724 also has a throwaway line that crushes my “Nale really knew of Elan all along” theory.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized perky eyes.)

I still can’t get over what Rich did three strips ago. He took one of the most clichéd setups in all of literature, one of the most anticipated comics in the entire strip and one almost guaranteed to be hard to read, and gave it a quintessentially OOTSian twist, somehow exceeding expectations, and making it at least a little easier to read in the process.

In the meantime, however, we’ve been getting some long-overdue exposition. But before I relate the substance of the exposition, a note about the tone of the comic recently. Much of the current book has been a throwback to the very earliest days of OOTS, partially a side effect of enough plot points being wrapped up in the third book to render tenuous the connection to any future books, a problem Book 4 exacerbated. A month ago, I suggested that this led to a disconnection from the plot, the plot as an artificial goal without a lot of immediacy. (By the way, something I forgot to mention in that post: “Don’t Split the Party”? Really? I can understand the “we’ve gone to the classical literature well too often” rationale for avoiding the forum-favorite “A Tale of Two Parties”, but did you really have to go with the most uncreative, literal, bland title imaginable?)

However, especially since Tarquin took his helmet off, we’ve seen the good side of getting back to OOTS’ roots as well: a certain informal, fun-loving tone that isn’t afraid to resort to silliness. Partly it’s because the personalities of Elan and Tarquin bounce off one another, but the punchline of 724 is driven entirely by Gannji, and comes entirely from the inherent silliness of trying to pass a can of soup off as a “thermal detonator”. It’s kind of wonky and gives the impression Gannji’s personality is being warped by that of Elan and Tarquin, and it’s a little reminiscent of OOTS past, but in a good way. This same tone has continued into strip 725, where Tarquin’s narration is more than a little reminiscent of Shojo or Hinjo, or even Nale himself. And while 726 starts with awkward dialogue, you can’t help but get a smile on your face when Elan evokes some of his old antics (as much as I’ll have to say about Elan’s seemingly inconsistent character later).

Tarquin tells us tantalizingly little that we probably couldn’t have figured out ourselves: After his own attempt at a short-lived kingdom, Tarquin switched to mercenary work with Malack, his old buddy, which he’s been doing for fifteen years. When the Empire of Blood was conquered, Nale tried to be crowned instead, and – evidently with most of the original Linear Guild already in tow – fought his father and killed three of Malack’s children.

Nonetheless, there are some tantalizing elements of even this short, sketchy account (which may become fodder for another prequel down the line). Not only did Tarquin not start out on the Western Continent, Malack was “an old adventuring pal of mine”. If all Nale knows of Tarquin is his adventures on the Western Continent, as seems likely, it’s very possible that Tarquin did not start out as a bloodthirsty general, but an adventurer not unlike Elan – perhaps filling the role of Belkar crossed with Roy. (Worth noting that Elan and Nale’s mother was Tarquin’s first wife, and he’s gone on to have at least four more since – admittedly likely broken by the turmoil of the region.)

Moreover, if Malack has been serving as a mercenary High Priest for at least 15 years, it’s likely that Haley was wrong about the Empress of Blood being a figurehead, at least originally – she’s just grown fat and happy while on the throne (smart enough to kick Thog’s ass, not smart enough to be an effective ruler). (Also worth noting that the Empress of Blood’s two-year reign with no apparent challengers appears to be above average for the Western Continent.)

Oh, and then there’s the future to worry about… Haley’s “note” for Roy has to come into play, so the reunion of the OOTS can’t be as simple as V’s Sending (perhaps (s)he’s physically incapable of cramming a message into 25 words? Roy, Durkon, and Belkar come in guns a-blazin’?), and if Elan’s paying attention he’ll recognize that Haley’s concerns about Tarquin’s evilness will bear fruit as well. And then there’s the prospect of Tarquin knowing what happened to Haley’s father (a thought: might Bozzok’s “friends on the western continent” be related to Tarquin’s other “adventuring pals”?) and supporting the OOTS’ hunt for Girard’s Gate…

Like father, like sons.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized Darth Vader impression.)

