Previous month:
May 2008
Next month:
July 2008

context

One reason baseball is #1 in that part of my heart devoted to spectator sports is that baseball and I have a history. For fifty years, I have been following the exploits of the San Francisco Giants. You can't do anything for fifty years without earning an attachment that may be irritating at times, but rewards your faithfulness in myriad ways. Given the evocative nature of baseball statistics, you can extend your connection to the game to a time before you were born.

To American fans of my generation, soccer is secondary at best. The same history that so inspires the baseball fan, that drives soccer-mad people across the globe into a frenzy, is lacking for the most part here. I can remember a new American soccer league starting in the late 60s, can remember attending an NASL match in the late 70s, can remember making my first real connection to the sport during Euro '84. But my history with the game is paltry compared to what baseball and I have shared. And, at least as of this point, soccer statistics lack the story-telling depth of their baseball counterparts.

The now-concluded European championships offered a lot of delightful play that I imagine intrigued casual fans. But even the most hardcore soccer fan will admit that, as with all sports, individual matches are just as likely to be boring as transcendent. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but the best way to appreciate those boring matches is to watch a lot of them. Just as a long-standing Giants fan will take special pleasure, when/if their team finally wins the World Series, because of the accumulated dreariness of all those mid-August snoozefests between two bad teams, so too a soccer fan's appreciation of the big events like Euro 2008 is amplified in direct correlation to the sheer number of matches you've watched, good and bad.

Not to mention, johnny-come-latelys like me have a lot of catching up to do.

When the World Cup came to the USA in 1994, I read a book by Pete Davies called Twenty-Two Foreigners in Funny Shorts. The reason this obscure book made such an impact on me was that Davies put the World Cup in context. There were a zillion books for new American soccer fans in the buildup to USA '94, listing historical data and detailing the big players of the game (want a nostalgia rush, if nostalgia is possible for something that happened only 14 years ago? Here is the all-star team from that Cup: Preud'homme; Jorginho, Marcio Santos, Maldini; Dunga, Krassimir Balakov, Hagi, Brolin; Romario, Stoichkov, Baggio). Davies gave us the history and the stars, but he framed his book by telling intermingling stories: not just a history of the World Cup and the evolution of soccer, but also the tale of a typical season of world soccer, split between the big clubs that get our attention, and one small Welsh club without which there would be no big clubs. The World Cup doesn't happen without the big clubs feeding players to the Cup; the big clubs don't happen without smaller clubs feeding players to the big guys. And so Davies can be a fan of the English national team, can have a fond spot in his heart for Wimbledon (that dates the book!), but his book is about going out every Saturday to see tiny Wrexham in action. His message is simple: to fully appreciate the greatest players, clubs, and competitions, it helps to spend time in the trenches.

Spain's win yesterday was made sweeter for anyone who has spent time following the national team over the years, even including my half-Spanish self, first introduced to the highest levels of soccer joy and despair when Spain lost to the unstoppable French of Platini in Euro '84. But more than that, our joy is made greater by the amount of time spent with the game in moments not always captured in the casual fan's attention. In the two years since the last World Cup, there have been two seasons of excitement and boredom at the club level, following the exploits of Liverpool and Wrexham, Inter Milan and Sevilla and Werder Bremen and (insert name of your MLS team ... we didn't have one for most of those two years), Chivas and Boca Juniors and Emelec and Defensor Sporting. Watching the MLS expansion San Jose Earthquakes play a brain-numbing scoreless draw against the Chicago Fire the day before the Euro final amounted on the one hand to 90 minutes of my life I'll never get back ... but it was also part of the contextual experience that improves watching Spain win their first major championship in 44 years.

