29 December 2009

Tuesday Gridiron: Game over, dude

How bad was the Minnesota Viking defense last night?  The 36 points it conceded last night wouldn't be so embarrassing if the Chicago Bears offense hadn't scored them.  Yes, those Chicago Bears.

If the Vikings couldn't stop the Bears last night, then what offense could they stop?  Get 11 fluffy kittens like these two, hand them a playbook, and you'd have an idea.  If nine of them were declawed, last night's Minnesota defense might even keep them out of the end zone.

And that's why Team Venture lost its final game of the season.  Needing only an average performance from the Minnesota defense against the NFL's weakest offense, we got last night's travesty instead.  Final score:  WRs Aren't Our Forte 85, Team Venture 72.

I spent all year with no top-flight receiver no top-shelf tight end and no great running back.  I finished the year with only four of my original 14 draft choices.  Under those circumstances, I should've probably finished 4-9 and out of the playoffs.  But Tom Brady and Brett Favre held up their end, one after the other, midseason pickups Danny Amendola and Justin Forsett kicked ass, Nate Kaeding kept kicking the ball through the uprights, and the Minnesota defense dominated for most of the year.  That core, and more than a bit of luck, got me into the playoffs.  All thing's considered, I'd call 7-9 a solid, positive accomplishment.

Now if only I could get a legitimate WR1... .

22 December 2009

Tuesday Gridiron (14/2009)

See these two clowns?  On the left, Jay Culter is doing as much for the Chicago Bears as he's done since late September.  As of this typing, his interception count for the season has drifted past the 25 mark.  The guy on the right, Bears coach Lovie Smith, has lately become better known for botching replay challenges than more trivial matters such as, I don't know, coaching.

Pick either man, and you'll have an idea of how badly my fantasy-football week went.  Here's the correct way to look at the final score for last week's consolation semifinal:
  • Team Venture starters:  1 touchdown, 58.61 points
  • Team Venture reserves:  8 touchdowns, 72.94 points
It gets worse:
  • The only starter who scored was Danny Amendola, the one nominal wide receiver who isn't supposed to score.  (He's in for his return yardage.)
  • My actual score included San Diego kicker Nate Kaeding and the fading Minnesota defense.  The bench's score didn't, because neither Kaeding nor the Viking defense had backups.  (Kaeding doesn't need a backup, but the Vikings sure do.)
The phrase you may be looking for is "career low."  It's hard to worry about beating the guy running the other team (101 points) when you've just gotten your ass kicked by your own bench.  I literally could not dump my two worst starters -- Bears tight end Greg Olsen (23 total yards in the last 3 weeks) and Houston RB Arlan Foster (0 points) -- quickly enough.  Yahoo! made me wait until Monday morning.

Actually, things could be worse.  In next week's seventh-place game, my opponent is WRs Aren't Our Forte.  That team started the playoffs seeded first, but now it's trying to avoid the playoff cellar.  That must really suck, because I'm unlikely to ever have a week this bad again.

At 7-8, my big decisions rest on the question of just how low Cutler, Smith and the rest of the Bears have sunken.  Specifically, I have to decide whether the Bears could provide a tonic for a Viking squad that's been struggling.  If so, then Brett Favre and the Viking defense keep their starting spots.  If not, Vince Young (at San Diego) and the Cleveland defense (at Oakland) might be better choices to start.

The Victory Weighted standings this week give virtually the same playoff results as the official NFL version.  The only difference involves officially eliminated Atlanta.  Their Strength of 29 leaves them within a game and a half of sixth-seeded Dallas (Strength 35), and so still in contention.  Even under Victory Weighting, the Falcons would need "help" from the Cowboys and the Giants.

21 December 2009

The Ghost-Grey Cat Presents: (4) Pull!

You are standing in the doorway of the diabolic, the dangerous, the deadly.  -- Host E.G. Marshall

One of the goofier reactions to Nazi Germany is to imagine that Adolf Hitler somehow survived the fall of Berlin.  According to the cliché, he either hid for the rest of his life, waited to be recreated via genetics, or had his soul hidden somewhere.  In the 1970s, it provided the basis for both campy radio shows (such as one of the subjects of this post) and more serious science-fiction movies.  It survives to this day, having most recently appeared in a Venture Bros. episode several weeks ago.

In that Venture Bros. episode, the characters recognize the convention.  Doc Venture mocks the uniformed Nazis who've ordered him to build a new body for Hitler.  Hank claims that his video-game expertise qualifies him to fight them for real.  When I watched that happen, it occurred to me to take another look at one of the campiest episodes ever run on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, one that assumed that Hitler still lived in 1975.

My research for that proposed post turned up another interesting fact.  With 1399 episodes under its purview, it shouldn't be surprising that CBS Radio Mystery Theater had a few pairs of episodes that are almost exactly alike.  The most obvious example is 1976's "Afterward" (Episode 441) and 1979's "The Man in the Black Cap" (1010), which both descended from the same Edith Wharton story.  And some pairs are even worse than that.

The best such pair of such episodes aired just two months apart in 1975.  The first one, "The Rise and Fall of the Fourth Reich," is the one that I had planned on reviewing alone.  As it turns out, however, its plot follows the same outline as "Goodbye, Carl Erich."  Both stories carry the same three elements:
  1. The broken man:  Act 1 introduces us to a German man who, whether through childhood abuse or decades of self-neglect,  has withered into a barely functioning person.
  2. The rescuers:  For whatever reasons, two other Germans come to their broken countryman's aid.  Whether their role in his recovery is direct or not, the result is the same.  Over the course of Act 2, the broken man begins to heal in spirit and/or body.  He becomes not merely competent but also powerful in his own right.
  3. The betrayal:  Just as the newly empowered man is about to lavishly reward his benefactors, they utter a secret about themselves.  In minutes -- not incidentally, the last ones of Act 3 -- their revelation undoes all their progress.
In short, the victim's life takes a trajectory like a clay pigeon, one that's launched into the air then shot just as it reaches its maximum height.   Pull!

Episode 275:  The Rise and Fall of the Fourth Reich
First aired:  16 May 1975
Author:  Henry Slesar

Play the teaser
But I thought you were a good German, a loyal German. -- Adolf Hitler
In "Rise and Fall," the Hitler-still-lives meme combines with weird science to produce CBS Radio Mystery Theater's second campiest episode.  (1974's "The Breaking Point," which revolves around a surgically enhanced chimp, may be the campiest episode ever.)
  • The broken man:  Adolf Hitler lives, all right -- in squalor.  His flight from the fires of 1945 Berlin went on and on, ending in México, D.F.*, only because he ran out of energy and hope.  As voiced by Robert Dryden, languishes in the Mexican capital's worst slum, exhausted, virtually blind, and at the edge of senility.  He has forgotten his past so completely that he now calls himself Marcos.
  • The rescuers:  Aside from his impoverished landlady, the only people who care about him anymore apparently work for East Germany's infamous Stasi.  One of its agents (Paul Hecht), representing himself only as "Günther," has found Hitler, and now plans to restore him.  Dr. Bundeschaf (Joe Silver), a one-time Nazi scientist, joins Günther in Mexico.  Having perfected a rejuvenation serum on apes during World War II, Bundeschaf applies his expertise to Hitler himself.  Within ten days, "Marcos" begins to benefit from Bundeschaf's work: he realizes that he is really Adolf Hitler.
  • The betrayal:  When a jubilant Hitler tries to give Günther his own Iron Cross, he discovers the truth about his rescuers.  Günther reveals that he is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust.  Bundeschaf's past provides no comfort, as can be heard in the clip below.  Günther stabs Hitler, Bundeschaf allows him to bleed to death, and Hitler can only ask about the point of all this.  Here is the end of Act 3, including RMT host E.G. Marshal's remarks:
    Episode 275's last 106 seconds

"And so, Adolf Hitler dies," declares Marshall at the final curtain.  As a twist, it wasn't worthy of The Twilight Zone (whose music you hear at the end), the later Outer Limits or even a M. Night Shyamalan movie.

It was too good for any of those.

As a kid hearing that for the first time, I shouted in joy, pumped my fist triumphantly in the air and even made woofing noises.  I wouldn't do that again until a decade later, when the Chicago Bears made their legendary Super Bowl run.  The thought of Hitler suffering a punishment that even remotely fit his crime brought joy my heart.  It fell to my parents to explain that maybe I shouldn't celebrate anyone's death that much.

Grade:  96/100.  If it weren't so intentionally campy, it would get a much lower grade.  As camp, though, it beautifully executed.

A few final notes:
  • The episode does feature some of the worst Spanish ever spoken on English-language radio.  Yo, Henry Slesar, it isn't el este muerto.  "He this dead?"  Really?  The proper sentence is el está muerto.  Even in 1975, writer Slesar should have known better.
  • Just how did Hilter manage to keep his Iron Cross?  Shouldn't he have lost it after 30 years on the run?
  • Bundeschaf is German for "national sheep," or, more exactly, "federal sheep."  Ooooooo-kay.
  • Although neither East Germany nor the Stasi are mentioned in the script, Günther's nationality and occupation can easily be inferred from the background he sketches of himself.  He might be a West German counterspy, but why would he then hide this operation?

