Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hipster Bandwagoner

The number of things within our culture that confuse me is probably infinite, including those that are wholly true or even somewhat ostensibly reasonable.

One example is the fact that people in Cleveland in a general and overall sense are noticeably worse at driving than people in Cincinnati. Having lived in Cincinnati my whole life, visited and spent significant time in other areas around the country, and now residing in Cleveland over the past six weeks or so, this assessment appears quite obvious to me. And while it certainly seems plausible on the surface (the idea that one area would be better or worse than another area at a practice as varied as driving), how could one possibly explain why about 4 hours and 200-something miles of space and distance would create an immeasurable yet irrefutable chasm in adeptness at operating a motorized vehicle?

Another example is the rise of the hipster phase. At a mere glance, the entire notion somehow seems perfectly logical. But when you consider that by embracing anti-cool and anti-mainstream sensibilities hipsters somehow achieved cool and mainstream status, it’s quite confusing. Arcade Fire has been a good band since the Funeral album, something they proved further when Neon Bible was released. But it was The Suburbs that made them popular, which in a simplistic sense is what made them cool. However, if you liked Arcade Fire when they were releasing Funeral and Neon Bible, this made you a hipster because you liked them before they were cool…which in turn would now make you cool, because Arcade Fire eventually became cool. And yet, the very reason for Arcade Fire becoming cool (The Suburbs) is also the very same reason why a hipster can no longer like Arcade Fire, as doing so would make the aforementioned hipster intrinsically not cool…which, ironically enough, is exactly the sentiment hipsters embraced in the first place. Make sense? I didn’t think so.

What does make perfect sense is the idea of a bandwagon fan; the fact that bandwagoning is essentially the counterpoint to being a hipster only cements this accuracy. Being a bandwagoner gets such a bad rap in today’s society, which no doubt has a good deal of credence behind it – being a fan of the Yankees or Heat or Patriots or whoever just because they are good is kind of a cop out, and it removes some of the beauty from being a sports fan. But it also makes complete and perfect sense. This is why I don’t mind admitting my own allegiance to the cause, even if I was probably a bandwagoner before you were…

I’m a fan of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and I have very strong, respectable reasons for it: They’re a good team. They’re probably going to be a good team for the foreseeable future. And they’re a fun team to root for. All of which makes complete and perfect sense.

I became a fan of the Thunder a few seasons ago, their second as a franchise after leaving Seattle. The team had just drafted James Harden (who I had been a big fan of in college) and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were both establishing themselves as up-and-comers.  They were coming off of a dreadful 23-win showing in the ’08-’09 season, but seemed poised to improve that number drastically, especially over the next few years.

Like most kids my age, I was a huge fan of the Chicago Bulls growing up, almost exclusively because of my adoration for Michael Jordan.  (Sure, I liked Pippen and Rodman, but only because they were playing with MJ; I would have rooted just as hard for Stalin and Mussolini. Also, Michael was so freaking good, the normal bandwagon rules didn’t even apply). But despite my strong and lifelong affinity for the game of basketball, I soon fell out of love with the NBA after Jordan retired (again), which at that time was a pretty bandwagoning move in and of itself. I started coming back around when I went to college (for a number of reasons), but I no longer had a team with which my loyalty resided.  Growing up in Cincinnati, there wasn’t a hometown gang to root for. I wasn’t going to pull for Cleveland because of the Bengals-Browns rivalry, and although Indianapolis was fairly close to Cincy, I felt no allegiance to the team based merely on location. For a while, I figured I’d simply continue as a fan of the game but with no specific team – what Chuck Klosterman would deem an NBA atheist, although I think it makes more sense to label it as an NBA agnostic.

