Popular Posts

Thursday, October 28, 2010

My Personal Top 25 Beatles Songs

Every workday I try to make sure I'm sitting at my desk at exactly 12:00noon. Because that's when WAXQ 104.3 does their annual Beatles Block, in tribute to the late, legendary New York DJ Scott Muni, who would play four songs by the Fab Four at the start of his one-hour daily show. It's a nice little way to break up my morning. It's also amazing how long they can go without playing the samse song twice. The Beatles really are best appreciated in depth. They have inarguably the deepest bench of all rock bands. If you asked music fans to name their favorite song by a particular artist or group, most of the time there are really only so many realistic answers you're going to get, unless you bump into a bunch of Pitchfork Media writers. Not so with the Beatles. There are probably over a hundred songs by The Beatles that could easily be someone's favorite.

That thought lead me to compile this list of my 25 favorite Beatles songs. This was not an easy task. My initial jotting down of songs that might make the cut ran to 60 tracks before I started culling. For the sake of my sanity I decided to wholly exclude any solo projects or side releases, otherwise there would be a lot more George Harrison on the list as well as McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" and Lennon's "Just Like Starting Over". I thought about making a no-covers rule, but it's my list and there are only two covers on the list below (Anna (Go to Him) and Act Naturally).

Looking at the list I notice a few trends. More Ringo than you would think, a bias toward catchiness instead of lyrical complexity, and a bit of a downer perspective on love (with the notable exceptions of "Something" and "I've Just Seen a Face").

Here it is, although I'm sure I've left out some songs that should really be on here, just another testament to the greatness of The Beatles.

1. Something (Harrison is definitely my favorite Beatle.)
2. Let it Be (This has to be one of the most frequently listed "favorites")
3. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Only GH could get away with "I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping.")
4. And Your Bird Can Sing ("When you're prize possessions/Start to weigh you down/Look in my direction/I'll be round, I'll be round."
5. Here, There, and Everywhere (Just beautiful from beginning to end. "To lead a better life.../I need my love to be here.")
6. I Will ("Will I wait a lonely lifetime?/If you want me to, I will.")
7. I’m Looking Through You ("You don't look different/But you have changed/I'm looking through you/You're not the same.")
8. I’ve Just Seen a Face (Probably the most upbeat song on the list)
9. Baby You’re a Rich Man (Used to great effect at the end of The Social Network)
10. If You’ve Got Trouble (The Beatles recorded this in 1968 and threw it out! It was only released in 1996!)
11. Norwegian Wood (Then I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair.)
12. Paperback Writer (For obvious reasons.)
13. Act Naturally (Originally by Buck Owens.)
14. Rocky Raccoon (Her name was McGill/And she called herself Lil/But everyone knew her as Nancy)
15. Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came in Through the Bathroom Window (Mostly for the last third. "She could steal, but she could not rob.")
16. Here Comes the Sun (Little Darlin' it's been a long cold lonely winter.)
17. You Never Give Me Your Money (Mostly for this refrain: Out of college money spent/See no future pay no rent/All the money's gone nowhere to go.)
18. Hey Bulldog (Delightfully strange little song.)
19. The Long and Winding Road (Great, sad song)
20. We Can Work It Out (My favorite earlier-Beatles song.)
21. Don’t Pass Me By (What can I say, I like Ringo's vocals.)
22. Two of Us (You and I have memories/Longer than the road that stretches out ahead.)
23. You've Got to Hide Your Love Away (Gather round all you clowns, let me hear you say...)
24. Anna (Go to Him)(Mostly for the third verse: "All of my life.../I've been searching, for a girl/To love me, like I love you. But every girl I've ever had/Breaks my heart and leaves me sad/What am I, what am I supposed to do?")
25. Happiness is a Warm Gun (She's well acquainted with the touch of a velvet hand/Like a lizard on a windowpane.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I’m never one to admit that feminists have a point, but it’s almost unquestionably true that Jonathan Franzen is lucky he’s a guy. Had he two x-chromosomes instead of an x and a y, it is easy to imagine his novels, especially The Corrections, being taken far less seriously. One can even picture the re-designed cover for this novel, by the prospective “Johanna” Franzen. Pink and teal in place of austere black and vivid red; curly script in place of bold block letters. They’d probably change the title, too. Something like One Last Christmas, maybe.

All of which would be a dreadful shame, since The Corrections deserves the huge, gender-gap-spanning readership it has attracted in the near-decade since its publication. Franzen writes about universal themes which have somehow been shoe-horned into the dreaded chick-lit ghetto of contemporary literature. The Corrections is fairly exclusively about family, and one of the best things that can be said about it is that it doesn’t apologize for this narrower focus. Instead it digs deeper into the complicated relationships inherent in any family. Many times this is unpleasant, even painful. But Franzen is fearless. He doesn’t mind if you dislike or disapprove of his characters. He just wants you to recognize, even if you do it begrudgingly, that they are as nearly real as fictional people can be. The Corrections is a provocative novel in the true sense of the term: the power of its story is felt in the strength of your reactions.