    Episode 309:  Goodbye, Carl Erich
    First aired:  16 July 1975
    Author:  Sam Dann
    Play an excerpt

    What's so funny about a human being in distress? -- Karl-Erich Müller**
    In tone and genre, "Goodbye, Carl Erich" could not be any more different from "The Rise and Fall of the Fourth Reich."  The genre shifts from pulp-fiction to straight drama; the setting, from post-Nixon México, D.F, to Weimar-era Hamburg; the twist, from the triumphant to the tragic.
    • The broken man:  When 7-year-old Karl-Erich Müller (Hecht, in a completely different role) lost his father in World War I, he withdrew so completely that he lost the ability to even speak.  He has reached adulthood with a strapping body but a feeble mind.  Desperate for some way to help him, his impoverished mother (Bryna Raeburn) pesters our protagonist until he finally agrees to visit him at his home in late January, 1928.
    • The rescuer:  Psychologist Heinrich Stammler (Kevin McCarthy) doesn't begin treating Karl-Erich until Act 2 begins.  15 weeks later, in a poignant moment featured in the Except above, Karl-Erich manages to order a loaf of bread on his own.  By February 1929, Karl-Erich has gained independence.  By 1931 (and deep into Act 3), he has gone much further, having risen high into the ranks of the ascendant Nazi party, and won the heart of one of Germany's most popular actresses.  All along, Karl-Erich keeps reporting his progress to Stammler, whose otherwise rightful pride blinds him to the Nazi threat.
    • The betrayal:  This one isn't as intentional as the one in "Rise and Fall," but it's almost as twisty.  When Stammler announces his intention to emigrate to America, Karl-Erich tries to bribe him into staying.  Stammler responds by telling him that he has "committed a crime:" he was born a Jew.  He leaves his protégé sitting on a chair, shocked back into perpetual silence.  Stammler has given, he's taken away, and when the final curtain falls, he's gone off to the safety of America.
    Karl-Erich may have taken a bad path once he won his independence, but I keep wondering why Stammler waited until the end to tell Karl-Erich about himself.  Did he have such little faith in Karl-Erich's stability, or his ability to accept the truth?  Maybe writer Dann -- by far the most prolific scribe of RMT episodes -- addressed that issue when he expanded "Goodbye, Carl Erich" into a full-length novel.

    Grade:  94/100.  Dann isn't my favorite RMT writer, but this one works pretty well.
      * D.F. = Distrito Federal, or Federal District.  México, D.F., is the local name for Mexico City.
      ** I'm assuming that writer Dann has Americanized Karl-Erich's name.  Could a German speaker please straighten me out?

      16 December 2009

      Tuesday Gridiron: A Very Special Wednesday Edition

      Another week, another fantasy-football game where every player on both teams struggle but two or three.  I made it into the playoffs partly because two of those exceptions were always some combination of Brett Favre, Justin Forsett and the Minnesota defense.  This week, they were running backs Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles.  Unfortunately, those two men were playing for the other team.

      Desperate for the two or three touchdowns that would've saved me, I sat reliable return man Danny Amendola (223 return yards) in favor of Dallas wideout Roy Williams.  It was a gamble, as lately, Williams has had almost as many touchdowns as receiving yards.  Williams didn't score, so Team Venture ended up on the low end of an 86-65 grinder.  The six-game winning streak that saw me this far is by the boards, and I'm now 7-7.

      The first round confirmed what the league had suspected:  my division was the weaker one, sending only three teams into the playoffs.  My division mates also fell, by worse margins than mine, so it's on to the consolation bracket for all three of us.  Those teams meet in one game, while I draw a rematch with Anything But Last, whom I beat 69-43 in early November.  Both of have improved since then, so it's a tossup.

      The Victory Weighted NFL standings at the bottom of this page show a couple of deviations from the official NFL playoff race:
      1. In the VW system, New Orleans has clinched its division title, and Arizona's loss at San Francisco secured the Saints' first-round bye.  The Saints haven't quite secured home-field advantage, because their overtime win at Washington cost them a Strength point.
      2. Victory Weighting sends the Jets through to the #6 seed ahead of the Jaguars.  Both New York and Jacksonville own 7-6 records, as do Baltimore and Miami.  As the only team with a Strength as high as 29, the Jets advance without a tiebreaker.

      08 December 2009

      Tuesday football (13/2009)

      The FIFA World Cup isn't gridiron, but it is football, so I've changed the title for this week. Last Friday saw the draw for South Africa 2010, so I'll briefly comment on the three finalists I follow most closely.

      Don't cry for me, Argentina Brazil: The Seleçao ended up in the latest version of the Group of Death. They're in Group G with Portugal, Cote d'Ivoire and North Korea. Portugal has to be ticked after needing a playoff to make the field. Korea DPR probably isn't much good, but that was also true in 1966, when it beat Italy and nearly eliminated Portugal. Save your pity for Ivory Coast, which also fell into one of the two 2006 Groups of Death.

      Group of Cake: The other 2006 Group of Death included the United States, which promptly fell flat, managing only a bloody draw with Italy. This time, the Stars and Stripes could have hardly wished for an easier group. There's no telling how well Algeria and Slovenia will perform, as neither side has met any of its Group C opponents. That's about the only excuse either the US or England can offer for not advancing, though.

      ¿Viva Aguirre?  When Mexico brought back coach Javier Aguirre to revive its flagging qualifying campaign, I thought it was a gimmick.  Surely the Tricolores would be stuck at home, and Mexican fans would spend South Africa 2010 complaining about this latest Yankee imperialist plot.

      It was close, but El Tri rallied its way into the field of 32.  Like their northern neighbors, the Mexicans are struggling.  If they weren't playing the opener against South Africa itself, I'd fancy their chances of getting through easily.  As it is, France should be a light favorite to advance, with Uruguay completing a competitive group A.

      Speaking of advancing to the next round:  In fantasy football, the object is to make fewer mistakes than your opponent.  Failing that, winning requires that your mistakes be less serious than his/hers.  For the second time in as many weeks, I faced an opponent who left his quarterback spot open.

      This time, it mattered.

      Wooden Shoes kept injured Matt Ryan in despite the facts that (a) the Falcons had declared him out all week and (b) he had two solid backups.  With Anquan Boldin, Maurice Jones-Drew and Cedric Benson, I'm sure he felt he didn't need a quarterback.

      That Bill Belichick-like mistake cost Wooden Shoes his postseason.  I spent Sunday watching helplessly as first LeSean McCoy, then Greg Olson, then Brett Favre, then (finally) the Minnesota defense all crapped out.  Meanwhile, Boldin went for 98 receiving yards and two touchdowns.  Had he filled his QB spot, Wooden Shoes would have advanced, while at 6-7, my season point total would have been too low to qualify.

      As it was, I led all day, though the Vikings' blunders reduced my lead to just 1.18 points at the two-minute warning.  Favre's last-minute touchdown drive didn't help the Vikings, but it did secure me a 70.1-60.7 win, a playoff spot and a final regular-season record of 7-6.  As for the Shoes, they're done, with too many losses and not enough points.

      Are you listening, Smoking Popes, my quarterfinal foe?  Make sure you actually start a quarterback, because you're going to need one.  Actually, I'm not worried about this guy.  He showed good judgment last July when he married my niece; and not surprisingly, he's been the best decision maker in the league.  I'm going to have to match that just to stay with him.

      07 December 2009

      I have scorched the snake: A Venture Bros. Review

      Now I'm all out of dreams.  -- Action Johnny

      It's back to the mundane as The Venture Bros. returns its focus to Rusty himself.  "Self-Medication" doesn't question the idea of the boy adventurer.  With help from first-time guest stars John Hodgman, Seth Green and Patton Oswalt, it positively trashes the notion, and embraces the implications.  A parallel story-line centers on Sgt. Hatred's struggle; and for once, I didn't mind. 

      Rusty Venture didn't really want the therapy session he has to attend.  In a flashback, we see 12-year-old Rusty in therapy, complaining about his treatment by his father... to his father.  Of course, that turned Rusty off to the idea of therapy.  But when a new Guild regulation lets Rusty stop The Monarch's latest attack on him, he goes happily.

      Joining Rusty at the group-therapy session are other one-time boy adventurers:
      • Drug-addled Action Johnny (reprised by Brendon Small's voice) is attending on a court order.  Although Rusty is often compared to the 1960s cartoon adventurer Jonny Quest, it's Action Johnny who's the explicit analog.
      • An earlier version of Wonderboy (voiced by Oswalt) is fighting a losing battle with bulimia.
      • Cute lil' ol' Ro-Boy (series regular Christopher McCulloch) plays on Osamu Tezuka's classic Astro Boy, who just had an American-made movie released.  Ro-Boy has lost control over his obsession with giant robots.
      • Last, but not least, are boy detectives Dale and Lance Hale (Hodgman and Green).  The Hales, puns on the Hardy Boys, are still dealing with the only case they failed to solve: their own father's murder.  Umm, there's a reason they haven't solved that case.
      Whatever benefits this group-therapy session might have had vanish when the unnamed psychiatrist running it falls victim to a snake bite.  Soon enough, these patients find themselves in the middle of a new adventure, complete with a barroom brawl, a visit to retired villain Dr. Z, and (in between) hilarious "sound" effects like Groin! and Cower!  Although the adventurers don't solve the crime, but the episode's coda does reveal the culprits to us.

      Meanwhile, a trip to the cinema turns catastrophic for Sgt. Hatred.  Well-meaning Dean convinces him to watch the last movie he should ever want to.  Unfortunately, Hatred's OSI-prescribed medication has run out, and so is his hope, period.  It's Dean who has to clean up the mess, and with Henchman 21's help, he executes a brilliant plan just to get Hatred through the day.

      The main line is full of gags, the best of which involve the Hales.  They're revealed to resemble the Hardy Boys far less than the Menendez boys of true-crime fame.  Ro-Boy reminds us of the dangers of taking children's-show heroes too seriously, and writer Jackson Publick appears to be making fun of himself with some of the Ro-Boy jokes.  Action Johnny is his own goofy self, while the older Wonderboy is intentionally pathetic.  A step back and a few days worth of reflection told me that, funny as these men are, they're also just plain sad.

      Which brings me to Sgt. Hatred.  I can imagine that some viewers were laughing at his scenes, but once again, I wasn't among them.  If the end of "The Revenge Society" didn't make Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer's point clear, Hatred's plight here does:  His pedophilia isn't supposed to be funny. 
      I was, for once, rooting for Sgt. Hatred.  That's a lot of progress from the beginning of the season.  Here's hoping the writers let him actually find the road to redemption.

      And how about Dean?  For the first time in perhaps the entire series, he gets the chance to be the hero.  I'll expect him to fail again in some future episode, but for once, a Venture scores an unqualified success.

      Score:  96/100.  Hooray, Dean!

      03 December 2009

      Swear not by the coffee mug: A Venture Bros. Review

      I already know that you used to be a pedestrian. -- Hank, to Sgt. Hatred

      A single, short sentence can describe "The Revenge Society": Two powerful Venture Bros. antagonists meet in a spectacular rematch. This episode has enough jokes and pop-culture references to stand on its own, but following the plot really requires background knowledge from past seasons. The two enemies, Phantom Limb and the Guild of Calamitous Intent, figure prominently in Seasons 2 and 3. (Viewers who haven't seen either the Guild or Phantom Limb should pause and click here, where I've delineated their intertwining histories.)

      The years since his failed attempt to control the Guild have been unkind to Phantom Limb. Haggard, underweight and perhaps insane, the Limb has renamed himself Revenge. More to the point, he's lauched another attack against the Guild, kidnapping two members of its Council of 13. With Red Mantle and Dragoon under his control, Revenge and his "Society" -- Chuck the toaster, Lady Nightshade the single high-heeled pump, and Wisdom the coffee mug -- go after the Orb.

      The Orb, you'll recall, is a softball-sized doomsday device that the Guild and the OSI built decades ago, when they were still a single organization. Since late in Season 3, its has sat quietly in Rusty Venture's personal safe. Alerted to Phantom Limb's intentions, the Guild sends entire military units to the Venture compound, ostensibly to protect the Orb.

      For the first time, the Guild has directly attacked Rusty Venture.

      In the end, of course, Phantom Limb reaches the compound, gets possession of the Orb and tries to use it. It fails, of course; and anyway, the Guild is ready for Phantom Limb's move.

      That's pretty much the plot. Fortunately, "The Revenge Society" relies more on its complications to work.
      • Our beleaguered friend Billy Quizboy returns, this time forced to do Phantom Limb's bidding. After surgically turning Red Mantle and Dragoon into a two-headed man, Billy spends most of his time in a sack, helplessly hoping for his release.
      • Red Mantle and Dragoon don't take the surgery well, constantly bickering even though they have to share the same body. Their inevitable pun takes us to the closing credits.
      Red Mantle: Two heads are better than one.
      Dragoon: What does that have to do with anything?
      Red Mantle: Nothing. I've been wanting to say that all day. I got sick of waiting for an opportunity.
      • Sgt. Hatred tries to build his relationship with the Venture Boys, with middling success. Dean has become his Alcoholics Anonymous-type "sponsor" in his struggle to overcome his pedophilia. Meanwhile, Hank slowly gains respect for Hatred as the two of them eventually lead the compound's (ahem) defense against the Guild attack.
      • The Sovereign, leader of the Guild, turns out to actually be David Bowie. As a hilarious conversation with his lead henchmen, Watch and Ward, reveals, Bowie's secret identity is well known within the Guild. To defeat Phantom Limb, the Sovereign uses Rusty and Dean Venture in a ruse that might contain a bit of truth (as well as background music from Richard Wagner).
      • Watch and Ward, ever the Guild's amusing analogues to the Monarch's 21 and 24, contribute their usual wit.

      There's a nasty note in the coda. I was initially angered to see Billy waking up in Sgt. Hatred's bed. It looks as though something very bad has happened to him. On the other hand, "The Revenge Society" exposed an implicit scene from last season's "ORB" -- the apparent murder of Rusty's great-grandfather by his bodyguard --as a lie. Billy may yet prove to be wrong. Either way, the coda should serve as a clear signal that Sgt. Hatred's pedophilia isn't a joke anymore -- if it ever was.

      Score: 93/100. It's nice to see old friends, and old enemies, too.

      02 December 2009

      Paging Drs. Bowie and Fantomas: A Venture Bros. Note

      New VB review schedule (now in glorious Scootervision™):  I was supposed to post a review of "The Revenge Society" a week ago Monday, but a surprisingly busy Thanksgiving week delayed that.  Fortunately, Adult Swim used the holiday weekend to again re-air the Season 4 opener, "Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel."  The extra time has let me comfortably reschedule the remaining reviews for the first half of the season:
      • Thursday, 3 December: "The Revenge Society" (first aired 15 November)
      • Monday, 7 December: "Self-Medication" (first aired 22 November)
      • Monday, 14 December: "The Better Man" (first airs this Sunday)
      • Wednesday, 16 December:  "Pinstripes and Poltergeists" (first airs next Sunday)
      • Wednesday, 23 December:  Season 4 Halftime Roundup
      The other excuse I have for being late in reviewing "The Revenge Society" actually has some validity. The episode plays well enough on its own, but a working knowledge of both Phantom Limb the Guild of Calamitous Intent would help. Providing that, however, was dominating the review I was trying to write. It finally occurred to me that explaining Phantom Limb and the Guild, and how they've functioned in the series, deserves its own post.

      In the world of The Venture Bros., supervillains belong to agencies that provide arch-enemies to would-be superheroes. Each member receives an arch-enemy, whose defeat becomes the member's top priority. The most powerful such agency is the Guild of Calamitous Intent, which, besides heavily regulating its member villains' behavior, exercises considerable influence on the outside world. In exchange for following Guild rules, members can receive generous benefits, up to and including opulent housing in tony suburbs. Repeated violation of Guild rules, however, can get members jailed, killed or even worse.

      So, we discovered near the end of Season 1, does crossing Phantom Limb. The Limb first appears in "Trial of the Monarch" as one of the Guild's highest ranking members. The trial itself, which ends in The Monarch's conviction, turns out to be a ruse that Phantom Limb engineered. The Limb's real target was Tiny Attorney, who committed a yet-unspecified wrong against the Guild.

      By then, Phantom Limb had stolen Dr. Girlfriend's affections away from the Monarch. The Monarch's disastrous efforts to win Girlfriend back provided Phantom Limb the inspiration for his scheme and, not incidentally, a patsy. With The Monarch in jail, Phantom Limb could have Dr. Girlfriend, now reverted to an older identity as Queen Aetheria, all to himself.

      Imprisonment doesn't stop The Monarch's love for Dr. Girlfriend, which drives the story arc that underlies Season 2. "Hate Floats" chronicles another failed attempt to get Girlfriend. It isn't until "Victor. Echo. November." -- when a negotiation among Phantom Limb, The Monarch and the Guild backfires -- that Dr. Girlfriend even considers returning to The Monarch. By the time the hour-long "Showdown at Cremation Creek" starts, though, the two of them are having an affair. Eventually, they decide to marry, with the Guild's approval. As Part I of the Season 2 finale progresses, however, it's clear that Phantom Limb doesn't approve.

