, little one.

Hey, the portable stereo still has half its battery left. Want to listen to an Earth song?

Sure. But only if-

Of course.

No singing along!

(SFx:: Billy Joel's "For the Longest Time" plays.)

(fade out.)

Friday, July 1, 2016

Bachelorette Episode 5 recap - In Which My Hopes Are Ripped Into Confetti For The Bro Parade

Baseball’s 162-game slate means the highs and lows of individual games are hammered smooth on the anvil of relative scale - no match can mean that much in the grand scheme of things and all emotional outlying eventually regresses toward the mean. Football, however, is concentrated into 16 do-or-die agonizing jolts of adrenaline. The fortunes of a team are made or dashed over 60 minutes and a season can be lost irreparably to one or two plays.

(You can read the other episode recaps here:)
Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3
Episode 4
Episode 5 - you're here already! Great job!

The Bachelorette tends much more toward the latter in stakes, and nowhere was this more apparent than this week, when JoJo abandoned her habit of doling out pity roses and tacked hard toward the bronze charmers of the show. In short, she jettisoned Wells and Derek, my favorite contestants and two-thirds of the remaining intellectual contingent, leaving only James Taylor to dance uncertainly on the brink of elimination next to a bevy of unblinking Abercrombie models with “kajillion watt smiles”. But let us set the stage for this geek tragedy.

Tears are the body's way of letting you know you failed real bad.
Photo from ABC.

The episode’s new locale is Buenos Aires, Argentina, giving the boys a second chance to garble the native language. Hearing that JoJo has opted for a second 2-on-1 date (unprecedented, apparently, in Bachelor history) one of the suitors grumbles that these high-stakes dates are “no mas, no good.” As the men check into their usual opulent hotel, Chris takes a moment to check in with JoJo. She admits to feeling confused and conflicted, which is another producer mandate: it wouldn’t make for good television if she had shrugged and said “nah, I’m pretty much locked in at this point. No uncertainty for me, Chris.” Chris notes that if she, like her predecessor Ben Higgins, were to fall for two men, “the irony would be pretty thick,” reminding us that this show doesn’t have the best command of English, either.

In Which We See Wells Run Dry

The 1-on-1 date this week goes to Wells, and he uses his time in the spotlight to drop a bombshell: he is the only contestant left who has not kissed our bachelorette. The date card, which normally offers, as Derek puts it, a “cryptic” clue (vocal alert!), simply reads “Besame, Besame muchacho” - “kiss me, kiss me muchacho.” Wells girds himself for the date, changing into his coolest leather jacket and taking a few calming breaths. He confesses to the camera that he’s been waiting for the perfect moment.

The jock clique, for whom any moment is acceptable for smooching, razzes him on his way out the door, but it appears the producers are rooting for Wells - the date is a quasi-erotic, avant-garde piece of performance art. While “avant garde performance art” may not suggest romance, the show’s directors quickly strip our couple down to their skivvies and get them sloshing around in a sort of glass-bottomed kiddie pool.

"You guys gotta be out of here in 10, the butchers need their slaughtering tarp back."
Photo from ABC.

This sultry petri dish proves a worthy breeding ground for lust, and JoJo and Wells share a kiss. “You did it, Wells!” JoJo crows, and this teasing flirtation is the cutest moment in the show to date. They have an easy chemistry in their relationship and the smooch seems as though it has opened the floodgates for a torrid passion.

Imagine our surprise, then, when Wells gets the boot after a terse, unpleasant dinner. The two begin talking about past relationships, and Wells’ cynicism about love unnerves JoJo enough that she withholds the rose. Wells leaves disappointed but dry-eyed - at least he still has his cool jacket.

In Which James Pairs Whine With Cheesiness

The night’s upheaval is burned away in the morning light, and the next day sees everyone but Derek and Chase depart for the group date. Having blown the budget on the bizarre Argentine drama, this day’s outing seems to amount to wandering the streets and bothering locals. James huffs alongside his handsomer counterparts and continues his season-long soliloquy about how unworthy he is to be present. The cameras underscore his insecurity with shots of Rodger Rodgers flashing cheesecake shots of his abs and Robby muscling JoJo into the air.

The tension mounts as the date concludes with a street-soccer penalty shot contest. James, the gawky underdog, is the only one to doink the ball into the goal and win the kiss from JoJo. We’re meant to root for him but instead we’re all waiting for the other cleat to drop: it takes more than a total lack of confidence and mediocre looks to win this show, and it feels as though James’ hourglass should have run dry by now.