I am in no condition to be doing the heavy thinking required to make a blog post, let alone the schoolwork I’m behind almost the entire quarter on. (Let’s just say Thursday wasn’t a very good day for me.)

But… damn if Rich didn’t mostly make up for a mediocre first quarter of the book (and especially a current storyline that’s been dragging a little) with a strip you could tell he was waiting for as expectantly as the general. And damn if that’s totally not how I would have expected the general or Elan’s father to look or act like, and yet totally makes sense in retrospect.

I’ll likely have more to say later, as at this point I’m really interested in the backstory behind what’s happening now (the “Elan’s father = Tyrinar” theories are on life support at this point, but the idea of a connection between them is tantalizing), including why Tarquin put the hit out on Nale rather than the guy who had a vendetta against him (Malack), and getting a character two strips old seriously fleshed out, not to mention furthering the story itself.

(Seriously, Elan? An entire fatherless childhood is worth the one moment you stumble upon him? I shouldn’t be surprised given Elan’s propensity for the dramatic, but damn if it doesn’t suggest he has issues…)

Belated Notes on the NCAA Tournament’s New Contract

I know my already slow posting pace has become even slower recently. The reasons for that will come out in due time. But I did want to make some notes on the NCAA Tournament signing a new long-term deal with CBS and Turner a few weeks back, and the tournament expanding, for the moment, to only 68 teams. That’s a relief… for now.

Early round games will be broadcast on CBS, TBS, TNT, and… truTV? All of the proposed bidders had fourth channels that weren’t going to be as good as the others; ESPN had the best package with ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, and ESPN Classic in a pinch or if ESPN was really committed to killing sports on ABC – although given the justification for not putting games on CBS College Sports, ABC Family would have been more likely than Classic or the U (although ESPN apparently didn’t think the U’s limited distribution was a factor). (Fox had FX, Fox Sports Net, and… Fox News? Fox Soccer Channel, in a pinch? Alternately, the Fox College Sports channels? Comcast/NBC had Versus, Universal Sports, and… Comcast SportsNet, or CNBC, or MSNBC?) But CBS and Turner could have used CBS College Sports and even if it didn’t reach as many people, at least it would have fit (and helped further distribution for the network). Heck, they could have even dipped into their existing team-up for the CW, though I don’t know how healthy that network is at the moment.

(Although ESPN had the best package of networks, I wouldn’t be surprised if the biggest call for a 96-team field came from their corner, and that this demand helped kill their chances. ESPN is really crowded with sports events on its schedule; among other things, on the first weekend of the tournament the Nationwide Series race would likely have to be pushed back to 11 AM ET or earlier to accommodate both men’s and women’s tournaments. The major obstacles, especially for ESPNU, are the wrestling championships, which could be moved to another weekend, and the NIT, especially the second round. I wouldn’t be surprised if ESPN wanted to kill the NIT to free up space for tournament games, even if those games would need to be replaced in the main tournament. For the same reason, unless the NIT died I can’t see ESPN not putting first round games on ABC, as it needs one-channel wiggle room and games aren’t being put on the News, and if that’s the case I can’t see them not putting the rest of the tournament on ABC either. Except…)

Needless to say I’m not pleased with CBS and Turner alternating coverage of the Final Four. I had a problem with one LCS being on broadcast and one not, and I have a problem with the Final Four only being on broadcast in alternate years, which doesn’t even make sense to me, unless Turner wanted some Final Fours if it was going to get in to the early rounds. And it was one thing for ABC (and NBC, and CBS) to show regular season college football but for the National Championship to be on cable, but it’s quite another for CBS to show early rounds of the NCAA Tournament but for the championship to be on cable.

But more than that is the problem I have with the Final Four and national championship moving to cable at all. It’s a trend following on from the move of the BCS to ESPN, and the parties involved don’t see any pushback because TBS is nationally available, but this would set a really bad precedent. I don’t know this for certain, but unlike the BCS, the NCAA is a legitimate sanctioning body, and if Congress allowed this to stand it would likely open the floodgates for any championship, right up to the World Series and Super Bowl, to move to cable, and sports to all but abandon broadcast. ESPN may not like losing the tournament but they have to be salivating for Turner to win the argument. It might actually help an ESPN competitor like Versus to have more high-rated sporting events available, but if none takes advantage this would effectively give ESPN a monopoly on all of sports, with a few scraps left for Turner.

