THEY PROBABLY DIDN’T REALLY MEAN IT THAT WAY, BUT… (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #14, Claire Danes In Homeland Really Is All That)

I’ve said here before that “modern” television doesn’t appeal to me much, mostly because the reach tends to exceed the grasp by an almost infinite measure (the suggestion that these shows now do what movies used to do seems to me little more than an admission that nothing has officially replaced something).

However….

I haven’t exactly been in a High Art mood lately. It helps if you can stay awake–which I find pretty much impossible during those weeks when the French Open and the NBA Finals are double-teaming me morning and night.

So, when last Thursday evening found me morbidly depressed (after Tim Duncan’s 37-year-old knees couldn’t get enough lift to drop in a point-blank shot in the final minute of game seven of the NBA finals–probably because his 37-year-old back was exhausted from carrying the lifeless corpses formerly known as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli around for most of the series and literally all of games 6 and 7, not that I’m bitter or anything), I decided to take my mind off things by driving to the local all-night Wal-Mart that is furthest from my house and picking up the cheap Season One package of Burn Notice (which is old-fashioned television for those keeping score and fun on a lot of levels, but essential because, sooner or later in every episode, Sharon Gless shows up with her definitive Chain-Smoking-South-Florida-Late-Middle-Age-Wife-and/or-Mother-Who-Can’t-Wait-For-Bingo-Night, the only portrayal on modern television that reminds me of anyone I grew up with or, for that matter, of any recognizable human being at all).

Scrounging around–Wal-Mart never keeps the thing you are actually looking for in the place where you would reasonably expect to find it (I’m convinced this is the key to their success as they are the only corporation that recognizes how deeply Americans still love a mindless, pointless challenge!)–I also came across Season One of Homeland and, recalling encomiums from various people I respect, talked myself into making it my $29.95 “splurge of the month.”

And, of course, the most insistent of those plaudits have come in praise of Claire Danes’ performance as Carrie Mathison, the-bossy-but-tormented-white-woman-charged-with-the-security-of-the-free-world-whose-love-life-is-definitely-in-the-toilet-as-a-result (yes, it’s an actual type now, Hollywood will never run out of ways to kick women in the face, though it’s at least possible that Danes has found a way to kick back).

The praise is well-deserved. But I’m not convinced it’s for the right reasons.

It seems that what has impressed most reviewers is an evidently accurate portrayal of someone coping with bipolar disorder. I’ll buy that Danes is authentic in that respect. I’ll even buy that that’s plenty of reason for her to have swept up a lot of well-earned awards for this particular season. Conveying that kind of edge and intensity for an entire season can’t be easy.

But I’m more impressed by her capacity for getting under the skin of the great modern American dilemma, which is the question of whether the creation and maintenance of a massive security state is a valid response to…well…anything?

Because the thing that’s most striking about Danes’ character isn’t that she’s coping with a damaging mental disorder while operating under the kind of stress that would likely drive even a stable personality to suicide.

No, the thing that’s really striking–disturbing actually–is that you can’t trust her. I mean, this girl will lie to your face.

Whoever you are!

And while most of the lying might be about doing her job–she is a spy after all–Danes managed to make me believe her character was attracted to the job in the first place for this precise reason.

This is well outside the normal approaches that Hollywood, or pretty much any mainstream security state narrative (particularly including the narrative pushed by “journalists”), which are basically all designed to accept the necessity of the security state itself. Not as a repository for the career arcs of the emotionally damaged, but, you know, to keep us free!

Whatever you want to say about the varying approaches to telling spy stories it has pretty much always come down to the same thing: In the end, you can trust the hero/heroine to do the right thing for the right reasons. This is as true of John Le Carre as it is of, say, Burn Notice.

Inside or outside, rogue or paragon, field agent or desk-bound, complicated or simple, deep character study or mind candy, atheist or true believer. Doesn’t matter. Spy stories in the West come down to this: You spend the story hoping the hero/heroine who is standing in for us had a good Sunday School teacher (the atheists, incidentally, tend to have the very best Sunday School teachers even if, as in the case of this show’s Saul Berenson, played by Mandy Patinkin, they are almost always called something else) and in the end you go “whew, that sure was close.”

And, of course, a lot of that sort of thing does happen here.

But Danes’ character in the first season of Homeland is way past all that.

She’ll lie to get what she wants. If what she wants happens to coincide with what everybody else wants–with what we want and what her Sunday School teacher wants–then so much the better. (And, since this is hardly avant garde narrative or anything, she really does want what we want and, doubly “of course,” she’s the only one who is right–all standard stuff.) Danes, though, is the first actor I’ve seen to play this traditional role in such a way that her lies really are more about saving herself than saving the world.

In that sense, the bipolarity, however truthfully and convincingly portrayed, is a ruse, a macguffin even. Much easier for someone with a “condition” to tell both herself and everybody else (including us) that it’s okay for her to be more interested in saving herself than in saving anyone else (including us) if what she’s saving herself from–on our behalf!–is the bats in her belfry.

But, intentionally or not, this core of selfishness lies on a restless, seething bed of existential unease.

Because if Carrie Mathison is what we need to protect ourselves in the War on Terror–and, in Homeland, she is, finally, the one who protects us–then we aren’t protected at all. Or at least we aren’t protected by anything more tangible than what a real Sunday School teacher would call blind faith.

And that’s where Danes’ conviction and commitment to realism doubles down. There’s no line her character won’t cross to protect us…but only because there’s no line she won’t cross to protect herself. So God help us if this messed up woman is ever really wrong.

I mean, it’s okay if the last line of defense goes a little screwy when (for plot reasons only) she’s off her meds.

It’s another thing entirely to discover that she’s a bottomless well of need. Because if that really is the last line of defense, then we really are all screwed.

I’m guessing this kind of thing won’t be permitted to last, but, for now, I can’t wait for the fall DVD release of Season Two to see where the gatekeepers allowed her to take this.

[NOTE: I was less impressed than most people with Damian Lewis’ performance as the POW who might have been turned. His Manchurian Candidate is a long way second to Laurence Harvey’s, who I could actually imagine someone asking to run for Congress. As Lewis plays even his public side, Nicholas Brody is the kind of man political handlers hurl past Olympic sprinters to get away from. But Mandy Patinkin, as Danes’ wise old, seen-it-all handler, has made the role of a lifetime out of very standard stuff indeed. He’s so good at playing this stock character that he’s actually reinvented its boundaries. And Jamey Sheridan, as the Vice President, is completely convincing as a big league politician who makes it disturbingly easy to root for the terrorists.]

THE DBCCB NEVER RESTS (Sports Moment #7…Though it could also fit into the “You Can Maybe Understand Why Women Sometimes Go A Little Crazy” Category I’m Now Thinking Of Turning Into An Official Category!)

Stephen A Smith and Skip Bayless vie for leadership of the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade daily on ESPN. I have to confess that most days I’m not likely to be awake during the morning hours and am even less likely to be watching television. During the French Open and Wimbledon I make exceptions and it’s now that time of year.

It’s also NBA Championship time, so during commercial breaks and rain delays this week, I’ve occasionally cruised through the ESPN talk shows. Of course, the quality of the discourse often reaches (or stoops to) levels that are liable to induce actual physical pain among any bits of living brain tissue that get within earshot (though I have to admit it still can’t challenge the average level of commentary during an ESPN tennis match).

Today, though, was a real winner.

In the process of defending Tim Duncan from one of Bayless’ frequent forays into absurdism-ad-nauseum–in this case the notion that Duncan needs to win the upcoming series and deliver an MVP-caliber performance in order to “keep” his place in the NBA’s all time top ten–Smith actually blamed the relative lack of success by the Spurs in the playoffs since 2007 on…wait for it…

Eva Longoria!

I believe his exact quote was:

“Because we all know the power of women!”

Longoria was engaged to Spurs point guard Tony Parker in 2006–by which point they had been dating for two years–and married to him from 2007 to 2010.

Smith kept rambling on about the “distractions” which had caused the Spurs to lose in early rounds in recent years. He got Longoria’s name in there several times.

He did not, of course, mention that Longoria was dating Parker (in what was probably the most high profile romance in sports at the time) in 2005 and engaged to him in 2007. Those were two years when–despite the “distractions”–San Antonio won the NBA title.

In 2007, Parker, set to marry Longoria the following month, was so thrown off his game by “the power of women” that he managed to win the Finals MVP.

And, of course, when the real supposed “distraction” of divorce occurred in 2010, it was because Longoria caught Parker serially cheating on her–in the last case with the wife of one of Parker’s ex-teammates.

Look, the San Antonio Spurs won championships–when they did–because they played the best basketball.

When they didn’t win championships, it was because they didn’t play the best basketball.

One could parse all the reasons they won in any given year and all the reasons they lost in any given year and come up with a list reaching to the hundreds in each case.

Not one of those reasons involved Eva Longoria getting duped and shafted by Tony Parker.

The leadership of the DBCCB’s Sports Division is never truly stable. Smith…Bayless…Mike Greenberg…Colin Cowherd…Anybody working for Fox Sports Radio any second of any day.

The list is endless, the competition brutal and relentless.

But, for this week at least, Stephen A. Smith sits on the brass toilet alone.

(Incidentally, in Smith’s rant on Duncan’s secure place among the all time greats of the game, he listed exactly none of Duncan’s actual spectacular and highly improbable achievements–instead relying on statistics, the least impressive aspect of Duncan’s game. For the genuinely relevant info and talking points, you can scroll down a bit here and read my post of a few days back. That’s another enduring quality of the DBCCB. Even when they’re right, they can only be trusted about as far as you would trust Tony Parker with your hot wife….And, oh yeah, before I forget. Go Spurs!)

 

 

OH, SO NOW THEY GET IT…SURE THEY DO! (Sports Moment #6)

…Or pretend to, at least.

This week the San Antonio Spurs reached their fifth NBA finals of the “Tim Duncan Era.” The Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade (that’s DBCCB for short if you’re a newcomer here) at ESPN and the other usual outlets are suddenly doing things like wondering if Duncan is the equal of, say, Kobe Bryant!