When the group retires to one of these nondescript parlors to hang out (seriously, I’ve never seen these weird drawing rooms anywhere but on this show - they have a purgatorial vibe), James decides to take a leaf from Evan’s book and uses his alone time to gripe about Rodger Rodgers. His complaint is that Jordan is…entitled? but the only evidence he submits to the court is a quarrel about the rules of a poker game, and James manages to sputter on about it for minutes without providing any additional detail. It’s agonizing watching a grown man blunder on about another man being mean at a card game - eventually Amy can’t take it and shouts “this is so STUPID!”

Eventually his anger will manifest in a chin cleft.
Photo from ABC.

But the show hangs on to this non-issue with dogged resignation. After James finishes his coup d’eblah, JoJo pulls Rodger Rodgers aside, who has to defend himself against a vague assault on his general character, and does so as best as he can. For the record, I dislike Rodger Rodgers as much as anybody, but this kangaroo court made me righteously indignant on his behalf. He does his best to assuage JoJo’s nerves that he is…entitled? and stalks back to the waiting room to sit silently next to his accuser. With doubts lingering about the football star, and disgust at the whininess of the futbol star, JoJo gives the group date rose to Luke, who wisely chose to use his mouth for smooching rather than baseless personal attacks.

In Which We See Chase 'n Waterfalls

The week’s final date is a dual (duel?) tango between the two most taciturn candidates remaining: Derek, the brains, and Chase, the brawn. JoJo meets the men outside in a skin-tight red dress. Since ABC is in the habit of releasing deleted scenes, they might consider a super-cut of all the street harassment JoJo must endure walking to date venues in her revealing attire.* She takes Derek and Chase upstairs to a dance studio, where they are greeted by an instructor equally skilled in tango and décolletage. She guides the three through a few moves and leaves JoJo to act out a dance of pantomimed competition. Derek is clearly the superior dancer, and his comfort in his body allows him to focus on JoJo rather than his own feet while moving to the music. His uncertainty from the previous week seems to have vanished - in confessionals, he asserts confidently that he expects the rose tonight. Alas, as the show’s editors love to remind us, pride goeth before the fall.

Dancing is followed with dinner, and each man takes JoJo aside for a relationship assessment. Derek’s relaxation is juxtaposed with Chase’s unease, and JoJo must coax the latter into admitting his feelings for her. Some untapped well of understanding spouts up in Chase’s brain and he realizes the peril of staying silent. He burps out a few pleasantries to placate JoJo, but has nowhere near the showing of Derek. But I am no expert in the ways of romance, and so had to collect my jaw from the floor when JoJo picks Chase over Derek. Derek, for whom I have inordinate and unfounded fondness, is as blindsided as I, and leaves dinner in tears. He cries at length in his limo, and ABC twists the knife by cutting his tearful goodbye with a concert where a singer belts out “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” Chase and JoJo snuggle and listen, blissfully unaware of the irony.

he's whispering sweet nothings in her ear. That is, he's whispering nothing but the word "sweet."
Photo from ABC.
At this point, I’ve abandoned all hope and resign myself to playing out the string of this season watching JoJo choose between the Gold’sGym Variations. With Wells and Derek ousted, it seems only natural that she’d complete the trifecta and drop James like an average-looking potato. Indeed, the final rose comes down to him or Alex, the Small Soldier. But JoJo dekes us yet again, producing one rose for each man. James is as relieved as Alex is peeved - he views this as a prolonging of the inevitable. James is just happy to be here, and I’m happy to have him. He adds a little spice to the stew, a changeup to the diet of high heat. And as the contestants assume the Spanish say, “Que Michael Cera, Michael Cera.”

*Amy wants me to remind the readers that street harassment does not depend on outfits or attractiveness and is based instead on men's desire to stake claims in the public space of women.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Bachelorette Recap Episode 4: The Arc of the Show is Long, But It Bends Toward Being OK, I Guess

(here you can read the recaps for:
Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3)

Apologies readers. This series skipped over the second half of the Chad saga. In short, two vascular sybarites accompanied JoJo into the woods and only one came back - Alex, the diminutive Marine, prevailed over the show’s archvillian. The episode suggested that Chad might worm his way back into our Bachelorette’s good graces, but the beginning of episode 4 proves this to be yet another well-edited deke. Chad indeed returns to confront the rest of the men, and, following much grimacing and grunting, departs without resulting to the violence his pulsing neck veins intimate. The boys celebrate his vanquishment with streamers and toasts, smashing the conquering hero Alex’s face into a large cake - the significance of these meathead rituals is uncertain but the relief is not. While they are freed of Chad's psychotic reign, we the audience are not - a commercial break reveals he will appear on Bachelor In Paradise, a grim reminder that ABC, like every other network, holds ratings uber alles.

