Monthly archives: April 2007
"Idol" Recap: With Inspiration Like This, Who Minds These Exorbitant Text Message Rates?
Hey, no celebrity guest this week. Instead, we get to watch Randy, Paula, and Simon smiling benevolently at the less fortunate. Paula seems the most natural at it... wonder why.
Chris Richardson The charity theme this week is almost a license to pick the most hoary, obvious sentimental tripe available. Chris Richardson did the dire late-period Clapton tune "Change the World" and it sort of fit, Clapton is an instrumentalist who has been trying to pass himself off as a real singer for ages; Richardson is a boy-band pinup who has been trying to prove his solo artist bona fides since the round of 12 began. This was less nasal than the standard Chris performance, perhaps responding to Simon's criticism last week. It was one of Richardson's more exciting outings, with some successful adventurous vocal runs in his falsetto range and some other excursions that didn't work nearly as well. His manipulations of the straightforward melody showed unusual musical sophistication for this contestant. On the whole, everyone has been improving, but Richardson was starting from a point further back than almost all of the others remaining. I thought Blake was much worse than he last night, but Chris seems to be less enduringly popular so it could be either he or Phil, who was also good but not great, who gets the hook. 7
Melinda Doolittle The evening's theme also had its positive effects. Melinda really went for it on "A Time Is Gonna Come" in a way she has strategically avoided for several weeks now. It was a nice change to hear her really try and get out of her comfort zone, since she can so easily sing rings around everyone else in the field without straining very hard. However, in doing so she did open herself up to criticisms that normally Doolittle seems to hover above. Her pitch continues to be reliable but there were certainly sections of the tune that sounded harsh and oversung. At times Melinda was hair-raising, and that hasn't been the case for ages, but at other times she was as bad as she ever gets. Which is still very good. I don't think her instincts for positioning going into the endgame are very good. Jordin seems to have outmanuevered her these last few shows, and she was miles better last night. For once, though, next week I will be curious as to what Melinda is going to do next. 8
Blake Lewis The judges seemed to like it, but I felt like "Imagine" was a very poor choice for Blake. It's a very famous song with a melody almost any American can sing and it's been covered many, many times without ever once justifying revisions to the Lennon original. It put Blake between a rock and a hard place, since trying to echo the original John vocal would necessarily make him look like an amateur by comparison and altering the composition even a little would probably just make people mad and/or confused. His little end-of-line falsetto "a-ahs" sounded absolutely terrible. It was unusually honest and earnest for a Blake performance, but that doesn't make up for the overall hit to his image as the slick self-manager of this year's "Idol" cast. I felt as if Lewis loved the song, but didn't really have an enduring connection with the words. Simon was much nicer than usual in his critique of Blake. I wonder if he took the evening's charitable theme to heart. With no Sanjaya remaining to make everyone else look like seasoned professionals by comparison, it doesn't take much to fall to the back of the pack. Blake's vocal Tuesday was easily the least good in terms both of technical quality and emotional relevance. I think he has the fan reserves in place to withstand ejection, though. 6
LaKisha Jones Formerly the alternate favorite behind Doolittle, Jones is fading fast. She simply hasn't been able to find an identity for herself. Doolittle's modest-at-all-times personality isn't exactly fascinating, but it's consistent and memorable. I still don't really get a handle on who LaKisha is, and it doesn't help that she tends to use her song choice each week as a costume rather than picking material that lets her promote herself. Her "I Believe" was a very poor choice, with a limp melody and blandly inoffensive lyrics typical of trends in the modern pop ballad. It was apparently first a hit for a former "Idol" as well, and that ought to be the first thing new "Idol" finalists are taught to stay well away from. This was a night where every contestant basically had a blank check to overemote as ridiculously as they cared to, because who could possibly question the purity of motives for "American Idol Gives Back?" Nobody! Jones did her best to raise the poor material into an electric performance, giving us the full effect of her roaring instrument, but it all simply failed to cohere. By the tone of the judges, I suspect they all feel like LaKisha is a lost cause and they might as well see her taken out of the way this week. Simon, in particular, I felt could have been much harsher on Chris Richardson and much more lenient with LaKisha. I mean, she's still got an amazing voice, she just needs an image coach. 7
Phil Stacey It took Phil months to "come out" as a country singer, but when he did last time out he suddenly seemed to have new life. No surprise he picked a Garth Brooks tune this time around, but it is a bit shocking that he elected to sing it in a rather stodgy AAA style. I wasn't familiar with Brooks' "The Change," but I have to ask, who writes these songs? What a tacky melody and lyric. Phil was on key but he seemed adrift from the arrangement. He and the band felt like they were working against each other rather than together. At this point in the contest, miscues like that ought not to happen, unless it's Sanjaya up there. Pretty unthrilling stuff from Phil, although it would no longer be a huge surprise if he outlasted LaKisha or Chris. 7
Jordin Sparks After some internal debate about my views on Sparks last week, this was the performance I was really waiting for this show. Boy, did Jordin deliver! As Simon said, she took a sixty-year-old song and made it 100% chart-relevant to 2007. I like Jordin much better when she picks wardrobe and material that ignore her young age rather than trying to exploit it. She seemed both youthful and experienced while singing "You'll Never Walk Alone," and I do believe those were tears of pure sincerity she shed. Jordin doesn't need to overplay her hand when it comes to the whole seventeen thing, since the judges are perfectly willing to do it for her. However, when her eyes starting moistening up in the middle of her performance, my immediate reaction was to feel for her, because I know how young she is and how deeply you can feel things when you're 17. I feel like I have a much greater insight into her popularity now. It doesn't hurt that she also went out and just sang the hell out of the song. She was perfectly on message and she never got shouty the way both Melinda and LaKisha did. I don't know whether the effect stemmed from her better understanding of her song or a more empathetic sense for performance, but Jordin was vastly more rousing than the other female belters on a night that was by design supposed to be all about sympathy. She had a couple of pitch moments in the early verse but on balance her tone was very sweet. I want to see her maintain this level of excellence (we saw it, but too infrequently, earlier on in the semifinals as well) for every show from here on out but I think I am right with the judges in shifting the favorite's mantle over from Melinda's shoulders to Jordin's. 9
Homes: Blake Lewis
Random "Star Trek" Episode Flashback #2
VOY 240 (Season 6, Episode 20): "Good Shepherd"
I have been watching the later seasons of "Voyager" for the first time lately, and it has been slow going. Watching in tandem with the second and third years of "Enterprise," I've been surprised -- nay, shocked -- by how much better the latter show is. It's not just that the cast is across-the-board superior, but despite having many of the same creative types who worked on the sixth and seventh seasons of "Voyager," the percentage of "Enterprise" episodes that are insultingly stupid is much smaller. With its blink-and-you'll-miss-them teaser segments, "Enterprise" also rarely reprises the ridiculously common "Voyager" instance of the viewer being able to determine the premise, conflict, and resolution to an episode before the opening credits run.
