Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What I'm Watching: The End (For Now)

It’s always strange to get to the end of the TV year.  May sweeps ends today, at which point everyone will know what they can charge people of advertising.
So now, a wrap-up.  Of sorts.
The Walking Dead:
The season ended.  It was slow, but it held a few surprises back and went for the season-ending shocks, and next year they’ll bring in two of the most iconic, well-loved characters from the comic, along with the prison.
People keep hoping for more from this show, but AMC would rather put the big money into other things.  That’s fine.  Next season will also be the same combination of fun and boring that this one was.  People will watch, and if the show improves, they’ll hang around a few more years.
But if next year is boring, I suspect we’ll see the ratings start to erode, and quickly, as the prison is kind of the last bit people have been waiting for.  (At least, from what I’ve seen.)
Hands down my favorite show on right now.  Great writing, surprises that are actually surprising, really well-done action.  If the show has a flaw, it’s that the CGI is going to age very badly.  I don’t care.  If you can handle a show that’s very R rated, you need to check this out now.  Right now.
Game of Thrones:
My wife nailed this one.  Inevitably, we’ll get to the end of every 55 minute episode and go, “What?  That’s it?  It’s over?”
Apparently it’s the most expensive show on TV, and HBO sunk of bunch of extra money into a big upcoming battle. 
All that said, even with a massive budget, it isn’t a movie budget, and sometimes the seams are going to show.
Well, okay.  I’m good with it.  This is almost certainly the best possible version of these stories we’re ever going to get onscreen, and I’m really enjoying myself.
I wrote a huge essay (actually, two) about all the problems with Glee, and, well, here we are, and it’s the end of the third season. 
The show has wandered to a lot of places I think we’d rather all forget by now, but it nailed a lot of solid emotional moments in its finale.  It even had the guts to (turn away if you don’t wanna know) take a hammer to the Kurt/Finn/Rachel trio, in the best and worst possible way.
I wish there was a way to start an anti-write-in campaign.  The season ended beautifully, with only a little plot thread stupidity, and Rachel walking into New York City was an image that would have ended the show in the perfect way.
Next year, the show will come back, and all the issues will still be in place, plus new ones created by the fact that the show just can’t let Rachel walk off into that final image.  Ah well.
American Idol:
Eh.  Today, either Jessica or Phillip will win.  Jessica’s song was eh, and Phillip reminded me of a cross between Willy Porter and Rich Mullins, both of who create okay albums that contain three or four sparkling, perfect gems.
Actually, I just want Phillip to win so I can hear his song a second time.  That would be nice.
Modern Family:
Still funny.  Still a strong show, though you can tell when the writers are really trying and when they just need to get another episode out.
Pretty sure it’ll make it seven years.  Maybe ten.  Can’t say I’m looking forward to the “unexpected pregnancy” plotline that’ll happen around year five or six, when they’re dying for new plotlines.
The Big Bang Theory:
Still a show that’s about “nerds” that contains mostly easy nerd jokes.  They broke 100 episodes this season, and the show continues to pull huge ratings, even as it exits its fourth year.
I sometimes feel a sense of ambivalence about this show.  And yet I watch because every once in a while they nail a joke so hard I have to stop the show so I can laugh.  This one will run ten years, I’m sure.
Parks and Rec:
Thanks to Idol and Big Bang and The Vampire Diaries and Parks and Rec all being on all being on at the exact same time, I’m just now starting this season.
Four episodes in, and I’m just so very happy to have it back.  It gets everything right that Big Bang gets wrong, from creating a true ensemble cast to using brilliant political satire without drawing attention to itself.
Maybe next year I’ll try to find a way to roll Big Bang off the DVR and watch it over the summer instead.
Or perhaps not.  This is a show that’s fun to gulp.
The Vampire Diaries:
The other day, I wrote and deleted 1500 words talking about the various flaws Diaries has slowly introduced over the last half-season.  It’s always been a lightning fast show, telling everyone where they shouldn’t go, and then going there two episodes later.
It’s still doing that now, but it’s rapidly running out of shocks and cast members.  I started writing about it, planning to put together a series of thoughts and complaints and praises, and then I realized it was 1500 words long and I was nowhere near an ending and I erased it.
Look: The show is going into a loop now.  They spent a season building up The Originals, and a second season fighting them, and now we’re going to blunder right into a third season that will involve fighting them some more.
They’ve now dragged out the whole “the girl must choose between the two brothers” thing for three seasons now, and that’s also going to get stale pretty quick.
Also, the show is approaching supernatural critical mass.  We’re down to one frequently used character (Matt) who isn’t supernatural or in possession of a Supernatural ability.   And if they’re going to take Elena in the direction it looks like they’re taking her, she is probably going to get even more mope-y.
In other words, this is now a very, very tall house of cards.  In the past, they’ve managed to reinforce and keep on stacking the cards.  But soon, and possibly very soon, they’re going to either need to blow it all up and start over with something cooler, or watch it hit an unbreakable wall, and then the cards will start to slip and it’s not going to be fun or pretty.
The Secret Circle:
Circle was cancelled at the end of the year, and I’m still not sure whether they made the right call on that one.
Part of the reason I’m not sure is that I’m behind on the show.  We let it stack up for a long time while we watched other things, and then came the depths of winter, when nothing else is on, and we caught up.  Then everything else returned and it sat there and sat there, and now we’ve got most of the back half of the season to watch.
Will it be worth it?  I dunno.  There were some really good episodes in there, but no great ones.  I’ve read that there are some very good episodes yet to come, but I’m guessing we’ll watch it to the end and delete the last episode with no regrets.
Somewhere around season five this was my favorite show.  Six was good.  Seven was better.  As my friend Avi says, a lot of good episodes, some very good, and no bad.  Every new season is a gift.
Sometimes you can really see the budget cuts these days.  The final fight was three guys, and it lasted about sixty seconds.  Outside, someone fought an “army” of three people.
But still.  A good season with fun subtext (Americans are fat and lazy!) and a fun cliffhanger.  It’s coming back next year, and according to a friend of mine it’ll probably come back for another year after that. 
Much like Diaries, this has lost some of its appointment TV luster, and it’s no longer my Very Favorite Show, but it’s an incredibly fun way to spend 45 minutes, and I’m happy it’s coming back again.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Glee: Why Not End It Now?

I stick with things to the bitter end.  I was, for example, that guy who kept watching Heroes from week to week, even when my wife started saying things like, “Well, we have three now.  We may as well watch them and get it over with.”
Granted, in the end we got a few good, but not great, episodes.  An interesting story here and there.  And surprisingly, a fun setup for a fifth season that never happened. 
And then the show was gone, and we shrugged and got on with our lives.  Though I do enjoy the occasional internet poster who jokes, “It’s too bad Heroes was cancelled after its first season, it had such potential.”
Fox has gotten a little weird this year, racking and stacking their sitcoms for season finales, and maybe other reasons, I dunno.  But I had to laugh when my mother-in-law informed me that the season finale of Glee was last night.  Not because she was wrong, but because she was the fourth person I had encountered who was wrong.
Nope.  Rest assured, whatever Glee fans are still out there: Next week is the season finale.
A few months ago, I wrote a long essay that detailed the various problems with Glee, what might fix the problems, and listed the reasons that the problems won’t get fixed.  And most of my thoughts have proved to be more-or-less accurate.  But now we’ve had a couple of really good episodes, and I think it’s worth talking about what they’ve done with the show, and what they’re going to do to the show.
And how they haven’t fixed the show, but they patched up bits of it, so that maybe you’ll notice the wear a little less.
So let’s start with last night, where they gave us two episodes, one of which was a culmination of something they’ve been working for over the last three years.  They won nationals.  They won because they had to win, really.  That was sort of the point of the show.
But to the show’s credit, for a minute there, I thought they might lose.  Even after they won, I was waiting for it to all be one long dream sequence, and really they lost again and now they were seniors and they would never get to win, and that’s life.
(And that is life.  My home school football team didn’t build and build until my senior year, and then come out on top.  And even if they had, it meant that 10 or 15 or 20 other teams were NOT the winners that year.)
I kind of liked that ending in my head.  But no.  They won.  And Rachel, who lost her shot at going to the only school she tried to get into, never mind that there are probably two dozen schools just as good that she didn’t bother to audition for, got another chance to “audition,” which is something I figured out weeks ago. 
Granted, I had a whole different direction I wanted that to go, too, where Rachel DOESN’T get what she wants, and spends the next year of her life in New York watching her man and best friend succeed in numerous ways while she works as a maid.
And then, at the end, she begs April Rhodes just for a chance to work backstage at her still-a-smash show.  And it’s humiliating, yes, and it will be years before Rachel gets anywhere at all, yes, but she finally knows that she doesn’t get to be a special snowflake in New York, and things are not magically handed to her, and that you can break your back working at something and still fail.
I’d be more interested in that show than the one we’re going to get.
I digress.
Let’s go back to what they did right. 
The thing about Glee is, a lot of times the show forces its characters into various weird situations and then refuses to let anyone do anything an actual human would do.  And then we get something really nicely written, and we get to remember that these actors are really good at what they do when they get to do it.  This time around, we got to see Dot and Puck have this huge wonderful moment, and even if it got a little weird (Dot has a knife under her pillow?  Puck gets to retake a test because he showed passion?  Or something?) I didn’t care because they tapped an actual emotion.
And as far as I’m concerned, they’ve been on fire with the Mr. Shu storyline, as he’s come to realize his first real batch of kids is heading out into the world now.  I only taught for a year, but when you see a group of kids that often, you get enmeshed in what’s going on in their lives whether you want to or not.  There was a picture going around Facebook not long ago, about how teachers aren’t in it for the income, they’re in it for the outcome, and that’s true.
You meet these wonderful people and you become a part of their live for five hours a week, and you give them information and you root for them to succeed, or to do something cool, and then one day, they’re gone.
Glee is capturing that.  And Shu is a little over-the-top on that score, and is reaching a point where he could use some adult friends, but otherwise?  Nearly note perfect.
And Sue has gotten a fresh coat of spackle, which almost covers the dings, though not quite.  They got another character to slap her around a bit, and are trying to humanize her, using this weird baby thing.  I think they’re trying to pretend her bizarre run for a government slot never even happened, at this point.
And now there’s talk of what comes next.
Truth be told?  I wish there wasn’t a next, because I can’t see it ending well.
Because we’ve had our three years now, and it adds up to a complete, if somewhat random, story.  The team has won, and people are graduating, and the ratings have slipped quite a bit.  This week was pretty lovely, and next week will almost certainly tie up a few more plot threads before everyone goes off to live the rest of their lives.
It would be, as the saying goes, a good death.
There’s already retooling talk, as well.  The big three, Kurt, Finn, and Rachel, are all headed to New York, and now there’s babble about how instead of letting them leave, because their time is done, there’s going to be a “show within a show.”  There has been discussion about how this has “never been done before.”
But, um… No.  Degrassi did it for several seasons.  Kids graduated, and went to University.  And we followed everyone, and sometimes they intersected, but mostly they didn’t.
(Also, both shows used Perez Hilton, which to me is the final wink to the audience that, yeah, Glee is just wholesale taking ideas from Degrassi now, like the religious character struggling with faith issues, and the transgender character.)
I think in everyone’s mind, Glee was going to continue to be a huge hit this year, and next year the trio would get a show, and the Glee folks would keep their show, and sometimes they’d cross over.  It would be like Buffy and Angel, in a lot of ways.
But…  The ratings slipped, and now everything is all jumbled up.
And now Glee is being moved to Thursdays, where it will sit behind the results shows for The X Factor, which didn’t do all that well, and American Idol, whose ratings had eroded somewhat this year.
And with the last season being so downright bizarre, I wonder how many people are going to exit the Glee train after next week Tuesday?
You’ve got me.
One of the creators of the show, Ryan Murphy, has a new sitcom coming on the air next year, and another show besides.  If he’s smart, he’ll call up Fox and quietly ask to pull the plug.
If he doesn’t, I see a slow bleed, and maybe the show makes it through its fourth season and into syndication.  And yay if it does, I suppose.
But I imagine that a lot of people will stop now and, much like Heroes, go, “It was nice the way it ended.  Graduation, a passing of the torch to the next group of people.  Too bad we never got to see that…”