The post-Chad joy fades rapidly as the men each begin to realize the vacuum Chad left. Wells, the least-imposing and most-insightful of the contestants, nails the implications: without Chad as a focal point for the group’s animosity, the remaining men will begin to turn on one another. While Wells does not mention it outright, the parallels to Saddam Hussein’s downfall and the subsequent rise of ISIS are too stark to ignore. Ousting Chad was satisfying, but has already begun to foment instability in the region. JoJo returns to the Pennsylvania lodging and the men clamor for time alone with her. In short order, she smooches Robby, Alex, and Rodger Rodgers, as the others wallow in anxiety. The night ends with the rose ceremony we were denied last week. Among the evictees are James F, whose primary contribution to the show was forcing people to clarify that they were referring to James T, and, most disappointingly, the resident Canadian, Justin. His confessional, however, makes it worthwhile - he attempts to indict JoJo by suggesting she was interested in more than just the candidate’s looks; if it were a strict aesthetic meritocracy, Justin fumes, no one would hold a candle to his physique. He reasons that with so many people in the world, it’s extremely unlikely that he and JoJo were meant for each other. Casting about for an adequate comparison proves too much, though, and he ends up falling down the staircase of his own analogy: “it’s more likely that I’d…get…hit by lightning……while…..shaving” he manages.

Daniel stares way off in the distance at his original point. Photo from ABC.

After a commercial break (which all seem to feature blandly handsome actors that could easily be switched into contestant roles with no one the wiser), JoJo and the fellas pack up and depart Pittsburgh for Uruguay. The guys’ cheers are low key as they struggle to remember to which continent this unfamiliar country belongs, then swell as they realize it’s South America. Given that they spend 90 percent of their time idling around lavish hotels, it seems a bit extravagant to fly them so far for the few cultural experiences they’ll encounter - surely holing them up in an LA Hilton and occasionally screening Planet Earth episodes would suffice.

Rodger Rodgers win’s the new locale’s first one-on-one date, and his run of success with JoJo inspires some jealousy in the other candidates. He and JoJo embark on a date that the producers must have hoped would be jaw-dropping, but comes across unremarkable. The two take a yacht to an isolated cove and frolic with Seals, but there are diminishing returns on seeing two genetically flawless beings strip to their skivvies and embrace in a secluded Xanadu. The show starts to feel stale as we are subjected to so much of the same thing and I hope to see more of the oddball contestants in the future - the Wells’, Evans, and James Taylors provide a refreshing honesty about the human condition just by slouching there.

Great. Another two perfect human specimens delighting in the grandeur of nature. Awesome.
Photo from ABC.

The next day features a group date that, for once, is not tailored to one of the men’s skill set. It turns out to be sand-surfing, and the group’s collective haplessness is a light moment in the episode. Unfortunately for those of us who would happily watch another hour of smarmy raconteurs falling downhill, a thunderstorm cuts the activity short. The extended hangout time gives the candidates time to make strides in their individual areas of weakness. Luke, painted as emotionally distant, listens as hard as he can to JoJo, fixing her with such an intense stare I was nervous she’d catch fire. James Taylor (now the only remaining “James”), nervous about romantic compatibility, attempts to up his sexual magnetism by cradling JoJo’s head like a rare vase as he smooches her. And Derek feels as though he has faded into the background since his strong start in Episode 2, so he tries the most straightforward approach and lays out his insecurities to JoJo directly.

At this point I must remind you that these recaps do not maintain any objectivity. Derek has been my pick as the show’s eventual winner since his erudite turn on the “choices” date, and so I view his actions with rose-colored glasses. I like Derek and Wells and I make no promise that I will not lavish them with undue praise and editorial favoritism.

Derek’s "Crisis of Confidence" speech wins JoJo’s approval, and she bestows the group date’s rose on him. The other candidates, however, see his admissions as a calculated, phony display. The chief dissenter is once again Alex, who may be looking to recapture his moment of glory by rooting out yet another malcontent from the show. This time, however, the marine goes a bridge too far. Derek is no Chad, and Alex’s scorn feels misplaced. As he mocks Derek for needing reassurance, Amy rightfully points out that our little leatherneck is displaying quite a bit of insecurity himself by jumping so quickly to criticism.

