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TV OD: Another Entry in the “Unexpectedly Hit By a Bus” Canon

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 24, 2010

Remember this .gif?

Yeah, I know you do. No one has ever successfully forgotten it. Well, time to throw another log on that fire, courtesy of the penultimate episode of season one of MTV’s The Hard Times of RJ Berger:

Never gets old, does it?

This show sucks, by the way. Significantly.

Posted in TV O.D. | 3 Comments »

In a Perfect World: Damages Would Be the Patron Show of Lost TV Actors

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 7, 2010

I was pretty late coming around to it, but aside from Breaking Bad, I don’t think there’s another show on TV right now that I enjoy watching as much as Damages. The main reason I was so hesitant to give it a chance early on is that I figured it was just another stodgy lawyer show–like any number of interchangeable TNT primetime dramas, but with better actors and a couple Emmy nods. Turns out it’s basically more like a serialized film noir–one set in the law profession, but almost only tangentially so at times–and a surprisingly suspenseful, weirdly sinister one as well. Even Glenn Close, who I figured would be irritatingly overbearing in her big TV crossover, is shockingly understated in her performance; not the ham-handed Acting I would have guessed but just solid, thoughtful acting. A good way to test for me about how much I enjoy a show is whether or not I watch the Coming Up Next Week credits–I know I shouldn’t do it, that it’ll just ruin some of the upcoming surprises, but if I’m engrossed enough in a show, I’ll watch it anyway, just because I need more. And I always need more Damages.

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Posted in In a Perfect World, TV O.D. | 1 Comment »

Take Five: 00s TV Couples Improved By Ditching the Boring One for the Jerk

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 18, 2009

425.trueblood.moyer.paquin.skarsgard.lc.080309

After missing the second half of the first and the first half of the second season of True Blood (more due to a lack of HBO than anything), I picked up watching again with some friends of mine recently. I was glad to see that they seemed to have expanded the show to a wider cast of characters, themes, and freaky supernatural phenomena (Shape-shifters! Demons of self-indulgence! Frank Sobotka from The Wire!), while leaving some of the groanworthier plots from S1 in the dust. Still, having Bill and Sookie (Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin) at the center of it all was proving to be something of a hinderance–with all the excitement around them, the two were proving to be little more than wet blankets with irritating vocal tics. If the love story between the two was really supposed to be the driving force of the show, that could’ve been a major roadblock to True Blood‘s long-term success.

In last week’s episode, though, a wrench was put into the works–Eric (played by Alexander Skarsgard, son of Lars Von Trier favorite Stellan) tricked Sookie into sucking his blood, forming a bond with her, which in the ceaselessly libidinous True Blood universe means that Sookie is now unconsciously drawn to Eric as well. We saw this in action as Sookie had a fantasy dream about Eric–one which stunned me and my friends watching it, as it contained more passion, chemistry and just general hotness than all of Sookie and Bill’s scenes had combined through the first season and a half. Skarsgard is certainly a better looking guy than Moyer, but without all the brow-furrowed seriousness that had come to define Bill and Sookie’s relationship, Paquin looked cuter and just more red-blooded than she had since the show started as well. It’s an interesting dilemma for the show, but an even more interesting one for the audience, who now I’m sure has no idea if they want Bill’s true love to win out over the con game of the rogue-ish Eric, or if they think maybe Sookie’s better off this way after all.

The more I thought about this situation, the more I realized that this was really not an uncommon phenomenon in TV in general this decade–in fact, it’s close to becoming damn near formulaic. It’s nothing new, of course–everyone loves the bad boy/girl, right?–but you’d be shocked at the number of shows in recent years that were improved by giving a main character a switch from a boring, super-serious love interest to a sleazier, more caustic one. Consider the following…

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Posted in Take Five, TV O.D. | 5 Comments »

