By Bill Simmons
Page 2

The bad news: Two days before Thanksgiving, I threw out my back again.

The good news: Any time this happens, I always end up watching a ton of TV.

I don't care how old you get, how many bills are piling up, how many responsibilities you have ... nothing beats a guilt-free TV marathon. Back in the '80s, when I would feign Bueller-like illnesses so Mom would keep me home from school, we only had like 20 channels. Now there's like 500; and over the course of six days, I probably watched most of them -- plus, I was loaded up on more Percocets than Brett Favre during the entire 1998 NFL season.

And since I've been dying to write about some of these shows, this seems like the perfect day to unveil the scorecard from Guilt-Free TV Marathon 2004. For space reasons, I'm omitting the details from the 48 NBA games I sat through, as well as both Thanksgiving NFL games, all the Sunday NFL games, BC's predictable collapse against Syracuse, and NBATV's watershed "MJ vs. 'Nique Marathon." Everything else is fair game.

Real World
The biggest sign in your life that you need hours of therapy is being chosen to be on the Real World.

At this point, the Real World franchise is like an innovative rock band that peaked after its third album, had a brief resurgence a few years later, then kept putting out crummier and crummier albums until you forgot why you liked them in the first place. Just an unconscionably awful show.

Back in the early seasons (specifically NY, LA and SF), this WAS the real world -- seven kids thrown together, living in a big city and learning about life. Then that shifted to seven people who just wanted to be on TV. I thought they solved this problem with the Vegas season, when MTV said to themselves, "Let's stick seven morally corrupt people in a morally corrupt setting and hope for an orgy" (which almost happened). But they followed that up with San Diego and now Philly -- smaller cities where they live in an impossibly gorgeous house and the locals treat them like pariahs, only that doesn't stop them from getting drunk five nights a week.

Now it's an out-and-out freak show. Of the three females, one is salty with everyone because she was abandoned by her parents; one spends most of her time arguing with her boyfriend on the camera phone; and one is a self-professed nymphomaniac. Good balance there. The guys aren't much better. For instance, three weeks ago, Landon (short guy from Wisconsin with a booze problem) went drinking with his ex-girlfriend -- the same ex who dumped him for his best friend. Certainly someone you'd want to remain friendly with. She also brought a dumpy friend with her who wobbled around with a blurcle covering her face, then puked red liquid all over someone's boat. Then they left and Landon cried on camera in the Confessional Room, clinching his status as the biggest loser in the history of the series. That was the whole show.

Last Tuesday was a new low: The nympho (Sarah) was so horny and frustrated, she ended up seducing one of the gay friends of one of her two gay roommates -- that's right, two -- then complained afterwards because he "wasn't that into it." Throw in a set of male genitals and she would have been right back in that thing. I may have hallucinated this show because of the Percocets, but I'm at least 70 percent sure it actually happened.

(How can MTV save this show? They can't. It's a train wreck. Why hasn't HBO ripped off the idea, thrown seven wannabe actors in a Hollywood Hills house and pushed the nudity/partying/swearing envelope? How many times do I have to keep floating this out there?)

Grade: D-minus

They were running these for three straight days over Thanksgiving ("40 Most Awesomely Bad Metal Songs," "50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs" and "40 Most Awesomely Dirty Songs"), and I kept finding myself flicking back -- not because I cared about the lists and not because I thought it was entertaining, but because I was trying to figure out who the people commentating were. If you have a face, a neck and two shoulders, you are now eligible to comment on VH1. It's unbelievable. I can't wait for them to make a show called "50 Most Awesomely Obscure VH1 Commentators."

(Note: My favorite was a guy named Drew Lee, who looks like the younger brother of the priest from "Oz" and goes by the title "Drew Lee, writer/editor." What does he write and edit? Nobody knows. He should have just said that he was an importer/exporter. But he's on every 20 seconds, making sarcastic non-jokes that everyone makes on these shows -- stuff like "I don't know what Kip Winger was thinking" and "When Bon Jovi cut his hair, I was almost inconsolable." I'm telling you, if you flick to VH1 right now, there's an 80-percent chance you will see Drew Lee.)