I didn’t stick around for the debate between whatever intellectual titans actually engaged in this particular argument, just caught the teaser. Somehow, I doubt they called it the no-brainer it is.

Tim Duncan is the best player of the post-Jordan era and a top-ten all time.

He’s also probably the most underrated player in the history of American sports (off hand the only competition that comes to mind is Chris Evert but that’s another topic for another day–in any case the list is very, very short.)

Consider this:

In the history of the modern NBA, which effectively began when Bill Russell arrived in Boston in 1957 and ushered in the recognizably modern game, NBA titles have been won by “small market” teams exactly seven times. That’s seven times in fifty-six years.

Four of those seven titles were won by the San Antonio Spurs (currently the 24th largest market in a 30-team league). For the record, the others were the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971, the Portland Trailblazers in 1977 and the Seattle Supersonics in 1979 (ah, the seventies!).

So to put it yet another way, since the beginning of the truly modern NBA (which began with the twin arrivals of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird–to major markets of course–in 1980), only four championships have been won by small market teams (four in thirty-three years) and the Spurs won all four.

Duncan led every one of those San Antonio teams–each of whom had the deck stacked even more thoroughly against them than the teams that won in the seventies–in both scoring and rebounding. The only other player who led four championship teams in the two most important statistical categories was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (As Lew Alcindor, he led the Bucks to their title, then repeated the feat for three of his five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers.**)

(Just as an aside, Duncan and Jabbar also led their teams in blocked shots each of those four years–to my mind a more important, game-controlling statistic than the more popular “assists” category, which is rather randomly applied in any case.)

In addition to all that, Duncan never once played alongside a fellow twenty-point a game scorer in any of those championship runs. (Tony Parker had the best scoring season of any of his teammates when he averaged 18.6 in 2007–Parker also edged the now thirty-seven-year old Duncan as the team’s best scorer this year, so Duncan will not be in a position to break his tie with Jabbar when the championship series starts next week.)

Just to put that in perspective, [and granting that team scoring totals have come down somewhat over the years] Jabbar only failed to play beside at least one twenty-point a game scorer on one of his championship teams (and even then, he was abetted by Oscar Robertson and Bobby Dandridge who averaged 19.4 and 18.4 respectively–in other words, in the season when he had the least big-time scoring support, he still had two scorers as effective as the 2007 Tony Parker, the closest thing to a consistent big-time scorer Duncan played with during any of his championship runs.)

Bear in mind that Duncan did all this while routinely playing for something like half his market value–thus providing the only means by which his franchise could possibly pay the competitive salaries to other players that have allowed them to compete.

All of this has been accomplished so quietly that Duncan has rarely been mentioned as a truly era-defining player. Journalists–and not only the DBCCB membership–tend to be impressed by flash and stats. Duncan has never been big on either. Yes, he can fill a stat sheet, as evidenced above. But his career numbers aren’t eye-popping by any stretch and the myriad ways in which he effects and controls games are rarely if ever pointed out by commentators or morning-after talking heads. Whether they don’t know the value of making percentage plays that don’t show up in box scores more consistently than anyone who has played in the last forty years (the time period I’m qualified to pass judgement on–I missed Bill Russell sad to say) or simply think it’s not worth talking about–i.e. “too boring”–I don’t know.

Some of this might end up being discussed further if Duncan’s team manages to win a fifth championship in the next few weeks–especially if it comes at the expense of LeBron James and the Miami Heat. There are some who are saying that Duncan might, in effect, “take the leap” into the land of players who define the history of the NBA.

That’s nonsense. He took that leap long ago. Nothing has changed just because the people who get paid to pay attention to such things have finally decided to do their jobs. And I’ll put very long odds on ever seeing his like again.

[**NOTE: George Mikan led the Minneapolis Lakers to five titles in the pre-Russell era and he almost certainly led his team in both scoring and rebounding all five years. But rebounding totals were not kept as an official statistic during his first two title seasons. The only other players to lead championship teams in scoring and rebounding more than once were Shaquille O’Neal, who accomplished it three times with Los Angeles, Hakeem Olojuawan, who did it twice with the Houston Rockets, and Larry Bird, who, remarkably since he was not only a small forward, but playing on teams with Hall of Famers at center and power forward–the traditional positions for rebounding leaders–did it twice with Boston. As with Jabbar, O’Neal and Bird were, in all cases, assisted by more accomplished scorers than Duncan ever had. Olojuwan did do it once with less, or similar, support (the second time he had Clyde Drexler averaging over 20 a game).

Michael Jordan, of course, led six teams to championships in a large market (Chicago). It’s difficult to compare a swing man to a post player in terms of impact since he isn’t likely to lead a team in rebounding or blocks. But it’s worth noting that Jordan certainly had more scoring support. His number two man, Scottie Pippen, met or exceeded Parker’s 2007 scoring average in five of Chicago’s six championship seasons (and was only a fraction below it the other year). And no, that doesn’t make Duncan “better than” or necessarily even as good as Jordan or any of the others. But it does mean that whatever belated consideration he is getting when it comes to being mentioned in their company is long overdue.]