It may be that this is precisely what will prevent most Americans from truly embracing soccer. It takes a certain kind of dedication to subject one's self to one crap match after another, just so when you see an actual good match you'll appreciate it more. When a game is part of the national fabric, such dedication is in the air ... I didn't have to be forced to enjoy baseball when I was a kid, nor did Fernando Torres decide all on his own that soccer was interesting to him. But, even now, when seemingly every kid plays soccer and televised action is available beyond our wildest dreams, soccer is not deep enough into our fabric that we "get it" without trying. No, it takes effort, and who wants to work hard at something which is supposed to be fun?

So I can tell you that it's become worth it for me to go down to little Buck Shaw Stadium to watch the Quakes bore me to death, to watch half a dozen European club matches on a weekend, to scour the Internet looking for news of the ever-more-despairing Wrexham. But I recognize that it is work, and that it isn't worth it to most American sports fans, and so I'm just glad if you found some small entertainment from Euro 2008.


a few hopefully final words on euro 2008

I've long felt that statistics told us little about what happens on a soccer field. Over time, I've been convinced otherwise, at first by Voros McCracken, a noted and innovative baseball analyst who also likes and examines soccer. Voros once chided me for my position, saying that while perhaps the soccer statistics of the past were lacking, even they told us something, and while I always wondered where the soccer stats would come from, Voros accurately predicted the onslaught of new-fangled stats that give us a lot of concrete data regarding what happens on a soccer field. We can still argue over the importance of various items, but the information is there, it can be analyzed, and I was wrong.

Still, I'm going to call on a couple of really basic numbers here, then mention my own cockamamie notion. Euro 2008 was a smashing success, not just for fans of Spain, but for neutrals everywhere. Two years ago, I spent a month detailing World Cup 2006, and a fair criticism of that work was that I was too negative. Some felt I wanted perfection 100% of the time.

That World Cup and the just-finished Euro 2008 offer useful comparisons. I'll begin by noting that in the following, I am treating each match as having equal importance, which is nonsense ... the final was more important than the third matches in the group stage that had to bearing on the standings. But I'm not making any grand statements here, just trying to figure out why this tournament was so much better than Germany '06.

In that World Cup, there was an average of 2.3 goals per match. In Euro 2008, it was 2.5. This might seem like a minor difference, but the scoring of goals is so fundamental to the enjoyment factor of a match that even a fractional improvement is welcomed.

More to the point, in Germany two years ago, 7 of the 64 matches ended in a scoreless draw. At Euro 2008, only 2 of 31 matches were 0-0.

But my goofy subjective idea really brings it home. When I first wrote about this, I called it the "Best Match Theory." Again, this theory was meant to ignore context ... it gives no extra points to a final ... so it has its limitations. But it is a pretty clear way to spot the kinds of matches I enjoy. A "Best Match" must meet two criteria:

1) the margin of victory is one goal, or the match is a draw

2) at least one of the teams must score multiple goals

Blowouts don't make this list, although I personally found Spain's second-half dismantling of Russia to be darned entertaining. Scoreless bores don't make it either, even though you could say the teams were equals on the day. No, to be a best match, it has to be close, and there have to be at least 3 goals.

There were 11 "best matches" out of the 64 played at the 2006 World Cup. In the 31 matches of Euro 2008 there were 8 best matches. Around 26%, compared to around 17% in Germany.

It's an iffy "system" at best that doesn't consider today's final a "best match." I guess what the theory tells us is that if today's match had been a mid-season matchup of two middling clubs, a 1-0 result where one team outplayed the other fairly comprehensively wouldn't be remembered as a classic. That's what's wrong with the theory, because today's match was a classic, in large part because of the context. But if you want to know why I enjoyed this tournament, the theory helps explain it.

Here are the "8 Best Matches":

Turkey over Switzerland, 2-1. Heck with theories, you could say it a lot simpler by just noting that Turkey was always entertaining. In this match, they trailed the hosts at halftime, scored an equalizer early in the second half, and scored the winner in extra time. The definition of a Best Match, I'd say. ESPN seemed to agree ... they gave the match a 9 rating on a scale of 10, their readers averaged 8.1.