I Sez: A Moment of Re-Evaluation for Mischa Barton

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 30, 2009

In one way, Benjamin MacKenzie and Mischa Barton were very, very lucky individuals. Both were at best marginally talented as actors, capable of disaplaying just a limited range of emotions, within an even more limited number of character frameworks. They were both attractive, but not in a way that was irreplaceable. Yet despite making Priestley and Doherty look like Gandolfini and Falco, they were the nominal stars on The O.C., the most important (and for about 18 months, most popular) teen drama of the decade. But in another way, they were both somewhat unlucky, as despite their show being a gigantic hit, each was upstaged in nearly every way conceivable by their sassier, more charismatic, and arguably better-looking sidekicks, played by Adam Brody and Rachel Bilsson. It was entirely deserved, of course–with just about any actors playing Seth and Summer, that show goes nowhere–but I did feel a little for Marissa and Ryan, as the clumsy, ill-fated romance between the two that was supposed to define the show got increasingly pushed to the side for the misadventures of Ryan’s geek friend and Marissa’s occasionally bitchy girl pal.

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Posted in I Sez, TV O.D. | 6 Comments »

TV OD: Breaking Down Lambert v. Allen Before the Finale

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 20, 2009

Lambert - Allen

Well, credit America / the judges / Simon Fuller with this much–they got the final two right. Danny had as good a voice but was a little too vanilla, Allison had the talent but was still a bit raw, Lil Rounds peaked early, the blind guy was never really that good to begin wit and Anoop wasn’t quite funny enough to be a good consensus VoteForTheWorst selection. It’s been obvious for months now that these guys were the two best dudes in the competition, and it’s good to see them avoid getting upset by some unfortunate crowd favorite or less interesting virtuoso. Of course, as Clay Aiken, Kellie Pickler, Chris Daughtry and plenty of others have now proven, getting this far (or close to it) is now definitely good enough to build a career off of, and as Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino and Taylor Hicks have proven, winning isn’t really good enough to ensure any kind of long-term pop success. So the question isn’t just who’s going to win tonight, but which of the two has the better prospects for the prop world.

There’s no question, to me at least, that Adam is the deserving winner here. Admittedly I’ve seen only one full other season and bits and pieces of the others, but I’ve never seen a talent as electric as Adam’s on the show before. Watching him do “Black or White” during the Michael Jackson week a few months ago was the first time I’ve actually been somewhat stunned watching the show, where I actually stopped what I was doing and went “Wow, who is that guy?” There were no nerves, no sense of trying to find his voice or personality, no cheap rock star imitations as he pranced around the stage and nailed impossibly high notes–he was already there, fully-formed and magnificent. It was like watching Vince Carter at the 2000 Slam Dunk contest, where you can sense the rest of the contestants sort of looking at each other and saying among themselves, “Well yeah, I guess we still get to go too, but…is there a point?” He hasn’t disappointed since, taking whatever challenge the show’s given him (soul, pop, ballad, whatever) and nailing it. He turns Randy into a gushing fanboy, he gets Kara apoplectic, he makes Paula speak in tongues. Even Simon can’t find anything bad to say about him except occasionally criticizing his outfits.

On a lesser season, however, Kris might’ve just as easily been a clear victor. Kris’s talent is far less captivating but no less apparent–give the man a guitar, put him behind a piano, and he’ll do his thing every time, always sounding assured, in command and vocally spot-on. More impressively, he possesses an enviable ability to be able to locate the coffee house potential in any song, doing accoustic’d renditions of Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money” and Kanye West’s “Heartless” that would have you absolutely convinced that they were written by guys named Mayer and Mraz if you didn’t already know better. If this hadn’t become a competition for second place back when there were still 13 contestants left, I’d be more than OK to have him as the season winner, but he seems to be resigned to his fate as runner-up–especially after the judges basically gave him a “Good effort, thanks for preventing this thing from at least being a total blowout” speech last night.

But here’s the thing. Even if Adam does win–and I’d be shocked if he didn’t, regardless of what any projection says right now–is he really in a better place to be a star coming out of the show? Moreover, has there ever been a star like Adam before? Vocally I guess he’s vaguely reminiscent of Steven Tyler and Freddie Mercury, but Tyler was never so feminized and Mercury was never so…emo, I guess. What’s his primary career track going to be? Lead singer of an arena rock band? Musical theater star? Torch singer balladeer? He could do any of them, probably, but it’s hard to say which he’d be best or most natural at, and pop music can be kind of unkind to people who seem unsure of their core musical identity. I think it was Paula who said last night that Adam would end up being “iconic,” and I think he’s got a chance at it, but it’s probably going to end up being all or nothing for Mr. Lambert. Is he going to be the golden-throated, make-up-wearing, stage-scorching rock/pop star of the 2010s? Or is he going to crash and burn and be a novelty act within months?