The family in question is the Lamberts, originally from the made-up Midwestern hub St. Jude. Patriarch Alfred, a former railroad executive and amateur scientist, is suffering from Parkinson’s and seems to be refusing to do anything to delay the disease’s deleterious effects. His stubborn adherence to self-derived principles is self-defeating in the extreme. His wife Enid is trying to pretend that there isn’t a problem with her husband that wouldn’t be cured by a more positive outlook on life. However, her constant nagging and pushing make a sunny disposition unimaginable.

Their three children have all fled St. Jude, and just to make they were free of its influence, the Midwest as a whole. Gary is a Philadelphia investment banker fighting off depression and fighting with his calculating wife. She’s clearly got their three kids on her side, which doesn’t help. Denise is a chef in the most posh restaurant in Philly, recovering from her own disastrous marriage (and uncertain sexuality) by becoming thoroughly implicated in her boss’s marriage. And Chip is a disgraced cultural studies professor who runs away from his familial and professional obligations by taking a risky and illegal job in Lithuania.

The novel moves fluidly between all five characters’ perspectives. Alfred’s scenes are the hardest to read, and not just because of their concern with his failing body. Gary’s family life is also a challenge, because as well-imagined as the scenes are it is still searing to witness the cruelty involved. Chip’s Lithuanian odyssey is the most oddball element of the narrative, and given, bizarrely, comparatively few pages.

The driving plot is Enid Lambert’s desire to have all her three children home to St. Jude for Christmas, something that hasn’t happened for a long time. Alfred’s rapid debilitation and close-calls with death provide all the suspense. Along the way, the Lambert children and their mother discuss what’s going to happen to them next. None of them are sure they see any good options.

The title could be taken in several different ways. It could refer simply to the revisions Chip makes to his autobiographical screenplay or to Enid’s many nagging attempts to get Alfred to see things her way. More obliquely, I think The Corrections is referring to the Lambert children’s efforts to avoid repeating their parents’ mistakes, and to their subsequent realization at how far these efforts have taken them from the people they are supposed to be. At the end of the novel we can glimpse some indications that all three Lambert children are re-inventing themselves, correcting over their previous mistakes. Whether or not they can do so successfully is an open question.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sherlock: "A Study in Pink"

There’s something absolutely ridiculous about the idea of placing Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century. First and foremost, setting was such an integral part of the Conan Doyle stories, and a big part of that had to do with the time period. Holmes, despite being a fictional character, is perhaps the single person most associated with Victorian England outside Queen Victoria herself.

Sherlock Holmes can’t have the same impact in our times because we live in a world where so much of our fictional characters have been influenced by him. A 21st century Holmes has to get in line behind (to keep this to television) House, Bones, Monk, Castle, Psych, The Mentalist, and countless others. The novelty of Sherlock Holmes was that he used groundbreaking science and rational deduction to solve crimes, which of course everyone knows about today.

That “Sherlock” works at all is a testament to the talents of all involved. That it is, in fact, a supremely entertaining production is nothing short of astonishing. The producers of “Sherlock” incorporated modern life in a way that, while not seamless, didn’t detract from the strength of the characters.

Some of this is due to an interesting coincidence. In the Conan Doyle stories, the first thing Sherlock deduces about Dr. Watson is that he had served in Afghanistan. That’s transposed to the present easily enough, although Holmes admittedly can’t decide whether he was in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The deductions, the way Sherlock can tell so much about a person by observation, which were always my favorite part of any Holmes story, and here they are cleverly written and brilliantly acted by Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch delivers a fine Holmes, staying true to the character both as written by Conan Doyle and conceived of for this series. He nails the inconsiderate, arrogant, tortured by boredom nature of the great detective. Cumberbatch also injects some welcome enthusiasm into the part, he is overjoyed to have a problem to solve.

I’ve gone far too long in this review without mentioning the case! A bizarre string of inexplicable suicides appear to be connected despite all being incontrovertibly self-administered. Sherlock is called in by a desperate Inspector Lestrade, despite the loud protests of the rest of his police force, who see Holmes as a perennial potential suspect, mistaking him for a psychopath when, as Holmes himself points out, he’s really more of a sociopath.

I’ve also neglected the performance of Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson. It’s a great blend of frustration at his new flatmate’s eccentricities and admiration for his talents. There is also a subtle, playful humor about the character, as witnessed in his increasing objections to the assumption that he and Sherlock are lovers. That bit was a tad off, for the 21st-century, I felt. Clumsy gay jokes just aren’t my thing, though.

The conclusion to the mystery was not some fascinating twist, but it was compelling drama. This is actually more in line with the stories than many people may think. Conan Doyle’s stories were less about puzzling out a mystery than about the adventure inherent in detecting. A Study in Pink is thrilling, inventive and captivating. It’s everything you think of when you think of the character, minus the pipe and cap.