Croatia over Germany, 2-1. This wasn't quite as exciting as the scoreline ... Germany only got on the board late in the match ... but the context (Germany losing) was surprising enough to add to the quality, even if the "theory" doesn't care about that stuff. ESPN users rated it at 7.9.

Spain 2-1 over Sweden. Each scored a first-half goal ... Spain won it in the last minute. ESPN users had it 7.9, but their editors were less impressed (6.0).

Turkey 3, Czech Republic 2. Here are the Turks again. Trailing by two goals, they put in three in the last fifteen minutes to pull off the victory. The ESPN editors gave it the highest rating of 10, while the users averaged 9.6. An all-time classic.

Spain 2, Greece 1. The theory fails most clearly here. This was a meaningless match ... that Spain overcame a deficit to win in the 88th minute is what makes it a "best match," but their 1-0 win in the final was obviously better. Context does matter. Editors: 8. Users: 6.8.

Germany 3-2 over Portugal in the quarter-finals. Editors 9, Users 8.4.

Russia 3-1 over Holland. Doesn't exactly fit the theory, but it was 1-1 after regulation (at least kinda meets the first criteria) and Russia scored twice in the last eight minutes (meeting the second criteria). The editors only gave it a 7, but the users had it at 8.5.

Germany 3, Turkey 2 in the semis. The match of the tournament. Three goals in the last eleven minutes, including the winner in extra time. ESPN preferred the Turks-Czech match (Editors 9, Users 8.3).

I'd say seven of these eight were indeed top-flight. Add in Spain's last three matches (beating Italy on penalties after a scoreless draw that did suffer from Italy-itis, scoring three second-half goals to beat Russia, and the final against Germany) and you've got 9 or 10 good ones. Croatia-Turkey was scoreless for 118 minutes, so it's not going to make my list, but the two goals in the last two minutes were classic all on their own.

I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot of matches here, but the point, I hope, is semi-clear: this was an entertaining tournament with more good matches than usual and fewer bad ones, plenty of drama, and a general lack of the kind of defensive play that is so boring (seeya later, Italy). Spain averaged 2 goals a match, and were rewarded with a championship, putting the defense lovers on their backheels for a change. I miss this tournament already.


euro 2008: the final

There was no real reason for me to get a PhD ... I make a little more money at my current job because of it, but it cost me more to get it, so I haven't even broken even in that regard. And while I have had a few jobs that required the doctorate, most of my jobs would have been just as easily acquired with a master's degree.

But I had a history in my life of reaching the penultimate stages of whatever I happened to be doing, and then stepping back, finding a new interest, moving on. It was typical fear of success.

And so I did get the PhD, and no one can take it away ... I will be Dr. Rubio forever. And I can go on with my life, and maybe I won't get past the penultimate stage again, but I did it once, and that's what mattered. Especially since, as I was told since I was young, I was the biggest underachiever in my class in high school.

It had been 44 years since Spain won a major soccer tournament. The last time Spain even made the finals of a major tournament was Euro 1984, when they lost to Michel Platini and the French. Obviously, the current Spanish squad is made up entirely of people who weren't born back in 1964. But this squad was fairly young by international standards, so young that half a dozen of them weren't even born before Euro '84.

Which is to say, they don't seem to have been burdened by their history. They entered the tournament identified with the Spanish stereotype of the great underachievers of soccer history ... but they acted like that stereotype was something for the old folks to worry about. They never lost a match, they played an entertaining brand of soccer, and now they are the champions of Europe.

And all of those Spaniards who suffered through the last 44 years can feel a little better about their country today.

Back when Euro 2008 started, I predicted Spain would triumph. I didn't actually believe it, but I always say it, anyway. Truth be told, I figured the odds makers were right in making Germany the favorites. But today, it was Germany who couldn't score, it was Spain who won. My prediction, based solely on heart with no consultation with head, finally turned out to be true.

