December 25, 2009

November 18, 2009

Defending Isiah

Sportswriter Jackie MacMullen has co-authored a new book with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird focused on their relationship and rivalry, which began when the two faced off in the 1979 NCAA Championship game and continued as the two became (arguably) the greatest NBA players of the 1980s.

Thus far, the most compelling thing about this book (and what everyone’s talking about so far) are Magic’s comments about his “friend” and fellow NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. Before I get into that, however, I’ll provide the backstory (word of warning, there’s a lot of it), do my best to identify all the different players (no pun intended) in this drama, and try to identify what could have possibly led to Magic’s very curious allegations against Thomas.

Magic and Isiah traveled many of the same roads. Just two years apart in age, the two grew up in the same area of the country -- Magic’s roots are in Lansing, Michigan, Isiah’s in Chicago. Both are point guards that led their college teams to NCAA titles as sophomores, and each turned pro immediately after. The future superstars signed with the same sneaker company and shot TV commercials together. But even as the two struck up a friendship and rose to become the best point guards in their conferences, their professional careers, personalities and reputations were quite different. Isiah wound up staying in the Midwest with the Detroit Pistons and endured several miserable seasons on losing teams. Detroit was then, as it is now, a blue collar town -- harsh, gritty, tough. Beginning with Isiah, Pistons owner Bill Davidson, GM Jack McCloskey, and head coach Chuck Daly slowly set about building a winning franchise by assembling parts (Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Joe Dumars) and developing an extremely physical style of play the rest of the teams in the league would come to hate but wouldn't be able to match.

Magic, meanwhile, joined the Lakers, already a winning franchise with All-Star players Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Johnson flourished in glamorous Los Angeles and enjoyed immediate success as an NBA champion and Finals MVP and quickly became L.A.'s media darling with the brilliant smile.

But on a deeper level, what was taking place with Magic and Isiah would prove to be at the root of all the animosity and bad feelings that have now developed between the two. Magic, because he was in L.A., was schmoozing, ingratiating himself to others, and playing to the media. It was Hollywood after all, and image was everything. Isiah, meanwhile, didn’t care about his image or how he was perceived by others. He was more focused on trying to turn his team into a winner and orchestrating the on-court and front office moves that would make his team as tough, as physical, and as good as it needed to be to become winners. Magic and the Lakers were already winners. They were beating everyone and looking good doing it. Thomas and the Pistons aspired to beat everyone... while beating them up. This is how it all began -- Magic becoming “Showtime” and Isiah a “Bad Boy”.

Throughout the early 80s, Magic and his Lakers versus Bird and the Celtics was one of the premiere rivalries in the NBA. But by 1987, the Pistons were also a legitimate power, losing the conference championship to the Celtics in seven games. The following year, Detroit made it to the championship against the Lakers and a good part of the story revolved around the two good friends and All-Stars (Magic and Isiah) finally facing each other for the crown. In a move that seemed strange to most, the pair actually kissed (European style) before every game. The Lakers wound up winning the series in seven and it looked like a new rivalry was born.

By this time, Magic and Isiah were like brothers. Johnson often let Thomas stay at his home and drive his cars whenever the Pistons came to town. Once, after the NBA Finals, the two took a suite at the Helmsley Palace and spent the weekend in New York.
But things started to unravel after Magic’s announcement in November 1991 that he was HIV positive. Magic’s startling revelation and subsequent departure from the game stunned the sports world and soon after speculation began as to how Magic got HIV, as well as who might have given it him. (One popular rumor identified porn star Heather Hunter as the source.) In any case, Magic was barely gone two months, when he was given special permission to play in the 1992 All-Star game. Isiah, then president of the NBA Players’ Association, played a major part in getting this done when he petitioned Commissioner David Stern’s office for Magic’s inclusion even though sponsors were skittish, and many players had concerns about playing with Magic. (Karl Malone, for instance, then one of the leagues’s biggest stars, expressed his inner paranoia publicly when he questioned the idea of Magic’s full-time return to NBA and worried what would happen if Magic suffered an on-court cut.) Thomas’ recollections of defending Magic during this time are crystal clear:

"They weren't going to let Magic play in the All-Star Game; all the players were coming out [against him]. You know how that all got turned around? I had a meeting with all of the players -- and I told them not only was he going to play, but we were going to shake his hand and give him a hug. And I was the first to shake his hand and hug him and give him a kiss, to let people know that's not how the virus is spread. Call Charlie Grantham [the former union
executive director and COO] and ask him how Magic got to play in the All-Star Game. Ask him who called the meeting."

That game wound up being a celebration of Magic. Johnson and Thomas repeated their famous kiss ritual and Isiah led the rest of the eastern All-Stars in laying off Magic (to an almost embarrassing degree) and letting him score at will so he could claim MVP honors in what we thought at the time would be his farewell to the league.

It was immediately after these events that another rumor about Magic’s HIV began circulating, albeit in a much less public fashion than the speculation about Heather Hunter. This rumor claimed that Magic had gotten HIV because he was gay or bisexual. Few then (or now) believed it, particularly not Magic’s teammates or his other close friends.

Which brings us to Magic’s assertions in MacMullan’s book. He claims that it was Thomas who spread this rumor, that he (Magic) was tremendously hurt by this, that it led to the complete dissolution of his and Thomas’ friendship, and that this failed relationship has been, in MacMullan’s words, “the biggest personal disappointment of his life.”

Isiah, for his part, says "Magic acted and responded off some really bad information that he got… I think Magic has been misled on a lot of things, and unfortunately this has been another one of them. I am hurt and disappointed that he has chosen to believe others as opposed to his closest friends.”

Thomas doesn't stop there. In his own defense, he's called Magic out and questioned his character and forthrightness by claiming, “There is this public person and then there is this b.s. person. There's Earvin and then there's Magic.”

Magic’s claims about Isiah seem less than credible for several reasons. For starters, why has Magic waited until now, 18 years after the original events took place, to make all this known? Has he secretly hated Thomas all these years? Isiah says that whenever he’s seen Magic over the years, “he has always been friendly.”

Second, as Thomas himself has pointed out, he was Magic’s closest friend and the two men had engaged in very unusual public displays of affection. This being the case, Thomas is 100% right when he says, “if I was questioning [Magic’s] sexuality, then I was questioning mine too. That's how idiotic this is.”