Meanwhile, Kris has the unbelievable career crutch of having one of the easiest-to-please, longest-lasting and most forgiving musical genres to just sort of slot himself into once his Idol tenure has finished–Adult Contemporary. There are any number of singer/songwriters or WGWPs (White Guys With Pianos) whose career Kris could  pretty much just slot himself into at the moment, and while both contestants are unquestionably good-looking, Kris’s Jamie Walters-meets-adult-Jesse-McCartney dorm-heartthrob getup is probably much more marketable than Adam’s brooding, near-goth sort of sexual ambiguity. While Adam’s ceiling is unquestionably higher, and it’s unlikely that anyone will accuse Kris of approaching “iconic” anytime soon, for the short-term at least, I’d say that Kris’s chances of becoming a regular force on radio and MTV are probably better.

Much will be told by the first non-Idol single that both dudes release. In the meantime, though, I’ll definitely be tuning in for the last five minutes of the show tonight–if Kris does somehow pull off the upset, it’ll be a bigger tragedy than The Cougar.

Posted in TV O.D. | 1 Comment »

TV OD: AMTV Rips It Up and Starts Again

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 29, 2009

lady-gaga_mtv-amtv

After all my lamentations on the death of the music video over the last few years, it’s almost unthinkable for me to writing about something that appears to be taking steps to reverse this trend. When MTV trotted out “FnMTV” about a year ago–Pete Wentz’s attempt to bring the vid back to national prominence–I was somewhat skeptical from the getgo, and it quickly proved my worst fears right, as Wentz seemed more interested in hob knobbing with the celebrity guests than actually playing the videos in their entirety, and as fascinating as it was to see Nas commenting on She & Him videos, it was just a recipe for inevitable disaster. This hullabaloo wasn’t what the music video medium needed to re-introduce itself to a new generation of MTV watchers–what it really needed was just a regular, consistent block of time where MTV played new, quality videos in their entirety.

And so, hallelujah for AMTV. Currently airing on weekday mornings from either 3:00-6:00, 6:00-9:00, or occasionally throughout both blocks, AMTV is pretty much everything I could have hoped for in MTV attempting to reintroduce their one-time signature programming construct to their regular lineup. How exactly is that, you ask? Well…

  • It Plays (Mostly) Full, Uninterrupted Videos. Even when FnMTV used to have reruns of its content throughout the week during early-morning programming, they never seemed to show more than two minutes of a video at a time–which got infuriating, especially because they would often repeat those two-minute sections multiple times in the same hour-long block. But on the episodes I’ve watched/taped of AMTV thusfar, only one or two videos an episode have been cut short, the rest played in their glorious entirety. And perhaps more importantly, they’re not distracted from by any on-screen gimmickry–honestly, I never much cared that 70% of viewers liked Beyonce’s outfit in “Single Ladies,” or that SashaFierce1234 thought it was her hottest joint eva.
  • It Premieres Videos. Hey, I don’t mind a little bit of fanfare when the big guns are coming out with some new hot ones. Green Day hasn’t had a video out in over three years, and they’ve been one of the biggest acts on the channel for the last decade-and-a-half. It’s only appropriate that a new clip should be advertised for throughout the week, with making-of footage spliced throughout, all leading up to a solid premiere event. I don’t need an MC telling me what a big deal the premiere is, or a lot of screaming fans behind them to confirm it. Let the channel and its content speak for themselves.
  • It Shows Good (Or Unexpected, At Least) Videos. I still can’t believe some of the artists and videos that have been getting played on this program. Glasvegas’s “Geraldine.” Silversun Pickups’ “Panic Switch.” Friendly Fires’ “Skeleton Boy.” Bat for Lashes’ “Daniel.” Underground bands that barely even get played on the most modern of FM rock stations, and their weirdo vids? It used to be that I would have to troll the MTV2 schedule on late weeknights in the hopes of catching the once-a-week, hour-long 120 Minutes successor Subteranean if I wanted to have any chance to see videos like this on any major network–now they’re getting played along with Jesse McCartney and Kelly Clarkson on MTV? Say what you jaded fuxx may, I still think that’s some pretty cool shit.
  • It Shows Old Videos. Hey, the kids have to learn about Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing” somewhere, right? Back when I first started watching music videos, the only way I had to really learn about the history of the medium was to sniff out the older videos that MTV mixed in with their regular rotation, since traditionally only the most important videos continued to get played at all past their expiration date. To see AMTV reach into the vaults to give classics like Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang,” or even more recent clips like Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly”…well, it may not be digging particularly deep, but least it shows that the channel is willing to acknowledge that the music video does in fact have a past, and one worth remembering–something the channel has simply not done at all in close to a decade.
  • It Has Cool Little Inter-Video ID Clips. MTV used to seem to be having fun with its video programming, and they would have seemingly pointless but surprisingly well thought out inter-video clips to act as station and program IDs. The ones for AMTV–showing clips of tired, frustrating looking people in the morning hours while poorly dated pop songs of the past (“Ice Ice Baby,” “Hangin’ Tough,” “What’s Up?”) blare in the background–probably weren’t exactly labor-intensive, but they’re marginally cute, and have that kind of fun spirit that the old IDs used to. I’ll stop to watch ’em in between vids just to see if there’s one I haven’t seen yet. It’s the little things, you know.

