The Challenge Hall of Fame: Laurel Stucky

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.

Laurel Stucky is the Wonder Woman of The Challenge. She’s imposing, elegant in appearance, and she easily pushes around most other competitors. For a long time she remained undefeated in eliminations (her current record is 9-2), and she holds the record for most consecutive elimination victories by a woman. Laurel is the last person anyone wants to face one-on-one.

Despite her impressive ability to remain in the game – reaching three final challenges in a row – Laurel’s only win is Free Agents. That’s understandable, considering the obstacles in her way during those first three seasons. On Fresh Meat II Landon Lueck became an unstoppable force during the final, Laurel’s team imploded on Cutthroat, and the Rivals winners were Evelyn Smith and Paula Meronek, one of the better duos in the show’s history.

All of those second place finishes prepared Laurel for Free Agents. She defeated Aneesa Ferreira in a straight-up physical elimination, won the last puzzle elimination, and ran the politics of the house with Jordan Wiseley. It’s fitting, considering Laurel and Jordan are so much alike. They’re both dominating players who don’t hold their tongues. They believe in playing a straight up game and are quick to call people out, including and especially people on their own teams. During the Free Agents season Laurel learned that Theresa Gonzalez tricked other competitors into an elimination vote (while keeping the blood off her own hands), so Laurel adjusted her game to target Theresa. She can be arrogant and even mean spirited, but Laurel doesn’t tolerate snakes.

Laurel’s long anticipated return on Invasion of the Champions showed she still had a robot-like drive to destroy anything in her way. Then Camila Nakagawa shocked everyone by sending Laurel home in the final elimination, a rope tangling contest that involved strategy and stamina. It’s a well-deserved win for Camilla. Conversely, Laurel’s exit from War of the Worlds 2 is shameful. The controversial elimination ended with “Ninja” Natalie Duran winning even though T. J. Lavin had already sounded the airhorn. I’m not trying to take anything away from Ninja, but the producers should have reset the game to allow a fair conclusion. The competitors and the viewers deserve better.

Though she hasn’t seen much recent success, it’s always safe to bet on Laurel. Odds are good she’ll win her eliminations and verbally decimate those who oppose her. She’s great TV, and she’s possibly the one female competitor I’m most excited to see on the cast list when a new season is announced.

Posted in The Challenge Hall of Fame, TV | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

TV Review: Cobra Kai (Seasons 1 – 3)

Cobra Kai is not prestige TV. It’s not a show you must watch. Its heavy handed in its use of flashbacks, it gets sillier over time, and in reality most of the characters would be arrested for assault or attempted murder. Still, I watched three seasons of Cobra Kai in a little over a week. I don’t normally binge watch TV, but the ongoing struggles of Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and his new karate kids sucked me right in.

Most attempts at resurrecting old franchises are all about the cash grab, but the creators of Cobra Kai are fans first. Respect is shown for the Karate Kid movies (with plenty of callbacks), while old characters feel new due to the changes in their lives and attitudes. Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) are great frenemies, and watching them sing along to REO Speedwagon is something I never knew I wanted. The young cast is a fun group, and it’s a good sign that I want both Miguel and Robbie – combatants fighting over the same girl – to do well in their fighting tournament.

I’m glad William Zabka has been given a chance to redeem his karate character. Johnny Lawrence is a man stuck in the 80s, and it’s funny to see him trying to figure out Facebook messenger and modern dating. It’s even better to see his realization that preaching “no mercy” to hormonal teenagers is not too wise. He adapts his thinking, teaching his kids to kick ass while remaining honorable. Yeah, I can get behind that message.

Posted in TV, TV Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Harlan Ellison – A Boy and His Dog

I played Fallout 3 long before reading A Boy and His Dog, so picking up Harlan Ellison’s novella for the first time in 2018 felt unsettlingly familiar. The story takes place in a war-ravaged America that’s inhabited by roving gangs of street toughs and telepathic dogs. “Normal” people live in underground bunkers that resemble idyllic, virginal small towns.

