Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Clash Of the Titan

It is no longer possible to come up with new, exciting ways to describe the streak that Zenyatta has been on since she first stepped into the starting gate in 2007, nearly three years ago. Nineteen starts, 19 wins. She's also learned how to pose for photographers, and she's so good at it by now that I think Miss Tyra would approve of how she finds the light.

TeeVee networks, sports channels and magazines regularly report on the Triple Crown. ESPN may mention the Breeder's Cup. But the truth be told, it's been a long damned time since any of these horses stuck around for more than one news cycle. But still they cling to their Derby, even as you see horses like Point Given and this year's Lookin At Lucky (who isn't) get pasted in the too-big Derby field, only to come back and assert their superiority in later races.

But by then, the news has moved on. No potential Triple Crown winner? So long, suckers. There's basketfootbaseball to report on! We used to have the same three-year-olds through the entire Triple Crown, but even that's different now. Horses aren't brought up to be able to run every two or three weeks anymore. Hell, not even every six or seven weeks. Trainers complain about the rigors of the Triple Crown, like it's some new thing and horses didn't used to routinely do it.

But last year, two fillies emerged. Given this country's predilection for sexism (more on that in a later post), it took everyone awhile to catch on. Racing caught onto Rachel Alexandra right away. She ran eight times and won all eight, beating males three times. It was an historic, if carefully chosen campaign and Rachel was rewarded by being voted Horse Of The Year. For all that Rachel did in the latter half of the year, it was her electrifying, comment-defying bazillion length victory in the Kentucky Oaks that was her most impressive. That was in May. And then in November, we had Zenyatta's breathtaking sweep to victory in the Breeder's Cup Classic past a bunch of sensational boys, with her ears flicking around as if to say, "Males? Pfaugh. NOT impressed."

Two remarkable performances from two remarkable fillies.

The Eastern-based turf writers and handicappers felt comfortable with Rachel. She ran in the East, she was stepping out of her division to beat the boys, and she was doing it on what they call "natural dirt," which we all know is anything but. Zenyatta made them uneasy. She ran on "synthetic" racetracks, and the Easterners just hate synthetic tracks. If you ever see a "flubber" reference, that's what they mean. But Zenyatta was going to retire, so everything would be fine. However, Zenyatta was brought back for 2010, and then she became a problem for her detractors.

Especially when my most beloved villain, wine fellow Jess Jackson, started issuing his press releases and challenges to the Zenyatta camp. Jess, you see, purchased Rachel Alexandra after her Kentucky Oaks win for about ten million dollars. On a blog, some jackhole praised Jackson for having an eye for picking out horses. Honey, if I'd had ten million dollars, I would have bought Rachel Alexandra after the Oaks, too. Jess Jackson wanted another Horse Of The Year, and so he bought one. He wanted to bring Rachel and Zenyatta together at Oaklawn for the Race of the Century. Zenyatta came; Rachel didn't. As has become bitterly apparent, Rachel was not the same horse in 2010 as she was in 2009. Either that, or (as happens with young horses) the rest of her peer group caught up to her. She was beaten three out of five races and recently retired. Nobody knows why. Jess Jackson, who's famous for blathering on until you want to eat your own hair, hasn't said why. And Rachel's trainer, Steve Asmussen, apparently has some kind of a contract of muteness and isn't allowed to speak.

So Zenyatta has marched on, on her own. Imagine how pissed off these East Coast people are, now that their standard-bearer has been retired. There's still this Goddam synthetic specialist, this slow mare who beats nothing, and people are acting like she's a great horse or something!