Yes, I’m aware that showing unglamorized music videos at hours where only the damned are actually awake doesn’t exactly mark a paradigm shift. But it’s more of a step in the right direction than the reurns of From Gs to Gents and The Girls of Hedsor Hall that would be in their place, certainly.

Posted in Seen Your Video, TV O.D. | 1 Comment »

TV OD: Breaking Bad Going Next Level

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 20, 2009

breaking-bad

I’d like to say that my initial prejudices against Breaking Bad were due to bad/misleading advertising, but thinking about it, there really might not have been a way to properly advertise for this show. Because you hear the concept—the dad from Malcolm in the Middle becoming a meth dealer to provide for his family after his imminent death from cancer–and it sounds like a bad joke. In fact, in the aftermath of fellow square-turns-pusher comedy Weeds (which has become something of a top-tier show in its own right), it seems like a bad, highly unoriginal joke. I even watched the first couple episodes, and wasn’t that impressed–I had absolutely no idea what kind of tone the show was going for, since it wasn’t really funny enough to be a comedy, and it felt too off-kilter and ridiculous to really be taken seriously as drama either.

I picked Breaking Bad back up at the beginning of the second season, and while I’m not sure if it’s because the show has changed or if I’m just watching it with different expectations, my perspective on it has become totally different. I still can’t pin down the tone, but now I realize it’s not due to confusion or inconsistency on the part of the producers–it’s because there’s never been a TV show like this before. It’s not a comedy, but that’s not to say it’s not funny, and it’s not really a drama, but that’s not to say that it can’t be suspenseful, moving, and even deeply disturbing. It’s a show that, in terms of tone, style and yes, even subject–is almost completely without precedent–a fact made all the more impressive by it being a basic cable program.

For one thing, I’ve become extremely impressed by the way the fact’s central conceit–that of a high school chemistry teacher using his formula skills to rise up the ranks of the Southwest drug underworld–has become something of a given. A lesser show would have milked this culture clash for all its worth, playing it for endless petty comedy–having Walt (Cranston’s character) using the wrong hip drug lingo, mixing in slinger talk with his in-class lectures, maybe starting to listen to Notorious B.I.G. or The Clipse…it would have been a mess. If I remember correctly, the show did do a little bit of this towards the beginning of the series, but now, Breaking Bad treats its ridiculous premise as seriously as any other show on TV–and gradually, you forget how unlikely the whole thing even is in the first place, and instead can focus on the actual characters and storylines.

