Monday, April 14, 2014

American Idol - Who Takes 2014?


I thought I’d said all I had to say about Idol for the year, but much to my surprise, a few friends have asked me what I think about contestants this year.

 

Actually, they asked me a few weeks ago, but I’ve been busy.

 

Suffice to say, not going much into details, people have been dropping out about where I thought they deserved to drop out, which is not a surprise.  So I guess I saved myself some typing there.

 

Every year I watch the show, that’s what happens.  Inevitably, what occurs is that the audience learns a few things shooting out of that opening week.  Some people just aren’t prepared to sing with band behind them. Some people aren’t ready to sing for THAT many people.  They might be excited to see you, but unlike back home you can’t back the room with family and friends who are going to declare every second you are on the stage as the greatest thing they’ve ever seen.

 

It’s a singing competition, yes, but it’s also a fashion competition, a swagger competition, and a personality competition. 

 

And every year, there’s a weird thing that happens where someone who should be knocked out early just hangs on, and on, and on, and on…

 

But I guess we’ll come to that.

 

And I think I mention this every year, and I’ll mention it again: Going to the bottom three isn’t always a bad thing, because it forces people into a protection mode.  They vote you up because they don’t want you to go.

 

Otherwise they get a little lazy and then you get the so-called “shocking” eliminations.

 

Which, eh.  It’s a game.  SOMEONE has to lose.

 

So here’s where I think things are going to shake out, with my usual caveats: I don’t think America votes the way I want them to vote.  I think someone I don’t really care for always clings to life.  And ultimately, even if I like the winners, I rarely buy, or even want to hear, their record.

 

(For the (ahem) record I have so far bought two idol winner recordings: Phillip Phillips’ first record, which had a few really catchy songs on it, and the best of Kelly Clarkson which, I learned, still had a lot of stuff on it I just flat-out didn’t care about.)

 

One final note: I think these things are kind of fluid, and people will usually go out within one or two slots of where I think they’ll go out.  Until I get to the end, we get “shocking” results, and inevitably one of the people I think will drop out in the middle comes in as a big winner.

 

Sam:

 

The saving of Sam will probably go down in history as the biggest waste of save of all time, assuming the show runs past this year.

 

I like Sam.  He seems like a good guy, and he has a lovely voice.  And what I don’t really get is how he’s had such an emotion-filled life (as least from what we’ve seen, where he’s living with her grandparents, I’m sure there’s a story there…) and yet he can’t connect those emotions to any of his song choices.

 

The thing of it is, last week they only gave us a bottom two, which tells me that Sam is still down there, and not long for this competition.

 

My running theory is that they saved him simply because the save choices were running out, and if things shook out badly, they would be forced to use it (or look cruel if they didn’t) when CJ came up for saving.

 

And speaking of…

 

CJ:

 

Man, does CJ seem like a great human being.  I mean that.  Unlike Sam, his difficulties in life seem to be right out in the open, and they show up in every scratch in his voice.

 

And man, that voice, it’s filled with… with just everything.  I suspect he could spend his weeks singing about how much he loves bacon, and people would figure that bacon done broke his heart.

 

(He always sounds as if he just came out of a fistfight where he won, but just got hit in the throat.  I say this as a compliment.)

 

But he’s always, always, always out of tune, to the point where I frequently sense he’s forgotten the song he’s singing and is starting to panic.

 

The fact is, the guy just doesn’t have the ability to sing, and stay, on key.  And that’s not a terrible thing.  But there are better singers here, and CJ should have been gone a long time ago.

 

Dexter:

 

I’m keeping Dexter low here, but I’m going to be honest: I think he could take this competition. 

 

The judges harp on him, hard, for sounding like every other singer on country radio.  Well guys, guess what?  If he wins this thing, he’s going to be just another dude on country radio, singing about his dog and house and how much he loves his tractor.

 

If you can take a guy, stick him in a studio, and create a record that makes him sound like everyone else, well, the problem isn’t his voice.  It’s the songs they stick him with.  So hand him a few songs that should be hits and watch him fly.

 

But to recap – he’ll either go out here or take the whole thing.  And either way, I shrug.

 

Jessica:

 

If Stevie Nicks were to retire tomorrow, Fleetwood Mac should take Jessica on the road and pretend she’s 70s-era Stevie.  The sound is just uncanny.

 

I even think Jessica is a decent songwriter, based on her one original I’ve heard a couple of times now. 

 

What she’s not good with, however, is killing me.  She’s not good with a band.  Or they aren’t good with her, I dunno.  But every week, it seems like they find a way to be out of step with each other.  I think all those years as a solo act have just killed her for working with a band, and for whatever reason she just can’t get into that groove.