Here's something funny about "Voyager": There are hardly any interesting recurring characters. In contrast to "Deep Space Nine," it's a joke; Kasidy Yates, Molly O'Brien, and Ferengi bartender Broik are more interesting than many "Voyager" regulars. But even the strictly anthology-style "Next Generation" had a handful of good repeating guest roles, usually filled with solid actors. But "Voyager" is bereft. The early seasons made a half-hearted attempt to introduce some running villains, but since no new race emerged, no individual heavies popped out of the muck either. The writers also seemed to take a while to grasp the scale their framing concept had imposed upon them. With only a limited number of seasons to negotiate 70,000 light years, any culture with broad enough influence to trouble Voyager for more than a couple of weeks of show time would have to be historically monolithic on a level dwarfing any established Alpha Quadrant race.
Such a race already existed in "Star Trek" lore, but with an assist from the movie Star Trek: First Contact, "Voyager" made the Borg lame. On "Next Gen" they were scary because they were completely unlike every other "Star Trek" race ever; there was no chance of their falling apart because of political infighting or inequalities in society or, I dunno, anti-neutrinos or something. "Next Generation" and (particularly) the original series both have a certain fascist underpinning. Everybody, deep down inside, just wants to be in the Federation (read: America), and no matter what race to which you're born, failure to closely observe Federation ethics will bring your downfall. Every time. (No wonder so many old-school fans had trouble wrapping their minds around the pan-cultural "Deep Space Nine.") The Borg used to be impervious to speechmaking, but "Voyager" goes to the well so many times that the writers are drawn like helpless moths to a light source. Disconnected Borg! Little kid Borg! Ex-Borg in Borg AA! Borg civil war! And they tried to do the same thing to the Q, too. I hate you, "Voyager" writers. Why didn't they have the Borg add to their culutural distinctiveness with an episode ending with something besides a thrilling last-minute escape from their curiously easy-to-flee Death Star-like super awesome CGI base thingy?
But all you need to know about "Voyager" and recurring characters is this: With apparently no interesting recurring Starfleet characters having accompanied Janeway and the regulars to the Delta Quadrant, they had to steal one from "Next Generation," Dwight Schultz's Reg Barclay. Yes, Barclay. In fact, Schultz ended up in more "Voyager" episodes than he made "Next Gen" appearances, this despite the fact that Barclay was still very much in the Alpha Quadrant. I wish some of the creativity that had gone into making Reg Barclay a virtual member of the Voyager crew had gone into writing a few original new characters on to the ship proper.
So on to "Good Shepherd," which is one of the rare good episodes in the dreadful sixth season of "Voyager." The premise draws from the "Next Gen" how-the-other-half-lives show "Lower Decks" with a bit mixed in from the "DS9" scared-engineers-in-a-horror-movie "Empok Nor." Three random Voyager crewmen, none of whom have ever been seen before and all but one of whom will never be see again, get singled out in an evaluation by Seven of Nine. Janeway, realizing she knows nothing about any of the stragglers, decides to take them on an away mission. I imagine you can predict the rest of the action. What I like in particular about the episode is that for once Janeway's imperiousness puts her person in actual danger; her decision to go out in the Delta Flyer accompanied by the three least competent members of her crew almost kills her, and it's hard to say she didn't have it coming.
"Good Shepherd" is one of those few successful "Voyager" episodes that makes you regret the paths not taken in the bulk of the ones that don't work. Chakotay has a very intriguing line of dialogue about the Voyager crewmen who aren't fitting in; he says that on a starship there are always a certain number of people who just don't make it through their first year. If the ship was still in the Alpha Quadrant, all of these redshirts would have been rotated to other assignments or would have left Starfleet altogether long before the time of this episode. Well, that makes sense. But why are we just hearing their stories now in the sixth season? The way "Voyager" was set up, with the Maquis and Federation crews, convict Paris, undercover Tuvok, the unproven EMH, and especially the rigidly Starfleet Janeway, the possibilities for intracrew conflict were endless. Except for "Good Shepherd" and a few first-season episodes, the only episodes where the crew really get into it with each other are ones where some kind of sci-fi explanation for their behavior is at fault.
Rerun Month Is Finally Over
It's annoying that the major television networks hold back new episodes of their scripted series for the whole month of April so that they can guarantee all-new content during May sweeps, but it could be worse. Between the end of the basketball season, the beginning of the baseball one, and "American Idol," I haven't had a lot of time for my dramas lately. When some new episodes started piling up on the ol' DVR last week, I had to leave them be until now. I also recorded the first three episodes of "Drive," out of loyalty to Nathan Fillion and Tim Minear, but I am having trouble bringing myself to watch them. What's the point? Midseason replacement shows are like second-round NBA draft picks. They're lucky if they even get a fair chance. (Obviously, "Seinfeld" is the Gilbert Arenas of midseason replacements.)
