(ED NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.)
The Detroit Red Wings seem nice.
That’s one of those compliments you pay when you’re at a loss to say anything else. They were just there in Episode 1 of “HBO 24/7 Red Wings Maple Leafs: Road To The NHL Winter Classic.” (Hell of a Scrabble score, that title.) It’s the most milquetoast group of players the producers have had to edit around, and you can feel them scrambling to find any connective thread or compelling narrative from the Red Wings, to the point where they resorted to clichés about Detroit’s bankruptcy to fill in this emotional blank.
In contrast, the scenes in Episode 1 that feature the Toronto Maple Leafs feel very HBO: Big stars doing interesting things, big personalities featured in compelling segments and Randy Carlyle dropping F-bombs.
One team comes off natural and unguarded. The other team was the Detroit Red Wings.
Did it look incredible? Of course. Did it sound incredible? Two words: Liev Schreiber.
Was it as compelling as previous editions? Keeping in mind how impossibly high the bar is set for this series by fanboys like yours truly, it was the most tedious and unfocused episode of the run. But that’s mostly because one team was giving us HBO and the other team was producing at an NHL Network level.
Coming up, a recap, some clips and images in our Episode 1 recap, including some superlatives.
And here … we … go.
This Week on 24/7
My first concern with Series 3 of “24/7” was the first image I saw: Kids with hockey gear running to the frozen pond or the community rink or who cares.
It’s the most tired hockey cliché to begin with, and it becomes unbearable when the outdoor games arrive because it’s used every. Single. Time.
The first image of Capitals/Penguins? Dirty laundry. A brilliant, sly nod to the behind-the-scenes access.
The first image of Flyers/Rangers: A series of black-and-white shots of the players, showing every scar and crease in their faces. The Liev narration? "The game engraves its way onto the body, and envelopes itself around the soul. Insistently. Excruciatingly. Completely. Hockey becomes them." Chills.
The first image of Red Wings/Maple Leafs: Children we don't know wearing Shop NHL gear, skating in slow motion. Snore.
We transition from cliché to cliché, as the “dreaming the impossible” children leave and the “heroes of a bankrupt city” theme is introduced for Detroit. A children’s choir sings “The Star Spangled Banner.” Bane shows up and blows up the Joe. (Just kidding, it was actually Mike Ilitch, to help speed the new arena construction.)
Now we’re in Toronto for the cliché hat trick, as we’re told hockey is their national pastime in Canada and the children’s choir sings “O Canada” and didja know the Red Wings win all the time and Toronto hasn’t since the 1960s?
We hit the opening. Not a single image of Phil Kessel.
Detroit’s up first, with Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” once again reminding us of the city’s plight.
There’s a lot of scene setting here, but it was the narrative equivalent of throwing a plate of linguini against the wall to see what sticks. It’s Mike Babcock no wait it’s Jonas Gustavsson no wait it’s Jimmy Howard no wait it’s Dan Cleary no wait its Datsyuk and Zetterberg being injured. And make sure you don't end up caring about this segment, they played Florida. (Yeah, I know, division rivals…)
It did yield one moment of gold: Tomas Tatar reading the starting lineup, a new Babcock tradition. Did you know Jonathan Ericksson was named GQ's man of the year, according to Tatar?
Hey, listen, the first 10 minutes of “The Avengers” were sorta worthless too, in defense of this episode.
Ah, but business is about to pick up, and we’re back in that sweet spot for “HBO 24/7”: Big personalities, star power, sex appeal and players wearing expensive suits.
Say hello to Dion Phaneuf:
Did not expect a Cuthbert sighting in the first 12 minutes of Episode 1.
Now we’re cooking. Randy Carlyle drops the first F-bomb 15 minutes in, “The Battle Hymn of 24/7” kicks in and the Boston Bruins are in town for a game we actually care about. Not only that, but it allows HBO to bring us the crushing disappointment of last season’s playoff series. We now care more about this team in roughly three minutes than we did Detroit in 10.
It also provides the strongest narrative thread for the episode: Dion Phaneuf boarding Kevan Miller, and facing a pending suspension.
That said, you know what makes us care about a player? Adorable kids. Enter the Daniel Alfredsson segment, and his three boys skating at the Joe. (He also brings up his departure from Ottawa, which apparently didn’t involve any financial disputes whatsoever. Uh-huh. Yup.)