 

When she comes out, plants her feet, and plays the guitar, there’s wonderful stuff here.  But working with other people is just killing her, and I don’t think she can fix it.

 

It was really apparent when she sang her original song, and the arrangement was boring as drying paint.  Harry remarked that he thought Jessica forgot to sing a line, but no.  What was needed was a little solo instrument – pedal steel, a violin, something to fill that gap – but Jessica doesn’t know how to do that, and the band isn’t helping her.

 

It will be her death in this competition.

 

I really want a copy of her solo record, however.  Just can’t figure out how to get my hands on it…

 

Alex:

 

You know what?

 

I want Alex to win.  Badly.

 

It’s clear he knows how to write.  He knows how to arrange.  He can step on the stage and give a performance.

 

And while Harry, who is usually pretty smart about these things, complains that Alex never gets out of his coffeehouse vibe, well, he just did a few weeks ago with his One Direction song. 

 

Alex is ready to make a record, and in the event that he loses, I’ll probably do something I’ve never done before and start downloading his weekly iTunes songs.

 

Man, I hope he wins.

 

Jena:

 

Truthfully, I love Jena, and I think it’s for all the right reasons.  She’s got a great voice.  She’s got a great rock/opera sound that, at its best, can really work for her.

 

I think what might ultimately take her out is song choice.  She kind of fluffed I Love Rock and Roll this last week, and I could see her blowing a couple more choices and dropping out of there.

 

I’ve gotta say, though, I’d love to see her meld the rock/electronic thing, like Harry was talking about.  I could see her doing some real damage with Jane Child-type stuff.

 

And man, I’ve gotta hail her.  The judges’ bottom-three picks to keep the competition alive for nine more hours a year have always been filler before.  People who are mostly there to desperately cling to life and get themselves into the top then. They aren’t there to win.

 

Jena is going to come closer than anyone I’ve ever seen.  She might even be able to take it all, if she pushes hard enough and doesn’t drop anymore song choice balls.

 

Caleb:

 

This guy.  This guy’s voice…

 

I remember him just blowing it a couple of years back, and since he’s returned I keep waiting for the moment he just blows it again.

 

But I think screwing it up that first time has changed his life, and he’s changed it for the better.

 

All of his performances are first rate.  There are no missed notes, no missed cues, and he’s taking the joy of having a band behind him all the way.  He seems to know it may never be this good again for him.

 

That’s infectious, I must admit.

 

But having heard his song choices, I’ve gotta admit I have no interest in his record.

 

I wish the man no ill will, and if I’m honest with myself, he deserves to win.  He’s got the best voice in the competition, and he seems to want it more than anyone else.

 

But I wish him luck when it comes time to sell albums…

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What I'm Watching: Here We Are Again


(Note: Yikes.  I started writing this over a month ago, figuring it would be a nice, quick, one-off that I could do to keep the old blog fresh.  So much for THAT cunning plan.  Feel free to read along and try to determine where I grafted fresh verbiage onto old verbiage…)

 

It’s weird, man.

 

The Olympics came along, and suddenly you could totally tell what shows the networks had just plain given up on.  It was The Olympics vs. Burn Off Theater.

 

I’m going to admit I was cool with it, though, as it marks one of the last times we go to really catch up with the DVR.  Heck, we actually caught all the way up with Revolution, just because it was watch that or watch nothing.

 

And right now, we’re in one of those delightful fallow periods.  Everyone is either in total burn-off mode, trying to clear the decks before the last sweeps of the TV season. 

 

Or, they’re holding episodes in reserve, trying to take themselves to the top of the list and grab ALL the money.

 

In short, we’re going to be playing catch-up this week and then hope for the best.

 

The Walking Dead:

 

I figured we would be totally in for this one, since it left on a huge cliff-hanger.  But ultimately, we watched the first episode and then we fell behind for a while.

 

I can’t fault the show, it’s kind of icky in spots and my wife sometimes can’t handle that during dinnertime.  Fair enough.

 

And really, I’m starting to think that the major flaws of the show aren’t helped by watching it week by week.  It’s a slow show.  It’s always been slow, it will probably always be slow.

 

You know who complains about that?  People who watch it a week at a time.  The people who DON’T are the folks just now catching up with it on DVD and Netflix.  Because if everyone spends an episode wandering around and not getting anywhere, then they just watch the NEXT one, where they wander around and get somewhere.

 

The thing of it is, it’s also slow because it doesn’t pack in the story.  It isn’t a story show.  There is no goal but survival.

 

I suspect that when the show falls apart, it will be in a big way as people realize that it’s never really going anywhere and abandon it in droves.

 

And so it goes.

 

Meanwhile, hey, the show is back on and the first episode back gave us a little backstory and a young man eating a large can of pudding.