"Andy Barker, P.I." has already been cancelled, sadly. Farewell, Lew Staziak, we hardly knew ye.
"Scrubs" felt like a show on its last legs when new episodes first returned earlier this year, and the recent dreary, pointless two-parter involving the death of recurring nurse Laverne felt like a jump-the-shark moment if there ever was one. (I mean, besides the actual "Happy Days" episode itself.) But what do you know, the last two episodes have been fantastic, particularly the one about the inner worlds of Jordan, Ted, and The Todd. It's a sign of a superior television series when you look at the peripheral characters and think that any of them could easily carry a show of their own ("Deadwood," anybody?) and although I don't know if any network would pay for it, "Scrubs" would totally work without Zach Braff. I do miss John C. McGinley's curls, though.
"Gilmore Girls" is dead. Next show.
I have heard rumors to the effect that "Supernatural" is in danger, which seems silly, because the ratings haven't been any better or worse than they were last season and creatively the series has improved by leaps and bounds. The second-season DVD set is going to be colossal, with "Croatoan," maybe the scariest made-for-network-TV hour I've ever seen, plus the hostage drama "Night Shifter," the very funny homage to "The X-Files" "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," "Tall Tales," the one based on the Robert Johnson legend, and four or five more marvelous episodes. The show isn't terribly original, but it has gotten better at finding ways of building drama even when you can see the twist coming from a mile away. I had the whole plot of the werewolf episode from last week, "Heart," pegged from the beginning, and yet I still found myself tearing up a bit at the end. This week's offering, "Hollywood Babylon," started off with the in-joke factor a little too high (series exec McG playing himself, a "Gilmore Girls" mention, even a comment about how the weather in Los Angeles was unusually Canadian) but it ended up another winner. How can you dislike a show that kills off Don Stark and Gary Cole both in the same episode? I also liked that the fake trailer for the movie being made in the episode included a clue about the show's mystery. That's clever writing. I hope the CW doesn't cancel "Supernatural," because "Veronica Mars" is apparently toast and "Everybody Hates Chris" has never quite fulfilled its potential. With no CW shows on my season pass list, where am I going to get my gratuitous B-list starlet cheesecake guest spots like Charisma Carpenter on "Mars" or Tricia Helfer on "Supernatural?" Not cool, CW, not cool.
"House" has been solid this season, occasionally excellent, as was the case with "Act Your Age" this week. Well, maybe excellent is too strong a word, that might just be my crush on Carla Gallo speaking. I wasn't a huge fan of the Cameron/Chase romantic arc, but it (seems to have) ended relatively quickly and painlessly so good for them. Omar Epps has had a lot less to do this season, but he got his big story last year; it's good that they're finally giving Chase some dimension. And you just can't say enough about the casting and writing of Wilson. Robert Sean Leonard is a guy you immediately want to dislike for being so darned generically pleasant, just like Wilson, and yet he gets under your skin. He's absolutely perfect as the one friend House has.
"My Name Is Earl" hasn't been as consistently good this year as some of its other Thursday night companions. It seems like they've been building towards some major development for the whole season and now that May sweeps are here perhaps we'll finally get to see what it is. There hasn't been one great enough to inspire my mother to call me from Chicago and spoil the plot before it airs here in Boulder since the Catalina's Homeland episode. I liked the writers' idea of giving Norm MacDonald a whole show to do his Burt Reynolds impersonation, but they forgot to write any snappy dialogue. What happened to Catalina's simmering obsession with Randy? They need to bring that thread back. Inspired by the "Family Guy" "The Father, The Son, and the Holy Fonz," I think that someone needs to start a First Universal Church of Crab-Man. Eddie Steeples' Darnell is so blissfully content; you could do a lot worse for a guru. That reminds me, they need to bring back D.J. Qualls as Joy's black half-sister's boyfriend. I guess that was another second season "Earl" that was really good, although it didn't have "Eye of the Tiger" being played on Spanish guitar in it.
"Idol" Recap: Not a Little Bit Country, Not Even a Little Bit
Standards week on "American Idol" I sort of understand. Any reasonably good professional vocalist ought to be able to sing "As Time Goes By" and seeing as that all of the contestants are in more or less the same age bracket, it doesn't put any one subgroup at an unfair disadvantage. But why even bother with a country week? Forget the performances by the final seven for a second. Just go download the original versions of some of these songs. What's the difference between modern country and Top 40 besides the grafted-on fiddle and steel guitar and slightly different standards for dress and facial hair? Not that I was expecting a bunch of Carter Family tunes or anything.
These last few weeks of "Idol" have closely parallelled the last month or so of play in the NBA, except that none of the singers are deliberately tanking. It would be more entertaining if some were. At this point writing about the thing is becoming as difficult as predicting the results. I actually started to put together a lead about the opening credits before I thought better of it. That said, they are pretty chintzy for the highest-rated show on American television.
Phil Stacey I thought that country might be the right theme for Phil, who has a little tiny bit of goony everyman appeal that he usually spoils with poor song and wardrobe choices. "Where the Blacktop Ends" was a song with a pleasant straightforward melody, which is just what Stacey needed. When he goes over the top trying to get attention, as he did with "Tobacco Road" a few weeks ago, those are the shows where I think he's sure to get sent home. I think Phil might have a few more appearances in the bottom three without getting the hook left in him. He definitely doesn't deserve to get booted on his performance last night, which was solid. He looked far more comfortable working the crowd than I ever remember seeing him before, and he admitted afterwards that Country Phil is the real Phil. If that's so, why hasn't he gone country more extensively before now? Nothing Stacey could do at this point would slingshot him to contender status, but he certainly could outlast Chris and maybe even LaKisha. If he makes it to the final four that would be a farther-fetched underdog story than Sanjaya's, because I have been sure that Phil was gone more than a couple of times before now. 8
Jordin Sparks I have more of a disconnect with Jordin than any of the other remaining contestants. Melinda bores me and I think Blake gets too much credit for being "edgy" only by "American Idol" standards, but I understand the source of their appeal. Why do people like Jordin Sparks so much? She's a very good singer, but Melinda and LaKisha are miles better. She has a personality, but it's a really annoying one. Her song choices are usually tin-eared. Even without having seen them I feel confident that in most earlier seasons of "Idol" she would have been a meek and unremembered early-semifinal exit. Sparks sang "Broken Wing" with the fierce intensity of someone mounting a serious campaign for an "Idol" crown, but to me her strategy backfired. Jordin had more problems with pitch than she usually does and some of her blasting during the obligatory Melinda section was unpleasant. I think she had a good understanding of the subject matter and was feeling the song, but that kind of leads us back to my basic problem with Sparks. I just don't think she's very smart, and she sang the tune with an enthusiastic and telling lack of shading. It wasn't as stupid as the "Hey Baby" catastrophe from the Gwen Stefani show, but she should be performing at the Wilson High commencement ceremony, not on the "Idol" stage. But remember, she's only 17. 6
Sanjaya Malakar Is there any chance we can get Morrissey to come in as an eleventh-hour guest coach and work up a Sanjaya version of "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore?" It is worth mentioning however that when I took a break during "Idol" to run out to 7-11 for a deadline special (case of Diet Coke, sunflower seeds, and Sour Patch Kids) there was a picture of Malakar on the cover of Us magazine. Headline: Sanjaya Finally Gets a Haircut! Is there anybody else in the "Idol" cast, this year's or any other's, for whom a haircut merits a magazine cover? So let's see. Malakar did Bonnie Raitt's "Something to Talk About," which is actually a song I really like. Well, I used to really like it. Everything about Sanjaya's performance, as we have been conditioned to expect, was disconnected and weird. He flubbed lines, his tempo was ghastly, and any resemblances between the song's key and his vocal's were merely incidental. I am convinced he is a mortal lock for the final four. 4
LaKisha Jones Couldn't tell you why exactly, but I just didn't connect with Kiki's "Jesus Take the Wheel." Perhaps it was my discomfort with the meta-, snake-eating-its-own-tail phenomenon of a current "Idol" contestant singing a song made famous by an earlier one. I don't really care for the "Idol" industry primacy such cannibalization posits. It's a goofy television show, and while I may be in the shrinking minority on this one, I don't consider anyone who's been on "Idol," ever, as a legitimate artist. I would suggest that the music industry develop a separate chart system and awards program for "Idol" spinoff products, but the charts and the Grammys have been overflowing with gunky commodity since before anyone presently eligible for "American Idol" was born. Maybe I'm making too much of this. After all, Carrie Underwood didn't write "Jesus Take the Wheel," she just sang it, and if it hadn't ended up on her record some other blue-jeaned blonde would have. I have a bad feeling about LaKisha this week. Her decision to sing the song more or less straight rather than adjusting her delivery to suit the arrangement or vice versa really killed her. While technically swell, the whole thing felt broken. LaKisha singing a country chart-topper just wasn't meant to happen. It wasn't the worst of the evening, more middle of the road, but it might have been just bad enough to make LaKisha the first really shocking ejection of the season. Phil's good night compounds the danger. 7
Chris Richardson You could see this one coming from a mile away. Richardson as I have often noted has a bit of a knack for making every song he sings conforms to the same basic melody. Trying to mash up "Señorita" and Rascal Flatts was quite beyond his modest talents, however. From outfit to tone, Chris just seemed like he was a fish out of water from the start. A weak post-perfomance shoutout to Virginia Tech sounded more like a farewell dedication than a crafty appeal for votes. Richardson also showed Sparks-like obliviousness in picking the tune "Mayberry." It's a song about that most hallowed of country subjects, missing the slow pace, Bible Belt values, and lack of indoor plumbing of your ol' Dixie homestead. Richardson might be from a state that once seceded from the union, but he's a slick modern city kid and he wasn't fooling anybody last night. The "Idol" contestants sing words without any inkling of their meaning all the time (notably Haley Scarnato's hysterically feather-brained "You! And you! And you! And you!" tags in "Ain't Misbehavin'") but this was a little too obvious of a contradiction. I think the bell tolls for thee, Mr. Richardson. 5
Melinda Doolittle Melinda was slightly more interesting than usual. For one thing, her version of "Trouble Is a Woman" used a real country arrangement instead of just shuttling in a hirsute violinist. Maybe my mind is already made up that I just don't want Melinda to win and I won't like anything she does from here on out, but I didn't think her vocal fit at all. Doolittle is certainly skilled at finding material that shows her in her best light, but I'm confident that an entire album of her singing would be dreadfully dull. She's a really good professional singer who was making a living as a backup. What was wrong with that? If she wins, Ruben Studdard better watch his back. The title of Least Relevant Former "American Idol" Winner will be up for grabs. 8
Blake Lewis Was that even a country song? Weird. I don't know if I had heard Tim McGraw's "When the Stars Go Blue" before, but I know now that I don't like it. What a cheesy, obvious song, lyrically and structurally. Doing some research, I discover that it's a Ryan Adams composition. Well, that comes as no surprise. The lazy, self-indulgent, inexplicably popular Adams is kind of McGraw's alt-country opposite number. It was an okay number for Lewis, a little trickier of a melody that he usually tries. In turn his vocal was a little troublesome in parts but I appreciated that he made the effort. A safe sign of a contender is the ability to go out on a night where the theme is completely antithetical to your image and come out of it not very much the worse for wear. Indeed, Lewis was better than a lot of the others. I feel like it's been a long time since he's really wowed us, too long to think he's in it to win it at this point, but if there was a clear tripping point for Blake this was it and he didn't trip. 7
Homes: Chris Richardson
"Idol" Recap: It Just Keeps Going
Even the Sanjaya Malakar peformances are growing predictable at this point. He'll have done something with his hair, it'll be awful, and we'll all feel a little uncomfortable. This week it was some kind of facial thing instead of his head hair, but other than that, no big surprises.