Then there's the idea of motive. Why would Thomas want to spread such a damaging rumor about his closest friend and his HIV status? It seems unlikely given Thomas’ history. In his dealings with Stern and his fellow players, he had just stood up for Magic in this regard. Also, Isiah’s brother Gregory had AIDS, so certainly Thomas must have had some understanding and sensitivity towards those with HIV? Wouldn’t a more likely source of the defamatory rumor about Magic be someone like Malone, who was very vocal about his concerns over Magic coming back and having to play against him? Or someone like Tim Hardaway, the poster boy for homophobia who is quoted as saying, “I hate gay people and I don't like to be around gay people” and “I wouldn't want [a gay teammate] on my team.”

Hardaway made those comments in 2007 but was an NBA All-Star (and was being considered for the Dream Team) at the time the Magic rumor started. Make no mistake, back then, there was still a great deal of ignorance regarding HIV and AIDS -- enough that the Magic rumor could have been started by literally anyone, and not necessarily out of malice, but through a lack of knowledge about how HIV is contracted. Truthfully, how could Magic, or anyone else for that matter, definitively know the origins of this rumor? Magic says that his agent at the time, Lon Rosen, is the one who told him it was Isiah. This “he said, she said” looks to be the extent of Magic’s proof and it seems (either immediately or after contemplating things all these years) he's convinced himself that Rosen is telling the truth.

And why not? Isiah’s an easy target -- someone the public is willing to believe the worst about. But Isiah also happens to be someone people (including Magic’s inner circle of old NBA buddies and associates) might want to lay this rumor-starting thing off on. Could Magic’s allegation be part of a larger conspiracy against Isiah that’s been going on for years? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Let’s face it, Isiah’s track record during his playing career certainly made him more than his share of enemies. Among other things:

After the Pistons were eliminated in the ’87 conference finals, Isiah (in what was perceived by white America as nothing short of blasphemy) disparaged Larry Bird when he said that “if he weren’t white, he’d be just another good guy.”

When Detroit was on the verge of a championship, Thomas ran Adrian Dantley out of town by getting management to trade him for Dallas’ Mark Aguirre, Thomas’ old friend from back in Chicago.

At the end of the Game 4 of the ‘91 Eastern Conference Finals, just as Chicago was about to complete a sweep, Thomas led his teammates off the floor and right past the Bulls bench with time still left on the clock.

And perhaps most famously, Thomas allegedly masterminded a “freeze-out” of Jordan during the 1985 All-Star Game.

Certainly these aren’t the only reasons why Thomas seems to be so intensely disliked now. He did, after all, run the CBA, the NBA’s beloved farm system, into the ground. He also dreadfully mismanaged the New York Knicks, one of the league’s crown jewel franchises, setting the team back for years to come. But does any of this mean Isiah is a traitor or a false friend? If being a bad front office exec means you're a bad person, than Elgin Baylor is Lex Luthor, Hannibal Lechter and Vlad the Impaler all rolled into one.

Many of Isiah's other actions are at least somewhat defensible. Consider:
His comments about Bird were in support of ones made by Dennis Rodman. Lost in the crush of anti-Isiah sentiment that exists today, is the fact that it was Rodman who originally made derogatory remarks about Bird, claiming that he was overrated and that he had only won multiple MVPs because he was white. Isiah chimed in in defense of his younger teammate. Also, remember that these comments were made only minutes after the Pistons were eliminated from the playoffs, and that Isiah knew he had given away the series in game five when his lazy pass was stolen by Bird. Under those circumstances, you’d think Thomas’ comments about Larry Legend could be brushed off as sour grapes…They weren’t. Race is always a hot button for reporters, and the media (fresh off the feeding frenzy that ensued after Al Campanis' controvesial statements) blasted Thomas.

For sure, Thomas had the ear of both GM McCloskey and owner Davidson, and often pulled strings to get his way. And yes, Thomas engineered the Dantley for Aguirre trade. But how is this any different than Kobe Bryant running Shaq out of L.A.? Or his attempt to force an Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd deal a few years later? Individual star players in the NBA (moreso than in any other professional sport) can have a great deal of influence on management decisions. The smart ones sometimes use this influence to make power moves or even hold their teams hostage. Look at what the Cavs have done over the last two years in efforts to appease LeBron. But no one holds this against King James. He just wants to win. One can argue that if the Dantley/Aguirre deal doesn’t get done, the Pistons never get over the hump and claim their two titles. And at least Isiah was never responsible for getting his championship-winning head coach fired the way Magic did Paul Westhead. (It’s interesting how history seems to have forgotten this dirty little detail about the beloved Magic’s career.)

The Pistons walkout at the end of game four in ’91 was completely classless and maybe the worst display of bad sportsmanship ever (not counting that New Mexico soccer chick.) But you know what? The Pistons did it as a team, and it was completely in character. It was the end of a long and very fierce rivalry that took place back in the days when NBA rivals (particularly in the Eastern Conference) were often bitter enemies. There was animosity between the Sixers and Celtics (Bird and Dr. J threw punches during a playoff game) and Detroit HATED Boston because they had what the Pistons wanted -- conference titles and championships. The Celtics hated the Pistons right back (Robert Parrish clubbed Laimbeer in the face, for crying out loud.) Later in the decade, on their way to conference titles, Detroit eliminated the Bulls from the playoffs three straight seasons. The Bulls hated them for it and because the Pistons physical style made them a frustrating team to play. And while I’m not forgiving the ’91 walkout, for two teams that despised each other, hugs and warm handshakes at the end would have been disingenuous. At least give Isiah credit for not being two-faced.

And as for the infamous 85 All-Star Game freeze-out, the story goes this way: Some of the Eastern Conference All-Stars resented Michael Jordan’s rapid ascension into super-stardom and were jealous of his fat Nike contract and all his other endorsement deals. Jordan, it seems, was rising too high too fast and the East All-Stars, led by starting point guard Isiah, conspired to keep the ball out of Jordan’s hands and limit his scoring opportunities. Isiah, it’s said, had extra motivation to do this because the game was played at the Hoosier Dome. This was Isiah’s territory, conspiracy theorists would have you believe, and it was bad enough that Jordan was now the toast of Thomas’ home town of Chicago. He’d be damned if he was going to let Jordan grab any glory in Indiana. By game’s end, MJ was limited to 2 for 9 shooting and had only seven points.