Though the tension between Derek and the jocks is palpable, ABC shunts us over to yet another tepid date - this time with Robby. In a cadre of mannequins, Robby somehow is indisputably the most Ken Doll motherfucker of the bunch. He and JoJo jump in the water and walk in the street and he holds forth on his emotional hardship over dinner. The needle has run over this track so many times that it begins to distort reality: our TV starts emitting a tinny whine during Robby’s sob story, making it even more unlistenable. Then they smooch with fireworks in the background. Amy and I sprain our wrists doing dismissive jackoff motions.

photo from ABC

When we finally return to the meat of the show, Derek decides to confront the schoolyard bullies, and tells them he sees them forming a clique. The clique scoffs at the accusation, as cliques do. Rodger Rodgers’ pencil head quivers with indignation. Thankfully, Wells, ever the voice of reason, steps in and plays peacemaker, defusing things as the men are lined up for yet another elimination ceremony. As the usual suspects are granted their roses, I find myself roped in by the mounting anxiety - with one rose left, Evan, Wells, Grant, and Vinny remain. I cross my fingers and shrink back in nervous anticipation as the music bores in mercilessly. But JoJo hears my silent prayer and grants the last flower to Wells. Amy looks on bemused as I celebrate as raucously as I had the previous night, when the Cavaliers clinched Cleveland’s first championship in over 50 years. While I was exultant to see my favorite contestants survive another week, this episode saw one of the immutable Bachelorette laws come to pass - this round of cuts bleached the remaining color out of the contestant’s racial tapestry. Congrats to JoJo, as she continues her now unfettered search for Mr. White.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Even As a Liberal, I Can Admit PC Culture Is Ruining Comedy

Sorry for tricking you. That was a clickbait headline and this is a clickbait picture. This is really my Bachelorette Episode 3 recap. Sorry.
sorry. Photo via snopes
(Episode 1's recap is here.)
(Episode 2's recap is here.)

Episode 3 of The Bachelorette doggedly pursues the plot line laid down in Episode 2; that of The People vs. Chad. While it was my intention to ignore the ignoramus until he had been served his just desserts and shunted off the show, Chad left little cinematic meat on the bone and so we must reflect a little while on his cartoonish villainry.

We open on champagne flutes, half-eaten hors d'oeuvres, and men, all strewn carelessly about the grounds. The footage is meant to convey the messiness of the rose ceremony and intramural drama, but instead provokes questions about the Bachelorette lifestyle: who usually tidies up after the parties? Is there a chore wheel? Such domestic mysteries are left to audience interpretation as Chris Harrison, our waxen host, intrudes upon the scene to lay out the ground rules for this week's dates. One-on-ones now have more tension than Alex's dress shirts, as failing to obtain a rose means an automatic ejection. With that, Chase is dispatched to join JoJo on the first rendezvous of the episode.

Chase is a boilerplate hunk, a mathematical average of the other men in the mansion. When Hollywood eventually deems it time for a gender-swapped Austin Powers reboot, Chase will make a fine male Fem-Bot. He and JoJo venture into a yoga studio, where an instructor leads them through some pelvic and vocal warmups. The outing is an old Bachelorette fallback - a mildly exotic experience that allows our wonderbread-white contestants to roll their eyes to the audience. ABC's music reinforces how wacky the activity is, because it is from a different culture, because the show is tacitly racist. As they flail their limbs hesitantly, Chase and JoJo take solace in each other's discomfort, highlighting the abysmally low threshold hot people have for feeling weird. The instructor uses a silent, male assistant for a demonstration and his thousand-yard stare bores into the camera.

The way sweat merely enhances our attractiveness is, like, soooo awkward.
Photo via ABC
Following their brush with a different culture, the two adjourn to a special surprise that Chase has in store - live music. Amy and I crumple at the awkwardness of the setup - to us, nothing is worse than these "pathetic little concerts" (her words) performed by desperate groups to an audience of two. The camera swoops up and away from the revolving duo and languid crooning, as grateful to depart as we are. Chase gets the rose, but nobody cares.

The serenity of their date is juxtaposed with the crockpot of testosterone simmering back at the mansion. Chad, and his flunky Daniel, exercise outdoors, their bodies throwing the sun's light back up at it in anaerobic defiance. Their muscles are an affront to a God they neither recognize nor respect. The other contestants mutter about Chad's behavior, and when the men congregate, the agitation boils over into verbal scuffles. Chad, ever unwilling to participate in the rules of the Bachelorette universe, balks at attending a group date with "12 other dudes." Rodger Rodgers and the others make the extremely fair point that the mansion itself is home to many more than "12 other dudes." One person suggests Chad recuse himself, reminding him that "Chris [Harrison] said there's no rules." This is yet another mystifying comment on the uncertain autonomy of the show's contestants - how much freedom do the men really have?