That blog post was titled "top goal scorer will be fernando torres." Torres played in some bad luck during the tourney, but whatever the excuse, he only had one goal coming into today. It was his countryman, David Villa, who led all scorers. But today, Villa was injured and didn't make an appearance. It was left to Torres to score the goal that gave Spain the championship. And he's only 24 years old.

I'd say what follows tells us something important about soccer in our own country, except I'm not sure what prompted it. All I know is, my baseball-loving, non-soccer-fan sister watched as Spain won the tournament. She may never watch another match the rest of her life, but for one day, she was with us, and in touch, I imagine, with her Spanish heritage as well. Glad to have you along!


1968: june 27

It marks the beginning of Prague Spring: the Two Thousand Words.

The first threat to our national life was from the war. Then came other evil days and events that endangered the nation's spiritual well being and character....

Let us not foster the illusion that it is the power of truth which now makes such ideas victorious. Their victory has been due rather to the weakness of the old leaders, evidently already debilitated by twenty years of unchallenged rule. All the defects hidden in the foundations and ideology of the system have clearly reached their peak. So let us not overestimate the effects of the writers' and students' criticisms. The source of social change is the economy. A true word makes its mark only when it is spoken under conditions that have been properly prepared---conditions that, in our context, unfortunately include the impoverishment of our whole society and the complete collapse of the old system of government, which had enabled certain types of politicians to get rich, calmly and quietly, at our expense. Truth, then, is not prevailing. Truth is merely what remains when everything else has been frittered away. So there is no reason for national jubilation, simply for fresh hope....

Although at present one cannot expect more of the central political bodies, it is vital to achieve more at district and community level. Let us demand the departure of people who abused their power, damaged public property, and acted dishonorably or brutally. Ways must be found to compel them to resign....

This spring a great opportunity was given to us once again, as it was after the end of the war. Again we have the chance to take into our own hands our common cause ...

So ends our statement addressed to workers, farmers, officials, artists, scholars, scientists, technicians, and everybody. It was written at the behest of scholars and scientists.


friday random ten, 1982 edition

1. Bow Wow Wow, "I Want Candy." Start with the Sex Pistols' ex-manager. Add the Ants without Adam. Toss in a fourteen-year-old girl, born Myint Myint Aye in Myanmar, and have her change her name to Annabella. Record a 60s hit by a band of New York songwriters who pretended to be Australian sheep farmers. Instant hit!

2. George Clinton, "Man's Best Friend/Loopzilla." Clinton's first solo, released when he had already passed 40, was in most ways just another Parliament/Funkadelic album. But "just" hardly gets it ... it was one of the best P-Funk albums ever. Don't touch that radio!

3. David Johansen, "Bohemian Love Pad." Speaking of people who couldn't escape the history of earlier bands. Johansen had the usual curse of the former member of beloved cult band trying his hand as a solo artist: he wasn't the Dolls, so he wasn't good enough. Which was nonsense ... I mean, he wasn't the Dolls, but he WAS good enough. As this song shows: "You know the cockroach traffic in here, it's got me drinkin' too much beer." I saw him open for Pat Benatar around this time ... the crowd had no idea what to make of him, they booed a lot, I left before the headliner hit the stage.

4. Africa Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force, "Planet Rock." As I recall, in one of the earliest incarnations of that Rolling Stone history of rock and roll, they jokingly referred to Kraftwerk as the future of rock and roll. A few years later, Bam proved that RS got something right, with one of the fundaments of modern hip-hop.

5. The Waitresses, "I Know What Boys Like." A woman sang it, but a man wrote it. A man who was at Kent State on That Day. Whatever that means.

6. Dexy's Midnight Runners, "Come On Eileen." Come on, indeed. This is a great song, and this is the version you want. Great band name, too.

7. Trouble Funk, "Drop the Bomb." Stringer Bell may have been cool, but when he said he didn't like that go-go shit, he showed his provincialism.