Vic and his dog Blood are a bonded pair, but that’s threatened when a girl escapes from her bunker only to lure Vic back to it. Vic lacks morals, the story is bleak, and the setting is a nightmare. And I see why the creators of Fallout loved it. A Boy and His Dog combines the casual violence of A Clockwork Orange with video game-like action and some audacious humor. When an older woman in the bunker shows interest in Vic, he responds by commenting on her obvious horniness, because he knows her husband isn’t doing anything for her.

It’s strange that a story that involves rape and cannibalism can be an enjoyable, quick read, but Vic’s voice is young and naïve enough to pull it off. He’s not a narrator that’s been beaten down by life (unlike the narrator of Ellison’s story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”); he’s a dumb kid that’s still figuring out his place in the bombed-out world. I haven’t read any of the other Vic and Blood stories yet, but if I had a telepathic dog he would tell me to hurry my ass up and get to readin’.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Challenge Hall of Fame: Chris “CT” Tamburello

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.

CT must be the most dynamic player in the history of The Challenge. He’s grown from being a physically fit hothead with no political prowess to a manipulator with puzzle skills, and now he’s a rotund veteran who regularly destroys younger competitors in both physical and mental competitions. It’s simply amazing that CT had trouble winning early seasons of the show due to anger issues (and weak teammates), but now that winning is extremely difficult, he achieves victories due to his freakish physical abilities and keen mind.

There are so many powerhouse CT moments that can be highlighted, so I’ll mention a few. First there’s the classic Bananas backpack moment on Cutthroat, when CT stomped like a Transformer with a helpless Bananas hanging on his back. He choo-choo’d through both Bananas and Tyler Duckworth on Rivals, sending them flying through the air with one charging blow. There’s also the wrecking wall elimination on Free Agents, when he punched through drywall so quickly that slow motion is required to fully appreciate his win over Leroy. But my favorite has to be the “flying leap” daily challenge on The Duel, which featured two platforms raised over water and separated by a considerable gap. Other competitors leapt forward and sprawled out on their chests, like baseball players diving for home. CT, and CT alone, hopped across the platforms as easily as a kid playing hopscotch, landing on both feet. Go back and watch that episode.

I won’t make a list of CT’s puzzle achievements, but suffice to say CT crushed every puzzle put before him on the most recent season, Double Agents. The producers tried to give other teams a chance to catch up to CT and Amber Borzotra, but those teams never stood a chance. Also, let’s not forget the guy dominates eating challenges, whether it’s drinking down fish soup or chugging blood like a parched Viking (see photo above).

There’s so much more about CT I could mention. His relationship with Diem Brown, specifically on The Duel, is reality TV gold. He’s a proud papa now and has the bod to prove it. But let’s wrap this up. As of now he’s tied for most final challenge appearances alongside Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio and Cara Maria Sorbello, and given the choice, I’d rather watch CT’s story continue than either of those two. Back in 2016 I wrote, “Love him or hate him, CT is The Challenge.” I stand by that statement.

Posted in The Challenge Hall of Fame, TV | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Video Game Review: Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3

I thought I knew a thing or two about Super Mario platforming. I’ve played all the greatest hits, from the original Super Mario Bros. to Yoshi’s Island. But somehow Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 always eluded me. Sincerely, why didn’t anyone ever tell me how good this game is? It’s much better than Super Mario Land and is likely superior to Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins. Finally, after years of injustice, I bought the game and a Game Boy from GameChanger Mods so I could pillage and plunder as the dastardly Wario.

There’re a few things that make Wario Land interesting. Wario is a Gordon Gekko type gobbling up coins so he can build himself a new castle (unlike Mario, who is always “saving” a princess who clearly wants some space). Valuable treasures are cleverly hidden in certain levels, so exploration through backtracking is essential and much different from other, more linear Mario games. Finally, it’s just fun to play as the bullish Wario. Knocking down creatures, grabbing them up, and flinging them across the screen is always satisfying.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but Wario Land occasionally challenged my skills, and a couple boss battles left me wondering how to defeat them. That’s not a bad thing; on the contrary, I appreciate the tension of running low on lives.