Friday, October 15, 2010

30 Rock: “Live Show”

The burning question I’m left with after last night’s live episode of 30 Rock is: just whose idea was this? I don’t mean that sarcastically, as though I were seeking the proper person to blame. Despite some obvious concessions to the limitations of the format last night’s episode was anything but a fiasco. It was a thoroughly professional performance and a genuinely exciting television event. (The live audience was certainly excited: their howls of laughter were a distraction, as they forced the actors to pause unnaturally, enforcing a scale-back of the usual frenzied pace the show delights in.) What “Live Show” wasn’t was a real episode of 30 Rock. It was a gimmick, and while it’s a credit to all involved that it worked at all, it wasn’t exactly an episode I would use to convince a neophyte of the show’s general excellence.

To me it seems more likely than not that the idea for a live episode was inorganic; that it originated not in the mind of Tina Fey or the writers’ room but in some buzz-seeking network executive. Obviously I have no evidence for this conclusion, but why else would Fey et al, who have for years done a fast-paced elaborately-structured single-camera sitcom feel the need to do a dumbed-down live-audience multi-camera show?

The proof is in the execution. The forces behind 30 Rock knew they couldn’t just do a regular episode live, so they came up with the brilliant sober-Jack strategy. The show loves doing cutaway gags and refused to give them up, enlisting Julia Louis-Dreyfus to be “flashback Liz” in the funniest bit of the night. They poked fun at live television by winking at the home-audience with gags like Tracy’s poster falling down on cue and, really, the whole Tracy plot, where he decides it would be hilarious to break character on the always-live TGS. (Really, this was a brilliantly conceived story, since any mistake Tracy Morgan might have made would have looked to be in keeping with the script.) And of course, the final bit, where the familiar filmed look descends on the show as soon as Jack takes a drink.

Precious little of this episode would have worked on a traditional 30 Rock. Matt Damon’s hilarious mid-crash phone call (imploring Liz to TiVo “Bones” in case he survives) certainly would have, as well as Rachel Dratch’s cleaning lady and Jack sniffing paint. Overall, “Live Show” was a fun and frivolous exercise that left me wanting more, like, you know, a filmed episode of 30 Rock.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Modern Family: "Strangers on a Treadmill"

Busy, busy, busy. Busy. Four because that’s the number of storylines we got this week from Modern Family. Usually the show breaks into three plots, most often one each for Jay and Gloria, Mitchell and Cameron, and the Dunphys. “Strangers on a Treadmill” throws in a separate plot for Haley and Alex, and the result is an episode that undermines its excellence through overindulgence.

The real “extra” plot last night was Jay, Gloria, and Manny’s ill-fated trip to what they thought was a quinceanera. All three characters are great, and I too would have been disappointed not to see them, but this felt underdeveloped. There were a few good lines, like Jay’s “Hey, Carlos” but there wasn’t enough Manny. I think the show should recognize that it doesn’t have to keep everyone involved every week. If you think about it, it would be a little more realistic. Even the zaniest families can’t have hilarious misunderstandings every week. A good compromise, which also might have been pretty funny, would have been to use the scene with Jay trying to clear his DVR (Manny promises he’ll get to Antiques Roadshow) to let everyone know that it wasn’t going to be a busy week for the Pritchetts. It gets them a little screen time while also clearing more room for the three genuinely interesting plots.

As for the other plots, all of them were fairly typical sitcom fodder, but I don’t feel that necessarily has to be a criticism. The exchange of favors between Claire and Mitchell could have been cliché, but they amped it up by equating it to Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” Claire’s “You owe me a MURDER!” was tremendous. This was a good episode for Julie Bowen, between the opening bit about not laughing with her eyes, to the emotional resonance of her confession to Phil. It was also great to see Phil get a win, seeing his jokes succeed at the conference was predictable (they were exactly the right type of jokes for a professional gathering like that) but still enjoyable.

The Mitchell and Cameron half of the “Strangers” plot wasn’t as funny, depending on how hilarious you found Cameron’s pixilated bike-shorts, but it ended sweetly and sincerely. Cameron’s oversensitivity to comments about his weight was played well, especially the scene where he thought Mitchell was giving him an encouraging look for eating fruit.

As for Alex and Haley, their plot may only have existed to provide an emotional capper for Claire and Phil, but it was a very good one. And the writers of this show can’t do anything with making me laugh. The pained dual-scream after Alex blew it on the phone with McKenzie, the popular girl, was perfect. It was nice to see the sisters working together. Modern Family seems to really get the sibling relationship, Mitchell and Claire also work really well as siblings. They annoy each other and may fight, but tend to present a united front to the outside world. Haley’s claim that she only helps Alex because an unpopular sister “is bad for the family” encapsulates this idea.

It seems like Modern Family is avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Running Wilde: The Junior Affair

The Junior Affair felt like a step back to me. There were less laughs and the Steve and Emmy plots veered into distractingly unbelievable stupidity. (At least with Steve this was somewhat mitigated by his being, you know, stupid, all the time.) This was also the first episode in which I was really bothered by Puddle’s narration. At times it seems like the show uses it as a big red pen, drawing circles around the jokes and then underlining them for emphasis. I get that the show is aiming, under duress, for a broader audience, but I doubt that the way to do that is to basically shout “Here, America, this is what you should be laughing at, this right here!”
When this show gets cancelled (don’t get me wrong, I still like it, but it will almost certainly get the axe before a second season) someone, somewhere has to find a way to get Peter Serafinowicz back on television. His Fa’ad is a seemingly limitless source of laughs. I loved the scenes from his self-financed all-Arabian “New York tough guy” movie. And the pay off at then end with Alan Alda’s voice reading the tough-talk was great.
One last thought: this was a pretty big waste of Andy Richter, no?

The Social Network: Kane in Flip-Flops

William Randolph Hearst was 78 years old when Citizen Kane was released. At the time Hearst had steadily built a media empire on the back of his father’s mining fortune, and had used his influence to more or less successfully influence American history (despite his failed efforts to become Mayor, Governor, Senator, or even President Hearst.) His empire was also clearly in decline by 1941, and thus Orson Welles was able to tell a nearly full story of ambition, wealth, power and corruption to an American audience that was already well-acquainted with the facts.

Mark Zuckerberg is 26, and already the subject of a film about his rise to power, David Fincher’s thrilling The Social Network. That film deals with Zuckerberg from a very Kane-like perspective, going so far as to give him his own personified “Rosebud” in the form of an ex-girlfriend on whom the Harvard sophomore takes revenge. The comparisons between the two films are intriguing and informative, since part of The Social Network’s mission is to explore the differences and similarities between what it took to be successful in Hearst’s time and what it takes now.

The Hearst-method of turning family wealth into influence is introduced into the film via the Winklevoss twins (both played brilliantly by Armie Hammer), whose funny name, belying immense wealth from their father’s hedge fund, and inhuman perfection (they’re both 6’5’’ Olympic-level athletes) seem to preordain them for success. The Winklevi (as Zuckerberg’s character refers to them) are idea men, and they think they have a big one: a website featuring online profiles, but strictly for people with harvard.edu e-mail addresses. They want to hire Zuckerberg for the dirty work of actually creating the pages, much as the Hearst’s might have made their money on the toil of miners and assorted other laborers.

Zuckerberg (played with uncanny aloofness by Jesse Eisenberg) comes to their attention through his near-ruinous facemash.com, an elaborate revenge on the female population at Harvard, which puts two student ID photos side-by-side and simply asks voters to pick the hotter of the two. After his site, created by hacking into several databases, crashes the school’s servers, Zuckerberg is narrowly spared expulsion.

Director David Fincher deserves tremendous credit for this film’s success. Much praise has been rightly heaped on Aaron Sorkin’s script (which, apart from the opening break-up scene, generally avoids the typical Sorkin pitfalls of zinginess and obscure sophistication) but the way in which Fincher frames the action turns the rather mundane creating of a website into a car-chase level thrill. At the time of facemash.com’s creation Zuckerberg is surrounded by his fellow Computer Science roommates and by his only real friend, Eduardo Saverin (played with alternating restraint and frustration, both appropriate, by Andrew Garfield) a prospective businessman and a whiz-kid investor.

The story is by now pretty well-known. Both Saverin and the Winklevoss twins are suing Zuckerberg, the latter for stealing their idea, the former for bilking him out of the profits. These lawsuits serve as the structure for the film, although this is cleverly introduced after a bit of misdirection at the start. Eisenberg shines in the deposition scenes. His impatience and contempt with the process are conveyed expertly through his tone and his sneer. He seems bemused that there is so much time being wasted on the suits, telling the Winklevoss twins and their partner Divya Narendra, “If you were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.”

The other major presence in the film is that of Justin Timberlake, playing Napster founder and entrepreneur extraordinaire Sean Parker, here first glimpsed after a one-night stand with a Stanford co-ed. Parker is the ultimate 21st-century self-made man, brimming with equal parts innovation and bravado. He is the one who convinces Zuckerburg to move Facebook (he is even the one to suggest dropping the “the”) to California, and he is the one who brings in the big-money investors like PayPal’s Peter Thiel, undermining Garfield’s Saverin at every opportunity. Timberlake nails the part and its underlying notes of paranoid delusion. He’s such a confident star in real life that it would seem impossible for him to play scared on screen, but he does it expertly in a key scene near the film’s conclusion.

On technical aspects of moviemaking I feel under-qualified to comment but I will say that the lighting seemed thematically relevant in a slightly-obvious way. The conference rooms are brightest when the truth is coming out. The dorm rooms are darkest when deceit is ascendant. I enjoyed the songs picked for the soundtrack: “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is an inspired choice, as is the film’s closing song, which I won’t spoil. The original music, composed by Trent Reznor, is a little distracting; much of it is overly somber tones played repetitively.

Sorkin and Fincher must certainly have been aware of the Kane similarities, and I think The Social Network invites us to marvel at the differences between Kane and Zuckerberg. The film itself raises the question of what in the world Zuckerberg is going to do with the rest of his life, which could be fifty years or longer? If the film is to be believed, and the Kane comparisons are apt, the answer is a disquieting one. Maybe no one should be this successful so soon.