      Enter the Guild. For real.

      However genuine his feelings for Aetheria/Dr. Girlfriend were, Part II of "Showdown" exposes them as yet another cover for Phantom Limb's true intentions. It turns out that what he really wanted was control of the Guild itself -- and the death of its Sovereign, who appears to be David Bowie. The ensuing battle, in which Brock and the Ventures play decisive roles as neutrals, ends with Phantom Limb defeated, and possibly dead.

      If Season 2 centered on The Monarch's attempt to win Dr. Girlfriend back, Season 3 revolves partly around his quest to win Rusty Venture back as an arch-enemy. In the season opener, "Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny,", the Guild validates his marriage to Dr. Girlfriend, but at a cost: The Monarch must leave Dr. Venture alone, and find a new hero to "arch." Episode by episode, plot by plot, The Monarch eventually convinces the Guild to finally reassign him to Dr. Venture.

      Phantom Limb, who proves to have unintentionally introduced the eventual newlyweds, is revealed to have survived the battle, but appears in only one other Season 3 episode. "The Invisible Hand of Fate" explains both how he gained his powers and how Brock Sampson became the Ventures' bodyguard.

      To this point, and well into Season 4, the Guild has never targeted the Ventures directly. When the Guild has become the Ventures' concern, it's been a side effect: some conflict with either The Monarch or Phantom Limb caught the Ventures in the crossfire.

      Brock Sampson, however, is another matter. His connections to the Guild and its rival, the OSI, form the other axis around which Season 3 revolves. In "ORB," the Guild and the OSI (Brock's employer all along) are revealed to have once been the same world-spanning secret society. Over centuries, this society's members, who included the world's most brilliant minds, built an Orb, a softball-sized device capable of destroying the world. When the society split up over the Orb in the late 19th Century, ancestors of Rusty Venture and Phantom Limb ended up on opposite sides. One faction became the OSI; the other, the Guild.

      That's the last time we saw either the Guild or Phantom Limb, until now. Both of them return, along with the Orb (now in Rusty's indifferent hands), in "The Revenge Society."

      01 December 2009

      Tuesday Gridiron (12/2009)

      For months, if not years, college football fans saw two things marching down the nearest downtown street.  Yesterday, that parade of failing head-coaching regimes finally ended.

      Notre Dame dismissed Charlie Weis after his team finished 6-6.  Weis's fate was probably sealed the moment the Irish lost at home to Connecticut, but even a 9-3 mark might not have saved him.  In any event, Notre Dame is now tripping over itself as it looks for a new coach.

      Only hours after Weis's dismissal, Florida State allowed Bobby Bowden to retire gracefully.  Like the Irish, the Seminoles finished the regular season at 6-6.  Unlike Notre Dame, FSU had anticipated the 80-year-old Bowden's departure for so long that it had time to plan for his replacement.  As a result, Jimbo Fisher will be able to take the reigns once Bowden coaches his last game, probably late this month.

      Which team will recover faster?  Sports columnists think it's Florida State, because the weather is warmer and the girls are prettier.  (In another hour, I could probably grab audio of Colin Cowherd saying almost exactly that.)  By that logic, Boise State, Penn State and Ohio State should all struggle to 5-7, while Texas A&M and UCLA march towards the BCS championship.  Give me a break.

      Notre Dame's fans have already proven themselves to be cool and patient customers, especially in their handling of Weis's troubles.  Yes, they've complained, loudly, but they haven't actively interfered with the program.  That Dan Snyder-esque activity happened at Texas in the 1980s, Alabama a decade ago, and Michigan last year -- all with disastrous results.  If it hasn't happened at Notre Dame by now, it may never happen.  The Fighting Irish may not return to prominence with their next coach, but they will return while most of us are still alive.

      Florida State?  Dunno.  Whatever happens to the Seminoles on the gridiron, we will all find out more about their fan base than anyone wanted to know.

      Over on the fantasy side, Team Venture was good and lucky this week, but mostly good.  Brett Favre, the Viking defense, Nate Kaeding and my three running backs -- starters Justin Forsett and LeSean McCoy, and reserve Chester Taylor -- all posted double-digit scores.  With those kinds of numbers, it didn't matter which three of my seven receivers I started.  I could have sat all of them out, along with my tight end, and still won by at least 20 points.  The lineup I actually used won by 77 -- and it could have been 90.

      At 6-6, I am currently the projected 7 seed, but it's going to be a scramble to make the playoffs.  If I win, I'm in, but my opponent will have Maurice Jones-Drew, Reggie Wayne, Anquan Boldin, Carson Palmer and Cedric Benson (the last two play Detroit).  Here's hoping Matt Leinart starts for Arizona again.

      24 November 2009

      Tuesday Gridiron (11/2009): Rusty tomato cans

      Brian Westbrook did me a favor even as I dropped him from my roster.  I replaced him with Giants wideout Mario Manningham.  In the photo at the lower right, Manningham doesn't even have his pads on, which reflects the way I used him.  With AFC North WRs Santonio Homes, Mike Wallace and Laverneus Coles all facing tomato-can opposition, I felt comfortable leaving Manningham on the bench.

      Some tomato cans Kansas City and Oakland turned out to be.

      Leaving Manningham's 126 receiving yards on the bench was a mistake, but not as big as the one my opponent, Crown My Ass, made.  Playing Houston's Steve Slaton at running back would've given CMA an extra 37 yards -- the exact amount needed for a 0.04-point victory.  Instead, CMA benched Slaton for Buffalo's Fred Jackson, and Team Venture escaped with its fourth straight win, a 104.42-100.76 triumph.

      At 5-6, I'm still just outside the playoff zone.  But with my league's longest winning streak and my strongest lineup all year, Team Venture could make a deep playoff run.

      The Victory Weighted NFL standings (at the bottom of the page) now show playoff positions. Teams that would advance to the postseason appear with their projected seeds in parentheses. Officially, Cincinnati would get the AFC's second seed; New Engalnd, its fourth. Victory Weighting reverses that, since one New England loss and one Cincinnati win each came in overtime.

      17 November 2009

      Tuesday Gridiron (10/2009)

      This was supposed to be my week of reckoning.  I now faced my former brother-in-law, who three weeks ago had agreed to give me Brett Favre and LeSean McCoy for Tom Brady.  I fully expected to pay for the two wins that came from that trade, because I would now be facing Brady.

      In that case, I might have lost a narrow decision, because I also managed to score only 69.26 points -- in the process, leaving more than 30 points on my bench.
      • I started St. Louis return man Danny Amendola at wide receiver because, with New Orleans scoring so often, he'd be returning a lot of kickoffs.  This tactic has worked well since I got him, but this turned out to be the one week all season when the Rams didn't suck.  That meant that Amendola didn't get many touches.  Starting Dallas WR Roy Williams would've gotten me 10.8 desperately needed points.
      • Instead of honoring my own instincts, I listened to the pundits at Yahoo! and ESPN, who all told me to start Minnesota's Chester Taylor instead of Seattle's Justin Forsett.  As a result, I lost another 19.5 points.

      This snapshot of last Sunday's Lolcats Lions-Vikings game helps explain why I won, anyway.  Favre passed for 344 yards, and the Viking defense overpowered the lowly Lolcats Lions.  My Viking contingent account for almost half my scoring, but the rest of my team did more than enough to win.

      Especially since my BIL had traded Brady to my nephew.

      So despite all my mistakes, Team Venture picked up a 69.3-49.2 win.  We're now 3-0 since the trade, 4-6 overall and in the middle of the playoff hunt.  Right now, I like my chances.

      The bad news is that with a second concussion, Brian Westbrook -- my first-round pick this year -- is out for the season, and I will have to drop him.  Weirdly enough, his troubles have improved my team dramatically.

      16 November 2009

      Alas! poor 24. A Venture Bros. Review

      "Return to Malice" heralds the end of Season 4's first quarter, so before I tell how well I liked it, it's time to survey the season so far.

      The good: How big a risk was it for Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick to make Brock Sampson's resignation stick? This was the biggest character loss any television series has taken since the murder of Catherine Chandler in CBS's Beauty and the Beast (1987-90). Like Brock today, Catherine's role went to the core of that series. Her death led to the cancellation of Beauty after only 11 more episodes, and Brock's departure could easily have done the same to The Venture Bros.  But this is not CSI OSI: Brock Sampson. Brock had become too central, and it was simply time for him to go his own way. This was the right decision, done for the right reason and handled the (mostly) right way.

      Generally, the season has been enjoyable. Even "Perchance to Dean," which I disliked, had some great moments.

      The bad: (1) Was it too much to have hoped to see more Triana and Byron Orpheus by now? Maybe it's because she's had less time than the rest of the cast, but Triana has always struck me as the show's most level-headed character. We've been promised an appearance this season. (2) "Perchance to Dean," taken alone, was well intentioned but badly executed. I suspect, though, that we haven't heard the last from the Psychic Delivery Man.

