Saturday, March 31, 2012

More Writing Advice

I feel very writer-y this week, what with getting multiple questions about word-smithing from people.

At some point in the near future, I probably need to give all these Q and A things their own little section on my blog, so I can point people at them.

From the comments of my last post on writing (slightly paraphrased):

Q: How long does it take to write a novel?

A: Well, that depends. A lot of people slap together 50,000 words during National Novel Writing Month (November, by the way) and, yeah, at 50,000 words, you’ve technically written a complete work that could qualify as a novel.

This, however, gets into the question of “how long is a novel?” and the answer is always, “it depends.”

Nicholas Sparks, for example, releases books on a regular basis that he calls “novels,” even though many of them are about 50,000 words. That’s probably the lowest you could go and call what you’ve written a novel.

And even then, a lot of people would say that 50,000 words is a novella. Your mileage may vary.

Granted, a lot of Young Adult novels are somewhere between 50,000 and 65,000 words. So if you’re working in that vein, you’re fine with that number. You can also go over that number to pretty much any length, though after a while finding a publisher might prove difficult.

Every time I look it up, most traditional publishers (as opposed to those publishing themselves) are looking for novels in the 80,000 to 120,000 word range. So if your plan is to sell the novel to a publisher, you need to think about that general word count.

On the other hand, if your novel is 70,000 words, and it’s amazing, I don’t think a publisher would pass on it. (Though I don’t pretend to be an expert.)

All of this is talking around the question, which is how long does it take to write X number of words?

Obviously, if you’re writing a 50,000 word novel, it will take X amount of time, whereas writing a 100,000 word novel will probably take X times 2 amount of time.

But how long is that time frame? That totally depends on the writer.

When I was writing Mercy, my first novel, I wrote 2000 words a day. I was done with the first draft at somewhere around 97,000 words, if I remember right. So maybe 49 or 50 days to write that first draft. Another few weeks to edit it the first time around (I edited it again before publishing it).

But that’s me. I have a friend who generally averages about 1000 words a day. He’s a lot more successful than I am.

And I’ve heard of novelists who can’t handle the grind of putting out a book every year, and take two years to produce a 75,000 word novel. Then they win awards and get on the New York Times Bestseller List.

It takes as long as it takes.

Q: How many pages make up a book?

A: This usually goes by word count (see the previous question), as opposed to page count.

And the word “book” is pretty open-ended. If you’re talking about novels, again, see above. If you reach 20,000 words and the story is over, well, your “book” is done, but you’re talking about a novella or a novelette (again, this words are pretty stretchy.

Q: How do you know you’re done? Keep writing until you think it’s right and get a friend to review it?

A: That’s not a terrible idea, but I’d say that everyone has their own method of getting to the end.

Patrick Rothfuss writes and writes and writes and then goes back and does enormous, enormous amounts of revision.

John Scalzi, by contrast, writes and edits as he goes, and when he types The End (though I’m sure he doesn’t actually type that) his “first” draft is pretty well finished, minus some editing and copyediting on the part of his publisher.

With my first couple of books, I was writing and revising and sending chapters to a friend, but I stopped doing that because she was too busy to read what I was writing as I was writing it.

Since then, I’ve written my books, revised them, and trusted my instincts that they were good. Opinions vary, but mostly agree with mine: The books were ready to be published.

However, with my latest book, it’s… a little strange, and different. I’m about 31,000 words into it, maybe a third of the way through the finished novel. And I wanted another opinion, so I did an edit job and sent it to a friend.

I’d say if it takes you a year to write your first novel, you’re okay. Even if it takes two. But unless you’re writing a massive 350,000 word fantasy story, anything more than two years might be excessive.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How I Come Up With Ideas

Recently, a Twitter-buddy asked me where I got my ideas. In this case, the choices guessed were, “Dreams, other books, good imagination?”

I answered a bit over Twitter, but it felt like the kind of thing I could, or perhaps should, expand on. Plus, I think this is the first time anyone ever asked where I get my ideas, a question more famous authors seem to get all the time.

I should start by stating, first of all, that unlike a lot of more famous authors, I don’t have all that many story ideas in any given year. Ray Bradbury once said that to become a better writer, you should write one short story per week for an entire year.

Obviously, if you add that up, you’re talking about creating 52 short stories in 365 days.

Which is why that plan would never, ever work for me. I don’t have 52 ideas a year. I have two. Maybe three.

And my ideas tend to fall in the good to very good range, rather than the “great” range.

In the movie business, a great idea is one that basically sells itself. These are called High Concept. “Jurassic Park,” in which a guy creates a theme park with living dinosaurs, which then go on a rampage? That’s high concept.

This lack of ability to create ideas is why I don’t write more short stories. I only have three ideas. I can’t afford to blow one on a short story.

This is also why I was never a particularly rich and famous freelance writer. If you’re looking for work, the first thing you have to do is come up with an idea. Then you have to find places to send the idea to, in hopes that a magazine or newspaper will want to pay you to write it.

I once decided I was going to take a whole week (I was unemployed) and try to come up with a concept I could sell to a magazine. In other words, my goal for the 40 hours I would have been working was to come up with a single idea I could sell.

I came up with one. I started mentally assembling how I could write it, what it might look like. My concept was, I was going to write about what it was like to be a spouse of a person who is bipolar. I figured somewhere out there was a mental health magazine that would buy that. Maybe even make it into a regular feature.

Then I started researching who might buy that. Very first magazine I checked? “No columns.” I tried to locate other magazines that might be interested.

Pretty much a no go.

Then I tried to come up with another idea. I genuinely couldn’t do it. Because I was so excited to have come up with one idea, and an idea that I hadn’t seen before, one I thought could really be interesting, and it appeared no one wanted it.

Could I have pushed for it anyway? Maybe. But over the years, I’ve spent my fair share of time knocking on closed doors in hopes that someone would make an exception for me, and found it to be a huge time-waster.

It’s possible I just don’t know the right way to ask.

Now that we’ve covered my weaknesses (idea generation) let’s talk about what I’m good at.

There are probably technical terms for it, but I’ll label them thusly:

I am good at running with the ball handed to me.

I am good at taking one idea and generating lots of ideas based in and around that idea.

Allow me to explain.

When you’re a freelancer, one of the things that happens if you’re very lucky (and I have been very lucky) is someone will call you up and ask if you want to write a story about something. The answer is always:

Yes. What does it pay? What exactly do you want from me?

When a friend of mine said he was looking for people to write for his magazine, I said, “I can do it.” I had no idea what it would entail. And it was a men’s magazine, which is the kind of thing I never, ever, read.

So I went to a big meeting, and I tossed off my one good idea and my two not very good ones, and he said we should run with my good one (yay!) and asked me to handle someone else’s idea as well.

And I said okay. And I wrote the articles. And it went great.

That led to me writing more things for the magazine. Which later led to me writing for another magazine, wherein they would provide me with the topic(s) in question and I would put together the article.

That, I was very good at.

Asked to come up with my own ideas? Then I was in trouble.

So let’s go to the other thing I’m good at, which is taking an idea and branching other ideas off of it.

In my Tweets, I talked about The Werewolf Solution, which started with one concept: What if werewolves really existed, and they had come out of the closet roughly five years ago?

(Amusingly, Charlaine Harris came up with the exact same idea, only with vampires, maybe a few months before I came up with the concept. We might have even come up with it at the same time. Now, Ms. Harris is rich. And I am not. *sigh*)

The thing is, this concept is, I think, good as opposed to great. It suggests a story world, but doesn’t tell an actual story.

However, you can take the concept, and build ideas off of it, and from there you can draw your story out.

I usually do this by asking more questions, based around the second question. How many days is the full moon full (turns out it’s three days)? What makes a werewolf a werewolf (I don’t like the idea of werewolf bites, so let’s say they’re born that way)? How does a werewolf prevent him/herself from hurting anyone during his/her monthly change (they build a safe room or go to a special resort or hotel)?

What if there was a cure for being a werewolf?

Now, that one little idea is the kind of thing that would cause national debate, in the real world. It would be not unlike if you could find a cure for being black. Think about it. Ours is a world frequently and sadly torn apart along racial lines.

So if someone created a pill that could alter everyone, changing them from black (or any other color) to white, in the interest of eliminating racial skirmishes?

Can you imagine?

There would be a faction of white people up in arms that “they” would look no different from “us.”

There would be a faction of black people screaming that this was racism in its purest form.

There would be another faction of black people begging to get the pill released as soon as possible, so that they could finally put an end to all the racism, overt and not overt, that they had experienced their entire lives.

There would be white people singing the praises of the drug, saying that it would finally prove what they said all along, we’re all the same on the inside, and that this would promote harmony throughout the land.

Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the drug forced the United States into another civil war.

Now, flip all those ideas to werewolves…

But I imagine you get the concept now. Once I have a reasonably solid central idea, I like to dissect the implications of that idea. And that allows me to build my story.