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

American Idol: Last Call

Here are a few thoughts to roll around in your brain:

In a couple of weeks, Kelly Clarkson will have been an American Idol winner for 11 years.  Probably 100 one-hit wonders have come and gone in that time, but Kelly stands firm.  Not bad for a girl who won a singing competition. 

What interests me most about this process is that when she auditioned, she was only up against about 10,000 people.  Now, contestants have to beat off more than ten times that amount to get to the top.

I remember someone joking, years ago, that everyone in the top ten would get a record deal.  I don’t think that was really true the first year, but it’s getting pretty close to that now, as record labels get more and more desperate for their artists to scratch and kick their way to selling a million units.  James, who was ejected last year, said with some pride that his album had sold about 100,000 units.

Something to be proud of?  Maybe.  But the guy had a national platform.  Millions of people voted for him to keep singing.  And in the end, despite getting a nice placement in Wal-Mart (a store that sells more CDs than any other in the country, I’d wager) he only moved 100,000 copies.

That’s kind of sad.  Par for the course, probably, but still kind of sad.

It also demonstrates one of the problems with the show, in that it doesn’t produce all that many idols.  Perhaps five people with any sticking power at all, many of whom lost the competition.

Which I guess brings me back to this year.

We’re down to the final three, which is nice because it means in two weeks the show will be over and done with and I can resume not thinking about any of these people.  It’s not that I hate them.  I just don’t care all that much.

As I stated some time ago, there has been talk of the show coming to an end, and I made an assumption and it appears I was wrong.  Turns out Ryan is making 16 million dollars a year on the show, which, frankly, seems a lot higher than it needs to be.  Apparently, Jennifer Lopez gets the same.

To which I must say: It’s strange how popularity feeds popularity.  Lopez’s movie career was pretty much at a standstill and her music career wasn’t much to write home about either, and then suddenly she’s on Idol and her records are selling and she’s on the cover of People and she gets a new show and so on and so on and so on.

Good for her, I guess. 

At any rate, here are the last three people:

Jessica:  I might have said this before, but it’s really been hitting me harder the longer I watch the show.  Jessica isn’t an artist, she’s a human jukebox. 

There’s a comedian who does a bit where he sings Bohemian Rhapsody in the voices of 24 different singers.  (Or more.  Or less.  I can’t remember off the top of my head.)  That’s Jessica.  She’s not up there feeding her emotions into the crowd.  No.  She’s offering up nearly note-perfect renditions of big hit songs.  It’s impressive, even kind of amazing.  But it’s also karaoke, and it’s not going to help her when someone hands her a new song and says, “Here, sing this.”

When I was in college, one of my singing teachers told me he’d had a student who didn’t want to learn how to pronounce the various languages.  He just figured he’d have his voice teacher read it off, and he’d learn it phonetically, and only use those songs for performances.

That’s Jessica, too.

She’s young.  That may change.  But my suspicion is that if she wins, and I don’t think she will, her album will tank, because it would be technically impressive and also very boring.

Phillip:  I know that Phillip hasn’t been well, having heard he underwent surgery.  But I heard, recently, that he’s been holding off having more surgery while he tries to make it through the competition.  That’s impressive, but it’s also a little crazy. 

To that end, I think it becomes very difficult to judge the guy.  It’s like watching a baseball player who broke his leg running the bases.  Do you applaud because he made it to second?  Do you complain because he didn’t make it to home?

Without seeing him at his best, there’s just no way to know.

He’s been hassled for not singing the melody, but when you literally can’t get your breath under you, it’s hard to fault you for being flat.

What most interests me now is, if he gets to release an album, what will it sound like?  I truly want to know.  Of the three, I might consider buying what he puts out.  But I’m not clamoring for it.

Joshua:  Jimmy nailed my thinking in three areas.  One: He doesn’t know who is going to win.  Two: Joshua’s version of one of James Brown’s signature tunes was amazing.  Three: And he doesn’t know what songs Joshua would record if he wins.

I suspect this is what kills a lot of people who just wanna be singers. Much the way a writers loves to write, a lot of singers just want to sing.  They don’t care all that much what, though they might have a few avoids.

So we’ll pretend, for a second, that Joshua really wants to be an old-fashioned soul singer, ala James Brown.

How do you sell that?  Who do you sell that to?  Jimmy said “maybe we’ll just record that song,” and okay, sure, you can, but putting out a string of karaoke-style tunes isn’t going to do much for your intended audience.

No.  It just isn’t.

So then what?

I dunno. I don’t have to sell the guy.  I think if they were smart, they’d let him be the next Reverend Al Green, and hope that his people find him.

In the end, I agree with Jimmy.  Any of these three could take it.  Phillip was in the bottom two last week, with Jessica already getting a save, and her and Joshua being so similar, I suspect Jessica is gone this week. 

Or perhaps I’m wrong.

As for the winner?  I’m going to give that to Joshua as well, only because I thought Phillip would have been gone long ago.

Best of luck, you silly little trio.  Hope you enjoy your upcoming obscurity…

Friday, May 4, 2012

Why MCA?

It’s weird.
I’m quite sure that my first memory of the Beastie Boys was You’ve Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party.  It has to be.  The song was everywhere, and even for a kid like me who barely listened to the radio, and never watched MTV (my parents didn’t allow it), you couldn’t escape the song.
It was the first time I ever remember anyone using a call-and-response, even.  In grade school, there was a field trip, and there we were at a skating rink, and some DJ would wait for the chorus, and say, “All right, EVERYONE” and all the kids would yell.  He’d dial down the actual rap portion, so the kids would go, YOU’VE GOTTA FIGHT (guitar riff) FOR YOUR RIGHT (guitar riff) TO PAAAAAAAARTAAAAAYYYYYY.
And this wasn’t some special version of the song, so he was just dialing the volume by hand, the buzz fading in and out.
I remember that.  I also remember taking a wrong turn and running into a girl’s ankle, and then standing there feeling helpless and ashamed as her friends took her away while she cried.  We’re Facebook friends now, so I guess she forgave me.
Paul’s Boutique came out, and was never quite as ubiquitous.  I didn’t hear it.  We were kids, we didn’t get what was happening, that music was going to be changed by samples, that the Boys got away with something by putting hundreds of samples on one record and not paying anyone a dime for them.  Today, I don’t know if anyone could do that again.  They’d have to pay everyone for each little riff and vocal shout, probably.  Who could afford it?
But that didn’t matter to me.  Not really.  I had been told that the Beastie Boys were potty mouths, and I wasn’t really into that kind of thing.  And they yelled a lot.  Not something I enjoyed.
At some point, I was in middle school, trapped at the library while my parents were looking for something, and I flipped open a random magazine.  There was an article in there about how Stephen King’s novel The Stand was too long and boring and changed points of view at awkward times.
I disagreed.  I liked it.
In the same magazine was an article about how the Beastie Boys were a bunch of foul-mouthed non-musicians who drank beer and had scantily clad women in cages on their stage when they performed.  But I only knew the one song.  It didn’t have any meaning to me.  But there was something about that level of hedonism I found fascinating.  Drinking?  On stage?  And girls?
Today, I’m not sure rap shows are allowed to go one if there isn’t at least one scantily clad female up there somewhere.  I could be wrong.  I probably am.
I got to high school, and the Boys put out Check Your Head.  That one was weird.  The kids in my school loved it, and I found it used, and I put it on in the CD store, and my brother wanted to buy it.  But it had one of those parental warnings on it, so I knew that would never fly with my parents.
I bought it for myself, and put all the songs my brother would be allowed to listen to onto a tape for him.
So What'cha Want was the big “hit” off of that one.  I saw the video.  Three guys jumping at a fish eye lens.  I couldn’t say that I really “got” it, but there was something weirdly compelling and low rent about it.  It felt like the kind of thing you could do with your friends.
I found Licensed to Ill and Paul’s Boutique at the library.  I understood the former to be dumb fun.  The latter left me cold.  I was young.  It happens.  Regardless, I got into a conversation about the two recordings with an acquaintance.  I told him I liked Ill more.  He said, “You’re so wrong, and I have so many reasons why.”
I went to college.  Sabotage became a big hit.  My brother was now “old enough” to own something with bad words on it.  He wanted Ill Communication, so I ordered it for him on vinyl.  It came out three days before the rest of the world got it.  Somewhere along the line, my brother found CD copies of the first stuff the Beastie Boys ever did: Pollywog Stew and Cookie Puss.  He bought both of them.
A year later, they would both be released together on a much cheaper CD.
Hello Nasty came out right as I left college.  I heard Intergalactic.  I shrugged.  The boys put out a Best of, and I saw the receptionist at my workplace listening to it, and I got one of those first hits of nostalgia you get when you hear something you “used” to listen to.
I eventually found The Sounds of Science used.  When I was job hunting, I’d listen to Hey Ladies on the way to interviews.  It woke me up.  It made me happy.  I’d listen to it over and over, getting a tiny bump of joy, trying to pump myself up so when I got to my interview I wasn’t just some sad guy desperately looking for work.
The boys released three more albums after that.  To the 5 Boroughs, The Mix-Up, and Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2.  I’ve never heard a note.
MCA died.  There are probably a bunch of half-done tracks sitting around, and the remaining Boys will put them together, and that little lump of my childhood will sigh, and look at that sad number (MCA?  Dead at 47?  A guy partially responsible for changing the face of an entire genre of music, gone, and only 12 years older than me, and who am I and what am I doing with my life and where is my childhood?) and all that stuff will go into a little mental box and someday I’ll tell my kid, “Well, we used to listen to this group.  They were kind of considered dirty when they started, but they changed the musical world, which is more than I can say for myself.”
And maybe I’ll put on Hey Ladies one more time.  Because Paul’s Boutique really is better than Licensed to Ill.