8. Marshall Crenshaw, "Someday, Someway." How not to start a rock and roll career: play John Lennon in the musical Beatlemania. How to recover: cut a great debut album.

9. Lou Reed, "The Gun." After Sally Can't Dance made the Top Ten, Lou made an instant statement by releasing the notorious Metal Machine Music. Every album he released after that charted lower than the one before it (aside from the unmarketable MMM). The Blue Mask didn't get any higher than #169. Hopefully everyone who did buy it noticed that it was probably the best solo (I'm partial to Coney Island Baby, but that's just me). It also marked the beginning of his long-running collaboration with Fernando Saunders, one of the most distinctive bass players in rock history ... once you hear his sound, you'll recognize his playing every time you hear it again.

10. Gary U.S. Bonds, "Love's on the Line." Bonds made a comeback, supported by Bruce Springsteen. This came from the post-comeback album ... of course, it's been forgotten over time. It's much more of a Bruce album than the previous hit ... Bruce and the E Streeters only took over half of Dedication, but this one is a Bruce album with the man himself sticking to backup vocals so his hero can be the front man. Bruce wrote seven of the songs, he and Miami Steve did the production, the entire E Street band chimed in. In the year of Nebraska, this was Bruce's rock album between The River and Born in the U.S.A. This particular track is especially nice, but there's no video for it, so I linked to Bruce singing "Quarter to Three" in 1975.

And as a bonus, Marshall Crenshaw live:


freewheelin' suze

the_freewheelin_bob_dylan

I'm finally getting around to reading the new autobiography by Suze Rotolo, A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties. Rotolo is probably still most famous for being Bob Dylan's girlfriend who appeared with him on the cover of the Freewheelin' album. Rotolo has lived a pretty interesting life, and her book, which admittedly I have only just begun, is interesting as well. But as I'm reading it, I'm taken with the preconceptions we bring to autobiography, or better, who we think warrants an autobiography in the first place. In the chapters I've read so far (not sure there are chapters, to be honest, I'm reading it on my Treo and formatting is quirky), she details her childhood as a Red Diaper baby in the 50s. Like I say, interesting stuff ... it's a good period to learn more about, and she was there, as they say. These sections stand on their own. Except ...

When you read a biography, everything is designed to explain the subject. When you read that Mr. or Ms. Famous Person did X when they were 9 years old, you interpret that in the context of what they later did that made them famous enough for you to want to read their biography. Suze Rotolo's life is as worthy of its telling as any. But the feel, at least in the pre-Dylan parts, is very immediate. It's not "here are the things that made me who I am," although that's present, but rather "here are things that happened, and they are important all by themselves." We don't hear her stories about Greenwich Village in the late-50s as a precursor to a more interesting future ... we read the stories and they are interesting, or not, without worrying about the future.

Perhaps it's only marginally famous people who can pull this off. The stories of the pasts of the truly famous are burdened by our knowledge of what is to come. I had a teacher long ago who once traveled with Dylan from, I think it was Chicago to New York, around 1960 or so ... whenever it was that Dylan was heading to NYC. The teacher would tell that story ... it constituted an entire lecture in a pop culture class ... there was nothing noteworthy about the trip they took, except that one of the travelers was BOB DYLAN. Even the teacher who went on the trip, and who did not know the man he was with would become BOB DYLAN, remembers it not as something he did, but as something he did with BOB DYLAN. The subsequent fame of his traveling partner is all that made his story interesting.

