The Challenge Hall of Fame: Emily Schromm

The Challenge HOF- Emily Schromm

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.

Emily Schromm is a physical specimen. Most competitors participate in some kind of physical training before and during The Challenge, but fitness is Emily’s life. She grew up an athlete, and over the years she has only increased in strength and endurance. Aneesa Ferreira is built for eliminations, Paula Meronek is built for finals, and Emily is built for anything.

Emily defied expectations during her debut on Cutthroat, surviving the destruction of her team until only she and Jenn Grijalva were left to run the final. Unfortunately Emily didn’t win her rookie season, and she didn’t win Battle of the Exes with her partner Ty Ruff. But along the way Emily destroyed Paul twice in eliminations, and she treated Cara Maria like a ragdoll in X-Battle, winning one of their rounds in a matter of seconds.

Paula shouted with joy when she found out she had been paired with Emily for Rivals II, but both competitors were lucky to be bound together. The pair won more than half of the season’s challenges, avoiding elimination completely and winning the final. All told, Emily has been in five eliminations and won five times. She may lack the impressive puzzle solving skills of, say, a Sarah Rice, but Emily can easily outperform just about anybody she faces off against (male or female). Emily also won a season of Champs vs. Stars, but I’m hoping she returns to the main Challenge for one more season. She’s already proven herself time and again, so at this point she’d only be strengthening her own legend.

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

Best Eps: The Wonder Years – “Coda”

Best Eps- The Wonder Years

In this feature I take a look at one episode that marks a high point in a television series. It’s not necessarily the absolute best a series has to offer (that’s always debatable), but it’s an episode that remains lodged in memory long after I first watched it.

“When you’re a little kid, you’re a little bit of everything – artist, scientist, athlete, scholar. Sometimes it seems like growing up is a process of giving those things up, one by one.”

There will always be a special place in my childhood memories for The Wonder Years. I grew up with Kevin Arnold, faced the same adolescent challenges that he did, and when he struggled, I empathized. There are many Kevin Arnold moments I remember, but after re-watching the entire Wonder Years series a few years back, it’s “Coda” that stood out sharply. Like so many episodes of The Wonder Years, “Coda” has a tone of bittersweet nostalgia, and the episode begins and ends with a sunset representing the hobbies and passions lost along the path to adulthood.

When Kevin tries to quit his piano lessons, his teacher Mrs. Carples is not pleased. Mrs. Carples (played wonderfully by Maxine Stuart) is a chain-smoking, perceptive, honest, and supportive teacher who truly believes in Kevin’s innate musical ability. Kevin argues that he’ll never play the piano as perfectly as his robotic peer, Ronald Hirschmuller. Mrs. Carples scoffs at this, saying, “You have more talent in your little pinky than Ronald Hirschmuller has in his whole body.” More importantly, she teaches Kevin that music isn’t about competition, it’s about feeling the music and interpreting it in your own way.

So Kevin spends hours practicing for the annual piano recital, and Mrs. Carples proudly says he’s ready to play before an audience. But at the dress rehearsal Ronald plays the same song as Kevin, “Canon in D Major,” and he plays it perfectly. Kevin is up next, and he nervously begins his performance immediately after Ronald. He makes a mistake. And another. And another. Kevin’s confidence slips away, and he finally does quit the piano. He doesn’t perform in the piano recital, and he happily plays football with his friends instead.

I can’t overstate how much I love the writing on “Coda.” In simple words, the narrator – an older, wiser Kevin – speaks of regret in a profound way. Most people can immediately recall at least one opportunity or passion we abandoned for a variety of reasons, but life moves on no matter our regrets. Kevin reflects on this, and he speaks about it plainly while his younger self observes the piano recital from outside Mrs. Carples’ house as dusk falls.

“I remember the light glowing from Mrs. Carples’ window. And I remember the darkness falling as I sat out there on the street looking in. And now, more than twenty years later, I still remember every note of the music that wandered out into the still night air. The only thing is, I can’t remember how to play it anymore.”

Other Best Eps candidates: “Pilot,” “My Father’s Office,” “The Sixth Man”

Posted in Best Eps, TV | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Challenge Hall of Fame: Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio

The Challenge HOF: Johnny Bananas

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.

If you watched The Duel, the first Challenge season Johnny Bananas took part in, you might have guessed he was a one-and-done type of competitor. His Real World roommate Tyler pulled him into the initial elimination and sent young Johnny packing. There’s no shame in a rookie being sent home early their first go-round, but Johnny must have found the defeat motivating, because he performed well on his next Challenge, and he clawed his way to the top a couple seasons later on The Island.

