Archive for the ‘Watching television’ category

“Be Alert for Foul Balls!”

19 September 2012

Sunday, September 16, Cubs versus Pirates at Wrigley Field, bottom of the 7th inning. Chris Leroux pitching, Luis Valbuena at the plate. On a 2-1 count, Valbuena hit a screaming foul ball down the right field line and into the stands just beyond the visiting team’s dugout. WGN briefly showed a woman sitting in her seat, shocked, surprised, quite still, surrounded by people all looking her way with concerned looks on their faces. Then the television cut away, and Len Kasper made the usual-yet-earnest comment about “we hope that fan is all right.”

Umpire crew chief Joe West, stationed at first base, called “time”—and for a few minutes Kasper, Bob Brenly, and “guest conductor” Lee Smith vamped about the wisdom of suspending play momentarily while the fan could be checked out, and more importantly while everyone around her was distracted by the activity. It is a smart decision, and no surprise it came from West, whose 34-year tenure makes him the most veteran of active umpires in the majors. After all, no one wants to be the umpire that called “play ball” only to have another fan get hit by a ball because they were watching the stadium crew help someone else. Meanwhile WGN, like most sports broadcasters, took the courteous and privacy-respecting route and did not show the (possibly injured) fan again.

Of course there is no mention of the incident in any coverage of the game, no way of finding out what happened or if she’s all right.

There’s nothing unusual about any of this, but what set me to thinking about it was a moment an inning or two earlier. As a left-handed batter approached the batter’s box the television showed, in the background, a family in the front couple of rows just to the home-plate side of the visitors’ dugout. Mere feet from the short brick wall—and beyond the protection of the backstop safety netting—were two little kids. Each about three years old, goofing around, having a blast at the ballpark, their elders amused by their antics, just a little scene of pure, “take me out to the ball game” joy.

And yet—both of those children had their backs to the field. They had not the slightest clue of what was happening there. If the foul ball blast that hit the woman an inning or two later would have gone toward one of those kids, no one would have been close enough or have had time enough to react. That ball at that velocity hits a kid in the back of the head, that kid is dead. Period.

It raises a question that has been raised by many before me: how prevalent are spectator injuries in baseball? Among the big-league sports I suspect that baseball and hockey are the two most dangerous with respect to spectator safety, and I’ll wager that baseball is more dangerous than hockey due to my anecdotal impression that more balls than pucks leave the field of play.

How dangerous? Hard to say. Major League Baseball has never undertaken a study of this—or at least never made one public—and for good reason. For MLB to pay close attention to the phenomenon it might give the impression that the league thinks there’s something of an epidemic, and that could cast a harsh light upon MLB’s “assumption of risk” defense.

Warning sign at Wrigley Field. I am not a fan of these signs; in my opinion the levity of the image undermines the seriousness of the warning. Photo by wallyg.You see, MLB ballclubs (and minor-league and independent ballclubs too) engage in what’s generally considered to be a reasonable level of spectator safe-keeping: backstop netting; plexiglas shields atop low, close-in walls; signs and public address messages warning about the risk of foul balls, etc. But beyond that the assumption of risk all lies upon the fans. It’s even printed on the back of every ticket, in boldface albeit extraordinarily tiny letters: “Holder assumes all risk incidental to the game of baseball… including (but not exclusively) the danger of being injured by or in connection with any broken or released bat or any thrown or batted ball. Holder agrees [ballclub, et al.] are not liable for any resulting injuries.” In other words you enter the ballpark at your own risk, and your use of this ticket constitutes agreement to those terms.

Personally, I think that’s fair. I know the risk, yet consider the entertainment value of attending a live game to be worth that risk. On those (rare) occasions I get seats close to the field, I am acutely aware of the danger and make sure to maintain a high level of attention to the game. If I wanted to go to the game more for the social aspects, to hobnob with friends and shoot the breeze and enjoy Wrigley’s vaunted “huge beer garden” atmosphere, I’d prefer seats much farther from the action so I don’t have to worry about high-velocity foul balls (and broken bats, another issue altogether).

