Mike Babcock (Getty Images)
Episode 2 of 24/7 is vastly improved because it focuses on hockey and doesn't force the action.Episode rating: 4/5 Warning: Some clips in this post contain coarse language. How do you keep a great show great when your star characters change season to season? That’s the question that plagued the premiere of 24/7 Red Wings/Maple Leafs. It no longer had Boudreaus and Bryzgalovs to carry it, its subjects didn’t seem too interested or comfortable with the camera on them and there were few memorable moments. The lackuster episode felt a lot like a big shoulder shrug from HBO. What can you expect? We aren’t miracle workers. We got stuck with two lame, struggling teams this season and they simply aren’t as cool as the Penguins, Capitals, Flyers and Rangers. Better luck next year. But after viewing the far more raw, far more real, far more compelling second episode of this season, I wonder if HBO was simply viewing the question the wrong way. How do you keep a great show great in 24/7’s case? Don’t attempt to recreate past successes with a new cast. Instead, do what you can with the group in front of you, even if that means producing something different. It took an episode, but perhaps HBO understands what it has now. These guys may not have the New York glam of the Rangers, for example, but they can be just as interesting when the show doesn't force things and reacts to what happens naturally. Episode 2 works because, instead of the forced comedy of Leafs coach Randy Carlyle playing with a toaster, it focuses on something refreshing: hockey. Forgoing the humor, the opening minutes have Carlyle bluntly tell Paul Ranger and Mark Fraser they aren’t playing well enough to dress for a Saturday game against Chicago. Even if Carlyle remains a still too self-aware being mic’d up, there’s nothing fake about his decision. Induced reality TV? Try telling Ranger and Fraser that. We get candid ups and downs from Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader – one in which he and Brendan Smith give commentary on the fishtailing cars in front of them during a snow storm, another in which Abdelkader is tested for a concussion after absorbing a hit from Deryk Engelland. Moments like these feel far less planned than, say, following Daniel Alfredssson on a boring trip to an empty rink with his kids. Episode 2 showcases the benefits of simply being a fly on the wall, which is what HBO’s cameras do best. This immediately feels like 24/7, which the season premiere did not. There’s no question Carlyle and especially Red Wings coach Babcock fuel this installment. Babcock dishes out wisdom left and right and is the more comfortable bench boss on camera, perhaps because Babcock often engages it rather than awkwardly carrying on while sneaking peeks at it like a kid at a Christmas recital. Among Babcock’s best moments are reminding Tomas Tatar not to hang his head, as bad body language is bad for the team, and telling the camera he has to treat injured players as “out of sight, out of mind” when assessing his current lineup, even pondering whether his 16-year-old daughter might crack it. Carlyle dishes out some useful nuggets of his own, like telling the Leafs they were overwhelmed by the hockey game in last Monday’s loss to Pittsburgh and criticizing them for not moving their feet enough, which is a simple but undeniably good piece of advice. Carlyle shows improved swagger in this episode, evidenced by a mic drop-inspired toss of a magic marker after an intermission speech. Episode 2 is packed with earnest moments and, while most come from the bench bosses, a few come from the players. We get a taste of the uneasy peace between Leaf goaltenders Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer, who coexisit but are not best buddies, as Reimer reminds us. And you have to love Reimer, through gritted teeth, responding to Bernier getting his fourth start in five games: Peter Holland: "Want the Big Cat to play well in Pittsburgh." Reimer: "Well...Watch well." This show needs more Reimer, an awe-shucks personality who couldn’t give a dishonest interview if he tried. Among the other real moments are Kyle Quincey shrugging off his a questionable hit on Ryan Getzlaf, noting it was only the blood that got him tossed. Not every player has a guilty conscience. We have the joy of Jerry D’Amigo, Morgan Rielly and Tomas Jurco all scoring their first NHL goals within one episode. Happy accident? Yes, but that’s the beauty of the HBO cameras letting the action come to them. It’s far more exciting than seeing Dion Phaneuf’s ties and Elisha Cuthbert at the kitchen table. Babcock and Carlyle are captains of, let’s face it, two sinking ships, and they really seem to care more about the on-ice results than their young charges. As narrator Liev Schreiber tells us, the Leafs bust out a ping-pong table only when the mood in the room is upbeat enough and the morning after a win over Chicago is that time. One win is enough despite losing three straight before it. As Dion and Phaneuf and Phil Kessel go head to head, Schreiber goes on that ping pong will represent their “peak of their exertion for the day.” If that doesn’t reek of classic Toronto complacency, I don’t know what does. Near the end of the episode, as the Red Wings and Leafs get the tar kicked out of them, Babock and Carlyle each lose their cool and combine for one of the best sound bites in the history of the series. Babcock breaks the fourth wall after Anaheim hammers the Wings, screaming at the camera to get the f--- out. It’s an utterly real moment for a media-friendly coach who decides, when he really needs to get through to his team, it’s OK to change his image. It’s truly uncomfortable. Equally matter-of-fact: Carlyle yelling at the Leafs, “We suck!” They do these days and it’s refreshing to hear a coach admit it. Rants start at 3:28: I can’t remember a 24/7 episode before this one with so much adrenaline-pumping hockey in it. The best moments of seasons 1 and 2 often came off the ice, humanizing and glamorizing the players, but those teams had the personalities to make the stories interesting. Maybe the Leafs and Wings don’t and maybe that’s why HBO decided to stop forcing the fun and focus on the game. How vicious and primal did those Leafs/Penguins highlights feel? What a war. What’s fascinating about this series is the turnaround time. The production team can react to criticism from one episode while editing the other. Maybe an angry producer pulled a Babcock-like tirade and demanded HBO step up its game and “play better next week.” Mission accomplished. Odds and ends:
- Does Carlyle understand music at all? Asked about the Leafs playing Miley Cyrus’ We Can’t Stop after wins, he says it’s all “techno that I remember from the disco age a long time ago.” Uh, what? Techno is disco in this case? And Miley Cyrus is TechnoDisco?
- A layman fan who relies on 24/7 for an NHL fix may or may not think Kessel is the Leafs' fun-loving equipment boy. All he’s done in two episodes is wear sweats and play a whole lotta ping pong.
- Nice to see Detroit GM Ken Holland and superstar Pavel Datsyuk appear, but the Wings really don't get equal play to the Leafs in this episode. Symptomatic of Toronto media bias or is that a veteran team like the Wings is just too even-keel to be interesting?
- Following Nazem Kadri at home and on the phone with his dad felt less raw than other content, but there’s a coolness in depicting this particular athlete. As a Lebanese Canadian in such a multicultural city, he’s the quintessential Torontonian to me, and the juxtaposing of Jai Paul’s BTSTU while Kadri cruises in his Audi captures the urban landscape.