The Challenge Hall of Fame: Dan Setzler

To succeed on The Challenge a competitor must be smart, strong, politically savvy, or at the very least, lucky. Most competitors are average talents, and an unfortunate few perform poorly enough to earn a dubious honor (enter the Hall of Shame). But these competitors, the Hall of Fame class, have conquered The Challenge in one form or another, and they all share the most important quality: they know how to win.

Dan Setzler is perhaps the most unassuming leader The Challenge has ever seen. He’s got a runner’s frame, he’s drama-free, and he’s never chased camera time. Even if he would be out of place with the current generation of challengers, people rallied around Dan, and for good reason.

Challenge 2000, Dan’s introduction to the series, didn’t feature any eliminations and felt more like a Road Rules season with the Real World and Road Rules teams competing out of their own RVs. Dan became the de facto head of the Road Rules team, and they trounced the Real World team throughout Challenge 2000 and won the final. It’s somewhat surprising that Dan even made it past elimination on his next season, Battle of the Seasons. His partner Tara McDaniel was an average if not below-average competitor in most regards, but Dan used positive encouragement to get the best performance out of her (similar to Landon Lueck’s treatment of Carley Johnson on Fresh Meat II). Dan’s best moment of the season came in an early episode when he stood against the dominant alliance and voted off Chadwick Pelletier. Chadwick instigated a voting system in which the top three teams eliminated any team threatening to break into the top three, and Dan used the same system against a bitter Chadwick. Poetic justice rarely pays off so well on The Challenge.

Dan’s last season, Battle of the Sexes II, is his most impressive. Dan outlasted legends like Abram Boise, Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, and Brad Fiorenza in a truly stacked cast of male challengers. Though the voting did come down to popularity and politics in some cases, Dan played a nearly flawless game, avoiding disqualifications and helping the men win just about every single daily challenge. During the final Dan took charge of the GPS and helped navigate his team to victory, leading from the front once again.

All told Dan competed in three seasons, won two, and never felt the sensation of leaving a game early. Dan’s role in Challenge history is mostly forgotten now, but it shouldn’t be. He represents a fun era of The Challenge, and he proved that good guys can finish first.

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Treasured Track: Foo Fighters – “Everlong”

Our favorite songs are timeless. Even with years separating us from the last time we heard them, these songs call us back to bygone eras of our lives. Some of them helped us through heart wrenching breakups while others remind us of late nights spent with best friends. In this feature I reflect on the tracks that I’ve obsessed over in the past and always welcome back to my headphones in the present.

Once someone asked me what my favorite song was. I thought it over before answering “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters. This was about fifteen years ago, and although I don’t have a single favorite song now (more like dozens or hundreds of them), I still like that answer.

The dreamy guitar riff that introduces “Everlong” is simple and unforgettable. It’s so simple a novice guitarist can learn it and play it back within minutes, but that doesn’t take anything away from it. Likewise, the introductory lyrics are not complex, but Dave Grohl delivers them with a smooth kind of conviction: “Hello. / I’ve waited here for you… / Everlong.” By this point in the song the dreamy guitar has been met by a second distorted guitar that somehow doesn’t sound dated (with “Everlong” being released in 1997) and drumming that’s never too far away from excitable drumrolls. I suspect “Everlong” wouldn’t be half as good as it is if not for the bridge which abruptly reintroduces the opening riff backed by Grohl’s mysterious whisperings.

I was surprised to find the song’s runtime is over four minutes. Really, “Everlong” is so good it always seems like it ends too soon. It wouldn’t feel right to call “Everlong” a love song, but it’s passionate and sincere, and it still rocks. Grohl didn’t have to pen a soft ballad to work through his emotions; that being said I’ve always preferred the full band version to acoustic renditions. “Everlong” is best when washing over you with full force.

Side note: I liked watching AMV videos years back (they’re anime clips spliced together with popular music), and the Tenchi “Everlong” video is one of the best. It inspired me to watch the Tenchi anime recently – I recommend doing the same if you like weird, funny anime.