So why does VH1 keep pumping these shows out? Because they're cheap to produce. Because they're banking on the fact that you'll be flicking channels, stumble across footage of Kathy Ireland or the one-armed drummer from Def Leppard in their primes, then happily stick around for the next few minutes, regardless of who's talking. And because they're right about the previous sentence.

Grade: B

Everyone falls in love at the mansion. Let's see what she thinks when he smells like fish guts.

With me laid up like James Caan in "Misery" on Wednesday night, the Sports Gal put her Kathy Bates dress on and forced me to watch the two-hour "Bachelor" season finale with her. ABC made an interesting move this season, going with an older Bachelor (a professional bass fisher) who's more prone to settle down -- partly because of his age, partly because he's a professional bass fisher -- because they kept getting burned with younger bachelors dumping their final choices.

(Note: There's a reason this keeps happening -- these guys became well-known celebs because of the show, but there's a three-month lapse between the final choice and the final episode when they're sequestered from their "future fiancee." Once they realize they can hook up with hot chicks outside the show because of their new-found celebrity, suddenly they don't need to settle down anymore. Now that, my friends, is the definition of irony. These guys sign on to find true love and end up plowing through one-nighters like Colin Farrell. It's the most dramatic STD yet!)

The bass fisher ended up choosing Mary, the aging Cuban who Bob Guinea dumped from his Final Three because her parents don't speak English (that's what she thought) or because she had the Crazy Look to her (the real reason). You know the Crazy Look. Woman get it in their mid-30s when they aren't married yet, the clock starts ticking, and a sense of urgency overrides everything else. It's the same look that Ron Artest had right after the two guys charged him on the Pistons bench. Well, the producers at ABC did a smart thing -- by making the Bachelor and the contestants older, everyone had the Crazy Look. Apparently, there was one girl (Jayne) who had a full-scale, Michael Olowokandi-level breakdown during one episode and nearly had to be taken down by a taser.

Here's the biggest problem with "The Bachelor:" Everything leads to the final proposal, which always ends up being the most uncomfortable 20 minutes of the year for anyone who remotely values their manhood. Hence, no male viewer in his right mind would watch the final episode unless he was in traction with an unfeeling wife who refused to change the channel. If I'm stuck watching this crap to the end, at least give me a host cracking jokes like "Wow, Byron, congrats not only on the engagement, but on making a blubbering ass of yourself in front of 20 million people." Or,"Mary, congrats on falling in love on a contrived TV show twice in a 14-month span; you're clearly not insane at all."

Grade: D

In my opinion, this is the greatest reality-TV show of all-time: Best idea, best execution, best host, never gets tired, never runs out of surprises. If "The Real World" invented reality-TV, "Survivor" perfected it. Just look at every show that ripped off the "voting off someone each week" gimmick. At the rate we're going, the NHL is going to try this with their franchises.

This wasn't one of the better "Survivor" seasons until last week, only because the women banded together under a curious philosophy: "Let's stick together and vote off every potential male threat for an immunity challenge as fast as possible." Hence, the voting was predictable week after week, leading to a final eight that included six women, plus a one-legged guy (Chad) and someone who was so uncoordinated, he couldn't even walk across a balance beam (Chris). Leading the man-hating charge was the buxom Ami, the conniving barista who would have been a great character in one of those old Cinemax women's prison movies with Linda Blair. Couldn't you see Ami slapping Linda around for sneaking a tied-up male prison guard bread, then immediately scampering off to take a shower with Sybil Danning and Brigitte Nielsen?

There hasn't been a reality-TV character even remotely like Ami: It's like she holds the key to some higher state of being, when women are running the country and men work menial labor jobs and walk around with honing devices implanted in their ankles. If this ever happens, there's a good chance Ami's face will be on the new $20 bill. And that's what made it so beautiful when four of the remaining seven (Chris, Scout, Twyla, Elyza) shifted the game by ramming Ami's alliance up her behind and voting off her friend Leeann, thanks to Twyla (think Forrest Gump with more sass) pointing out to Chris that he could turn the game around if he wasn't such an idiot.

