Sunday, 27 February 2011

American Idol, Season 10 REALLY Begins!

So, it is finally upon us: American Idol's season 10 top 24 have been selected, and I have to tell you, reader, I'm pretty happy with this group and with the season so far. Yeah, producer "pimping" of contestants they want us to love (ah-hem, Lauren Alaina, anyone?) has been far from subtle this season, and the decidedly meaner version of Randy we've been seeing makes him somehow even more unlikeable, but the changes have breathed new life into the show, and with the puzzling exclusions of John Wayne Shulz (a.k.a. my future husband) and White House intern/Harvard grad Molly something, this is a mixed bag top 24 that seems full of potential. Honestly, there are only a few of them I don't really like! Idol has turned over a new leaf, and I like where it's moving.

But before I get to the contestants and my initial impressions of them, I need to talk about the judges for a sec (what, with this being my first post about Idol this season, and all). As I mentioned above, Randy has somehow managed to make himself seem even less insightful than before, and now he's meaner, but not in a good way. Was anyone else appalled when music superstar executive Jimmy Iovine told Jacob Lusk to tone down his crazy during the Beatles song, but then after the performance, Randy stomped on all that good advice by telling Jacob to let loose again? FAIL.

On the plus side, though, my disappointment with Randy pales in comparison with my excitement about Steven and J-Lo (does anyone else think it's funny when people on the show call her "Jennifer"? Her name is J-Lo, people!). Granted, Steven's creepy flirting during the auditions was NOT OKAY IN ANY WAY, but the dude's got a lot of music know-how, and he's given surprisingly even-handed critiques this season (at least, what we've seen of them in edit, anyway). J-Lo has drawn on her admittedly extensive talents as a performer (note: I did not say "singer") to similarly offer (often) good critiques, and what's more is that unlike Ellen, she's not afraid to tell a contestant something's not working, and unlike Paula, she doesn't seem nuts. Hey, she's won over my Mom, too. Obviously, EVERYTHING changes and becomes much more of a pressure cooker when the contestants start singing for votes, but these early days are showing some promise.

Now, the contestants. These assessments are based on the sometimes very limited packages we've seen on them, so I reserve the right to change my mind at any point during the actual performance shows. As it stands, though, let's call this Idol pre-season rankings, shall we?

First, The Awesome:
Casey Abrams. Do I need to spell it out? He played an upright bass. On the Idol stage. While singing lead. On a Peggy Lee song. I'm chomping at the bit to hear more of this guy.

Paul McDonald. I vaguely remembered this guy's audition, but I loved his lovely, whispery voice on "Blackbird" with Kendra Chantelle. He also rocks that beard.

Tim Halperin. He had a flirty audition with J-Lo, and then went a little under the radar during Hollywood week (which basically means that he wasn't crazy enough to warrant Crazypants Ashley-level screentime. Thankfully). His duet with Julie Zorrilla on "Something" was chock-full of well-channeled vocals and chemistry.

The Good:
Julie Zorrilla. My Idol-watching buddy and I call her Rachel Berry. See my above comments about her lovely duet with Tim. I think I probably agree with J-Lo about her needing to "feel" her songs a bit more, but, to be fair, the auditions and Hollywood week are weird. There's plenty of time for her to "connect with the audience".

Naima Adedapo. I really like her voice. She seems capable of heading into a soulful, Lauryn Hill kind of place, and I'd love for her to do well. That said, I hope she's smart with her song choices. Sometimes people who seem to understand what kinds of "artists" they are fail to give the fickel Idol voters what they want.

Lauren Alaina. This teenager has a fantastic set of pipes and a funny personality. The thing that is annoying about her is not her fault at all, either. If the producers would quit telling us every five seconds that she's our next American Idol, she would almost certainly be one of my favorites.

Kendra Chantelle. Stage name? Yes? I don't know if her voice sounded so nice because it was matched with Paul's during that fantastic cover of "Blackbird" (thank goodness Simon didn't witness it, though! He always seemed to have a strange aversion to songs about birds). I really like what I've heard of her voice so far. Hopefully, there's more of that to come.

Rachel Zevita. She's slightly nuts, right? I have to admit that I, like J-Lo, remembered her crazypants season 6 audition, too. Turns out that Rachel, a classically trained opera singer, has matured a bit since then, and I, for one, have been pleasantly surprised with what I've heard. I hope she's not this season's Sioban Magnus (i.e., weirdo who peaks too soon), though.

Jovany Barreto. LOVE his upper register! I don't envision this guy going very far in Idol, and I think his shirtless audition antics may have already put some viewers off, but his voice is lovely, and I look forward to seeing if he can translate his talent into votes.

Stefano Langone. I'd put this guy at the top of my "Good" category. "Scar guy", as he's mnemonically known in my head, has a nice voice, good stage presence, and a seemingly great personality to match. I'm rooting for him to ride the semi-finals to the top 12.

The Okay:
Robbie Rosin. The only thing keeping this sweet, Aladdin look-alike from the Good or even Awesome categories is the way he adds so much cheese to his vocal styling. I don't know how to explain it, but I know it when I hear it, and to me it sounds like the guy is singing straight out of pop radio c. 1989. I do like that he sang "Gravity" by Sara Barielles during Hollywood Week. Points. He also needs to tame his mullet.

Karen Rodriguez. I like her, and I think she can sing well. I even liked that she sang a song in Spanish, because it's a totally different style than what we're used to hearing on Idol, but I'm going to need her to stop sucking up to J-Lo ASAP. Thanks.

Jacob Lusk. He's got oodles of raw talent, yes, but I'm not convinced that he knows what to do with it. His infamous Hollywood week solo was full of passion and intensity, but it was all over the place (anyone else want to punch Randy in the face for calling it the best Idol performance "EVER"?). With a little training, he could be pretty great, but he's really not there yet.

The Annoying
Clint Jun Gamboa. Yeah, his personality makes him annoying. I wasn't really a huge Jaycee fan, but Clint was COLD to that poor, lovable kid. Not cool. I'm also not a huge fan of singers failing to sing the melody so they can show off. Ick.

Jordan Dorsey. What a douche. Dot com. I liked his lovely, raspy New Orleans audition ("Over the Rainbow", in case you forgot), but like Clint, he lost any hope at being likable during Hollywood week, when he managed to ruin two groups with his bombastic arrogance. Like it or not, this show is about likability as much as it's about actual talent (just ask Katharine McPhee), and Jordan Dorsey is not likable.

Haley Reinhart. This one is likable enough, I guess, but her voice is annoying. Nothing I can do about that.

Brett Loewenstern. Controversial. I think he's going to do well on this show, and his voice is fine, but his high-pitched talking voice freaks me out, and, call me old-fashioned, but with a haircut, I would almost certainly like him better. I also did not care for his "we're all champions" thing at the end of the eliminations. It shows a lack of self-awareness that puzzles me. How hot are his parents, though?!

Tatynisa Wilson. She's the one that sang that hilarious version of "I Hope You Dance" during Hollywood week, with altered lyrics such as this little gem: "I hope you never lose the wonder of your senses/You get your fuel to eat but always keep that hunger." I'm pretty sure her voice is better than that segment lets on, but what I heard didn't sound nice.

James Durbin. Ugh. Aside from a puzzling sense of personal style (what's with the tails?) and a snarky personality during group night, he's genuinely not appealing as a vocalist. He's the one constantly comparing himself to Adam Lambert, but he is NO Adam Lambert. He lacks any semblance of vocal control, and his "scream" is employed frequently and injudiciously. I am not pleased.

Scotty McCreary. He does realize that he will not be able to sing every song in the Josh Turner catalog on this show, right? In my opinion, the judges were somehow charmed by a kid who's not ready yet. I don't know about you, but I'm slightly creeped out by that voice coming from a babyfaced teenager. Give him, like, five years and let him come back as a man. His kind of voice is too mature for his current self. To be fair, I'm (unfairly) blaming this kid for pushing John Wayne Shulz out of the top 24, but my other points still stand. I think he's going to be this season's John Stevens: a one-trick pony unready for the challenge.

The Jury's Still Out
Ashton Jones. I'm leaning towards "Good" for this gal, but I haven't heard enough to tell for sure. Two things that could work for her: she's gorgeous, and she's part of the group that chose the most fun group number during Hollywood week ("Hit 'Em Up Style").

Thia Megia. Could either be a surprise contender, or this season's Katie Stevens/Lisa Tucker/Jasmine Trias. "Vocal coach from Hell" Peggi clearly doesn't think it's the former. I hope she proves her wrong.

Lauren Turner. She seems to have a lovely voice, but I have absolutely no recollection of her before she made it into the top 24.

Pia Toscano. Again, I have very little recollection of this girl, but I like how she presented herself to the judges when they gave her the spot. I think she was in one of the group numbers I liked, too.

So there you have it: my exhaustive list of semi-finalists, with a few predictions thrown in for good measure. Usually by this point in the competition, I've found a girl to really root for, but surprisingly, it's all about the guys for me this year. As much as I'd love to see the cute-boy Idol winner streak be broken this year with another viable female artist (I miss Jordin Sparks!), at the moment, the guys have been the most impressive. We shall see, though. A lot can happen in the next few months, and I'm happy to eat my words about these contestants at any time. It's shaping up to be a great season!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Southland's "Code 4" and TV as Art

I know I wave the flags of certain shows more than others. Dramas like Friday Night Lights, Big Love, and Southland have been rocking my world for at least a couple of years now, and I am unashamed of buying wholly and happily into the dramatic illusions created by these shows. Where one (slightly too cynical) person may see in a show a contrived storyline, some kind of emotional manipulation, and obvious "character types", I like being able to see beauty in a redemptive narrative, the extremes and lulls of representing changing human emotions, and characters that make decisions I believe human beings would actually make.

In short, scripted TV shows are capable of conveying the shades of black, white, and gray found in life, and like with any good piece of narrative art, I get excited about consuming it.

It is with this in mind that I have to once again sing the praises of the best cop show on TV right now (and maybe ever), TNT's Southland. A few weeks ago, an episode called "Code 4" premiered, and, seemingly out of nowhere, shocked and unnerved me in a way that few TV shows ever have. I remember a couple of ER episodes having a similar effect on me, as well as an episode of Millennium called "A Room with No View", LOST's series finale, and The X-Files' infamous "Home" episode. I'm sure there have been others, but I'd rank this episode right up there with some of the best TV I've seen. If you're a fan of the show, you know what I'm talking about, and if you're not, this episode is worth a download or online viewing. Seriously, I dare you to not be affected by the last five minutes.

I don't want to write a recap here because I think that would do a disservice to an extremely well-constructed teleplay, but I want to point out a couple of things that struck me. The A-story, that of Nate (Kevin Alejandro) and Sammy (Shawn Hatosy) trying to track down the killer of a man gunned down in front of his kids, was a perfect lead-in to Nate's final scene. In last week's episode ("Cop or Not"), Sammy sentimentalized Nate's ability to see gang members simply as kids who were capable of reasoning with him if they were shown respect. Throughout the episode, we saw Nate living by this creed, but from a story-telling standpoint, the best part was that Nate seeking justice for a seemingly innocent victim and showing respect to the men who had killed him did not seem like a sentimental send-off for the character. On the contrary, it seemed like just another day. The tragedy here was that the character didn't die being heroic or extreme: he died suddenly and unexpectedly (for the characters and the audience) doing what he always did.

The B-story, an unrelated run of the mill procedural, in which Lydia (Regina King) was tracking down the killer of a drug dealer, was also executed with excellent precision and clever story-telling. Interestingly, the writers managed to make a PlayStation an effective dramatic tool first by using it to help construct the characters of a couple of detectives we don't know very well, next by using it to ostensibly create a comically fractured relationship between an uncle and his nephew, and finally as the motive for the uncle's murder. Clever, right?

The story of the episode was Nate's murder and the harrowing way Sammy fought for him, and that's what stuck with me, but I thought it was worth noting that even the B-story was told with intelligence and careful attention to detail. This season of Southland hasn't missed a beat. "Code 4" is an example of TV as art, displaying rhetorical modes of persuasion with remarkable balance. If you haven't been watching this show, you really should.