My how far we’ve come. Johnny has competed in over a dozen seasons, he’s won six times (additionally he won a season of the spin-off Champs vs. Stars), and he’s earned almost $700,000. Johnny has lost more elimination rounds than he’s won, but when he makes it to a final, the odds are he’s taking home the gold. Also, two of the elimination rounds he’s won have been against CT. No one else can say he’s eliminated CT twice.

The key to Johnny’s success is his ability to “stir the pot” and draw viewers in with his personality and in-game moves. There’s a reason MTV keeps inviting this guy back: he makes for good TV. What’s most surprising is Johnny’s ability to win even after everyone in the house is well aware that he’s the guy to beat, that he’s the guy you don’t want to see in a final. Johnny plays the political game well, and his elevated status as the all-time champ makes others hesitate to rise up against him. Jordan Wiseley created an uprising against the champ on Free Agents, challenging Johnny to an elimination battle, after which Jordan found himself on the next plane home.

Though he’s hit a bit of a losing streak recently (some say he’s cursed because he took Sarah’s half of the money on Rivals III), it wouldn’t be safe to bet against the Banana man winning again.

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

Video Game Review: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I haven’t played a new Zelda game in years, but the overwhelming positive response to Breath of the Wild was too much for me to resist. I don’t care about the Nintendo Switch’s portability (I prefer using a TV screen), and I probably won’t buy more than a handful of games for the system, but boy does it feel good to be Link again.

The big draw of Breath of the Wild is the open world full of mountain peaks to climb and enemies to slay. But what really sells the world is its sense of history. There are desolate ruins that speak to the violent past of the beautiful land, and forgotten leviathan skeletons are wondrously alluring. There are plenty of shrines to uncover and conquer, and some of them – especially those involving riddles – provide a welcome challenge. Link’s essential abilities are available early in the game, so the player’s only limitations are lack of skill and imagination. I’m not necessarily skilled or imaginative, and I experienced satisfaction in returning to confront monsters that had once made me flee in fear.

Although most of the story is still delivered through text and Link remains woefully silent, Breath of the Wild also uses voice actors to flesh out the story and create bonds between Link and his allies. Zelda is more of a rounded character in this game; she’s idealistic, bratty, courageous, and hampered with self-doubt. Maybe someday Link will follow suit and be more than a mute hero.

At the time of this writing I haven’t yet completed Breath of the Wild, but I’m happy to say it feels like returning to Ocarina of Time on a grander scale. I do have minor quibbles with character pop-in and the short handful of dungeons. Overall though, Breath of the Wild is an incredible adventure, and it’s easy to see why Zelda fans fell in love with it.

Posted in Video Game Reviews | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Book Review: Richard Adams – Watership Down

Richard Adams - Watership Down

I owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Adams. I’m getting into my mid-30s, but reading Watership Down for the first time made me feel like the kid I used to be, the kid getting transported to vivid, imaginative worlds through books’ words.

The anthropomorphized rabbits of Watership Down are not on a grand adventure to recover a mystical jewel or defeat an ancient evil (this isn’t that kind of fantasy novel) – they are simply trying to survive. Even simple acts that humans take for granted, like crossing a stream, are overwhelmingly intimidating for rabbits who are journeying far beyond the only world they’ve known. But what is truly endearing about the lead characters, including Hazel, Bigwig, and Fiver, is their mutual dependence and appreciation for each other. Each rabbit has strengths, and these strengths are recognized and utilized by the group as a whole. Chief Rabbit Hazel empowers those around him and is careful to keep smaller, weaker rabbits from feeling less valuable. I didn’t expect an adventure story about rabbits to teach me lessons on leadership, but I’ll take what I can get.

Adams builds a rich world in Watership Down complete with folklore, mythos, and supernatural second sight abilities that lead to rewarding instances of foreshadowing (one rabbit even ruminates on the unconscious mind).  With all that being said, it would be a disservice to think of Adams’ work as a simple children’s book.  This book sunk its claws into me, and I read forward eagerly whilst remaining fearful that one or more of my favorite characters would meet a grim end.  I’m looking forward to re-reading Watership Down in a few years, and I’ve already bought the sequel Tales from Watership Down.  Bigwig forever.

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

Key Character: Leslie Knope

We all have favorite fictional characters. They can be inspirational, sagacious, heroic… or they can be relentless villains who are just so damn charismatic. In this feature I celebrate fictional characters who make their worlds much fuller.

Leslie Knope may have begun her onscreen life as a poor man’s Michael Scott, but she became so much more. She became the noble, tireless civil servant that the citizens of Pawnee, Indiana never deserved.

