(Ed. Note: This review contains spoilers.)
The trickiest thing about documentary filmmaking is establishing a narrative without forcing it. HBO hit the jackpot in the first season of its "24/7" take on the National Hockey League: The Washington Capitals were in the midst of a terrible losing streak while the Pittsburgh Penguins were at the top of the conference in 2010.
The juxtaposition paid off as early as the first episode: Now-former Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau dropping F-bombs by the second in the locker room to his dispassionate team, while Dan Byslma's efficient leadership had the Penguins all smiles. This narrative carried through to the eventual redemption of the Capitals in the Winter Classic. Hollywood screenwriters would have sneered at the perfection of the narrative arc.
For Season 2 of "HBO 24/7", the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers presented a different challenge, because both teams have been among the Eastern Conference's best. But HBO's filmmakers were up to the task: Finding compelling plots in Episode 1 through the teams' injury adversities and the multitude of compelling personalities both on and behind the bench — including a Flyers goalie who explained the mysteries of the universe.
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
Last season, the first image for the Capitals and Penguins was dirty laundry, establishing the type of behind-the-scenes access we could expect from the show.
This season, the first images were in stark black and white — close shots of Flyers and Rangers. The theme was the price men pay to compete in the National Hockey League, and the scars they carry from it. The lines on John Tortorella's face, speaking to the years he's coached. The eyes of Jagr in focus as we hear "and entire lives [spent] …", reminding us that the child prodigy we witnessed blazing into the NHL in 1990 is now one of its elder statesmen. We see scars on bodies; a Stanley Cup victory tattoo on Max Talbot's side; missing teeth.
The narration from the great Liev Schreiber: "The game engraves its way onto the body, and envelopes itself around the soul. Insistently. Excruciatingly. Completely. Hockey becomes them."
Remember how Pearl Jam's second album started? With "Go" right into "Animal", designed to be loud and attention grabbing, to let you know that the quality between the freshman and sophomore efforts hadn't slipped.
That was the first five minutes of "24/7."
It was F-bombs — Laviollete had the first, which became the fifth in the same Boudreau-ian sound clip — and fights and coaches yelling in the locker room and players chirping on the ice (including Sean Avery's "24/7" Season 2 debut, screaming "you [expletive] loser" to an unidentified Flyer). It was a brilliantly effective teaser: Don't worry, folks; we haven't gone soft in Season 2. Here, let us throw this red meat at your starving face.
The Black Keys provide the theme as we meet the New York Rangers, traveling to practice by cab and train and car and Brandon Dubinsky's feet. Opening lyrics: "Well I'm so above you/And it's plain to see."
New York, New York, baby.
What does it mean to play for the Rangers? You're in NYC. You're in MSG. They have an 85-year history. Mark Messier once jumped up and down and won the Stanley Cup wearing the sweater you're wearing. You're kind of a big deal.
The Rangers play the Toronto Maple Leafs, and we revisit (for the first of many times) the theme of scars and human fragility: Michael Sauer is concussed on a hit, and Michael Del Zotto slides head-first into the boards. "F—k me … am I bleeding?" he asks.
Now it's time to meet the Philadelphia Flyers … to the theme of Fitz and the Tantums' "Money Grabber." Yes, "money grabber" for the team of Bryzgalov and Max Talbot and Jaromir Jagr. Cute, HBO.
Carter and Richards are mentioned; the current Flyers are highlighted. And then it's Bryzgalov time. Here are the two instant classic segments involving the mercurial Flyers goaltender:
Chris Pronger gets some face time, as we're again reminded about men dedicating their lives to hockey and then suffering debilitating injuries.
Back to the Rangers, where they're hanging with little kids and the Rockettes. Henrik Lundqvist is dressed like an emo doctor evil. Brian Boyle is wearing 3-D glasses.
Meanwhile, Sean Avery is Sean Avery.
Wow, was that Blue Steel?
We take a brief visit to cliché-ville in a segment about the Rangers' trainer, and then the Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins prepare for their game. Dan Bylsma makes a cameo about as short as Charlie Sheen's in "Wall Street 2," jokingly referring to Max Talbot as a goal-scorer.
Jagr's courtship by the Penguins is mentioned; on choosing the Flyers, he says, "Sometimes you think the brain knows everything but sometimes you have to follow your heart." Hey, the heart wants what the heart wants, and sometimes the heart wants an extra $1.3 million. #MoneyGrabber
(Remember that theme of human fragility? The "recently returned" Sidney Crosby's absence is referenced, too. The hour was completed without an Ovechkin reference.)
The Flyers beat the Penguins. It's time to celebrate. If the world wasn't away of Mac Miller's "Knock, Knock," they are now (via The 700 Level):
It's no "Beat That Beat Up," but it'll do.
Back to the Rangers, and a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning that produced the Artem Anisimov "sniper rifle" moment — and, in turn, the first really intense on-ice moment of "24/7" Season 2.