 

Who doesn’t love pudding?

 

But as the second half of the season has worn on, I think my wife and I may be all alone in kind of loving this new thing we’re getting.  For the last two seasons, all of our characters have been crammed together, with a lot of people getting maybe one or two lines per episode.  The focus refused to shift, and so the people on the show went from being characters to being archetypes to, frequently, not even being that.

 

And this back half of the season has finally changed that.  We’ve gotten long stories, often whole or half-episodes, where we hunkered down and said hello to some of these characters for the first time in a long time… and in some cases, for the first time ever.

 

I’m not sure if I’d want the show to carry on this way forever.  And truthfully, I think too many of the established characters survived the destruction of the prison. 

 

But it’s been a fun walkabout, and I give major credit to the new showrunner, who looks like he might even keep his job for another season.  A minor miracle on this show.

 

Agents of SHIELD:

 

So there have been some massively long pauses as they stored up their episode nuts and prepared to go full-bore on episodes through the end of the season.

 

Which… isn’t that far away.  I mean, really. 

 

We’ve got March-April-May and then everything is off the air and it’s summer programming time.

 

And they’ve just now, in the last few episodes, started to pull the threads together.

 

The issue is that Agents took a bold step and decided to play a very long game.  They kept shuffling in elements, creating a rogue’s gallery, and now this relates to that which relates to this other thing.  It’s a gutsy choice that had the unfortunate side effect of murdering the show’s momentum.

 

Will people come back?

 

That’s a good question.  I think the more important one is, can they hold the line from here on out?

 

Breakout shows… they break out early, usually.  Or they get a surprise boost early on.  Right now, Agents is sitting at its low and holding that low, with an occasional spike as they bring in special guests and promise that, yes, THIS week is going to be big and important.

 

If they go much lower, well, someone’s pay needs to be cut at the very least, but it’s more likely they’ll just start folding members of the team into the upcoming films and call it a failed experiment.

 

Still, with sweeps coming, I imagine they plan to go out big.  Plus, they’ll be tied to Captain America, which I also imagine can’t hurt.

 

Truthfully, I don’t think the show is ever going to be a huge hit.  They’ve bled away a lot of audience members now, and in their current time slot they’re up against some of the biggest hitters you can find on another networks.

 

But I’ll lay better than even odds it gets at least one more year.  Here’s hoping they can come back strong.  REALLY strong.

 

Supernatural:

 

Supernatural just go renewed for season 10, and I am so very happy, since the current showrunner set up his plan to make it there.

 

The ratings, they keep steady, and sometimes they go up.  Everyone on board the show seems happy, healthy and ready to do another year.

 

And I’m into the idea.  With The Vampire Diaries and The Originals, and talk next year of a spin-off Supernatural show, I could get more than half my weekly programming from a channel aimed at teenage girls.

 

Bring it.

 

The Originals:

 

It’s funny. I remember when this show was about two vampires fighting for control of the city.  And now it’s… man, I don’t even know.  They just kept adding in elements and burning through story just the way Vampire Diaries started doing, and now…

 

Now they’re getting somewhere.

 

They drop their first big death.  They demonstrated that they can, in fact, put together a bigger enemy. 

 

I think my only real disappointment is that they still haven’t gotten the hybrid baby out into the world.  I feel like Diaries would have gotten there already, but they keep holding it back.

 

I think it’s a B or a B- show, but it’s getting an A- for effort. Keep going, guys.

 

Modern Family:

 

I don’t talk about Modern Family much, but I suspect that’s because there’s not much to talk about.  They find the stories, they write the stories, they tell the stories, and I show up most weeks and have a good laugh.

 

The only thing I’ll note is that, much like The Big Bang Theory, I feel like they’re really leaning on making sure you see the promo for next week, this week.

 

And I honestly have to ask, who out there is watching the promo for these shows and wondering if they’re coming back next week?

 

If anything, I think of it as a deterrent.  If you turn on the show and start watching, you’re five minutes in before you think that maybe you’re not enjoying yourself.  But you’ll probably stick it out.

 

Whereas if you watch a promo, and think to yourself, “Who cares if Phil wants a pet lemur?” you’ve blown it for next week and that viewer might never come back.

 

The critics aren’t in love with the show, but, frankly, it’s still a hit, and it’s going to be around for many years to come.  And I’m totally cool with that, at the moment.

 

American Idol:

 

I thought I wouldn’t have much to say about the show, and… really, I don’t.

 

They’ve strived this year to categorize people, which is fine.  And more to the point, even with all that hard work, they’ve got what they’ve got, which is some people who can hack it and some who can’t, and some who will hold on through these next weeks and learn what it takes to improve their performance.