Leslie loves her friends, her town, and her waffles. Not necessarily in that order. One of the reasons Parks & Recreation is such a re-watchable show is it’s easy to root for Leslie to succeed. She is the rare example of a person who cares more about other people than she cares about herself. Although she makes plenty of mistakes on her path from low level government employee to federal powerhouse, she always bounces back to being her optimistic, altruistic self.

Her relationship with Ben Wyatt is one of the best you can find on TV. Leslie and Ben flip the traditional gender roles, with Leslie being more of the domineering, type-A partner, while Ben often acts as the emotional support (and eye candy) for Leslie. They’re perfect together, and the show’s writers never felt the need to create cheap drama between them.

There are plenty of examples that illustrate the kind of person Leslie is, and one of my favorites comes from the season three episode “Ron & Tammy: Part Two.” Ben and Leslie are both worried that without police officer support at the Harvest Festival, the important event will fall apart. Ben visits with Police Chief Trumple privately to ask for police officer volunteers, and Trumple immediately agrees to help. He says, “Leslie Knope gets as many favors as she needs.” When Ben asks why, Trumple pauses to think before responding, “Because she’s the kind of a person who uses favors to help other people.” That’s the kind of civil servant we’d all be lucky to have.

Posted in Key Characters, TV | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Video Game Review: Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley

It’s been a long time since I’ve committed to playing a video game.  But somehow I’ve dedicated dozens of hours to building up a farm, interacting with neighbors, and exploring caves in Stardew Valley.  The first time I saw footage of Stardew Valley, I immediately thought of Harvest Moon, a fun farm simulator I played as a kid.  Stardew Valley feeds off of that nostalgia while building its own world.

The game doesn’t waste time with a long setup.  Fed up with corporate drone life, the protagonist moves to the quaint little town of Stardew Valley and inherits his (or her – you can customize your own avatar) grandfather’s farm.  After some quick introductions, the game allows the player to pursue his own ambitions.  On any given day the player can harvest crops, chop wood, go fishing, give gifts, feed barn animals, forage wild berries, pursue romantic interests, battle giant blobs, mine ore, and on and on.  What’s more, the game doesn’t push the player to engage in any one activity.  Rewards await those who explore everything Stardew Valley has to offer – keep a look out for Zelda-esque puzzles – but the game world is what you make of it.

Stardew Valley is a labor of love, and it shows.  The music is enjoyable and varies depending on seasons and settings.  The history of the land slowly unravels as books and artifacts are discovered.  One of my neighbors, an aspiring writer, once asked me about my favorite type of book.  I told him I liked science fiction.  Weeks later he invited me to a book reading for his sci-fi novel.  As I said, the game world is what you make of it.  And it’s a wonderful world.

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

Best Eps: Breaking Bad – “One Minute”

Best Eps- Breaking Bad

In this feature I take a look at one episode that marks a high point in a television series.  It’s not necessarily the absolute best a series has to offer (that’s always debatable), but it’s an episode that remains lodged in memory long after I first watched it.

I know what you’re thinking.  “How could you not pick ‘Ozymandias’ as the best Breaking Bad episode?”  There’s no denying that “Ozymandias” is fantastic television, but it’s an episode that’s been talked about enough.  And from start to finish, “One Minute” is something special, even amongst other superb Breaking Bad episodes.

“One Minute” is bookended by two moments that define who Hank Schrader is.  At the start of the episode, Hank beats Jesse unconscious because he believes Jesse arranged a fake emergency call regarding Marie.  Hank instantly realizes his mistake in pummeling an unarmed man, and he alerts the authorities himself.  Hank is a good officer, and a good man, but after giving himself over to his rage, he knows his career as a DEA agent is over.

Of course, the other moment comes at the end of the episode with an assassination attempt on Hank’s life.  Hank had shown in earlier episodes that he suffers from PTSD, and he doesn’t revel in taking lives.  But like an old west gunslinger who never loses his touch, Hank is a dangerous man when cornered.  Director Michelle MacLaren directs the hell out of the final scene (I’d call her the best director the show had), and I still get chills when the cousin pulls a shining silver ax from the trunk of his car.  Hank prevails, though the last shot of a parking lot littered with bodies is chilling; it’s a Pyrrhic victory.