How I Met Your Mother- “Subway Wars”

How I Met Your Mother has always seemed more about young adults in a city that happens to be named New York than a show actually set in New York. I’m not coming at this from some point of local pride, it’s just a fact that the show doesn’t often go out of its way to establish its setting as a key element of the show. Any large city with bars and law firms would do just as nicely.

“Subway Wars”, then, was a definite outlier in that it tried to be super-specific to New York. That this stemmed from the gang making Robin feel like she wasn’t a “true New Yorker” probably rang true to a lot of people sick of hearing from Manhattanites about how awesome everything is there. True to form, Ted and Lily’s arbitrary rules about when you’re a real New Yorker were just as stupid and annoying as the real thing. (Incidentally, Lily says she was raised in New York, but has Robin been in the city for significantly less time than Ohioan Ted and Minnesotan Marshall?)

The only other New York bit that I liked was the Woody Allen-style title cards before each character’s story (though that might be construed as one of those references designed purely to make people who get it feel smart.) The Maury Povich gag was amusingly odd, and I hope it was part of the joke that Ted’s kids will have no idea who Povich is. But the subway and taxi stuff mostly left me flat. And because I’m no fun, I can’t really find Barney’s wasting the time of emergency medical personnel very humorous.

As for the character stuff, I loved Marshall’s John Henry-style folk song, and the fact that twenty years later he’s still being vexed by cable boxes while trying to get free porn. He and Lily’s fears of infertility/sterility were handled well. I think from what we’ve seen of Ted it is surprising that there was only one bad review on the ratemyprofessor knockoff site, but I did like the shot of him sitting by himself on one side of the bus. The writers gave Barney one of his occasional redeeming acts of kindness, but this was done nicely in a flashback.

As for Robin, I just think they’re really losing hold of her character, and I think the problem is being exacerbated by Cobie Smulders’ limitations as a dramatic actress. Her crying in the subway immediately pulled me out of the episode. It was inauthentic to say the least. Robin used to be awesome, but now they’re trying to make her vulnerable and it doesn’t work.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Office- “Andy’s Play”

If you had “he gets cast in a touring production and quits his job” in your How Will Michael Leave the Office Office Pool, you should probably reconsider, based on the excellent capper to tonight’s episode, in which Michael performs a Law & Order episode (including the voiceover) as a one-man show. I don’t think it was a real script, but I could definitely see one of L&Os wise-guy cops standing over the corpse of a victim of auto-erotic asphyxiation and declaring “everyone’s tightening their belts in this economy.”

Unlike Michael, Andy Bernard has demonstrated some real talents, only no one at Dunder-Mifflin ever seemed to notice or care. I didn’t really buy the idea that he’d be able to guilt trip the entire branch into attending the play, but these sorts of contrivances are the price you pay in the sitcom game.

Overall this was a rather low-key episode, with no big guffaws, unless you laughed while I cringed at Andy’s cell-phone going off during his scene in the play. I confess I may have turned back to the baseball playoffs for a brief moment during that scene. Maybe my biggest laugh came from Creed excitedly calling in his review like some old-time newshound breaking a story. Also enjoyed Dwight’s assessment of Sweeny Todd: “All that music got in the way of some fine murders” and Darryl’s injunction to Michael before the play started: “If we don’t listen to the overture we won’t recognize the musical themes when they recur.”

What do you think of the Andy-Erin flirtation? I wonder if the show has the guts to go to much darker places than it did with the more suitable pair of Pam and Jim. Erin’s lack of intelligence is really getting outrageous (I laughed like hell when she threw out her disposable camera last week, but it is pretty far-fetched that someone that dumb could survive), and no amount of sentimentality on Andy’s part can gloss over that forever. Would they try to wring humor out of him pursuing such an obviously unsuitable partner?

There was a nice Michael moment when he consoles Andy after the play, by insisting that he’s not a nice person and wouldn’t compliment Andy’s performance if he didn’t mean it. The point about not being nice is proven by his booing the lead actor, who happens to be Darryl’s plumber. Jim and Pam got one decent joke tonight: Jim’s comparison of moving the sleeping baby without waking her to “The Hurt Locker”. Modern Family gets a lot of humor out of parenting, why can’t The Office?

The Office has a definite lived-in quality to it these days. It’s probably past it’s prime, and if continues long past Michael Scott’s departure it will descend into sitcom-senescence pretty quickly, but for now it’s perfectly enjoyable comfort food.

30 Rock- “Let’s Stay Together”

I’m really enjoying this season of 30 Rock, and I hope it continues to serve as a rebuke to television critics who assume that a few bad episodes are a death knell for a series. While I admittedly thought last season was a down year, the carping over the supposed awfulness of 30 Rock was supremely annoying. This is a comedy created by, written by and starring some very talented comedians. It might not always warm your heart but it will make you laugh if you let it. Sometimes, especially with comedy, whether or not you like something is at some level a decision on your part. If you decide that a show is “past its prime” or “on the downslide” or whatever terminology you want to use, it can easily become a decision which reinforces itself.
This habit of exaggerating a show’s demise would be less annoying if it were clear that quality was recognized and rewarded by the networks themselves. Unfortunately, this is far from the case. And when “(Bleep) My Dad Says”, which is so awful critics won’t even write about it, outdraws 30 Rock, the over-parsing of a truly funny show can become problematic and result in more shows like “(Bleep)”.
Anyway, what worked and what didn’t in “Let’s Stay Together”? I enjoyed Jack in professional-bull-shitter mode, especially his explanations, one to Liz about the dangers of vertical integration, and the other to Congress about how being against it would kill the American farmer. I liked Rob Reiner playing “himself” as a Congressman, especially his “rhubarb rhubarb” bit (it’s what extras in crowd scenes are supposed to say.) Having Reiner play himself made it sort of odd that Queen Latifah was playing a character, and her one-note joke was funny the first time, but less so during her visit to NBC. A lot of that NBC visit was problematic, especially the obvious set up with the different recycling bins for colored and white paper, although Tracy reading the stage directions from his prepared script was a good gag, if an old one.
I like that the jokes on Liz are becoming more about her as a boss than as a sad-sack single woman. The signs on her door were just the right kind of office hi-jinks. The show’s decision to have Liz in an off-screen stable relationship is paying huge dividends by refocusing the show’s humor. I love whenever the show lambastes NBC, and tonight was full of that kind of humor. The page-candidate’s parody of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” had a great capper with “Outsourced is the new Friends!” * And it’s about time someone in a public forum gave the peacock crap for cancelling Law and Order. Loved Tracy’s plaintive: “It was a tentpole!”
In case you didn’t recognize him, the black actor in Dot Com’s re-imagined sitcom was none other than John Amos, who played the father on Good Times (and Admiral Fitzwallace on The West Wing.) Made the capper that much funnier.
*A side note here on Outsourced, since it’s not worth its own post. Did anyone else notice that the new promos awkwardly edited out the quotes about the show being so great? Yeah, it turned out that those were actually quotes from NBC’s PR department, they couldn’t really find much in the press to use. Also, it really, really sucks that Outsourced is higher-rated than Community, because it’s just based on timeslot. If you switched the start-times you would almost certainly switch the ratings. Outsourced still loses a lot of the audience of The Office, NBC’s highest-rated comedy. If all this leads to Parks and Recreation coming back as a replacement for Community instead of Outsourced, you may not be hearing from me for awhile, until I earn computer privileges in the state prison I will be sent to.

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City is a frenetic tale of eccentric oddballs set adrift in a cracked version of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The title character, Chase Insteadman, a former teenage television star, deals with a forced separation from his astronaut fiancée by taking up with a self-denying culture-critic stoner named Perkus Tooth, a city official named Richard Abneg whose job is to handle rumors of a massive tiger lurking beneath the Second Avenue subway, and a ghostwriter named Oona Laszlo, who refuses to let Chase love her as much as he loves the astronaut.
Sorry for that lengthy sentence, but that really only scratches the surface of the oddities present in Chronic City. Take the weather (please), it starts snowing right around the time of the mayor’s Christmas party and is still going, although sporadically, into August. Other aspects of Lethem’s Manhattan are just slightly off, for instance, his mayor is a short Jewish media-mogul billionaire, but it’s not Bloomberg. His Lower Manhattan is enveloped by a “gray fog” but no explanation is given for its existence, though the Twin Towers are mentioned obliquely at one point. Oh, and Perkus Tooth is obsessed with a popular band of puppet-characters known as the Gnuppets.
It’s hard to decide whether this mixture of real names and slight changes is intended to artistically blend reality with unreality, or if the changes are merely the result of some highly litigious rights-holders. Nevertheless, Lethem’s kooky Manhattan is the book’s principal thrill, and the driving force keeping the reader going through some interminable meandering of the plot.
That plot really only kicks into gear when Perkus Tooth discovers a mystical item known as a chaldron. Perkus, Chase, and Richard (as well as Richard’s girlfriend, The Hawkman) are all astounded by the chaldron, which, even though they are merely viewing a picture of it on eBay, seems to hold them under a spell. They are still further astounded to see that the things are selling for thousands and thousands of dollars.
Outside of the quest for chaldrons, which turn out to have a not-so-mystical origin, the novel mainly concerns itself with the relationship between Chase and Oona. The two are forced to remain underground by the public outpouring of support for Chase’s fiancée. Janice Trumbull is the only American on the International Space Station, which has been stranded in orbit by a ring of Chinese space-mines. All of Manhattan is following her travails through her letters, published in the new war-free edition of the New York Times. Chase has become a sort of mascot for the city, a nice distraction from the rampages of the tiger and whatever other secrets the mayor’s office is keeping. Oona is comfortable with keeping the two of them out of the spotlight, but Chase is tired of keeping the flame for a woman he is finding it harder and harder to remember, and starts to push Oona out into the open.
Along the way we also meet a sculptor/architect who builds elaborate underground structures, an apartment complex built by the wealthy to house homeless dogs, and a sprawling epic novel named Obstinate Dust.
This is kitchen-sink writing. Lethem just keeps throwing more and more oddities into the mix, in the vain hope that they will pave over the glaring fact that his novel doesn’t have much of a story, with no satisfactory ending in sight. The ending he does choose is more implausible than any of the little details I’ve sprinkled throughout this review, and is ultimately the oddity that undoes the whole effect.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Modern Family- "Earthquake"

This week on Modern Family we got three separate stories, which seems to upset some people. But really, even the closest families spend some time apart, no? Not only does the separation lend some versimilitude to the plot, but it also makes the episode-ending voiceovers less unnecessary. (I would never call them necessary.) When we've seen the family together supposedly learning some life lesson, it becomes redundant (and a little obnoxious) to have it regurgitated for us at the end.

This episode finds all three branches impacted by an earthquake, which is treated with a surprising lack of danger. I guess Californians are used to them by now. A quick three-way phone call provides the only connection between family members, as Mitchell's awkward phrasing leads Gloria to believe Phil is dead, and Phil is sweetly ecstatic when he realizes how glad Gloria is that he's alive.

Phil's plot line gets the most time, and is a little out there, but the writing sells it. With Claire trapped in the bathroom, Phil realizes he has a chance to do the repairs he told his wife he had already done. (A cabinet he was supposed to have secured to the wall has fallen down, just missing Luke.) Phil's confesses to the camera, about his wife's nagging: "Sometimes it just gets so bad I have to roll up my sleeves and just tell her I did it already."

Luke steals the spotlight in this story. Between running into the wall to avoid falling objects and presenting his mother with a cookie sheet full of soda ("I couldn't find straws, so you'll have to drink it like cats.") he had a great episode.

Mitchell and Claire use the earthquake as an excuse to avoid another one of their friend Pepper's theme-brunches. (Oscar Wilde and Crazy.) Mitchell's tired of lying for Cam (an analogy comparing Cam to a mob wife is brilliant) and forces Cam to make the call. But Cam overdramatizes the situation, leading Pepper to rush to the rescue.

Pepper is played by guest star Nathan Lane, and it's a role well-suited too him: a big-hearted, narcissistic, vain, flamboyant gay male. Lane still almost manages to overdo it, but its a very well-written part.

The last storyline featured Jay and Manny skipping church, must to Gloria's consternation (which is of course, fiery.) Gloria thinking the earthquake was God punishing Jay was a little stupid. (They should be more careful not to make her a cartoon.) But this storyline was made by Manny's increasing panic once Jay proves unable to answer his questions about the afterlife. "You're playing pretty fast and loose with my soul here, Jay."

Each storyline focused in on a little conflict in the marriages, but rather smartly didn't tie them up in cliche resolutions and pat lessons. Phil doesn't pay a price for not listening to his wife, and in fact enlists his children to lie on his behalf. Cam and Mitchell get through the intitial embarrassment over being caught in their lie by telling an even better one. And in the most un-traditional fashion, Jay still skips church, asking Manny to "put in a good word for me."

Modern Family seems to get a lot of flak from "hipsters" for being too traditional a sitcom, but if it can work within that framework while slightly tweaking the rules it can be that rare thing: a truly original show that reaches a mass audience.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

MLB Playoff Predictions

Gamblers take note: a proven, long-run strategy sure to pay off is to find out what I think and bet the other way. With that caveat in mind, here are my predictions for the MLB Playoffs.

NLDS: Phillies over Reds in 5. I don't think the Reds are going to roll over just because they're facing good pitchers, but that staff does give Philadelphia a decisive advantage. Still want to see how Chapman does against the contingent of Philly left-handed batters.

Giants over Braves in 4. If the Giants are up 2-1 heading into Game 4, will Bochy pitch Timmy Lincecum on short rest? I think these are two flawed teams, especially if the Giants go with Guillen and Burrell in the OF, but the Braves are missing too many of their pieces.

ALDS: Rangers over Rays in 4. Which injured star will contribute more to his team, Hamilton or Longoria? Probably more important is whether Cliff Lee or David Price is the more dominant starter. Both have had previous success in October, but Price's was as a reliever.

Yankees over Twins in 5. Really tempted to go with my heart and pick the Twins, especially now that they finally have the home-field advantage. I do think Liriano will out-pitch Sabathia tonight, but I don't think the Twins can batter Pettite and Hughes as badly as the Yankees can batter Pavano and Blackburn.

NLCS: Giants over Phillies in 6. The Giants have the best bullpen ERA of all eight playoff teams, and the Phillies have the worst. I think that makes a huge difference in this series. Also, I hate Philadelphia.

ALCS: Yankees over Rangers in 6. If this matchup comes to fruition I think the Yankees would be smart to start Sabathia in games not started by Cliff Lee. As much as that would rob the fans of a spectacular matchup, I expect Lee to be brilliant in hopes of securing his free-agent deal with the Yankees, and the Bombers can not afford to waste Sabathia starts.

World Series: Giants over Yankees in 5. Starting pitching depth and middle relief strongly favor the Giants. Likely a non-factor, but the NL will have home-field since it finally won an All-Star game.

Running Wilde- "Oil and Water"

There was a cloud hanging over last night's episode of Running Wilde. The negative critical reception was one thing, but the show got some really ugly press yesterday. The New York Times ran an article just to talk about how much the show was struggling, and in two separate one-on-one interviews, for the Onion's AV Club and New York magazine, show creator Mitchell Hurwitz, who as you surely know also created a little comedy named Arrested Development, candidly admitted that he was making a lot more concessions to the network than he would have liked. He even provided a specific example of a future episode (involving rich people dressed as hoboes) that is being held back because his ideas were deemed too off-putting for the show, which Fox apparently hopes will be more appealing to general audiences than the low-rated critical darling Arrested Development. In the interviews it sure seemed like Hurwitz was distancing himself from his own creation, providing cover should the show continue to decline in the ratings, making it necessary for him to find somewhere else to work.

So why do I continue to enjoy Running Wilde? Maybe I'm just an easy mark, willing to accept that the emperor is indeed clothed, but I have been laughing a lot at Running Wilde, and though last night's episode was slightly less funny, and less well-structured, than the previous weeks, I still found much to enjoy.

Kerri Russell's Emmy is stunned to learn that the one good thing about Steve, that he doesn't work for his father's oil company, is untrue. Steve collects a paycheck and has a large, unused office. She wants him to take a stand, like her fiancee Andy would (he's dispatched by Steve to Alaska to save a previously unthreatened Inuit tribe) and quit his do-nothing job. But eventually, after Steve fails to quit (he enjoys the cake-for-birthdays office culture) Emmy realizes that Steve can be her mole at the company, and even gets herself hired as his secretary. The joke here, which is a little obvious, and then unhelpfully spelled out by Fa'ad's tale of trying to survive in the vodka freezer, is that making compromises can be a dangerous thing. Emmy wants Steve to rise in the company so she can eventually take it down, even if it means they have to harm a few Inuits along the way.

There was more humor in the margins. A bit about all of Steve's childhood tutors being acclaimed composers (Marvin Hamlisch for math!) pays off with a great cameo by Paul Schaeffer of The Late Show with David Letterman. Fa'ad and Steve discussing Emmy's unworthiness (take away her looks, smarts, and personality and what does she have) was very funny as well.

The cloud still looms over Running Wilde, though. If the show continues to get low ratings even while trying to comply with broadcast expectations, Fox will have no choice but to put it out of its misery. It's caught in a classic trap. It's trying to please people who have no interest in watching it, while actively effronting it's possible core audience. The show might not get the time it needs to grow in either direction.

Monday, October 4, 2010

How I Met Your Mother- "Unfinished"

Unlike an alarming amount of the people who watch How I Met Your Mother, I've never particularly cared about the quest for the mother. This isn't Lost, there are no clues to puzzle through. But the show is one built on development and growth. The show's creators are intent on showing us how Ted goes from admittedly douchey post-college bachelor, somewhat redeemed by his sincerity and romanticism, to full-fledged adult. How I Met Your Mother sells itself as a show about the times in your life when your decisions have far-reaching consequences, with one leading to another and so on and so on until you become you.

Tonight's episode seems like an attempt to hit the fast-forward button on Ted's development. The sojourn into academia always felt odd considering the narrator Ted's recounting of professional success in the early seasons, so it was hardly a surprise to see Ted take the offer from Goliath. Still, it was nice that the show at least gave lip service to the idea that Ted could have been happy as a professor. Ultimately, the character is too much of a romantic not to believe in his dreams.

Using Barney as a vehicle to get Ted back on track was a clever idea, and Neil Patrick Harris was great in the cut-scenes where we see how his normal pick-up tactics apply to Ted. These were a little too similar to those used by Mystery the Pick-Up Artist, but funny nonetheless. (Although somehow I don't see Barney really employing the backhanded compliment.)

Outside of Barney and Ted the episode lost a little of its command. First and foremost, it seems like the writers have lost sight of Robin. Let me make this clear: threats on a person's life are not exactly laugh-out-loud funny. Obviously double standards abound in reality and on TV, but try imagining a male character doing something similar to his ex-girlfriend. I doubt that would have made it to air.

Marshall as a failed wingman was a decent subplot, as was Lily's ability to suss out "the poop" as she called it. Neither one really rose above fair-to-middling, but they were alright. Did not like Lily's karate lessons (it's a joke that's been done before) but I loved Marshall's law school Funk band, The Funk, the Whole Funk, and Nothing but the Funk.

I can see the argument that Ted's lecture was a little on-the-nose (especially when Ted runs out in front of the bus), but I feel like if that kind of thing upsets you you're probably not a fan of HIMYM in the first place. This is a show that wears it's heart on its sleeve. Sometimes, it gets a little corny, but, for what it wants to do, it's heart is in the right place.