And speaking of the characters–this is far from a one-man show. When first introduced to Jesse, Walt’s ex-student partner-in-crime, I thought his character was going to be positively unbearable. A late-20s wannabe hustler who talks in faux-gangsta, dresses like one of the characters in The Big Hit…and this is going to be one of the main chracters? Well, give credit to the writers and actor Aaron Paul for making the character believably pathetic–almost painfully so at times–but also sympathetic, heartbreaking, and oddly endearing. He’s a natural burnout–great stoner eyes, a seemingly congenital twitch, and an overriding paranoia that can only come from a decade and a half of dealing with hard drugs and the people who sell them. Rather than make him be Walt’s wacky sidekick–which would have been very, very easy to do–Jesse’s been made into a legitimate character with his own life, his own problems, and as of recently, even his own love interest, in a subplot that has shocked me with its inherent sweetness.

But the real thing that I think is really drawing me to this show is how much faith it has in its audience–easily more than any other show on TV since the heyday of The Wire. It almost reminds me of a Coen Brothers movie in the way that some scenes will be going on for a whole minute or longer before you even realize what they’re about, or what their relevance is to the story at hand. Last week’s episode even began with a fictional latin music video, detailing the rise of Walt to power and how the New Mexico cartel would likely not stand for it, but presented like a completely non-fictional, low-budget video, with cheaply gimmicky camera work and bad acting and everything. Its presence was never explained, and it had no real impact on the storyline as it were, but it set the tone perfectly for the surreal, uneasy episode that was to follow.

That’s a recurring trend for Breaking Bad–it never explains more than it has to. In one of my favorite scenes from this season, Jesse’s parents have him kicked out of his house, and he’s forced to ask an old bandmate of his–one who’s now married, has a kid, and is living a comfortably middle-class lifestyle–if he can stay with him for the weekend. The two of them are jamming in his kitchen, reminiscing about the old times, when his wife comes home. One look at Jesse, and we know what’s going to happen–the old cliched scene of the wife yelling “No WAY is that drug-dealing loser friend of yours staying anywhere near our kid!!,” the husband arguing back but eventually conceding, and eventually giving the friend some lame excuse and giving him the boot. Rather than putting the audience through that, Breaking Bad doesn’t show us the husband and wife as they go through the first two parts of the scene, instead focusing on Jesse as the inevitable outcome of the situation becomes obvious to him, and not only will he have to find a new place to sleep tonight, but he’ll probably never be able to hang out with his old friend again. It’s a heart-wrenching scene, made all the more so by bypassing all the unnecessary parts.

Ultimately, I really have absolutely no idea what to expect when I watch this show. And that’s probably what makes it the best show on TV right now–until seasons four and five of Friday Night Lights, anyway.

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TV OD: 24’s Murderer’s Row of That Guy Villains

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 10, 2009

coiro-garofalo

Another benefit of my new DV-R acquisition is the fact that I’ve been able to keep up with Season 7 of 24, which after a hopelessly repetitive S6 and a supremely disappointing 24: Redemption (less Blood Diamond, more Commando, plz Jack) I would’ve never had the motivation to keep up with otherwise. With limited emotional or time investment, I’m able to continue to enjoy the show for what it is–a comfortable and occasionally exciting running through of some well-established motions. The only surprises that remain to be found on the show are who they choose to play the stream of antagonists Jack has to deal with hour to hour. 24 has basically become more overstuffed with villains every season, and by this season, we’re almost up to Batman Returns / Spiderman 3 levels of congestion–half a season still to go, and we’ve already had at least three climaxes, followed by the requisite “We’re not out of the woods yet…” caveat and an introduction of yet a deeper level of intrigue and danger.

This is, unquestionably, a good thing–or at least it will be as long as 24‘s producers really continue to work their Rolodex to make sure that even their roliest of role players are staffed by some of the nation’s elite forgotten stars, character actors and That Guys. Take the role of Janis, the FBI analyst. She basically does nothing but busybody herself and impede the progress of Jack and friends, a character who very easily could have been a forgettable nuisance. Playeed by forgettable nuisance Hall of Famer Janeane Garofalo, though, Janis has the weight of an entire career of mild irritation behind her, making it that much richer a character. Nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly in the villains that the show has trotted out thusfar. Take a look:

  • Tony Todd. Todd plays General Juma, the Sangalese (love those fictional countries) terrorist who breaks into the White House and holds the President and her staff hostage while planning on humiliating and then killing her. Due to his unique physicality (6’5″, weird-looking face) and strange charisma, Todd has been a mainstay of the Sci-Fi genre for some years, as sort of a slightly more credible Tiny Lister. Most peope will undoubtedly associate him with being the face of the Candyman franchise; for me, however, he’ll always be the foreboding and extremely unhelpful coroner in the Final Destination series. Oddly, Todd had already played a detective on the show about five years earlier–with actors of Todd’s caliber, sometimes a double dip is necessary.
  • Kurtwood Smith. Smith plays Senator Mayer, the figure at the head of the hearings for which Jack is called back to the States to undergo. Smith isn’t as much a traditional villain (like, say, Clarence Boddicker in RoboCop) but rather one of those infuriatingly stubborn and ignorant, albeit technically well-intentioned, assholes (like, say, Mr. Perry in Dead Poets Society). I’m not even sure what Smith’s beef with Bauer is–apparently he really doesn’t approve of torturing dudes, but his insistence on Jack’s persecution despite the fact that he’s basically saved the world about a half-dozen times that day alone could only really be explained by Jack somehow being responsible for his premature baldness. Then again, there’s no evidence out there that Smith knows how to do anything but playing dudes this needlessly disgruntled. Looks like in next week’s episode Jack takes him hostage–here’s hoping for some collateral damage.
  • Rhys Coiro. Coiro plays Sean Hillinger, the corrupt FBI agent who fucks with Jack and Tony’s efforts from the inside. Even though I knew that he was going to be in the season, I totally forgot that Coiro also played Billy Walsh while I was watching this–somehow, Entourage‘s mercurial auteur doesn’t feel the same with a suit and short hair. It should have been obvious, though, after one of the season’s most indelible moments, where after Janis blackmails him into giving her information by threatening to expose his affair with a co-worker to his wife, he snipes at her, “Youre a little bitch, you know that?” It was like Billy bickering with E and calling him “suit” all over again. Sean’s been exposed and arrested already, but I’m hoping we haven’t seen the last of him quite yet.
  • Bob Gunton. Gunton plays Ethan Kanin, the senior advisor to the President. OK, now Kanin hasn’t technically been confirmed as a villian yet, but after last week’s episode–where President Taylor snapped at him for offering his opinion, and then her daughter basically promised to ruin him for failing to prevent all the shit of that day from going down, it seems like only a matter of time before the tension there begins to bubble over. Besides, anyone who’s ever seen him as the warden in  The Shawshank Redemption knows the true evil that lurks inside Gunton–remember, he seemed like a pretty decent guy at first in that movie, too. Also, advisors on 24 are always incompetent, duplicitous or both, and he’s already gone behind the prez’s back at least once. I say minimum two episodes before he plots to have someone killed.
  • Rory Cochrane. Cochrane plays Greg Seaton, the assistant to Jonas Hodges, the super-evil-guy-behind-everything. It’s a nothing role so far, and Cochrane hasn’t exactly done too much to enliven it, but it’s always nice to see one of the 90s’ most underappreciated zeitgeist contributors find work. And as an unreserved adult now, too. Good for him.
  • Jon Voight. Voight plays Jonas Hodges, the super-evil-guy-behind-everything. OK, so the Oscar winning (and Oscar winner-spawning) actor has long since eclipsed That Guy status and should not be relegated as such. Still, Voight’s SEGBE portrayal caused me to go back and examine his career, and it truly stunned me to look at the run of supreme villainy this guy had in the late 90s. 1996: Double Agent Jim Phelps in Mission: Impossible. 1997: Ruthless hunter/killer Paul Sarone in Anaconda and sleazeball lawyer Leo Drummond in The Rainmaker. 1998: Murderous politician/conspirator Thomas Reynolds in Enemy of the State. 1999: Immoral and unfeeling HS Football Coach Bud Kilmer in Varsity Blues (an IITS-canonized villain, no less). I mean, is that a dynastic run of badness or what? He’s gotten away from it somewhat in recent years, even playing good-ish guys in The Manchurian Candidate and Transformers, but it’s great to see him back where he belongs–those cold, distant eyes just shouldn’t be promoting an agenda of positivity.