But the reality is there was no freeze out. Jordan simply had an off night shooting and his playing time was limited by East coach K.C. Jones. Jones, in fact, gave Jordan’s backup, Sidney Moncrief, the same number of minutes as Michael (22).

Also consider that Isiah played less than half that game. This means that in order to effectively freeze out Jordan, he would have had to have the cooperation of backup point guard Dennis Johnson and others on the Eastern squad. It’s doubtful that Thomas, then just 24 years old could have persuaded DJ and veteran teammates like Erving, Moses Malone, and Robert Parish to participate in his alleged plot.

And yet the idea of a villainous Thomas screwing Jordan over has endured, even though Jordan himself (most recently, at his Hall of Fame Induction) has dispelled the idea. (Let’s see, a claim of alleged backstabbing by Isiah that turned out to be false… Interesting.) But even as the freeze-out has now been revealed to be little more than NBA folklore, at the time, Jordan and everyone else was more than willing to believe it was real. Indeed, in Jordan’s eyes, it was real enough for him to use as a reason to keep Isiah off the Dream Team. When the IOC ruled that US pro athletes would be able to compete at the Barcelona Olympics, and USA Basketball set about building a team, Jordan kept everyone at bay with a host of non-committal assertions that he was "very interested" in playing. Jordan was at the absolute peak of his power during this time -- NBA champion, reigning MVP and the unquestioned face of the league. USA Basketball, the NBA, and Nike, among others, desperately wanted Michael to play, but Jordan couldn’t stand Isiah. Beyond the events of the ‘85 All Star Game, Jordan still resented Thomas for all that had taken place during their playoff battles, for the Pistons’ on-court thuggery, for the “Jordan Rules” that had frustrated him for years, and for other reasons that only Jordan himself could justify. (To be sure, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Michael’s very bitter induction speech, it’s that the man can hold a grudge, and that he takes both real and imagined slights against him personally.)

So as it turns out, there was a plot involving Isiah and Jordan -- except Thomas was the one that got screwed. As a condition for Michael joining the Dream Team, Isiah would be left off. Magic, meanwhile, has his own take on this incident. “Isiah killed his own chances when it came to the Olympics,” he says. “Nobody on that team wanted to play with him. ... Michael didn't want to play with him. Scottie [Pippen] wanted no part of him. Bird wasn't pushing for him. Karl Malone didn't want him…”

Really Magic?... NOBODY?

Well we already know why Jordan and Magic were against him. Pippen was a Bull and Jordan’s wingman, so it’s no surprise that he’d also object to teaming with Isiah. And after years of Bad Boys-Celtics run-ins and the remarks from back in ’87, you can see where Bird would be opposed. But what could guys like Chris Mullin, David Robinson and Clyde Drexler (guys Isiah hardly knew and rarely played against) possibly have against him? Not that it really mattered. Jordan’s word was law and as soon as he made his feelings known, Isiah’s participation was no longer a consideration.

But it’s curious that in the MacMullan book, Magic would, on the one hand, accuse Thomas of stabbing him in the back by way of false innuendo, but then stop short of naming that as the reason he helped keep Thomas off the Dream Team. It’s as if one had nothing to do with the other. And maybe it didn’t. Maybe Thomas’ exclusion had more to do with the types of actions and behaviors Davidson was alluding to. Magic’s declaration that Isiah was almost universally disliked makes one ponder these comments by Pistons owner Bill Davidson:

"I was very, very close to Isiah, and there were times he was almost like a son. But, because of his background... I told him he had to change... I said, 'You've got it made now. Don't keep doing those things that you've been doing.'… But he couldn't change...We just come from different backgrounds. He had to fight his way up, and I didn't have the problems he had growing up. There's a lot of good things about Isiah, but when we had our parting, it was over something pretty substantial."

Those unnamed things were substantial enough for Davidson to renege on an offer he purportedly made to Isiah to join the Pistons front office after his playing career ended -- a position that later went to Thomas' backcourt mate Joe Dumars.

Perhaps those things are what Magic meant when he said, “Isiah killed his own chances…” and why he never stuck up for Thomas, the way Thomas stuck up for him with Stern prior to the ‘92 All-Star game. Still, one wonders why Magic, like Davidson, doesn’t go into detail or offer any insight as to why Thomas was, is, or should be so reviled.

Even some of Thomas' former teammates, John Salley for instance, have mixed feelings about him. It’s puzzling given all the man’s positives. Over the years he has long been heavily involved in charitable and humanitarian causes, including personal outreaches to curb gang activity, organizing “No Crime in Detroit Day” and donating both his time and money to numerous causes. Indeed, Thomas was once awarded the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award as the most charitable player in the NBA.

Thomas did a lot for his fellow NBAers as well. During his time heading the players’ union, he successfully negotiated to reduce the agents' cut of contracts from 10% to 4% -- a move that most assuredly drew the ire of many an agent... including one Lon Rosen.

Speaking of Rosen, Thomas had this to say about him:

“I think you can go back and look in that era and see who [Magic’s] closest friends were, and who his closest friends are now. At that time, I don't consider Lon Rosen to be one of his closest friends; he was one of his business advisers making money off him."

Maybe there are two sides to Isiah. But it seems this may be true of Magic as well.
One thing about Magic’s issues with Isiah, however, seems fairly certain -- like everyone else, he isn’t really sure who started the rumor about him, particularly after so much time has passed. And in their rush to sell books via rash, reckless, headline-grabbing accusations, neither MacMullan nor Magic ever connect any dots or present any type of compelling evidence againstThomas.

And once again, why are we just hearing about this now? This all started close to 20 years ago. If Magic has known it was Isiah all these years, why did he continue to be friendly towards the guy? Thomas says, “Every time that I’ve seen Magic, he has been friendly with me. Whenever he came to a Knick game, he was standing in the tunnel with me. He and [Knicks assistant coach] Herb [Williams] and I, we would go out to dinner in New York.”