Well, yeah. We ARE. Because she IS a great horse. She may be the greatest female racehorse to ever campaign in this country. And she is one of the greats of all time. To suggest otherwise, as many have done in print, is clueless. Most notably, "that guy" is Andy Beyer, the dude who put his name on the Beyer Speed Figure, which is a well-known and oft-used handicapping tool. Shortly after Rachel's retirement, and a few days before Zenyatta was to go for her 19th win, he wrote a snarky, whiny piece about how great Zenyatta isn't. Now, everybody always has this argument. Who's the greatest of all time? Secretariat? Citation? Man O War? What recent horses have been great? Was Ghostzapper, the admittedly brilliant Horse Of The Year who ran only four times to win the title, was he great?

Seriously, FOUR TIMES? Who the fuck has a conversation about a great horse WHO ONLY RAN FOUR TIMES?

I am so sick of this bullshit, where we are only supposed to judge greatness upon the same chosen criteria. Beyer's numbers are MADE UP. They don't account for everything that can happen in the running of a race. Just to point out how arbitrary they are, Beyer chooses horses every year that will be his Beyer stalking horses. He sets the range of his numbers based on how particular horses run. This year, Rachel was understandably one of those. Her numbers were sky-high last year. And they should have been. Rachel had a lot of speed. Everything about her fit into Beyer's little speed box. But he really fucked himself by giving Rachel high numbers right out of the gate in 2010. See, Rachel got beat in her first start. And that became a problem because the three horses who beat Rachel this year had to be assigned very high speed figures, which meant that they each ran out of their heads to beat her. Statistically, it's more than a little improbable for that to happen three times. Rather, wouldn't it make sense that Rachel had lost a step? Bring her numbers down and the other numbers up just a bit, and the whole thing starts to make more sense.

But God forbid.

Zenyatta, on the other hand, is a frustrating puzzle for Beyer because so far, in 19 races, she has run to the level of her competition. She doesn't blow her fields away. And as she's gotten more experience, she's learned where the wire is and now she does just enough to get there. The problem with this is that Beyer can't tell how fast she really is. So all he has to go on is final time. And when a horse gallops along at the slowest pace possible for the majority of a race (which is how the others try to beat her), the final time can only be so fast. Ergo, Zenyatta's speed figures are very low. And that's the trap Beyer fell into last year. There was NO WAY she was fast enough to win the Classic. Not based on her speed figures. And that is absolutely true -- based on the artificial numbers randomly assigned to her by a guy who only cares about speed, she was not fast enough to win the race. But she won anyway.

After that, though, her detractors got wise. They dismissed every horse in the race, when prior to that they had been saying that it was one of the finest Classic fields ever assembled. But since Zenyatta won, it couldn't be. See?

Here's the flaw with speed figures. They only measure speed, and they do not measure what Zenyatta does. She never has the lead. She always spots the field multiple lengths. And when I say always, I MEAN ALWAYS. In every one of her 19 races, she trails and has to pass EVERY HORSE IN THE RACE.

Beyond Zenyatta's running style is the real reason behind this bullshit: She runs in California, on synthetic racetracks. If there's one word that will make the eyes bug out of an East Coast racetracker, it's "synthetic." They will foam at the mouth. They will hit themselves in the head repeatedly with "Beyer On Speed." They will lose their fucking nuts, because all the synthetic runners have done is ship East and beat the shit out of the dirt horses. See, the synthetic numbers are low because races are run differently on synthetic and rather than, I don't know, FACTOR THAT THE FUCK IN, these guys keep saying that California horses are too slow. And then they tear up their Pick Six tickets in disgust.

The people who will give Zenyatta greatness have a caveat -- she is the greatest synthetic horse ever, and her winning streak will have an asterisk next to it because of that. This is like saying to someone, "I'm sorry if you were offended that I slept with your wife." Zenyatta's improbable, record-setting victory in the Breeder's Cup Classic over males is discounted because, to her detractors, every other horse in the race ran poorly over Zenyatta's favorite surface. Which means that every horse Zenyatta has ever run against is inferior on the synthetic, while she is superior. Sounds a bit improbable, doesn't it? Zenyatta is, to this point in her career with one race left, PERFECT. She has NEVER BEEN BEATEN. And she's not some two-year-old who goes into the Breeder's Cup unbeaten in two or three races. She hasn't been beaten in NINETEEN OF THEM. I don't care if she had to run over broken glass or cotton. The surface doesn't matter. She still has to go out and run, and that's exactly what she does. But then Andy Beyer wasn't sold on Seattle Slew, either. Seattle Slew, who became racing's first unbeaten Triple Crown winner. Maybe Beyer just has a problem when he sees a horse whose ability appears limitless. Because you can't put a number on limitless.