But back to the question: How dangerous? Well, one frequently cited study—which everyone cites but I cannot find online—“gives the incidence of injuries to MLB fans from foul balls as 35.1 injuries per every million spectator visits.” One site that mentions it equates this to 350 injuries in one season for a ballpark with 10 million total visitors, but I think this figure is—aside from dumbfoundingly obvious math—as disingenuous and obfuscating as the original. No ballpark, not even Yankee Stadium, comes close to even half of that 10-million total.

How about this, instead: at Wrigley Field, with a typical near-sold-out attendance on the order of 40,000 fans, there would be an average of 1.4 injuries PER GAME.

In other words, every game that’s played at Wrigley results in an injury to a fan. On average, that is; and assuming that study is accurate.

But who knows? Because MLB isn’t saying, and the broadcasters are keeping mum, purportedly out of politeness to the injured. (A cynic might point out that the broadcasters undoubtedly want to play nice with their teams with which they have such lucrative contracts, and I would not be surprised if there was some kind of gentleman’s agreement there, however tacit, like the good old days when newspapers refrained from printing photographs of FDR in his wheelchair.)

Which is not to accuse anyone of some sort of evil collusion. Like I said, in my opinion the ballclubs are doing what’s appropriate with regard to fan safety, and it’s encumbent upon us as fans to take some personal responsibility for our own well-being.

That said, I would most definitely subscribe to a weekly newsletter that published a run-down of all the fan injuries in Major League Baseball. Something simple, not too detailed or privacy-invading… “Sunday, 9/16, Pirates v. Cubs at Wrigley Field, bottom 7th, Luis Valbuena batting; woman struck in arm, refused treatment.” Or (and this is for real), “Friday, 7/6, Reds v. Padres at Petco Park, bottom 2nd, Will Venable batting; man struck in shoulder WHILE UPDATING FACEBOOK STATUS, nothing broken.” (That guy’s lucky not to be in the hospital or worse, and he knows it.) Heck, even just a stats line would be interesting: “This week: 95 games played, 3028 foul balls, 6 minor injuries, 1 injury requiring treatment, 0 deaths.”

This is not something meant to call out MLB for a possible epidemic it’s ignoring—serious injuries are, it seems, relatively uncommon, and deaths are exceedingly rare. Instead it would be meant to raise public awareness of the need for alertness while at the ballpark. Best of all, maybe it would save us all from the day when we find ourselves watching and enjoying a game, only to see some family’s day turn instantly from joy to tragedy as their little towheaded lad’s skull is crushed by a ball that would otherwise, under better and more attentive circumstances, be merely a “line drive out of play,” and a game-day souvenir.


Why the Mythbusters Newton’s Cradle failed

10 December 2011

What with the Mythbusters having a bit of a mishap this week (a vast understatement by the way, and thank goodness no one was injured), folks have likely forgotten about their most elaborate and ambitious project of the current season: the supersized Newton’s Cradle. The thing was enormous, consisting of giant orbs hung from steel girders suspended over an empty drydock. It was an awesome concept.

But it was also a dismal failure.

Why? Well, there’s the inherent difficulty of precisely aligning such a massive structure such that the balls are in a perfectly straight line and a minimum of energy is lost to sideways motion. This was what much of Adam’s and Jamie’s fine-tuning addressed—but try as they might, they couldn’t get the giant clack-clacking effect they’d hoped for.

An in-depth analysis on Wired goes into the physics of a Newton’s Cradle, and what might have gone wrong, but ultimately punts a definitive conclusion by stating that “the camera angle wasn’t the best for analysis.” Now, I am not a professional physicist, but I think a hint at the real problem may be summed up in one comment in that Wired article: “It seems that these balls are not elastic.”

Right. See, the balls they used were not the solid steel balls of an ordinary Newton’s Cradle, scaled up, which apparently would have been prohibitively expensive to acquire. Instead they were homemade: spherical steel casings, each with a thick steel disk at the equator and both hemispheres filled with concrete.