The whole sequence is shown: The goal, the celly, Lecavalier charging Anisimov. Then we get the "24/7"-ization of it: Brandon Dubinsky, on an open mic in the penalty box, profanely protesting the lack of penalty for Lecavalier; Anisimov asking "what I do?!" when told of this misconduct; ref Chris Rooney to Tortorella: "To skate from the net all the way to the blue line doing that is not kosher." (Oy vey.)
We follow Anisimov to the locker room. The Rangers smile as they file in — Avery's is the most prominent. Tortorella: "We have our work cut out for us because of our own stupidity." We see Anisimov apologize to his teammates for the gun celebration. This is "24/7" at its best: Capturing the moment, lending context, taking us places we can't normally go.
Back to the Flyers, as Laviolette and assistant coach Craig Berube talk about Ilya Bryzgalov's status for the month, echoing a conversation Tortorella had with his assistant coach earlier in the program.
Wayne Simmonds, one of "just 28 black players currently in the NHL," is shown driving through Philly on his way to an Ed Snider youth hockey workshop. Said the former Los Angeles Kings forward: "Loving it so far. The fans here, they're awesome. It's a bit different than LA, obviously. It's a way better hockey town." And a little piece of Dean Lombardi dies …
After a brief diversion with Marty Biron in practice, we meet Rangers captain Ryan Callahan's parents and their Rochester (NY) "working class ethos." On first viewing, this felt like filler. Later on, it pays off.
We watch the Rangers at the Buffalo Chop House and their tradition for paying for meals: All of their credit cards go into a hat, and each one is pulled out until only one remains. Jeff Woywitka and Henrik Lundqvist are the "losers" at their respective tables.
(Jeff Woywitka: $650,000 salary; Henrik Lundqvist: $6,875,000 salary. FYI.)
Back to the Flyers, and their game against the Washington Generals of "24/7", the Tampa Bay Lightning. It's here we learn about the MVP season for Claude Giroux and his chemistry with Jagr. It's here that we see, again, the fragility of the players in the League, as Giroux is concussed accidentally by Wayne Simmonds' knee.
In our "Seven Hopes for HBO 24/7" post, one of them was a focus on NHL concussion protocol. Request granted: Over the next 10 minutes, we follow Giroux off the ice, into the trainer's room, into a "quiet room" hallway (but not the official "quiet room"); we hear Simmonds address the hit; later, Laviolette grimaces when Giroux tells him that there's no progress; and finally, we see Giroux going through baseline concussion tests to evaluate his well-being. Again, fantastic, insightful coverage we simply can't get anywhere else.
Back to the Rangers, playing at the Buffalo Sabres. The focus is on Ryan Callahan; we see his family again — and a 95-year-old star is born: His grandmother.
OK, got a little choked up on that one. When does Grandma Callahan drop the first puck at MSG?
The Flyers get a chance to have a little Christmas party fun, including a new Max Talbot Christmas sweater.
Undercutting the brief holiday fun: The confirmation of Giroux's concussion.
(An aside: How incredible is the HBO production team to take a narrative that wasn't settled until 24 hours before the show's deadline and build the second half of the episode around it?)
Laviolette brings the episode full circle, talking about the casualties of war — Pronger and Giroux — and the opportunities for others in their absence. (Cut to Briere, Simmonds and Hartnell.)
One of the final shots of the episode: From the back of the Flyers' train, watching the tracks that have already been traveled disappear into the distance. We don't see what's ahead; more to the point, we can't see what's ahead. And neither can the Flyers.
The voice-over: "At times, their season can seem like nothing more than a collection of obstacles to their success. Its sheer length, ubiquitous brutality, and most of all, inescapable unpredictability. Best laid plans have no place on the ice."
Outside of Talbot's tattoo getting dangerously close to the Full Maxime, none.
Hockey Geek Moment
Michael Del Zotto getting shot with a laser beam to help rehab his back.
Missing In Action
Kimmo Timonen, Mike Rupp, Glen Sather, James Dolan, Dancin' Larry, Craig Berube's fish and any playing up of the late Derek Boogaard (although his sticker was visible on the Rangers' helmets).
Top 5 Quotes
5. "Brian Boyle, we're done that f—kng coverage all f—ing year long. You got that f—king mic on you and can't f—king think straight." — Tortorella
4. "He tells it like it is. It's nothing go around the bushes." — Marian Gaborik on Tortorella.
3. "You're the dirtiest player in the League, bud." — Scott Hartnell to Matt Cooke
2. "With [Phil] Kessel, if you have a chance, finish him. He's a good player. But don't [crap] your pants on him." — Tortorella.
1. "The solar system is so humongous big." - Bryzgalov
3. Wayne Simmonds, Philadelphia Flyers. Caustic words about LA, some interaction with kids and the catalyst for the catastrophic injury to Giroux that gave the episode its most compelling moments.
2. Ryan Callahan's 95-year-old grandmother. We see no reason why MSG Network shouldn't hire her as an analyst.
1. Ilya Bryzgalov, Philadelphia Flyers. Two words HBO: spinoff.