Putting aside the obvious fact that it's sad racing fans are missing out on how great Zenyatta is, this is just all bullshit. Zenyatta has run on the dirt. She's won twice. She is the only horse to win two different Breeder's Cup races. She's the only filly to win the Classic. She is the only horse in years who has actually given real weight in a handicap. When she won her 17th race to pass Citation and Cigar, she did so under 129 pounds, giving nine to the runner-up. She's carried 129 and 127 pounds several times. The top handicap males aren't even carrying 126 pounds in their handicaps. She is tied with New Mexico-bred Pepper's Pride for the most consecutive wins in modern history. She's won nine consecutive grade one races, which is a record. She's won fourteen grade one races all told, which is the most for any filly. She's earned the most money of any American female racehorse in history.

And the detractors will toss all of that and say it doesn't count because she runs on a surface they can't handicap.

So it all comes down to this: The Breeder's Cup Classic, at industry-approved Churchill Downs, is Zenyatta's only chance to add her name to the list of great horses. All that she's done previously doesn't count. It's all about this one race, but only for this one horse. These people keep moving the goalposts for this great mare. They attack her connections for a "conservative" campaign, completely ignoring the fact that great mares like Azeri and Personal Ensign and even RUFFIAN had what would be considered conservative campaigns, if we're using the same measurements for them that we are for Zenyatta.

That, however, is insignificant and in fact, if you bring that up, they ignore you.

Andy Beyer showed up to Hollywood Park on the day of Zenyatta's 19th win. He was there to give a handicapping seminar, the irony of which didn't escape anyone there. We all booed him. See, people like Beyer are only impressed with that which they've seen. If it can't be quantified and put into their preconceived little box, then they dismiss it. They hate the enthusiasm that exists for this horse. They're like those Star Trek geeks who were SO pissed off at the JJ Abrams movie, because Kirk wouldn't do that, and because lots of people who weren't Star Trek geeks loved the movie. That's how they act, these racing establishmentarians, like people who are pissed off that a racehorse THEY DON'T UNDERSTAND has transcended the sport and is drawing more people to the track than any horse in a decade.

They are sure -- just positive -- that Zenyatta and her hateful fans will get their comeuppance on November 6th. Zenyatta faces dirt, Churchill Downs, a potentially muddy track, and a whole bunch of MUCH better males than she beat last year, in her own sandbox. That is the conventional wisdom going into this year's Breeder's Cup Classic. Zenyatta will be the favorite, and they will be apoplectic. They will all toss her, and feel pretty good about it. The racing world will return back to normal, where handicappers can once again caress their speed figures as their ordinary horses fit into the tiny boxes that are made just for ordinary horses. They won't have to worry about the extraordinary Zenyatta ever again.

Regarding their handicapping for the Classic, though, they have forgotten one tiny thing: It's not that Zenyatta will finally -- FINALLY -- run against good horses. It's that these horses will finally run against Zenyatta.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Week Two

So episode two of The Event aired last Monday. Because it's this Monday, I need to get this damned post out.

I like watching the pilot and first episode of shows. You can see if the studio's still throwing money at a show, if there have been cast changes, story changes, if lousy pilots have great second episodes, if great pilots have lousy second episodes, and how many female writers there are on shows (not many). NBC is still throwing money at The Event, which they kinda have to, given the nature of the show. The first episode wasn't any different than the pilot. They've committed to their huge storytelling. On the one hand, great for them. Too often, shows just get dumped in their second week. We'll see how committed the network is to this show as the ratings come out, but there's a nice consistency to everything so far.