The trouble with the guest coach format is that the longer a contestant stays alive, particularly one who's been running on fumes for a month like Haley Scarnato, the more it's in the cast member's interests to just grab a niche and hold on to it for dear life. So Jennifer Lopez's salute to Latin music was about as authentically Latin as Lopez herself, with multiple contestants picking songs from Santana's crossover duets album. Big night for Gloria Estefan, too. I smell a comeback.
Melinda Doolittle No surprises from the frontrunner, as we've come to expect. Melinda sang "Sway" nicely and I was happy to see her manage to restrain herself from launching a long series of runs at the end as she seems to always manage to do. She still moves around on stage as if she was in a full-body harness, and no matter how much she slightly changes her hair, she still looks old-fashioned and square. It seemed to me as if she was aware of some of her shortcomings and was trying to address them, but her performance didn't really get it done for me. Lopez warned Melinda and Simon agreed, she needs to show what's going on inside. At least I think that's what the judges mean when they refer to the elusive "wow factor." It would be unfair to give Melinda and her technical mastery a real low score, but I wish she gave me more reasons to give her high ones. 8
LaKisha Jones Why did "Latin" to all of the female contestants translate as "sing really fast and move your arms like you're powerwalking?" Jones sang "Conga" and while her dance lessons with J-Lo were cute to watch and seemed even to do a bit of good, the delivery of the song itself was a shouty mess. All of the rapid verses just sounded like word salad and the choruses relied too heavily on the backing singers. A number of the "Idol" final eight tried leaning on the band this evening, and not many of them benefited from the tactic. I don't think LaKisha made a very good choice of song. The combination of the rapid-fire words and beginning the song walking rapidly, like Chris Sligh a few weeks ago, left Jones breathless. The real trouble was that the tune left LaKisha no real opportunity to show off her chops. 7
Chris Richardson I'm not a real big fan of any of Rob Thomas's work, and his bland, unimaginative single with Santana, "Smooth," bugs me the same as his solo and Matchbox 20 stuff. Making a song "Latin" by adding a wood block part is very Thomas, and soulless blue-eyed soul is Richardson's whole stock in trade. But the song was far more than he could handle. Chris sounded quite ghastly in his lower register during the verses, and it wasn't until a series of trademark Richardson runs at the very close of the song that he sounded in his element. His feel for the song was all wrong. I don't know whether to fault Richardson or his choice of song. How about both? 5
Haley Scarnato Even though she's been called out multiple times for it by the judges, Haley is determined to find a shorter skirt to wear each and every week she stays alive in the competition. I thought it was very revealing that in the coaching footage Lopez called in Blake Lewis to beatbox while Haley practiced "Turn the Beat Around." J-Lo, like me, is so bored of Scarnato that she brought in the infinitely more interesting Lewis so she could tolerate Haley's crummy singing. The bigger the band and the production values behind her get, the more Scarnato seems like an imposter. Her vocal wasn't good either in pitch or style and she wore too much makeup. I'm either too interested in the actual singing competition element of "Idol," or less shallow than I thought I was, because despite the wardrobe choices at this point I find Haley more annoying and distracting than anything else. 4
Phil Stacey Here is a good point to mention that the usually unconscious "Idol" band was somewhat off their game Tuesday night. The electric guitar playing on Stacey's "Maria Maria," another tune from that lame Santana album, was pretty glitchy. Everyone singer and player alike seemed to take Latin as a signal for "over-loud percussion." Sometimes they seemed to mistake playing loud for playing in an actual Latin rhythm. For that I blame the singers more than the musicians. If Phil had been on his game last night, then I wouldn't have been thinking about what the band was doing. I'm surprised he's still around, but Phil is a good singer and his flailing efforts to define a personality for himself are compelling week after week. I couldn't read him at all this week. He seemed like a bit of a faker, he had another silly hat on, but nobody really felt the Latin thing all night. His voice cracked several times when he went to his falsetto at the close, which was a first for the normally technically proficient Stacey. What really put me off the performance was Stacey's lack of immediacy. He needs to be excellent every time out just to stay one of the bottom three who doesn't get the boot each week. I couldn't parse whether he thought the way he sang "Maria" was a safe pick or a huge risk. Could this finally be his time? 7
Jordin Sparks Like Jones, Sparks should have picked a more singer-friendly number. "The Rhythm's Going to Get You" has a repetitive chorus and more of those rapid-fire verses that didn't do any of the contestants any favors last evening. Still, Sparks is beginning to grow on me as the only legitimate challenger to Melinda's assumptive throne. Though spottier than it could have been, she's clearly no joke. She found more room in her arrangement to show off her chops than LaKisha or Melinda could this week. The slight drop in tempo included to afford this changed the feel of the song rather dramatically, but this is "American Idol." It's the singer, not the song. Sparks lost momentum coming out of the verses as the backing singers joined her to sing the song's title over and over again, but on a night with a lot of people either faking badly or completely mailing it in, she alone among the females imprinted her own stamp of style on the performance. I like her a lot better, as I've said, when she dresses and poses as a grown-up. 8
Blake Lewis I didn't recognize the song Blake chose, "I Need to Know," but I did recognize the contending Blake of old in his performance. Lewis has a knack for making his limitations strengths that the last few themes haven't really flattered. If his outfit made him look more like a Miami Beach retiree than a smooth Latin lover, at least Lewis moved convincingly and made the song his own. He had a bit of a vulnerable tone in his voice that I quite liked, the sort of vocal waver that could be the exact right counterbalance to his somewhat smug stage persona. The judges make too much of the need to modernize the numbers sometimes, but Lewis is a good example of what they mean. He's not the best singer in the draft, but he might be the best musician. 8
Sanjaya Malakar There's only one Sanjaya! I still don't know whether he's a shooting star we should all enjoy while it lasts or the harbinger of the end of "Idol," but with my homegirl Gina out of the running I can't name anyone whose performances I look forward to more. What's Sanjaya going to do next with his hair? It's the question of the moment. Like Simon Cowell, I really stopped observing Malakar critically about a month ago, since he so obviously exists in a universe entirely of his own compared to everyone else in the competition. He could ride his energy all the way to the final four, with Cowell finally joining the bandwagon with a pained "It wasn't terrible!" following Sanjaya's sleazy/creepy "Besame Mucho." His voice was a little less effeminate than usual. As for his goatee look, not so much. Sanjaya never goes for the obvious pick with his songs, I'll grant him that. I also quite enjoy his long smoldering looks directly into the cameras. He must be imagining that little girl watching on the other end. 5
Homes: Phil Stacey
Random "Star Trek" Episode Flashback #1
When I wrote parts one and two of my big "Star Trek" think piece, it was my original intention to proceeed immediately into a third part about what I think would be the best move to restore the franchise's fortunes at this point. But when I started to write it, I realized that I really didn't know. Now my plan is to watch and reflect on several of my favorite episodes from "Trek" series past, and see if I come across any common threads that ought to be the founding concepts of whatever the next "Star Trek" show will end up being.