The look on Ami's face was priceless: She wasn't just angry ... I thought she was going to turn around and rip Chris's jugular vein out of his neck. Which might happen on Thursday. What a show. I think Chris and Twyla will make the Final Two, with Chris winning. Unless Ami kills everyone. Then all bets are off.

Grade: A-Plus

Melrose Place
Charley Steiner's pool-boy character had more game than Billy.

A channel called Soap Net re-runs old "Melrose" episodes every afternoon, the show that featured a Hall of Fame cast of females, including Heather Locklear in her prime; Courtney Thorne-Smith with some of her "Summer School" baby fat left; and Sidney and Jane, the hottest sister combo of all-time. Throw in Dr. Michael Mancini (always good for some comedy), Andrew Shue (a longtime Unintentional Comedy Hall of Famer) and Matt The Gay Guy (woefully and painfully out of place at all times) and you can't really ask for more from a crappy show. I even liked Jake Hansen, the down-on-his-luck renegade who somehow scraped together like 15 grand and bought Shooters (the local bar hangout) in Season 3. You weren't supposed to ask questions when you watched "Melrose Place." That was part of its charm.

On Wednesday's episode, Jo went on a boat trip with her shady boyfriend Reed, leading to her finding a kilo of coke in the floor of the boat, followed by a rifle-toting Reed hissing, "You shouldn't have been snooping around, Jo." Have those six words ("You shouldn't have been snooping around ... ") ever led to a moment that wasn't exciting? I think not. He ended up throwing Jo in the cargo hole for two days, where she apparently didn't have to go to the bathroom once. Then she blew him away in Friday's show like Nicole Kidman in "Dead Calm."

Meanwhile, Sydney was blackmailing Michael because Michael overdosed on back pain medication -- good times! -- and muttered in his sleep about how Matt changed the blood-alcohol results after the car accident where Michael killed his fiancee. Eventually, Sydney cracked him and used her leverage to move into his beach house -- so now poor Michael has to live with his smoking-hot ex-hooker sister-in-law. And Billy proposed to the hideously unfriendly Alison -- really, no TV character in recent memory was neutered like Billy -- leading to an upcoming story arc where Alison slowly remembers that her father used to molest her. There's comedy, there's high comedy, and then there's Alison's Dad hissing "You were cold ... so cold to the touch" speech to his wife after everything came out. That was the "Who Shot JR?" moment of that decade.

Needless to say, I forgot how entertaining "Melrose" was -- it's almost like the forgotten Great Crappy Show of the past 20 years. That's why I added it to my TiVo Season Pass ... you know, so the Sports Gal could enjoy it. I mean, I'm not going to watch it. It's for her. Um ...

Grade: A-minus

My entire life was carefully cultivated to avoid any 9-to-5 workdays -- so far, so good -- which means I get to live vicariously through all the wackos on this show. And sure, there are some flaws. Like the shameless product placements. Or the shoddy TV gimmicks, like when they have Trump dubbing lines over cutaways of other people after the fact. Even the Reward Challenges are wildly uneven -- one week you get to hang out in the Hamptons, the next week you get to hang out indoors with Billy Joel. In 1987, this would have been fantastic. In 2004, it's a little depressing. Unless he's driving.

But they cast those 16 spots so well -- even the ones who seem normal turn out to be nuts -- and do a great job of letting them hang themselves. I like waiting for the project managers to self-destruct, like when Andy offered the Pepsi design people $100 apiece last week -- one of those moments that made you scream at the TV, "Oh, Andy, no!!!!!" And like everyone else, I enjoy the boardroom challenges and wish they made them longer -- maybe even a 90-minute show or something. What's the downside of going to 90 minutes? "Joey" gets moved to another night? I think people would survive.

Of course, the key to everything is Trump. With a show like this, the old Game Show Corollary applies -- you're only as good as your host. For instance, "Card Sharks" would have made the Game Show Pantheon with a better host. Who didn't love "Card Sharks?" You had the giant deck of cards that always seemed like they would have been impossible to shuffle. You had inane questions like "We asked 100 military generals if they ever cheated on their wives with a Russian spy ... how many said they did?" You had smoking hot chicks in cocktail dresses turning over the cards. You had the thrill of the game, which was basically "High-Low." I mean, this SHOULD have worked along the lines of "The Price is Right" and "Wheel of Fortune." But host Jim Perry didn't bring anything to the table, so the show petered out. I've never really gotten over it.

