24/7 Episode Three Recap: Nate Ewell Got Screen Time, One of the Many Reasons This Was the Best Episode Yet

Now that’s more like it.

As so many of you called me out on, I had a lot to criticize about episode two of HBO’s 24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic when it aired last week. I felt it was a retread of the intense, excellent week one. While perhaps I was too harsh on some of the filler material (Sorry, Mario), I still maintain my original point that it lagged behind episode one in excitement and in pure innovation.

Well, I doubt they did, but it sure seems like HBO listened to all of my complaints and gladly corrected them for episode three, which did all the things I predicted it would do (find natural, new things to try out) but in none of the ways I expected (War room/referee communication? Mind exploded). Half of it was intense, bottle episode set inside the NHL’s most intense rivalry, a fantastic, never-before-seen look at two clubs that hate each other, with nothing getting in the way of unfettered access.

The other half felt like your favorite office comedy on television (I’ve made Michael Scott allusions before) which followed the characters around Christmas time, each vignette more delightful than the last. Add the early foundations of the Winter Classic rink at Heinz Field, and you’ve got yourself an unparalleled episode of sports television, and perhaps television overall, in 2010. A true accomplishment for HBO and the NHL. Show this to anyone who’s ever turned off a hockey game and let the pictures prove them wrong.

First off, let’s give a massive amount of credit to two departments that might not get a lot of the initial credit from critics such as myself: the writer, Aaron Cohen, and the music supervisors for the show. Cohen’s words, as read by the ever-reliable Liev Schriber, are nearly pitch-perfect for every second. The script never dominates the pictures and audio, but supports it, giving it just the extra bit of tension and levity the show needs at whatever particular point it deserves. For a show that blends action, comedy, drama, and at times all three, that’s no easy feat.

But the music on this thing, oh, the music. You knew they got it from the start with the Maxine Nightengale montage in episode one, and added to it with the Boston clip in show two. However, not one but two stunning, almost music video quality sequences highlight this episode of 24/7, and they both show off what the show can really do. Cold War Kids’ “Hang Me Out to Dry” sets up the walk-up and preview to the game. It is a song I never would have thought to use in a sports show, but is a great tension builder for the task at hand.

Then, the real money moment for the series came at the end, where clips of the Capitals and Penguins in their post-rivalry game mode meshed with the set-up at Heinz Field, all set to My Chemical Romance’s gorgeous “Welcome to the Black Parade.” I’d bet you some people didn’t even recognize the song without the vocal dramatics, but man, I bet they’ll be on HBO’s music page when they update it begging to download it. There aren’t words to describe how much I enjoyed that, as it was one of the best sports montages I’ve ever seen.

Back to the rivalry game that was the centerpiece of this episode. An intense, freewheeling, uncensored look at the best rivalry in the game. If there was something more you wanted to see from the more than 30 minutes spent on the Pens-Caps game from Thursday, well, there’s just no pleasing you. From the already stellar ice-level look at the highlights, to the stunning scene that was the NHL war room’s conversation with the referees at ice level, everything clicked.

Another thing I liked was that they finally got coaches Bruce Boudreau and Dan Bylsma’s speeches to the teams back-to-back. It was interesting to see the contrasting styles, with Bylsma remaining almost entirely technical, even watching highlights of the first period after the period ended, while Boudreau blending in more of a rah-rah style. A fascinating comparison, if you hadn’t already put the two speeches up against each other from the previous episode.

The Christmas scenes were a delightful add-on. The Bylsma and Boudreau families were a more welcome diversion this time around, and some unexpected characters really broke out off the ice. From Evgeni Malkin complementing Ben Lovejoy on his new scars (That was the real gruesome part of the show, as Lovejoy began to resemble the elephant man), to Mike Rupp talking to his family as if he’d clearly watched the first two episodes of the show a million times already.

Everything fired on all cylinders in this episode, at least everything I can name. Episode four will have to go a long way to take it down, but I have a feeling we’ve got a shot to see yet another special episode of television next week.