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TV Review: Beast Wars: Transformers

I loved many cartoons when I was a kid. Spider-Man, TMNT, X-Men, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, Ducktales, Recess, and the list goes on. There was no other feeling in the world like waking up on Saturday and being excited to have some cereal and absorb quality animation. I loved many, but there was only one that I awoke before dawn to watch – Beast Wars: Transformers. Don’t ask me why, but Fox pushed Beast Wars to an early morning slot (5:30am or 6:00am), television purgatory. I’ve never been a morning person, so the fact that pre-teen Adrian set an alarm on the weekend (much earlier than his normal wake-up time for school) just to watch a half-hour cartoon speaks volumes.

Beast Wars begins with the Maximals and Predicons, descendants of the Autobots and Decepticons, respectively, crash landing on an uninhabited planet. Rather than transforming into vehicles, the Maximals and Predicons adopt beast modes ranging from a rhino to a pterodactyl. The two sides spend the series fighting for survival, and eventually, for the future of the universe. The full CGI animation was groundbreaking for the time, even if it looks dated today. But creators Bob Forward and Larry DiTillio never used the cutting edge animation as a crutch for storytelling. Not only did Beast Wars reinvigorate the Transformers mythology, it introduced us to distinct and interesting characters.

Within the first few episodes we see the smallest, mouthiest Maximal Rattrap openly disrespecting his leader Optimus Primal, at one point calling him a “chicken.” The youngest and most impulsive Maximal, Cheetor, regularly disobeys orders. And about half of the Predacons openly express their desire to overthrow Megatron and take control of their side. These conflicts help the characters feel real, with individual personalities, histories, and agendas. As an inexperienced battle commander, Optimus must earn respect from his crew, and he sums himself up in the pilot episode: “I will not give an order I would not be willing to do myself.” In a later episode he leaps headlong from an exploding island, and when Rattrap calls him crazy, Optimus responds, “Eh, sometimes crazy works.” He really does live up to the Prime name. But the stand out character would probably have to be Dinobot. He is a Predicon who joins the Maximals in their battle against Megatron, and he is Shakespearean in his desire to retain his honor while fighting for the winning side.

There’s a lot to like when watching Beast Wars. Many of the beast and robot forms still look super cool (like the half wolf, half eagle Silverbolt). The voice acting is excellent. The direction is better than I remember, with the camera emphasizing the action and violence of war as well as the natural world. Whereas Spidey couldn’t even throw a punch in his 90s TV series (due to silly restrictions), the transformers are shot, blown up, and some are ultimately destroyed in important episodes. I won’t spoil anything here, but the setting is also an integral character. Even with their advanced technology, the transformers are perplexed by the mysteries of their new planet, including alien constructs that defy gravity and foreshadow an even greater threat.

Sadly, the overall quality declines after season one. Season one is the longest season, which gives it room to breathe and develop its characters gradually. Season two is still good, while the truncated final season and its big climax feel rushed. Worse still, the sequel series Beast Machines is a huge disappointment. But none of that takes away from the fun and excitement to be found on Beast Wars: Megatron spending time in a rejuvenation hottub with his rubber ducky; Rattrap constantly bickering with Dinobot; a gorilla flying on a hoverboard; infamous Decepticons returning to the battlefield. Sincerely, Beast Wars is the best. I just wish I hadn’t lost my transforming toys years ago. Well, that’s just prime.

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Movie Review: A Star Is Born (2018)

I didn’t think I would write about A Star Is Born, but two factors inspired me: for some reason the Academy largely dismissed it, and Bradley Cooper’s direction and musical ability are both much more impressive than I expected them to be. Actually, both Cooper and Lady Gaga are surprising. Cooper legitimately sells his performance as a damaged, albeit talented musician, while Gaga’s acting chops are never in question. The two make a great pairing, and their chemistry is undeniable.