In the end, Chad compromises by participating and sulking the whole time. The cadre of beefcakes is shuttled to a small blackbox theater. Amy and I grip the sofa arms in terror, praying they aren't about to perform improv comedy, then relax when the nature of the date is revealed - it's a sex-themed story-telling show. Far, far less embarrassing. ABC underscores the naughtiness with a lascivious bassline riff. While the guys brainstorm their anecdotes backstage, Evan confides to the camera that he intends to use his spot to submarine Chad. In Evan's words, "the man gloves might come out today," which is a saying used exclusively by Evan. Feel free to weigh in with your interpretation of "man gloves" - for me the phrase conjured something fingerless and leather, gloves you'd see on the frontman of an 80's hair metal band. I'm unsure what that says about me.
Vinny describes being caught by his mother and oh whoops shows off his body too how embarrassing.
Photo via ABC

Evan's apparel-based Rorschach test aside, the date goes remarkably well. Several of the men have a natural onstage charisma and good sense of humor - Amy and I were impressed with Grant, who seemed totally at ease regaling the audience with an embarrassing tale of being caught by the police. Rodger Rodgers leans too much on standup for our taste, and Chad, predictably, phones it in. Evan's monologue is a not-exactly-veiled insinuation that Chad is on steroids and a warning about the sexual side effects said steroids can cause. He's valiant but extremely nervous, and doesn't get the audience reaction he's hoping for. As he steps offstage, he and Chad have an altercation that leaves Evan's shirt ripped and Chad fuming about the allegations. "I'm not mad about what he said," he proclaims, massaging his knuckles. As he walks out, he throws a haymaker at the stage door.

Afterward, JoJo and her harem reconvene in what appears to be a frontiersman's Ikea, milling around wagon wheels and rough-hewn furniture. Multiple guys turn their conversations to Chad's violent behavior, while he stalks in and out of the room, like a creatine-infused dad who repeatedly wanders by "just getting something from the kitchen" to spy on his daughter and her boyfriend. His time with JoJo does little to redeem himself and he admits to resorting to physical altercations when he cannot figure out another way to confront someone. Chad's simian confusion when JoJo gives the group date rose to Evan is a delight to those of us rooting against him.

The second one-on-one date is with James Taylor, the self-deprecatory good guy. He and JoJo take a swing-dancing lesson with an elderly dancer, and he earns a few points with his cheerful enthusiasm in the face of ineptitude. While JoJo seems to harbor a soft spot for the underdogs, Amy and I spot the cracks beginning to form in the ice. She confesses that her hesitation with James is about "getting past the friendship stage," coded language in the Bachelor universe for discussing the friendly uggos that get wiped out before things get too serious. James savages his own looks while talking with JoJo, which must put her in an uncomfortable position: he's being unkind to himself, but he ain't wrong (relatively speaking, of course).

The episode concludes on a cliffhanger. Chris Harrison confronts Chad about his behavior but allows him to stay on, and Chad shows no signs of penitence. He lumbers back into the mansion as the others confess their concerns about him. On a positive note, Daniel, who seemed fairly clueless in episode one, uses the word "exacerbate" correctly. Perhaps there is hope after all.
He also successfully navigated a Hitler-Mussolini-Trump analogy. Great job!
Photo via ABC

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Bachelorette Recap Episode 2: Limousines Hold The Faithful Departed

As a child, my favorite Beatle was Ringo. This was, in some part, due to my affinity for plucky underdogs. Watching A Hard Day's Night and seeing him mope from scene to scene, rifling through a paltry stack of fan letters, sent a swell of vicarious dismay through my young mind and I frowned disapprovingly as the three more popular cavalry of the British invasion bopped gaily from scene to scene.  But on a simpler level, I liked Ringo because he was the only one I could identify. His beaky nose, shaggier hair, and bloodhound eyes meant I could pick him out from John, Paul, and George, who to me were simply three identical mop tops.

And therefore, I cursed ABC in vain as episode 2 saw my north star, Brandon, winked out. No fanfare, neither bangs nor whimpers - he was a chill mist, evaporating in the dawn of reality television. How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the remaining candidates!

Rest easy, chill one. May your dreams be as deep as your V-neck.

Brandon is consummate Bachelorette chaff - easygoing, different enough to not blend in but not enough to generate producer interest. A self-described "hipster" (in 2016, a surefire sign of a boring human), his gawky frame, long hair, and permanent beanie were easy reference points amid a millieu of close-shaven gym rats. Brandon's screen time came primarily as he meandered cheerfully in the background, singing along to James' guitar licks, schmoozing with other houseguests, and generally enjoying the mansion experience. His lone highlight play came in episode one, when he delivered a flawless "Damn Daniel," savaging both the Canadian candidate's graceless pool entrance and clumsy "Damn, JoJo" introductory line. Brandon departed without so much as a talking head confessional, but it was vintage Brandon: his zen equanimity will be missed, and fondly remembered.

Returning to the action the showrunners cared to capture, the episode's action proceeds apace. Luke, the gallant Texan who bestowed a pair of boots on JoJo on opening night, turns surly and peevish. We get several talking heads where he lamented losing a group date challenge to Grant. The once-laconic cowboy became a sniveling Gollum, bemoaning his lost precious. He seemed remarkably surprised to have been bested in a firefighter competition to Grant, a real-life firefighter, whose gallantry goes largely unrewarded as JoJo directs her affection toward Wells instead.

Wells seems remarkably self-aware and good-natured, making several cracks at his own abortive attempts to lug firehoses over obstacle courses. JoJo gives him a rose for his dogged determination - Amy informs me that "participation trophies" are mainstays of early Bachelorette episodes. Wells admits as much to the camera, and is bemused by the quirks of the show's mechanisms. I begin to empathize with him, but warily - I know even this minor questioning of the Emperor's clothes will be his downfall sooner rather than later.

Derek, another erudite challenger, receives a one-on-one date. The theme is "choices," but talking openly about the agency of the show's contestants and protagonists is a particularly black bit of comedy in a show where the participants are on house arrest with no unregulated access to the outside world. We follow them as they elect to pursue the "air" over "sea", "north" instead of "south" and "Golden Gate Bridge" rather than "Lombard Street." Amy and I found ourselves more curious about the paths not taken, curious if any PAs were dispatched to alert the waiting crews that the plan was off, or if they merely stayed stuck in time, Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns left brimming with romance's Potential Energy.

One pilot only lies, and the other only tells the truth. Both flights are delayed.

Alas, these mysteries are left unsolved. Derek and JoJo enjoy a romantic picnic, and Derek receives a rose, which he says "validates" the experience of the day. The three-syllable word piques our interest and vaults Derek into the 99th percentile of all-time Bachelorette contestants.

The episode's second group date features a trip to ESPN and a "power ranking" of the dates, which is as arbitrary and pointless as their rankings of any other league. Rodger Rodgers says "quarterback" four times in one sentence. James Taylor, the unfortunately-named singer-songwriter, emerges victorious, and, in a bizarre bit of intimacy with JoJo, admits to being insecure about the looks of the other contestants and out of his depth. JoJo, starved for emotional honesty, loves it, but I imagine anything more than a small dose will prove grating in the long run. I look forward to finding out.

Also Chad got a rose.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Bachelorette Recap Episode 1: Godspeed, You Fleshy Automatons

The Bachelorette, a long-running reality show wherein a bevy of handsome men compete for the romantic affection of a single woman, entered its 12th season on the heels of a remarkably low-key Bachelor (the show's gender-reversed counterpart). That show concluded with Ben Higgins, a winsome, soft-spoken Indianan, proposing to Lauren Bushnell, a charming, upbeat blonde with whom Ben had an instant and enduring chemistry. The other women on the show departed with little fanfare or hullabaloo and the whole procedure felt rather inevitable. Ben was widely regarded as one of the most-loved Bachelor protagonists, which led to a reactionary distaste for him from other Bachelor fans - everyone has their own reason for tuning in, but I imagine that a nice guy marrying a nice woman with whom he built up a (relatively) long-term relationship was anathema to those who watch for the drama and shouting that reality dating shows usually provide.
JoJo, posing in front of a photo Ansel Adams handed in last minute
to his high school art teacher.

I began watching this show circumstantially. My fiancee Amy is a more devoted fan, and I would sit in the room noodling on my laptop as she watched and texted with college friends about the treachery and intrigue of the contestants. Eventually, the action onscreen proved more compelling than endlessly refreshing Facebook and I settled into the weekly routine. I tsked at the lothario Juan Pablo, wondered why district attorney Andi would succumb to the wooing of a meathead, endured the hokey charm of farmer Chris, and rooted wholeheartedly for dance teacher Kaitlyn and nice boy Ben. In the last round, I worked with Amy on her Bachelor elimination bracket, and we pored over the season preview footage for glimpses of contestants the way other people study the Zapruder film. My credentials for reviewing this show amount to an unabashed fandom, a more knowledgeable partner, and my correct prediction that Lauren B would end up as Ben's wife. But enough about me.

As is the custom, the titular bachelorette for this run was plucked from Ben's less-fortunate suitors - in this case, 25 year-old JoJo Fletcher, an outdoorsy Texas real estate developer and the runner-up for Ben's heart. One of the more dramatic moments of the previous season came when Ben confessed separately to both Lauren and JoJo that he loved them - not an unreasonable confession in my mind, but, per Amy, who understands the show dynamics better, a verboten occurrence in the Bachelor/Bachelorette universe. The protagonist is supposed to wait until the proposal to make a declaration of love - this faux pas provided plenty of emotional accelerant for JoJo, who had proof positive of how close she came to finding a lasting love.