I’d recommend Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 to any Mario fan, which is pretty much everyone in the world. I loved having a reason to play my new chunky Game Boy, and the game is excellent, so I didn’t miss the lack of color at all. I know I’m very late to the party, but now I know how good it is to be bad. And fat. Wario is a pudge.

Posted in Video Game Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Music Review: Sloppy Meateaters – Forbidden Meat

This review was originally posted on absolutepunk.net July 25, 2007. The album is still good, “So Long” remains great, and the female voice at the start of that song comes from John Carpenter’s horror film Christine.

If you dislike nasal vocalists like Tom DeLonge of blink 182 and Jordan Pundik of New Found Glory, stop reading right now, because you probably won’t appreciate Josh Chambers. Chambers is the vocalist/guitarist of the Sloppy Meateaters, a band out of Rome, GA that has flown quietly under mainstream radar and organized multiple DIY tours since its formation back in 1999. Chambers, along with bassist John Elwell and drummer Kevin Highfield, originally released Forbidden Meat in 2001. Now, more than five years later, the album holds strong as a treat for unabashed pop punk fans who prefer their singers complete with falsetto.

To re-establish how high Chambers’ vocals can get, one must look no further than the album’s second track, “Impossible.” He absolutely lets his voice fly during choruses, and it’s a fitting song to test whether or not the band will go over well with the listener. The following track, “Lonely Day,” is the catchiest of the album. With better production and more creative lyrics during choruses, “Lonely Day” sounds like a single that would click with high school kids across the country.

One of the most welcome surprises of Forbidden Meat is found on the track “Suddenly Forget”: Sloppy Meateaters have a bassist who actually does something besides stand on the sidelines with simple backing bass lines. Elwell picks up the slack from the lack of a second guitarist by controlling the rhythm alongside Highfield and even providing some solos. On that note, the band compliment each other very well as a three piece, and serve as a nostalgic reminder of blink 182’s early years.

Slowing things down to describe an inner struggle against apathy is “Give Me Something.” The song meanders until it finds direction in its interlude, and Chambers finds a simple, yet perfect way to describe his callousness – ‘Can life feel any better? / Can life feel any better? / I can’t feel anything.’ He quickly finds emotion again though with the bitter track “Things Are Gonna Change.” Chambers is full of hostility and comes out swinging as he sings, ‘Suppose you were half human and you thought with a brain / Suppose you heard the news that things are gonna change.’ He also expresses his frustration with religion on “Talkin About Jesus,” though it’s less a valid argument and more an adolescent rebellion against established power.

Though the songs leading up to it are good, even great, “So Long” trounces anything else on the album. A soft female voice claiming, “God, I hate rock and roll” begins the song, a ballad that could only have been crafted by a complicated young man. “So Long” is a letter of loving assurance to the unnamed female, and when that route fails, Chambers retorts, ‘Face it, you’re stuck with me / And all thirty / Personalities.’ It may be sappy, but it sounds sincere enough to be wonderful.

A central theme of Forbidden Meat is hopeful dreaming. Chambers passionately denies the trappings of a normal life and chooses to live by his lofty ambitions instead. At one point he seems to be pleading directly to the listener as he sings the lyric, ‘Can you see my face in lights?’ Sloppy Meateaters may not have received the success Josh Chambers always dreamed about, but Forbidden Meat is the kind of angst-filled, emotionally complex, and all together endearing album any up and coming band can take pride in.

Posted in Music, Music Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Top Ten: Podcasts

At some point in the last five years I started listening to podcasts more than I listen to music. It began with Serial (more on that below), and then I tried a variety of genres before solidifying my subscriptions. There are some I used to listen to that are now defunct (Why Oh Why and A Cast of Kings), and there are some mini-series I’d recommend (S-Town and The Dropout). The list below is narrowed down to ten, but I also subscribe to WTF with Marc Maron, ChallengeMania, and On the Line (they’re good, just not my favorites).

With that out of the way, here are my favorite podcasts, ranked from good to better.