It’s interesting, though, that this alternation only starts in 2016 – after ESPN’s current BCS contract ends. Is this a sign that if the sports landscape becomes more broadcast-friendly, CBS might take the Elite Eight and Final Four back? Or that CBS and Turner might be hoping that by 2016, cable will have advanced to the point that a Congress that was reluctant now might be more forgiving? Or that the TV landscape will go all to hell, everyone will be watching on the Internet anyway, and it’ll be a non-issue? If being on CBS will “bring more ratings in the early years”, why not the later ones?

Will Turner start showing regular-season college basketball games? Will this be the end of staggered start times? I imagine the play-in games will move to Turner as well?

The NCAA Tournament “will have one look, but there will be separate branding” – so much for my hopes of Turner adopting consistent graphics across all sports, and on the other hand, is CBS planning on another graphics shake-up? Was the new graphics on the NFL last year a preview of further changes? Will CBS and Turner have different studio teams, and will there be one, two, or four studio teams?

I’m seeing several different theories as to why ESPN lost. One theory is that they’re saving up for an Olympic bid, but another is that ESPN is starting a new conservative bidding strategy as a result of increased interest from Disney bosses. That would mean a conservative Olympic bid as well, as well as a real opening for an ESPN competitor to swoop in.

Oh, and quit whining about Dick Vitale not being able to call a Final Four; I doubt ABC would be willing to put that sort of bombast to such a large and diverse audience on broadcast. He would have called the first two rounds only, since CBS’ B, C, and D color commentators already work for ESPN (though he might have bumped out Bill Raftery for the C spot – ESPN would face revolt if they didn’t hire Gus Johnson and there’s a reason CBS never paired him and Raft, so Dickie V wouldn’t have bumped out Len Elmore). I would have expected Brent Musberger, Bob Knight, and maybe Jay Bilas calling the Final Four – I know Knight is bombastic himself, but think of him as the new Billy Packer. I could see the other Sweet 16/Elite Eight teams being Brad Nessler/Jay Bilas, Sean McDonough/Bill Raftery, and Gus Johnson/Len Elmore, with Mike Patrick/Dick Vitale, Dave O’Brien/Steve Lavin, Mike Tirico/Hubie Brown, and Mike Breen/Mark Jackson/Jeff Van Gundy rounding out the first two round teams, with John Saunders, Hubert Davis, and Digger Phelps manning the studio.

On CBS and Turner, if I were to guess what they’ll do, is take the present teams, remove Dick Enberg who’s done with CBS apparently, add Marv Albert/Reggie Miller (and demote either Jay Bilas or Bill Raftery to the first two rounds only, with Verne Lundquist and either Bilas or Raft becoming the new B team, and Johnson/Elmore rounding out the Sweet 16/Elite Eight teams) and replace Dan Bonner with Doug Collins as Kevin Harlan’s partner for NBA synergy (as with my last two ESPN teams), throw out the Spero Dedes/Bob Wenzel team, and replace Mike Gminski as Tim Brando’s partner with Dan Bonner, Bilas, or Raftery, with the remainder going to Dick Stockton. (After Brando’s infamous performance one or two years ago when he lucked into a Gus Johnson situation and throughly blew it, I wouldn’t be surprised if CBS/Turner kept Dedes instead of Brando. I know the blogosphere hates Stockton, but he works TNT NBA games in the playoffs and is a big name.) Ian Eagle stays only because he already does some NBA playoff work for TNT; he’d be the first to go if it weren’t for that. You’re left with Nantz/Kellogg, Lundquist/Bilas, Albert/Miller, Johnson/Elmore, Harlan/Collins, Stockton/Raftery, Eagle/Spanarkel, Brando/Bonner (I could leave Spanarkel, Wenzel, or Gminski with Brando with Eagle getting Bonner, Bilas, or Raft).