I do wonder, though... did anyone consider telling the story entirely from Sean's point of view? It's both a thriller and a suspense drama and that's not sitting too well with me. The show is MASSIVE, but I think that's hurting it. I realize that the network wanted to intrigue people from the get-go, so then you have to see the aliens or whatever they are, and the President, and the cover-up, and the CIA officers and all that. But as an audience member, taking a thriller route would work better for me. And if you consider it from Sean's point of view, the show's plenty big. Let the audience identify with this guy, and then the sky eats a plane and transports it to Arizona. That's big, right?? Isn't it more interesting to see a regular guy become enmeshed in this conspiracy? Which is kind of the whole nature of the genre?

But instead of telling a linear story, the show continuously flashes back and forward in time. While that might be a cool device if the flashbacks were more insightful, it's also really confusing to an audience who only has half an eye on whatever they're watching. That could hurt the show. And as much as I tease, I need shows like The Event to work. But take a cue from Lost. Start with the characters. I don't give a shit if I ever see the President. Seriously. Look at The Invaders, another show that eschewed the bigger picture in favor of one guy. Now, I'm sure that The Invaders didn't have the world's largest budget and they were forced to do it that way but shit, you don't always need loads of money. Sure, it's increasingly harder to hold your own against the slick shows that come out in the fall. But what if you don't compete with them and instead just fucking tell your story?

I wonder what would happen.

Woefully remiss in comments. I know I'm leaving some out. Sorry about that!

I liked Lone Star.
I am a man.
Not everything I watch has to have explosions.
I am a construction foreman and my favorite show of all time is Six Feet Under.
I like shows with good characters. And when I say good I do not mean morally upstanding. I mean well written and well acted characters. And what I saw on Lone Star was the best acting of the night from a new fall television show.

Sorry they yanked a show you liked. But I never said that men only like explosions. I realize that if you don't work in TeeVee, all this stuff is fairly moot. But I think a discussion about marketing in television is very important, especially given the fact that marketing basically chooses what's on the air, and which movies get made. I've been pretty underwhelmed by the marketing for the fall shows. So far, only Hawaii 5-0 was properly marketed. The marketing for Lone Star, a show that everybody at Fox loved, was really lousy. It was always going to be an uphill battle because it's not an easy show to market. And marketing departments tend to be... how do I put this? A bit on the lazy side when it comes to doing their jobs. They want things that are easy. They don't want to be Don fucking Draper. But really, Don Draper is what the marketing department needed to try and sell this show. Because no matter how much you liked it, there wasn't a demographic that watched Lone Star. And that's a really big problem.

Is it a coincidence that the first two shows canceled had the worst marketing campaigns? The campaign for My Generation made every character on that show look like a trashy whore. And not in a good way.

I wouldn't harp on this as much if every writer pitching shows wasn't asked about the audience. And when we develop ideas, we do so with an audience in mind. If you pitch a show to USA, for example, and you don't know who the show is for, then you're fucked.

X-Men person:
I think your judgment is coming too early. Nobody, male or female, was given a real story in the pilot except for the main character. I will be disappointed if the women don't take on a bigger role within the next few episodes (assuming the show lasts that long) but I'm optimistically hopeful that they will. Remember, Betty Draper was barely featured in the Mad Men pilot.

However, Betty Draper wasn't the only female character on Mad Men. But it's interesting that the only one you focus on is the wife. Why is that, exactly? In the pilot, we meet Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway. And throughout the series, we've seen some amazing work done for these female characters. Simply the best female character work done on television. So I think it's quite a bit different than two anonymous, kinda stupid women who married the same guy. That's how it appears in the pilot and since you have so much time and energy to devote to the development of a pilot, well... if you're missing a beat or two, then it really doesn't bode well for the series. If women are going to be defined only by the man they fall in love with, then we're doing the kind of time travel I would rather not do.