10. Lore

Monsters, ghouls, aliens, they all fascinate me. Start telling a scary story and I’m all ears. Host Aaron Mahnke gleams history to find the most interesting stories to capture and disturb his listeners, and he’s an excellent storyteller. He’s the trusted voice speaking over the campfire assuring you this really happened. And if it didn’t happen, wouldn’t it be crazy cool if it did?

Listen to: “Episode 137: Elusive,” a retelling of the Kelly–Hopkinsville encounter when aliens invaded a farm in 1955 rural America.

09. Serial

With its first season Serial introduced thousands of people to the world of podcasts. The murder of Hae Min Lee revealed cracks in the criminal justice system and launched dozens of true crime podcasts. Seasons two and three didn’t recapture that same magic, but not every hit can be a grand slam. I would like to hear more of Sarah Koenig’s long-form reporting, so hopefully 2021 brings about a new season. At least for now we have Nice White Parents.

Listen to: “Episode 01: The Alibi,” the one that started it all.

08. Embedded

Embedded is the wild card of my podcast feed. I never know when a new episode will pop up, and I’m unsure what the topic will be. Kelly McEvers’ NPR podcast drills down on a recent news item and clarifies the “why” and “how” of it all. It’s the opposite of a news headline. Episodes are about a half hour, which makes them long enough to be educational and short enough to not overstay their welcome. Donald Trump, police action, Mitch McConnell, and coal mining have all been covered.

Listen to: “There Is No Playbook,” when a flashflood in Maryland portends the future of calamitous weather.

07. Love + Radio

Years back I googled “best podcasts” and the Love + Radio episode “The Silver Dollar” popped up on a few lists. It’s an amazing episode, and Love + Radio is one of the most interesting listening experiences out there. There are stories of gender bending, Howard Hughes, a guy who loves dolls, dark secrets, and a successful humiliatrix. Now that I write out some of the episode topics, I’m thinking I should have called Love + Radio the wild card of my podcast feed. Unfortunately, I don’t listen to this podcast regularly because it’s behind the Luminary paywall, but I’m glad host Nick van der Kolk is getting paid.

Listen to: “The Living Room,” the story of a voyeur’s affectionate relationship with her young neighbors.

06. The Bill Simmons Podcast

Bill Simmons is one of the pioneers of podcasting, and it shows. His Ringer podcast network is a powerful content machine and Spotify paid big for it. The Bill Simmons Podcast isn’t the best the network has to offer (spoiler alert), but it’s an enjoyable listen. Though high-profile guests include A-list actors and legendary athletes, cousin Sal is my favorite, and it’s fun to hear him and Simmons rant about their kids on “Parent Corner.” With The Bill Simmons Podcast you get sports talk, technology, politics, TV, just a smorgasbord of good listening material.

Listen to: “Matt Damon on Rounders, Good Will Hunting, and ’90s Hollywood,” and hear one of today’s most popular actors talk about the struggle of breaking into the business.

05. Stuff You Missed in History Class

Hosts Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson are doing such good work with Stuff You Missed in History Class. Every week they research and present stories and biographies about everything from medieval battles to feminist icons. Not every episode is a must listen for me, but the podcast delivers some excellent content. The hosts make a deliberate effort to shine light on history that is too often ignored (women and oppressed people included), and Holly and Tracy are empathetic and enthusiastic – two qualities of good teachers. Do you remember the Tulsa race massacre? History books may gloss over it, but Stuff You Missed in History Class doesn’t.

Listen to: “Wendell Scott: Black NASCAR Driver in the Jim Crow Era, Part 1 and Part 2,” and yes I am cheating by recommending two episodes, because Wendell Scott’s story is amazing.

04. Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend

This is the only podcast I can say I’ve been listening to since the beginning. Conan is one of my favorite people in Hollywood, so of course I had to give his podcast a try. Similar to Bill Simmons, Conan brings in some A-list guests to interview (like Michelle Obama and Bob Newhart), but the best parts of the episodes are his banter with assistant Sona Movsesian and producer Matt Gourley. They argue like family and it’s funny as hell. Coco is here to conquer the podcast industry like an oil magnate would, and I’m here for it.