As I said, I am not a physicist, so what follows might be off-base. But my impression of the impact event in a normal Newton’s Cradle goes like this:

  • When one ball strikes another, the first ball’s momentum is transferred as a force acting on a single point (ideally, that is) on the surface of the second ball.
  • That force of impact radiates in all directions through the second ball. The energy can’t escape from the ball (except for the bits that become heat, and that clacking noise), so as it crosses through the interior of the ball, the energy that reaches the surface is reflected (or refracted?) back into the interior.
  • Ultimately all that energy converges back at a single point on the surface of the ball, exactly antipodal to the impact point.
  • That energy convergence causes the ball to react and move—and if there’s another ball touching that convergence point, the energy is transferred into that next ball, and the Newton’s Cradle does its thing.

So far, so good. Here’s the problem: as I said, the interior of the Mythbusters balls were mostly concrete, not steel. Therefore most of the energy entering each impacted ball was muddled, diffused, slowed as it moved through that medium. Only the energy passing through the steel equatorial disk—a small fraction of the whole—was transferred efficiently into the next ball. The result was as seen on TV: powerful action, anemic reaction.

I believe that, had the Mythbusters used enormous, solid, hardened steel balls for their giant Newton’s Cradle, they might have come up with the amazing visual they—and we—were all hoping to see.

The spin-off’s spin-off’s spin-off

17 May 2011

For the past few months I’ve had a puzzler simmering on the back burner.

It was triggered by MeTV airing, the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, a marathon of Love, American Style. Amidst the episodes was the segment “Love and the Happy Days” which, as any classic TV fan knows, spun off into the long-running sitcom Happy Days—a show that spawned several spin-offs of its own. More recently, Fox aired an episode of Bones that was obviously—nay, blatantly—a set-up for its next-mid-season replacement series The Finder, something known in the biz as a “backdoor pilot.”

At any rate, here’s my puzzler: What’s the longest chain of spin-offs in television history?

Read more…

That other show “set in Chicago”

27 April 2011

So as I ruminated on The Chicago Code and lamented that it’s almost surely about to be cancelled after only its first season, and pondered why Chicagoans are so unwilling to embrace it—and spotted the tip of the iceberg, at least, of that lattermost topic—it occurred to me that there is one other truly Chicago-based show in existence.

The Beast, starring Patrick Swayze.

Okay, well, sort of.

[An aside: The Beast aired more than two years ago, so any reveals that may follow can no longer be deemed spoilers. Nevertheless, you’ve been warned.]

If I modify my previous statement to say, “The Chicago Code is the only major-network show to be truly based in Chicago ever,” then the statement is very much true, without exception. There are no others. The Beast aired on cable channel A&E, quietly, in January–April 2009. Being a less-than-frequent A&E watcher, I was completely unaware of it airing—and would have been unaware of its existence, if not for several scenes of it having been filmed in the vicinity of my work. (In fairness, part of the reason it flew under the radar was the unavailability, due to illness, of its lead actor for press tours.)

Moreover, although it was filmed entirely in and around Chicago, The Beast could take place in almost any American city, for this reason: the stylish cinematography, lighting, camera angles, etc., seem geared to conceal the location, the sometimes-surprising appearance of the ‘L’ notwithstanding.

In one of the “behind-the-scenes” clips, director Michael Watkins compares filming The Beast to his previous work on The X-Files. He says that the city where they filmed X-Files was “the third character,” that its mood and appearance were significant elements of the show. And in the same way, The Beast definitely benefits from the look, the style, the grit of Chicago. Chicago definitely comes through as the “third character” of The Beast.