 

Honestly, there are people on that stage, as there are every year, who they should really just shove in a recording booth and start promoting now.  These coming weeks will not help them.  They just need to get on the road and start honing their skills.

 

And there are several people who are about to get hopelessly lost in the shuffle.

 

Just like every year.

 

BUT.

 

I gotta mention Harry Connick Jr.  Who has made the hilarious choice of actually judging the singing competition. 

 

Jen is all smiles and nice work and good try.  Keith is all good work and try to improve.  Harry… Harry is deconstructing the show from the inside.

 

He’s telling people to stay on key.  He’s DEMONSTRATING how to stay on key.  He’s telling them that doing all those runs are screwing them up.  He’s telling them that going for the high note is a trap that gets applause but not votes.

 

He dragged out Randy’s “In it to win it!” catchphrase and slapped Randy in the face with it. 

 

What I dig is that he’s not being mean (except to Randy, I suppose).  He wants to help.  And it is confusing the performers, who have been watching for years and have gotten used to being slammed and going, “Whatever, clown,” or being praised to the hills for showing up and singing mostly on key.

 

Harry is telling the truth and it is cutting people off at the knees.  He’s not even afraid to go after the band of his own show.  He shows up each week knowing that he will be getting booed by the audience.

 

And he’s taking it in stride.

 

I don’t know how Harry will survive the season, and I’ll be equally shocked if he is asked back, and if he comes back.  But man, oh, man, I hope he does, because watching people get actual critiques is just marvelous.  It’s like a singing competition, or something.

 

There is one big question, though.  I would have thought, at the start of the season, that season 14 of this show would be a lock. FOX has shoved about 50 hours of its programming into this show.

 

But the ratings are not good.  They’re dropping, week by week.  And while the show should be cheap (reality shows usually are) everything I’ve been reading has stated that this show ain’t.

 

I think the question becomes, do they get much, much cheaper judges and other talent next year, and pull another year out of it?  Or do they let it go, before it’s too late?

 

An extremely curious conundrum.  (For the record: There’s too much riding on the show.  I’m about 99% sure it gets another season with very inexpensive judges.)

 

Revolution:

 

I can see that a few million people are still watching Revolution, and it gives me hope that if they get to season three Eric Kripke will do what he did with Supernatural and launch it into the stratosphere. 

 

But realistically, the show is still just barely plodding along now.  There’s a lot of wandering, a lot of subplots and it only kind of works.

 

The show needs something, and it’s not quite getting it.  Here’s hoping there’s a big finish, because this show needs a boost to survive.

 

As it is, they’re putting other shows in its place right now, and seeing how the ratings shake out.

 

Which I guess means I should get caught up while I can…

 

The Big Bang Theory:

 

I feel like I covered this in Modern Family, but what’s with the promos?

 

Beyond that, well, this seems to be the year they want to push everyone forward, and so far it’s really working.  The show is hit-or-miss, some of the subplots leave something to be desired, but pound for pound the show keeps finding new ways to make these people fun.

 

Most of the time.

 

The big danger is that, well, they just renewed the show for a whopping three more seasons.  I’m sure everyone got a pay bump, and I’m equally sure it wasn’t as big as if they had signed up for a season-by-season pay raise.

 

On the other hand, how rich do you need to be?

 

Given the numbers the show is still pulling, I think the question will eventually become a Friends issue – do you quit while you’re ahead, or keep on taking the money while the money is good?

 

Glee:

 

Glee got moved to Tuesdays, where it is currently being violently murdered every week. 

 

They’ve already been renewed for a sixth season, but man, if I was running FOX, I’d see about how I could go about getting everyone out of that contract and calling it a day.

 

It’s been a rough year.  But they’re currently in the middle of killing off the Ohio stories and moving the show to New York.

 

And there’s juuust enough time to let this one die with grace.

 

Perhaps realizing they botched it the first time around, they tried to say goodbye to Finn again.  And they got it closer to right this time.  Paying tribute to Finn by singing his favorite songs (which were, clearly, chosen by the 40-something-year-old writers, but never mind), giving a really solid performance, having them lose.

 

That was all good.

 

And then Sam came out of nowhere and said he did his best, and I lost it.

 

Finn’s gave us one of the great moments of the show, when at the end of season three he put the woman he loved on the road to New York and said goodbye.  It would have been a great end to the show, something I said then and still think now.

 

And here we are back to the goodbyes and we can still make this work. 

 

How do you make it work?  Honestly, you’ve got me there. 

 

But I think you flash forward a bit.  You give the audience some honesty as most of the characters flame out of New York, and go home to Ohio to live the life they were always destined to live.

 

And maybe if one person makes it… that’s enough.  That’s honest.  Which is something the show could use.