      The ugly: Okay, okay, I get it. Sgt. Hatred is a pathetic substitute for Brock. That would be true even if he weren't a pedophile. While I'd like to see less Hatred, that's not going to be the case. All the attention he and his issues have been getting had better lead to a big payoff in the next month.

      Henchman 21: What's the password?
      The Monarch: I forgot. Oh, wait, I remember. I'm the f**king Monarch! Let me in now!

      The Ventures and their friends have had to deal with Brock's loss, but Henchman 21 has had to deal with his own loss: the death of his best friend, Henchman 24. His lengthy mourning period drives Episode 43, "Return to Malice." In the months since 24's passing, 21 has not only bulked up but also, in effect, become the #3 person in The Monarch's crew. Nevertheless, 21 still mourns, and he still plays Hamlet to 24's Yorick. Revenge never left 21's mind, and the time has come to pursue it.

      Without The Monarch's knowledge or consent (and in violation of Guild of Calamitous Intent rules), 21 leads a raid on the Venture compound and kidnaps the twins. 21 tries to get information from them using Chinese water torture, but his makeshift apparatus only wakes them up. Ultimately, it's 21 who gives up information, telling the boys about how he's spent the time since 24's death. That story includes a badly executed 21-gun salute, more time stuck in his mother's house, and eventually an acknowlegement of his own role in 24's passing.

      Of course, Doc Venture and Sgt. Hatred go to Malice, the town where the Monarch and his crew live. It's also Hatred's former home town, and he ends up spying on his ex-wife and pathetically pitying himself. Meanwhile, a food allergy complicates an interview The Monarch was supposed to give. While his wife handles that, The Monarch lays down the law, first to his wife's infamous Moppets, then to the Venture boys (whom 21 has released), then finally to 21.

      "Return to Malice" has fewer laughs than most VB installments, and far less action, but its component sub-plots mix and match well, leading to some nice payoffs, including a (gasp!) meaningful conversation between Doc Venture and the former Dr. Girlfriend. As a bonus, it's also a great way to bring a new viewer into the wackiness that is The Venture Bros.

      Score: 95/100. It's a solid 'A,' no more, no less.

      10 November 2009

      Tuesday Gridiron: More lemony goodness!

      The concussion that's been plaguing running back Brian Westbrook (shown at the right) hasn't done any good for either him or his Philadelphia Eagles.  For my fantasy-football team, however, it's done wonders.  Last week's 50-rosaries trade for Westbrook's backup, LeSean McCoy worked spectacularly, and that should have ended the story.  Alas, the Minnesota Vikings had their bye this week, taking with quarterback Brett Favre, RB Chester Taylor and their defense.  Combined with Westbrook's continuing health issues, it forced me into another major roster makeover.

      My three new additions, Seattle RB Justin Forsett, the Seahawk defense and Kansas City QB Matt Cassell, proved to be the correct ones, combining for 53 points as temporary starters.  With all my other players also performing well, Team Venture romped to its biggest win of the year, a comprehensive 122-66 thrashing of the Flying Hawaiians.  Team Venture improved to 3-6 and, incredibly enough, back into playoff contention.  The new guys will be staying on the squad, and Forsett -- who joined literally two minutes before kickoff -- may even start on a permanent basis.  Hoo-RAH!

      09 November 2009

      Aye, There's the Flub: A Venture Bros. Review

       "There is no Hair Fairy, is there?" -- Dean

      The 1985 Chicago Bears won Super Bowl XX using the most powerful defense ever to take to the gridiron.  Superstars Walter Payton and Jim McMahon powered the offense, whose job that year was to simply mop up the devastation that the "46" defense brought upon its opponents.  Their only loss that season, a 38-17 defeat at Miami, happened mainly because the Bears had a rotten second quarter.

      That second quarter kept coming to my mind as I outlined this post.  Every great champion has at least one episode that simply sucks.  The same is true of television series: there's always at least one episode that's obviously worse than the others.*  The Venture Bros. has had a great run, but "Perchance to Dean" is the first episode that I can claim to dislike.  It's not a bad episode, but with its larger-than-normal plot holes, it's not good, either.

      It was nice to track a simpler plot line.  (Simple is good, once or twice a season.)  It was a pleasure to see a VB episode highlight Dean.  Finally, it was good to see movement in the relationship between Doc Venture and his twin sons.  Like the "46" that 1985 night in Miami, alas, none of these meshed very well.

      In the core plot line, as punishment for a spectacularly funny insult, Rusty has handed Hank an excessively long list of chores.  Hank chafes, of course, and the arrival of his friend Dermott simply abets his rebelliousness.  Meanwhile, Rusty has decided to start training Dean as a scientist.

      The basic Dean line actually works.  At first, Dean is uncomfortable with the idea of becoming a scientist.  It doesn't help when Rusty turns the Panic Room into Dean's mini-lab (no windows!).  But Dean has started losing his hair, and he soon starts experiementing with fallen strands of it.  In a hilarious sendup of progressive rock music, Dean finds even more inspiration in a listening room that Rusty had previously kept secret.

      By contrast, Hank gets nothing but contempt, and it's small wonder that he decides to join the annoying (but popular) Dermott on another adventure.  I generally don't like Dermott, whose only interesting feature these days is his mysterious mother, who makes a voice-and-shadow appearance at the end of the episode.  (Right now, Dermott is just a bulked-up Nelson Muntz.)  As a foil for Hank, though, Dermott works well enough this time.

      So far, so good.  In other VB episodes, the inevitable complications improve the plot, but here, none of the complications work.
      • D-19, the episode's main antagonist, is a deformed, paranoid and generally sad Dean clone.  Terrible actions notwithstanding, I could only feel sad for D-19.  Circumstances considered, the fate he meets might be kind.  The trouble is that D-19 deserved a better beginning.  From the opening sequence, we are supposed to believe that he (a) survived being literally flushed down a drain as an embryo, (b) made it to the Venture attic and (c) reached even the limited level of intellect he has -- all while undetected by Brock Sampson or the Ventures for at least 16 years.  All three conditions must have been met for D-19 to have any plausibility, but I didn't see evidence that any of them were.  Yes, Doc Venture misses lots of things that happen on his own property, but that doesn't resolve this hole.
      • Let's see if I have the psychic-delivery-man story line right:  Delivery man, inadvertently prodded by a frustrated Hank, alerts the sheriff of a bad feeling he has about the compound.  Sheriff brings in a SWAT team to raid the compound.  SWAT commandos move in, arrest Doc Venture and Sgt. Hatred and Hank, and take Hatred's PC (why not Venture's?), only to let it all go at the end.  In the first place, where have the cops been since the end of Season 1?  In the second, the tip-off from the psychic recalls only bad 1970s made-for TV movies.  Amusing references to the Branch Davidian and Heaven's Gate cult disasters notwithstanding, I didn't see any reason to have this subplot.  Maybe the delivery man will show up again in a later episode.
      • What is Sgt. Hatred still doing on the compound?  As a bodyguard, he's been an abysmal failure, and I'm surprised Rusty hasn't fired him.  His latest protection scheme, involving explosive mockups of Doc Venture, ties all the subplots together, but doesn't prevent either Dermott's intrusion or protect anyone from arrest.
      Other issues -- the opening scene as Brock's first day on the job, Rusty's sudden change in behavior towards the twins -- would normally get their own paragraphs.  In "Perchance to Dean," however, these are just minor issues, worth just this little scribble.  The episode isn't as disastrous as some I've seen on other TV series I've liked (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), but I hope this is a low point.

      Score: 78/100, including a +5 bonus for J.G. Thirwell's progressive-rock riffs.

      *Excepting The Wire, whose clunkers still made great television.

      03 November 2009

      Tuesday Gridiron: Lemons to lemonade

      I was going to post a sad, sad fantasy-football story last week, but this week it got a happy sequel.

      It started a week ago last night, when things were looking good. My team, named after the Venture Brothers, trailed by six points, but two players were set to play the Monday night game. If Philadelphia RB Brian Westbrook and Washington TE Chris Cooley could gain 60 yards between them, I would win the game. Since both Westbrook and Cooley both took spots in the NFL's top ten at their respective positions, this proposition looked like a sure bet. Before quarter-time, alas, Westbrook suffered a concussion and Cooley broke his leg. Their total yardage stopped at 35, sending my team crashing to 1-6.

      Going into this week, things were already dicey. Besides Cooley, my quarterback and three of my four best receivers were all on a bye week.  I could replace Cooley, but that still left me with four starting spots to fill, and no good way to replace them.

      In desperation, I traded for Minnesota QB Brett Favre (left) and and Lesean McCoy (center), Westbrook's backup. It wasn't cheap -- I had to send my starting QB, Tom Brady (right), packing -- but it worked spectacularly. Favre's four touchdown passes combined with a 66-yard McCoy touchdown run to power my team to victory. Despite having to play 8-on-9 (one of my backup receivers gained 0 yards), my Venture Brothers team pulled off the 87-83 upset win.