The first episode I watched, to this end, was from the seventh season of "The Next Generation." "The Pegasus" is an interesting episode for a lot of reasons. It's one of the few standouts in a lame final season where both the actors and writers seemed stressed by the preparations for both the finale and the debut movie for the "Next Gen" cast, Star Trek: Generations. It's one of the best-ever "TNG" shows written by Ron Moore, and it deals in the same sort of material that Moore has made hay with on "Battlestar Galactica." It's all about political intrigue, broken treaties, and divided loyalties. "The Pegasus" also features a terrific guest performance by Terry O'Quinn, now a household name on "Lost." According to my official guide, this is the first appearance of a black Romulan. (Of course, since the Romulans are genetically identical to the Vulcans and Tuvok is black, we could infer the existence of black Romulans anyway, but it's nice to know for sure.) And for good measure the teaser features Jonathan Frakes' deadly Patrick Stewart impression.
The plot of the episode involves the appearance of the captain under whom Riker first served when he was fresh out of the academy. O'Quinn plays the character, now an admiral, and obsessed with recovering their old ship, which was lost with most of its crew dangerously close to Romulan space. As it turns out, Captain Pressman was experimenting with a cloaking device (forbidden to Federation starships by treaty) when his crew mutinied and caused the ship to become ungainfully wedged into the same space as a large asteroid. (There's an "X-Files" episode, "Dreamland," that deals with the same basic scientific idea.) Even though knowledge of what it is they are searching for would greatly assist Picard and the Enterprise crew, Pressman forbids Riker to tell them about the Pegasus's final mission. Picard's attempts to open the sealed records of the incident meet with resistance from Starfleet HQ at every turn. In the end, of course, Riker sides with the Enterprise crew, but not before a pair of excellently matched scenes where Frakes faces down O'Quinn and Stewart in turn.
Maverick Starfleet officers were hardly a rarity on any of the "Star Trek" incarnations, including the original series. Frakes himself spun off Riker's "brother" (not exactly, but we haven't time enough to explain their precise relationship) Thomas as a Maquis turncoat for a very good "Deep Space Nine." Systemic coverups like the one in "The Pegasus," however, are very rare indeed for "Next Generation." Gene Roddenberry was strongly against there being serious tension between crew members on the Enterprise and as the legend of the original series grew he developed a somewhat overblown belief in the heroism and reliability of future humans. The Great Bird had passed away by the time of "The Pegasus," but for the most part the "Next Gen" writers respected his wishes. Had he been alive, though, it's hard to imagine him comissioning an episode where the highest powers in Starfleet deliberately and covertly violate a treaty while risking the lives of its officers with dangerous experimental technology. But Roddenberry would have been wrong. "The Pegasus" paved the way for some of the best "DS9" moments ever, including the marvelous Section 31 episodes and the watershed "In the Pale Moonlight," where the pressures of war turn even a "Star Trek" captain into a knowing liar and murderer.
Terry O'Quinn, with his quiet voice and intense gaze, is perfectly suited for playing Captain Ahab types. Before "Lost," the role I most associated him with was his brief turn in X-Files: Fight the Future. At the beginning of the film, Mulder and Scully are investigating a bomb threat that turns out to be a deliberate coverup. It's never explicitly established, but it's strongly implied, that O'Quinn's bomb squad officer is in on the plan. When Mulder spoils things by locating the bomb before its scheduled explosion, O'Quinn's character sacrifices his own life, clearing the area and then sitting down patiently in front of the explosive device and waiting for his doom. There's just something about villains who are so absolutely, unquestionably dedicated to their cause that they hardly ever even raise their voices. Chiwetel Ejiofor's Operative, from Serenity, is a great example. So was William Sadler when he played Section 31's Sloan on "Deep Space Nine."