 

The Vampire Diaries:

 

I’ve often said that this show burns through story twice as fast as anything else on the air.  As I type this, they’re really mid-season five, but anywhere else they’d be heading into season 10.

 

And season ten shows… they have some wear.

 

I’d say the show really works about half the time, and the other half it spins its wheels and pretends it’s momentum because they spin so fast.

 

Of course, sometimes it’s fun to watch the wheels spin…

 

Community:

 

The end of this season of Community is nigh, and frankly, it looks like it might get yet another season.  NBC is losing shows left and right now, and having something that at least holds eyeballs might just be enough to keep it around.

 

I think the year off did Dan Harmon good, or at the very least everyone is staying quiet about any last minute production delays or late scripts.

 

Critics are quick to say the show has been much better under Harmon, but I’ll be honest and say that I did enjoy last season, which featured last-minute showrunners coming in to punt for a guy who was fired.  Along the way they go their schedule shoved around, one of their cast members imploded, and they still managed to put together a funny season of TV.

 

History will, I hope, treat that year kindly.

 

It’s been a good season, with ups and downs.  But I think the real test will be if they get yet another season, and whether Dan Harmon can hack it without a year to get tanned, rested and ready.

 

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

 

Okay, I’m almost at 3000 words.  So, short and sweet:

 

Man, I love having these guys around.  There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of episodes of this show now, and still they find little ways to surprise each other.

 

And me.  And I dig it.

 

 

 

 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Idol 2014: It's... On, and Stuff


I’ve been meaning to write about the new season of American Idol, not because I want to praise or condemn it, but because I still have a few friends that watch it and sooner or later they’ll click over here and go, “Hey, what does that joker think of Idol?  He hasn’t said yet.”

 

The correct answer is that I think of Idol almost not at all.  I bought the Phillip Phillps record two years ago, and then last year I bought a Kelly Clarkson compilation because I’m too forgetful to go on iTunes and remember what songs my wife likes.

 

By the way, the answer is “People Like Us.”  There are a few others that she goes between liking and tolerating, but even on Kelly’s “best” collection, there are songs she feels compelled to skip.  That’s… that’s not really much of a recommendation of an artist, I guess.

 

When it comes down to it, about the only thing I do care about is the fact that I’m so, so, so sick of every journalist trying to figure out if this season is going to “save” Idol.

 

I’m bothered by this because Idol doesn’t actually need to be saved. 

 

The argument goes, if you haven’t heard it, that the ratings are down.  But the truth is, the ratings are down everywhere. 

 

There are probably ten, maybe twenty big hits left on the various networks now, and most of them are bleeding off fans, season by season.

 

Idol is on season 13 now, and last Thursday, up against The Big Bang Theory, one of a handful of sure things, Idol had eleven and a half million viewers.

 

On Wednesday, up against weaker competition, the show does even better.

 

Now, there are other complications in there, I suppose.  The judges are pulling in millions, I’m sure there are licensing fees, and this, that, and the other thing, but…

 

As I noted last year, we’re talking about 50 hours of programming.  They’d have to produce four sitcoms, or two dramas, to fill the hole if Idol went away.

 

Considering the fact that Fox is now experimenting with skipping pilot season AND is slowly moving to the cable method of 13 episode seasons, I am 99.9% sure that Idol will make it to year 14, and roughly 90% sure it’ll hit year 15. 

 

(Heck, I’ll take 75% sure on year 20.  Fifty hours of programming is a MASSIVE amount of programming.)

 

Okay, moving on.

 

With all that said, it’s clear that the producers have been listening (To me?  Sure.  Why not?) and they have been making an effort to make the entire show suck less.

 

By this I mean: They got rid of the judges who seem incapable of judging.  Mostly.  J-Lo seems to have some kind of an issue with letting people who might be okay go through to Hollywood.  I guess making people happy also makes for more fun TV, but all of those people are, inevitably, scrap-heaped the minute they get to Hollywood.

 

It would be much better to have 100 really great auditions move on than have 220 great-to-meh people move on.

 

(Of course, then they might have trouble filling those 50 hours…)

 

But the number of terrible auditions has been cut way down, which saves on most (though not all) of the auditions designed to mock actual people with feelings.

 

And the judges are also giving really good, honest advice.  People aren’t always listening, granted, but the judges are trying, instead of talking in fake British accents and pointing and laughing.

 

And as I said on Twitter a few times, I would love to see Harry Connick Jr. and Ben Folds come together and produce a talk/music show. 

 

What do I think of the talent?

 

Well, here’s my final issue with all these types of shows: I just don’t care about backstory.

 

I was about to type that this wasn’t entirely true, but you know what?  It is!