After that, implication builds on implication. If person A creates a formula to cure werewolves, it follows that person B will try to prevent the formula from being discovered by the world at large. Then you take a set of characters and let them bounce off of each other.

Ultimately, however, it’s all about “What if?” For me, anyway. What if you were on a plane when zombies became reality instead of fiction? What happens if werewolves came out of the closet? What happens if vampires view their purpose as helping people to die?

Right now, I’m about 30,000 words into Frank, the Lonely Unicorn. The book that asks the question: What if you were the last man (unicorn) alive, and the last woman (unicorn) on Earth hated your guts?

Again, I think it’s a good idea, but you don’t immediately see the movie in your head. And from there I have to make decisions based on other questions (comedy or tragedy?) (does anything magical besides unicorns exist?) (what powers do unicorns have?) which, in turn, become the story I’m trying to tell.

And that’s where my ideas come from, and how I assemble them into actual novels and screenplays and such.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Hunger Games: Obvious Answers

So you might have heard that The Hunger Games: The Movie is out now. And it broke a bunch of records.

And now everyone and their mother has an opinion about the movie, and how it’s doing, and wondering why it’s so popular…

Originally, I was going to link to a bunch of other blog posts and articles and try to answer these questions, but that would drag you away from here on a merry chase of reading what other people think about the series, and why, with lots and lots of repetition from article to article.

Instead, I’m going to state and summarize the various questions, and answer them the best I can, because I have one foot in the novel world and the other, however infrequently these days, in the movie world, and I had a third in the high school world, which is super-important in this instance.

You’ll see why in a second.

1. How did THG make 155 million dollars over a weekend?

I swear to you, I have no idea why people are asking this question. Everyone ready?

Teenage girls. Teenage girls love what they love with the burning heat of a 1000 suns, and they loved The Hunger Games.

In my time teaching, I had 15 students, total. Four of them (all girls) had read and loved the entire series. I had one former student go to a midnight showing of the movie, and then go back to the theater on Friday night, less than 24 hours later, to watch it again. She also bought the soundtrack at midnight, the very second it was available on iTunes, before seeing the movie.

This is how Twilight made its money. This is now Harry Potter made a LOT of its money. This is how Titanic made a billion dollars at a time when no movie made a billion dollars.

Remember Titanic, folks? When it came out on video, teenage girls were buying THREE copies. One to keep, one to loan out, and one to give as a gift. Women were getting together and listening to the soundtrack, and crying. This was an actual thing.

Of course, with The Hunger Games, everyone is trying to blab about other demographics, “Oh, boys are going too!” Sure they’re going, too. Their girlfriends and wives are dragging them, and some are even going willingly because it sounds like actual science fiction, as opposed to Twilight, which sounds like torture.

This movie is likely going to make 300 million dollars. Because of teenage girls. For the love of all that is good, Hollywood, MAKE MORE MOVIES FOR THEM. Stop making so many movies for boys. Take a lesson from this.


In conclusion: Teenage girls. They are awesome fans, and if you make a movie for them, they will watch the unholy poop out of it.

(Also: Dear Teenage Girls. You are an awesome force to be reckoned with. Please try my YA series, Blood Calling. I would like to put my daughter through college one day.)

2. Why do people like this movie? It’s so sad/nihilistic/dark/a horror film about kids killing other kids. None of those people who showed up the first weekend will want to see it again.



First, it’s not a horror film. If it were a horror film, there would be a remote possibility that the hero could die. The entire marketing campaign and all the news outlets have happily informed us that this is going to be a four-movie series. You know what happens in a four-movie series? The hero DOESN’T DIE.

Is it sad? That depends on your point of view. Don’t get me wrong, the book/movie throws some heart-wrenching stuff in there, but (for the first book/movie anyway) it draws a circle around certain people and says, “These guys will be just fine for now. Don’t worry about them.”

In an actual horror movie, there is no circle.

Is the movie dark? Sure. Grim? Yep.

But I guess no one noticed that the other movies that beat The Hunger Games for most money made in a weekend were Harry Potter, and Batman, which are… what’s that you say? Dark and grim?

And of course there’s Titanic, which has that happy ending where… what? One of the leads DIES?

My goodness, how will people ever handle the pain of watching The Hunger Games a second (or fifth?) time?

Look, folks, the world of The Hunger Games is about as realistic as the one portrayed in Harry Potter, down to the zany costumes. The book tries to give the story gravitas by taking one of the victims and really building them up (I’m trying to avoid spoilers through use of careful pronouns) and then killing them.

But you know what? That character is an Ewok, as far as this story is concerned. Remember how, in Return of the Jedi, hundreds of people are killed? Thousands, probably. And yet the movie tries to get us to really see the horror of the situation by killing off one Ewok, and showing another Ewok grieving over that Ewok.

This is that all over again.

In this story, Katniss is Luke Skywalker, and Luke doesn’t die. He just becomes more and more and more awesome.

Don’t get me wrong. You could write a real downer of a book about a District whose kids go into the games and are summarily slaughtered. That’d be a bummer. But this story isn’t about the losers, it’s about the winners.

3. This movie is really slow.

So is the book. I think people forget that, but I didn’t, because I was reading a book called The Hunger Games. So what I really wanted was for the kids to get into the games and to see how they were going to survive.

(Here’s where I have to admit that I hate knocking another author’s book. This is mostly because I fear that one day, Suzanne Collins will read one of my books, and call her agent and tell them to get me a book deal and also a movie deal, and then the agent will Google me and find out I said something less than awesome about Ms. Collins’ books, and I will never get rich and famous and it will be my own fault.)

Instead, I got about 300 pages of Katniss being sad, and doing some training, and a lot of stuff about fashion and boys. And then they finally got to the games for maybe 100 pages. And then it was over.

(My numbers are off, because the book is 374 pages long. But that’s how I remember it.)

Now, fundamentally of course, I understand why things were this way. This was a sort of parody of reality TV, wherein they show you really long backstories like they do for everyone on American Idol, even though it’s a “singing competition. It is there to make you care about the characters.

But I find all the backstory on Idol to go on much, much, much too long as well. And the Hunger Games books have sold 24 million copies (that was the last number I read, anyway) so my opinion on this counts for naught.

My point, however, is that this is one of those recent adaptations like Twilight or the early Potter movies, wherein the screenwriter is allowed to cut almost nothing, because if you take the book and preserve it almost exactly as it was on screen, your fans (teenage girls) will go to see it over and over and over, and making a lot of money always trumps making a great (as opposed to good or very good) movie.

4. So The Hunger Games is basically Battle Royale, right?

Nope. I mean, yes, they both have kids killing kids, and it’s kind of a reality TV thing.

But The Hunger Games is ancient Rome with some reality TV thrown in, and then set “in the far future.”

Battle Royale takes place in the “near” future, and it takes a bunch of kids who know each other (a high school class) and sets them on each other. It’s not exactly sci-fi so much as it is all the things you hated about high school writ large.

And unlike The Hunger Games, which has a “hero” you can root for, Battle Royale, in novel form at least, is written in the third person, which means that anyone can die. That’s the horror film, if you’re looking for one.

That is, I think, all I have to say about that.

And that, I think, covers all my ranting about The Hunger Games.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What I'm Watching: The Ends Come

It’s weird. You wake up one morning, and you look around, and suddenly April is right around the corner. Soon, May will be here, and with it the end of pretty much the entire TV season.

I haven’t done one of these catch-alls in a while, and in a lot of ways I miss them when I don’t do them. They were one of my favorite things to do back when I was running the Fox Valley Geeks blog (I’m sure I’ve said this before). That and trying to figure out why some dude kept asking who remembered obscure bits of local history.


If there is a more-dissected “What’s wrong with this show?” show on TV than Glee, I’m not sure I want to know about it. I mostly purged my demons as far as the show goes a while back, and it led to one of my most popular blog posts, ever. People read that thing for weeks.

I don’t have much to add to that essay at this point. But I do feel the need to sigh deeply, and toss out a sentence or two about the… whatever they’re calling it. Mid-season finale? Winter finale? Everything has the word finale tacked on it these days, even if the show is only vanishing for three weeks. This desperate need to turns shows into “events” has gotten out of hand, frankly.

The problem with the last episode is that it’s a huge, creaky setup for all the stuff coming next. Sue is pregnant, but she won’t say who the father is (so you’ll come back). The head cheerleader is dead (or not). Rachel and Finn were about to get married, and none of their parents are telling them it’s a bad idea.

I remember watching the clock, and mentally going, “Ugh, cliffhanger,” and then they pushed everyone off the cliff and the happy voice that tells you to watch Glee came back on and said to check back in, when April arrived. And also to buy the latest music of Glee on iTunes.

Straight and to the point: This whole Sue pregnancy thing is a weird and pointless exercise in keeping Sue around, and I can’t decide if it will be worse if she has the baby, loses the baby, or is faking the pregnancy. They are all just plain bad ideas.

Rachel and Finn aren’t going to get married, and even if they do, they’ll end the marriage two episodes later. It’s all setup for keeping these two and Kurt around after they graduate and are supposed to move on. Please, show, let these guys move on. You said they would, and they should, and now you’re going back on it to keep the show on the air. Bleah.

And I get the sense this is also what they’re doing with Quinn. Having had a bunch of “fake” hardship this season, her lengthy recovery means she’ll have another year of high school, with brand-new challenges. If the show knew how to handle a storyline, it could work, and work well. But since the show doesn’t, even if she dies the cast will pretty much forget about her two episodes later.

If I had to make a prediction, we’re headed for a train wreck of at the end of the season, which is sad, because usually the last episode or two of the season manage to get everything working well enough to emotionally invest in.

Honestly, unless the show does some serious retooling, and really nails the end of this season, season 4 will probably be Glee’s last, because people won’t be back.

And it’s not like they can save money by performing public domain songs.

American Idol:

Again, what to say that I haven’t already? People come on, they sing, America votes, and I try to guess what America thinks. So far, I’m pretty great at it this year.

Modern Family:

I’ve seen a lot of accusations that the show isn’t as good this year. Eh. They’ve had a few off moments, but I suspect that if season 3 was season 1, the praise level would shoot back through the roof. The fact is, it’s still a very, very well-written show, featuring performers that continue to give 100% each and every week.

The show will become more uneven as the years roll on, and that’s to be expected. But I’m looking forward to those many, many years to come.

South Park:

I think I’ve read in at least three places that if you’re still offended by South Park, you must not have heard of the show before. Yep.

At this point, the show is 15 years old, and every episode you see now is created over the course of a week. The only show capable of being more topical than South Park these days is Saturday Night Live. And just like SNL, South Park can be wildly uneven: Funny one week, much less so the next.

But it’s always worth a look, and this last episode, about cash for gold, managed to be horrible, depressing, beautiful, and filled with the blackest joke I’ve heard in a long, long, long time.

The Vampire Diaries:

For years, I said that Supernatural was the best show on TV. After the end of season five, the quality has dropped a peg, and the show is struggling not to repeat itself. It’s still good, but much less rarely great.

And so, The Vampire Diaries has taken its place as my favorite show.

After a so-so first five episodes in the first season, the show has been on rails… until the last handful of episodes, which were good instead of great, due to some wonky storytelling and a few story choices that felt a bit like a cheat. But still, the last two ‘sodes have had conclusions that took way-old information and ideas and brought them back in ways I never saw coming.

So while I can’t argue that the show is perfect, I can argue that it keeps me on my toes. I’ll take it.

The Big Bang Theory:

I’m glad the girls are regular cast members now. I still think the show’s geeky references are too easy for mainstream people to get, thereby stripping the show of all geek credibility.

And I still think the jokes are too easy in general.

Ah well. It’s funny, and sometimes you just plain need that in your life.

The Secret Circle:

After months of letting this pile up on the DVR, I finally managed to sit down and start working my way through it. But it is, quite literally, the last thing my wife and I get to. Probably because, about five episodes in, my wife wanted to know why we were still watching.

To be honest? I just kind of wanted to know where it was going.

I developed an interest in it right after I heard it was the newest show from Kevin Williamson, because I love The Vampire Diaries so much. And I knew to give it time, because I had to give The Vampire Diaries time to work, too.

Has it been worth it? Yes and no. The show is fun. It features people spouting ridiculous dialogue, often half-consisting of “technical” terms dictated by the show. The story frequently lurches around in a horribly clunky manner. The show is here, it must get there, but trying to figure out how to do it is a mystery. So they find a fill-in reason, and half the time, forget to replace it.

And yet? And yet… And yet sometimes, the show just works. The plot is constantly moving forward. Ideas are brought up and played out as quickly as possible, rather than dragging just-okay plotlines through a full season.

And hands down this is, much to my surprise, the most tense show my wife and I watch. Twice in the same episode, the remote fell off our couch and both times my wife jumped about ten feet in the air.

In my head, I think of this show as Spartacus for Dummies It’s a show with a lot of moving parts, yes, but they’re pretty simple to follow and the show is so new that most of the call-backs are to things that only happened a couple of episodes ago.

In a lot of ways, I suspect this show is going to end up like Roswell, which was a fun show that was mostly good from week to week, with a couple of amazing episodes scattered throughout. Maybe that’s what the show needs: one great episode, just to prove it can be done.


Why are you not watching this? Is it because it’s on cable? Is it because it’s too violent? Because there are far too many adult situations?

I take it back: Hands down, this is the best show on TV right now. Swiss watches follow the show and marvel at it. I feel like I can’t say enough about it, and yet I don’t want to say anything because to ruin even a single twist is to rob some of the joy from the show.

Love this show. Love it. Ignore the CGI, and the slo-mo. Get the first season and the prequel season and watch them now. Right now. Don’t even read the rest of this.


Man, I remember when Entertainment Weekly did a cover story about this show. Everyone wanted off, and that was back in season four. The plan was the end the story in season five. This was after (if I recall correctly) the show almost wasn’t renewed a couple of times.

And now we’re in season seven, and word has come down the pike that the season will end on a cliffhanger.

A buddy of mine put it best, perhaps. In past seasons, it was almost always great, week by week. (Starting about season 3, though some would argue going back to 2). Then came season six, which was filled with great episodes and not-very-good episodes.

But this season is very consistent, generally pulling a B or a B+, one episode at a time.

Given how terrible the rating are all over the CW, I can easily see Supernatural going at least one more year. And while I can’t say I’m desperate for it, I’ll definitely take it.

The Walking Dead:

The other day, I wrote a 2000-word essay about the problems with this show. Then I reread it, realized it was pretty boring, and erased it.

Look. The show is too slow. They took 40 minutes to debate killing a guy, then said, “We will think about it some more.” Then they killed another guy, almost out of nowhere.

They spent too much time on the farm this year, because it’s TV and you have to use your sets after you build them. And next season, they’ll be at the prison, which everyone forgets went way too long in the comic, which drove fans crazy.

And now, it will happen again. And I suspect, with all the stuff that happens in the prison, that the storyline will run two seasons, lest it feel truncated. Which is going to make it feel even longer.

Or maybe I’m wrong.

Is there a way to fix the show? Not unless they start releasing DVD sets without putting them on TV first, which fixes most of the problems of the comic. Month-by-month, everything in the comic takes forever. Read in books, it mostly flies by.

Week by week, the show just takes forever to get anywhere. Stacked up on the DVR, it sails.

Game of Thrones:

Dying to see the second season. Only got halfway through the first book, because MAN are those things long.

But yeah. Super pumped.


My wife and I are still pushing through this one on DVD as each season comes out. And it’s been a lot less about the real troubles teens have, and gotten heavily into soap opera.

But you know what? When they tackle a subject, as they did with transgender issues, they still know how to approach something with care and sensitivity.

I’m pretty much willing to let this show run forever.

Babylon Five: Crusade

Picked this up years ago, and just started watching it during a break in regular TV. Fans didn’t take to it. I get why. The CGI is frequently weak, the sets look cheap, the overall storyline is fun good but not great, and once again we’re stuck with several actors taking a very long time to grow into their characters. And acting ability.

We’ll stick to the end, and I don’t think there will be any regrets there. But I do wonder if, even if it hadn’t had a lot of interference, this would have been thought of as the weakest of the B5 projects.

Friday, March 23, 2012

American Idol: Staying the Course

Generally I like to put out my Idol thoughts just after singing has happened. But I’m still pretty proud of my list of when people will fall out of the competition, and I choose to let it stand. At the moment, the only one who looks to survive longer than I expected (and maybe much longer) is Elise.

But we’ll come back to that.

Last night we lost Erika, which is a shame. But I remember remarking to my parents that she’d be gone early, no matter how well she did, and so this shocks me not at all.

But my dad pointed something out to me. Once you make top ten, you get sent out on tour. And if what my father tells me is true, each performer makes 10,000 bucks per performance, with the tour running anywhere from 20 to 40 shows.

In other words, even if you lose, you are essentially guaranteed $200,000 for roughly a year out of your life.

There are CEOs who don’t make that kind of money. And most of these guys, if they’re smart with their cash, could make it last three or four years while they look for a record contract and/or produce their own CD and head out on tour.

So in a lot of ways, Erika (and everyone else still in the competition) has already won.

A couple quick notes before I talk about the competitors:

My wife absolutely hated Lana Del Rey. I thought the song was okay, and I really liked the arrangement, but I couldn’t hear 90% of the lyrics, and so have little more to say about it. I did get a chance to remind my wife of Iggy Pop’s performance last year, which is always good for a chuckle.

Also performing last night: Haley, who did me the favor of proving everything I said about her last year. She dresses like a 12-year-old who got into mommy’s clothes. As a bonus, she had a horrible tan, and her dress actually revealed tan lines.

But wait! Once again, she was singing a song that was all wrong for her, in addition to just being a bad song in general.

Haley: Classic rock. You do classic rock well. That is ALL you do well. Scrap this thing you want to release, and go find 12 songs that sound like classic rock. I say this not because I like your work (I kind of hate it, really) but because my wife likes your voice, and even she thought you sucked last night. Which you did.

Last thought: The group took on The Longest Time, which was, originally, an a cappella song with all the parts sung by Joel himself. In this case, there were instruments under everyone in an attempt to keep things from going very, very wrong. It was a reminder that, while some of these guys might be “stars,” the folks on The Sing-Off are a lot more talented as singers.

Okay. Let’s discuss those performances, and what they mean for the coming weeks, shall we?

Erika: Erika always sings well. Really, really well. But she never got a fan base, for various reasons that seem kind of mean to get into (and I might be wrong about anyway), so I won’t. In the end, she made the top ten, and I hope she uses her money and goes out and makes a career for herself, because that’s totally doable.

Deandre: The dude has a pretty voice, and looks that capture the hearts of the teenage girls who watch this show (and they are legion). However, he has yet to put on a truly great performance, and his song choices have been somewhat suspect. That’s fine. Again, he made the top ten. His is a good life. And I knew he’d never get much higher than this.

Heejun – I told a Twitter buddy that this was Heejun’s Heejun-iest performance, and I stand by that. He was accused of, variously, being pitchy, running around too much, and disrespecting the American Idol process.

And you know, if this was an ACTUAL singing competition, everyone would be right. But it isn’t. And while they came down hard on Heejun for being a goof, they praised Phillip extensively for saying he just wanted to be himself.

In the end, he came out, he had a great time, and he gave the audience a great show, which is what they wanted. He got slammed for it by the judges, and next week will be SUPER awkward when he goes to rehearse with Jimmy. I pity him for that. But he promised next week would be even more crazy. And I’m much more interested in that than I am in hearing Jessica channel Whitney Houston again.

Hollie: What a spectacular blowout. I never understand what the judges are talking about when they watch something like this and claim someone was thinking too much. Look: In the rehearsal section, they told her that her first 8 bars were weak. I dunno if she tried to fancy it up and make it more R and B, since she thinks that’s her “thing,” but it sounded a lot more like she just didn’t practice, and didn’t know the verse that well. She wanted to get to the chorus so she could be Celine Dion.

By all rights, she should have been in the bottom three. And with this one really awful performance, she killed any chance she had of winning. She has leaked those people to Jessica, who has yet to flame out in such a spectacular way.

Elise: After a bad beginning, Elise is keeping her mouth shut about it, but it’s clear she trusts no one when it comes to coaching now. Jimmy steered her wrong once, and Tommy almost put her in bell bottoms (whaaaaaaa?). So she sang the song she knew, and sang it well, and she’s managed to dig herself out of the bottom three.

It’s a temporary reprieve, and she’ll be back there in a week or two, but in the meantime, I’ll get a few more performances from her, and that makes me happy.

Phillip: The man gives a good performance, but he kind of gives the same performance, week in and week out. And, you know, rock stars don’t CARE about fashion, man. He, too, managed to irk Jimmy this week, thereby making the coming weeks awkward for him. Look for him to apologize profusely next week, having realized that he just ticked off the guy who was ready to offer him a record deal a couple weeks ago.

Joshua: This guy. He can’t sing a wrong note. He is actually incapable of it. But the poor kid has a small wheelhouse that he feels good in, and even a slight deviation makes him feel uncomfortable. Why in the world did no one tell him to sing River of Dreams?

Colton: And speaking of Hayley… this time last year she did Bennie and the Jets, thereby demonstrating the thing she’s actually good at. It’s clear that people love Colton in bright-eyed-cute-boy-piano-playing mode. They looove him.

He, in turn, keeps wanting to rock, which he is physically incapable of. I’m willing to bet if he jammed himself behind the piano for the next eight weeks, and sat there looking pretty, he could take this thing. Much like Hayley, he won’t, and it will kill him.

Then next year, he can come back with his rock band and put on a sucky performance. Something to look forward to, right?

Skylar: This week, Skylar reminded me that Shameless is a solid song at first, and then it gets kind of boring after a while. Not really her fault. Just a fact. I recalled Garth Brooks doing a version of this song, and so I pegged it as her choice before the night even started.

She’s pulling a Scotty this year, singing country and non-country songs in a country way. It will serve her well. Colton should take a lesson: stop trying to be something you aren’t.

Jessica: She took a Billy Joel song and turned it into a Whitney Houston song. I suspect the difference between her and Joshua is that someone has told Joshua that he has a really special voice, but that he shouldn’t brag about it, while everyone in the world has told Jessica she is a very special snowflake her whole life, and she believes it.

She could still pull a Pia.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

American Idol: Money

Lately, I’ve been pondering the whole money thing, as it relates to Idol.

It kind of got started when I read some critic or another try to bury Idol, saying that the show has got to be getting too expensive to go on much longer.

It was rekindled when I read, not too much later, that now that The Voice is topping Idol is some key demographics, Idol wouldn’t be long for this world.

And of course, there was a big uproar when Steven Tyler claimed the show had 40 million viewers, when in reality it had a scant 20 million.

Okay, look. Look at that number. 20 million viewers. Do you know how many shows on television today have 20 million viewers? A handful. Maybe less than a handful.

As for the expense of American Idol? Here are some more numbers to look at.

Cougartown. It’s a sitcom. 30 minutes, with commercials. Cost to produce is every week? About 2 million dollars, according to one of its creators.

Now, that’s probably not overly high, given that it’s sitting near the lower end of the ratings and is always in danger of being cancelled. So let’s pretend that it costs, on average, 2 million dollars to produce a half-out of network television.


If you double that to an hour, that’s 4 million dollars. That’s probably high. Let’s back it down to 3 million, as some of the costs of making TV are going to be static, whether you’re making 30 minutes of TV or 60 minutes of TV.

So, okay, an hour of TV costs 3 million dollars to make. That’s a lot of money. I remember when ER hit the million-dollars-an-episode mark, and it was A Big Deal. The fact that the cost has likely tripled in less than 20 years is kind of amazing.

The average hour-long show goes for 22 episodes a season, though this is changing somewhat. A few dramas are now kicking out at 13 or 16 or 18 episodes. But let’s stick with 22 episodes at 3 million dollars per episode, just to simplify the math.

So: 66 million dollars will get you 22 hours of television.


Here’s the truth. I have no idea what the host/judging fees are for American Idol. I read somewhere that Steven Tyler got a six million dollar raise this year. So let’s go ahead and pretend all four of the main people: Jennifer, Steven, Randy, and Ryan, get 10 million dollars each. And that it costs another 10 million to mount the show, get everyone on a bus, rent hotel rooms, and so on. For a total of 50 million dollars.

If they got 22 hours of TV out of that, it would be a steal.

But they don’t. They get at least 50 hours. Maybe a few more if they add an extra save week. Maybe a little less when they lose someone (as they did this time around). But let’s go with 50 hours.

Now, here’s the truth. 50 million dollars is probably incredibly low. So let’s double it, to 100 million dollars.

The show is still a steal, at 2 million dollars per hour of television.

Or is it?

Well…. Idol can’t be rerun, really. So those 50 hours don’t turn into 100 hours, whereas the 22 drama hours can be turned into 44 hours of TV just by showing the same shows a second time.

However, a drama can’t be monetized the same way Idol can.

Every song you hear on Idol goes up on iTunes, and I’m quite sure Fox gets a cut of the money. For that matter, they probably get some subset of cash on every album sold by all their winners. And then there are the in-show commercials, which have to bring in a whooole lot of scratch. Coca-Cola and Ford are on the stage pretty much every second the show is on. Frankly, I’m amazed the singers don’t have to wear a Coke-themed article of clothing every week.

The point is, even if the show costs as much to make as your average drama (and it doesn’t) it’s got many, many, many revenue streams, and it’s still crushing most of the other television competition. It’ll be around for a while.

By the same token, there has also been talk of Ryan leaving the show, since his contract is up. That’s not happening either. Unless he’s really tired of making money hand over fist, I can’t conceive of any reason he would leave the show.

Not that it matters to me. I mean, he seems nice enough, but why do I care whether some dude who isn’t going to share his money with me gets rich or not?

Mostly, I’m just cranky because, as the joke goes, someone is wrong on the Internet.

I said I’d leave my judgment calls alone for a couple of weeks, and by cracky, I’m going to do that. Rereading my thoughts just confirmed my first impressions for the most part, anyway.

But as long as I’m here, a few quick thoughts:

As bad as I feel for Phillip and his kidney stones, I kind of feel like I shouldn’t have to know what’s wrong with the guy. It’s a singing competition. Why are we trying to drum up pity votes for the sick guy? Mostly, it just reminds me that this isn’t really a singing competition at all, but a popularity contest. Which is why it’s called American Idol, as opposed to “America’s Best Singer,” I suppose. Ah, well.

I was genuinely surprised when Joshua was in the bottom three guys last week. I’m not sure the guy is capable of singing a wrong note. He’s so perfectly in control of his vocal instrument, I find it a little eerie. A friend pointed out that he wasn’t in the bottom three, but the bottom three collection of guys. Still, even if he was the highest of the bottom six, that’s still way lower than I would have guessed.

The producers of AI lost 3 hours of programming due to Jermaine being pulled from the competition. The whole thing was astonishingly awkward, and I’m not sure how I feel about them broadcasting it. I suppose they felt it would be better than letting the Internet speculate about it. Still? Yikes.

(I do wonder if, now that he’s out of the race, Jimmy will quietly give him a call and give him a record deal.)

I do have some other thoughts on my cutting order from last week, based on a couple of real bad flameouts this week. But I’ll let my list ride for a bit. But just a bit.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Muppets VS The Great Muppet Caper

Just before the fourth Terminator movie came out, I came across a review of the first three films in the series. The critic made an interesting case for Terminator 3, stating that it was a good movie, but that it suffered in comparison to 1 and 2, which were pretty much classics.

I have to say that I agree with this observation. I saw Terminator 3 in the theater, and while it wasn’t perfect, it had a solid story and an ending that took some serious guts, as far as I was concerned.

That review stuck with me, and it sat at the forefront of my brain when I sat down with my kid to watch the new Muppet movie, which went by the pretty straightforward title The Muppets.

When you have a kid, you can tell how much they like a particular movie or TV show based on how often they want to watch it. In the case of my child, she had recently discovered The Great Muppet Caper, which was probably my favorite of the Muppet movies when I was her age.

So I sat down and watched it with her for the first time, and then she watched it by herself. Over. And over. And over again.

And if I had a spare minute while I was cooking, or doing laundry, or getting ready for work, I’d stop and take in five minutes of the movie. It was never time wasted.

If you’re down with puppets in general, and Muppets in particular, The Great Muppet Caper may just be a perfect movie. The plot goes a little something like this. Kermit the Frog and Fozzie the bear are identical twin reporters (yep) who manage to miss the biggest story of the year as it happens right under their noses. Namely, a rich and famous woman named Lady Holiday gets her jewels stolen.

So they head to England in hopes of keeping their jobs. Gonzo goes along, as he’s their photographer.

Meanwhile, in the UK, where Lady Holiday resides, Miss Piggy gets a job as Holiday’s new receptionist. Holiday leaves, Kermit comes in to talk about the stolen jewels, and there are fireworks. He and Piggy make a date for dinner, only Kermit doesn’t realize Piggy isn’t Holiday until they’re on the date, and Holiday has more jewels stolen (by her own brother).

Kermit and Piggy work out their issues. Piggy is falsely accused of stealing the jewels. The rest of the Muppets head to a local gallery to prevent the jewel thieves from stealing another of Holiday’s prized possessions. And?

Well, they manage to do it, because the Muppets are the good guys.

Also in the movie, there’s singing, and dancing, and a ridiculous number of jokes, and celebrity cameos, and a plot that reveals the villain early so the kids can follow along without too much trouble. As a kid, it’s fun and funny. As an adult, the technical wizardry of the dance numbers will absolutely blow your mind.

And the songs? Oh my, the songs. People all remember The Rainbow Connection, from the The Muppet Movie, but if none of the songs in The Great Muppet Caper is quite that song’s equal, that doesn’t mean they’re not brilliant.

Do you see why I mentioned Terminator 3 up there at the top of the review? Do you see? Because The Muppets cannot hope to best The Great Muppet Caper. It can only hope to get close to that level of achievement.

And you know what? It doesn’t come that close.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things to love about The Muppets. A whole lot of things, actually.

First, everyone looks just super-excited to be there. The songs, written by half of Flight of the Conchords, range from good to great. This movie is right in the continuity of the better-known, and better-loved, Muppet endeavors. It makes direct reference to The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan.

They sing the opening theme to The Muppet Show. They sing The Rainbow Connection, all the way through, start to end, and I’m not going to lie, I cried when it happened.

They remembered to have celebrity cameos. They remembered to reference the fact that they were in a movie.

Trust me, this movie gets an A+ for effort, and I’ll even throw on an extra plus just for getting the movie into theaters, and in front of an audience, and demonstrating that the Muppets, even after years of neglect, can stage a comeback.

And straight up, for accomplishing all that? I give Jason Segal, the writer and human-star of this film, high marks. He did a good thing, and for that I think parents and kids all over the world should be grateful.

And yet? And yet.

And yet the movie is a solid B.

Now, I don’t think there’s any shame in that, and as I said, I don’t think the B is from lack of trying. It’s just that it gets some things kind of wrong.

The first problem isn’t really anyone’s fault, and I’m not sure it can be fixed at this point. The characters just ain’t what they used to be. On a puppet level, Fozzy just looks odd. I suspect they either changed his design, or he looks different in HD than he did on my screen back in the old days.

A lot of the voices are off, even when they get the mannerisms about 95% right. Some of that can’t be helped. Jim Henson, despite all our wishes, refuses to rise from the dead to reclaim his rightful place as Kermit. On the other hand, Frank Oz (if what I read is correct) simply refused to be in the movie, causing Fozzy and Piggy to not quite be themselves.

Can I blame the guy? Probably not. He said he didn’t like the script, and again, if what I read is correct, he had his own plan to bring the Muppets back. Could he have done it? And as successfully?

We’ll never know. But I gotta admit, I’d just about kill to read that script.

If you want my opinion (sure you do!) I don’t think that Oz had what it takes to get the project off the ground. Segal isn’t a movie star, really, but he is one of the stars of a highly-rated TV show. And he has famous friends who like him and were probably willing to come down to the set, for free, just to keep costs down.

There are a lot of references in the movie about how to get The Muppet Show back on the air, they need to bring in a star. I think that Segal declaring, loudly and clearly, why he’s on the screen so often.

Ironically, however, that’s also the problem with the movie.

If you know your literary tropes, you’ve probably heard the concept of the Mary Sue. You find this person more often in fan fiction than in actual, on-the-shelf fiction, but it happens sometimes there, too.

If you don’t know the concept, it’s basically this. I decide to write a story about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Only it turns out Buffy has a new friend. And the new friend might not have my name, but he certainly looks, and sounds, and acts a lot like me. And in the story I get to be The Most Important Character In the Whole World. I rescue Buffy. I come up with a plan to get Xander and Willow together.

And so on.

The irony here is, Jason himself isn’t the Mary Sue, I don’t think. No, that honor belongs to a new character named Walter.

Walter is a puppet/Muppet, and at the start of the movie he discovers the Muppets, and worships them, and goes to their old studio which has fallen into disrepair, and then finds out that someone bought the studio and is going to tear it down, and he goes to find Kermit and Get the Old Gang Together for One Last Show to Save the Studio.

As plots go, this is maybe a little on the nose, and also a little bit of genius. The Muppets, who have fallen out of favor, get back together in order to save their studio. It mirrors real life so oddly perfectly that it kind of blows my mind.

The fact that it worked and the Muppets had a hit movie for the first time in more than a decade? It’s so meta I want to laugh and cry at the same time.

But with Walter in there?

Frankly, it’s a problem, and an unsolvable one. By putting him front and center at the beginning of the movie, it makes him the hero. He saves the Muppets, because he loves them. Kind of like Jason Segal did.

And there you have it. The very definition of a Mary Sue.

Recently it was announced that the next Muppet movie would not star Segal, which seemed to make people anxious about the next film. The truth is, I don’t know Jason. Maybe he’s really busy. Maybe he figures he did what he needed to do, and now he wants to find a way to launch a Krull sequel.

But I like to think that he knows something a lot of people haven’t figured out yet. If he stuck himself into the next movie, it wouldn’t be a Muppet movie. It would be the Walter/Jason Segal show. Just like this one was.

I don’t want that. And I suspect Jason doesn’t want that either. What we both want, next time, is a full-on Muppet movie, full of the bizarre anarchy and familial love that you find in the best moments of the Muppets.

I hope we both get it.

But in the meantime, I hope Jason (though I can’t imagine he’ll ever read this) knows that I truly appreciate what he did. He brought the Muppets back into the limelight, so my kid and I can share them. And that’s a truly special thing.

So here’s to you Jason. And here’s to the Muppets.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Money Where My Mouth Is: American Idol

So here’s where I try to prove I know what I’m talking about when it comes to weekly cuts. I just reread all the write-ups I did last year, and I didn’t do too badly. My only real miscalculations were Hayley, who I think survived as long as she did because she lived in the bottom three, with her fans adamantly keeping her alive. And Jacob, who said something stupid and cut his own throat.

So, obviously, week by week someone could do something really dumb and kill their chances, but this is about where I think everyone will shake out. I’ve put them roughly in order from first out to last man standing, along with some notes about what could lead to their “surprise exit.”

Keep in mind also that this doesn’t take into account the judges’ save, and that pretty much everyone on this list has a plus or minus one option, in my mind:

Shannon – Look. She has a good voice. She’s also 16, and acts like it. She cannot sing a song about adult love, because I suspect she’s never even had a boyfriend. She’s a sweet girl. But she should go. That said, with the guy/girl thing going on this week, she might live to fight another day.

Jeremy - Jeremy has himself a really pretty voice, and he’s got this look on his face that cries out that he’s sincere. That’s nice of him. The problem is, he keeps ballad-ing it up, and sooner or later people are going to realize he’s only got one trick up his sleeve, and that’ll be it for him. As the worst of the guys this week, I can see him getting cut, just because he was already saved once and failed to be awesome this week.

Elise – I find it interesting that no one seemed to hear what I heard this week. I think she screwed up her lyrics out of the gate, covered with some vocalizations, and never recovered that scary initial misstep. She made some comment about not knowing the song before now, and how if she could live with it for another month she could have figured out how to perform it. Problem: That’s not how this show works. This is going to doom her. The bigger question is, will it be this week? Once again, the boy/girl thing could save her.

Erika – I love this girl, probably at least in part because she reminds me of a good friend of mine. Erika has an amazing voice, and she doesn’t feel compelled to show off or go insane with the vocal flips and turns. This will get her killed, and man, am I going to be sorry to see her go.

Jermaine – This dude? He could sing the phone book, and you’d want to hear it. When he gets right into his vocal sweet spot, he traps you in his iron grip and doesn’t let go. I suspect he’s too sweet to do it, but someone needs to slap some Barry White and Isaac Hayes in front of him and let the ladies of the nation vote him to victory. It won’t happen, but it would be fun to watch. I suspect he and Deandre could switch places in this list, since he’s a judges’ favorite.

Deandre – Among the recaps I’ve glanced at, this poor dude is just plain hated. With the burning heat of 1000 suns. And it’s worse, now that he was cut once and got the save. The thing is, yeah, the guy is young. But his range is insane, and unlike some of his fellow competitors, he actually seems interested in learning something from his judges and mentors. My big fear is that he’ll feel compelled to break out the falsetto every week, which I suspect will wear on people.

Heejun – How much fun is this guy? Too much fun. You look at him, and he seems like a really normal, boring dude. Which makes everything he says funnier, as he’s basically his own straight man. And he’s got a really nice voice. But he’s got to get out of the ballad arena and try to connect with the audience, and he needs to do it soon. The fact that people really love him as a person will carry him to the middle of the pack.

Hollie - Great voice. Really great delivery, and when she’s on, she’s on. That said, Jessica and Hollie are pretty much the same person, giving the same kind of performance. And Jessica has, so far, nailed every note, while Hollie has not. I can see her getting dropped, in a “shocking” turn of events, earlier than this.

Colton – This year’s person I just don’t get. Last year it was Hayley, which kicked around the bottom three week in and week out, because she was arrogant enough to think she could sing anything and be amazing and everyone should love her because she was a pretty, pretty princess. Ahem. I don’t think Colton is that way, but he just doesn’t do anything for me. But my friends and wife love him for some reason, so he’ll be around a while. This week, however, he kind of sucked on a song I really like. He should have chosen “Higher Ground” instead. Or sat behind the piano, because this is a Stevie Wonder song, so it would have been okay. I think what will wash him out in the end is that he’s not quite smart enough to do what Phillip is doing, which is taking a song and doing it the “Colton” way.

Phillip – I’m surprised he didn’t walk up to Jimmy this week and say, “I’m dropping out. Want to sign me?” I bet Jimmy would. And if he was smart, he’d throw Phillip into the studio and get his album out on the day of the Idol finale.

Skylar – She blew the back half of her song out of the water this week, despite the fact that she didn’t grow up listening to Houston. When that happened, I looked at my wife and said, “She may take this.” And she just might.

Jessica – This week she delivered a pretty straightforward note-for-note recreation of a Houston song. That’s nice. It’s hard to do, and she did it well. I think what might kill her is that after a while, people are going to get tired of note-perfect recreations. They’ll want her to be her, and I’m not sure there’s a her there.

Joshua – Straight up, this guy is Jacob all over again. Only I think Joshua here has better control of his vocal gifts. He’s going to do well. He’s going to do very well. Unless he pull a Jacob and says something stupid/mean/arrogant, and then he’s gone.
Also? Since Jennifer’s punching comment, he’s the most fun to make jokes about during judging time. “I want to hollow you out like a Christmas turkey, fill you with stuffing, bake you, and then eat you up, smothered in gravy.”

In all honestly, It think anyone in my top three here could take the big prize, and I can see the judges pushing hard for a female win this year.

And that’s all for now. I’ll check in after a couple weeks have gone by and see how my predications are going.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What I'm Watching: Lost is Stupid

Not that anyone cares, but I’ve struggled with how to write this essay for the better part of two years now, and I guess I’m finally ready to have it out of my head.

But first, a little background.

As a kid, I grew up as a TV watcher. My wife did not. We both had shows we’d watch in college separately (her ER, me Friends) and together (Mystery Science Theater 3000, Star Trek: Voyager), but after we got married, we pretty much stopped watching any TV at all.

In the days before parenting, we’d mostly watch movies. You forget how much parenting changes your life until you remember that you could eat dinner at 6, have everything be cleaned up by 7, watch a movie from 7-9, and still have at least two hours to accomplish something with your day.

What finally got us back into TV was the advent of TV on DVD. No commercials, no fast-forwarding, no waiting for next week’s episode. And with the commercials sucked out, two episodes of an “hour-long” show would take up less time than watching a movie.

And so we caught up on some things we’d missed. Gilmore Girls. Babylon 5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and then Angel.

Even more slowly, we started catching up to things that were currently on the air. I bought the first season of Veronica Mars because I heard it was amazing (it was) and then we immediately threw ourselves into the second season, which was already running.

And that’s what turned us into TV watchers again. We simply caught up with the things we were interested in.

For the first time in years, I started reading up on what was new, and might be interesting to us.

Despite the fact that my wife and I are sci-fi fans, we took a pass on Lost. If I had to guess why, well, the mysterious island thing didn’t do much to spark my imagination. And when I looked at past show involvement for the creators, I found Felicity (neutral, as far as I was concerned) and Alias (which I hadn’t seen, but which everyone informed me started great, then sucked, then sucked in a new way, then got kind of okay, then sucked into a total flameout).

We took a pass. And then Lost became LOST, the last great water cooler show to exist before DVR and online watching and Netflix and Hulu turned the idea of talking about TV shows the next day into a forgotten thing.

This was the show that my in-laws would, metaphorically, take the phone off the hook for.

This was the show that my friend, who does not fool around when it comes to fandom, would watch with friends. Then watch alone. Then watch it along with the weekly podcast about the show. Then would listen to the podcast without watching the show.

When I told people I wasn’t watching Lost, they looked at me with confusion. EVERYONE was watching Lost. What did I talk about with coworkers, family and friends, if not Lost?

Meanwhile, that guy who created Felicity suddenly became J. J. Abrams, king of all nerd culture. He created, by my count, six hundred and fifty-four new TV shows the next year, and then Hollywood started handing him the reins to every large action/sci-fi project they happened to have lying around.

In the midst of all this, David Fury, a former Buffy and Angel writer, was let go. And he went on the record saying that the people running Lost had no idea what they were doing, or where the show was going. Keep in mind, this is the year he won an Emmy for one of the episodes he wrote for the show.

I was torn.

On one hand, I felt out of the loop of pop culture. On the other, I got the sense that the show was jerking people around, and much like Alias before it, things would start falling apart, and quickly.

Then our good friends bought a copy of the first season on DVD, and put it in our care.

Now, everything I had read about the show said that it had one of the greatest pilots, ever. A two-hour spectacle designed to set up all the brilliant mind-bending fun.

So my wife and I sighed, and settled in. And we were pretty underwhelmed.

I had read that the pilot was originally two hours long, which meant that the second episode was still part of the pilot. Maybe we needed the whole experience?

So we watched the second episode. And we were underwhelmed.

We watched the third, and we weren’t impressed. But it was, of course, the second episode, and all second episodes have problems, as the writers and creators try to get a show off the ground.

We decided to give it one more shot.

And that episode? That was David Fury’s Emmy-winning episode. John Locke. The wheelchair. Not just a great episode of Lost, but a great episode of television.

My wife and I finally got it. This is what the show could be. It was exciting.

We started watching more. Two, three episodes a night.

The excitement drained out of us.

Slowly at first. Then faster and faster. Somewhere around episode 18, we realized we just plain didn’t care anymore about most of the characters, what had happened to them in the past, and what was happening to them now, on the island.

We stopped watching.

Months went by. Many, many, many months. The second season came to an end, and friends of mine started declaring it was better than the first.

With the second season about to come out on DVD, we decided to finish watching season 1, finally. And the thing of it is, they really nailed the ending. They paid off, the tiniest bit, the idea of The Others on the island. They left many of the characters in a profoundly dangerous position.

They mostly made you care about the characters, just as the final credits rolled.

So we decided to continue into the second season. We made it maybe four episodes in, and stopped.

As the years have gone on, we keep going back to the show, trying to push through it, just to get to the end. At this point, I’m not sure we’ll make it. We’re somewhere near the end of season four, and we’ve been jerked around a lot, and… well, let’s talk about why I’m writing this in the first place, shall we?

The title is up at the top, of course: Lost is Stupid. That’s inflammatory, and it’s meant to be. I fully expect some angry Lost fan (assuming there are any left) to come stomping down to leave a comment about how I just don’t get it.

The problem is, there’s nothing to get. Let’s talk about that.

1. Conflict equals drama… if it makes sense.

I learned really quickly how to tell whether or not an episode of Lost was going to be any good. What I would do is wait to see how Sawyer was used.

Every week, especially in the first season, someone would need something. “Oh, we need six quarts of soy sauce. Sawyer has it.”

Every. Week.

And every week, Sawyer would refuse to give anyone the soy sauce. 90% of the time, he’d claim that he found it, so he got to keep it. Some weeks he’d bargain for something else, and give up the soy sauce. Other weeks, someone would punch him and take it.

I got so sick of that scene, because it was the same five minutes of show, over, and over, and over again. As a viewer, it was simplistic and dull, conflict for the sake of conflict.

And then there were the weeks when Sawyer had actual reasons for holding onto his stash. Or at the very least, offered up a reasoned defense. If that happened, it was clear that the writer had put some actual thought into motivation for once, and the episode had a good shot at being decent.

But if Sawyer was off the rails for no reason, it meant that this week’s episode would feature everyone doing things not because they were motivated by character, but because if they tried to help each other, the plot would resolve in about three minutes.

Which leads me to the secrets problem.

2. Every week, someone would learn something, and then try to keep it a secret. For no reason.

There was a lot of this going on during the run of the show. I think the first one that almost drove me insane was when someone found the bottle that was supposed to carry all the notes home, on the makeshift boat. Instead of going to everyone, and saying, “Hey, we found this bottle, this is bad, we need to see if we can find our friends, who might be hurt, or washing up dead on the shore,” they went with, “Let’s hide this, so we can have a ‘secret’ that can keep as a ticking time bomb. Because the show needs those, or it will get boring.”

Things like this happened all the time. All. The. Time.

My wife and I have spent whole episodes watching someone say, “I can’t tell anyone about this,” while we said, “Why not? It can only help.”

This added to another problem:

3. The characters were constantly finding ways to be less sympathetic, as opposed to more.

Quite literally every Kate episode made me hate her even more than I already did. It was a remarkable accomplishment, turning a woman who was kind of a shrew into an even more hateful shrew.

This same problem extended to much of the rest of the cast. David Fury did some amazing character work with John Locke, and once he was gone the show spent the rest of its time eroding it, turning him from an interesting man with a genuine reason to want to stay on the island, to a complete whack-a-doodle.

Speaking of characters:

4. Lies, lies, and more lies.

This one is pointed at the writers. When the show started, it was stated that eventually we would meet and get to know everyone who survived the crash.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, the whole place became an island full of Cousin Olivers, the character who was slapped into the Brady Bunch when people grew less interested in the show.

First there were the people in the tail. Then The Others. Then they brought in this whole other group to shake things up again. Every season, instead of focusing on the dozens of people and elements already in play, the writers brought in a bunch more shiny new people to distract from the fact that the original cast weren’t interesting anymore.

Which brings us to:

5. That secret plan they didn’t actually have.

Lost’s favorite thing to do was to pile on new elements, and promise that there were super-interesting explanations in the works.

But really? No. They made it up as they went along. Oh, sure, they maintained for a long time that they’d had a long-standing plan.

Then the show ended, and one of the writers came out and said, “Well, we had some ideas for episodes, and we’d do those. And then we’d dip into the fan ideas we’d find on message boards and do those as well.”

You know what a show with a plan doesn’t do? Fan episodes. Shows like The Wire? And Buffy? And Babylon 5? No one went to the message boards, and said “Someone thinks X should do Y with Z!” and then went back into the writer’s room to make it happen.

They made a plan, they stuck to the plan, and they came out with characters who had actual motivations beyond “create conflict this week.” They had backstories that were carefully assembled and mostly made sense, instead of resembling a house made by blind carpenters with different sets of blueprints.

6. The Ending.

Look, I’m not made of stone. I thought that, perhaps, if Lost could stick the ending, it could fix up all the broken bits and pieces the show had left in its wake.

You know what? It didn’t. The best thing fans of the show could say about the ending was that it was “okay.”

A lot of hardcore fans hated it.

And what’s worse, even with an extra half-hour, it still left a bunch of little plot threads lying around. Did they not have time to clean them up?

You bet they did. If they had called up the president of the network and said they needed two extra hours to finish the story in a satisfactory way? He would have coughed up the money without a second thought, and raked in the extra advertising dollars, giggling to himself.

The fact is, Lost had the freaky fans it needed to do a better job. They could have hopped online, and asked for a list of things that still needed answers, and gotten it revised, updated, and color coded within a day.

The fact is, and here’s my final problem:

7. They just didn’t care all that much.

My wife hates serial killer movies. I can understand that. They’re full of formula (guy kills a bunch of people until he’s stopped), they’re often cheaply made, and worst of all, those kinds of people actually exist, and to some extent making movies about their ilk glorifies them.

To my mind, entertainment is entertainment, and a good stalking movie can be very entertaining, when done well. If someone cares.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think the people making Lost cared.

They’ll claim the opposite, as is their right, but take a look at that list I just compiled. 1000 words of me just scratching the surface of the problems with the show.

And these guys got everything they wanted. They wanted an end point? They got one. They wanted to keep casting new actors, while keeping most of the old ones around? They got it. All of the episodes put out back-to-back, with no breaks? Yes, sir!

They were happy to shovel shocks and twists at you. That was fine. That doesn’t take very much work, after all. It’s the equivalent of a dark room, some scary music, and having a cat jump out at you.

Let me tell you a story about someone who cares.

When Robert Jordan died he left behind his Wheel of Time book series with one volume left to write. A man was plucked from the fold to carry the legacy of the series.

That man’s name was Brandon Sanderson.

Here’s what Brandon was faced with. And keep in mind, he’s one man, not a team of TV writers.

He had to complete a book series that was already 12 volumes long, with almost every volume topping 250,000 words. This meant he had to read all the books, taking copious notes who got where, and how, and when, and why.

Then he had to take every single solitary plot thread, and pull them together into a single volume. For fans who had been waiting forever to see how it all came together in the end.

Ultimately, he discovered he couldn’t do it in one book. Or two. He’d need three.

So he wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and released one book. Then he wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more, and released the second book.

And then what? He went back and reread all the books again, before writing the third book, just to make sure he didn’t miss anything.

Even if a season of Lost went for 24 episodes, at about 45 minutes each, you can watch an entire season in about 18 hours. Two nine-hour days, or three six-hour days, if you’re so inclined.

Before the beginning of every season, every writer and producer on the show should have been sitting in a room, notebook in hand, scribbling reminders of ideas and setups that needed paying off.

I’m pretty sure that never happened.

It would have been easy, even as they approached the sixth and final season. They could have done it in less than 13 days. Fewer than three full workweeks, watching for just six hours a day, with time for discussion before and after. Maybe make it three full weeks, with two extra days of listing important details on a whiteboard somewhere.

But no.

A final thought. Somewhere in the midst of season 2, I commented on one of my social networks that the second season of Lost was pretty awful. Friends piped up immediately that the second season had problems, but the third one was perfect.

Someone qualified that statement, by stating that the first six episodes of the third season were actually kind of bad. But then it got better. And season four was great!

I gave it some thought and realized there was a pattern. Whatever season was running was “great!” and the last one was always “faulty.”

And then I started thinking about my jump scare idea, how it’s easy to take a dark room, a cat, and ominous music, and make people pop out of their seat.

A roller coaster is a lot of fun. It takes you up, down, and around, but at the end of the ride, you haven’t actually gone anywhere.

In some other iteration of the universe, there’s a great version of Lost where it took you places, made you think, and came to a beautiful and exciting and satisfying ending set up by the previous seasons.

But not in this one. In this universe, Lost is stupid.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Wandering Through the World of Memory: Davy Jones and The Monkees.

Not to sound callous, but it very rarely effects me when famous people die.

I feel bad saying that, but look. If it had been me passing away on February 29th, Davy Jones would not have wept for me. Short of someone sending him a copy of my obituary, and saying, “Look at this guy, leaving behind a wife and daughter and a loving extended family, isn’t it terrible that he’s gone so soon?” Jones wouldn’t view my passing as important.

But for some reason, people seem to feel differently about famous folks.

Granted, this is coming from the guy (me, that is) who recently wrote about the sad death of Neil Hope, a death so strange and unnoticed and inexplicable I still can’t wrap my head around it.

But I was talking about Davy Jones.

My initial thought, upon hearing about his death, was probably the same as that of most others: I suddenly wanted to hear some Monkees music.

My secondary thought was that poor Davy never really managed to escape his life as a Monkee, even though the show was cancelled more than 40 years ago.

And then I realized just how deeply woven into my life Davy and The Monkees have been.

There’s a theory about the brain that everything that’s ever happened to you is up there, it’s just filed really poorly. The example I most recall is that you might think of the color green, which reminds you of grass, which reminds you of your birthday party when you were a kid and you had your party outside.

And here’s Jones and Company, and their weird little file cabinet in my brain.

I remember being little, really little, and seeing a bizarre Saturday Night Live-style sketch called “Have a Nice Day.” It was a parody of horror movies, complete with yellow smiley face as the mask of the killer. (Today, I don’t think it would be a parody. In a world where Battleship is going to be a movie, I’m shocked no one has gotten the rights to the mask and made a flick.)

I had no idea this craziness originated with one of the original Monkees. At the time, I didn’t even know who The Monkees were.

I remember being young. Grade school aged. My family was visiting my parent’s best friends, who didn’t have kids. So my brother and I went to the TV, and flipped around, and here was a strange little show with a four silly guys on it, sometimes singing songs.

I remember the adults in the room sort of watching, and sort of not, and laughing at what was happening on the TV. But I was listening to “Last Train to Clarksville” for the first time, and wondering when the people on TV were going to sing more songs.

I had no idea the show was almost 20 years.

Sometime later, there was a show on TV called “My Two Dads,” and it featured a very special appearance by Davy Jones, who sang a new song that was, ostensibly, about the “My” in the title. My immersion in pop culture was not thorough enough that I was able to figure out Davy had been on the TV show I’d seen at my parent’s friends house.

And then I was in high school, and one day my parents came home from a night out, and they had just discovered a brand new video rental place, and my dad was kind of in love with it. Because they had all this weird stuff he’d always heard of, but never seen. And stuff that he hadn’t seen in years.

And in his hands was a copy of The Monkees movie, which was called “Head.” And he put it in, and we watched it, and I had no idea what I was seeing because the movie was just bizarre, and there was no real story, and yet it wasn’t exactly a series of sketches, more a series of ideas.

But next to me, my dad sat there laughing and talking about all the parts of the movie he remembered from when he saw it.

Not long after that, he bought a copy of it.

When I went to college, I took my dad’s copy of the movie with me one year. I kept trying to get people to watch it, but people knew my tastes were a little off the wall, and they declined.

I eventually got my girlfriend to watch it with me. I have no idea why. I’m pretty sure she gave up about halfway through, when she realized there was no plot, and I couldn’t tease one out for her. (She eventually married me anyway.)

Also while I was in college, The Monkees got back together, and made a TV special, and put out a new album. My dad bought it.

I also missed most of the special, though much like my dad and “Head,” I can remember little chunks of it. The first was someone telling Michael Nesmith he needed to locate his hat, from the original show.

The second was also Michael-based, as he was making fun of the laugh track being stuck in the on position by saying things like, “Children are starving in China.” This being followed by raucous hilarity.

At home, my dad devolved into full-on Monkees nostalgia for a while, buying all their classic albums. Borrowed them, and brought them upstairs to my room over the summer, and listened to them one by one. Most of them got a single listen.

Then they all went back downstairs.

I got interested in Mike Nesmith for a time. He was trying to push the internet as far as it would go then, offering up music on his web page, trying to sell some of his out-of-print albums. For a while, he was posting chapters of his new novel, which he said he was going to sell on his web site.

And then one day I wasn’t all that interested in Michael any more.

Until a few years later, when I mentioned that I had this weird memory of “Have a Nice Day,” and my dad told me that was Mike, and loaned me a copy of “Elephant Parts.” Which, much like “Head,” was full of oddness.

Amusing oddness, though. There are those that claims MTV exists because of the music videos on “Elephant Parts.”

More recently, my wife and I saw the Disney version of “Aida” in a touring company. Mickey was one of the cast members. He mentioned The Monkees in his bio, stating something like, “He doesn’t remember much of it, but he’s assured he had fun.”

Over the last few years, I have hit the local music stores, and the big box stores, and always, always, always there were The Monkees albums, sitting around, waiting for the nostalgic and/or the uninitiated to buy them.

I’d pick them up, and look at the long list of songs I knew, and I’d put them back.

The Monkees didn’t last that long, really. They were a band put together for a TV show that only lasted a few years. And the band itself was very, very, very on-again, off-again, going from four members, to three, to two, then back to three, then up to four, and then…

Well, there were other variations in the middle.

A friend once asked me if I was buying any of The Simpsons DVD sets. I told him no, that if I wanted to watch the show I could turn on the TV any time of day, and flip around, and find that it was on somewhere. After all, the show has been on more than 20 years, and has 500 episodes in the bank.

And The Monkees? Well, they’re a little harder to find on TV, I think. They get picked up for syndication fairly regularly, and if their DVD box set is out of print right now, well, by next week, it won’t be.

But I don’t need any of that.

Davy and his sometimes cohorts are part of the fabric of my culture. I might not be able to find an episode of the show, but if I flick on the local oldies radio station, I doubt I’d have to wait more than 24 hours to hear Davy singing, either in the foreground or the background.

If I really, really wanted to hear them, I could have them up on YouTube in seconds.

And maybe that’s why I don’t weep for the stars. Because even when they’re gone, they’ll always be here. I can’t miss Davy Jones, because somewhere, right now, Davy Jones is singing “Daydream Believer.”

Here’s hoping that girl cheers up. You’d think she’d feel better after 45 years or so.

How to Win Your Idol Office Pool

I usually admit up front that I’m not much of a fan of American Idol. Of all the performers last year, the only one I really enjoyed was Casey, and I knew right off he was getting chopped.

That said, I did a very solid job when it came to guesswork, because I wasn’t terribly invested in anyone. And I’m not this year either. Jimmy Iovine has already said which people he would sign today, given the choice. Even if they lose, they win.

This couples nicely with something I once read, that said that getting into the top 10 of idol basically guarantees you a music career of some kind. You’ll have to really work for it if you come in second, because you might not get the same backing you’ll get as a winner, but…

You’re gold.

(For example, I think that Phillip Phillips will lose. In fact, I know he will. But he’ll still get some kind of contract, since Jimmy already said as much. Or he’ll spend the rest of his life touring as a Dave Mathews impersonator.)

That said, I’m not rating everyone’s chances just yet, because it’s WAY early in the competition and some of the people I think are pretty solid could easily flame out (as Jen did this week, picking two songs that didn’t do much for her really exceptional voice).

(Or Reed, who is an amazing musician who has no idea what an audience actually wants to hear, and just does his own weird thing.)

Over the weeks last year, I became really adept at picking who was about to get the axe. I won’t say I was 100% accurate, but I did pretty well. And I learned a few oddball tricks to picking the loser that bore themselves out the more I watched.

Here goes.

1. Check the front page of Yahoo the day people get cut. (

I have no clue why, but for some reason last year almost every week that night’s loser was listed as the top Yahoo search. It was a little freaky.

2. Pay attention to this week’s performance, but pay MUCH more attention to LAST week’s performance.

When Idol started, YouTube didn’t exist. Now, the performances are getting uploaded pretty quickly after they happen live.

Voting occurs right after the show, so viewers only get a little chunk of time to process their feelings about that week’s performance.

But last week’s has been kicking around on YouTube for seven days, and people have had a chance to be really, really, really cruel to it.

People think Casey got cut because of his growly version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine. No. He got cut for singing a Nirvana song. People who didn’t even watch the show lined up to abuse him for it online.

And I’d see it again and again. Someone would give a really dicey performance, and they’d sail through for one week… and then get plugged the next week. Because people had a whole week to live with it now, and that gave them time to get good and crabby about it.

3. Being in the bottom three is good… if you don’t lose.

I saw this all the time, too. Someone would hit the bottom three, and the next week they’d get voted out of the bottom. Only to return…

This is what led to all those so-called “shocks.” James is a perfect example of this. Good performances every week (to my ears, anyway). Always out of the bottom. And then? BOOM.

4. Don’t be a jerk.

Once again, folks. YouTube. That’s what killed Jacob.

On the flip side of things, be a nice person. Because even though it’s a singing competition? It isn’t really a singing competition. If it was, a bunch of random people would come out every week, perform, and the show would be over in about 30 minutes every week.

That’s not what happens. They bring out everyone’s mom, and grandma, and they do interviews, and blah-de-blah-de-blah.

If someone gets uppity? They’re out. The end.

And there you have it. Use these four simple factors, weigh them against everyone else, and come elimination day you can be like me. I guessed all three on the bottom about 90% of the time, and I guessed the actual loser about 85% of the time.

I’m guessing this year I’ll do even better.