I think the intended audience is "people who like trainwrecks."

Heh. So anyone who watches the Real Housewife shows and summat? Most of the women I talked to thought the guy was an idiot. But a lot of the men didn't. That's kind of interesting. But your comment does speak to the point about what gets bought and what doesn't. For the most part, reality shows that do really well don't translate into dramas or comedies. People want to watch (ostensibly) real people doing stupid shit, but they don't want to watch the fictitious versions of those shows. Just like TeeVee versions of big movies don't translate. Because if they did, then we'd see Harry Potter TeeVee shows and the like. But we don't. People get the difference between movies and TeeVee. They'll watch despicable people in a movie, but with TeeVee it's about inviting characters into your living room.

I'm surprised you're so offended by Lone Star yet didn't even blink at the fact that Hawaii 5-0 decided the only female member of the team needed to be mostly naked in two of her three scenes in the pilot. Poor Grace Park was just a cardboard cut-out of a woman (no, wait, she's got personality because she's a surfer who randomly punches people out!) who was only there to forward the plot through gratuitous flashing of abs.

Maybe it's because Lone Star was otherwise a fairly decent show, and you expect better of a show that's actually making an effort to be original and complex than a cliched procedural-by-the-numbers like Hawaii 5-0?

Not exactly. For me, it's all about omniscient point of view. Take Up In The Air, for example. George Clooney's character is a hateful son of a bitch. Just a vile person. But the movie's point of view, the omniscient POV, is telling us that he's swell. That makes me want to punch the movie. Hawaii 5-0 is a fun show with eye candy for everyone. I stress EVERYONE. Look at the advertising: Everybody wet and hot. That tells you what the omniscient POV is -- everybody is being objectified. The characters are larger than life, and they will be presented as such. So because I know that, I can watch the show and have a good time. But with Lone Star, the show is telling you that this is a sympathetic guy. And that, I can't take. Because he isn't. It's a real subtle thing, but it bothers me. And when I develop a show, this is the kind of thing I think about. Because it's so important that as a creator, you have a real handle on how these characters are viewed.

I will say this, though. I disagree with your characterization of Grace Park's character. They did some awesome stuff with her in the second episode. And they're really playing to the actress's strengths, too, which I always appreciate.

I take your points about the polygamy plot, but I found the other aspects of the story compelling enough to keep me tuning in until it gets canceled. Despite the lead character's epic fail when it comes to love (and Fox marketing's even bigger fail by making that seem like the centerpiece of the show), I'm intrigued by the idea of a con man who wants to go straight but simply doesn't have the tools to function that way thanks to the upbringing he got from his dirtbag dad. The whole con man with a heart of gold thing reminds me of Lost's Sawyer.

It would remind me of that, too, if the omniscient POV was slightly different. Sawyer was not presented as the most awesomest hero ever. He was shown as the flawed character he was. We were not expected to root for him because he was a conman, but because he was going to go through something that would turn him away from that life and towards being a better person.

Along with X-Men above I'm inclined to give the show a bit more time to see if they don't answer some of your grievances, but for the most part I agree with your points. I think a problematic premise was exacerbated by the direction, casting, and the pilot script, the hero was a somewhat intriguing cipher. With all that sensitive indie rock playing and the lead's too-accessible good looks and charm, the degree of presumptive sympathy for his situation was way out of whack with the nature of his behavior.

For me the worst moment in the pilot--and the one that most supports your charges of sexism--was when the woman in the hotel bar threw herself at Bob with all the subtlety of Lady Gaga (cheap wish-fulfillment) and then the show actually had the gall to congratulate him on not cheating on his TWO wives. I understand the intended point of the scene--see, he really does love and honor both of them!--but it was just one (or two, or three) women too many defined solely by their eagerness to sleep with Bob.