The "Trek" movies have not been notable for understated performances from their villains. Cast folks like Ricardo Montalban, Christopher Lloyd, Malcolm McDowell, and F. Murray Abraham, and that's what happens. Examples from the television series demonstrate plainly that dividing all aliens neatly into white hats and black hats doesn't work. On the original series, the Klingons were uninteresting bullies; "Next Generation" put one on the bridge of the new Enterprise and as a result they now have their own internationally recognized language and a whole "Simpsons" episode of their own. The best villains from the 60's series were the Romulans, whose big shock introduction revealed them to be in reality cranky Vulcans. This was interesting because it played off of the already existing tension between Spock and the human crew. "Next Gen" tried many times to develop new recurring villains on its own and kept botching it. What's great about "Star Trek" (or what used to be great about "Star Trek") is that every weird idea gets a second chance eventually, and on "Deep Space Nine" the Cardassians and Ferengi developed into distinctive and interesting cultures with both positive and negative aspects. Gul Dukat is the best villain "Star Trek" has ever seen not because he's evil to the bone, but because he's given so very many chances to prove he isn't.
For some reason, though, the movie franchise has oversimplified things time and time again. Perhaps Paramount's reluctance to dedicate a whole film to the subject of established Alpha Quadrant politics stems from the relative lack of success of Star Trek VI, a pretty decent movie that only completely works if you go in with a firm background in the history of Klingon/Federation relations. By contrast First Contact was the most commercially and artistically successful of the "Next Generation" films because it found a way to marry two huge fan-service concepts (the Borg and Zefram Cochrane's warp flight) to the plot from Under Siege.
That's the problem with Rick Berman and J.J. Abrams' plan to kickstart "Trek" with a big motion picture event. If it's true to what made the TV shows great, it won't pull in a mass audience. But if it's a popcorn flick like Wrath of Khan and First Contact, it's hardly going to be substantial enough to get a critical mass of viewers (meaning, way more people than watched "Enterprise") excited about a new "Trek" small-screen project. But just launching a series out of the blue wouldn't work either, because not a single one of the "Star Trek" shows, not even "Deep Space Nine," was particularly good in its first season. Like "Enterprise," a bunch of folks would tune into the pilot and tune out by the next week, like Opening Day and the day after at Coors Field. So what's to be done? I think we're going to have to watch some more old episodes to find out.
"Idol" Tuesday: Take That, Great American Songbook!
I guess I'm an "American Idol" fan now, because now that the judges have run out of useful things to say and the celebrity guests grow more vacuous every week, I still find the competition compelling. I still have to reluctantly name Melinda Doolittle as the obvious favorite, but at this point, I'm desperately looking for someone else in the crowd behind whom to throw my support. Doolittle is so safe and predictable that on the rare occasions when her weapon of a voice rouses me (and her "I've Got Rhythm" yesterday was the first time that has happened in a few weeks) I resent it more than anything else. The second-best singer in the group, LaKisha Jones, has the same problem as Doolittle only worse. Her song choices couldn't be more middle-of-the-road, and LaKisha tends to inhabit other people's musical personas rather than sheepishly bust through the way Melinda does.
Blake Lewis might be the only male contestant in the field with even an outside shot, but it's getting increasingly hard to ignore the fact that he can't really sing. I really like Jordin Sparks when she behaves like a grown-up, but if the judges' promptings are to be believed her only chance of winning is to continue acting like Miss Teen Airhead USA. Who is left? Chris Richardson is better than you think he is but he's never really built a head of steam past his initial "boy, he's cute" fanbase. Phil Stacey and Haley Scarnato are only still around thanks to the mistakes of others (notably Brandon Rogers and Chris Sligh). Gina Glocksen has more personality than LaKisha or Melinda but she can't consistently sing at their level. Once or twice she's gotten close enough to make a case for herself, but she inevitably retreats the next week. So what's left to do but go ahead and jump on the Sanjaya bandwagon?
Blake Lewis Usually going into each one of the theme shows you can form a pretty good idea about which contestants will do well and which will hit roadblocks. For Tony Bennett week, I wasn't sure about Blake. On one hand, he's got confidence to spare and a huge voice isn't required to sing in Bennett's style. On the other hand, whenever Blake takes on old-timey songs, he feels compelled to do weird things to them. As it turned out, Lewis resisted the urge to modernize "Mack the Knife" but he just didn't sing it very well. The lyrics were muddy, Lewis seemed less self-assured on stage than is the norm, and when the horn section turned it up, his voice got lost in the mix. It was an audition-quality vocal at best. I never would have guessed this would be the show that would expose it, but Lewis's voice sounded terribly weak in this setting. I imagine however that he has enough fan goodwill in reserve to slide through this week. 4
Phil Stacey A lot of the contenders this week, male and female, tried to sing jazz songs in four-square pop meter. Stacey actually sang "Night & Day" properly, and for his efforts he finally might get the hook. Stacey seemed to really inhabit the tune and he seems a lot less creepy to me when that is the case. I thought he did beautifully except for a couple of pitch hiccups, but the judges seemed disconnected from reality this week. Simon said the song reminded him of a funeral parlor. I liked the darkness! I liked the subtle shadings! There is absolutely no place for subtlety on "American Idol," evidently. One of my favorite Phil performances, and I suspect it may well be his last. Too bad. 8
Melinda Doolittle The same thing every time with this girl. She starts out and you think, "Oh, man, another blah song," and then she gets to the coda -- which for "Idol" purposes we might as well rename "the Melinda section" from here on out -- and, kablammo. I'm as sick as can be of Doolittle's gobsmacked act, but as I said before, this is the first time her sheer talent got me up and moving in my seat for some time. Her stiff movements on stage still make her appear as if she's wearing some sort of harness, and whatever changes were made to her hair, they weren't enough. The first half of the tune was not great. Melinda should avoid very rapid lyrical passages in the future because they almost tripped her up this time. Great night for the band, though. I guess Melinda is more deserving of the "Idol" crown than Lewis or Sparks, but this season would be a lot more fun to watch if she'd take a chance. Ever. 8