And yet, just like X-Files’ Vancouver, The Beast’s Chicago is Everycity. I’m not saying that they should have thrown in landmark clichés like Navy Pier or Wrigley Field just to signify “hey, we’re in Chicago.” But with only a few exceptions, the overly generic urban locations all look alike—and in many cases, they are. Four completely different scenes take place in a single block of Monitor Avenue. Nefarious stuff always seems to be happening in dark alleys—and if there’s an ‘L’ track nearby, it’s surely happening within a two-block radius in River North. Barker and Conrad’s usual meeting place is an old factory space that I’m pretty sure is on the “backlot,” what there is of one, at Chicago Studio City. And there’s a three-block stretch of West Roosevelt Road, just a stone’s throw from the studio on the border between Chicago and Cicero, that’s used time and again as the show’s go-to urban street.

So even with the verity of using the actual vicinity of the FBI’s Chicago field office—the Federal Plaza on South Dearborn—as itself in a couple of early episodes, The Beast hides its Chicago-ness. So much so, that when the nuclear physicist in episode 5 tells Barker that her husband is “right here in Chicago,” I thought to myself—“oh yeah, this is taking place in Chicago.” That fact had completely slipped my mind.

And that’s coming from a viewer who was watching specifically because the show was filmed in Chicago.

That gripe aside, I enjoyed the thirteen-episode run of The Beast, even though it suffers from typical rookie-season foibles. Along with some fairly cheesy lines delivered with earnest intensity, the show’s biggest issue comes in the form of crime-show clichés, which are rife throughout. They use the “pull the trigger on an unloaded gun to freak out the suspect” gag twice, and even resort to the tired old chestnut, “‘How did you know?’ – ‘You just told me.'” The bad-guy son of the foreign diplomat uses “diplomatic immunity” as protection from prosecution for his nefarious schemes. One episode involves a doctor with a God complex who thinks his murders are “mercy killings.”

But that’s okay. As I said, that’s typical for a show’s rookie season—the writers and actors are still getting a feel for the characters and their world. Even the best shows are lucky if they have that settled in within their first thirteen episodes.

The Beast definitely gets it together by the end of its first season. Unlike most critics I enjoyed Travis Fimmel’s portrayal of Barker’s partner, Ellis Dove, whose deadpan smirk and flat delivery show a certain wisdom: better to underplay it when working opposite Patrick Swayze. The star of the supporting cast is Chicago’s own Kevin J. O’Connor, sporting one of the most awesome mustaches on television in recent memory, and bringing a complex, nuanced depth to his role as Barker’s handler, Harry Conrad.

In the end, I can honestly say I’m disappointed that The Beast wasn’t able to continue.

The final two episodes did it for me. A tip about a counterfeiting ring leads to a meeting that goes sideways and turns out to be a frame-up on Barker. He goes to ground and by the end of it, it’s clear that all his paranoid trust-no-one attitude has been justified, that everyone outside his tiny coterie (Ellis, Conrad, and—maybe—Ray Beaumont) is either corrupted, or unwittingly co-opted by the corruption.

Suddenly all the pieces of the long arc, set up over the course of the season, fall into place. The characters are developed and the universe of the show is established. Meanwhile that thirteenth episode finally embraces Chicago as its location in a way that the show hadn’t done since its first few episodes. For the first time, an aerial shot runs along Lake Shore Drive; the Sears Tower appears prominently over Ellis’ shoulder; several scenes occur alongside the main branch of the river with Chicago’s distinctive skyline all around. Sure, there are several instances of West Roosevelt Road, The Beast’s Everystreet, in this episode too, as there have been throughout. But for what feels like the first time in several episodes, we escape the claustrophobic back alleys and factory lots and really see that what’s taking place is happening in a very specific place, the city of Chicago.

Most of all, what makes every episode of this show worthwhile is Patrick Swayze, for he plays such a delightful bad-ass. But the eternal legacy of The Beast is that it was Swayze’s final role, that it’s a document of a man powering through the pain of the cancer that was killing him. He’s so pale and gaunt, his eyes hollow and dark and filled with acute awareness of his own mortality, and yet he brings a fiery intensity to the role that enables even the silliest lines to ring true. It may be the best performance of his career.