Trump? He's phenomenal. Much like Bono, he's one of those rare celebrity self-parodies who somehow remains in on the joke. I'm not sure how he pulls it off. My favorite moments are when they're about to decide a challenge, so the CEO of whatever company says, "All right, let's get Mr. Trump on the phone" and calls Trump, who's always in some randomly contrived place -- like the cockpit of a helicopter -- only he somehow found time to take the call. That always kills me. I wish they would start green-screening him in front of famous events, so he could say things like, "Hold on, I'm running with the bulls in Pamplona right now, lemme just duck into this doorway" as three bulls come stomping by him.

Grade: A-minus

Maury Povich
Povich's show has personally maintained the paternity testing and teen boot camp industries.

I caught this on Friday morning: Some girl had a two year-old kid and a two-month-old baby, only she didn't know if her husband was the father since she was cheating on him the whole time. Naturally, they went on Maury's show to hash it out. I mean, where else would you go? And the guy is crying and stuff. Then Maury dramatically pulls out the paternity tests and says something like, "For the first kid, you ARE the father!" And the audience applauds and the couple hugs. Then Maury pulls out the second test and says, "For the second kid, you are NOT the father." And both the guy and the girl run off backstage. Then Maury goes back there and tells the crying mother to console the crying father, as they eventually debate whether to change the baby's name to Nochance. Then they went to commercial.

Well, I thought that was it. Then they came back and there was another woman there who had three kids -- a two-year-old, a one-year-old and a little baby -- and didn't know the fathers for any of them. That seems impossible, right? I'm telling you, it happened. There were multiple candidates for the three Dad spots, including one guy who looked exactly like Troy Hudson. I hope it wasn't him. As it turned out, one dude fathered the oldest kid and the youngest kid, another guy fathered the middle kid, and Troy made it back in time to play the Grizzlies that night. And people were running backstage -- they always run backstage, but they never run out of the building -- and there were 300-pound aunts yelling at people. Utter chaos.

Here's the thing: Apparently this is ALWAYS the show. Just Maury opening paternity tests as the crowd goes crazy and people sprint backstage. I feel like he's onto something here. If ESPN could ever acquire the rights to this idea, tinker it towards the NBA and start running it on "NBA Fastbreak" on ESPN2, that show would triple the ratings for "SportsCenter."

Grade: B-plus

Here's what I sent to a buddy in an e-mail yesterday:

"Yo, have you seen 'Date My Mom?' Just when you think MTV can't top themselves, they go ahead and top themselves. A kid takes three different Moms out on a date -- each of them try to sell him on their daughter. The sexual tension is disturbing and palpable. All the Moms say their daughters look like Britney Spears even though some of them look like dudes. Then he has to pick a winner without ever seeing the three daughters. Mesmerizing stuff. When they realize that they passed up the hot daughter for a dog, they all make the same face that ML Carr made when he missed out on Duncan in the '97 Lottery. FANTASTIC TV."

(By the way, I graduated from college 12 years ago.)

Grade: A-plus

On the road to recovery, I watched this one at my buddy Sal's house on Saturday night. In case you weren't following it, it was the third fight of the trilogy -- Morales won the first one, Barrera won the second one, or maybe it was the other way around ... nobody knows for sure. All that matters is that they beat the crap out of each other. They always play the "These guys don't like each other" angle in pay-per-views, but seriously -- these guys do NOT like each other. They don't even shake hands after fights. They're like natural enemies in the wild.