Rotolo's story is interesting on its own. But we can't help but wonder what will happen when she meets up with that freewheelin' guy. Her relationship with Dylan is surely the primary reason she was able to get her autobiography published, is the main reason I am reading her book, and everything in the book is thus filtered through our thoughts about her ex-boyfriend. Which means we miss the essence of her story, which is about a lot more than her ex-boyfriend.


the professionals

As part of my continuing effort to prove that I never have an original thought, I wanted to write down a few observations about a 60s Western I just watched, The Professionals. You see, I have nothing new to say, which I suppose is no surprise, given that the movie is more than 40 years old. I can remember as a kid thinking it looked good without ever actually going to see it. It had a bang-up cast (Burt Lancaster, who I love, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, and as Mexicans, Jack Palance and Claudia Cardinale). It had action. It was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture, although it didn't win any.

And now that I've seen it, I can report that it is indeed a good movie, worth a couple of hours of your time, even if it's just to watch Burt Lancaster flash his teeth and Claudia Cardinale do whatever she damn well pleases.

But ... and here's where I get unoriginal, but it's so obvious you can't avoid thinking about it as you watch with hindsight: it's not The Wild Bunch, and therefore it seems dated and, as the Netflix sleeve says, it is "largely forgotten."

The Professionals is about four aging men who go to Mexico in the early 20th century to take care of some business while the revolution broils around them. Sound familiar? It even has Robert Ryan. It came out three years before The Wild Bunch, and as I said above, my memories are it was well-received at the time. But The Wild Bunch raised the stakes, and we can't watch The Professionals in 2008 without realizing that basic fact.

For some reason, over the past television season, I've found myself trying to describe why I prefer Battlestar Galactica to Lost, even though both are very good shows. What it comes down to is that Lost isn't about anything other than the puzzles, while Battlestar Galactica is about the meaning of life (among other things). Lost is brilliant television, but (and I know this is silly even as I write it) that's all it is, there ain't no more.

Well, The Professionals isn't quite as good a movie as Lost is a TV series, but it's good enough. But The Wild Bunch is about a lot of things, and you can't really say that about The Professionals. People talk about how Peckinpah changed how violence was used in movies, but that's not what I'm talking about here. The Wild Bunch is always about more than just its story. It's about the end of an era, and how a group of men respond to that realization. In The Wild Bunch, we feel every year these old guys have lived. In The Professionals, we're barely supposed to notice that these guys are getting old ... we're told that the characters played by Jack Palance and Claudia Cardinale grew up together, as if there weren't 19 years separating the two actors. Everything that happens in The Wild Bunch is there because Peckinpah has some things he wants to say. Everything that happens in The Professionals is there because it makes for a rootin'-tootin' good time at the movies. Nothing wrong with that, but after 1969, it was no longer enough.

And so The Professionals, which came just before the Golden Era of American film, is "largely forgotten," while The Wild Bunch, which came just as the Era was getting underway, is an acknowledged classic. I'm glad I saw The Professionals, and I have no problem recommending it to people who like Westerns enough to dig beneath the canon where plenty of decent movies can be found. But The Wild Bunch? It passes the ultimate test: if I am channel surfing and I come across it, I have to watch, even if only for a few minutes, even if it's a butchered/censored broadcast version, even if it's horrible pan-and-scan. I have to watch. But I may never watch The Professionals again.


germany-turkey (spoilers)

I won't talk about the actual match for a bit, so spoiler-phobes have a chance to quit reading.

It's been a pleasure having all of the Euro 2008 matches available to us here in the States. The announcing has even been OK, and in the case of Andy Gray, terrific. Having most of the matches in hi-def is the icing on the cake. Oh, and the tournament has been great, full of exciting matches. Turkey has been in some of the most exciting, having come from behind with late goals three straight times to reach this semi-final match with the Germans.

If there is a problem with the ESPN/ABC coverage, though, it's that the announcers are all here in the USA. None of them traveled to Austria or Switzerland. They sit in a studio and watch the matches on a big TV, and commentate from there. This is fairly common in the soccer world ... the vast majority of matches I watch use this system, which is cost-effective (you don't have to send your announcers all over the globe on a weekly basis). The announcers are used to it, they do a fine job, you might not even notice if you weren't looking for it.