Even when the final episode ends with Barker taking down a sniper and then silently calling out, with the point of a finger, the FBI assistant director responsible for ordering the hit, I could shrug off the implausibility of why she would be anywhere near the scene, watching through binoculars. Because then Swayze walks off into the sunset—well, actually toward the amber-lit archway of a pedestrian underpass—and I was saddened. Not just for the loss of Patrick Swayze, cut down before his time—but also for the loss of The Beast, and its leaving one of Swayze’s most dramatic and interesting roles unfinished.

The entire run of The Beast, disingenuously packaged as “Season One,” is available in a single DVD set from

Stand alone, and you make an easy target

25 March 2011

The Chicago Code is a terrific show, and I’m enjoying it a lot. As I previously posted, I sincerely hope it wins renewal despite its middling ratings.

However, as I’ve pondered the show and the critical response it’s getting, I have come to realize why Chicagoans are so dismally, scathingly, and—it must be said—petulantly unwilling to cut the show any slack whatsoever in its depiction of the city and its citizens. Unfortunately for The Chicago Code, the reason is something that is utterly beyond the show’s control:

The Chicago Code is the only truly Chicago-based television show to air, ever.

Seriously, name another show that takes place in Chicago that was actually made here too. Hill Street Blues (which, I should mention, left its locale tantalizingly unspecified) filmed its famous opening sequence here, but every episode was filmed in Los Angeles. So too Good Times, Married…with Children, and The Bob Newhart Show. ER used a handful of on-location scenes, but only a few per season, as did Chicago Hope. Leverage filmed its pilot here, then hightailed it to the West Coast. The Matadors pilot has not yet made it to broadcast.

Early Edition. Perfect Strangers. My Boys. Currently, Mike & Molly and The Good Wife. You name a show—and Wikipedia has a category listing 71 “Television shows set in Chicago, Illinois”—and it almost certainly consists of second-unit establishing shots of Chicago, combined with principal photography made Anywhere But Here.

So into that enormous, glaring void comes The Chicago Code, a show that not only purports to dramatize life in the CPD, it even has the audacity to include “Chicago” in its title. Every scene is filmed in the city (or very near it), with the result that every exterior shot is instantly recognizable for its “Chicago-ness” even when notable landmarks cannot be seen.

These are some big boots to fill. It doesn’t help that, as Alex Kotlowitz wrote in Never a City So Real, “Chicagoans are a possessive sort. They have set notions of how people ought to think of their home.” Chicagoans are so unaccustomed to seeing their city depicted at all on-screen—except in the movies, in period pieces like Public Enemies and Road to Perdition, or comic book renditions like The Dark Knight and the upcoming Transformers 3—that when a television show comes along and tries to show Chicago as it is now, today, the bar is set to an impossibly high degree of difficulty.

But I think The Chicago Code succeeds. As I said before, it’s a stylized version of the city that approaches truth better than reality ever could. And it’s great to see a show that’s produced here lock, stock and barrel, even its soundstage interiors—which could be done anywhere, but which are made at the facilities of Chicago Studio City on the west side.

Even its actors have strong Chicago ties. Jennifer Beals is the obvious mention, as she was born and raised in the city. But aside from her it’s amazing to watch the sheer number of secondary characters being portrayed by veteran Chicago stage and screen actors. Examples include the ever-excellent Jeff Perry, Steppenwolf Theatre Company co-founder, in a prime guest spot; Joseph Jefferson Award-winners James Sie, Jacqueline Williams, and Mike Nussbaum in notable supporting roles; and numerous Jeff Award nominees as well. This is high-caliber talent, made right here in Chicago.

So watch this show, Chicagoans, enjoy it on its merits, and stop nitpicking at its trivial departures from what you might perceive as the reality of Chicago. This is exactly the kind of production this city needs to help it become—as it was some hundred years ago—one of the world’s great film capitals.

[Follow-up: Aha, I knew there had to be at least one exception: The Beast starring Patrick Swayze. In a separate post, I ponder that show and its place in Chicago filmdom.]