      The unexpected triumph boosts me to 2-6 and out of the league cellar. Next week, Favre has a bye, so I've picked Kansas City QB Matt Cassell to relieve him. With my best receivers (and possibly Westbrook) back in action, I should have enough to make win my third game in four weeks. Go Team Venture!

      02 November 2009

      Holy sunshine! A Venture Brothers review

      Rusty Venture: How do you lose a Hank?
      The Monarch: Same way you just lost 10 million dollars, genius!

      For once, I'm on time with a post, which means I'm reviewing a Venture Bros. episode 7-1/2 days after its first airing.

      "Handsome Ransom," the second episode of Season 4, takes The Venture Bros. back to territory it first visited last year in "Home is Where the Hatred Is."  In that episode's coda, noted pedophile Sgt. Hatred unsuccessfully tried to lure the Venture twins into his hot tub.  This time, it's Hank alone (shown above with Captain Sunshine) who becomes the object of a large man's affection.

      If that last sentence frightens you, well, that's the point of "Handsome Ransom."  We see lots of hints that Hank is about to suffer sexual abuse -- and all of them lead to other places entirely.  Like "Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel," this episode plays mainly to its already established audience, which has already dealt with Sgt. Hatred's unsavory obsessions.  Here, for that reason, I spent most of the episode worrying about Hank's well being at the hands of the differently twisted Captain Sunshine.  The good news is that my worries eventually turned into one long rollercoaster ride.

      In "Handsome Ransom," The Monarch has yet another scheme against Doc Venture -- this time, kidnapping the twins for a $10,000,000 ransom -- interrupted an angry Captain Sunshine (voiced by Kevin Conroy).  Sunshine crashes into The Monarch's flying lair, beats him up, has him arrested (for no good legal reason) and flies off with Hank.  Years earlier, The Monarch had slain Sunshine's beloved ward, Wonderboy.  Hank's resemblance to the fallen sidekick inspires Sunshine to take him to his home, the Neverland-like Sanctum Solarium, try to turn him into the new Wonderboy.

      As a thinly veiled amalgam of Batman and Superman, Captain Sunshine is unsettling enough, but the creepiness doesn't stop at his appearance or his home.  First, there's Sunshine's outfit, which, in modern symbolic language, is literally gay.  Then, Sunshine gives Hank a makeover.  Then, when Sunshine's butler hands Hanks a tube of jelly, we fear the worst.  After the break, though, it turns out that the jelly merely helps Hank fit into a Wonderboy outfit.  (The Monarch's later attempt to make the same trip provides a funny counterpoint.)

      In fact, everything about Captain Sunshine that might suggest a threat to Hank turns out, instead, to be a manifestation of Sunshine's attempt to replace the late Wonderboy.  The true nature of the relationship between Sunshine and Wonderboy never comes to (ahem) light; we're permitted to know only that Sunshine really, really misses him.

      Actually, that's not very far from the actual Batman, or his relationships with the various Robins.

      It's a scary ride, worrying about Hank, but once his father rescues him, the episode becomes much easier to enjoy in retrospect.  That's a good thing, because "Handsome Ransom" is packed with hilarious gags, not all of which are shots at Batman or Superman.  Also, returning along with The Monarch and the buffed-up 21 are some other VB favorites.  Dr. Mrs. The Monarch proves the validity of her title, while Peter White and a rebuilt Billy Quizboy try to help their old friend Doc Venture.

      Finally, I should mention that the action here takes place after the death of Hitler the dog.  That means that 9-12 months have passed since Henchman 24's death, with the lower figure still the "official" estimate.

      Score:  94/100.  I am liking this episode more as time passes.  But please, enough with the pedophilia.

      30 October 2009

      Stop shooting that comic book! A Venture Bros. Review

      Lord, deliver us from 1978.
      -- Agent Cardholder, "Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel"

      Adult Swim lists the Season 4 premiere of The Venture Bros. as Episode 46, but that may have been the most straightforward part of this dense, complex but worthy episode.  There was enough material in this half hour for two episodes, but somehow Jackson Publick and the rest of the real-life Team Venture managed to pack it all into a single installment.  On that basis alone, Adult Swim's decision to air it on five consecutive nights was well justified.

      Here's the synopsis:  "Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel" follows the series' central characters, along with Henchman 21, Sgt. Hatred and Dr. Orpheus, as they all deal with the aftermath of Season 3's explosive finale.  (In this case, the adjective is no exaggeration.)  Peppered with references to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982), the episode uses Marvel Comics #1(1939) as a framing mechanism.

      Told in traditional, linear fashion, "Blood of the Father" would have been challenging enough to follow.  As it unfolds, however, it quickly becomes clear that we are dealing with two distinct and parallel plot lines.  Both lines start at the same point: the season-ending explosion that decapitated both HELPER the robot and 21's best friend, Henchman 24.  The episode's coda, the short scene that always follows the credits at the end of a completed VB episode, marks the end of both lines.  The additional challenge comes from the opposite directions of the lines.

      The forward-moving line, which opens the episode, features Brock Sampson alone.  When the explosion occurred, Brock was literally walking away from his job with the Office of Secret Intelligence.  Severely wounded, then patched up by OSI doctors, Brock resumes his escape,  convalescing for several months before deciding to return to action as a free agent.  But things have changed in his absence (including his weight).  Each scene in this line is marked with the title of one of the stories that comprised Marvel Comics #1.

      The other plot line, which involves Dr. Venture and the twins, moves backwards.  In the aftermath of the explosion, Venture finds himself harassed, first by 21, then by neo-Nazis.  21 wants Venture to use his spectacular (and illegal) cloning facility to recreate 24.  To pay for the operation, 21 offers Venture his family heirloom: a mint copy of Marvel Comics #1.  Later, bringing with them a dog that holds Adolf Hitler's soul, the Nazis threaten to kill Venture unless he uses his cloning skills to give Hitler a new body.  The scenes in this line also get visual tags, but these show the value of 21's comic book at the point each scene occurs.  Since the scenes appear in reverse order, the value begins at zero and ends at $500,000, the book's value when Venture first receives it.

      Unfortunately for 21, the residents of the Venture compound don't understand what he has given them.  To them, it's just another comic book, and in each scene it appears, it takes a form of abuse that only copies of, say, Human Events, should have to endure.  Even after being turned into a doggie toy by Dr. Orpheus, the poor book is still worth $850, but the last abuse finishes it off.  Once 21 learns of his book's fate, he turns to Orpheus to resurrect 24, only to be turned down again.

      (Like the episode itself, both the title of this post and the picture atop it revolve around the book.  In the screen cap, 21 is arguing with Doc Venture just before his visit with Orpheus.  The title arises because, at one point, Hank shoots -- yes, shoots -- the comic book.)

      And that dog does have Hitler's soul locked in it, as becomes apparent to everyone but Dean, whose mental state has been deteriorating.  To Dean -- apparently the only person who can finish Hitler off -- the dog is just a pet, and his best friend, until the Nazis return.  Eight months after their first visit, they are displeased to see that Hitler remains in canine form.  It falls to Orpheus, Sgt. Hatred, Venture's archenemy-turned-bodyguard, and a rebuilt HELPER to try save the day.

      I can't say I enjoyed seeing Hatred become Brock's replacement.  It's hard to root for anyone so pathetic that OSI has to drug the pedophilia out of him.

      Various message boards, including the official one at Adult Swim, have suggested that eight months pass from the beginning of the plot lines to their end, but I think that's an underestimate.  We don't know how long it takes after the explosion for the Nazis to first arrive, nor do we know how long Brock's recuperation lasted.  Either length must add to the eight months, and judging from the magnitude of Brock's weight fluctuations, it's likely that both of them do.  I'd guess that the total length is somewhere between 12 and 18 months, not the popularly reckoned 8.  Perhaps later episodes will clarify the issue.

      As I said, that's a lot to pack into 23 minutes of animation, and there's quite a bit I haven't mentioned.  You probably will need at least two viewings to understand it all, but it's worth the effort.

      Grade:  91/100.  I initially knocked it down to 87 because of Hatred's increased role, but I've become more forgiving.  A little bit more.

      Update (2 Nov 09): Jackson Publick has provided a ruling on the timing.  On his blog, he says that the episode takes place over nine months.  Brock's weight changes would seem to suggest a longer span, but everything else fits.

      23 October 2009

      The Ghost-Grey Cat Presents: (3) The Chinaman Button

      "Mr. van Haas, I'm making this as easy for you as... pushing a button." -- Phil Thurston

      Someone presents you a box with a single button. Pressing the button triggers two chains of events. One chain leads to the legal deposit of a potentially life-changing sum of money into your bank account; the other, to the death of a random person, whose identity cannot be revealed.

