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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Booyah! He's dead Jim.

What on earth has crawled up the bums of ESPN programming executives? I was sitting with Mrs. Fando this evening at one of our favorite Latin eateries, when I noticed that on one of the 72 televisions in the place was some sort of gangster show. It had the look and feel of the Sopranos, only without the insincere comic tone and insincere comic violence. It had brutality, Las Vegas, mystery, and it was on ESPN. I watched with the same queasy, disoriented feeling I had upon viewing the opening credits of The Straight Story ("Walt Disney Pictures presents a film by David Lynch".)

For those of us who are longtime watchers of the network, this is all wrong. It's wrong like Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, wrong like Angela Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton (or Angela Jolie's brother for that matter), wrong like Michael Jordan and baseball. This is wrong in the way the Olsen twins on Sex in the City would be wrong, wrong in the way Greg Brady would be singing "Clowns Never Laughed Before" on That 70's Show.

ESPN is the network of wacky, zany, would-be stand-up comedian sportscasters (who, in the case of at least one, move on to jobs at MSNBC as bitter, self-important, bloviating newscasters...but the person in question was spectacular on ESPN. I keep hoping the aliens from Woody Allen's Stardust Memories will visit him to say, "We prefer your earlier, funny broadcasts.") ESPN is the home of "Boomer", Sportscenter, college sports, the World's Strongest Northern European Man, and at least in the early days, Aussie Rules Football. ESPN is a sports channel, not a cheap PG-13 rated knock-off of HBO. The USA Channel already has that market.

Now, I realize that many of you observant readers (all 5 of you) will recognize that ESPN stands for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. You're probably thinking, "They've finally decided to get around to the "entertainment" part after about 26 years. Isn't it about time?" No, it bloody well isn't. ESPN isn't capable of dramatic programs. They do lovely commercials, charming comic vignettes that capture a special mood, usually an extraordinary one involving a professional athlete, a sports mascot, twelve cheerleaders, an Indy car, and a broom. The only other place you can find that kind of combination is on Cinemax (or as Stew calls it: Skinemax) and only in certain states. That's comedy though, and short. ESPN can get away with that.

Not drama though, drama is dark and steady, serious and sober. ESPN is about as serious as a Pat Buchanan/Dennis Kucinich Presidential ticket. Their profanity-laden dramatic production on Bobby Knight was uncomfortably like watching a sweater-clad Fred Rogers suffering from Tourette's Syndrome. Leave the drama for HBO, the big 4, WB, UPN, USA, A&E, the Disney Channel, Nick at Nite, Oxygen, the Game Show Network, QVC, or Boomerang. Anyone of these outlets is far more suited to mastering the grumpy side of Janus' visage than the home of Dick Vitale, Bill Raftery, and Tommy Smyth.

Speaking of those 3, with ESPN's new focus on the dramatic arts, they're bound to turn up in a show, sooner or later:

Announcer: Tonight on "Tilt"!

[4 hitmen in an alley surrounding a potential victim who is wearing a Cinncinatti Reds ballcap and incessantly chewing bubble gum.]

1st Hitman (Dennis Farina): You shoulda paid up Petey! You gamble and lose, you gotta pay. You don't pay, you gotta die!

2nd Hitman (Dick Vitale): That's right ba-bee! You gonna get a permanent T.O.! Consider yourself a prime-time-dandy-dunkeroo-dead man!

[1st Hitman pulls out a semi-automatic and fires 350 rounds into the victim]

3rd Hitman (Bill Raftery): Send it in big fella!

4th Hitman (Tommy Smyth): After you're done, put him in the back o' the ol' onion bag.

2nd Hitman: Hey baby, do you know what they call a Big Mac in France?...

What's next, a version of Star Trek with Stuart Scott as Dr. McCoy?


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