Sal ended up talking me into a Morales wager, pointing out how Barrera was beaten up badly in a fight against Manny Pacquiao last year. Throw in the fact that Morales looks like a Mini-Me version of Nomar Garciaparra, and I was in. So what happened? Barrera dominated the first six rounds, took off the next two, won two more rounds, then barely held on down the stretch for the tight decision. Very good fight, although I didn't think it was as good as others did -- Morales never looked totally comfortable with the extra weight (he added 13 pounds after the weigh-in). But two things drove me crazy:

1. Morales was one point away from forcing a majority draw ... but that third judge scored the 11th round even, allowing Barrera to take his card by one point. Is there a bigger cop-out than a 10-10 round? It's like handing out two Heismans. You're telling me that a round can be exactly even? And if it IS even, shouldn't the champ be awarded the round? With the exception of the BCS system, there can't be a dumber system then three judges in their 50s and 60s scoring a 12-round boxing fight and basically making up their own rules from weekend to weekend. There just can't.

2. I don't mind Roy Jones Jr. I like Jim Lampley. I love Larry Merchant, to the point that I think he should have his own talk show. But boxing announcers should never seem like they're rooting for one side or the other. On Saturday night, it sure seemed like they were rooting for Barrera, and only because Morales had dissed his opponent before the fight as A.) not being in his class, and B) only getting another shot because he was an HBO fighter. By the way, I know these things because Lampley mentioned them at least 10 times. Watch the tape on Saturday.

Grade: B-plus

It isn't just that NBC is re-running complete episodes from the Eddie Murphy Era in the middle of the night on Saturdays ... it's the fact that you can stumble across Dexy's Midnight Runners at 3:30 a.m. and think to yourself, "I wonder what they're playing for their second song? Are they just going to play 'Come on Eileen' again?" So you stay up an extra 45 minutes to find out. Well, at least I do.

Grade: A-minus

Blind Date
Try this wager with your friends -- will they or won't they end up in the always available hot tub?

I'm just coming right out and saying it: This show is my No. 1 Guilty Pleasure in life, which is a whole other column. But it's the only show that consistently makes me laugh out loud at least once an episode.

And yes, that's a sad reflection on the state of TV comedy today. But the writing, editing and graphics are as good as anything going right now. Seriously. Just watch one episode. It's like smoking that first cigarette in Vegas -- once you start, you can't stop. I added this to my TiVo Season Pass a few months ago, but with the "Only Keep One Episode" provision, which is like dating someone without introducing them to your parents. You can still hide it at the "Only Keep One Episode" level. Even if someone came over and saw the show in your "Now Playing" folder, you can always make something up like "Yeah, I'm not sure how that got on there" and quickly change the subject. I also love the fact that Roger Lodge can host a trashy show like this, then go on "Rome is Burning" and argue about the Pistons-Pacers melee with Jim Lampley for five minutes. Who's more versatile than him? He's like the Jose Oquendo of cable TV.

Grade: A

Randomly heard on ESPN Classic while flicking channels: "He's gonna fight! Daniel LaRusso is gonna fight!"

Grade: A-plus-plus

I'm lukewarm. Take away Eva Longoria and Teri Hatcher's Grant Hill-like comeback, and I'm not sure why any male would watch this show -- other than that it's pretty well-done as far as network TV goes. Whenever it comes on, I always end up leafing through a magazine or checking my e-mails -- it just can't keep my attention, kinda like this column for you right now. But since the show comes on after 12 straight hours of football on the West Coast, it's like the Sports Gal's "Get out of jail free" card -- not only do we have to watch it, I'm not even allowed to question the quality of the show without potentially launching the whole "Shut up, you watched football all day, you didn't move, you didn't even shower!" can of worms. And that's never fun.

And it's not a terrible show, unlike the last few seasons of "Sex and the City" -- although I wonder how it will have a shelf life of more than 20 episodes. One thing bothers me about last Sunday's show, though: You can't promote the death of one of the housewives, then have it end up being the nosy next-door neighbor who isn't even in the opening credits. That's like ESPN promoting an upcoming "SportsCenter" by saying, "Which Pistons star blew out his knee tonight?" and it ends up being Smush Parker. Gimme a break.

Grade: C-plus

(By the way, that wraps up the scorecard ... and only because we're at the 4,000-word mark. If I had more space, we could have discussed "Quicksilver," the "World Series of Poker," "Pimp My Ride," "Stuck on You" and a host of others. I need to throw out my back more often.)

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.