Monthly archives: February 2007
"Idol," Week Two: Ready to Play the Game
Let no one say I don't learn from my mistakes. After only one week of writing about "American Idol" (and only two weeks, ever, of watching it), I was naive enough to assume that the show's being a singing contest would lead to those contestants who flat-out couldn't sing getting eliminated first. Well, of course not. It's a popularity contest. Singing an entire song flat, forgetting the words, or even falling off the stage and doing a faceplant in Paula Abdul's lap (a scary thought) are not fatal mistakes. The only thing you absolutely cannot afford to do is be boring, and that's what cost Rudy Cardenas and Paul Kim their chance at another week in the pressure cooker. With that in mind, let's take a look at the performances from a Tuesday night show that somewhat redeemed the good reputations of the male semifinalists after a very rough outing last week at this time.
Phil Stacey Every returning male contestant (except Sundance Head, who probably only hoped to spare himself further embarassment) must have spent the whole weekend ruminating about how wide open the field is. Not one of these men is so talented as to make him a prohibitive favorite to advance; not one doesn't have it in him to get into a groove and ride it all the way to the final four. Stacey probably gave the best pure vocal performance of the first week but was saddled with the undesirable closing slot. He also has a handicap about which there's nothing he can really do. He's neither good-looking enough to be a sex symbol nor funny-looking enough to be endearing. Like the whole male cast, tonight he raised his game from last week, opening up nicely in the coda and continuing to showcase his fine mixture of power and control. Stacey has a style that's distinctive and unlike some of the younger contestants he knows what he's trying to do out there, knows how he wants to sell himself, but I suspect he might be a little too middle-of-the-road for his own good. Kind of what you'd expect from the singer in a military band. This week every contestant was supposed to dedicate their tune to someone in their lives and Stacey was the only man not to pick a family member. He sent it out to his unit. Well, he'll be back with them soon enough, through no fault of his own. 8
Jared Cotter Last week the luck of the draw put the guys with really excellent vocal instruments all in a row towards the end of the show. This week, four of the first five singers were blasters -- and then during the second half a number of guys like Chris Richardson and Head revealed previously unsuspected power reserves. Cotter erred big-time with his song selection this time out. First of all, dedicating "Let's Get It On" to your parents is deeply strange. Second of all, Cotter neutralized his advantage as one of the better pure singers in the group by picking a falsetto-heavy number. His falsetto isn't anywhere near as strong as his voice in its natural range, and while straining to get the high notes right, he somehow managed to render the great composition of 70's R&B completely soulless. Simon Cowell compared it to a performance by the cabaret act in a "Love Boat" episode, and he wasn't far off the mark. Jack Black sang this song much better in High Fidelity. 6
A.J. Tabaldo At least Tabaldo wasn't propositioning his folks through song, but I don't see what "Feeling Good" has to do with familial bonds. Of course, there are no more rules to the voting than there are to MVP balloting in pro sports. Viewers weren't instructed to penalize contestants for not successfully executing the dedication concept, and I doubt very many did. Tabaldo is doing everything he can to sabotage his great voice. For some reason he chose an arrangement that began with a very long, very tedious intro where he sang accompanied only by a high-pitched synthesizer. This section was so musically minimal that I couldn't determine the quality (i.e., major vs. minor) of the chords and neither could Tabaldo. He was adrift until the song proper kicked in, after which he was awesome. While Cotter tried to beat us over the head with his mediocre falsetto, Tabaldo flew up two octaves almost casually on one line. With the competition getting fiercer every week, and a number of guys I had completely written off leaping back into contention this time around, A.J. doesn't have as much time as he thinks to work out his personality and repertoire issues. 7
Sanjaya Malakar While the swinging "Steppin' Out" was a brave and eccentric choice for the baby of the male cast, he had neither the life experience nor the instrument to sing it well. He also made a poor decision covering up one of his major assets, his lovely flowing locks, with a silly-looking hat. At least he got the dedication thing right -- it was his tribute to the music of the era in which his late grandfather came of age -- but despite a very unchallenging melody he still couldn't stay in key. Cowell didn't mince words, calling it "ghastly," and while I wouldn't be quite that blunt it sure wasn't very good. Malakar's voice even when on pitch is just very, very thin. Somehow I suspect I will have to listen to it still for many weeks to come, though, most likely at the expense of one of the guys I really enjoy. Sigh. It's just like high school, it really is. 4
Chris Sligh Looking over my notes from last week, I asked myself, "Is Chris Sligh really as good a singer as I think he is?" I talked about it last week, but I still fall into a trap where subconsciously I correct myself. With not a lot of sparkling performances surrounding him last time around, it might have been easy to let Sligh's extreme likability seep into my supposedly isolated evaluation of his merits as a vocalist. Well, this is the last time I'm going to talk about this. Yes, he can sing. Is he as good as Tabaldo or Stacey? Maybe not, but he's #3 with a bullet among the group that remains and he could crush either in terms of both personality and, y'know, by sitting on them. Of course now I have to ask myself whether I am subliminally kicking Sligh's scores up because I want to see more of his hot wife. While watching Sligh sing "Trouble," dedicated to the little missus, I thought he seemed pretty stiff at the microphone for too much of it. But then during the commercial break I reconsidered his strategy. Sligh could bound around all over the place and last a long time in the tournament on the strength of his tweaks of Cowell alone. (To tell you the truth, I'm a little surprised he didn't dedicate his song to Simon, although that might have been a bit much.) If he wants to win, though, he needs people to really listen to his voice, which is great. Or maybe he doesn't. Like I said, it is a popularity contest, and it says a lot that at this point in the competition the contestant I'd most like to hang out with is Chris Sligh. I totally get how he scored that looker of a spouse. That's the big-picture stuff. As far as his song this week goes, although Sligh certainly seemed invested in it, it wasn't overall his best performance in terms of pitch control and animation. 8
Nick Pedro I really nailed Pedro to the wall last week for being generic. He heard me, or at least someone else saying the same thing, and picked the off-the-wall "Fever," which is usually sung by women and is a rhythmically sneaky, difficult song with which to assert yourself. Pedro's attempt at letting his personality shine through was somewhat outshined by the drummer from the house band, but at least Nick knows what it is on which he needs to work. Truthfully he came across more as smarmy than anything else. Smarm might be the lowest form of self-awareness, but it's a step in the right direction. Cowell is right with me, paying special attention to Pedro's "charisma issue." No one is contending that Pedro is a technically skilled singer who hits his notes and the tops of bars properly. If he makes the "Vote for Pedro!" joke one more time, though, I am going to have to have him killed. I think the chances are better than even that the voters will not give him that opportunity, so good luck for us both there. Nana Visitor sang this song much better on "Deep Space Nine." 7
Blake Lewis This guy is playing the game better than anybody right now. On the first night of the semifinals, when he had the least risk of getting voted away, he did a real tough ballad. Now that he comes back with a tune right in his happy place ("Virtual Insanity") it's as if he's come from absolutely nowhere to reach contender status, but in truth he's been planning this all along. Lewis's guile even extended to the outfit he chose. He wore a dippy-hippie ensemble complete with little round hat to deliberately recall the style of Jamiroquai's Jay Kay, but then put a stamp that was entirely his own on Kay's song. When he filled the song's bridge with his skillful beatboxing and vocal scratching, he came back full circle to the talent that distinguished him in the auditions and the Hollywood round. What's more, he has sweet diction -- I never understood half the words to this song back when I was hearing the original version all the time. All right, on the downside he's one of the weaker technical singers among the group that remains and after Malakar he probably hit the most blue notes on the evening but it hardly mattered. I completely disagree with Cowell's assessment that it was a "copycat performance." I wrote it in my notes, and I'll repeat it here: Blake Lewis has arrived. 9
Brandon Rogers I think the vaguely hunky Rogers is fading; "Time After Time" was sort of a softball choice and I don't understand the dedication to his late grandmother. I like Rogers' delivery, which has a bit of a signature hitch to it, but I don't know how many others will feel the same way. He sang the song accurately and ended well, but, like Randy Jackson said, on the whole it was "kinda boring." Rogers doesn't have it in him apparently to stretch a song out on the ground, mount it, and start humping it vigorously the way the judges implore all the contestants to do. I think that's to his credit, but it's not how you win friends and influence people on "American Idol." Ethan Suplee sang this song much better on "My Name Is Earl." 7
Chris Richardson It's funny but not at all surprising that the lily-white Richardson is the most overtly hip-hop-influenced of the male contestants. The judges liked his "Geek in the Pink" a lot more than I did but I will say that Richardson is keeping pace with all of the other males who have improved exponentially since last week. Richardson invested his tweedy little tenor with some unexpected power this time out, and more than anything he impressed with his confidence. He walks up to the mic like he belongs right in front of it, and he barely has to gesture to get the audience to stand up and move their feet. He's reaching still on his falsetto and needs to work in some sincerity and/or vulnerability to round out his stage persona. I was thinking we'd see some separation among the males this week as we did right off the bat with the females, but I'm more confused than ever. 8
Sundance Head He's back from the dead! I could criticize Head for picking the hoariest bar band song in the history of civilization ("Mustang Sally") but after his meltdown last week he needed to knock one out of the park so who's to really quibble with his selecting a freebie. I take more issue with his manipulative attempt to raise tears while dedicating the tune to his infant son. In any event it was night and day from last time and Head succeeded in redeeming himself after getting second chance after second chance from first the judges and then last week the voters. As an enthusiastic but technically limited singer myself I know the secret to karaoke is picking something where you shred your vocal cords to the point where no one can even tell if you are singing in key any longer. Because you're not really singing, you see, you're shouting. (My go-to tune is "Twist and Shout," but "Mustang Sally" works equally well.) Head is a better singer than I am, maybe, but he needs to be at least this good every show from here on out to stay in the game. Either that or he needs to perform with his baby in his arms on stage. I think the latter is probably easier. 7
Tomorrow: We learn whether Antonella Barba's future is as a model or a singer and discuss whether Jennifer Hudson's Oscar is the final proof that whatever you do, you don't actually want to win "American Idol," you just want to have a solid run to the finals.
What I'm Still Watching #2
"Heroes." I'm glad I waited to do this one until now, because that sure was a whizzbanger of an episode last night, huh? Past experience with puzzle shows like "Lost" and "Twin Peaks" has me pessimistically looking for signs of decline in every "Heroes" installment, but the evidence is stacking up that Tim Kring and his staff are completely aware of the mistakes their predecessors have made and have planned for everything. The biggest problem with "Lost" right now is that the writers pointlessly cling to the flashback-every-week structure that got old before the first season was out. With the latest "Heroes" Kring threw out the format and told a sustained story set in one place, letting tension build rather than dissipating with flash cuts and placeholder storylines (like the one the last few weeks about Hiro and Bill Fagerbakke). However, I think I broke my friend Ken's heart when I said "Heroes" was never going to be able to reach the level of true greatness. Why? It's a plot show and not a character show. It's simply not going to hold up as well after repeated viewings because once you know what twists are to come there's not a whole lot there. I hope I'm wrong -- and the episode last night did a good job of letting some of the characters play more than the single ensemble-cast emotion they were assigned at the beginning of the season -- but I had a "Buffy" birthday episode marathon in honor of my own birthday yesterday, and I simply can't imagine ever getting attached to any of the "Heroes" the way I am to even tertiary "Buffy" characters like Oz, Clem, Drusilla, and Ethan Rayne. For the same reason I've never been able to make it through more than two or three hours of "24" even after several attempts. While "Heroes" is a mostly plot-driven show with character moments mixed in to change the pace, "24" essentially only has one character and everyone else on the screen is merely a story advancement device. But more power to you if you like that kind of thing.
"How I Met Your Mother." I only ever started watching it because of my Alyson Hannigan idolatry, but it's grown into a solid if safe little sitcom. While Neil Patrick Harris had virtually every funny line in the first season, the writers seem to have figured out belatedly how to use Jason Segel and Hannigan. I still don't really care about the Ted and Robin characters or their relationship, but at the very least I am stuck watching to see how Segel's Marshall will use the rest of the free open-hand slaps he won in a bet with Harris's Barney. The first one was a show-stopper. This is a positive you'd never expect, but "How I Met Your Mother" is my absolute favorite show to watch in HD. Ted and Marshall's cluttered apartment is interesting to look at from all angles and the depth of weird knickknacks you can see front to back is impressive. The sense of heightened realism carries over to sets like Ted's office and Lily's kindergarten classroom. By comparison, the sets on other sitcoms broadcasting in HD look painfully fake. The people who do set design on this show should get all sorts of awards.
"Veronica Mars." While "Mars" has been way less fun to watch than "Heroes" this season, I expect that like the second season I won't come around on this batch of episodes until my third or fourth time through on DVD. The decision to break the season down into three medium-sized arcs instead of one huge one has changed the rhythm of the show deeply, but the major problem is the same one the show has had since its UPN days. The network is too cheap to pay for Rob Thomas to use every one of his regulars in every episode, and when you're watching it on a week-to-week basis, it's dreadfully choppy. The smaller mysteries have made things less clear rather than easier to follow, since the weekly cases have gotten bigger to fill in all of that slack. In one recent episode, Keith was investigating one murder and Veronica another but also partly the one Keith was working on and keeping track of all the widows was a headache. Thomas is really good at sensing when his show is languishing -- he did an impressive job getting the all-over-the-place second season on track with the ambitious and arty "I Am God" episode, which cleverly restored Veronica's faith in herself with of all things a complete dead end -- and he's already made his big move for season three, killing off the popular Sheriff Lamb and putting Keith back in uniform. The next episode, which will wrap the season's second mini-arc, will be pivotal. Of course, when it first runs tonight I'll be watching "American Idol" like everybody else, but when I get to it on the TiVo I'll play a drumroll on my knees or something.
The "Buffy" birthday episodes, if you're curious, are "Surprise"/"Innocence," "Helpless," "A New Man," "Blood Ties," and "Older and Far Away." An exact date for her birthdate is never given but dialogue establishes her as a Capricorn on the cusp of Aquarius and all of these episodes ran in late January or early February. Her tombstone in "The Gift" says she was born in 1981, although there are some visual cues from very early episodes which contradict this. I mention this because being born in 1980, I'm around the same age as Buffy, and that's not an insignificant part of my attachment to the show. It reminds me of an even more important age identification I made while somewhat younger. When "The Simpsons" first showed up on TV, I was ten, the same age as Bart. Now I'm 27; Bart is still ten. Makes you think.
The local Electronics Boutique is clearing out their stock of used DVDs and I managed to acquire the first three seasons of "Star Trek: Enterprise" for less total than it would cost to buy one of them new. I'll probably do a long Paramount-bashing piece explaining how Rick Berman buried the franchise later, but after a couple of episodes, I can say this much: at least it's better than "Voyager." Why on earth are all of the "Star Trek" series DVDs priced so out of step with everything else out there on the market? If "Enterprise" retailed at $40 a season I probably would have given it a try a long time ago. Paramount thinks that "Star Trek" is a premium brand and therefore worthy of the goofy scale HBO uses with all of its DVD releases ($75 for 12 episodes of "Sopranos" or "Deadwood" is steep, but probably worth it), but it isn't any longer and the sooner they realize that the better off they'll be. They ought to slash the prices on "DS9," "Next Gen," and "The Original Series," take all the proceeds, convert them to cash, and drive the money in a truck up to Ira Behr or Ron Moore's house and beg them to come back and save the franchise.
What I'm Still Watching
I knew I said I was going to try to move this page into a more posts, more quick-hit-ideas kind of thing, but then I got wrapped up in "Idol" and the entries got even more ponderous. So, a few thoughts for you at this point on what first-run shows are presently on my Season Pass list.
"Supernatural." Probably the show I'm pushing hardest on my friends who aren't watching it, "Supernatural" has been through a bit of a lull after a series of episodes that really raised the bar on the show's mythology. It's hard to tell at this point whether the horror series will make like "Buffy" or "Angel" and grow progressively more serialized or continue to operate on an "X-Files," "Next Generation" model where the majority of the episodes are self-contained and the through plot advancement is limited to occasional two- and three-parters. For a time it seemed like the logic of the storyline had forced the writers down the "Angel" path, but then there were a pair of lackluster sequel episodes (a fair bank heist twist one that reused a shapeshifter villain from the first season and a recent really poor one that recycled scenes, dialogue, and plot points wholesale from a number of earlier installments involving demon possession). It was nice to see both Jim Beaver and "Deadwood" and Alona Tal from "Veronica Mars" come back for more, although for a show that has only two regulars and skips from setting to setting every week, "Supernatural" does a good job finding plenty of human stories in between all of the blood-splashing. Jensen Ackles has some serious acting chops for one of the WB stable of teen heartthrobs. Jared Padalecki has a tough time keeping up, but at least now when he has to convery sadness or regret on his new show I've finally got past the gut reaction that he must be pining for Rory.
"30 Rock." Entertainment Weekly wrote recently that "30 Rock" had graduated from a promising new show to an established good one, and while I'll agree that's it's improved (I'm still watching it) there are still a lot of things that bug me. Tina Fey has settled into the cast a little and stopped making every episode's plot one about men suddenly noticing she's pretty. The cast of recurring characters has spread out with some inspired choices, like Isabella Rossellini as Alec Baldwin's ex-wife. Tracy Morgan has had a few moments where he's done something other than bug out his eyes and squeal in falsetto. Fey still distributes her material as if it was a sketch show, however. Only Fey, Baldwin, and Morgan seem like real characters. If she's got a funny bit for bald Scott Adsit, he comes in and does it, but there's no continuity -- sometimes it seems as if Adsit's Pete is married and henpecked, sometimes he's playing a poor echo of Ted the Lawyer from "Scrubs." I thought Keith Powell's uppity Toofer had been written out until he randomly wandered through an episode two weeks ago. "30 Rock" is like "SNL" is that if you make an immediate impression or do anything remotely funny, for a month afterwards, you'll be all over every episode. Jack McBrayer's effeminate page Kenneth was funny in limited minutes early in the season, but now McBrayer has a major story thread every week and Fey is quickly running out of things to give the underwritten character to do. And please, someone put Rachel Dratch out of her misery. With misplaced loyalty Fey has given Dratch a string of ever-increasingly less funny roles on "30 Rock" over her guilt that NBC forced her to recast Dratch's old part with Jane Krakowski, who's not great but at least doesn't bring every scene she graces to a screaming standstill car wreck. I didn't watch enough of the Fey/Dratch years at "SNL" to have an opinion before now, but Dratch might be my least favorite "SNL" castmember ever. She's blotchy, tone-deaf, and desperate and honestly I want to hit her with something heavy every time I see her face.
"Scrubs." It's got that sad this-is-the-last-season feeling, doesn't it? "Scrubs" hasn't jumped the shark exactly but the musical episode was surprisingly a complete howler despite the show's great track record with incorporating music and songs in the past. The trouble with writing a TV musical is no matter how funny the lines are the songs won't work if they're badly written, and the "Scrubs" songs were badly written indeed. And the lyrics weren't that funny! I thought the showrunners were finally getting J.D. off of the circular treadmill of his personal life with a pregnant girlfriend, but they rather surprisingly wrote her out. Maybe. They could surprise us still, but the overall feeling is one of a show that's secured its legacy, whatever that will be, and is just hoping not to embarrass itself in the limited time it has left.
"Gilmore Girls." It's just not funny anymore. The only thing that keeps me watching is my incredible dislike of Matt Czuchry's Logan and the borderline abusive way the writers keep almost but not quite breaking him up with Rory. At least Christopher is gone, but the whole unpleasant placeholderiness of his whole courtship and how directionless the writers are now with the mess creator Amy Sherman-Palladino left them still burn.
OK, I have to run right now, but I will finish this list soon.
"Idol," Chapter Two: The Girls Can Do It Too, Y'all
If you're following "American Idol" this season, you've already heard it from people besides me. There is an NBA Eastern Conference/Western Conference-like divide between the talent pool of men and women in the competition this year. There were four performers in Wednesday night's show who were clearly an order of magnitude above any of the male singers who got their feet wet Tuesday. If I wasn't scoring on separate curves for the two groups, I would have to resort to hexadecimal numerals to fairly rate Sabrina Sloan, LaKisha Jones, Gina Glocksen, and Melinda Doolittle against male standouts A.J. Tabaldo and Chris Sligh. I don't think Jones is a shoo-in for the crown as Simon Cowell apparently does, but I do think it would be shocking if the eventual winner isn't one of the ladies, and indeed one of the four I just mentioned.
The women's group was better on its first studio night both by average performance quality across the board and the number of standout performances. However, Wednesday's "American Idol" episode was somewhat less satisfactory as a piece of television. In the wide-open men's field, it's possible to imagine anyone besides the outclassed Sundance Head getting their stuff together and riding on into the finals. Every guy on the men's squad has both strengths and weaknesses, and that makes prognosticating how things will play out in that group a lot more fun. The next few ladies' nights, however, you might as well go watch "George Lopez" if it's drama you crave. Obviously, it'll be worth tuning in to see the gifted four jockey for position. But if any of the group of Doolittle, Glocksen, Jones, and Sloan get booted before any of the eight other (semi?)finalists, it'll be an injustice. The talent gap between that group and the best of the rest (probably Stephanie Edwards) is yawning.
Stephanie Edwards The guys' group almost to a man picked safe, uninspiring material for their first time on the "Idol" stage. Edwards began the women's evening by setting a precedent for contestants biting off more than they could safely chew. She chose the (great) Prince b-side "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" and performed it in an arrangement that mostly followed the Alicia Keys cover version, although she did win some points with me by throwing in a few Artist-like exhortations to the audience. The trouble is, both Alicia and His Purpleness just completely sing the piss out of that song and Edwards has some very obvious deficiencies that left her take a poor echo. While she certainly has a powerful instrument, she tended to close her throat and sing in sharp barks rather than sustaining and finishing off longer notes as forcefully as they began. Towards the end of the song her inability to really power through and finish each note as strong as she began it led to some nearly ruinous glissandos. Nevertheless, an order of magnitude better than Tuesday's leadoff male contestant Rudy Cardenas. 7
Amy Krebs* While it was worth taking the time to try and break down the strengths and weaknesses of even the fair to middling male contestants, no miracle comeback is in the offing for Krebs. She sang what sounded like a country tune -- well, it had slide guitar in it, anyway -- but in an affectless, generic ballad style. The song was a poor choice for her register, starting off in a low alto band where she could barely work up enough steam to be heard, and then when she did work up into her money range she had already lost the plot. She didn't move around very much either. Randy Jackson said she was "better than the song she chose," so maybe I missed something. There may be two girls more obviously cannon fodder than she, but not many more than two. 4
Leslie Hunt At first it seemed like the story of the first women's show was going to be which pretty good singer would be savvy enough to not shoot themselves in the foot by picking a song they had no business considering. Hunt might have made the most egregious overreach, somehow thinking she could take on "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman." It goes without saying that no one can outsing Aretha Franklin, but I've also always been a fan of Carole King's recording of the song. It lacks the huge fireworks obviously of the Queen of Soul's version, but it has a certain everywoman quality to it that's beautiful. Nobody is going to win "American Idol" singing like Carole King, and maybe that's too bad. For Hunt and the other wannabes who simply don't have the genetic gift to simply wrestle a song to the ground and beat it into submission, they need to reconsider the old aphorism involving the dubious wisdom of remaining in kitchens while overly sensitive to heat. I don't know what their other options might be, however. It seems all too clear even after one studio show apiece that while one or two of the guys might well ride in on their looks and personality to the final four, whomever wins the ladies' division is going to be a singer. Hunt was technically solid but just staying on key isn't enough to win the "American Idol" Western Conference. 6
Sabrina Sloan The first of the real contenders, Sloan was wise enough to not try and scale the face of one of the most famous female lead vocals in history like Hunt. It will take further viewing to try and gain real separation among the fearsome foursome I've already listed. My sense now is that while Sloan has a marginally less impressive instrument than Doolittle, Jones, or Glocksen, she compensates for it with the most self-assured persona on stage. She's not one of the more vigorous physical performers by a long shot, but each of her small movements was forceful and confident. It's impossible to say after only one full performance, but I also think she might be the cream of the class when it comes to selecting and arranging material. Her spin on "Never Loved a Man the Way That I Love You," a song with which I must admit I am not familiar, suited her strengths smartly. Unlike the tendency of the lesser female contestants to weakly whisper a first verse in their head voice and then simply open up and holler from the first chorus on through to the end, Sloan dialed it back a bit for the bridge, a fresh-sounding decision. Looking forward, she can't afford a single mistake with her song choices if she wishes to keep pace with the forces of nature that are Jones and Doolittle. 9
Antonella Barba It wasn't a fiasco on the level of Sundance Head's Hindenburg-like "Nights in White Satin," but Barba gets the booby prize for Wednesday night. Simon Cowell even explicitly informed her that she had blown it and would not be coming back, not that he in fact has any say in the matter. (One of the most amusing subtle conceits of the show is the fact that the imperious Cowell is stuck with the results of the fan voting just as much as everybody else once the studio segments begin.) Yes, well. Barba isn't a good singer and picked just about the direst piece of dreary played-out garbage imaginable ("I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," of course popularized by Aerosmith but in fact written by pop pablum peddler Diane Warren). Sometimes I can get past my hatred for a song, but not this song, and certainly not for this singer. Barba isn't in the same class as any of the others, even her fellow also-rans. I wonder how she possibly made it this far? 3
Jordin Sparks As soon as I heard the intro, I knew Sparks was going to face an uphill battle to win my approval. "Give Me One Reason" isn't just my favorite of all the songs I've heard performed on "American Idol" this season so far, but it's also the only one I've performed on stage myself, with my college band the Johnson Administration. I wouldn't go so far as to say I myself can sing the song better than Jordin Sparks, but the whole time she was doing her thing I was really wishing I was listening to Tracy Chapman. On the plus side, Sparks seems to have a rare gift among "Idol" contenders. She can take criticism and respond to it. During her audition, Cowell said her singing style was far too sugary for his tastes, and she picked a blues song and sang it with some grit. It wasn't the right blues song, alas. 6
Nicole Tranquillo Randy Jackson's response to "Stay" as sung by Traquillo was "too urban." Dude, it's OK, you can just say black. Everyone knows that euphemism by now. I didn't think that was the problem, anyway, but rather a chain of very blue, almost purple notes and an onstage tendency to stay rooted to one spot, vaguely bounding to create the illusion of movement. A lightweight. 5
Haley Scarnato* Once again, a contestant whose song choice reach rather exceeded their grasp. Celine Dion is a truly pernicious force in the universe (which of course is true of all French Canadian people), but if there's anything worse than hearing one of her cheesy numbers sung by the genuine article, it's hearing it sung by a clearly outclassed "American Idol" also-ran. Scarnato in fact did admirably well with her pitch control, but she didn't manage to land a single line in the verse properly on any measure beyond the first. She continued to have timing problems all the way through to the end. Scarnato among the average-to-average-plus girls might have the easiest route to significant improvement. She picked a tune that she could neither sing particularly well nor apparently remember perfectly. That's the trouble with the "Idol" Western Conference though. Scarnato could turn around and give the performance of her life next week and she still wouldn't be able to reach the heavy hitters with a science pole. 6
Melinda Doolittle The first word I wrote down was PWNAGE. Which I suppose is not a word, strictly speaking, but it gets the point across. Doolittle did "Since You Been Gone" and while I waited until the very end to make sure she really earned her 10, she didn't hit a single note sharp or flat and she was the first performer yet to make it past the obligatory end-of-song excessive display of vocal fluidity without errantly producing unpleasant noises here and there. Doolittle was actually able to go out even further with her outro ad-libbing without ever seeming out of control. If Doolittle has a problem it might be that her booming voice comes out too easily; the judges were more impressed by the more clearly straining LaKisha Jones. Doolittle is a pro backing singer by trade (like a lot of the frontrunners on both sides of the gender gap) and she needs to be proactive about shedding her meek supporting-player persona. She is not a supporting player. She is a star, for sure. I honestly don't know if she is my pick to win it all right now. Jones is very close and Sloan and Glocksen are not to be discounted. She simply sang the only flawless piece of music in the whole evening, so she gets the only perfect score. I hope to be able to spread more tens around next week. 10
Alaina Alexander Right before the post-Doolittle break, Ryan Seacrest, the second-most expensive stage prop on the "Idol" set after the jumbo flat screen, announced that the next two artists whose work was to be covered were The Pretenders (yay) and Celine Dion again (nay). The next two singers scheduled to walk out were SoCal mall chick Alaina Alexander and the pink-streaked-haired, tattoo-bearing Gina Glocksen. Of course, it was Alexander singing the classic rock "Brass in Pocket" and Glocksen tackling the dire "All By Myself." Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, it's a beautiful thing, ladies and gentlemen. Chrissie Hynde is just one of the toughest, sexiest rock chicks to ever practice sneering in the mirror and "Brass in Pocket" is her most confident declaration of self. Alexander's deconstruction of it slowed the tempo, un-rocked the guitars, and gave it such a generic karaoke delivery that I'm surprised young Alaina didn't introduce the piece by dedicating it to all her best girlfriends in Ms. Ellis's homeroom. Lame! 4
Gina Glocksen It's odd, but while there are a number of contestants in the men's group who I find to be pretty easy on the eyes, as for the girls, there ain't a real looker in the bunch. I'm choosing Glocksen as my "Idol" crush because she kind of looks like Tina Majorino, she's from my 'hood (Naperville, IL), and...well, she's in my dating weight class. She is definitely pretty enough that I would date her and not so pretty that she wouldn't date me. Of course, soon she'll have a record contract and it'll all be moot, but allow me my fun. (Oh yeah, for those of you who don't know, I'm 26. It's OK for me to lust after any "Idol" contestants except for Sanjaya Malakar and Jordin Sparks, the two minors in the competition.) Okay, and on to Glocksen's actual merits as a singer. Like Chris Sligh, my current favorite over on the guys' side, Glocksen has a voice you'd don't expect to hear based on her appearance. Randy Jackson had the exact same response as I to her performance. We both thought "All By Myself" would chew her up and spit her out, but she really nailed it. In pure ability she lags slightly behind the Jones/Doolittle axis and a little bit out in front of Sloan. She's not super self-assured onstage yet but not insignificantly she's the most glib and charming speaker among the four heavyweights. Oversized paperweight Seacrest asked her how confident she felt about the big finish to "All By Myself" beforehand. "About a 6," Glocksen said. Afterwards? "About a 12." 9
LaKisha Jones LaKisha Jones fits an established archetype -- real big black girl with a even bigger voice -- only she's too obviously talented to start classifying her by her appearance. And, for the record, while Jones is undeniably zaftig, she's still one of the sexier women in the cast. If she ends up collaborating with C + C Music Factory down the line, they won't feel the need to recast her part in the video with an anorexic Asian woman. I think in overall potential Jones is neck and neck with Doolittle and ahead of the other two, but I didn't give her the highest score possible for Wednesday night. While the judges were immoderate in heaping praise on the single mom, I don't know how they managed to miss the horrible creak-wheeze that emerged from Jones' remarkable lungs in place of the last couple bars of "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going." She got all the way to the finish line and then collapsed spectacularly, like in that triathlon ad. So that's going to cost her this time around, but the rest of her number, as Cowell said, has "thrown down the gauntlet" for the rest of the "Idol" hopefuls. 8
Well, the results show is tonight! Who's excited? A pointless additional hour of product placements to get to a mere four names! And here are the picks:
Homes (sophisticated analysis): Sundance Head, Nick Pedro, Antonella Barba, Alaina Alexander
I'll get my sister Ellie's picks up soon. Play along at home!
Culture Clash: Westy vs. "Idol," Part the First
Until last week, I had never watched a single second of television karaoke contest phenomenon "American Idol." I figured this season was going to be as good a time as any to jump in and give it a chance. I am trying to write more stuff for Homes Dot TV, and apparently the show is something of a hit, so why not watch one episode and see if there was anything in particular I had to say about it? I am allegedly a music critic, although most of the promos that find their way to my address are of the handmade package, stoned undergrads with a four-track variety. I don't know how much of the general Toaster audience follow the show, but as soon as I got through my first episode, I knew that I was pretty much going to have to write about it, for one minor supporting reason and one big huge obvious one.
The minor supporting reason is that it's a very strange, watchable little show. The whole "voted off the island" thing was compelling enough for me to watch one and only one season of "Survivor;" I already feel that "American Idol" does a better job of sustaining drama out of the concept. I mean, this isn't a game show for these people, nearly all of whom try to feign bravado but resemble unmistakably deer in headlights. Every week, people's dreams get crushed. Isn't that poetic? Well, no, it's the TV-PG analogue of a snuff film, but we've all got a little bit of sicko in us that enjoys watching the suffering of others. (That's why so many people saw Passion of the Christ, I bet. And Simon Cowell is easily as sadistic as Gonzo Mel.) The first episode I watched was the most brutal, the "Hollywood round" where they went from 200 people to 24, and it was like watching mass executions, with twitching corpses and bodily fluids and everything.
When I watched the first episode of the studio round, which featured the twelve male finalists swinging their respective things, I immediately saw why the deviously simple format is so competition-crushingly effective and at the same time pleasingly postmodern. Since the studio shows are all live and the audience votes each week, there isn't any way for the "Idol" editors to build storylines. Several of the contestants in the final 24 hadn't gotten any screen time at all before Tuesday night's show. A lot of the likable folks who got the most burn in the Hollywood week are gone. It seems terribly unfair to the guys like Jared Cotter that the more immediately engaging Chris Sligh and Sanjaya Malakar already had huge fanbases before he even got to sing note one over the air. But nothing about "Idol" is fair -- it's contrived, garish, arbitrary, and profoundly American. I kind of love it already.
But that isn't even the major reason! The major reason is, as I found while I was watching the 12 guys do their business, writing copy inches about "American Idol" is insanely easy. You just get a notebook and write two or three things about each guy, stick a numerical score 1-10 on him, then go in the other room and type it up. If I ever get my laptop fixed, I can cut even the notebook-to-computer bit out and voila, three effort-free posts a week! Hooray!
One more thing. I want to be sure to justify this as a scientific experiment and not merely wallowing with the masses out in lowest-common-denominatorland. Therefore I'm going to get a male and a female (it's 2 a.m. as I write this, so I don't know whom exactly, but probably the research department and one of my various sisters) who don't watch the show to look at photos of the finalists each week and pick the ones they think are going to get axed based on appearance alone. Then we'll compare them to my picks and the actual results and make a bar graph or something. Maybe if there's a place where you can listen to the audio of the performances alone without seeing the singers I'll get an experimental group for that too. (The control group can be my parents, who will continue blissfully knowing absolutely nothing about "Idol" or indeed any popular music created since 1972.)
Well, anyway, for Tuesday's show with the guys, here's what I thought.
Rudy Cardenas Like I said I haven't watched "Idol" before this year so I had no idea where the curve would land. I thought Cardenas was an average male singer, on a scale where 10 is Robin Zander and 1 is Wreckless Eric. As it turns out among this group Cardenas was one of the better technical singers. He made a good decision picking an upbeat song ("Free Ride"), but he was a little exposed on the high notes. He was the only one of the twelve performers who could vocally ad lib with any confidence, but his movements were pretty stiff. 5
Brandon Rogers Definitely one of the guys who can get by on his looks so long as he doesn't take any big chances with material that will expose his mediocre instrument. Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" might have been a bit too generic. Like a lot of the male cast, Rogers is in his late 20's but appears to be much younger. He has charm, and pro dance moves from his background as a backup singer, but I don't think he's a heavyweight. 6
Sundance Head Head was the star of last week's climax, when he and a substantially less immediately dislikable guy were brought in to face the judges together with only one men's spot remaining. It was surprising that he got through there, since he was terrible in both the group performances and his last pre-studio solo shot. The judges must have really seen something in his initial audition. Anyway, he got two second chances, but I highly doubt he will get a third. I didn't give him the lowest score of the twelve, but I think he's a near lock to get the axe Thursday. His "Nights in White Satin" was pretty monstrous. He was out of key throughout with zero stage presence. In the interviews before and afterwards it was clear he just couldn't take the pressure. 3
Paul Kim* Kim is the Asian-American guy with the bare feet gimmick. He dug himself a huge hole, in my book, by choosing "Careless Whispers," a song I can't stand. I might even have ended up scoring him a little high because despite the awful tune he showed me a few things. He was hardly the first person to start the first verse timidly, but when he got to the chorus and hit his third gear I was surprised by the power he had held in reserve. There is an interesting risk/reward system going on when it comes to the performers' choices between ballads and uptempo material. The rock numbers are fewer, so anybody who chooses to do one is getting a bit of a free boost from change-of-pace factor. (It also doesn't hurt at all to lean on the "Idol" band, which is so sharp it's sick. I hope all of those guys are getting mad paid, especially the lead guitar player.) But, on the other hand, if you do pick a ballad and you nail it, you've got to have a degree-of-difficulty boost coming. Kim's vocal was technically all over the map, but overall I had a positive impression. He could be a sleeper because he's got the all-around game. He's not the most charming, the best looking, or the best singer, but he's definitely got at least a little something going in each of those areas. Cowell: "Well, the original is so good...." 7
Chris Richardson Unlike Kim, he has some very big strengths and some very glaring weak spots. He picked a rocker ("I Don't Want to Be") with a pretty simple melody right in that first tenor wheelhouse, so he ought to have been blasting, but while his pitch control is quite good he's the weakest projector in the male cast. Lack of booming pipes didn't hurt Justin Timberlake's career, and that's who Richardson is acknowledgeably channeling. The judges might harp on Richardson's lack of originality, but somehow I don't think the voters will be concerned about that since he looks quite a bit like Timberlake too. One thing you can say in plagiarism's favor, at least when you get up on stage you know what it is you're going to do up there. Richardson was most of the most confident guys as far as playing to the camera, moving around naturally, and just generally exuding charisma. I had to dock him a point for hitting the last note flat. Everybody except A.J. Tabaldo hit many blue notes, but pop songs nearly always end on the tonic and if you can't hit the first note in a major key in pitch in a song that's been arranged specifically for your voice, there's not much I can do to help you. 7
Nick Pedro I only wrote down two words and a null set symbol for Pedro. The first word was "TEPID," in all caps. Then came the ø, then the word "personality." I came this close to reducing his score to the minimum because he made a "Vote for Pedro!" crack right after his "Now and Forever." Then I thought better of it, thinking that ultimately it's not Nick Pedro's fault that I loathe the film Napolean Dynamite for much the same reason that Eric Cartman loathes "Family Guy." (And for stealing one of Elvis Costello's lesser-used pseudonyms, although really now how many pseudonyms does one man need?) Well, you can see I don't have a lot nice to say about Nick Pedro, since I'm meandering even more than usual. I will say that if you plugged a tape of his bit into a computer and had it calculate how closely he adhered to pitch, he would probably be second- or third-best in the ensemble, behind only Tabaldo and maybe Richardson. That's not all it takes, though. Mick Jagger has been singing consistently a quarter-step flat for 45 years and look how that ended up, there's a show on TV where comedians try to rob him. Cowell on Pedro: "Didn't think it was all that bad actually." 2
Blake Lewis* Going in, Lewis was sort of an enigma. He was one of the most prominent figures in the Hollywood show, teaming up with fellow finalist Chris Sligh and some also-rans for the standout song of the group stage. The thing is, we'd hardly heard him sing at all. Lewis is a real good beatboxer, which was a neat gimmick to get him past the auditions and through to the big show, but as the judges kept reminding him this week and the last, it's a singing contest. He made a very risky choice with "Somewhere Only We Know," a Keane tune that's a little AOR for usual "Idol" tastes and, like the national anthem, is more or less impossible to sing for all but the most experienced and well-lubricated professional vocalists. Lewis gave it the old college try and did about as well as could be expected, but he could have and should have chosen a more gradual path. The smart move would have been to pick something more in line with his established style and that he could sing comfortably. Lewis's misstep when it comes to song choice contrasts nicely with the judgement error made earlier on by Brandon Rogers. Rogers already had established his chops in the early rounds and desperately needed something into which he could invest his personality, assuming he has one. Lewis on the other hand has already won over the judges and the rest of the cast with his versatility and his easy, grounded manner. What he needs to do now is prove he belongs in the contest on his merits as a singer alone. Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, who like Ryan Seacrest are complete dead weight included only to pad the shows out to two hours ("American Idol" is about Simon and his victims, period) unhelpfully told Lewis afterwards that they were disappointed he didn't beatbox. Cowell and I were for once in agreement: Lewis was "100% right" to concentrate on singing his first time out on the "AI" stage. 6
Sanjaya Malakar* The Indian subcontinent's answer to David Cassidy, the 17-year-old has Q factor emanating in beams from his ridiculously wide eyes and bright smile. The producers manipulatively cut Malakar's sister right after she performed with him, leading to a stagey tearful hug scene which might give Malakar enough of an unfair advantage that he can hang in there long enough to get his act together. His voice is fair, and he did us all a favor by shaving off the eyebrow-pencil goatee he wore at his first audition. No doubt about it though, the sequence of heavyweights that followed Malakar -- the four last singers were very clearly the best of the night -- exposed the kid as a lightweight. The judges were pretty ruthless about telling him so, too. Jackson: "Not even remotely close." Cowell: "The most dreary performance all night." He sentimentally allowed his fallen sister to choose his song (Stevie Wonder's "Knocks Me Off My Feet") and I dunno, maybe she was trying to sabotage him or something, but it was schmaltzy and dreadful. Malakar kept in key for the most part and despite his lack of movement he still has decent stage presence, but it's going to be really hard for him against a bunch of men in their late 20's, many of whom have years of professional experience. 4
Chris Sligh Sligh's place in the finals was the lockingest lock of locks that ever locked even after his first audition, but his obvious utility as a character on the show (he's disarming, quick on his feet, and utterly unintimidated by Cowell) might cause people to underestimate his chances to win the whole shebang. Sligh is so goofy-looking ("What would people be surprised to learn about you?" asks his "Idol" Q+A page, "I'm chubby," Sligh responds) that your brain can have a little difficulty accepting how accomplished of a singer he is. Sligh boasted before he went on that his secret weapon was song choice (and became roughly the 83rd contestant thus far to guarantee his eventual victory) and while his vocal on "Typical" was roundly above average it was hardly the best in the show. It was indeed the choice of song, with funky bass and the most modern of the arrangements chosen by the male performers, that won Sligh the highest score of the evening. The one thing Sligh might want to look after is moving around a little bit more on stage, but he's a contender and don't let the Joe Maddon glasses fool you into thinking otherwise. 9
Jared Cotter There are definitely a handful of guys in the final twelve who got way more than their fair share of screen time in the early episodes, but no one got hosed more than Cotter. I honestly didn't recognize him when I saw Tuesday's show. On the other hand, if Cotter managed to make the big cut without demonstrating any personality at all, his voice must indeed be impressive. And it is. He's one of the only guys in the cast who can sell a weak song ("Back at One") hard and get away with it. I was prepared to give him my second nine of the night but he completely fluffed the bridge, sang the whole thing out of tune, a mistake he can afford at this point but not in a week or two's time when the more obvious cannon fodder has been cleared out of the way. Cowell was on point again when he told Cotter, "Take a few more risks." 7
A.J. Tabaldo If you're going to have a pair of favorites among the guys, best that they contrast. Sligh is your style guy, and A.J. Tabaldo is Mr. Substance. He's kind of little and not at all striking-looking, but far and away he has the best tone control in the group. He did something called "Never Too Much" and was on top of it the whole way through. Other than pure vocal ability, however, he would rank in the bottom half in everything: style, stage presence, song choice...but it is a singing contest, right? Tabaldo and Kim stand to benefit most from the obvious not-ready-for-prime-timeness of Head and Pedro. The fan-vote format must be murder on the guys who are great singers but don't really have immediately memorable ways of carrying themselves like Sligh, Lewis, and to a lesser extent Rogers and Richardson. Thankfully, before the guys long in substance get unjustly shipped out, the dudes with neither chops nor star power will eat it. Probably. If Malakar becomes a big fan favorite (it's certainly not impossible) he could end up riding roughshod over more competent but less telegenic guys such as Cotter and Cardenas. Tabaldo I feel is too obviously talented to end up receiving an unjust shafting on the part of the capricious American home viewing audience, but not everyone agrees with me. Cowell gave A.J. the backhanded compliment "Better than I originally thought" but couldn't be convinced to say anything more charitable than that. 8
Phil Stacey Going first and going last both must really suck. By the time the bald, vaguely asymmetrical-looking Stacey hit the stage, most "Idol" viewers were probably deeply involved in debate over whether Malakar or Richardson was cuter. Stacey is a bona fide musician and knows how to handle himself on stage, taking a number by noted wuss-rocker Edwin McCain and actually making the thing groove a little bit. Trouble is he's not the best at anything and there are a couple of guys who are both slightly better singers than he and substantially better-looking. His luck of the draw in having to go on twelfth hurts a lot. As it shook out, he had to follow the three best performances of the night to that point. I doubt it will cost him his place in the dance, but he would have been able to build up a great deal more momentum going forward had he gotten to follow Cardenas, Head, or Pedro. 8
Well, tomorrow we'll do the girls, and hopefully will also introduce our crack scientific experiment team. One more thing: Not once but twice during the broadcast celebrity coathanger Ryan Seacrest made unfunny, knee-jerk homophobic jokes -- once when he said he was glad he wasn't sitting next to a male finalist who was quite innocently complimenting the looks of some of his counterparts, and then again when Cowell amusingly called him "sweetheart." I can't believe that the most popular show in American television is perpetuating that junor high school stuff. You know what homophobia really says about you, Ryan? Oh, I could go for a very, very obvious joke right here. But earlier I castigated a castmember for making that stupid "Vote for Pedro" joke, so I'm going to take the high ground and leave it out. But you can build it yourself if you choose. All you need is the two words to Seacrest's sublingual catchphrase, an ellipsis (...), and a question mark. Think about it.
I pulled in an excellent haul at the Barnes & Noble clearance rack last night. I'm on a big WWII kick lately, having completed John Keegan's definitive overview of the war's military operations, now I have a whole book just on the Bletchley Park codebreakers in which to bask. Winning wars with math, what a concept.
I've also been reading Lou Cannon's very detailed book on the chaos and infighting in Ronald Reagan's White House staff. This was a Christmas gift from my well-meaning Boston liberal sister, possibly as revenge for shaming her into reading Barack Obama's first book at Christmas '05. The Role of a Lifetime is a very timely book. If you choose to read it a certain way, you can view all of the problems Reagan's people got into trying to guess what advice it was their aloof, conflict-loathing boss's desire to hear from them as a parallel for the current executive branch's failure to cohere or execute any kind of effective policy.
At the same time, I was struck by how the men of Reagan's cabinet were so deeply affected by World War II, despite the fact that most of them were Baby Boomers. The famous public relations flap caused by Reagan's visit to the German military cemetery at Bitburg in 1985 (memorialized in song by the Ramones' "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg") illustrates how deeply the ghosts of the great war continued to define international policy two generations later. NATO, the Cold War, Israel-Palestine, and in an indirect sense the civil rights movement were all proximate causes of what land everybody was holding and who owed what to whom when the fighting ceased in 1945.
(It makes me feel somewhat guilty now that despite holding a degree in history from a prestigious American land-grant university nearly everything I know about modern Europe I learned from Patrick O'Brian novels, the Call of Duty series of video games, and the 2000 Alec Baldwin miniseries Nuremberg. Did anybody else see that? Quite good. And you have to love Brian Cox in anything, especially when he takes a role as a way of saying "You didn't like my Hannibal? Not good enough for you? Just not evil enough compared to Hopkins? Well, check it out, now I'm playing Göring." Anyway my somewhat bizarre college transcript has nothing to do with a high-minded attempt on my part to concentrate my studies on the misunderstood, rarely considered flyover regions of the globe. Although I did take a semester on Canada. The real source of the lapse was my highly demanding scheduling regimen at the time, which allowed no classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays and certainly none beginning before 12:30 in the afternoon. This was the same brilliant schedule that allowed me to stay in college for five years despite entering as a junior.)
Since I was alive during the Reagan administration, I remember what the Cold War was like. I kind of miss it. It made casting heavies in Bruce Willis movies a snap, and there's got to be something to be said for any condition of mass paranoia that causes a victory in an amateur hockey game to be viewed as a national accomplishment on par with Wellington and the Prussians' rout of the French in Belgium, 1815. But for my cousins ten years younger than I, "West Germany" is just a Minutemen song. Remember those lighter-waving music videos of 1991 and 1992 by such acts as Scorpions that managed to imply that harmonized guitar solos somehow caused the Berlin Wall to fall?
While I don't feel as if the world is suffering much culturally from the decline in popularity of Jesus Jones, there are other major works that I can't help but feel will be received very differently in the next fifty years than as in the last half-century. The particular example that is sticking in my craw at the moment is Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The degree to which the trilogy works as an allegory for England's decline as a world power as a direct effect of global war is subject to discussion. But, it is not up for debate that the author himself was deeply affected by both the Second World War and the First, in which he served. He was a harsh critic of communism, Nazism, and (as a native South African) apartheid. It's true that the Lord of the Rings itself has some vaguely disquieting fascist undertones, but that's beyond the scope of our discussion and I'm certainly not saying the books are a blow-by-blow fictionalization of campaigns in the western theater. However, there is one aspect to Rings that's always been a part of my appreciation of the books that I imagine younger fans drawn in by Peter Jackson's laudable film adaptations miss completely.
When Return of the King, the film, first came out, like most longtime fans of the books I had to come to terms with the necessary cuts and compromises. If you have a passing familiarity with either series, I'm sure you know the specific omission to which I'm referring. There's a sequence in the novel long after all of the main action has concluded where the hobbits return to the Shire and a still very much alive Saruman has despoiled their home and enslaved their people. There is no possible way Jackson could have filmed and mounted the complicated action which resolves this and shoehorned it into a movie that was already forty-five minutes slacker than it absolutely needed to be. It would almost require a fourth film. Anyone who has managed to watch the entirety of the director's cut of Return of the King, including the interminable conclusion, knows well there can be too much of a good thing.
However. The tone on which Jackson's trilogy ends and the notes that Tolkien's last few chapters sound, despite both following the same narrative, are quite different. The novels absolutely teem with a sense of loss. The elves are leaving Middle-Earth right this minute; the dwarves and hobbits are living on borrowed time, and even the noble men of Aragorn's line (that's the fascist thread I was picking at earlier, with the Númenoreans living lifespans five or six times longer than "lesser" men and at times being described as almost a separate race) will intermarry and die out within a handful of generations. Through Jackson's vision the final departure from the Grey Havens plays out triumphantly. In the novel it's almost unbearably melancholy. Frodo suffers recurring pain from the wounds of his quest for the rest of his life in Middle-Earth. If you choose to, the analog version of Lord of the Rings can be read as deep tragedy. Our heroes (especially Frodo and Gandalf) fight tirelessly and at great personal cost to protect a world that once saved can no longer be their home. That's pretty sad, isn't it? It also seems like a message with which a British solider returning to the Home Islands in 1945 could really identify. As Keegan points out with great clarity in his military history, Britain was only able to keep its war machine running by completely liquidating its overseas assets and rampantly industrializing whatever flat land it held out of range of the Blitz. To the spiritual, nature-loving Tolkien, the cure was almost as bad as the disease.
He also didn't care very much for nuclear weapons, and you could (others surely have) spin a whole other construct off regarding the One Ring and the H-bomb, if you were so inclined. However, in terms of the overall impression left by absorbing the piece, nothing changes Lord of the Rings quite like eliminating the ambiguity of the ending. The movies are fabulous pieces of entertainment to be sure. As a matter of fact, since it's seasonal, let me share an anecdote with you. For a time, I had a streak going of having seen every Oscar Best Picture winner in the theater since Dances with Wolves in 1990. (By the way, how did that movie win Best Picture? Costner sucks.) It wasn't any sort of deliberate move on my part. Until Chicago in 2002, I saw all of them before the awards were handed out. It just seemed like for whatever reason I ended up going to see these movies, then a few weeks later they would win. It got to the point where I felt I was doing the other nominees a disservice by not going to see all the nominated films every year.
Anyway, I let the streak die last year. I did go to see Million Dollar Baby, not that I had any idea that it would win, but last year I was aware I could go see Crash somewhere after it won if I wanted to keep the run going and I decided its time was past. Why? Return of the King. One Best Picture winner in 15 years that was actually the best movie I saw that year? I don't like those odds.
But It's Always Good to See Brian Posehn Getting Work
Do I lose my standing as a feminist because I found the Girls Gone Wild advertisements airing during the late night rerun of "The Sarah Silverman Program" I just watched to be better-written, better-produced, and on the whole more entertaining (not to mention way funnier) than the show itself? I've never understood the public's fascination with Silverman, although to be fair my exposure has been less to her standup and more to her supporting roles in films, which invariably cast her in stock harridan girlfriend roles. I suppose there is a certain artistry to the anti-versatility which allowed the actress to repeat the precise same performance in the otherwise dissimilar School of Rock and "Futurama." Her sitcom however is a tone-deaf stream of unpleasant potty language.
I mean, hey, swears are great. I love Clerks; I love Goodfellas. But they're not an end in and of themselves. Comedy Central ought to know better; they aired the great "South Park" episode "It Hits the Fan." In that show, you may remember, Trey Parker and Matt Stone drew attention to the incredibly fleeting shelf life of shock value by repeating the same obscenity over and over so many times (complete with counter!) that it lost all meaning. They also skewered TV shows trying to draw in viewers with bare butts and naughty words through the device of a network constantly trying to outdo itself and keep viewers tuned in first with one s-word, then two s-words, then an entire night of programming in which every actor simply said the s-word over and over again. That was satire, though. "The Sarah Silverman Program," bless its smutty, unfunny little heart, is just senseless, contextless vulgarity from start to finish. However it will likely expand your vocabulary. Many of the words I heard in this my first episode I was honestly not familiar enough with to be shocked by. Maybe I'm less jaded than I thought I was! That's a cheering thought.
Comedy Central has had tremendous difficulty developing new shows since Dave Chappelle flew the coop. "South Park" has recently rallied after a long lull caused by its creators stretching themselves too thin; after ten seasons it's arguably as strong as it's ever been. (This surge in quality is helped along, no doubt, by the fact that the real world has grown so ever-increasingly bizarre in the last decade that finding subject matter must be a relative breeze.) Trying to keep track of the number of "promising" new shows Comedy Central has tried to launch in the slot after "South Park," however, is a chore. "Drawn Together": not funny. "Freak Show": amazingly, given the talents of the usually unconscious David Cross and H. Jon Benjamin, not funny. The new "Naked Trucker & T-Bones Show," despite featuring the demonstrably hilarious Dave "Gruber" Allen ("Freaks and Geeks") and David Koechner from Anchorman: nope, sorry. The network's second-most successful scripted show is probably "Mind of Mencia," a depressingly bigoted steaming pile that makes one pine for the relatively enlightened "Man Show." (And who decided this untalented loudmouth was worthy of a Super Bowl commercial? Seriously!)
Amazingly, the one truly original show coughed up by Comedy Central in the post-Chappelle era, "Stella," was mishandled from the start and never had much of a chance of getting out of its commendable first season, thankfully now on DVD. The not-quite-a-sketch-show, not-quite-a-sitcom featuring David Wain, Michael Showalter, and Michael Ian Black of the old MTV sketch series "The State" and the underappreciated movie Wet Hot American Summer had some serious screwball inspiration behind it, and what's more unlike most Comedy Central original productions it didn't look like it was shot on a regional cable soundstage by a bunch of stoned high school kids with a Handicam.
Speaking of Michael Showalter, I recently saw his film The Baxter for the first time and I was surprised by how sweetly old-fashioned it was. While the dialogue is just off-center enough to be ever so slightly surreal in the way "Stella" is, The Baxter lays off on the more over-the-top sight and continuity gags of Wet Hot (directed by Wain, written by Wain and Showalter) to tell a predictable but nonetheless effective story. You know that guy in movies who's perfectly nice and everything, but through no fault of his own is ultimately a device to keep the leading man and the leading lady from their perfect curtain-fall kiss for an hour and a half? Reviews I've read of the film by older critics mention other roles, but for my generation the ultimate example has got to be Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle. Showalter calls that guy a baxter, and (obviously), he plays one in his movie. Elizabeth Banks is the girl he's all wrong for, and an almost nauseatingly lovable Michelle Williams plays another classic archetype, the gal pal who's really the hero's unrealized true love. (The ultimate example of this is a gimme: Jennifer Love Hewitt in Trojan War.)
The Baxter rides close in there on that fine line between thumbs-up and thumbs-down, or two and a half stars as compared to three, if you prefer. The fact that the plot is completely mimeographed is sort of the point. Still, the waits between the delicately comedic bits are longer than they need be. Showalter's commitment as a director to make sure that every scene of the typical Ryan/Roberts rom-com is acted out in full, even if long stretches aren't at all funny, is typical of the old "State" tendency to discomfit its audience even as it extracted laughs. I don't know if most people will like it as much as I did -- the reviews were mixed -- but there are worse films you can fish out of the previously viewed bin at Hollywood Video for six bucks. The existence of The Baxter (he wrote as a framing device) almost begs for a parallel film to be made about an equally overused and disrespected female type from movies of this genre. I'm talking about the Sarah Silverman character from School of Rock and "Futurama." And Way of the Gun. And "Aqua Teen." When does the screechy, disapproving, PMS-bomb soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend character get to find true love?
According to Silverman's IMDb mini-bio, the answer is in 2002, with Jimmy Kimmel. Jimmy Kimmel? Forget it, I wouldn't see that movie if you paid me.
Let's Repurpose/Son of Children of Men
We are all our own worst enemies. There aren't any rules for what I can or can't put in this humble little space, but the first several things I wrote were kind of meandering, overarching think pieces. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I don't wish to become a slave to precedent. In the interest of trying to get a more regular drumbeat of updates up here, I am resolved to start writing more and thinking less. Try and keep your sighs of relief to yourself.
Realistically no one ever bagged on me for wandering into non-baseball topics over at my baseball page, so I don't see how anyone would get mad at me for betraying the concept of my even more vaguely defined entertainment-y site. As I've tried to keep both sites interesting to myself, I've noticed how differently I absorb sports entertainment from music, film, and television. It's funny. You would think that the obsessive attention to scheduling required of all devoted sports fans would carry over into these other areas. If you always know where your team is and when they're playing, why can't you also keep track of what weekend a movie is opening or what the new timeslot of your favorite Wednesday night drama is? I'm always up to the minute with sports news, but I can't be bothered with Hollywood's schedule, which is quite rigid and unyielding in its own sense. I can't go too far into the psychology of this. I just said I was going to knock it off with the think pieces. But, you know, if you have some navel-gazing time, consider: isn't the most freeing thing about being a ridiculously obsessive sports fan the lack of choice? So many things on so many channels. Digital downloads, Netflix, and TiVo have completed changed the way we access most spectator entertainment. But during baseball season, if the Rockies are playing, I'm going to be watching the Rockies game. For two hours at least I don't have to think about the horrible array of options from which I'm going to have to choose to occupy my time after the game is over. I don't often consider it consciously, but that's a heck of a burden Colorado is lifting from me. No wonder I'm so much more stressed out in the offseason.
Well, what I'd really like to write about is the "Lost" relaunch, but guess what. I forgot to put Season Pass back on for the first new episode after the long hiatus. I'm downloading it now. It will give me something to write about tomorrow, which is good. For a couple of weeks last year I ran a blog at tv.com where I would just make a list of everything I watched on TV each day and then sort of spitball about each thing for a paragraph or so. Wildly self-indulgent (and damningly evident of just how much of my limited time I spend viewing and re-viewing "Simpsons" and "Buffy" episodes which I can confidently state without any hint of exaggeration I have seen at least fifty times before), perhaps, but the kernel of a good idea is there. I don't plan on letting you guys know my opinion on the scoring of each and every "Around the Horn" episode I will view from here on out, but rather than watching tons of things and waiting for major inspiration to strike, maybe I'll concentrate on quantity over quality. This is a website, after all.
I recently saw the film Children of Men for the second time after watching it once and then re-reading the novel, which I had read more than ten years ago but of which I remembered little. I was hoping that this process would give me a lot of insights for a long meandering post, but what can I tell you. You guys all know that movies are different from books, and you all know that the world has changed substantially since P.D. James wrote her only non-crime novel back in 1992. Children of Men is well worth reading, and is conveniently just about the length of a flight from Chicago to Denver. The film, as the reviews have noted, takes little from the book past the framing concept and some character names (though most of these characters have been hugely changed). This isn't a situation where the adaptation has either fatally wounded or ingeniously improved upon the vision of the original, leaving one or the other the definitive statement. The fact of the movie has neither diminished nor increased my appreciation of the source material. Children of Men is a book with big weaknesses in characterization and storytelling pace overcome by the resonance of its huge ideas. My familiarity with the book didn't play largely into how I responded to the film, which I liked but didn't love. I suspect that most liberal-minded people will prefer Alfonso Cuarón's scuzzy, violent take on mankind's twilight years rather than James' rather more static original vision of a near future where causes unknown have rendered the entire race infertile.
James' novel is overtly Christian and more than a little bit fascist. Cuarón chooses to smear the distinctions between good and bad more, as opposed to the novel, where a very clearly defined and obviously identified villain is the most interesting character in the cast. Crucially, the director also shifts the timeline, one of the several subtle ways that the film is imprinted by the fifteen years of real history that have passed since the book's debut in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. The exact years aren't important, but James' story is set 25 years after the birth of the last human. The film version dials this back to 18. Sure, it would have been a rare treat to see a science fiction movie with a bunch of middle-aged heroes. Protagonist Theo is a fifty-year-old Oxford don in the novel and a somewhat younger and more vital low-level government functionary in the film as played by Clive Owen. Well, that's just show business for you, but the change is about more than creating roles for sexier actors. Almost all of the action in James' novel takes place in pastoral spaces. With civilization retreating to large population centers, the world is just in the early stages of turning all of the lights off, and James' story takes place right on the line of retreat. During the book's first half almost no action takes place. Theo visits abandoned museums, churchyards and parks just falling into disrepair, and haunted seaside towns. James' gifts as a scenarist make these the most indelible passages in the novel.
The demographic change that Cuarón makes completely alters the reality in which the film takes place. James acknowledges the violent death throes civilization would go through after her sudden impotence scenario, but they have largely died out by the time her narrative begins. The surviving humans are too old and defeated to make it through any of the action through which Owen's Theo navigates in the movie. Children of Men the film is about a much more currently topical political space, a dystopian England and Europe where an increasing number of violent factions are fighting ever more viciously over control of a future of diminishing returns. All of the changes made from page to screen reflect this. Theo's ex-wife is a completely different person in the novel, depicted as a vacuous, unquestioning escapist who denies the reality of the world outside while obsessing over the decoration of her flat and the pregnancy of her pet cat. (One of the creepier touches from the novel that doesn't make it across to the film with its separate agenda is the tendency of middle-aged women to delusionally anthropomorphize animals and dolls.) In the film she's a freedom fighter who drafts Theo to her cause, which is somehow finding a safe haven for a miraculously pregnant teenaged refugee.
In that sense Children of Men maintains the same through line as a film as it did a novel. Both pieces are chase stories. Theo and the pregnant woman are on the run, and pretty much everybody is chasing them. Whom is being chased changes, since the pregnant character (Julian in the book, Kee in the film) is completely different from one version to the other. But that's ultimately less important than the terrain through which the heroes are being chased. If James showed rural England gradually devolving into Middle-Earth, Cuarón turns London into Beirut. Children of Men the film doesn't have the time to discuss all of the fascinating sociopolitical fallout of extinction that the novel has. Instead, it shows rather than tells, as Theo and Kee flee refugee camps, summary executions, and the constant threat of terror bombings.
The thing about the movie which I tend to praise most highly is how well it executes a vision of a world completely transformed while operating on a budget that's sub-shoestring for a typical action or sci-fi picture. Shooting almost entirely handheld, Cuarón brilliantly creates the impression that even more awful things lurk just out beyond the borders of the area his camera frames. (The charmingly anachronistic decision to shoot the picture in 4:3, old-school television dimensions, rather than widescreen is a wonderful application of the paranoia little black borders have always caused in less savvy movie fans. By which I mean my mother. "Mark, the bars are back! Make the bars go away!") I wish the last section of the film proceeded a little less obviously through the standard chase-against-all-odds film checkpoints, but the richness of the original and bizarre first third (which includes Michael Caine having more fun than he's had in years as a pot dealer and wannabe Gandalf and a beautifully shot, Kubrick-influenced sequence where Theo visits an appallingly rich apocalypse profiteer) and the expertly executed action scenes speak for themselves. Recommended, but probably not as a showpiece disc for your new 16x9 television.
Performing that miracle, raising the living
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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