This all seems easy enough to confirm. Someone just needs to check with Williams. And if Isiah’s story is true, then the questions should shift back to Magic. Why would you be friendly and go out to dinner with someone that’s backstabbed you? Someone, according to MacMullan, “with whom your relationship was over many, many years ago.”

When you hold Magic’s version of events up to the light of day and consider what his reasons might be for calling out Isiah almost two decades after the fact, you come back to one incontrovertible fact -- Magic is hawking a book. He’s selling his story and every good story needs good guys and bad guys. When the Game Was Ours is supposed to be about Magic and Bird. But that’s old hat… Michigan State-Indiana State, Lakers-Celtics, series clinching sky hooks, we’ve heard it all before. What the story needed was a villain...

I guess Magic and MacMullan either found one or invented one.

November 11, 2009

Commercials We Love - Fruit of the Loom and Big Fig

Here's two from the 70s featuring grown men dressed as fruit.

There were several of these Fruit of the Loom spots. Looking at them now, they're not very politically correct. What's with the stereotyping? Why does the black guy have to be the grapes?... What, a black man can't be an apple?... Or a lime?... Or a damn tangerine?... "Right on" my ass -- your underwear is racist!

As for the fig newton commercial, I picture the guy thinking, "Four years at Yale Drama School and I'm dancing around in pantyhose, curly toed shoes and a freakin' fig costume."

Related Posts:
Commercials We Love - "You Will"
Commercials We Love - "Terry Tate: Office Linebacker"
Commercials We Love - "Laptop Hunters"
Commercials We Love - "Be Like Mike"
Commercials We Love - Super Mario Land 2
Commercials We Love - Cindy Crawford & Little Richard for Charlie

November 4, 2009

Deja V

Last night, ABC began its attempt to rope us in to watching its "new" series V, about aliens that come to earth, ostensibly on a mission of peace and benevolence. Oh, but not so fast there bub, it seems these "Visitors" are not what they appear to be. They're actually a sinister lizard-like race set on conquering our world and enslaving earth's population.

And if this all sounds familiar, it's because this new V is based on the original V miniseries (and the sequel series V:The Final Battle) that appeared on NBC in 1983 and 1984, respectively. Those original series were big hits back then and But I view things differently. It's one thing to remake individual movies, and I'm even cool with modernizing these movies for TV (the way they did with Carrie a few years back.) But to take an entire miniseries (the original V alone ran over 200 minutes) and ask viewers to spend untold hours watching it in its new incarnation as a full-blown, ongoing episodic TV show? That's asking a lot.

V was one of the most highly watched miniseries of all-time, and while it was certainly very enjoyable sci-fi, I have no interest in investing my valuable TV watching time in something I've already seen (even if it has been 25 years.) And though you may hear terms like "re-imagining" used to describe the new V, ABC isn't really going out of its way to convince us that the show will be fresh enough to keep us interested. Quite the opposite in fact. Judging from the clips and promos as well as last night's premiere episode, this new V looks like a pretty faithful and straightforward remake. Last night, for instance, we got the same setup -- alien ships hovering over earth's major cities and the introduction of the Visitors and their sexy female leader. And not only does it look like we're getting the same premise and plotlines, V's cast and crew are on record saying they will "take the most iconic moments [from the original V] and make sure they do service to them."

Clearly, this means we can expect re-do's of the dramatic reveal of the Visitors true reptillian identities, as well as the infamous "guineau pig-eating" and "lizard baby" scenes.

To be fair, the early reviews of the V pilot have been largely outstanding. "The first five minutes will hook you for the entire season," one TV critic claimed. (In reality, this is far from the case.) But how good or intriguing V the series is isn't as important as the decision to remake it in the first place. To my point, isn't there something disappointing about a major network recycling quarter century old material (even enlisting the same writer of that material, Kenneth Johnson) and then heavily promoting and presenting it as a television event we can't miss? This over-dependence on pre-existing material (sequels, movies based on toys and books, etc.) has led to a decline in the quality of Hollywood productions, and now, in many instances, cable channels like USA, AMC, HBO and Showtime have overtaken the big four TV networks in offering original, high quality programming.

Just for the record, V really is can't miss television. So I didn't miss it last night, but more importantly, I didn't miss it back in 1983 when it was fresh and something we could all be a lot more excited about.

Related Links:
2008 SyFy Radio interview with Jane Badler, star of the original V. In it, she talks about her time on the miniseries and gives her thoughts on a V's revival.

November 2, 2009

Reality Used To Be A Friend Of Mine: The Problem With Reality TV - Part II

Part 2 in the three-part series "The Problem With Reality TV"

It celebrates the worst in people.

Reality TV producers learned long ago that when it comes to their TV choices, the average person with the average life isn’t interested in watching... well, average people with average lives. Rather, it seems what the average viewer wants to see are extremes. Extreme situations -- people stranded on desert islands, couples racing around the world, men and women competing for the same person's affections or to see who can lose the most weight. And what’s even better, is when these people have extreme personalities. When it comes to casting reality shows, producers trip over themselves to choose people that are exceedingly arrogant (Omorosa from The Apprentice), shallow (Audrina from The Hills), duplicitous (Survivor's Jonny Fairplay), daft (Sunset Tan’s Olly Girls) and disgusting (ev
ery single person on Rock of Love.) Indeed, it’s fair to say that at best, reality shows feature a disproportionate number of people with, shall we say "negative" personality traits.

Reality TV stars and contestants (as well as those who’ve simply auditioned or applied to be on these shows) commonly possess the most narcissistic of personalities. According to psychiatrist Dr. Drew Pinsky (ironically, a reality show star himself) these people genuinely feel like they deserve be on television and that their lives are so interesting, people should actually WANT to watch them.

So what do we wind up with? Shows full of egotistical people with horrible personalities. These people's vanity often makes them antagonisitic, which inevitably leads to conflict and the types of behaviors and actions that show producers and network executives believe makes for good television and higher ratings.

So in effect, reality TV “personalities” (I henceforth refuse to refer to them as “stars”) are celebrated for their conceit, rudeness, foul mouths, ignorance, depravity, and general distastefulness. One of the worst offenders in this regard are The Real Housewives series, which, in chronicling the lives of a group of vapid, over-priviledged women, actually encourages their pretentiousness, social climbing, and bad parenting.

And the saddest part is, it seems the very worst of these people are the ones who get the most recognition, often in the form of their very own series. Thus, we've had to endure empty-headed, playing on her looks Kendra going from The Girls Next Door to Kendra; fame-seeking, money-grubbing Megan graduating from Rock of Love to Megan Wants a Millionaire; and the vile, classless "New York" spinning off of Flava of Love to I Love New York.

And then there's I Love Money, a show that unapologetically seeks out the worst of the worst from other reality shows, and then showcases their unadulterated greed and willingness to debase themselves and each other for fame and cash.

October 27, 2009

Don't Miss ESPN's 30 for 30

ESPN’s 30 for 30 is an ambitious documentary series that presents 30 sports-related films from acclaimed directors, including John Singleton (Boyz in the Hood), Barry Levinson, and even Ice Cube. Each Tuesday a new feature premieres and thus far we’ve been treated to Peter Berg’s King’s Ransom (which traces the events surrounding Wayne Gretzky’s trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the L.A. Kings) and Mike Tollin’s Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

I must say I wasn’t digging Levinson’s The Band That Wouldn't Die, which reflected on what happened in Baltimore after the Colts’ departure for Indianapolis. Still, overall, 30 for 30 has been fantastic. In the coming months, we can look forward to Unmatched, covering the friendship and rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova; The Best That Never Was, about former Oklahoma running back Marcus DuPree, and The Two Escobars, which examines the murder of Columbian soccer player Andres Escobar after his own goal led to Columbia’s elimination from the 1994 World Cup.

Tonight’s feature is Muhammad and Larry, a memoir of the events surrounding the 1980 heavyweight between Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes. At the time, the legendary Ali was challenging champion and former sparring partner Holmes and attempting to win the title for a fourth time. Ali got into his best shape in years, but Holmes, despite not having any real competition during his entire title reign, was a great and underrated heavyweight in his prime. He beat Ali badly, much to my disappointment. I know firsthand because I watched the fight live on closed circuit television, which for you youngsters out there was sort of a predecessor to pay-per-view -- except instead of being able to watch in the comfort of your home, you had to go to a movie theater or other public venue.)

And as a footnote to this story, I reached into the Pop Culture Fiend Archives and found this 29 year old ticket stub from that 

October 22, 2009

Shout Out to: The Force M.D.s

An incredibly unique vocal group from the mid-80s, the Force M.D.s were true pioneers, practically inventing the fusion of rap music and 1950s-style harmonies best described as "hip-hop/doo-wop".

Coming out of Staten Island, New York (no, they're not doctors -- the "M.D." stands for "Musical Diversity") these were five gifted guys that, unlike most of their contemporaries, could sing and harmonize on par with the best R&B groups (think The Treacherous 3 meets The Impressions.)

After signing with Tommy Boy Records in 1984, Force M.D.s had a string of R&B radio hits including the rousing "Let Me Love You" and "Forgive Me Girl", and the heartfelt ballads "Tears" and "Here I Go Again". The group went on to score their biggest hits with 1985's "Tender Love" (#10 on Billboard's Pop chart) and 1987's "Love is a House" (#1 R&B).

Unfortunately, subsequent albums didn't enjoy as much success and the group's popularity began to wane. In the 90s, The Force M.D.'s fell on hard times, as two of the original members passed away and the group slipped into obscurity.

Still, it wasn't until the emergence of Boyz II Men and their debut album CooleyHighHarmony in 1991 that we heard anything approximating the unique musical style of The Force M.D.s. "Tender Love" is one of the most covered R&B hits of the 80s and has directly influenced the work of Alicia Keys and others, and President Obama has stated the group was one of his favorites growing up.

Here's a three-minute mini-documentary about the Force M.D.s. Check out what hip-hop legends like Doug E. Fresh, DJ Red Alert, Kurtis Blow and Melle Mel have to say about the group's originality and impact.

Shout Out to: The Sorels

Shout Out to: Dara Torres
Shout Out to: Lippy the Lion
Shout Out to: Found Item Clothing
Shout Out to: "The Payback"

October 20, 2009

Reality Used To Be A Friend Of Mine: The Problem With Reality TV

Let me preface what I'm about to write by stating for the record that I do not hate reality television. Over the years, I have been an on and off watcher of, among others, The Real World, American Idol, The Bachelor, and Dancing With the Stars. Aw hell, I'm even guilty of watching crap like Temptation Island, Beauty and the Geek, and Scott Baio is 45 and Single. But things have gotten out of hand…

It was past 12 AM, the very early morning hours of a Sunday morning, and I was up late doing chores around the house. SNL was a repeat so I flipped through the channels and soon settled for what was on the E channel. It was The Girls Next Door. Now I don’t watch this show, but I was planning on going to bed in about a half an hour anyway, so I figured I’d just leave it on, finish my chores and hit the sack.

As it turns out, this particular episode of TGND provided a snapshot that nicely underscored the first of the fundamental problems with reality TV. So the show starts and Kendra comes to the Playboy mansion and tells Hugh Hefner (who's looking more and more like a feeble baby bird every day) that she wants to start a softball league. Hef finishes off his can of Ensure and then agrees to bankroll this thing -- so Kendra sets about recruiting players (mostly other Playmates), procuring uniforms and otherwise organizing the game. Now admittedly, watching Kendra sit in an office applying every bit of her brain power towards assembling a team (“Let’s see, we need a pitcher… first baseman… second baseman… umm… third baseman...") was beyond hilarious, but as I continued watching, I thought, “This… right here, is what’s wrong with reality television.” Let me explain:

It indulges and rewards the undeserving.

From what I can tell, the whole point of The Girls Next Door is to document the lives of the young ladies that Hefner (who has gone from a trailblazing hero of the publishing world, to sad fop and punchline to endless Viagra jokes) has chosen to house, clothe, and otherwise support in luxury, simply for being naked in the pages of his magazine, and in some cases, in private as well (or so they would have us believe.)

But what have Kendra, Bridget, Holly, the Kardashians, or any of these people done to deserve this type of indulgence? They, like many reality TV personalities are largely unskilled and unaccustomed to working for what they want in life. Yet they all rather easily go on to gain careers as singers, actors and actresses, TV hosts, or business entrepreneurs. Worse still, all too often they're able to maintain and grow their fame simply because they’re on TV.

Would Elizabeth Hasselbeck, for example, be a fixture on a successful morning show (The View) had she not been the cute girl on Survivor 2? And would someone as young and inexperienced as The Hills star Lauren Conrad EVER have been given the kind of job opportunities she’s been given (and have her own clothing at the age of 23) had she not been a reality show star?

The answer in both cases is a resounding no. But reality show producers believe for some reason that because we rooted for Hasselbeck on Survivor, we'd naturally want to see her every morning and hear her ridiculous "Obama is a socialist", "Liberals control the media" right-wing opinions.

These same producers also believe that without the leg up (jobs, apartments, connections) that they provided to Conrad, watching her try to make an honest go of it in the fashion world would be too long, drawn out and boring of a process. So instead of letting their subject sink or swim on their own, "reality" shows too often offer these life-altering short cuts and free passes to people that haven’t done anything other than be lucky enough to be featured on a dopey TV show.

And I’m not talking about people on Top Chef or the contestants on American Idol. Idol, as played out as it is, retains some legitimacy because it's a completely open competition that rewards talented kids when they might otherwise go a lifetime living in anonymity. What that show’s done for Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood, and the rest has been tremendous, but those people EARNED what they got. They have a definable and clear-cut talent (singing) that few others could ever hope to have. But those like the aforementioned Conrad, and even moreso, her cohorts Heidi and Whitney?... I'm sorry, there’s just no way Heidi would ever have a singing career (or even be allowed anywhere near the microphone on karaoke night at Buffalo Wild Wings) based on her own merit. More recently, Whitney was set up in New York with her own series, The City, and a dream job working for Diane Von Furstenberg. (I feel for every fashion student that’s going to school, working an unpaid internship and/or holding down a part-time job to pay their tuition.)

What have any of these people done to deserve the breaks they’ve gotten and the lives they're living?

And still we all continue to invest in this. Reality show producers, and all of us who watch these shows and others like it, are the ones making it possible. So Kendra, who doesn’t seem to have the brains to organize a spirited game of “Duck, Duck, Goose”, gets the green light, funding, assistance (and assistants) she needs to make the softball game happen. It’s symptomatic of many of the reality shows we see today. Kourtney & Khloe Take Miami and the Run's House spinoff Daddy's Girls, for example, both star people with no appreciable talent or ability, and assume that viewers will want to watch as they’re given keys to the kingdom, that is, all the resources they need to painlessly start their own businesses and otherwise pursue their every whim, whether it be opening a clothing store, hosting a radio show or pursuing an acting career.
Why are we humoring these people? Watching a "reality" show where someone is basically living a charmed life where everything is handed to them on a silver platter is neither fun, interesting or "real" (more on this in Part 3 of this series.) Yet for every Project Runway or So You Think You Can Dance that shines a spotlight on the earnest and their bona fide efforts towards achievement and recognition, there are ten Brooke Know Best's that feature the frivolous and self-serving exploits of the under-qualified, over-privileged, and (at best) only marginally talented.

Even worse than these are the shows predicated on the fact that viewers will tune in to see individuals with nothing more to offer than their loathsome personalities and outrageous behavior.

Which brings me to the second thing wrong with reality TV…

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Reality Used To Be A Friend Of Mine: The Problem With Reality TV - Part II

October 14, 2009

Defining Films of the Decades - The 60s

Continuing the "Defining Films of the Decades" series I started some time ago, here are my choices for the 1960s. As a reminder, these films were chosen based on excellence, timelessness, and relevancy as it pertains to the decade in which it was released. This means it should in some way reveal or reflect the decades' current events, social issues, trends, tastes, mores, creative sensibilities or artistic styles.

The 60s

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Gregory Peck gives the performance of the decade as Atticus Finch, whom the American Film Institute named as the single greatest American movie hero of all-time. This film opened the eyes of many to what the power of dignity, principles, and forthrightness can accomplish in the face of oppression, ignorance and racism. In this regard, To Kill a Mockingbird provided inspiration for the American Civil Rights Movement that was reaching critical mass at the time.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
The Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis, and high command of the US political and military infrastructure, all perfectly satirized by Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers.

The Sound of Music (1965)
With perhaps the most cinematic opening shots ever, The Sound of Music is the third highest grossing film of all-time (after adjusting for inflation) thanks largely to its sweeping, majestic photography, Julie Andrews angelic singing voice, and the masterful songwriting of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The Graduate (1967)
The sixties were largely about counter-culture and railing against traditional thinking, lifestyles and conventions. Films like Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Bonnie and Clyde celebrated this and perpetuated the idea of the antihero. But in its own, more subtle way, The Graduate also had a lot to say about bucking prevailing mores and rejecting America’s “plastic” society. Forty-two years after their release, Simon & Garfunkel’s "Mrs. Robinson" and "Sounds of Silence" from film’s soundtrack are still mainstays on adult contemporary radio.

THE Defining Film of the 1960s:

Goldfinger (1964)
There were two earlier screen adaptations of Ian Fleming spy novels (Dr. No and From Russia with Love) but Goldfinger was the first to really zero in on the formula for a successful James Bond film -- girls, guns and gadgets. The result: a huge hit at the box office (the fifth highest grossing film of the decade) that propelled the popularity of the 007 character to all-time highs. Gert Frobe as Auric Goldfinger remains one of the most memorable villains in film history and Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore is still the ultimate “Bond Girl”.

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Defining Films of the Decades - The 50s
Defining Films of the Decades - The 40s
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October 9, 2009

More Fall TV Shows You Should Watch (and Not Watch)

That's right, we have no lives. What we do have is a big-ass TV, a buttload of cable channels, and the brains and taste needed to weed through a ton of new fall shows and tell you which are worth your valuable time. Don't thank us, just buy us a TiVo. We're still living in the Dark Ages videotaping everything.

The Middle

What it is:
The wife from Everybody Loves Raymond, the janitor from Scrubs, and their weird offspring.
A little more to go on:
A middle-class, slightly dysfunctional family with three kids all just trying to get by. So if you don’t count Family Ties, Malcolm in the Middle, Roseanne, According to Jim, Growing Pains, Full House, My Wife and Kids, and Family Matters, it’s a pretty original concept.

Premise: F
Lead Actors: C (We liked Patricia Heaton on Raymond and even in her failed followup Back to You, but not in this. She's a car salesman?... Seriously?)
Supporting Cast: D (Brian Doyle-Murray helps a little, but a sitcom where the kids aren’t cute or funny is a bad sign.)
Writing: F
Overall: F

The show aims for quirky, How I Met Your Mother-style comedy but misses the mark. I know we keep harping on it but the lack of a laugh track really hurts this show and the family and their foibles and eccentricities, which are meant to be droll and endearing, come off as annoying and pathetic. We honestly had trouble just getting through the first 15 minutes of the premiere episode. This one will be axed before Halloween.

Modern Family

What it is: The Office (the home version)
A little more to go on: Suburban dude in his fifties (Ed O’Neill) has a hot young Latina wife (Sofia Vergara) and a smart-alecky stepson. Meanwhile, another couple (Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell as her tool of a husband) struggle to relate to their teenage kids; and a gay guy and his overly dramatic life partner have just adopted a Vietnamese baby. Oh, and all of these people are related. Got it?

Premise: C
Lead Actors: B
Supporting Cast: B-
Writing: B+
Overall: B

Creator Steve Levitan (who also brought us the underrated Just Shoot Me) developed this obvious Office clone, right down to its documentary style. O’Neill, channeling a bit of his old Al Bundy character, is perfect as the family’s sarcastic, always slightly annoyed patriarch. The comedy is smart but comprehensible and the writers do a nice job of weaving storylines together. The gay characters, though somewhat trite, are also funny, but strangely, Bowen's family comes off as pretty normal. Once again we get no laugh track (I guess we’re supposed to be smart enough to figure out what’s funny all by ourselves) but in this case, it totally works.

Flash Forward

What it is: 24 meets Lost with a smattering of Fringe -- so I guess you could call it Frosty 4.)
A little more to go on: Based on a novel by Robert J. Sawyer, at the exact same moment, everyone on the planet goes unconscious for 90 seconds and has a vision of their future six months into the future. The FBI tries to figure what (or who) caused this and why at least one mysterious person was awake during the whole thing.

Premise: A
Lead Actors: B+
Supporting Cast: B+
Writing: B+
Overall: B+

A great cast that includes the Joseph Fiennes, Sonya Walger (HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me) and the always excellent Courtney B. Vance star in this series that expertly combines a paranormal premise with the suspense and “every episode a cliffhanger”- feel of 24, and just touch of the “what the f**k is happening” confusion of Lost. Apart from the main story of the blackout investigation, nearly every character (and there are many in this one) has an interesting storyline. We especially like John Cho (Harold and Kumar, Star Trek) as an FBI agent who’s haunted by the flash he had of his own death, as well as Walger as the wife/surgeon struggling to distance herself from the man her flash indicated she’d leave her husband for. This is nitpicking, but I will say it struck me as curious that a U.S. production of a novel by a Canadian witer includes so many British actors (Fiennes, Walger, ER’s Alex Kingston, and more) playing Americans. Also, the kid actors in this show aren’t very good. Other than that, ABC labeled this show as “can’t miss” and they were right. If you haven’t seen the early episodes, catch up online.

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October 5, 2009

Pop Culture Fiend Is Watching All The New Fall Shows, So You Don’t Have To… You’re Welcome!

Well, not ALL the new shows. But way more than most of you out there who have jobs, hobbies, social engagements, significant others, or something better to do every night besides sitting in your tiny apartment in your dirty underwear watching TV, eating Fritos and licking the salt off your fingers…

Um... not that WE do that…

We were talking about this guy we know…

We all have girlfriends…

They're models and they live in Canada…

Okay, moving on... In the past, we were the very first ones to hip you to Friends, 24, Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, Big Bang Theory, Dollhouse, and other hit shows. (Of course, we also recommended Men Behaving Badly, What About Brian, Reunion, and Big Shots, but hey, you gotta take the good with bad, right?) Anyway, here’s our review of some new fall shows:

Accidentally On Purpose

What it is:

Knocked Up meets Three’s Company with a smattering of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
A little more to go on:
Thirtysomething career woman Jenna Elfman works at a TV station (hence the Mary Tyler Moore comparison), has a one-night stand with a twentysomething video game jockey and aspiring chef with three loser roommates. She gets pregnant and they all move in together.

Premise: C
Lead Actors: C (Elfman gets an A but co-star Jon Foster has as much charisma as a box of Wheat Thins.)
Supporting Cast: F
Writing: B
Overall: C-

The writing is pretty crisp and hip, but the pacing is off and the first episode felt ridiculously rushed. The supporting cast (including TV vet Grant Show and Ashley Jensen from Ugly Betty) adds absolutely nothing. Also, the producers didn’t think things through. Where’s this show gonna go after the baby comes? (Anybody remember what happened to Mad About You?) Elfman deserves way better.

Cougar Town

What it is:

Sex in the City meets Desperate Housewives with a smattering of I Love Lucy.
A little more to go on:
Real estate agent Courteney Cox is divorced and attempting to get back into the dating scene with the help of best friend Christa Miller (The Drew Carey Show, Scrubs) and sassy assistant Busy Phillips.

Premise: D
Lead Actors: B-
Supporting Cast: C+ (We’ve liked Busy Phillips since her days on Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks)
Writing: D
Overall D+

Cox’s character has a lot going on. She’s raising a son, dealing with her deadbeat ex-, feuding with a cradle-robbing neighbor, and fumbling through relationships with various boy-toys. Unfortunately, none of this is very funny. Cox and Miller (what the hell’d she do to her lips, by the way?) are both good comedic actresses but can’t sustain this frenetically paced vehicle.

Melrose Place

What it is:
One of the most popular night time soaps of the 90s revamped, with a few original cast members thrown in for good measure.
A little more to go on:
You’ve got a lot of the stereotypical characters here. A hot, bitchy manipulator (Katie Cassidy’s Ella), a sensitive artist (Michael Rady’s Jonah), the bad boy (Shaun Sipos’ David), dark, brooding, mysterious guy (Colin Egglesfield’s Auggie), and a seemingly sweet but possibly psycho chick (Ashlee Simpson’s Violet.) Lucky for us the show’s producers learned a lesson from 90210 last year and jump-started this show by bringing back 1st-gen Melrose characters Sydney, Jane and Michael.