Chris Richardson This was a perfect theme for Chris, who has good pitch control but not a lot of vocal power. He was the best of the men with "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." The judges were going on and on about how he put a modern spin on it, but besides his torn-jeans couture look, it sounded like a pretty straight songbook performance to me. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Richardson was kind of due for an outing where he stuck to the melody as written and really let the song do the work. Like almost the whole cast, his tempo was iffy (these kids just don't know how to feel jazz) but the small liberties he took from time to time with the melody were well-chosen and welcome. While normally it's Blake who sets the cues that Richardson ought to follow, this week the script flipped. Chris was miles better than Blake. He had the correct approach, an understanding of the song, and came across as honest, earnest, and not at all smarmy, a recurring C-Rich problem. Loved it. 9
Jordin Sparks If you haven't heard, Jordin Sparks is seventeen years old. She was born 17 years ago. Her age is 17. She's a 17-year-old woman. I am 27, so Sparks is 10 years younger than I, making her 17. Jordin sang "On a Clear Day." Her look and her style were both markedly adult this week, which for me was hugely welcome after her jarring and obnoxious "Hey Baby" the last time out. She lost the pitch badly a few times in the song's midsection but on the whole I liked it. Her ability to sing songs with a mature understanding contradicts her dippy behavior the rest of the time. But of course the judges just want her to go the jailbait route every time out. Even when she dresses like a grown-up and sings a song intelligently, Sparks has a (if you'll excuse me) spark that Melinda doesn't have and LaKisha seems determined never to reveal. She doesn't need to play up her age, but I feel that bad advice from the panel will end up knocking her out one of these weeks, perhaps after donning a cheerleader's uniform and singing "I Want Candy." It won't be for a while longer, though. But she is only 17. 7
Gina Glocksen Here's another one I was curious to see during Tony Bennett week. While her designation as "rocker chick" seems increasingly the product of the "Idol" producers' "Real World"-like pigeonhole casting system, Glocksen's best performances have all been ballads. This could have been her moment, but she didn't seize it. Gina sang "Smile" and while it was technically solid, it lacked the power of a Melinda and the attitude of a Jordin. She ran roughshod over the arrangement. I wonder, have three decades of drum machines completely ruined the ability of young music fans to listen and react to a real drummer? A nice controlled close for Gina, but it's only a matter of time for her. She's had ample opportunities, but she just hasn't rocked hard enough or crooned croonily enough. Even her fashion choice this week seemed confused, and while her coy eyebrow raises seemed to pass for personality the first time I saw them months ago, she needs a new move. She should go consult with whomever it is that's dressing Haley. 6
Sanjaya Malakar "Different tactic this week," says Simon. "Incredible!" In his exasperation Cowell failed to notice that for the alternate dimension in which Sanjaya resides apart from the rest of the field, this was actually a not-bad performance. I felt right from the start that this was going to be a good week for Sanjaya, who can actually sort of carry a tune so long as he doesn't have to raise his voice above a whisper. I don't know what was creepier, his empty look right into the camera or his stiff dancing with Paula Abdul. At times it sounded as if he wasn't even listening to the band while singing "Cheek to Cheek." His microphone seemed turned up so loud you could hear his hair growing. He can indeed sing, a little bit, as the moments where he wasn't "making show" indicated, but the singing is so far past the point with Sanjaya at this juncture that I kind of side with Simon. "Incredible!" 6
Haley Scarnato Tony Bennett, who scarcely had an unkind or useful word for a single member of the cast, reasonably told Haley that while singing a song, "Ain't Misbehavin'," about a woman embracing monogamy, she ought not to tell multiple faces in the audience she was all theirs. Tony, haven't you been watching these last few weeks? Haley has saved her "Idol" campaign by graciously displaying her legs (Simon is a fan) and bosoms to the full extent that network TV allows. She might not be a real smooth operator, but at least she knows what side of the bread the butter goes on, and her act gets more Cinemax-like with every passing week. To be fair, it was one of her better vocals, but we already know what side of the talent divide every member of the cast is on by this point. For those in the shallow end of the genetic pool, the only hope for survival is to pick a gimmick and work it, and give Haley all credit for figuring this out quickly and deploying her assets rapidly. For the Sanjayas and Haleys of the world, the judges ran out of constructive things to say about a month ago, and I suffer right along with them. 7
LaKisha Jones Boy, it's a weak "Idol" night when Phil Stacey and Chris Richardson are the standouts. There was nothing wrong with LaKisha's "Stormy Weather," which added a sensual angle she hadn't really worked up to this point. It's nice to see her growing in confidence in that area. However, where is Jones's originality? She sounds more like she's just miming the record each time out. LaKisha and Melinda are absolutely the best singers in the field, but I don't look forward to their performances at all. They have to win me over anew each and every week. Melinda seems like she's eminently capable of being toppled, but I doubt LaKisha can do it. Which is too bad, because for some reason I find her humility a lot less of an annoying, overplayed put-on than I do Doolittle's. I hope it's not because she's plus-sized. 8
Homes: Phil Stacey
Late "Lost" Thoughts
I just got around to watching last week's "Lost" yesterday, and on the whole I agree with the prevailing opinion. The show has gotten its momentum back, finally. This season's arbitrary killing of random belatedly introduced cannon fodder characters was way more entertaining than last season's.
However, though, does it strike anybody else that whenever "Lost" does flashback shows set on the island, it skirts dangerously close to "newpeat" territory? That was not a whole recommended weekly allowance of episode, people. Also, while I don't know exactly what I would have done differently (I sure wouldn't have kept them alive), the demises of Nikki and Paulo seemed like the most cavalier, gruesome dismissals of unwanted cast members since Poochie was literally yanked off of "Itchy and Scratchy." If you're going to cycle in new characters strictly for the purpose of having additional people to kill without relative consequence, just killing them off in the nastiest way imaginable doesn't excuse the creative laziness that led to their introductions in the first place. I'm just saying.
Performing that miracle, raising the living
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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