Listen to: “A Very Special Self-Quarantine Episode featuring Andy Daly,” ‘cause the coronavirus is a wily trickster only Andy Daly can kill.

03. Planet Money

I performed poorly during my macroeconomics class (or was it micro?), so I’m surprised at how much I like Planet Money. NPR’s economics podcast is smart, funny, short, and easily digestible. Similar to Last Week Tonight, Planet Money regularly reveals issues I’m ignorant of, and once I’m educated I have to wonder how things could go so wrong or so weird. From the economy of rap beats to chicken taxes, there’s no shortage of topics this podcast covers. Money rules the world, and Planet Money sorts out the details.

Listen to: “Small America vs. Big Internet,” because damn the man.

02. This American Life

This radio show has been in operation since the ‘90s. Every week creator/host Ira Glass and a talented stable of journalists present stories based around a central theme. The themes include break-ups, political campaigning, adoption, car salesmen, quarantine stories, and hundreds more. Sometimes one story occupies the entire hour-long episode, and those episodes are often the most impactful. No other podcast I’ve listened to runs the gamut from humorous to educational to heartbreaking. People are fascinating creatures, and This American Life proves it again and again.

Listen to: “Petty Tyrant,” a story of a maintenance man who becomes too powerful.

01. The Rewatchables

The Rewatchables isn’t changing the world or winning awards like some podcasts on this list, but I look forward to this podcast more than any other. Here’s the hook – The Ringer’s Bill Simmons and friends discuss movies they’ve watched, rewatched, and watched again. They break the movies into categories like “Who won the movie?” and the “’She’s got a great ass!’” award for overacting. The movies discussed are not always the greatest movies ever made (some are complete garbage), but the conversations are always fun to listen to, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to join in with my own comments. The Rewatchables hosts take the bad movies seriously, and they illuminate what makes the best movies unforgettable.

Listen to: “Good Will Hunting,” as if you need a reason to rewatch the best movie ever.

Posted in Top Ten | Tagged , | Leave a comment

TV Review: The Good Place

Saying goodbye to The Good Place feels a bit like saying goodbye to NBC’s must-see TV. I know Seinfeld, Friends, and even The Office have been gone for years, but The Good Place held the flickering torch of NBC prestige comedy. Maybe it’s fitting that Michael Schur’s comedy series is all about death and the afterlife.

I know I just compared The Good Place to classic comedies, but I wouldn’t rank it amongst the funniest shows ever made. That’s not a bad thing, at least not for me. It’s a “comedy” because it’s a half-hour long and contains humor, and it’s not drab enough to be a drama. More than anything, The Good Place examines the biggest questions – what happens after we die, why is being “good” important – in a fun and poignant way.

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) and her mismatched friends are all dead, but they find the afterlife is as complex and unorganized as regular life. The cast is strong, and it includes the gem Ted Danson, who apparently can’t stay away from seminal comedies. One of my only complaints is I would have liked to see more of Adam Scott, who plays a demon that’s basically the worst dude you ever met at a party. The demons really are one of the best parts of the show. Their childlike enthusiasm for penis flattening is almost heartwarming.

The Good Place isn’t overflowing with standout episodes (with one big exception I’ll talk about in a bit). Again, that might sound like a knock against it, but it’s not, because the series is greater than the sum of its parts. With some comedies it’s easy to pop back to favorite episodes, but this show isn’t built that way. This story is best experienced as a whole, more akin to a novel than a TV series with long season breaks. There’s a reason individual episodes are labeled as “chapters.”

I haven’t said much about the plot of The Good Place, and I won’t. It’s a special, winding journey that culminates in one of the best TV finales I can remember. Really, for as good as the show is, I didn’t expect it to end so perfectly. It offers closure while retaining a great mystery, the greatest of all. Future TV writers should take note.

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a certain kind of dread regarding death and eternity. The Good Place acknowledges this when Eleanor says, “Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” Flipping a negative into a positive is what this show is all about. It’s lovely that way.

Posted in TV, TV Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment