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Monthly archives: May 2007


I'm Housin'
2007-05-25 17:32
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I have two DVRs in my apartment, one on the HDTV in the living room and another on the little TV in my bedroom/office. I have a totally separate set of programs which I record on each one. The big TV is for first-run series, sports, and Major Television Events. When I tape something on the living room DVR, that means I intend to give it my full attention. "American Idol" goes on the big screen, as do the NBA playoffs, "Lost," and "Supernatural." The little TV is for the home entertainment equivalent of comfort food, stuff I can put on in the background while I am working. Sitcom reruns work great because I never have to look over to the screen to follow what's going on, since it's always stuff I've seen before and in the even of some "Simpsons" episodes, stuff I have seen fifty or more times. I don't know why I work better while near-subconsciously reciting along to every line of "A Milhouse Divided," but I do. Some other stuff I put on the junk-food TiVo: "Seinfeld," "South Park," old "Scrubs," "Family Guy." I had "That 70's Show" and "Frasier" in the rotation for a long time but I have decided that those shows both peak around the fourth viewing. The "Family Guy" with the ipecac contest, I believe, will still be funny the 900th time around, which is good because the way Cartoon Network pimps those reruns, it comes on about two or three times a week.

The weird exception to the comfort-TV rule is "House." USA reruns the new "House" episodes very shortly after they debut on Fox. I always keep an eye on the USA schedule in case a "Monk" marathon is coming up, and on a flier I started taping the "House" reruns as well. Perhaps the strongest sign yet that this show is really something special is that I find myself often watching and re-watching recent episodes less than a week after I see them for the first time. On the big TV, I can concentrate on the medical mysteries and appreciate the computer effects to their fullest extent. On the little TV, it's not like it becomes an entirely different show, but different elements are highlighted. This third season, which will conclude with a delayed finale next Tuesday, has really perfected the show's bizarre character dynamic. In particular, the sort of mini-arc of episodes leading into the finale regarding Dr. Foreman's threat to quit House's diagnostic team has been just spiffy. The one that kicked it off, "House Training," was a little touchy-feely for this usually wicked drama, with Foreman's Alzheimer's-suffering mother and the show's annual patient fatality. But then came "Family," which paired ridiculous low comedy (House vs. housepet!) with an Eli Roth-quality scene of Foreman performing unanaesthetized bone marrow removal on a screaming little boy.

And David Shore and his writers were just getting started. "Resignation" might be my single favorite "House" episode to date. Foreman announces his resignation, which leads to beautifully characterized reactions from everyone else in the cast. (This is needed to justify the whole silly plot line, which let's face it doesn't really do much dramatically for you because it's patently obvious that a minority actor like Omar Epps isn't going to leave one of the highest-rated shows on television in the middle of its run.) Dr. Chase, painfully aware of his status as the runt of House's litter of diagnosticians, tries to assert an illusory degree of control over the situation by responding to everyone else's statements as if he was narrating the show. "You don't want to quit! And you don't want him to leave!" Dr. Cameron, whose ongoing efforts to break free from the over-empathizing lady doctor stereotype are undermined by her hopeless mothlike attraction to lost causes, overplays her part as the dispassionate colleague. Complicating matters is her just-finished sexual enmeshment with Chase, who ruined things between the two of them by being altogether too agreeable, available, and not either dying or carrying crippling emotional pain. Dr. Cuddy tries to play the role of the good administrator by offering asset Foreman moral and financial incentives to stick around, with the subtext of her personal concern for House's emotional well-being. Foreman is the smartest of the Housies and a bit of a humanizing mirror for House himself. As for our hero, he seems to be reacting a little oddly to Foreman's big news. He's trying to brush it off, but he seems... unusually cheerful.

That's because Dr. Wilson, whose relationships House has been meddling with ever since his latest divorce, has been secretly slipping antidepressants into House's espressos. House, always a believer in the direct approach, responds by dosing Wilson with amphetamines, leading to a scene that ought to earn Robert Sean Leonard a boatload of award nominations all on its own. I'm glad once again to not be female. I think I would be apprehensive enough about a breast examination to begin with, but I'll never think of the procedure the same way again after Wilson's "breast thing," complete with warp-speed self-commentary, a lascivious wink, and an attractive young patient who like many visitors to Princeton-Plainsboro will probably be considering alternative medicines from this day forward.

If it wasn't enough to have the hero and his best friend surreptitiously giving each other powerful psychoactive medications while working at a hospital, "Resignation" threw in what passes for a romantic subplot on "House." The good doctor comes into a consult a the free clinic with a cheating vegan and his nutritionist girlfriend, and comes out with the sandal-wearing twentysomething's phone number. What is it with women and obnoxious damaged guys anyway?

The last episode before "House" took an "American Idol"-enforced week off before the finale, "The Jerk," didn't quite reach the same heights as "Resignation" but it certainly delivered the one-liners with the main plot's patient a teenager nearly as caustic as House. More nonsense about Foreman's resignation slowed things down (who cares who sabotaged your interview at some other hospital, Omar, we know you're not going anywhere), but there is enough built up backstory between all of the regulars now that "House" snaps even when the medical mystery isn't as captivating as the supermodel who turned out to be a dude or the plane full of hysterical imaginary epidemic victims. The vaguely fourth-wall smashing notion of Chase reminding Cameron every Tuesday that he likes her is very funny, particularly given the real-world knowledge that Jesse Spencer and Jennifer Morrison are a couple. Spencer deserves all the credit in the world for breathing dimension into Chase even while all of the writers, and arguably all the other characters, don't really pay him any mind at all. And House's peculiar reaction to his latent attraction to Cuddy -- he's trying to sic Wilson on her, while consulting with Wilson's latest ex-wife on his friend's seduction techniques.

My father, as it so happens, is an attorney who primarily defends doctors; every time I watch or discuss "House" with him he grumbles about all of these people would get fired within hours if they were real. They're not real though. "House" might be the greatest medical show there ever was because while the diseases and infections and syndromes all follow real-world rules none of the doctors sure do. It's kind of like the "Seinfeld" of medical shows, now that I think of it -- no hugs to be found here. I'm looking forward tremendously to watching the finale, once on the big TV and then several more times on the little one.

The Real Blake Lewis
2007-05-24 11:34
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Well, the "American Idol" season is over. 15 million Americans will have to find something else to do on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. The last two episodes could not have been more anticlimactic, as the dismissal of Melinda Doolittle set up a showdown between Blake Lewis and Jordin Sparks that wasn't really a competition from the outset. Sparks, who had everything to gain, sang her little heart out on that unspeakably awful contest-winning single, "This Is My Now," and Blake, who probably didn't care in the least whether he won or not, politely and professionally handled the number but it must have been obvious to him that the "Idol" producers knew the score. I can't tell you what the final vote totals were like, but I suspect Jordin must have won in a landslide, and good for her if she did. I must admit that the chances are very slim that I will ever think about her or listen to her sing again.

Blake is another matter. One aspect of the "Idol" star cycle that I hadn't really considered having not been a fan of the show before this year is the way the contestants are really corseted while remaining in the game on the show. Some of those who have stayed in the limelight post-"Idol" have turned out to be no more or less than how they appeared, but not all of them. Chris Daughtry's amazing commercial success undoubtedly owes a lot to the singer's bold efforts to establish a musical personality of his own, outside of that shaped for him by the "Idol" judges and producers. Kelly Clarkson is currently experiencing growing pains trying to do the same thing.

But what's particularly interesting about Blake is that he's most inspired by musical genres that "Idol" eschews entirely, and he crafted his whole campaign to the final largely by keeping his head above water on all the unsuitable material he had forced upon him and blowing it out of the (beat) box on the rare occasions where the format allowed him a choice in his wheelhouse. Blake's most underrated asset might be his ability to sing a song that is clearly a piece of garbage like "This Is My Now" and assert at once his superior tastes (this song is beneath me) and his essential good temperment (but I have to sing it and I have to sing it their way, so I'll at least give like a 70% effort). Blake's post-final interview on is a good read because it gives some hints about what Blake might be like when not affably paying his respects to the "Idol" machine. "That track would never be on my album," he says of "This Is My Now." Will collaborations with 90's alternative has-beens like 311 and Better Than Ezra lead Blake to the toppermost of the poppermost? Of course not. But like I've said a million times before, I'm totally curious to hear what a Blake Lewis debut album is going to sound like. I can tell you right now what Jordin Sparks' record is going to sound like, and it won't be pretty.

Death of Mars
2007-05-23 12:15
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I guess the airing of the final two episodes of "Veronica Mars" could have been worse. Sure, the complete lack of urgency in what will almost certainly be the swan song for one of the most regretfully ignored great series of the last three years was a shock after the whizzbang finales of the first two seasons. But it was clear from the very beginning of this season that the changes made to the format of "Veronica" just weren't going to work. Going from a single season-long mystery to multiple shorter arcs made the show's storytelling even more confusing and completely defused the enviable tension that the first season in particular handled so well. The addition of several new recurring characters and the shift to a new college setting didn't work for any of the involved parties, and none of the new characters (Piz and Parker) particularly resonated and returning favorites like Wallace, Weevil, and Mac really got the short end of the stick as far as character development was concerned. All season the show was tiptoeing around the tremendous psychological baggage carried by Ryan Hansen's Dick Casablancas, but like too many "Mars" stories this season, Dick's belated coping with his brother Cassidy's death never got a third act.

The last two hours just seemed like two rather lackluster midseason installments, after the first few episodes after a "Search for the New Pussycat Doll"-enforced hiatus raised faint hopes that Rob Thomas might be able to give his series a proper sendoff. Both mysteries seemed like ones we had seen Veronica deal with before, and without much hope of getting to see the breach between father and daughter repaired, Keith's decision to jeopardize his reelection as sheriff in order to protect Veronica for possible prosecution for her reckless actions during an investigation just sounds the wrong note. It's too bad, really. If "Mars" was going to get another chance as an FBI show, as was mooted earlier on this season, it might be easier to look back one day at the third year and embrace its good points (like the Dean O'Dell murder investigation in the second arc, the underplayed notion of Veronica's role reversal in college from have-not to tool of the establishment, and the smirking David Magidoff as serial red herring Jeff Ratner) and ignore its bad ones (a complete wasted season for Percy Daggs III, the first-third arc that rather pointlessly dragged out a not-that-interesting mystery from one second-season episode, and the utterly incoherent fighting Fitzgeralds/Kendall Casablancas subplot that refused to either completely go away or make any sense). There still is a faint thread of hope for "Mars" depending on whom you are asking, but I am already assuming that we can close the book on a show that was never quite able to turn a brilliant initial concept and an all-time-great first season into sustained success. I'm sure we haven't seen the last of Kristin Bell, but I feel particularly bad for Enrico Colantoni, who will likely never get as good a role as Keith Mars ever again. The idea of a new Scooby Gang, "Buffy"-style, with Tina Majorino, Daggs, Chris Lowell, and Francis Capra helping Bell with each of their characters' specific skills each week never really came together. The CW's penuriousness, which led to certain regulars disappearing for weeks at a time, never let the show build a head of steam.

It's disappointing. Even in this day and age TV desperately needs more shows with strong, independent female role models. Veronica was a hero, but unlike the female protagonists on many lesser shows, she was a believable young woman too. Sometimes her emotions got the best of her, and her chief strength, a fearless, no-holds-barred dedication to always getting to the truth, also was the source of her biggest weakness. In her relationships with her boyfriends, her parents, her teachers, and her friends, Veronica always had to know everything there was to know. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, and that's why Bell never seemed obnoxious even despite her obvious physical beauty and preternatural cunning.

If you never saw an episode of "Veronica Mars," I highly recommend setting a weekend aside for a close viewing of the show's first season, a deliciously structured whodunit that built to a white-knuckle climax that the convoluted second season and the splintered third tried and failed to match.

"Idol" Final: Setup!
2007-05-23 07:43
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I decided not to do "technical" reviews for the final sing-off on "American Idol." If the last two had ended up being Melinda and Jordin, it might have been worthwhile, but what would the point be with Jordin and Blake? Clearly, it's an apples and oranges comparison between those two. Blake is hip and cool, Jordin is fresh-faced and naturally gifted. It seemed to me as if the final was a total handover to Jordin, since the wretched winner of the "Idol" songwriting contest was a sappy ballad that Blake completely mailed in and Jordin nailed.

On the whole, the last show was a total letdown. Blake didn't surprise anyone by reprising his "You Give Love a Bad Name," which was cool but not that different from the first time he performed it, and Jordin's "Broken Wing" was so dull I fast-forwarded through it. For Blake's second song he did another Maroon 5 tune, and although his performance of "She Will Be Loved" might have been his best pure vocal on the season, Blake wasn't going to win based on the quality of his vocals and it wasn't new or exciting enough to overcome Jordin's huge advantage on the dire "This Is My Now."

Jordin will win in a landslide, and I suppose she deserves it. Blake was much more fun to watch during the finale, since he seemed to be really loose and completely enjoying himself on stage as opposed to the stiff, quivering-lipped Sparks. Blake probably didn't want to win if he knew what was good for him. Perhaps the most revealing scene in the whole final was the flashback to Blake winning the coin flip and deferring to Jordin on the choice to go either first or second in the finale. That was kind of sweet, right?

Not a great end to a lukewarm season. I expect that the two finalists will be the sixth-season castmembers to go on to the most commercial success; in that sense, at least, the voters got it right. Jordin's future is entirely in the hands of whichever producers/handlers wind up with her; she has talent but little to no common sense, so her time in the limelight could be short-lived. She's pretty by "American Idol" standards but she inherited a bit of a linebacker's build from her father and it will be interesting to see how she fares in the deep end of the pop talent pool. Blake on the other hand ought to be a lock for at least one or two radio hits. His beatboxing and his interest in creating his own arrangements and beats will attract a higher level of production talent to his camp.

So, it's been fun. I still mean to go through the whole competition and pick the songs I would have done, for a fun little postseason exercise, but for now I'm glad the whole thing is over. "Idol" is the #1 show in the country for a reason, but for a serious audiophile listening to all of this lowest-common-denominator pop tripe week after week grinds you down a bit. I can't believe that garbage "This Is My Now" song won the songwriting contest; I whistle cleverer melodies while relieving myself. Stil, though, I enjoyed myself way more than I ever thought I would when I first committed to watch this season, and I'm glad I made it all the way through to the end. I'll be back next year!

The "Heroes" Finale: It Has to Be Good If It Rips Off Evil Dead 2
2007-05-21 22:25
by Mark T.R. Donohue

While the final episode of the first "volume" of "Heroes" wasn't precisely the slam-bang climax Entertainment Weekly had me expecting, it was as entertaining and satisfying as any episode of the breakout first-year hit. Spoilers ahead, so be warned.
Continue reading...

Season Finale Roundup
2007-05-20 06:05
by Mark T.R. Donohue

While the big ones, "Lost," "House," and "Heroes," have yet to bow, a lot of the shows I watch regularly have wrapped up for the summer already. You like weddings, births, deaths, and cliffhangers? This is your time of the year.

"How I Met Your Mother" Despite low ratings, the CBS comedy will return for a third season, which is good because while the cast dynamic improved in the second year, the writing kind of lost track of the show's original premise. The best episodes of the season dealt with the runup to the nuptials of Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan), which is why it's a bit peculiar that the showrunners elected to deal with the wedding in the episode before the season finale. The closer proper dealt with the end of the vastly less interesting coupling of Ted (Josh Radnor) and Robin (Cobie Smulders), with Neil Patrick Harris's Barney being used as he often was in the first season to inject humor into a not-all-that-funny and not-all-that-unpredictable plot. Kind of a letdown after the very funny wedding episode, where Marshall took a razor to his accidentally frosted hair and Lily's failed-umpire high school boyfriend showed up to try and stop the ceremonies. It's no secret I love Alyson Hannigan like a family member so it was a shame to see her having to play a clumsy drunk for most of the half-hour. Her character was the least-developed in the first season and got a lot more attention this year; the lovely episode "Aldrin Justice," where she punished Ted's mean boss by stealing his prize Pete Rose baseball, is my favorite "Mother" ever. Thus far. I'm glad they will get another season, as the end of Ted and Robin's involvement means they can go back wringing more humor out of the one thing the first season had over the second, Bob Saget's bait-and-switch narration.

"Reno 911!" With fresh swagger after the success of their first big-screen project, the "Reno" cast has been on fire since the second half of their fourth season began in April. Paul Rudd (who was also great in a "Veronica Mars" guest shot last week) has done the impossible and topped my former favorite "Reno" recurrer, Brian Posehn's dazed morgue attendant, with his performance as a hugely disturbing Lamaze instructor. Rudd was just about the only thing the jam-packed season finale lacked. A proposal! A baby arriving! A shock paternity announcement! Kilts! All that and a twist ending. Mostly this one merits mentioning for the ridiculously game Kerri Kenney-Silver, who spent most of the episode topless and trapped in a giant fake wedding cake.

"My Name Is Earl" I don't want to say too much about this one in case you haven't seen it yet, but it's quite impressive the way the "Earl" writers constructed the comedy's sophomore year with clear recurring themes and a running story arc which came to an entirely unexpected head in the finale. After the success of the first season it would have been quite easy to keep churning out standalone episodes given the show's ironclad premise and enormous stable of Camden County color. Instead, Greg Garcia and his staff have not only given the show's regulars dimension worthy of an hourlong drama, but they've constantly found creative ways of recycling members of the extended cast into unexpected new combinations. I can't wait to see how this will all play on DVD. And the left-field cameos! Move over, "Entourage," "Earl" has Tim Stack and Dog the Bounty Hunter in the same episode.

"Gilmore Girls" It's too bad that contract waffling between the CW and Alexis Bledel kept "Gilmore" from getting the sendoff it really deserved, but given how terrible most of the seventh and final season was, Amy Sherman-Palladino's replacement David Rosenthal did an admirable job with the series finale. After a couple of seasons where it seemed like the show's core values were adrift, the finale got most everybody back where they were supposed to be. Since it took place in a magical storybook town, longtime fans might have been expecting some kind of happily-ever-after ending for "Gilmore Girls." But I think the finale "Bon Voyage," which concentrated first and foremost on the bond between Rory and Lorelai and then on the attachment between the Gilmores and Stars Hollow, made the right choice by introducing no major eleventh-hour curveballs. (Let's be realistic, Milo Ventimiglia wasn't about to leave the set of "Heroes" for a CW finale even if they'd wanted him to do so.) The finale smartly tied into many ideas from the very first episodes of the show, with Rory meeting Christiane Amanpour and the last shot showing the girls downing coffees at Luke's just like always. I wish there had been more time for proper sendoffs for beloved supporting characters like Paris, Kirk, Jackson, and Taylor. But a two-hour extravaganza wouldn't really have been in keeping with the laid-back, everyday "Gilmore" feel. What's more, after all this time playing these characters, most of the cast members can communicate everything you need to know with only a handful of lines. The scene with Emily and Richard hovering awkwardly at the edge of Rory's farewell party was perfectly played, and indicative of the producers' correct sense that not everything needed to be perfectly resolved. Lorelai will always be in her parents' lives, but just the same there will always be tension there. Lauren Graham's best scene of the whole season didn't have any words at all -- it was just her watching Rory sleep one last time in her childhood bed before going off to be a cub reporter on the Obama campaign trail. (Perfect fate for Rory too, with that textbook "Gilmore Girls" mixture of fairy-tale treacle and liberal-intellectual hipness.) We don't know if it'll work out for Luke and Lorelai this time or what the future holds for Rory, but they'll be okay, because they've got each other. Sniff.

"Supernatural" Creator/executive producer Eric Kripke did an amazing job with this one. Unsure as to whether the second-season finale would also be the series finale, "All Hell Breaks Loose, Part Two" had to deliver at once closure and hope for the future. What Kripke came up with reminded me of the "Angel" finale "Not Fade Away," which didn't lack for major developments but ultimately hinged on the point that for true heroes, the battle is never over. It might have been a risky move after a very successful second season, but Kripke and Part One writer Sera Gamble made the right choice in finishing off the demon whom the Winchester family has been pursuing since the pilot. While the episode certainly didn't fail to deliver on the action end, it was powerhouse acting from Jim Beaver and especially Jensen Ackles that made the finale really sparkle. It was a little surprising for what's normally a two-man show that Jared Padalecki's Sam had a relatively reduced presence in the episode, but between Beaver and Ackles' bravura turns and a final sendoff for the proud patriarch played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, where was there room? Much like that "Angel," the fallout of the final battle with the yellow-eyed demon released hundreds more nasty things into the human world, specifically into southern Wyoming (uh-oh, I live in Colorado). That means there's tons of new directions the story can go, especially with the exact nature of Sam's psychic abilities still to be explored. And the story will get to go there, since the CW is springing for another season. Awesome.

"Idol" Threatening Three: Now That I Like Them All, One Has to Leave
2007-05-16 17:16
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I've been playing a lot of Virtua Tennis 3 lately. Fun game. I can't say that I'm a huge fan of real tennis, but in the video game I like the way that such a relatively simple game can breed players of so many vastly different styles. "American Idol" isn't at all simple, but it has its serve-and-volley singers, its power baseliners, and its return game specialists all the same. Now that we're well into the endgame, it's worth reconsidering how the final three contestants initially made their marks and what they did to stay alive during the series' interminable middle section.

Jordin Sparks Jordin's angle has been her youth and her vivacious manner since the auditions, something that has held up for the entire length of the competition. Jordin occasionally endangered herself by picking songs that overindulged her bubbly image at the expense of solid melodies allowing her to showcase her fine singing voice. The pick made for her for Tuesday night's show by Simon Cowell suggested that Simon feels the same way I do about Jordin. Her personality and her youthfulness are most flattering when they're allowed to come across naturally. When she deliberately dresses or acts like a little girl, it's overkill, especially in comparison to the matronly Melinda Doolittle and the uptown Blake Lewis. Simon picked some disco oddity, "Wishing on a Star," and Jordin sang it adroitly. It wasn't terribly exciting but it was convincing: Sparks is no lightweight, even if her persona when she's not performing suggests otherwise. This sounded very much like the work of a pro, adjusting to an unfamiliar song and genre and attacking it in the most direct way possible. I am surprised though that the arrangement seemed to only increase the song's old-fashionedness. Jordin's vocal suggested a more modern approach and if the band was matching her it might have taken off a great deal more than it did. 8

Blake Lewis It was bad luck for Blake having the perpetually out-to-lunch Paula Abdul making his song choice, but it might have ended up a blessing in disguise. Simon was right to call Paula's choice of the Police's "Roxanne" a stupid one, since no one besides Sting really can or should sing that song. Besides, we've suffered through more than enough awful Police interpretations this season as it stands. To my surprise, Blake managed to not utterly bury himself on "Roxanne." It was obvious from the beginning he had no shot of replicating the original's melody, but he did a surprisingly effective job telescoping it down to something that was manageable within his range. Blake is without a doubt the most musically savvy contestant remaining, and he clearly put the song together in such a way that the most important notes would be right at the part of his high tenor where he would be straining pleasingly but still in pitch. The chorus of the song sounded weird, almost disastrously so, with the band's female backing singers handling the normally male-sung vocals. Now, do more people know the song kind of well or really well? Those who kind of know the song might have found the glitchy chorus unbearable. Those who really know the tune, though, can appreciate how well Lewis rose to meet the challenge of a hard, hard song to sing. He needed a solid straight-up vocal at some point on the evening, and getting it out of the way first allowed him to totally do his thing on his last two songs. 7

Melinda Doolittle Randy Jackson has Melinda pegged, clearly, with his choice of a Whitney Houston song, "I Believe in You & Me." Here's the challenge for Melinda (and Whitney), though. Are technically masterful, personality-deficient ballad delivery systems at all commercially relevant in the ProTools era? While the judges were immoderate in the praises for Melinda once again, I found this her first really problematic vocal for the whole of the contest. One week left and finally we see Doolittle's weakness! Her high register isn't very good. She actually lost pitch a few times and was painfully shrill a couple more. When she was in her right place she was briefly hair-raising in a good way, but I found it overall a rather damning summary of Melinda's "Idol" candidacy. Her comfort zone as a singer extends far beyond that of anyone else this year or maybe even in the show's history, but when she takes any kind of risk at all, it's brutally clear how unnatural she is at it. I don't know the rest of America will react, but this is where I decided once and for all she's not my "Idol." 7

Jordin Sparks And you the judges were clueless! The "Idol" producers randomly picked another old disco song, "She Works Hard for the Money," for Jordin. I think she could have made it really work for her by embracing its silliness, going for a sweatband/Flashdance kind of thing and running about the stage like a lunatic. Jordin seemed to take it seriously, though, really trying to feel the emotions of this woman who works hard for the money... so hard for the money. Jordin can be something of a blank slate for whichever song has been selected for her, and her first two outings showed off her schmaltzy side and her ditzy side in turn. But I have to say, I was much more affected by Jordin's efforts on two songs that were lousy for her than Melinda's delivery of two right up her alley. 7

Blake Lewis No matter what happens after this week, Blake Lewis is going to have producers beating down his door to work with him on his first album. What I was saying earlier about opening, midgame, and endgame strategies is especially relevant to Blake. He was one of the stars of the early shows because of his beatboxing. Then he kind of faded into the middle of the pack during the semifinals. Here he is in the final three, and he seems to be the only one who is just doing his best work now. "This Love," the Maroon 5 hit, was a perfect song for Blake. The melody was right where he can handle it, the rhythm allowed him to do some vocal percussion that wasn't at all gratuitous or awkwardly grafted in, and his confidence in his dance moves came back. In the right register, Blake's voice has real personality. It's not perfect nor particularly powerful, but that's not really what stars are made of and Blake, the "Idol" producers, and the judges know it. That's why he's going to have the best career of this cast. The "Idol" format, with singers having to stay afloat through radical genre changes every week, doesn't bear much resemblance to the "real" pop world, where it only takes one three-minute hit to begin a career. Unlike Jordin and Melinda, Blake doesn't need to show his versatility in these last few shows. He just needs to do what he does, and hip-hop blue-eyed soul is totally in right now. 9

Melinda Doolittle The producers went obscure with the choice of an old Tina Turner tune, "Nutbush City Limits," for Melinda's second turn. They knew what they were doing, though, as it was a brassy low-register blaster that Melinda could have sung without the assistance of any higher brain function whatsoever. Doolittle is doing her best to show personality at this late hour, but it's not working for me. Fake sassiness is so unsassy. I've said it before, but what an instrument Melinda has. She is amazingly talented. It is clear she should be some kind of professional singer. She already was, though, before "Idol." She worked as a backing vocalist, a role to which she is eminently suited. I don't think she's a pop star of any kind. Blake and Jordin have "it" factor; Melinda just has those pipes. I think things would go better for everyone if she didn't win. Remember, my numerical scores are mostly for the technical level of the performance. I don't think Melinda despite outsinging the other two did anything last night to win her more votes. Blake, on the other hand, had to have raised a lot of eyebrows. 9

Jordin Sparks So after the first two performances from each singer, I had given up on Melinda, totally bought into Blake, and was still on the fence about Jordin. Well, here's your big chance, kid. So what are you going to do? Make a colossal mistake that ought to blow up right in your face, if there's any justice in the world. The contestants were asked to pick a favorite song for their final outing of the night, but Jordin didn't pick a favorite song of hers, she just picked a song that she had gotten good responses to when she first performed it a couple of weeks ago. That's lame. What's more, her revisitation of "I (Who Have Nothing)" was entirely indistinguishable from the first time she sang it for British Invasion week. It would be one thing if she'd done it a capella in the audition rounds or with the smaller bands during the semifinals, but it was only a couple of shows ago! My biggest problem with Jordin has always been that she seems a little, well, dumb. I have a problem with dumb people. This was an amazingly dumb move, and especially so given that the song didn't really mesh well with the other two she had done. For extra credit, Jordin also babbled incoherently when presented with a free shot at Simon's hypocrisy in picking a 70's song for her to sing then dissing her as old-fashioned. She had the whole contest right there in front of her to win, and she subjected us to a rerun. Lame! n/a

Blake Lewis Wow! Blake seemed to be slipping desperately in the weeks before he became the last man standing, but now he looks like heir apparent. If his "This Love" was a unexpected flurry of discombobulating blows to the competition, his version of Robin Thicke's "When I Get You Alone" was a knockout blow. How much more hip and relevant and interesting does Blake suddenly seem now that he's getting to sing the songs he wants to sing? It's all coming together for me, with Blake's beatboxing fitting in as a part of the whole and the charms of his fey little wisp of a voice becoming ever more apparent. You have my vote, short stuff. 9

Melinda Doolittle Another rerun! Unbelievable! Don't these people have any common sense at all? After Blake took the initiative and gave two of his best performances of the entire season, Melinda and Jordin did retreads. At least in Doolittle's case I can believe that "I'm a Woman" really is one of her favorite songs dating from before her "Idol" campaign began. She wasn't blatantly trying to play to her press clippings the way Jordin was. (Let me repeat. I cannot believe how stupid Jordin Sparks is. If she wins she and America deserve each other.) But Melinda was playing right into my hands by literally repeating an old performance rather than merely just doing the same old shtick on a nominally new song. She's technically grand, as we've known since day one. But she's otherwise uninteresting, and has resisted all opportunities to show range, grit, or dimension. For Jordin, picking a rerun as final song seemed stupid. For Melinda, it just seemed complacent, and that word more than any other sums up her whole season. n/a

The picks:

Homes: Melinda Doolittle
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle
4-Sided Die: Jordin Sparks

Old Heroes Never Die, They Just Go to the Pegasus Galaxy
2007-05-12 03:28
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Keeping track of when Sci-Fi's "seasons" begin and end is beyond my limited intelligence, but another handful of new "Stargate Atlantis" episodes are in the process of airing after about a three-month break. Despite the fact that "Stargate SG-1" never did very much for me, I've grown to really enjoy its spinoff, which has a more talented and more diverse cast and a far more interesting (and slightly less cheesy) central race of villains. Much as how my immoderate affection for "Supernatural" probably stems in no small part from the complete lack of any other decent horror/fantasy series currently in production, "Stargate Atlantis" is an acceptable surrogate in the absence of a real "Star Trek" show these days. "Atlantis" manages to overcome the haven't-I-seen-this-somewhere-before feeling common to many of its episodes with witty writing, lovable characters, and a willingness to not to take itself too seriously it inherited from its parent series. (Which reminds me, that's why I don't find the much-adored "Battlestar Galactica" an acceptable "Trek" substitute. It's bleak as Eastern European cinema and way less funny. I know some people swear by it, but the honest truth is it bores me to tears. I can't watch shows that are completely unfunny. I have the same problem with "24.")

The best reason to watch "Stargate Atlantis" is the way it has become a post-cancellation refuge for a who's who of genre stars. For the fourth season beginning this summer, Jewel Staite from "Firefly" and Amanda Tapping from "SG-1" are joining the cast as recurring characters. They join Mitch Pileggi ("The X-Files"), Connor Trinneer ("Enterprise"), and Robert Picardo ("Star Trek: Voyager"). Colm Meaney and Robert Patrick have been on the show as well, although their characters are now demised.

But the most terrifying recurring presence in the "Atlantis" world is portrayed by inescapable sitcom vet Richard Kind, whose character Lucius returned for a second episode in the current clutch of new ones. Lucius is an incredibly obnoxious, self-obsessed lout who forces people to do his bidding (and worse, listen to his stories) by controlling their minds with pheromones. On a show where the survival of Earth is threatened at least two or three times per season (as an effect of chopping the "seasons" up into three separate two-month pods, multiple cliffhangers are required on "Atlantis") there's nothing scarier than the thought of spending the rest of one's existence condemned to listening to Kind's shrill voice.

2007-05-10 15:42
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Just weeks before the third-season finale, "Lost" continues to be more frustrating than anything else. At least this week's installment gave a bit more resonance to the Hurley-joyriding episode from earlier on. After a while, you have to give up and hand it to this show's writers -- only they could tell the life story of the leader of the show's antagonists and reveal essentially nothing.

Contrasting "Heroes" with "Lost" reminds me of comparing the various online role-playing games popular before World of Warcraft became what's now the industry standard. Anyone who played Asheron's Call or Everquest would be familiar with the basic mechanics of WoW, but it's more streamlined and constructed for maximum delivery of whatever it is exactly that keeps people playing those games. "Heroes" seems bursting with new information every week and when major new characters do appear out of left field, they seem to fill in missing parts of the whole rather than appearing a radical revision each time, as is the case with "Jacob" on "Lost." From this viewer's perspective, the "Heroes" writers are playing it fair, showing us clues that build to logical conclusions. (The fact that "Heroes" has a time-travelling character makes this easier on them.) "Lost" keeps throwing completely new information at us and laughing at our attempts to make sense of at all.

So, to complete the analogy, all of these dead-on-arrival new serial shows the networks ran out this season -- "Kidnapped," "Jericho," "Day Break," the never-even-got-out-of-park "Drive" -- are like Star Wars Galaxies and The Matrix Online and (probably) the new Lord of the Rings MMORPG and dozens of others. Why try the rest when the best is already here and on the cover of Entertainment Weekly? The secret to a good cult show isn't much different than that to a good online game. It's all about the community. Lots of people are watching "Heroes" and lots of people are talking about it. The only news "Lost" has made lately is that it's already set its cancellation date.

I'll bet there are tons of online games that had superior gameplay mechanics to World of Warcraft but never got off the ground due to lack of user base. With that in mind, let us pause a moment in memory of "Veronica Mars," which is playing out the string with a series of stand-alone episodes to conclude its disappointing third season.

"Idol" Final Four: No, Seriously, What Was That?
2007-05-09 05:22
by Mark T.R. Donohue

So this is the finals? You could have fooled me. The first show of the "American Idol" season to allow each contestant two performances instead of one for the most part doubled the misery. The ejection of Chris Richardson and Phil Stacey last week should have been a wake-up call for the still-standing Blake Lewis, Melinda Doolittle, LaKisha Jones, and Jordin Sparks. Phil, who has been a constant presence in the bottom three since the round of 12 began, must have had a security blanket effect: "No way I'm getting kicked off this week with Phil still around." Blake in particular seemed diminished in stature with no other men around. That might be because Stacey and his complete lack of style and Richardson and his thin little voice made flattering comparisons for Lewis week after week. It also might be because Jordin Sparks is like six inches taller than he and Blake barely even edges the diminutive Doolittle and Jones. It's hard to be larger than life when you're like 5'6" in lifts. Yeah, Prince is really short, but Prince is way more awesome than Blake Lewis. And his falsetto doesn't suck.

Melinda Doolittle For her first performance on a night dedicated entirely to the songs of guest coach Barry Gibb, Melinda did "Love You Inside and Out" and I thought that it was one of her better recent outings. For one thing, it was a better song than Melinda's usual fare, and for another, at last she seemed natural. Doolittle's new longer hairstyle suits her, and she's obviously a t-shirt and jeans kind of lady. She moves entirely differently when she's dressed down. The arrangement she chose didn't really showcase Melinda's big guns vocally, but it's taken Doolittle way too long already to figure out that not every song needs to go up to 11. Obviously, on a night when she gets to go twice, she has an opportunity to underplay it at least once. But the flipside of the double-dip is that it makes Doolittle's tendency to be predictable and safe even more obvious. The judges have been telling her for months that she needs some grit, some individuality, some starpower. At this point I think we have to assume that we're never going to see it. The question is, who is going to exploit that weakness and beat her? Blake has style to spare but can't really sing. LaKisha has her own glaring weaknesses and unlike Melinda her strengths seem to be abandoning her as the pressure mounts. That leaves Jordin, but Melinda has consistently outsung Jordin all season. So I don't know. 8

Blake Lewis You'd think Blake Lewis, who has been the best potential "Idol" all season in terms of getting people to move around on their couches, would go with "You Should Be Dancin'" like cowbell goes with disco. But no. I just didn't feel like I should have been dancing! Barry Gibb week might have been a trap for Blake, who overindulged himself with the beatboxing and seemed to find keeping his falsetto near pitch and dancing at the same time very difficult. Pasting little cut-and-scratch eh-eh-eh's to the most memorable hook in a famous song was a bad choice. Blake tackled the instrumental section of the tune with such furious abandon that it made his singing sound very, very quiet and thin indeed. There's another thing, too. "American Idol" is a massive experience. It changes lives. Even watching the show for just this one season I've seen extremely confident and talented singers with precise ideas about how to present themselves ground methodically into dust again and again. Look at Chris Sligh, or Brandon Rogers, or Stephanie Edwards. The pressure gets to people, and Blake just seems diminished now that his lesser running mates Phil and Chris are gone. It has to play on his mind a little bit that the hip, edgy, "contemporary" contestant has never won "Idol." He could still win, but it's going to take a massive breakthrough next week. 6

LaKisha Jones This one was an unmitigated disaster for Kiki. "American Idol" proved long ago that the average U.S. citizen can't tell to save their lives whether a vocalist is singing in key or not. But they can certainly tell when a song they know by heart is being taken outside and beaten to the brink of death with blunt instruments. Jones looked, sounded, and moved wrong while singing "Stayin' Alive." Obviously, it's not really a song built to showcase a single vocalist, let alone a husky-voiced female one. LaKisha tried to have it both ways by slowing the tempo down slightly but leaving the arrangement otherwise tantalizingly familiar. It didn't work, as it only served to make the inferiority of her interpretation of a song everyone in this country who has ever been to a high school dance knows by heart more obvious. She could have stayed alive (excuse me) by just leaving well enough alone, trying to follow the melody and then getting out with her reputation intact for her second chance on the night. Instead, in the last third of the performance she let loose with a random series of shrieks that were only tangentially related to the chords being pumped out by the band. Melinda would have been able to negotiate this challenge by relying on her professionalism. This is LaKisha's problem, when it comes right down to it: She's simply not enough of a musician. Present her with something she's sung along to on the radio before, or later on in the season songs like the Bon Jovi tune she was able to translate to her style, and she's a great singer. But if you get her out of her comfort zone she simply doesn't have the instincts to fight through it. I don't think she can possibly win after last night. I did, however, like the way she changed the song's first line to "You can tell by the way I use my walk that I'm a WO-MAN." 4

Jordin Sparks After this first performance, I was ready to finally give in and hop on the Jordin bandwagon. She looked terrific. Straightened hair really suits her, making her come across as much less of a lightweight teenybopper. Her "To Love Somebody" was stellar, particularly coming after two real misfires by Blake and LaKisha. It seemed for a moment at least like Sparks was the only contestant who responded to the ejection of the last two people in the field with no chance at all to win by raising her game. But she had to go again. More on that later. 9

Melinda Doolittle Exactly as I imagined she would, Melinda followed up her restrained first appearance with a scorcher. I should be sick to death of Melinda's patterns by now. Every damn time she picks a crummy song, lulls you into a false sense of boredom with the first verse, and then busts it open. Can you imagine what her first album will be like? My goodness, they can save money by just recording one song and repeating it 12 times. But what can you do? The woman can sing. The final triad of "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" was one of the most viscerally satisfying moments of pure musicality for the whole season. Of course, all the other ones were also provided by Melinda on songs that sounded just like this one and were structured just like this one. If Jordin or Blake gets it together for next week, where is Melinda going to go? We've already seen everything she has to offer. But at her peak, for all her technical virtuosity, there is always seems to be something lacking in intangibles. If she's going to win, I want to see her provide an unquestionable perfect 10 before it's all said and done. I thought Simon's comment about the second half of the tune alone guaranteeing Melinda safe passage to next week was spot-on. 9

Blake Lewis Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? We shall see. Lewis took a colossal risk by picking a random old Bee Gees song that no one save Barry Gibb seemed ever to have heard before, "This Is Where I Came In." I kind of liked it. It was obviously much better than "You Should Be Dancin'," with a tune Blake could actually carry. I also think that Lewis has done a good job of synthesizing his various musical reference points into a coherent whole as the season has gone on. This performance featured both a trademark booty-shaking Blake groove and slower refrains where Lewis got to showcase his not entirely unpleasant wispy fey Britrock register. I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea of him winning yet, though. It is a singing contest, so they say, and Lewis is only an okay singer. If I hadn't given up weeks ago and started grading on a curve I would say that on a purely technical basis Blake's ceiling is maybe a 7 or an 8. You don't have to be a technical wizard to be an "Idol," as Taylor Hicks well knows. But Blake's alternative strategy leaves me a little confused. What's with the obscure song pick? It pretty much guarantees a tongue-lashing from the judges, since Simon and Randy are both devoted advocates of "if I haven't heard of it, it must suck" logic. But maybe Blake is playing a deeper game. If he's assuming that most of the fans who have been voting for Chris Richardson and Phil Stacey will transfer their allegiances to him, he's not crazy to do so. If that's what ends up happening, this was his last chance to take a huge risk. I don't know exactly what the upside of "This Is Where I Came In" was, other than tickling Barry Gibb pink. You have to give Blake some props for doing his best to keep the show interesting in the bleak post-Sanjaya era. 8

LaKisha Jones LaKisha had a ton of work to do to make up for the "Stayin' Alive" debacle, and her "Run to Me" wasn't nearly good enough. We already have heard LaKisha sing more than enough torch songs, and this really wasn't a particularly inspired outing. So will the voters reject Blake for being interesting bad, or LaKisha for being boring bad? I suspect Blake has a larger established fanbase, and what's more, anticipation should still exist for what Lewis might uncork for the last two shows. LaKisha hasn't had any surprises left up her sleeves for like two months now, which in retrospect makes it a little surprising that she's lasted this long. I enjoyed her thanking Simon wanly for a complete rip job. I don't look forward to watching her get sent home. 7

Jordin Sparks Thanks, Jordin. I have had trouble putting my finger on exactly why I am Sparks doubter for a long time now. Getting to see both her good and her bad sides in quick succession on Tuesday night really cleared things up for me. Here's the thing: Jordin is not smart. I should have picked up on it when she picked a song from The Land Before Time for Diana Ross week, or at least from the "Hey Baby" in the Gwen Stefani show. Honestly, of the hundreds of songs Barry Gibb has written, is there a single one more horrible than "Woman in Love?" Is there a figure in music worse for an "Idol" contestant to invite comparisons to than Barbra Streisand? Honestly, Sparks' finale was one of the tackiest things I've ever seen. Her ill-fitting gown made her look like a little girl playing dress-up. And what's more, Sparks doesn't seem to have the musical intelligence to understand which melodies complement her voice and which don't. On occasion, she has been every bit as technically masterful as Melinda Doolittle, with a personality and relatability already installed that Doolittle can't touch. But every time she wins you over the next week she sucks. Her low register didn't work for her at all on "Woman in Love." She sounded like she was croaking. Then her high notes were very shaky as well. I was ready to crown her the big winner after her first song, but the second one was shrill and tone-deaf and she missed any chance to distract me from her singing by standing virtually motionless at the microphone for the entirety of the performance. Honestly, I know I've said it before, but doesn't anybody want to win this thing? 5

The picks:

Homes: LaKisha Jones
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle
4-Sided Die: Blake Lewis

Mould Gold
2007-05-07 16:13
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Fans of Sugar, Hüsker Dü, and solo Bob Mould are encouraged to make their ways to Nude as the News, where my wordy critical discography of his entire career has just found its way into print:

Not to say the guy hates his listeners or anything (although the untimely breakup of Sugar and some of the songs on Bob Mould make you wonder), but from Land Speed Record on, Bob Mould has made music for himself first and foremost. It’s a necessary survival mechanism for him, and an understanding of this helps to explain (if not to fully forgive) the many missed chances and ill-advised stylistic shifts of his now nearly 30-year career....

If you just can't get enough, I also have an interview with author Jonathan Lethem up on the Boulder Daily Camera site.

That "SNL" Special: From Funny to Not Funny in Less Than 10 Years (Or Your Money Back)
2007-05-07 00:21
by Mark T.R. Donohue

After hours of watching ads for it during the Kentucky Derby pregame yesterday, I couldn't resist watching NBC's "Saturday Night Live in the 90's" special. It was a surprisingly gloves-off look at the show both during its peak (for my lifetime, anyway) early in the decade and its almost immediate descent into self-satisfied unfunniness later on. The program's director elected to make it more of a documentary than a clip show, and that was the right choice. Otherwise, it would have been awfully depressing, moving as it did from Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, and Phil Hartman to Chris Kattan, Ana Gasteyer, and Jim Breuer. But instead of just running clips at the viewers in vaguely chronological order, an effort was made to provide a journalistic look at the show's ups and downs. I was especially pleased to see so much screen time given to Norm MacDonald. Way to go running his classic "anal rape" "Weekend Update" bit in a prime-time special, NBC! I don't think "SNL" has ever recovered from MacDonald's clumsy firing, the exact point in time when the show went from water-cooler edgy to an irrelevant movie-franchise generator.

I would have liked to see the deaths of Phil Hartman and Chris Farley handled a little less rapidly, and the odd emphasis on Alec Baldwin clips seemed like rather heavy-handed promotion for "30 Rock." Indeed, besides features on repeat guests like Baldwin and John Goodman, the special really glossed over the many notable guest hosts the show brought in during that period. Since the idea behind the whole special was to give a bit of an insiders' view, you can understand why not dwelling on the guests would be a good idea. Why then all of the time filled with clips of various musical guests? Were the 90's really all about the Barenaked Ladies, Oasis, and Macy Gray? I remember liking music in the 90's. I could have lived without seeing Aerosmith meet Mary Katherine Gallagher again. By contrast, I can't believe they overlooked Michael Jordan's interview with Stuart Smalley.

On the whole, I'm surprised by how much "SNL" I watched in the 90's. I seem to remember the show plunging in quality rapidly as Carvey, Myers, Hartman, and Chris Rock left, and giving it up entirely after MacDonald's enforced departure, but all of the stuff from the Ferrell/Shannon years they showed were bits I remember seeing before. Is there anything unfunnier in the whole history of "SNL" than the "Spartan cheerleaders" sketches? And they made like 40 of them. Watching the drop in quality from Hartman's Bill Clinton to Darrell Hammond's is like going from Bruce Campbell's Elvis to George Cheung's. And not only did the later group of cast members fail to meet the high standard set by the early-90's group, but Lorne Michaels was unable to keep the writing staff together. What really seems to distinguish the personalities who rotated in for the 1995 season or later is that save for Will Ferrell, few of them were very good writers. While it's true that a ton of the cast members from my junior high days basically just did standup routines while looking straight into the camera (especially David Spade and Kevin Nealon, making Nealon's emergence as an actual sort-of dramatic actor on "Weeds" all the more impressive), at least they could come up with their own material. The later years' ridiculous reliance on using the same characters and gags over and over again seemed to me the product of a lack of good writers. But, again except for Ferrell, most of these people just aren't funny.

There has been something of a rash of "SNL" tell-alls in the past few years, between the Please Kill Me-inspired group oral history, Jay Mohr's book, and Aaron Sorkin and Tina Fey's competing TV series about proxies for the venerable show. Therefore, I guess there wasn't much point trying to pretend like it wasn't chaos behind the scenes at NBC in the 90's. The three-way clash between what the cast found to be funny, where Lorne Michaels' sensibilities were at, and what network executives did and didn't approve of probably led to vast amounts of very funny material getting killed well before taping. One of these least satisfying elements of the special was the random treatment of many former stars' post-"SNL" careers. There was an attempt made at addressing Chris Rock's frustrating stretch on the show (with Rock very candidly admitting that while he was working for "SNL" the only way he felt he could get material on the air was by ripping off Mike Myers), but for the guys not marked as special by race or death, it seemed completely arbitrary. David Spade got way more respect than he deserved, and Rob Schneider slightly less than he maybe had coming, not that either have done much since. The discussion of how Adam Sandler broke the rules for "SNL" performers with his variety of weird, punchline-less manchild characters and how he was able to translate that same shtick into box office superstardom was unsatisfactory since Sandler himself didn't participate.

What I really would have liked to see is a less glossed-over take on the talented comedians who didn't stick on "SNL" during the nineties for whatever reason. The discussion of the troubled 1994-95 season focused most on the names who left, not the ones who showed up to take their places. Chris Elliot, Janeane Garofalo, and Jay Mohr are all funny people, so what went wrong? The few former castmembers from this transitional period who were interviewed for the documentary, Sarah Silverman and Mark McKinney, were only shown gently praising the other performers and Michaels. This is especially surpising on the part of McKinney, who went as far as take a part on Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" as a character who blamed the whole collapse of his life on losing his late-night comedy job.

The trouble with "Saturday Night Live in the 90's" was similar to the problem with "Saturday Night Live" itself in the period under examination. Way too much thought went into what Lorne Michaels might think. Sure, he's a comedy legend, and that Beatles gag was a masterstroke. But while the special implied Michaels lost touch with the show's audience even during its period of highest cultural visibility, it lacked a third act in that story, dealing neither with Michaels' final delegation of ultimate control or the rather undeniable fact that in 1993 everybody cool in America watched "SNL" and nowadays it's just a label you see on a YouTube clip.

"Idol" Recap: Bon Jovi Was Exactly as Dumb as I Thought He Would Be
2007-05-02 15:43
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Wow, Rock Night! on "American Idol" was the most entertaining episode of the post-Sanjaya era. Not only did the theme inspire charmingly out-of-their-comfort-zone performances from many of the frontrunners, but the words of wisdom from guest coach Jon Bon Jovi were perfectly formed airhead non sequiturs. Whether Jon Bon was describing the necessity of locating the "blue note" to sing the blues or being openly baffled by Blake Lewis, he rated even higher on the out-to-lunch meter than previous celebrity guest Gwen Stefani. I can't believe they let this man buy an arena football team!

Phil Stacey A starstruck Phil testified to the "Idol" cameras that he'd "practiced this song for 15 years," but he probably should have given the lyrics another pass before picking it to sing on what will almost certainly be his last week in the competition. You're goin' down indeed, Phil. Not a bad vocal from the suddenly-country Stacey, with the harebrained lyrics rather playing into Phil's sophistication-free interpretation. I don't think that Phil is now showing us the kind of quality worthy of an "Idol" winner. I haven't really ever seen it from him, although his solid technical work got him much farther than anyone might have expected. I think we got the best out of Phil's limited potential we were ever likely to see. The results from this week combine with the out-of-control vote totals from the charity event last time, so the quality of the performances last night are sort of meaningless. Either way, this is it for Phil. 7

Jordin Sparks Jordin's enthusiasm, and ability to really let it blast, marked her as a good sleeper candidate for Bon Jovi week. Not so much. "Livin' on a Prayer" didn't have a melody that lent itself particularly to Sparks' skills, and the man himself didn't help things any by suggesting an alternate line that Sparks couldn't sing either. She must have felt compelled by the force of his rock star power to plow ahead and try it anyway. LaKisha and Melinda, a little surprisingly, adapted better to this week than Sparks did. Still, I rather liked her Tina Turner-meets-Bride of Frankenstein look even if the judges didn't. She's managing to work in even at this late hour personality traits besides her extreme youth, and good for her. I'm coming around on her as the alternative-to-Melinda favorite, although consider also: Blake. 8

LaKisha Jones LaKisha was right up front with Bon Jovi about never having heard any of his music before this week, and good for her. It's hard to see how any life deprived of Bon Jovi would be prevented from being still a rich and vigorous existence. While Jones seemed like she was rushing on the verses of "This Ain't a Love Song," ("See, it ain't a love song... but it is," Jon Bon pronounced in hushed tones) she really quite pulled it together for the choruses. LaKisha has been in disconnect from her real powerhouse quality for some weeks now and she really located it Tuesday night, in a surprising context. It was more like she found a song that allowed her to be herself than revealed an entirely new aspect of her style, but holding her own for rock week showed more range than I saw coming. I wonder, though, if a relatively lackluster performance last time during the tribute show might lead to a shocker exit. 9

Blake Lewis No other way of saying it, Blake "went for it" with his radical rearrangement of "You Give Love a Bad Name." After weeks of playing the "Idol" game their way, doing his best to coast through several different uncomplimentary styles, Lewis seized the moment with the competition really becoming airtight and brought back all of the bold wrinkles that made him stand out in the early rounds. He beatboxed. He sang backwards. He opened the song with a vocal impression of a record arm swinging out and dropping onto a disc. Bon Jovi didn't know what to make of it (celebrity cruise director Ryan Seacrest implied he was sandbagging us, but that suggests an intelligence far beyond that of most steel horse-ridin' cowboys) but it worked for the judges, and for me. There's no way Blake is going to suddenly start outsinging Melinda, Jordin, and LaKisha so it's high time for him to reclaim his strengths. At the outset I thought his complete-with-drum-and-beatbox-duet remix was too bold an assertion of Blake's style given that if anything he's been losing momentum the last several times out, but after absorbing the whole performance I have to concede that he did the right thing at the right time. At this late hour, he who hesitates is lost. 8

Chris Richardson Ah, a match made in heaven: Jon Bon Jovi, successful veteran music industry dimwit, and Richardson, rising new music industry dimwit. Richardson seemed really overexcited explaining his logic behind selecting "Wanted Dead or Alive," but that inspiration did not extend into his shouty, uneven performance of the song. Without the instrument to artificially invest stupid Bon Jovi lyrics with portent the way the talented female contestants did, Richardson like Phil Stacey tried to sing with more power than control. It didn't suit him. Rolling your eyes at this material the way Lewis seemed to do with his deconstruction (chopping Bon Jovi lyrics into gibberish cut-and-scratch fodder seems only too appropriate) was a much better way of getting a personal angle on rock week. Singing these songs with conviction when your major musical weapon is your not-completely-appalling smarm level? Not so much. Combine this with an uninspiring inspirational song and I think Chris is the surest bet to get the hook tonight. 6

Melinda Doolittle I would have expected Doolittle to struggle more with the Bon Jovi theme, but she gamely took on "Have a Nice Day" and kept herself in fine condition. She wasn't exactly convincing, and her slight shimmying next to the house band's guitar player didn't look at all like it was supposed to, but Doolittle is always on target technically and she really did more than she possibly could have been expected to do with yet another crummy song. She trusted her instincts and really ran with the line that best showed off her voice. What a voice, as I think many have said before. She's still in good shape but at this point a single slipup can mean doom. It speaks well to Melinda's chances that she didn't slip up this week, which provided the most obvious opportunity for her to do so. 9

Stiffer on-camera presence: Bon Jovi, ejected former contestant Gina Glocksen, or President Bush?

The picks:

Homes: Chris Richardson, Phil Stacey
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle, LaKisha Jones
6-Sided Die: LaKisha Jones, Blake Lewis