Yeah... there's that POV problem again. I wonder if the network felt that he was too heinous and tried to soften him up. It's an attempt, but there's a real easy way to handle that. A real easy way. However, that would have meant a change in the pilot.

And the show, imo, would work a lot better if he were actually a woman, with two husbands. Mostly because it would be more consistent--here's this person no one would ever suspect of being a horrible user because she's so sweet and nice...doing all these bad things. But then, I loved "Gossip Girl," too, and that's about three-quarters of its premise.

Heh. Well, it would be interesting to explore a female character in that way. Good luck finding a network that will take that on . But that's a fresh take on that premise that I might actually watch.

And meanwhile, I despise Don Draper and hate "Mad Men." So maybe I just have terrible taste :P

You obviously do!!! You're not supposed to love Don Draper. You're supposed to understand him. But I do have friends who just can't watch shows if they hate the characters!

Jim Henshaw:
While the way it "uses" women might well be a significant factor in the inability of "Lone Star" to find an audience, I don't think either men or women in an economy ravaged by Wall Street and Big Bank Con Artists wants to root for anybody similarly inclined.

Right. Good point. Nobody wants to invite that guy into their foreclosed home.

Still behind on things, and there's Zenyatta to talk about. Yes. THAT IS A WARNING. There will be a horsey post upcoming.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Death of Television

Stephen J. Cannell died today. Those of you who read this blog are probably familiar with him and what he contributed to television. All his accomplishments will be well documented in the articles and memorials that are already popping up on the Internet. But creating over 40 TeeVee shows and being the first producer to take advantage of Vancouver are not, to me, his most important contribution to the business.

You see, Stephen Cannell was an incredibly nice person, an optimist in an industry that seeks to crush them. No matter what was going on in his career, he always had his priorities straight. He was incredibly prolific, and he was also protective of the people who worked for him. He felt a responsibility to them. I keep repeating this over and over again, but that's because it's so important: A showrunner who doesn't look out for his staff is a lousy showrunner and somebody not to be trusted. No matter how insanely talented somebody is, if they are throwing people under the bus and grabbing credit like a starving man dives for a Big Mac, then they are not good at the job of executive producer. Pride in ones life and work is not borne out by creative an atmosphere of terror, nor is it about grabbing for the microphone at an awards show. Rather, it's about being a professional, and a protector. Cannell took that seriously. He made up his mind to be a kind, positive person. I'm sure he had his days; he wasn't a robot. But all you have to do is look at the outpouring of sympathy and shock on the Internet to realize what he meant to television.

We all grew up on his shows. I mean, Rockford Files, for God's sake! Riptide! The A-Team! 21 Jump Street! The Greatest American Hero! Freaking Wiseguy! I didn't know a lot about TeeVee back then. I was, however, a HUGE fan of Emergency, Dragnet and Adam-12, which made me a huge fan of Jack Webb. And Stephen Cannell was a story editor on Adam-12, so that always intrigued me. My understanding was that Webb was interested in making sure his writers learned how to produce. That was definitely one of Stephen Cannell's priorities, and he passed that down to writers like Morgan & Wong. They passed that along to us and believe me, when we get a show on the air, that will be our priority, too.

Writers can only mimic what they've experienced, and do what they've been taught. Too many writers were brought up in abusive writer's rooms and they have unfortunately taken that fear and uncertainty along with them. There aren't Stephen Cannells to show writers that fear is not a positive motivator, and that writing is work but it is also inspiration. And now there isn't Stephen Cannell himself.

So while it's important and wonderful to remember his work, to remember the terrific stories people tell about him and to hear the man himself talk about how he pitches a show (WE CANNOT GET AWAY WITH THIS. TRUST ME), Stephen Cannell's true legacy is that he was a smart, kind, protective man. He should remind us that there is something positive to strive for. We won't be like him, but we can at least try.

Today just didn't seem like the day to rant. But that will come later, after tomorrow's inevitable post about Zenyatta, horse racing's answer to Stephen Cannell.