But the more I became re-attached to the game, the more I was drawn to the Thunder. They were an exciting team to watch, Durant appeared poised to become a bona fide stud, and the ceiling on guys like Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka seemed pretty freaking high. And most importantly, you could see them developing and getting better with every game. If I was going to pick an NBA team to root for, wouldn’t it make sense to choose a good-but-not-yet-great team with a high probability to get better? It wouldn’t be quite as cheap or lame as simply latching on to the league’s top squad or merely hopping onboard with the Heat as soon as LeBron and Bosh teamed up with Wade, and it would have been even more deplorable had I sided with a crappy team. Why purposefully put myself through disappointment? So I did the most respectable thing anyone in my position could have done – I threw my support behind a sprightly bunch of engaging youngsters angling toward success on the wings of talent and potential.

It paid off. The Thunder are (I know it’s grammatically correct  to write “The Thunder is,” but in reference to a sports team made up of multiple members and components, we all know that just sounds stupid) one of the best teams in the league, Durant/Westbrook/Harden a threesome as formidable as any franchise can boast. And because of my now relatively well-established commitment, any triumphs the Thunder secure moving forward – whether it be playoff wins or championships or individual player accomplishments – are subsequently experienced by me, the fan. No, it won’t be the same for me as it is for the fans in OKC that were holding strong through that initial crapfest of a season, and it certainly won’t be as rewarding as it would be for any holdovers from the franchise’s time in Seattle (although there can’t be many of those). And even on my end, the Thunder will never hold nearly as special a place in my sports-loving heart as the Bengals or Reds or even the Ohio Bobcats; if a Bengals Super Bowl is winning the lottery, a Thunder title is finding 5 bucks on the sidewalk. That’s just the price you pay as a bandwagoner, regardless of how pure or pre-emptive or understandable one’s bandwagoning might be.

Yet my decision was somehow inherently less despicable than liking the Lakers or Celtics at the time, or the Heat soon after. And it certainly makes a hell of a lot more sense than anyone getting mad at the Thunder’s increasing popularity now that they are good, if only because you were on board  before anyone else. The term “bandwagon” is not altogether vile, just as being a bandwagon fan is not always and undeniably a scoff-worthy undertaking. I’m proud to be a Thunder fan, apropros of nothing.

And yes, I realize that at this moment, OKC is currently down 2-0 to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. I’m not too worried though. I have faith in my squad. Plus, I could always just start rooting for the Spurs.


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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Walking Papers

As I was growing up, my father coached high school basketball. His least favorite day every year was cut-down day, as he would inevitably have to break the news to a handful of well-intentioned young men that there was no room for them on the team. Now if you know my father, you’re probably considering the fact that any remorse or empathy he felt in these moments was at the very least matched by his overall disdain for any personal or emotional interaction with people in general, but I can assure you that it was honestly more of the former – despite how true the latter might be.

In the meetings and practices leading up to cut-down day, my father would always make a point to say something to the effect of, “A wise man knows his limits” or “There’s no shame in knowing when to walk away.” Naturally, my dad can’t remember the exact phrasing of this annual ritual (although neither can I, for whatever that’s worth), but the sentiment around it always stuck with me. Yes, he was obviously trying to make his job a little easier by subtly encouraging those on the bubble to recognize their shortcomings on their own and step aside without him having to mediate the situation, but it spoke to something greater than that – beyond high school, beyond basketball, beyond sports. It suggested how important self-evaluation can be, and the heights one can reach and maintain in life by recognizing where they excel and where they struggle – knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, as Kenny Rogers would say. It was as if he was reinforcing the idea that there is honor in failures and tribulations, as long as a person can recognize those things for themselves and grow from them. Maybe you had to try just that much harder; maybe you had to move on to something that better-suited you. In either event, you weren’t failing if what you took from the situation made you better in some way. I’m not sure if my dad realized this or if others felt the same way I did, but I always found that phrase – that moment – to be quite profound. Obviously not profound enough to remember exactly what was said, but whatever…

And yet, self-evaluation is difficult, which is why there are far too few people or institutions that recognize the right time to walk away. The Office is one of those.

A year ago at this time, I wrote a post pontificating on the potential future of the NBC television show, which had always been one of my favorite programs. The show had just wrapped its 7th season, the final one for main character Michael Scott, portrayed by the great Steve Carell. In that piece, I put forth a (now clearly off-base) theory about how the show could potentially thrive even in Carell’s absence, with the supporting cast and second bananas stepping up and seizing the moment in a collective effort of success and greatness. I by no means assumed it would be easy or quick or as decorated as the Michael Scott-era, but I believed it was possible. I assure you, my lies that day were made in ignorance, not malice.