Part 1: Preface
The introductory episode opens with JoJo reflecting on her experience with Ben - still stinging from the rejection but hopeful for the future. Her encounter, she explains, opened her to the realization that a love that powerful both exists and is possible down the road. Her introspection comes via voice-over, as the camera trains on our bachelorette strolling, aimlessly and bikini-clad, down a beach at sunset. She perches on a rocky outcrop, looking toward the horizon. The voice-over JoJo speculates about her future husband, while onscreen JoJo wills herself not to flinch as she sits on the uneven crags.

We are then treated to a montage of brief introductions to this season's candidates. Among them are Jordan, football player and younger brother of more accomplished football player Aaron Rodgers, U.S. Marine and identical twin Alex (alas, unlike last season, we do not get both twins as contestants - Alex's brother is married), and, in a rather meta twist, self-professed Bachelor superfan James S. Each describes their careers (or hobbies, in James' case) and purports to be the only man for JoJo.

JoJo, meanwhile, enjoys a tête-à-tête with former Bachelorettes Kaitlyn, Ali, and Desiree. They ply her with wisdom, cautioning her against going with simply the most attractive guy and urging her to seek out a meaningful connection. The advice is well-worn and cliched but the earnestness of the women is pleasant - in a show whose central conceit is intragendered conflict, it is heartening to see these members of a bizarre sorority caring for one another.

Part 2: The Introductions
We return from a commercial break to find JoJo, resplendent in a sparkling silver dress outside the Bachelorette mansion. Amy interjects with a unpleasant dose of reality - contestants must provide their own wardrobes. This is less onerous in Bachelorette seasons than Bachelor ones, but it is unsettling to think that the candidates are not only giving up their jobs to appear on the show but responsible for purchasing their own outfits. The show's host, Chris Harrison, gives JoJo a few words of encouragement. The contestants' introductions are a whirlwind of well-tailored hunks shambling past our lovelorn ingenue, offering a grating, producer-mandated pickup line in the hopes of endearing themselves to both her and the audience. This early in the show, our gladiators' personalities have not yet begun to pupate, leaving us with little to distinguish them unless they opt for an off-beat costume or entrance - Amy and I owe a debt of gratitude to Nick, dressed as Santa, and Jonathan, bedecked in a kilt, for punctuating an otherwise dreary procession of bicep-hugging Armani suits. Fortunately, the editing staff at ABC offers guidance in the form of emotive orchestral cues: when JoJo meets a genuine, down-to-earth guy, the violins swell in anticipation of romance to be; when she encounters a goofball, staccato notes emphasize the left-field from whence this joker emerged.
Somewhere in Burbank a factory worker is pushing a bin full of these guys
down to the Quality Control department. Source:

It should be noted that despite a ceaseless barrage of boring peoples' attempts to be interesting, our Bachelorette receives each man with grace and good humor. My fiancee remarked on the incredible depth of forbearance it must take to endure these open-mic Adonises and I agreed. Once the last of the heartthrobs had been packed into the mansion like so many chiseled sardines, JoJo reconvenes briefly with our host, Chris Harrison (his surname a useful life preserver to prevent his disappearance into the abyss of dark suit jackets). He asks if she believes the love of her life might be inside, and she answers vaguely in the affirmative, though the question is rhetorical: what might the studio's contingency plan be if JoJo decides that none of the contestants is a viable spouse and motors off in one of the available limousines? With no one left to distribute roses and thus thin the herd, the bros infesting the mansion would multiply unchecked, leading to severe cologne and whey shortages in the surrounding neighborhoods. Hunting licenses would be granted to curtail the population, some of the beefcakes would be tagged and released to study their migratory patterns, and Chris Harrison would cede his authority to a host more suited to the action at hand - David Attenborough, say. While no doubt this new program would command a sizeable audience, JoJo's optimism relegates us to reviewing the show we deserve, not the one we want.

Our bachelorette makes her debutante entrance into the meat market and offers a few words of greeting to the teeming horde of masculinity thronging around her. They raise their glasses in a toast, and before the champagne can hit the toned stomach walls, JoJo is whisked away for a private conversation by Alex, the Marine. As they sit by the pool, the camera crews are quick to focus on Alex's feet dangling above the marble. More than one talking-head confessional remarks on the military man's diminutive stature - a google search reveals we are the same height. Alex is undaunted by the backbiting of his more statuesque comrades and invites our heroine to watch as he pumps out several pushups, demonstrating his virility if not his capacity for subtlety.