      Do you press the button?

      This little device, and the dilemma it presents, is central to The Box, the Richard Kelly movie that opens in theaters in two weeks. Episode 15 of CBS Radio Mystery Theater, doesn't feature either a button, a box or even an Asian, but it centers on similar dilemma. That's why, when I first saw ads for The Box, I decided that I should post a review of this episode. The little button below doesn't kill anything, but it does play the teaser.

      Teaser for The Chinaman Button

      The title writer Henry Slesar gave Episode 15, "The Chinaman Button," was racist, and he surely knew it. He further knew that, when the episode first aired, that term had long since fallen out of favor. I can only imagine that he chose the title for its ability to attract audience attention. After all, as of 20 January 1974, RMT had been on the air for only two weeks.

      Slesar gets away with this offense for only one reason: the only character who regularly uses the term "Chinaman" in the story is its villain, a crooked advertising executive. As "The Chinaman Button" opens, Phil Thurston (voiced by Paul Hecht) returns from vacation to discover that he has lost his most valuable account. Unfortunately, much of that value came from Thurston's overbilling his client -- a fraud exposed by Walter van Haas (Mason Adams), a humble accountant that the client had just hired.

      Not content to have escaped jail time (or even firing), Thurston launches an elaborate retaliation. Rather than kill or injure van Haas, Thurston decides to try to expose him as a venal person.

      To that end, Thurston creates a virtual "Afrikaner Button" for van Haas to push. Posing as a representative of a South African law firm, Thurston "informs" van Haas that he is the only heir to a wealthy cousin, many times removed, who lives in Johannesburg. Thurston refuses to identify this cousin, but does tell van Haas that his cousin will soon meet an untimely death. To receive millions of dollars, van Haas needs only to wait for his cousin to die. Unfortunately, van Haas can only receive the money if he keeps silent about his relative's impending death. In accepting this offer, as Thurston hopes, van Haas would expose his own base nature. The exposure would be doubly sweet for Thurston, since both the South African law firm and van Haas's "relative" are entirely fictional.

      Initially, van Haas angrily rejects the deal, and tells Thurston to buzz off. Fate, however, has other plans, setting off a battle of wills between the ethical van Haas and the corrupt Thurston. If van Haas rejects the deal, he wins, but if he agrees to it, Thurston gets his revenge. But as one of RMT's most satisfying endings shows, both men have overestimated their positions. By the time "The Chinaman Button" ended, I almost forgot about its questionable title.

      This episode may be entitled "The Chinaman Button," but the Internet has caused it to age prematurely. Before the Internet, creating fake stationery, an essential element of Thurston's scheme, required no small amount of money, along with influence like his. These days, anyone with a simple computer can create such stationery. And as Nigerian scammers and others have long since proven, even stationery isn't required to convince gullible users that they can get money from rich Africans who don't actually exist.

      Score: 91/100. "The Johannesburg Button" would've bumped it up to 96.

      Musical note: Here's the second-act curtain. Although this short, dizzying piece of music separated scenes in many episodes, it was never used as a curtain again.

      Curtain 2 from The Chinaman Button

      20 October 2009

      Tuesday Gridiron: Fear the pigeon!

      It's come to this for the Oakland Raiders:

      Notice how well the pigeon's feathers match it's new teammates' uniforms.  At least now the Raiders have shown some coordination this season.  Maybe this week, the Raiders can stop by Lake Merritt and sign a couple of the Canadian geese who hang out there.

      Go Team Venture!  Because Yahoo couldn't handle my fantasy-football team's intended handle, "The Guild of Calamitous Intent," I named it "The Venture Brothers," instead.  So far, the team has performed as though either Dean Venture (left) or Jim Zorn (right) were coaching it.  As of 15:00 Chicago time Sunday, the Vikings' defense -- the only reliable part of my team all year long -- had just collapsed, and this Team Venture found itself staring at an 0-6 record.  But then Patriot QB Tom Brady threw six touchdown passes to stake my team to a precarious 9-point lead.  In the Monday night showdown, my kicker, Nate Kaeding, outperformed my opponent's lead running back, Ladamian Tomlinson, leaving me with a solid 13-point win.  Finally, the Venture Brothers win!

      Post-ponement:  Speaking of my team's namesakes, I had planned to post a review today of the Season 4 opener of The Venture Bros., which first aired Sunday night.  It's not too difficult to follow the timeline in Episode 40, but nor is it straightforward.  Fortunately, Cartoon Network has decided to re-air the episode every school night this week.  I'll have more to say next Monday, but I can now give it a rating of 8.7 out of 10.  The episode has one element that cost it a full point.

      12 October 2009

      Is Rush Limbaugh the next Silvio Berlusconi?

      Right now, the answer to the title question is "no" -- but could it one day switch to "yes?" Until this month, all the Floridian radio host (left) and the Italian prime minister (right) had in common was the fact that both men were misogynist boors who had too much money, power and media influence.  In the past week, though, we've seen a couple of news items that, if they pan out, may make Limbaugh more powerful than ever.
      • Last Friday, the Miss America Organization named Limbaugh as a judge for the 2010 Miss America pageant, scheduled for next January in Las Vegas.  Thus, Limbaugh gets to attach his name to another American icon (even one as badly aged as Miss America).  And, he gets to leer at pretty young women and get away with it.
      • A much larger occurrence is Limbaugh's recently announced bid to buy the St. Louis Rams.  It's hard to imagine this bid succeeding -- the NFL players' union has already announced its opposition -- but if it does, he will have developed another similarity to Berlusconi, owner of Italian soccer superpower AC Milan.  (My favorite soccer team? Whoever is playing the Rossoneri this week!)
      The point is that Silvio Berlusconi used AC Milan, among other organizations, to gain control over the Italian media.  From there, it became much easier for him to conquer Italy itself.  Perhaps Rush Limbaugh, with his actions last week, is trying to follow Berlusconi's footsteps.  Given that Italian law is steadily closing in on Silvio, Rush is going to have to watch his steps much more closely than he has in the past.

      God, I hope Rush Limbaugh fails.

      03 October 2009

      The Ghost-Grey Cat Presents: (2) Radio-dial games

      The CBS Radio Mystery Theater succeeded as well as it did for a wide range of reasons, most of them having little to do with the plots of its episodes.  At some point, I'll have a complete list of success factors, but tonight, I'll start with three.

      As its name implies, RMT aired on CBS Radio affiliates* that broadcast their signals on the AM spectrum. (In 1974, radio stations preferred AM signals to FM -- though that was changing.)  CBS Radio let its member stations run RMT at any time they desired.  Most stations did this every evening, at seven minutes past some hour.   Chicago's WBBM was the big exception, to which I'll come back presently.

      If you've ever played with an AM radio at night, you know that, unlike FM stations, you can easily catch stations from hundreds of kilometers away.  Even today, some of the most powerful AM stations in the US count on having nighttime listeners well outside their home markets (and away from the Internet).  For me, a third-grader listening in exurban Chicago, it meant that, on a given night, I could catch an episode at 20:00 aired in Louisville or Detroit, hear it again at 21:00 from Minneapolis or Denver, then catch it a third time from WBBM -- at 22:30.  It's hard to imagine that RMT didn't get a noticeable part of its audience from nighttime road travelers.

      But back to Chicago and WBBM.  Since Chicago is in the Central time zone, and not the Eastern or Pacific, 22:30 was (and remains) the airtime for NBC's Tonight Show.  In other words, WBBM scheduled RMT to intentionally challenge Johnny Carson's popular late-night show.  With David Letterman and ABC's Nightline still well into the future, WBBM's gamble succeeded brilliantly.

      At least it did with the grade-school set.  In 1974, as now, most families put their younger children to bed at 22:00 on school nights, if not before then.  Watching TV of any kind at 22:30 was a no-no for kids.  Back then, few families had more than two television sets in the whole house; sneaking peeks at Johnny Carson was simply impossible.  Sneaking a listen to RMT, by contrast, was easy.  While few bedrooms had TV sets, almost every bedroom could have at least one cheap radio, like the one at left.  Even with a radio that big, it was a trivial matter for a kid like me to curl up to it, set it to WBBM hide everything, myself included, under the blanket.  Mom and Dad didn't suspect a thing.  It wasn't hard to imagine that kind of scene repeating itself thousands of times every night, in Chicagoland alone.

      Elsewhere, I suspect, a weaker version of the same thing happened.  RMT succeeded partly because it became "appointment radio," and partly because, in an era when broadcast networks still dominated television, there just wasn't anything better on the boob tube.

      But did I simply listen to the RMT episodes?  Well, at first, I did.   Soon enough, I realized that certain curtains -- those pieces of music that marked the end of each of an episode's three acts -- frightened me.  What's really weird is that only one these particular curtains, three of which you can hear below, showed up in horror stories.  Most of them occurred instead in crime dramas.