A Star Is Born hooked me as soon as the two leads started hanging out, with Jackson (Cooper) drunkenly hitting on Ally (Gaga). The high point of the movie comes soon after, when Ally joins Jackson onstage for an impromptu performance of their first song together, “Shallow.” I’ve re-watched the scene a few times since watching the movie, and I’m sure I’ll return to it again. The first half of the movie is excellent, and the only real weak point in the second half is the introduction of a music producer who seems less like a character and more like a cardboard cutout designed to introduce conflict. Also, Sam Elliot deserves special mention for his role as Jackson’s brother/manager; his conflicts and eventual resolution with Jackson are some of the most compelling moments of the movie.

A Star Is Born works as both a music picture and a romance. It may be a remake of a remake, but it feels fresh thanks to its two charismatic leads. I don’t know why or how Bohemian Rhapsody stole the spotlight that A Star Is Born should be occupying. No matter, because movie and music fans are both lucky that Cooper and Gaga jumped off the deep end and let us watch as they dove in.

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Treasured Track: Bruce Springsteen – “Hungry Heart”

Our favorite songs are timeless. Even with years separating us from the last time we heard them, these songs call us back to bygone eras of our lives. Some of them helped us through heart wrenching breakups while others remind us of late nights spent with best friends. In this feature I reflect on the tracks that I’ve obsessed over in the past and always welcome back to my headphones in the present.

“Hungry Heart” is the first song I ever sang at karaoke (shout out to DJ Milo Spriggs at The Froggy Dog), and I’ll always love it for that alone. It’s upbeat as hell with its keyboard foundation and Bruce shouting out encouragement to the audience, but it’s also the story of a man who’s abandoned his family. I’m struggling to think of another fun pop rock song that begins with a line as shocking as, “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack. / I went out for a ride and I never went back.”

Even with that, “Hungry Heart” is undeniably appealing. It’s a song begging to be sung along to, joyous in tone if not in context. And even if the narrator has done something despicable, one thing he isn’t guilty of is speaking untruths. Even the most cynical person would find it hard to deny the final verse, spoken in common language without any pretense: “Everybody needs a place to rest, / Everybody wants to have a home. / Don’t make no difference what nobody says, / Ain’t nobody like to be alone.”

Coincidently, today while listening to This American Life I heard about how babies raised in orphanages without any kind of love would simply die. “Hungry Heart” begins by introducing us to a terrible husband/father, and it ends by reaffirming our need find to a connection in life that helps us feel fulfilled. We can distrust the man while appreciating the message. You’re a master, Bruce.

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Music Review: Wild Sweet Orange – We Have Cause to Be Uneasy

Wild Sweet Orange didn’t release much music before calling it quits, but we should be thankful for their one full-length album We Have Cause to Be Uneasy. The band reminds me of Manchester Orchestra in that Wild Sweet Orange did everything right the first time around, creating a fantastic album on their first try.

We Have Cause to Be Uneasy follows a pattern of using twangy guitar to convey a sense of timidity before the band unleashes a storm to accentuate Preston Lovinggood’s singing/shouting. “Seeing and Believing,” a stand out track, is a perfect example of this. It’s a lovely song that begins with Preston reflecting on a doomed relationship before the ending explodes with Preston singing, “So I pray / For a song on its way / To take shape and replace our shame.”

Some tracks embrace the Nashville country roots of the band (“An Atlas to Follow”), but I’m all about the aforementioned storm. “Aretha’s Gold” lifts up the back half of the album, finding a more experimental sound with heavy reverb and Preston sounding more than a little frustrated as he sings, “Oh, but me, / I’m as dramatic as the thunder. / My lightning scares her, she rolls over. / Oh yeah, she needs to get some sleep.” I don’t know if Wild Sweet Orange will return to try another album (they’ve been broken up for years now); if they do, they have a high hill to climb to top their first one.

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