But if there's a Dreaded Technical Glitch, then there is a bigger problem.

Midway through the second half of today's match, something happened in Switzerland ... a lightning bolt, I don't know ... that cut the power to the video feed being sent to all the places telecasting the matches. The screen went blank. At the time, the score was 1-1. When this happens at, say, a Giants baseball game, the announcers keep talking, apologizing for the problem and then calling the game so we can at least hear what is going on.

But Derek Rae and Andy Gray, the ESPN commentators, couldn't do this, because they weren't actually at the match, so they couldn't see anything.

So, for five minutes or so, starting around the 60th minute, we have no idea what is happening. The picture returns, the score is still 1-1, and the world breathes a sigh of relief.

The teams battle for another ten tense minutes, still 1-1. With less than fifteen minutes to go ... the picture disappears again.

A minute or so later, Klose scores a go-ahead goal for Germany, making it 2-1 while we watch the folks in the ESPN studios killing time until the picture comes back. Five more minutes go by, as the studio announcers remind us that the Turks have come from behind so many times in this tournament ... do they have another miracle in them? And if they do, will we see it?

Yes, and no. Amazingly, Turkey scores an equalizer. Now it's 2-2, and we've missed the last two goals.

Finally, the picture returns. And for once, the soccer gods take pity, on television viewers if not fans of the Turkish squad. As the second half ends, Philip Lahm, who has pretty much stunk up the field for 90 minutes, comes forward and slots the ball past the Turkish keeper. Germany 3, Turkey 2.

There are three minutes added. With Turkey, anything is possible. So, of course, we lost the picture one last time.

The valiant Turks couldn't pull it off, and the Germans advance to the finals. In the future, most people will remember only the winner of the tournament, and that's reasonable. But Turkey has been the top story of Euro 2008. Nothing against the Germans, but neutrals feel badly to see Turkey eliminated at last. But then, you aren't really an official member of the international soccer community until you've lost a heartbreaker to the Germans:


it's showtime

We're two weeks into new seasons for Showtime's fine Weeds and newcomer Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Weeds is entering its fourth season, and while I'm trying to avoid spoilers for those who watch on DVD and are a season behind, it's OK to say that things are a lot different now for Nancy Botwin. The shakeup at the end of last season was probably necessary, but this is a show that regularly walks the edge, and a shakeup is unlikely to change the fact that anything was already possible. Tim Goodman has essentially written the same column at the beginning of the last three seasons, and he's on target as usual: Weeds goes in some over-the-top directions, so much so that even people who like the show are never sure if any particular episode will mark the moment when it went so far out it never came back, but this ends up being one of the charms of the show, how eager it is to try oddball stuff. Meanwhile, suffice to say that Nancy Botwin still has a drink of some sort in her hands in almost every scene, that most of the cast is excellent (Justin Kirk's character was an early annoyance, but the character has outgrown a lot of those irritants, and Kirk is always a good actor, as was shown in Angels in America), and that Robin still thinks this is an overrated show about a terrible mom. She's right that Nancy is a terrible mom ... she's wrong about the quality of the show. But I am a sucker for Mary-Louise Parker, so what do I know? (Albert Brooks is a temporary regular right now, and he's used very well, just enough to make us want more.)

Robin and I disagree on Secret Diary of a Call Girl as well. This one isn't exactly new ... it's a British import that ran over there last fall, starring Billie Piper, once a pop star, later a regular on Doctor Who. She's fine as the titular call girl, but thus far I'm not impressed with the show. We had the first two episodes on the DVR, and after watching the first, I turned to Robin and asked if she was game for a second, expecting her to agree with me that we wouldn't bother with this show. Instead, she replied "well, it's better than Weeds!" So we watched the second episode, which wasn't any better IMO. Still, she IS James Fox's daughter-in-law, so how bad can it be?

Grade for first two episodes of Season Four of Weeds: B+

Grade for first two episodes of Call Girl: B-