      Curtain 1 from And Nothing but the Truth
      Curtain 1 from The Lady Is a Jinx
      Curtain 2 from The Lady Is a Jinx

      Over time, I turned my fear into a game.  As the end of any act approached, I put my had on either the volume dial or the tuning dial.  The moment I thought a curtain would start, I turned the dial, waited a second, then moved the dial back to its original position.  If I avoided the start of any of these curtains, or if a less scary curtain turned up instead, I "won."

      The thing is, in RMT's early years, its curtains used very sharp music, such as the samples above.  I have no doubt that, not unlike John Williams' efforts in Star Wars I-III, that music effectively masked an awful lot of awful plots.

      *The big exception was RKO Radio flagship WOR, which carried RMT in New York.

      29 September 2009

      Tuesday Gridiron (3/2009)

      First of all, best wishes to USC running back Stephon Johnson, who took a horrific injury to his throat.  The details are still too horrible for me to think about, so if you haven't learned the details, you can follow this link.

      Well, I was about to spend a whole blog dissecting the new jerseys the Seattle Seahawks wore two days ago (seen at right).  They aren't pretty, but the bright green isn't the problem -- it's the dark blue sleeves that make them look so bad.  (For that matter, the sleeves look awful on the Seahawks' regular home jerseys, too.)  Anyway, the new jerseys still aren't remotely as noxious as those 1940s-style rags the Buffalo Bills call their current uniforms.

      In other news, I've been playing fantasy football.  And sucking at it, hard.  Last week, I lost both my #1 running back and my #1 receiver to injuries.  Tom Brady did okay for me at QB, but I was lucky to lose by only 21 points, and fall to 0-3 in the process.  Go, Team Venture?

      22 September 2009

      Tuesday Gridiron (2/2009)

      Last year, I made a new post after every week of NFL games.  Each post showed only the standings with my Victory Weighting system, with a few comments here and there.  This year, since Blogger allows HTML-based gadgets, the current Victory Weighted standings will appear at the bottom of the blog.  Actual Victory Weighting related posts will appear most Tuesdays until the Pro Bowl in February, but they'll consist of comments on the standings.

      To recap what's been posted here at the Cat: In Victory Weighting, each team has a Strength rating.  At the end of each game that ends in regulation, the winning team adds 4 points to its Strength.  For games that end in overtime, the winner adds 3 points to its Strength, and the loser adds 1 point.  In the rare case of a tie, each team adds 2 points to its Strength.

      Teams are then ranked by Strength.  If two teams have the same Strength, the one with the better winning percentage gets the higher rank. Victory Weighting also modifies some NFL tie-breaking procedures:
      1. For tiebreakers that compare sub-records, Strength precedes winning percentage. For example, if two teams have the same Strength from division games, then the team with the better winning percentage in its division advances.
      2. For head-to-head tiebreakers, Strength from the relevant game(s) replaces winning percentage.
      3. A team's strength of schedule, most commonly used as the final draft-order tiebreaker, is redefined as the sum of all of its opponents' Strength ratings. Division opponents count twice in this calculation, since every team plays its division rivals (but no one else) twice.
      4. Likewise, the definition of the rarely used strength of victory becomes the VP-weighted sum of opponents' Strength ratings. Each game played contributes a "game strength," which is the product of (a) the number of Strength points the team earned from that game and (b) the opponent's overall Strength. The strength of victory, then, is the sum of all the game strengths.
      Besides mitigating the inherent unfairness of sudden-death overtime, Victory Weighting offers additional advantages:
      • Fairer playoff seeding:  Since victory-point totals better reflect the quality of teams' victories, they also better reflect the quality of the teams themselves.
      • Faster tiebreakers:  Because Victory Weighting changes the standings every time an overtime period is played, it spreads teams out. Rivals who share a common won-loss record can nevertheless have different Strengths. If the rivals are competing for playoff spots, no tiebreakers need apply, since the different Strengths sort them out.
      • Quicker playoff scenario resolution:  One team's performance in its last regular-season game can affect not only its own playoff status but also those of several rivals. Under traditional rules, the rivals have to wait until the whole of this central game is completed, even it it requires overtime. Under Victory Weighting, however, overtime itself can either provide or take away the single Strength point required to determine everyone's fate. The waiting ends when regulation time does.
      Victory Weighting does expand the number of playoff scenarios. Instead of three potential outcomes (win, loss, draw), each game now has five (win, OT win, loss, OT loss, draw).  For a two-team race, the total number of scenarios increases from 9 to 25; for three teams, from 27 to 125. On the other hand, the resulting tiebreakers work faster, resolving the additional scenarios almost as quickly as they are added.

      Finally, Victory Weighting exerts an impact that is neither positive or negative. At the end of the season, it does affect draft order, especially for those teams whose final Strength falls between 26 and 38. These are the teams in the middle of the overall table, with 7-9, 8-8 and 9-7 records.  Even when Victory Weighting jumbles their draft positions, such teams can usually work their way around the changes – just as they do now.

      18 September 2009

      The Ghost-Grey Cat Presents: (1) Separating generations

      As I composed the first draft for this post, some research reminded me that another piece of CBS history is being made today.  The Guiding Light, the longest scripted series ever, will close its run after 72 years on both radio and television.  The radio episodes alone (almost two decades' worth) accounted for more air time than CBS Radio Mystery Theater, itself one of the longest running radio fiction series ever.

      Nevertheless, RMT made an impressive run--1,399 episodes aired over 2,969 nights--all long after scripted network radio supposedly died.  The show even did well enough to enjoy rerun-based revivals in 1989 and 1998.  As it turns out, however, the end of RMT in 1982 did, indeed, spell the death of scripted radio, at least on the fiction side.

      For some of us, the show didn't always leave us with the "pleasant dreams" host E.G. Marshall (and his successor, Tammy Grimes) wished us, but they did leave happy memories. Fans of all ages curled up with their little transistor radios at night, listening to RMT episodes when they were supposed to be sleeping.

      Those memories make RMT a rather useful tool for separating the generations. RMT's youngest fans--including me--were grade-schoolers when its episodes first aired in 1974, and teenagers at the end of the show's run. Older fans were part of the Baby Boom or earlier generations; those too young to remember RMT belong to Generation X.  But we, the youngest RMT fans in the 1970s, don't fit easily in either category.

      Back to The Guiding Light, which everyone remembers but, apparently, no one watches.  Any show that takes more than seven decades to finally lose its audience had to be doing something right.  Nice run.

      12 September 2009

      Final 2008 NFL Standings with Victory Weighting

      In Victory Weighting, teams are ranked by their Strength. If two teams have the same Strength, then the one with the higher overall winning percentage gets the higher rank.

      With that in mind, let's see how the final 2008-9 NFL standings would have appeared under Victory Weighting. Playoff teams in these listings are preceded by their seed in parentheses.

      NFC North
      (3) Minnesota10-6-00-0400.625
      Chicago 9-7-02-1350.538
      Green Bay6-10-00-1260.375
      Detroit 0-16-00-000.000

      NFC South
      (1) Carolina 12-4-00-1490.750
      (5) Atlanta 11-5-01-0430.688
      Tampa Bay 9-7-02-1350.538
      New Orleans 8-8-00-1330.500

      NFC East
      (2) NY Giants 12-4-02-0460.750
      (6) Philadelphia9-6-10-0380.594
      Dallas 9-7-00-1370.538
      Washington 8-8-00-0320.500

      NFC West
      (4) Arizona 9-7-01-0350.538
      San Francisco7-9-01-0230.432
      Seattle 4-12-00-1170.250
      St. Louis 2-14-00-080.125

      AFC North
      (2) Pittsburgh12-4-01-0470.750
      (6) Baltimore 11-5-00-1450.688
      Cleveland 4-12-00-0160.250

      AFC South
      (1) Tennessee 13-3-01-0510.812
      (5) Indianapolis12-4-00-0480.750
      Houston 8-8-00-1330.500

      AFC East
      (3) New England11-5-00-1450.688
      Miami 11-5-00-0440.688
      NY Jets 9-7-01-1360.538
      Buffalo 7-9-00-0280.432

      AFC West
      (4) San Diego8-8-00-0320.500
      Kansas City2-14-00-190.125

      Usually, Victory Weighting produces the same set of playoff teams as do traditional standings, but seed them differently. Here, Carolina would have earned the #1 NFC seed, and the Panthers would have hosted Philadelphia at the divisional playoff stage.  The New York Giants, the actual top seeds, would have fallen to #2, where they would have met surging Arizona.

      Last season also provided a less common result:  it actually produced a different playoff field.  Miami completed its Cinderella run by winning the AFC East and hosting Baltimore in the wild-card round.  Under Victory Weighting, however, the Dolphins would have missed the playoffs altogether, and New England would have hosted the Ravens instead. The difference is that only the Patriots had a game go to overtime. The OT loss gave the Patriots an extra Strength point.