One look at my doughy physique will tell you one thing: There’s a guy that does not like to move. You got a team sport that needs playing? I got an ass needs kissing. You want to take me on a nature hike? You can fuck right off. In short, I was never very athletic growing up. I participated in those leagues where everyone got a trophy just for showing up, which taught me the very important lesson that trophies were useless for anything beyond the odd trophy fight. The only sport I can honestly say I was good at was fencing, because it combined two of my great loves: standing very still and occasionally poking someone else with a sharp object. If there’s one sport that combines literally everything I despise, it’s track. Either they hand you weapons and expect you to hurl them at a defenseless field or you’re supposed to run in dusty circles until your muscles literally start pumping acid into your bloodstream in a desperate attempt to get you to stop.
I never knew track had rules. I assumed it to be the purest of all sports. If you throw the thing farther, if you jump higher or if you run faster than everyone else, you win. End of story. As it turns out, track is a team sport, and not just because it allows you to race multiple guys in the same shirt just to pad your chances of winning. What matters is where every guy places in the competition. It’s possible to have the fastest guy in the race and still lose as a team, which is the dumbest fucking thing I’ve heard all day that wasn’t uttered by an employee of Fox News.
This week’s episode, 1978’s “It’s a Mile from Here to Glory” is about track, which you might have guessed by now. It’s also about important things like teamwork, dealing with a potentially crippling injury, bullies that front alternative-funk fusion bands, and maybe not becoming a colossal asshole the first time something good happens in your life.
Early McLaren, like every other After School Special protagonist, has the good fortune of being fictional. The first negative consequence of this is that his name is both cruelly ironic and has a tragic backstory. Early was the maiden name of his recently deceased mother and Early has the habit of always being late. He’s lucky his mom’s name wasn’t Neverbeenfisted. Anyway, the upside of the whole fictional thing is that he essentially lives in a pocket dimension devoted entirely to teaching him a valuable lesson. Granted, this causes a certain amount of pain, but it would be somewhat comforting if our worst solipsistic fantasies were entirely true. The true tragedy is that as soon as Early, or any other protagonist, implements the lesson and receives his just praise, the dimension freezes in place and presumably goes careening across space and time. With any luck, his prison will be shattered near a planet with a yellow star and the population of Houston will kneel before Early.
After getting into it with a bully played by Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (seriously, but he’s credited as Cole Dammett, a name desperately in need of a comma and exclamation point), the principal forces both boys to run laps. I have to say, this would be an incredibly effective punishment for me, but it would force the principal to stick around until the next morning before I could complete the five-mile run what with all the puking breaks I’d have to take. The track coach stops by and sees Early zooming through his punishment. Thinking that good foot speed beats out a demonstrable record of insubordination, coach asks Early to try out for the team.
Early has all the talent in the world (although he lacks a “kick,” which I found confusing, since I assumed kicking was illegal in track and field), but he has a bad attitude. During the tryouts, he quits a race he can’t win because there is no point in running without victory. Despite this, Early manages to make the team as one of the two mile-runners, and immediately tarts breaking records. During this time, he completes the fastest transformation from plucky underdog to jock asshole and remains the record-holder amongst non-lycanthropes.
Early would never have had this opportunity to be an asshole without the help of his closest friend on the team, the other mile-runner Billy Patnell, a new arrival from Chicago. Billy strays uncomfortably close to Magical Negro territory, and my internal debate over whether or not he actually was turned out to be the liveliest part of my post-episode musing. What defines any stock character, from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to the Magical Minority, is the lack of inner life. If a character exists solely as a sounding board for the privileged white protagonist, the character is a magical piece of cardboard. The Magical Negro also seems impervious to racism and in many cases tacitly supports the loathsome social order that rests on his back. This is where Billy breaks free of the mould. Billy mentions that he’s used to being picked on, and that people called him the n-word back in Chicago. This was clearly a different time. These days, even people who want to call black folks the n-word have to resort to coded language like “Kenyan,” “socialist,” or “community organizer.”