As if the action described above isn’t enough, there are more unforgettable scenes in “One Minute.”  Hank secretly weeping on Marie’s shoulder in the elevator is heartbreaking, and it says everything about their relationship and marriage.  Jesse has not one, but two monologues that show how frustrated he is at always being the fall guy for Walt.  I doubt that even Vince Gilligan expected Aaron Paul to grow into the actor he became while filming Breaking Bad.  After Jesse passionately rejects Walt’s offer to once again be partners, Walt speaks honestly, a rarity by this point in his life.  He says, “Your meth is good, Jesse.  As good as mine.”  The mentor-student relationship between Walt and Jesse anchors Breaking Bad, and in some ways, Walt’s words of praise mean more to Jesse than money ever could.

And hey, that goofball arms salesman was right about that hollow-point bullet.  “Sucker has six razor claws that expand upon impact.  Whew!  Shred your mama’s head like a cabbage.”

Other Best Eps candidates: “Dead Freight,” “Ozymandias,” “Salud”

Posted in Best Eps, TV | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Movie Review: Creed


The Rocky franchise permeates my childhood memories.  I remember Rocky chasing a chicken, participating in a macho street fight, and of course I remember the exasperated Russian robot swearing that little Rocky is not a man, but a piece of iron.  That being said, nostalgia doesn’t overwhelm me when I think about Rocky.  It’s not one of my beloved franchises.

Director/screenwriter Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan have made me more excited about the Rocky universe (is everything a “universe” nowadays?) than I ever have been.  Coogler understands that the best sports movies are usually not about the sports involved.  Similar to the impressive Warrior, Creed is about relationships.  Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Jordan) struggles against a legacy he’s unsure he can live up to, that of his deceased father Apollo Creed.  Johnson seeks out his father’s rival Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), but the elder champion doesn’t always fit Johnson’s expectations or ideals.

Coogler deserves most of the credit for the film as a whole, but Jordan and Stallone riff off of each other like real family members, with love and tension resting close to the surface.  The reason Creed works so well is Coogler nails both the emotional and physical impacts of the story.  The boxing choreography is excellent, and Coogler isn’t afraid to pull the camera back and allow the audience to witness the boxers circling each other and swinging away.  Jordan performs his own stunts, and it pays off.  If you’re not tensed up and cheering for the young Creed by the end of the film, you’re bad at watching sports films.  I’m looking forward to watching more of Creed’s journey, and I hope Coogler returns to add more depth to the storied franchise.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Top Ten: The Challenge Moments

The Challenge

Bill Simmons and I have something in common – we’re both big fans of MTV’s long running series The Challenge.  What started out as goofy fun has turned into something of a real sport (minus the pesky performance enhancing drug testing).  Most adults, I’m sure, grow out of watching MTV reality shows, which is why YouTube comments of Challenge videos often go something like this: “I miss these Challenges.  This is the last time they had a great cast!”  I do miss the silly Challenge seasons of yore, but the current seasons filled with backstabbing and manipulation carried out by cast members desperate for a big payout are enjoyable in a different way.

Whether your last favorite season actually featured cast members of Road Rules, or you’ve witnessed Johnny Bananas’ rise from raspy voiced youngster to the self-proclaimed champ, there’s sure to be something on this list for you.  Without further ado, here are my top ten moments of The Challenge.

Top Ten- The Challenge Moments 10

10. Sarah Hangs Tough Against Irulan – The Gauntlet (2004)

The Challenge can be a cruel game.  When a team senses weakness, they’re quick to throw that weakness to the wolves.  Sarah was far from the best player on the Road Rules team on the original season on The Gauntlet, so she became the resident whipping girl.  Sarah entered the Gauntlet four times and sent four Real World cast members packing before facing off with Irulan in one last Gauntlet.  This did not end well for Irulan.  Sarah hung cool, like a zen bat, and she defeated her opponent.

Sarah later commented, “I am not a winner.  I haven’t been a winner my entire life.”  Except that she sent five people home and won the grand prize alongside her teammates.  Yeah, Sarah, you are a winner.

Top Ten- The Challenge Moments 09.jpg

09. Jordan Falls Before the Wall – Free Agents (2014)

Jordan was right to think that sending Johnny Bananas home early from the Free Agents competition was a fine idea.  Jordan was wrong to think volunteering to battle the four-time champ in an elimination was the way to accomplish that.  The number one rule of The Challenge is stay out of elimination rounds if at all possible.  Jordan broke that rule and flipped all the kill cards, and what’s worse, the elimination involved using hands and feet to break through a climbing wall.  With only one fully formed hand, Jordan had just enough trouble creating handholds to see his enemy climb away with the win.

During an argument earlier in the season Johnny told Jordan, “I will fucking end you, dude.”  And he did.  He also won the season in his most laborious victory to date.

Continue reading

Posted in Top Ten, TV | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment