Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Idol Pre-Season Wishlist

Tonight the real season of American Idol begins. With the first half (plus one. Why Idol?) of the Top 25 performing for votes, we get to hear complete (albeit pared down to 90 seconds) performances by the Idolestants, and the chance to finally see how these kids fare on the big stage! I love the semi-finals! The potential for break-out stars and exciting new performers is just too enticing to turn truly cynical about the ageing Idol formula.

Going into the season, I wasn't totally sure how I was going to feel about this season of Idol, given the reality singing competition overload we as a collective viewing public have been smacked with this past year. I wasn't sure if X-Factor's awfulness would have left a permanently bitter taste in my mouth. After the Vegas episode, though, I realized that I'm invested. This year's top 24 - umm - 25, is (dare I say it?) one of the most exciting in recent memory. Wowsers, this could be a cool season!***

So, before the season officially gets kicked off later, I wanted to provide my own little pre-season Idol cover wishlist. I've always had a wishlist; I've just never shared it before. In the past, only a few contestants have sung my wishlist songs, but whenever they have, it's been awesome (Crystal Bowersox singing "Up to the Mountain" springs to mind).**** Two of my all-time favs have already been covered this season ("Dedicated to the One I Love" and "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"), so I'm optimistic that anything awesome could happen. If any of the Idolestants sing any of these songs this season without sucking, they get major points from me (btw, the artists listed are not always the original artists. I'm not a musical history moron ;)):

"Dream a Little Dream of Me" by Mama Cass
"My Man" from Funny Girl (it would have to be a theme night)
"In My Life" by the Beatles
"I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor (but closer to this version)
"Droplets" by Colbie Caillat
"All I Wanted" by Paramore
"Truth No. 2" by the Dixie Chicks
"Long Ride Home" by Patty Griffin
"Sweet Baby James" by James Taylor
"I Know" by Fiona Apple (it could be a moment for someone!) (also, this is a wishful thinking list at parts)
"I'm Movin' On" by Rascal Flatts
"Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)" by Garth Brooks
"Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" by Lauryn Hill
"Young Blood" by the Naked and Famous
"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" by the Platters
"Somewhere" from West Side Story
"Breakin' Up" by Rilo Kiley
"Be My Baby" by the Ronettes
"Very Last Country Song" by Sugarland

If anyone covers these songs this season, we all lose:
"Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)" by Phil Collins (kiss of death song)
"Alone" by Heart (Carrie owns it, and she lent it to Allison Iraheta, but no one else is allowed to partake. Sorry)
"I Will Always Love You" by Whitney Houston (even singing the Dolly version will invite comparisons that should be best left alone)
"Up to the Mountain" by Patty (nope. It began with Kelly and ended with Crystal)
"Daydream Believer" by the Monkees (we all have Shrek to thank for killing that one)
"Fallin'" by Alicia Keys
"I'll Be" by Edwin McCain
"I Feel the Earth Move" by Carole King (song that never seems to go the way the Idolestant thinks it will)
"(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave" by Martha and the Vandellas
"I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" by Aerosmith (I just can't stand this song any more)
""Ain't Goin' Down ('Til The Sun Comes Up)" by Garth Brooks (kiss of death song. Avoid)
"Imagine" by John Lennon (I don't think the Idolestants really get this song when they sing it. They should just not sing it anyway)
"Hallelujah" by Jeff Buckley (Done. To. Death.)

***The only elimination I was truly upset by was Lauren Gray's. I still don't really understand why they gave her the axe, and the whole post-top-8-Lauren-Alaina (e.g., lacking in self confidence) edit they gave her felt extremely forced. I'll probably pout about her for a little while this season. She may have been my favorite going into this round.

****With one exception: Ramiele Malubay maimed my all time favorite song here.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Concerning the Return of 'Idol' and 'The Voice'

By now those of you who watch reality singing competition shows (moi aussi!) are probably revelling in the excitement of not just one, but two pretty good ones on your TV these days. Don't know about you guys, but I found X-Factor painful. It took all of the most obnoxious qualities of shows in this genre, used them, and then threw its own over-the-top ridiculatta in the mix. There were so many ill-used tropes that I can't even list them all here. Feel free to rag on it as much as you wish in the comment section with my full support.

I use X-Factor as my example of how not to do a reality singing show because it excellently highlights all the things American Idol and The Voice are doing right. I admit that I was not on the Voice's hype train last season. I watched it out of crush devotion to Blake Shelton and to see the multitudinous ways Xtina tried to make us believe she's just a real gal (she's never let me down). In general, though, most of its debut season, like a scrubbier version of X-Factor seemed too forced to me -- namely the disingenuous jump-cut editing of the blind auditions to the rapid-fire elimination of contestants to TRL's Carson Daly -- and I wasn't very emotionally attached.

This season, though, they've worked out the kinks, and the result is a much smoother, more enjoyable ride.** Where on Idol I want to see and hear less from the judges, the opposite is true on The Voice. Judge chemistry has reached new levels this time around, and now that they've all got a season under their belts, it's fun to see the various ways the judges are playing the game. Nothing exemplifies the fun, light feel of the season so far for me like Cee-Lo Green, who, as a friend so wisely pointed out to me one time, somehow looks a little like Verne Troyer, stroking his Dr Evil kitty while doing confessionals. LOVE.

I can't say that Idol has really done anything to reinvent the wheel this season, but last week's group round and Vegas performances made me really excited about what's to come this season. I recently read an interesting article by Mark Harris in Entertainment Weekly, arguing basically that The Voice is more in touch with viewers in the way that initially made Idol a huge success, and that Idol has lost its touch. While this was an easy thing to say after the terrible first two Hollywood Week episodes of this season's Idol (you remember: a girl fell off the stage and we had to see it about 17 times in an hour, and then we got nary a note of singing after group night drama), last week's Vegas episode packed in about 50 above average to excellent singers singing clever arrangements of songs from the 1950s. It also gave us plenty of heroes (Erika van Pelt; Lauren Gray; Philip Phillips), villains (Randy; "Cowboy" Richie), and aggressive hipsters (looking at you, Reed Grimm) to give us people to root for and against. The Voice is certainly more bent on welcoming a truly diverse range of singers, and is more tolerant and open about different lifestyles, something Idol should learn from, but generally speaking, Idol can be darn good TV when it wants to be.

Also, and this may just be my own projections, it seems like Idol has fewer precocious teenagers left than it did at this point last year. Yay!

Now, because I like to make lists, here are the contestants from both shows I'm most looking forward to this season. It's too early to go negative, so I'll wait until Idol whittles it down to 24 for that. At this point in the season, it's a little hard to remember all the people I like on The Voice, so these are just a few standouts. More to come.

The Voice:

Tony Lucca (Team Adam): I totally remembered him from MMC and, oh yes, Malibu Shores!

Sarah Golden (Team Cee Lo): The "ugly girl" edit she got was super weird. I think she's got a great set of pipes and an artist vibe. Plus, she sang my fav Gaga jam, "You and I".

The Line (Team Christina): For some reason, this is one of the auditions I remember the most because they remind me of the awesome country duos that came out of the depressingly short-lived CMT series Can You Duet (from which came Joey and Rory, Steel Magnolia, and the Stellas). I hope we get a lot more of their harmonies.

American Idol:

Baylie Brown: Loved her audition in Galveston, but am a little worried about why they're keeping her under wraps during the crazy pre-semis. I hope it's because they expect to drop a "where'd she come from" bomb in the semi-finals.

Hallie Day: After going full-on "Backstory Idol" with her during the auditions, they haven't showed her singing much in Hollywood. I'm sort of hoping she'll make it to the top 24 and wow us all in the first round.

Lauren Gray: Yeah, so they gave her the Carrie Underwood edit when she auditioned. That's not her fault! Her controlled, raspy instrument is so up my alley. She handled herself hilariously with "Vocal Coach from Hell" Peggy Blu to then give this performance. Mmm, girl.

Heejun Han: Controversial. I like his voice (even though he needs some work), and I like his personality. It's not often we get that much sarcasm past the cheesy humor-prone Idol editors. I hope he sticks around for a little while.

Jenn Hirsch: This performance was sick. "Georgia on My Mind" is quickly becoming the new "Fallen" of the Hollywood and semi-final rounds, but what Jenn did with it was undeniably amazing. She came out of nowhere, but has emerged as one of the best voices on the show.

Skylar Laine: It was the attitude and stage presence she brought to this solo performance that made me sit up and listen. There's a maturity about her that I think Lauren Alaina could have really learned from last season. In Vegas she was in the group that sang one of my all-time favorite songs, "Dedicated to the One I Love", and as much as I tried to resist, I found myself completely sucked into that performance. She's on my watch list.

Aaron Marcellus: I thought he was the best thing about this Vegas performance of "Sealed With a Kiss". Idol needs his voice.

Erika van Pelt: She has been amazing from her audition when she sang another one of my all-time favs, Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow". Artist alert.

Philip Phillips: You guys, I'm in love. Along with 15 million other women. Yeah, his performance antics are a little spazzy, but he gets so into the music that it's hard to fault him for it. There's something really wonderful about his little-boy-at-Christmas love for playing music, as well as his ability to turn me into a puddle with a :15 second solo in this performance. I'll be really disappointed if we lose him early.

Jessica Sanchez: When she opened her mouth in this version of "It Doesn't Matter Anymore", I almost did a spit-take. Like, what the WHAT?! She and Deandre Brackensick are CHILDREN, but they and Candice Glover sang the ever lovin' funk out of that thing with attitude. I would download that performance.

**That's so something I would say about a new pair of running shoes. I'm running in the K-Swiss Blade Max Stable these days, by the way, guys, and they are a much smoother, more enjoyable ride.

Monday, 13 February 2012

'The Secret Circle''s Awesomeness

This weekend, I caught up on the last three episodes of The Secret Circle, which I had been intentionally saving up for a lazy Sunday afternoon, and I'm pleased to report that the scars of my early addiction have been reopened. I don't have anything insightful to say about this show, but I wanted to reaffirm how much I'm enjoying it. Like The Vampire Diaries, it offers the perfect blend of YA drama (the school dance! the mysterious loner dude! BFF love/hate!) and high-stakes supernatural thrills. The "Valentine's Day" episode (excellently recapped and reviewed here. "Cassie is no Pokemon, Jake.") was simultaneously verrry creepy and believably adorable.

To pile onto the awesomeness this show is spewing out, Joe Lando, who played Sully on one of my first favorite shows ever, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (pause for nostalgic sigh), will be playing John Blackwell (at least we think that's who he is) in upcoming episodes! I KNEW I recognized that voice in the ad! Yesss.

Loving my teen shows right now.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Track and Field on TV

Flotrack.org recently posted an interesting op-ed (essentially) on how track and field is presented on TV, and some ways it could be improved (to put it nicely). I don't normally comment on sports on this blog because they tend to fall just slightly outside my made-up parameters for my posts. I can also get a little competitive with teams I follow, and so sometimes it's best to just let things go. I found this particular commentary from Flotrack really interesting from a TV programming perspective, however, and I wanted to add my two cents.

Let me preface this by saying I'm a big running geek. I ran cross country and track in college, and these days I try to follow what the pros are doing as much as I can. Let's be honest, though: to seek out info on professional runners, you have to want it. The interwebs have made it exponentially easier to follow the sport, and sites like Flotrack.org and the pot-stirring LetsRun.com have given track fans the opportunity to come out of the woodwork much more than when I was in high school. But it's not exactly the NFL.

US TV coverage of track meets and high-profile marathons has increased in the last decade, and it seems to me that track fans are actively trying to raise the profile of track events and American track and field athletes. It's fantastic to see athletes like Alyson Felix and Lolo Jones appear in national TV ads and on the covers of non-running magazines; Kara Goucher has also been a great national spokeswoman for distance runners (pro and amateur alike) who are also mothers. They're still not exactly household names, but at least some track and field athletes (who not coincidentally happen to be really pretty) are getting some advertising love for the sport. NBC's network Universal Sports has also given track fans the opportunity to watch international meets on TV, usually only 3 or 4 days after the meet actually happens. Because coverage of running events has previously been so sad, we tend to take whatever we can get!

The Flotrack article I cited above, however, makes some really valid points about the health of TV track coverage as we currently know it. It's an Olympic year, which is traditionally the one year in four that regular folks (e.g., not track geeks) actually pay attention to outdoor track, so the way broadcasters choose to show track meets proves especially important this year. When, as Ryan from Flotrack argues, announcers slag off the athletes in these meets, constantly harping on what they view as technical flaws, the announcers inadvertently create a kind of sport narrative that only gives credit to the best of the best athletes, while tearing down the ones not setting world best times and marks. I've noticed this on track broadcasts, as well, and have found it to be a bit disrespectful to these professional athletes who are at the top of their game. I guess one could argue that it's the same with football, basketball, and baseball commentators, but even if an NFL or college quarterback is having a rough game, you'll rarely hear the commentators rag on his lack of skill. It seems like a weird, critical double standard that we let slide because we don't have much track to watch.

This kind of approach at the very least does nothing to draw people into the sport. Sure, people who are watching a track meet on ESPN2 are probably into it already, but, like I said, in an Olympic year the track narrative broadcasters construct should be at least a more positive than a negative one to help people get excited about the sport. These athletes all deserve more respect for what they're able to do, even when they have inevitably rough seasons along the way. If average viewers rely on the announcers to tell them what they should be looking for, the announcers should be taking that responsibility seriously.

The Flotrack post also suggests that track broadcasts should follow through with their coverage of certain athletes they profile. I found this annoying during the World Champs this year, when they would build up certain athletes, giving us stories about them and interviews with them, only to forget to tell us that athlete failed to medal in the final. When you force me to emotionally invest, I want to share in both the triumph and the tragedy! I love athlete profiles because they humanize what can be a really technical (some small-minded folks might say "boring") sport. The human emotion at the core of competition, that primal urge to push through pain to win, is what makes this sport special. Humanizing the competitors is an excellent way to help viewers care.

As Ryan from Flotrack seems to argue, this sport can be extremely entertaining even if it's not built for entertainment first, and you don't have to be a runner (or sprinter or jumper or thrower or vaulter...) yourself to get it. I do hope that the Olympics this year opens up viewership of future track/running events, even though I know it probably won't. In the meantime, I agree that TV coverage could be a lot better.

Monday, 6 February 2012

NBC's 'Smash' Deserves to be Watched!

There are plenty of really stupid headline puns on the title of NBC's newest musical drama Smash that I won't make here. Instead, however, allow me some space to rave about a really fantastic pilot that kept me as engaged and excited as I was when I first watched the pilots to some of my favorite shows, such as Southland and The West Wing. Yeah, I'm comparing it to those pilots. This one was that good.

I've already spent a lot of e-ink blogging about what I see as characteristics of a good pilot, and why so often a series can't live up to a great pilot. Yes, I'm fully aware that Smash could be another Studio 60: a fantastic meta-theatrical pilot that maintains momentum for a little while before losing its mind and alienating its audience. But, y'all, this pilot was really great. It's smart and well-written without being pretentious; it's well-cast with dynamite performances; and it has that whole American dream/underdog thing at its core. I already wanted to like it, but I liked it so much more than I thought I would. For what it's worth, Smash gets a pass from me for a while.

For a smart, incisive review of the show, check out Maureen Ryan's rave review here. She rarely steers me wrong.

For my two cents, here's a list of things I LOVED about this pilot [SPOILER ICEBERG, DEAD AHEAD]:

- Katharine McPhee's opening audition scene, which her character Karen imagines herself singing on a big stage in lights. It's magical! It's her moment! THEN a cell phone rings, and the stage on which she imagines herself becomes a bleak audition room. The bubble bursts. Audition over. I love the tongue-in-cheek riffing on McPhee's Idol experience, and her most iconic performance on my admittedly favorite reality show. Classic!

- Characters I already root for.

- Snappy pacing: a show set in NYC needs to move quickly.

- Debra Messing back on my TV!

- Behind the Scenes musical theatre-ness! I love BTS-type shows, anyway, which is why Aaron Sorkin's shows have always struck a chord with me. This one is right up there with them for me.

- The fact that the centrepiece of this show, a Marilyn Monroe musical, requires us to think about Marilyn sympathetically. Much like the musical within the show, there's a sense that there's something special about this concept. Frankly, it made me want to watch All About Eve, How to Marry a Millionaire, and My Week with Marilyn again just to be on the same page as the characters.

- The whole "it's okay to dream big" theme that Glee has started to make us resent.

- The fact that I like both Megan Hilty's character Ivy and McPhee's Karen, even if they are being set up as rivals. I like the fact that one of them not getting the part is going to be disappointing for me as a viewer, but that I'll be happy for the other one. It's gotta be Karen at the end of the day, though, right?

- The baseball number! So. Fun. Did it remind anyone else of this?

- The Chicago-like flashes of the future show. It’s a show not yet realized, but gradually coming to life. The point is that imagination is creating something, and we’re allowed in on the process.

- Katharine McPhee's vulnerability. Turns out she's a pretty darn good actress (I thought she was kind of hilarious in this movie. Just sayin'.)

- As Maureen Ryan points out, Jack Davenport has finally found a great US TV role. He's positively perfect as the cocky, sort of sleezy director here.

- That Karen isn't Norma Jean, but she's not quite Marilyn yet either. I can't wait to watch her grow into the role!

- The original songs are fantastic. No really. I'd download that junk.

As you can see, I think this pilot was superb, and I think you should watch it. It'll suck you in. NBC has been producing some great TV that nobody's been watching, and it's time to reverse that trend! On the arbitrary grading scale that we all seem to like, I give it an overachieving A.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Breaking Down the Guilty Pleasureness of 'Pretty Little Liars' and 'The Lying Game'

So I've been on a bit of a Young Adult fiction kick lately since reading The Hunger Games about six weeks ago, and I've noticed that since this latest fixation began, I've gotten more and more into both Pretty Little Liars and The Lying Game. I'm not sure if my surging interest in those shows is correlative to my current YA obsession, or if I'm just appreciating them anew after four long months without them. Maybe a little of both?

Now, the former should come as no surprise to loyal readers. I listed the revelation of "A" as one of the things I was most looking forward to midseason this year. Since the first ten episodes, PLL has managed to keep me interested in these characters in spite of multiple POV violations and the annoyance of not really bringing us closer to solving the mystery. Take note, The Killing. Against all odds, I like these characters and care about their well-being (the same goes for Make It or Break It, which is why the banishment of Emily Kmetko to the dregs of teen pregnancy is still 100% not cool. I digress).

Like in last week's episode, as bad as I felt for poor Toby (who gets the Candice Accola Award for Best Character Turnaround in season 2), I felt even worse for Spenser, who had to hurt him to save him. So sad, you guys. The same goes for Hannah with her Dad's wedding earlier this season, Emily with the swim team 'roids debacle, and even clueless Aria, who doesn't realize that dating a teacher is just a sad Freudian response to her father's infidelity with a student. Even if said teacher looks like this (nevermind, I can't really blame her. Look at him!).

Pretty Little Liars is somehow a very solid teen mystery drama, and like with The Vampire Diaries, I'm not ashamed to admit that I like-bordering-on-love it.

My enjoyment of The Lying Game, however, has surprised even me. Has TLG actually gotten better, or have I lowered my YA TV standards to where it was this summer? I really don't know. Let's take a look, shall we?

My main problem with the show over its ten-episode summer run was that I didn't really care about the "mystery" about Emma and Sutton's birth mother, and because they wanted to keep Sutton as a main character (look, viewers: twins!), they kept forcing it down our throats. Add to that the fact that the adult characters had way too much to do with the teen characters, but not in an interesting way (Ted and Kristen Mercer are no Sandy and Kirsten Cohen), and you've got yourself into a bit of a mess. Plus, it was just obnoxious that the only person to figure out "Sutton"'s secret was Ethan. You can't see, but I'm rolling my eyes right now. You know you've got problems when you're less interesting than the now defunct Nine Lives of Chloe King (which, admittedly got better in its season/series finale. Poor Brian).

Fast forward to the "fall finale" (a term and a practice that I've grown to loathe, but that's another post for another day): Sutton returned to Phoenix and things suddenly got interesting. In spite of the show's early problems, I've always thought Alexandra Chando has done an admirable job with the two characters, keeping enough of a distinction between them in disposition that it's always pretty clear what's going on with each of them. Having both twins in Phoenix, and not knowing what loose cannon mean girl Sutton might do next to Little Orphan Emma suddenly raised the stakes. Over the last three or four weeks, it seems to have held on to that momentum, first by keeping everyone guessing about Sutton's whereabouts, what she might do next, and just how evil she might actually be; and second by clumsily adding an "A"-like mystery villain to blackmail Sutton and Emma. Perhaps not the most original way to go about things, but for whatever reason I'm loyally tuning in every week now instead of letting the episodes collect on my TiVo until I have to watch them before they disappear. Point: show.

I should probably also mention that I think the episode a few weeks ago where Laurel was invited onstage to sing with her fav band initially made my cynic-dar go wild, but it was, dare I say, kind of charming? Allie Gonino, who plays Laurel, is as it turns out a pretty decent musician in real life, and it was a nice break for her real-life Americana band The Good Mad to get to play one of their songs on her show. Giving an unknown band a break is the best kind of synergy in my opinion.

So what's the verdict? I guess TLG is getting better after all. ABC Family shows tend to do that from time to time (even PLL wasn't amazing in the beginning). I am, dare I say, invested in what happens to Ethan and Emma's adorable little relationship after he ran off with Sutton at the end of the last episode. Wow. Well done, TLG: I didn't think you could get me there.