 

Every year we spend HOURS hashing and rehashing the history of these people.  They show film clips week after week detailing the heartbreaking/interesting folks we’re looking at, but really, who cares?

 

It’s supposed to be a singing competition.  You know what I want to see?  Singing!  Instead, over the course of two hours, I get at most 2 minutes of 12 songs.  That’s 24 minutes.  Meanwhile, I’m also skipping over 36 minutes of commercials.  There are 12 more minutes of Coke ads than there are of songs.

 

And that’s an at best scenario. 

 

Of course, we haven’t gotten to the performances yet, so maybe they’ll cut out some of backstory and give us more music.

 

To follow the narrative of the journalists who follow this kind of thing, I don’t think there’s any saving of Idol.

 

I don’t think there’s any way to go back to the big-ratings heyday.  I think this next year will find a few less Idol concerts. 

 

What I think is possible at this point is maintaining what they’ve got, which is a hit show that fills 50 hours a week.  And as long as they keep pleasant people in the seats and keep things fun, Idol will be around for a long time to come.

 

Oh, and one minor aside: When the singers come in with songs they wrote?  And those songs are good?  Why is NO ONE bringing them down to the studio, cutting those songs during Hollywood week, and getting them up on iTunes?  Every year I hear at least two originals I really want to own, but can’t and never will because these people vanish into obscurity.

 

Do these people not like making money?

Brendan Halpin, John Green, And Cancer


The other day, one of my favorite authors, Brendan Halpin, took a machete to the trailer for The Fault In our Stars.

 

I’ll let you read his comments here:

 


 

Okay.

 

I’m also going to link you to the trailer itself, which is here:

 


 

Okay.

 

I had wanted to write a response directly to Brandon, and there are a lot of ways I could have done it.  I could have addressed him directly on Facebook, or Tweeted at him, or even said something on his blog.

 

But this is actually something I’ve been meaning to talk about for some time, so I’ll do it here and link at him later.

 

To summarize his position as I see it, The Fault in Our Stars looks like a movie about two people with magical, non-painful cancer that teaches them valuable life lessons also about love.  To take a quote from Brendan:

 

“It's not pretty. It's not romantic. You do not gain any beautiful wisdom from it.  Oh yeah, and cancer makes you hideous and wrecks your life before it kills you.”

 

Brendan’s wife died of cancer (much of the story is related in his amazing and heartrending memoir, “It Takes a Worried Man”) and it’s easy to see where this rage comes from.

 

Okay, so here I need to back up the train to two different locations:

 

The First Location:

 

Last year, I got to watch two very dear friends die of cancer.  And Brendan is not wrong.

 

Both my friends died bad deaths, and they’ve both left behind a lot of horrible emotional devastation.  There are huge holes where those people belong, not just in their families, not just in their friends, but in their communities.

 

In the trailer of the movie, the girl with cancer notes that she feels like a grenade, but I think this is not a very accurate description.  Watching someone die, especially when they die so much younger than they should, is more like watching them fall apart and turn into landmines.

 

You literally never know when you’re going to step on one, and feel all of the pain of that loss all over again.  It can happen weeks, months, years, decades after it happens.

 

The Second Location:

 

Two summers ago, I read The Fault in Our Stars, because I had two students that love to read, and both of them read it and loved it.

 

At the time, I had one friend who had cancer, and who I knew was going to die from it, and I read it anyway.

 

And here’s my capsule review, with the caveat that I read it more than a year and a half ago.

 

It was a good book.

 

I realize that right now John Green is the hot thing and this book is the hot thing, and people are going crazy for it, and I’m juuust starting to see the backlash as new readers are coming to it who don’t get what all the fuss is about.

 

This is not that backlash.  I enjoyed the book enough that I eventually worked my way through all of John Green’s books, and my review of Fault is pretty much the same review of all of his books.

 

They’re quirky indie movies.

 

If you liked the movie Garden State and/or enjoyed John Hughes in his teen phase, you will probably like John Green’s work.  I don’t mean this as a knock, exactly, but Green has definitely put himself into a niche of quirky teen fiction, and he appears to be happy there.

 

But what we’re talking about here isn’t quirk, what we’re talking about is whether or not “The Fault In Our Stars” is a fair representation of the horrors of cancer.

 

Which of course means we need to have two more flashbacks.

 

For the first, we need to go back to 1970, with a book and movie called “Love Story.”  The novel was a huge hit, and the movie was a HUGE hit, to the point where it became part of the world’s vernacular.

 

If you’ve ever hear the phrase:

 

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

 

That’s from “Love Story.” 

 

The other famous line that doesn’t get as much play:

 

“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach? The Beatles? And me?”

 

Okay, so, let’s talk about that movie for a while.  It’s a pretty basic boy-meets-girl thing.  Boy meets girl, boy marries girl and father cuts him off because she’s beneath him.  Girl gets very sick (in the movie they don’t say why, though Wikipedia tells me that in the novel it’s leukemia) and the girl dies.

 

“Love Story” is a perfect example of what Halpin is talking about with the “Fault” trailer, as it was absolutely designed to cause “feels,” and the leukemia itself has nothing to do with reality.  The “girl” in the equation is supposedly dying, but appears that she might have perhaps a bad cold.

 

But that’s the thing – the film was not designed to be a careful examination of the devastation that can be caused by dying young.  It was designed to show that love is powerful and wonderful and worth it, even if it ends horribly. 

 

It’s called “Love Story,” and not, “Cancer Story,” for a reason.

 

And the thing of it is, it worked, as far as catharsis material went.  The producer of the film tells stories about men bringing women to the movie specifically to cause “feels” which put them in the mood to do something “life-affirming” later. 

 

If you know what I mean and I think that you do.

 

One more quick side journey, and then back to “Love Story.”

 

When “Titanic” came out, no one knew that it would be a massive hit.  People saw that movie, which is three hours long, multiple times.  When it came out on video, people were buying three copies (someone researched this): one to keep, one to loan out, and one to give as a gift.

 

And there were stories about how women would actually have gatherings where they would sit and listen to the soundtrack and cry, as a form of emotional release.

 

Which… if it works for you, then, great.

 

And this is the spot where I start tying the threads together.

 

Ultimately, both “Love Story” and “Titanic” took real-life situations (terminal disease and Titanic disaster) and used them to, as the saying goes, cause “feels.” 

 

And in some ways, there isn’t anything wrong with that.  Unfortunately, real disaster and real sadness are hard to wrap your brain around when you don’ have a real-life tie to the actual event.  By making us care for these characters, in some ways we give people more sympathy and/or empathy for, respectively, people who lose their loved ones all too soon, and people who died horribly due to an inconceivable accident.

 

On the other hand…

 

In the case of the Titanic, many actual people died.  And yet, the film asked us to care about two people who never even really existed.  And people were mourning this tragic love story, crying to the soundtrack, even though actual human beings with family and friends really did perish.

 

And in the case of “Love Story,” well, it mostly made people crave an epic love and feel sad that someone died young, which, as Brendan noted, doesn’t offer up an accurate picture of what something like that looks like.

 

It takes a real-life horror and puts it on film, in a sanitary way that you can mock (because the movie is pretty cornball) and keep at arm’s length.

 

And now we’ve bubbled back up to “Stars.”

 

Watching the trailer, I found myself very much in agreement with Brendan.  Our two supposedly cancer-ridden characters, quite frankly, don’t look cancer-ridden.  The girl is carrying around an oxygen tube, but this seems mostly like an inconvenience or a mild affectation.  The boy seems ready to star in a show on the CW.

 

They have cutesy conversations.  They appear to go on zany adventure.  They make the beast with two backs. 

 

The fact of the matter is, judging by the trailer, Brendan’s assessment of the material is entirely accurate.  It makes the movie look like it takes a very serious subject, and gives lip service to the pain and horror it causes.

 

And…

 

Okay, I’ll give my nutshell thought here, but to dig in a little deeper, I have to spoil the end of the book.

 

So the short version is, the book does take the topic more seriously, and is not entirely dishonest about the pain and humiliation and horror caused by cancer. 

 

To put it delicately, I wouldn’t put this book on the list of things people should read if they have a friend or family member with cancer.  I think there’s a strong chance they’ll reject it as unrealistic.

 

But if they make it to the end of the novel, I think they’ll find that that horror is there.  As it should be.

 

But…

 

Here’s where the book gets into trouble.

 

First, it gives the girl a special drug that’s keeping her cancer in check, even though she’s in stage four.  (As one of my friends with cancer noted, there is no stage five.)  She’s pretty healthy and vital.

 

That drug doesn’t exist.  It might, one day, and it’s based on a drug that exists, but stage four is a lot more horrible than portrayed.

 

The book also exists in a fairy-tale world where the folks who grant wishes for sick kids can foot an impossibly large bill… which is also not terribly realistic.

 

Now, what’s interesting is that, in a post-internet world, we can cut to the tape of John Green discussing why he made these choices.

 

And here, I’m afraid, is where you have to walk away if you plan to read the book/see the movie with no prior knowledge:

 


 

Up there are answers to those questions, and many more, and in there is a question not asked by me that refers to the guy as a Manic Pixie Dream Boy.

 

(Which is to say, I probably wasn’t the first person who thought of that when reading the novel.)

 

And this is where the big “walk away now” line goes.

 

Because the big “twist” of the book, if you want to call it that, is that it’s the boy who ends up dying.  He who tried to teach lessons about life, who tried to teach our protagonist that the journey, nay, that LOVE is what makes the journey worthwhile?

 

He dies.

 

And the book IS honest, when it gets there, about the horrors of dying of cancer, which are many and varied.  But, well, in John Green’s own words (with editing for language):

 

Q. Did you have any second thoughts about the way in which you described the degeneration of Augustus’s health in his final days?

 

A. Well, I didn’t want to [lie to] the reader, but I also didn’t want to be gratuitous about it. I left the worst of it off the page, I guess, but I don’t really regret that. You might be asking whether I regret being so explicit, in which case the answer is definitely not. Our literature has enough novels that glorify suffering as transcendently beautiful.

 

And that, nearly 2000 words later, is the answer to the $64,000 question of whether this story gets at the true awfulness of the cancer experience.

 

The answer is, er…

 

Well, and no and yes, isn’t it?

 

Ultimately, the book is about trying to find meaning and making connections in life, no matter how short that life might be.

 

In another post about another novel, Green refers to his books as having “magical realism,” which I guess is a fancy way of saying that they exist in a heightened reality.

 

Which is to say, the world of quirky indie movies, where a guy can be depressed and meet a girl and she can turn his life around, or a group of people can end up in detention together and realize they’re not so different from one another.

 

But…

 

There’s a saying, which I’m going to paraphrase, that the best answer to a bad book a better book.

 

And in this case, one exists, and Brendan Halpin wrote it.

 

That book is called “Forever Changes,” and if you squint your eyes a bit you can see the similarities.  In both cases, it’s about a teen girl who is, ultimately, going to die from a terminal illness (Cystic fibrosis, in “Changes.”)

 

And in both cases, the question is posed whether it’s worth trying to really live your life in the face of the end being so frighteningly close.

 

When I read “Fault,” I spent much of my reading time comparing the two books, and in the end I think that’s why I rated “Fault” as just a good book, as opposed to a great one.

 

“Fault” exists in a world where people have money, get treatments that don’t exist yet, and everyone learns valuable lessons about life.

 

It is, in its own way, about as realistic as “Harry Potter.”

 

But “Forever Changes” exists in a real world where people react badly to knowing their child is going to die.  Where love doesn’t conquer all, or even conquer some.  Where, when the ugliness comes at the end, it comes hard.

 

I’ve read “Changes” twice, and I cried both times.  Hard.  For all of the last 15 pages.

 

I did not cry at the end of “The Fault in Our Stars.”

 

And here is where I think I have to split the differences.

 

The fact is, “Fault” is a quirky indie movie book.  It’s a deliberate romantic tale that I think can give you a glimpse into the horrors of terminal illness, but really only a glimpse.

 

It tells you A truth, but not THE truth.

 

But as I said about “Love Story” and “Titanic,” I think there can be some value in that.  You can see the story, feel about the story, get in touch with that part of you, and then if you want to you can stick it somewhere in a box never really think about it again.

 

But in real life, as I said before, there are land mines.

 

So is Halpin right?

 

Here’s the truth:  Halpin IS right.

 

For better or worse, “Fault” soft-pedals the world of cancer.

 

But.

 

I think John Green made that choice, all those choices, really, deliberately, in order to tell the best story he could.

 

Ultimately, if you want to see a cancer story that lays it all out on the table, you should go find yourself a copy of “Wit.”

 

If you want to read a book that shows those first few land mines going off, I highly recommend Halpin’s “Forever Changes.”  (His memoir, “It Takes a Worried Man” treads this territory as well.)

 

Green did not write the teen version of “Love Story.”  But he also made a deliberate choice to not write the teen version of, “Wit.”

 

He wrote a good book that, I think, falls somewhere between the two.

 

But it did soft-pedal, and I suspect the movie will do even more so.

 

Ultimately, watching people die of cancer changes you.  I don’t know if “Fault” is something that I could handle now, but I don’t know if it would make me feel sad or just angry.

 

I do know that I can never watch “Wit” again.  Not that I really felt I would be able to handle it before my friends passed away.

 

Ultimately, what I’m saying here is, John Green got cancer wrong in his cancer book.  He did it deliberately, and if I understand him, he did it not to soft-pedal cancer (even though he did) but in an attempt to talk about broader themes, and the value of love and connections.

 

For some people, this pulling back is going to be a trigger, and it’s understandable and even a correct reaction.

 

In the end, I’m not sure that John Green is the issue – it’s all the people feeling feels.  Books, movies, songs, yes, these are things that give you feels.

 

But cancer just causes devastation.