Premise: B (with the underrstanding that simply updating a hit show from 15 years ago is incredibly lazy and unoriginal.)
Lead Actors: B
Supporting Cast: B
Writing: C+
Overall: C+

The “who killed Sydney” storyline holds your interest, as does the med student by day, hooker by night character played by Stephanie Jacobsen. The return of Heather Locklear as Amanda Woodward could really see this show take off. Still, all in all, not bad for what it is.

September 30, 2009

Remembering James Dean

Fifty four years ago today... Wait, that makes no sense. Those two things are mutually exclusive. If it was "54 years" ago, then it can't be "today"...

On September 30, fifty four years ago, James Dean died in car accident. Dean was many things: a gifted artist and pioneering "method" actor, the country's first "young" movie star, idol to a generation of America's youth, the personification of teen angst and rebellion, enduring hero of the 1950s...

Above all else though, Dean was a multifaceted, multi-talented, complex personality who could have become many things. It was only through a specific combination of talent and ability, desire and focus, and hard work and happenstance that he became a timeless icon and one of the most famous figures in American pop culture.

Much has been written about him but here are ten things most don't know about James Dean:

  • Dean grew up in Fairmount, Indiana, a small town that stakes claim to being the birthplace of both the hamburger and the ice cream cone, as well as the ancestral home of Wilbur and Orville Wright, inventors of the airplane.
  • In addition to acting, Dean also had a knack for drawing and painting. He also wrote poetry. Frustrated by the limitations and close-mindedness of the small midwestern town he grew up in, he composed the following:

My town likes industrial impotence
My town's small, loves its diffidence
My town thrives on dangerous bigotry
My town's big in the sense of idolatry
My town believes in God and his crew
My town hates the Catholic and Jew
My town's innocent, selfistic caper
My town's diligent, reads the newspaper
My town's sweet, I was born bare
My town is not what I am, I am here

  • After moving to New York, Dean's first "big break" was in the 1952 Broadway show See the Jaguar, which opened and closed in only four days.

  • While living in New York, Dean's struggling actor friends and contemporaries included the then equally unknown Martin Landau, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen, all of whom Dean competed with at casting calls.

  • Also while living in New York, Dean shared an apartment with his good friend Dizzy Sheridan, best known for her role as Jerry's mother on the sitcom Seinfeld.

  • Dean had starring roles in only three films, each time portraying a character that (like him) had one syllable in both their first and last names -- "Cal Trask" in East of Eden, "Jim Stark" in Rebel Without a Cause and "Jett Rink" in Giant.

  • In the early 50s, Dean dated and fell in love with Pier Angeli, an Italian actress he met on the set of East of Eden. Angeli eventually wound up marrying singer Vic Damone, and on the day of their wedding, a dismayed Dean sat outside the church on his motorcycle and gunned the engine as the bride and groom emerged. Years later, Angeli confessed that Dean was the only man she ever really loved.

  • Dean had a premature "aged" look when he died. For the movie Giant, he had shaved his head to create a receding hairline look for his scenes as the older Jett Rink.

  • Foreshadowing Dean's tragic death, in the original script for Rebel Without a Cause, when Jim Stark runs out of the house to show that he removed the bullets from Plato's gun, the police shoot and kill him.

  • The cover art of the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, purposelly recreates the setting and pose of this famous photograph of Dean.

Finally, here's a 20/20 news story from many years ago that does a nice job of recounting Dean's life and legacy.

September 22, 2009

Cougar Time!

Over the last several years, pop culture has been enamored with cougars. And no, we're not talking about Snaggle-Puss, the anthropomorphic, well-dressed but slightly effeminate mountain lion that's always exiting stage left. We're talking about sexy older women in pursuit of younger men. To my point, there's tons of blogs and websites (of varying ilks) dedicated to the appreciation of cougars, and we've also seen several cougar-related characters and storylines in recent TV shows and movies. Among our favorites: Izabella Scorupco as Paige in the straight to DVD movie Cougar Club; Famke Jansen as Ava, who seduces Sean's son on Nip Tuck; Susan Blakely as self-help expert Angie, who sexes up Charlie Sheen on Two and Half Men; and of course Susan Lucci as Erica Kane, who has an affair with her daughter's ex-husband on All My Children.

Reality TV has also embraced the cougar. There was the Bachelor-knock off Age of Love, featuring a group of cougars competing for the affections of a younger man, and The Cougar, with a group of younger men vying for a 40 year old woman.

And ABC is just about to premiere its new fall series,
Cougar Town, starring Courteney Cox as a fortysomething divorcee trying to get back in the dating scene. By the way, it wasn't always "Courteney" (with an extra "e") was it? Didn't it used to be just plain old "Courtney"? We'll have to go back and watch the opening of Friends. Don't you love how these celebrities just decide mid-stream in their careers to correct the spelling or pronunciation of their names? Remember when Demi Moore was "DEM-ee"? Now it's pronounced "De-MEE". Or Terrell Owens. It was "Ter-REL", now it's "TER-el". WTF, just tell us this stuff from the start people...

Where were we?... Oh yeah, cougars... To wrap things up, here's our favorite cougar-related TV commercial. Cougars and Tacos?... Sounds good to us... (
Click here for a link to the commercial. If it doesn't play automatically, it should download and you can open with your browser.)

September 16, 2009

Commercials We Love - "You Will"

This 1993 commercial (narrated by Tom Selleck) always seemed kind of vague, even cryptic, to me. Now of course, it all makes perfect sense and it's obvious that a lot of what AT&T was referring to was the development of its wireless cellular network infrastructure and the technologies that were greatly advanced as a result. Unfortunately, by the time all of these technologies were finally realized and became available to the everyman for everyday use, this commercial and the others in the series were long forgotten.

What AT&T needs to do is a followup. Something like this:

"Hey, remember all that cool shit that guy from Magnum P.I. told you about back in the nineties? Well you can do all that stuff now... Oh and by the way, guess who made that possible?... That's right, US... AT&T!... IN YOUR FACE VERIZON!... So all you ungrateful little bastards need to quit bitching about dropped calls and get down on your knees and start kissing our blue and white asses!"

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