As the episode shifted gears into an inspiring sports story, my ignorance of track got me into trouble. Early wins his races, but does so without concern for where Billy will place. I assumed this was fine, but even as Early breaks records, the school loses the meets. In one race, Early blocks Billy’s path, preventing Billy from overtaking two other runners. As I stated before, a team doesn’t have to have the fastest man to win the race, and in fact it seems more important to have runners at two and three than runners at first and fourth. It took me some time to catch up to why everyone was so angry with one another. It’s sort of like wandering into the middle of an argument that has been going on for a good ten minutes but no one will actually reference what the problem is or why the child is covered in mayonnaise. One of the keys to a good sports movie is making the sport understandable to those who don’t follow it. Slap Shot, a film released the same year I was, is the undisputed master of this. The beginning of the movie has the French-Canadian goalie explain hockey penalties on a local cable-access show. For the next hundred minutes, you will understand hockey. Afterwards, not so much. I could have used a Kenyan track star explaining the rules in the beginning. And then trying to murder me by providing free medical care.
Unlike me and everyone else in the episode, Early doesn’t care about the scoring. He only wants to set records. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the team sport I do follow: basketball. There are numerous cases of selfish players submarining their teams for a shot at the record books. Kobe Bryant, especially in his younger days, has thrown wins away for the chance to get into a shooting contest with an opposing star. Selfishness is poison to team sports and why I will never feel about Kobe the way I do about Magic. There are certain players who exist entirely to put up good stats on terrible teams (Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion… sadly, I could do this for days). Early is clearly one of these and his relationship with Billy and the coach suffers for it.
Karma arrives in the form of a fast car, imparting the episode’s first lesson: look both ways before crossing the street. Early miraculously avoids paralysis because the episode isn’t about that. Instead, he’s forced into painful rehab in which he must learn to walk again. His tough love therapist bumps heads with his defeatist attitude – remember, this was a kid who quit a race he couldn’t win – but a visit from Billy gives Early the shot in the arm he needs. Early uses the second lesson of the episode when he humbles himself, asking Billy to help him get into shape. Sadly, there was no money in the budget for a cheesy Journey song, so the training montage is short and lacking in the kind of over-the-top homoeroticism that was de rigueur at the time.
The special was running short on time, no pun intended, so it skips ahead to the climactic race. Early is back on the team and he and Billy are limbering up for the mile. They’ll be going up against Tim Mahaney, a rival runner who previously exploited Early’s me first attitude to grab victory. Mahaney comes by and congratulates Early on his recovery, which cements Mahaney as a far more complex character than one should expect from his roughly five lines of dialogue. He could have easily been a sneering Ivan Drago, shooting bull shark stem cells into his ass while driving the car that nearly crippled Early. Instead, he’s a classy competitor, commending his opponent before and after the race. The special isn’t about Tim Mahaney because that guy has his shit together. It would have been forty minutes of Mahaney blandly treating his girlfriend with respect, excelling in his studies and running for team glory. Jesus, the guy makes me sick just thinking about him. The only interesting thing about Mahaney is that the actor appears to have a tattoo on his shoulder that the camera futilely tries to hide. Of course, knowing him, he probably got it to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s patients in the Congo or something.
Now it’s time for Early to show us what he learned. A cramp in his legs makes it impossible for him to win, but instead of quitting, he utilizes “strategy.” This was also news to me. I figured that strategy in racing came down to “see that guy? Run faster than him.” Early runs next to Mahaney which makes it impossible for him to overtake Billy. That way, Early takes third but guarantees a victory for his team. His selfishness safely behind him, the pocket dimension freezes in place and consigns its inhabitants to purgatory. Can’t run from that, can you, smart guy?
This episode felt more like what I had initially believed an After School Special to be. There’s lessons, melodrama and uncomfortably short shorts. I don’t know how effective it would be at imparting sportsmanship or perseverance to young competitors. It seems to suggest that individual glory should be subordinated to the will of the team, but why this is so comes down to being liked. “It’s a Mile from Here to Glory” never suggests that one should do anything to be respected, but it nudges in that direction. I hope that a later episode shows us Early as a discount crack dealer, wildly popular for his two-for-one days as his rural town turns into a post-apocalyptic hellscape.
I don’t see that happening.
Next up: “Thank You, Jackie Robinson” which I’m sure will have absolutely nothing to do with race.