The Office just wrapped a 22-episode 8th season that was wretchedly painful to sit through. This isn’t an indictment on the writers or actors or show-runners specifically, but ultimately a reflection of two things: a) the show sticking around long enough to exhaust any semi-plausible/enjoyable/entertaining plot lines for the characters to be involved with, and b) the chops of Steve Carell enabling the show to be funny for that long to begin with.

Eight seasons is a long time for a sitcom to last, especially a network sitcom in today’s TV landscape. The select few others that have lasted that many seasons/episodes (and beyond) have either been really good, had really strong ratings, been off the air for a few years now, or some combination of all of those. For a fledgling paper supply company to extract eight years of storylines (with somewhere between six and seven seasons worth of episodes being great/entertaining) is quite impressive. Plus, you can really only pin major plots on about five of the regular characters on a consistent basis. And when the most reliable of those characters – the straw that stirs the drink – is gone, it’s only going to make things that much tougher.

The foremost plight of this season has been the transition of Andy Bernard (played by Ed Helms) from salesman to Michael Scott’s vacated manager position. If the show was going to continue after last year (which it was committed to doing), someone was going to have to step up. And as disastrous as the Nard-Dog’s promotion has been, it was actually the best decision that could have been made at the time. The fault was simply that no one was going to successfully fill that void. It was a suicide mission, like dating Ryan Gosling’s ex-girlfriend.

Unless the show was going to bring in an outside name (the James Spader experiment was their only true flirtation with this), the legitimate candidates for the new “lead role” were essentially limited to Andy, Jim, Dwight, Daryl and Pam (in terms of character and actor). Based on the success of the respective actors playing these characters, Andy Bernard/Ed Helms was the best choice, someone that had a very successful mainstream and critical résumé (Daily Show; The Hangover; Cedar Rapids; Jeff, Who Lives at Home). What failed was the show’s structure. Based on the setup, the manager is always going to be integral to the story line (preventing them from putting a nobody in the position and going with an ensemble show). And while Helms was the best acting choice of the established candidates, Andy was a poor character choice. The Nard-Dog was a reformed rage-aholic turned emotional fancy boy/borderline incompetent salesman – which was often hilarious in that capacity. But it’s simply not believable or sensible (or advantageous) that his character would be propelled to this new position, especially when guys like Jim and Dwight and others have more credentials and seniority. For all the shortcomings Michael Scott possessed as Regional Manager, he at least had a stellar sales record to fall back on (which was often alluded to) and plenty of moments where he showed his worth and aptitude for a managerial position. Yet even on top of all of that, the show was starting to get that running-on-fumes feel, even towards the end of Michael Scott’s time at the helm; Steve Carell was simply able to compensate for this. Who knows how much longer that would have lasted even if he’d stayed? Maybe in the end, it was only Carell that realized where things might be heading.

What’s most disappointing is how far the show has fallen. As a long-time fan of The Office, I would have been hesitant to have it culminate with Carell’s departure at the end of last season, but I’d much prefer that route to what I’ve seen now. I was weary that it could head in this direction, and it’s too bad that those involved couldn’t sense this as well. One of my favorite shows of all time now has a noticeable stain, and yet it looks as if we are still headed for another season, presumably on this same, uneven path. As unfortunate as it would have been to have the show come to a close, it would have at least prevented my memories and appreciation from being tarnished. It would have recognized its own limits and acknowledged its own shortcomings. There’s no shame in that. Especially with the greatness that preceded it for so long.

I’ll undoubtedly look back on so much of The Office quite fondly. I also won’t forget the pit it ultimately fell in to. The natural consequence to not knowing when to walk away is always the inevitable disappointment that follows.  It’s a record that will forever be undefeated, a fate met by far too many and avoided by far too few.

Or something like that.



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