There’s a great shot here that reminds you why “24/7” is just a little bit better than what you’ll see elsewhere: Daniel Alfredsson skating in the Joe as a dad one second and in his Detroit uniform the next. Like an ordinary father becoming a superhero at night.
We now begin a second show called “The Adventures of King Joffrey,” which I believe is a “Game of Thrones” spinoff.
Joffrey Lupul was going to get a ton of camera time in this series, and it begins with an effective segment regarding his injury rehab and the many challenges he’s had in his career.
(One great “24/7” imagery moment: Lupul talking about the stress of upholding tradition for a hockey-mad franchise with a weight is literally on his chest.)
It’s an entry point into seeing the off-day training regimen for an NHL player, which involves a lot of funky exercises and dragging your aunt behind you as you skate:
And hey, look, the Toronto Maple Leafs have kids too, at a joint holiday party with the Marlies! Including David Clarkson, who has a lovely wife and an adorable daughter whose visage he has tattooed on his arm. And an entire continent’s ovaries twinge simultaneously.
We get our first glimpse of Kessel. He’s at the party, in the room with the buffet. Of course.
Did you know Mike Babcock jogs around the concourse of the Joe after practices? The more they show this guy, the more he seems like that high school gym teacher that you loved, constantly lived in fear of and that wore impossibly tiny shorts.
The Red Wings are in Florida to continue their storied rivalry with the Panthers. We see some of the greatest cinematography of the episode – the plane lands at dusk, the lonely bus ride to the airport – but we also see perhaps the most forced, painful scene in “24/7” history as Red Wings players go to a restaurant:
Oy vey that Datsyuk conversation. A scene so unnatural and contrived that they should rename the show "Real Housewives of the NHL."
Next up is a Randy Carlyle segment that’s mostly notable for his battle with a malfunctioning toaster at breakfast. And we’re not trying to say that this episode has been underwhelming, but 40 minutes in “coach vs. toast” is the only rivalry established.
Dave Nonis and Dave Poulin of the Maple Leafs front office talk strategy on the Phaneuf Department of Player Safety hearing, when they’re not looking up Whole Foods locations. (Seriously, that was in their search history on the iPad.)
We watch Phaneuf get informed about his 2-game suspension, and everyone seems really upset about it even though it’s a completely fair and manageable Shanaban.
Back in Florida, HBO covered the monumental return of Stephen Weiss to the play the Panthers, failing to mention that he’s been a titantic bust for the Wings thus far. But there is cute scene of Weiss watching his tribute video on the Jumboton.
(Unintentional hilarity: HBO called it “a hostile crowd” in an arena that’s (a) never hostile and (b) primarily made up of empty seats and Red Wings fans in this scene.)
Jimmy Howard’s injury happens, setting us up for a new plot in Ep. 2. But back in Toronto, we’re finishing up the Lupul storyline, with Joffrey’s return from a groin injury being treated with the dramatic import of Sidney Crosby returning from his concussion. He gets his stick up with Slava Voynov, and they trade F-bombs with aplomb. It's fun.
In the locker room, Carlyle tells the Leafs that Martin Jones is giving up a lot of rebounds, and that they should try to collect them in order to “feed the [expletive] chicken here.” OK then. The Leafs lose to a team much more interesting than Detroit, 3-1.
Thus begins the end of episode montage set to “Miracle Mile” by Cold War Kids. Again, every shot is a painting. Even Bertuzzi drinking a Corona. Annnnnnnnd scene.
15, almost all from the Maple Leafs, who apparently are playing Team Ned Flanders in the Winter Classic.
None, although we saw enough of Lupul’s pasty thigh on that massage table that it almost qualifies.
Hockey Geek Moment
Watching Jimmy Howard get prepared:
Missing In Action
Ken Holland, Pavel Datsyuk interview, Colton Orr, Any Semblance of a Goalie Controversy in Toronto, The Big House, Rob Ford.
3. Florida Panthers. Seriously, that’s a whole lotta Florida Panthers for a show setting up the Winter Classic.
2. Joffrey Lupul, Toronto Maple Leafs. The producers seem somewhat fond of him.
1. Mike Babcock, Detroit Red Wings. Brought enough stern weirdness to the table to make Detroit scenes palatable.