Other candidates press for time with JoJo to varying degrees of success. Pity poor Will, who cadges an uncomfortable smooch by means of a paper fortune-teller - JoJo laments the encounter in a confessional, and the show editors are quick to contrast his attempt with Jordan's. Jordan is our first likely candidate of the evening (the music is quick to confirm these suspicions) and he tiptoes around name-dropping his NFL superstar brother, which I found first admirable and then annoying, like Harvard students who admit to "going to school near Boston." Amy decides to do the job for him and refer to him only as "Roger Rodgers." Nevertheless, Jordan's confidence is a welcome respite for JoJo, who has heard seemingly hundreds of variations of "I'm a little nervous" from other suitors.

Luke, a fellow Texan, and Nick, the Santa impersonator, both make significant headway as well. Our heroine seems to gravitate toward self-assuredness early on, and Nick owns his slapstick with good humor. Luke is quieter and more deferential but exudes thoughtfulness - he gifts JoJo a pair of cowboy boots and does not say much about it. Likewise, she finds "bad boy" Chad intriguing - Chad wins my approval by scoffing at the put-on bashfulness of other suitors. He knows the rhythms of reality shows and has already begun styling himself as the brash alpha-male. I enjoy his blunt appraisals but grow concerned during the season preview, which hints that his temerity manifests in acts of violence.

While the budding romances build, ABC recognizes that we need our sentimentality cut with humor, and finds plenty in Daniel. Amy and I initially misread his occupation as "comedian" and groaned in horrified anticipation when he introduced himself with "Damn, JoJo!" - a hamfisted play on a meme created by and for teenagers. Later, in his first one-on-one conversation, he doubles down, trying desperately to clarify what he meant to a bewildered JoJo. While this behavior is bog standard for comedians, Amy and I are relieved to see that his job is, in reality, "Canadian." (Bachelor producers will often provide humorous non-occupations for contestants; this season also features a "Bachelor Superfan" and a "Hipster").

Daniel finds himself on the outs with the other men of the house and, like many seeking solace, turns to the bottle. While several contestants end up inebriated and stumbling, none reaches Daniel's level. Our northerly suitor, backed into an uncomfortable social corner, responds by stripping down to his underwear and diving into the pool. He spends the next few minutes wandering in and out of frame, dripping and cupping his hands over his nether regions. The others avoid his glance.
Daniel contemplates the totality of events that have led him to this point,
and flexes his tricep for the camera. Source:

Part 3: Roses (spoilers)
As the evening draws to a close, the men are rounded up and shuttled into the rose room. (Amy weighs in again - time is distorted within the mansion, but the eliminations come around daybreak, so it's reasonable to suspect that sleep deprivation plays a factor in the contestant's erratic behavior.) Daniel is re-clothed, and Jordan's smooth operating has earned him the "first impression" rose, granting him safety from being eliminated.

Before the cuts are made, we get a surprise guest appearance from former contestant Jake Pavelka. This proved to be the most nerve-wracking aspect of the episode. I don't recognize the name, but Amy pulls up a clip from a past season that reveals him to be a dead-eyed, emotionally abusive psychopath. He is remorseless and calculating and a remarkably sordid stain in the squeaky-clean annals of a Disney affiliated network show. Amy mentions that, after his Bachelor-sponsored relationship ended, he was placed into one of the spinoff series with his ex, without her knowledge or consent. She spent the rest of her time on that show openly worrying for her own safety. If he is to be an additional contestant this season, the ethical queasiness of watching this show would grow exponentially. We breathe a sigh of relief when he reveals he only wants to wish JoJo well on her journey and departs without incident. Nevertheless, this colors our otherwise favorable opinion of JoJo herself - she describes him as "practically a brother."
The face of a man who has learned to smile through careful study and imitation.

With the psychopath gone, JoJo begins to dole out roses. Here we get perhaps the least useful talking head confessionals, where guys essentially regurgitate the rules of the show and admit to being nervous - "she keeps giving out roses, and hasn't given me one yet, which means I could go home, which would suck, because I don't want to go home yet" is not a direct quote, but a fair approximation of what's being conveyed. Among the surprises inclusions are Evan, a relatively average-looking ED consultant, lushes Daniel and Vinny, and Brandon, whose contribution to the show thus far has amounted to wide-eyed scowls in the background. Among the eliminated, my biggest disappointment comes in Jonathan, a half-Chinese half-Scottish charmer who arrived in a kilt and made a tired crack about his Scottish half being "below the belt." He seems nice enough, and it feels a bit wasteful to throw half your ancestry's genitals under the bus and not make it to week two. No one eliminated has built up any rapport with our bachelorette, so they leave calmly and ruefully in the light of the rising sun. Inside, JoJo once more toasts with the remaining men - a final moment of calm before the storm of the show. Strap yourselves in.