Posted in TV O.D. | 2 Comments »

TV OD: Pondering the Significance of Kara DioGuardi

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 8, 2009

kara-and-paula

I was extremely surprised when I heard that American Idol was going to be adding a fourth judge at the beginning of the season. Even more so, though, I was surprised that everyone else wasn’t more surprised. This seemed like earth-shaking pop culture news to me–regardless of what you thought of their skills as analysts of talent and arbiters of final judgement, there’s no question that over the course of seven seasons, Randy, Paula and Simon had achieved a singular, finely honed dynamic, in which all participants clearly knew their part and had learned to play it to relative perfection. To just throw hit songwriter/producer Kara DioGuardi into the mix and potentially disrupt that balance seemed like a much bigger risk than anyone was giving America’s Most Popular TV Show credit for–sure, American Idol seems like its success is almost untouchable at this point, but the Detroit Pistons probably thought the same thing before they added Allen Iverson earlier this season, and look what happened to them. At the very least, they now had an even number of judges, making for some potentially ugly tie situations. Who’s to say where it would go from there?

After watching much of the first third or so of the season, it’s clear that Kara probably isn’t going to destroy American Idol. She’s competent at a minimum, seems to know what she’s talking about (and has the hit single cred to back it up), and has decent rapport with the other judges. That said, she doesn’t add very much to the show, necessarily–her insight, while occasionally inspired, is far from revelatory, and her personality, while nice enough, is never quite so sparkling as to draw new viewers to the show, or help them retain those that they lost last season. So why roll the dice on a potentially disastrous new addition to the show when the potential upside was never anything particularly brilliant? I think I’ve figured it out, and it can be summarized in one word: Insurance.

It’s hard to remember at this point–especially because my viewing of the show has never really been more than spotty–whether or not Paula was always crazy. I seem to remember being able to look at her during season four, the one of which I’d watched the most, and being able to remember that this was in fact Paula Abdul, the same woman behind “Straight Up” and “Rush, Rush” and all those pretty good late-80s/early-90s pop hits, and not some perpetually unhinged and possibly inebriated mess of a human being. But clearly, as the incidents had started to pile up season after season–rumors of affairs with contestants, on-set drinking, critiquing performances before they occured, even hitting a guy with her car at one point–the people at FOX understandably came to the conclusion that this was not a person who you would want to potentially have control over the fate of your flagship program.

Enter DioGuardi. In many ways, the role she currently plays in the show is closest in nature to the one that Paula had before she showed up. First and foremost, of course, she’s female–a quality that would logically need to be possessed by at least one of the show’s judges, given the relatively equal gender split of the show’s contestants (if not necessarily its viewership). Secondly, she’s probably the closest besides Paula to being the “nice” judge–not quite as fawning or moony as Paula gets when she gets lost in a contestant’s eyes or feels she needs to stand up to Simon, but still fairly likely to at least preface her uncomplimentary comments with a “Listen, sweetie…” Basically, she’s a coherent Paula, a concept borne out by the fact that when called on to give their comments, hers usually precede Paula’s, and consequently make whatever she has to say afterwards seem redundant and loopy. For example, let’s say Bobby Brown enthusiast Anoop Desai has just performed a stirring, awkwardly hip-thrusting performance of Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love,” and the two are called on to offer their opinions. They might look like this, respectively:

Kara

“Anoop,  sweetie–I’m not sure if that was necessarily the best song choice for you–you had a little trouble with the low notes, and you should maybe cut down some on the gyrating. But at the very least, you continued to really show America who you are tonight, and I think you’ve got a lot of fans out there, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see you back next week.”

Paula

“WOW, Anoop…Wow. Look, honey…the vocals might’ve been just a little bit…[squints, makes “little bit” motion with her fingers]…and the hip stuff…I dunno. But you know what you are? You’re you. You’re YOU, Anoop. And YOU is all that YOU are, and YOU is all that YOU can be. And YOU know what? I love it. AMERICA loves it. And I think you’ll be being you…right here next week!”

[Fans roar, Simon rolls his eyes so hard he loses a contact]

Now, that’s not to say that Paula’s stream-of-consciousness stylings are unappreciated or easily done without on Idol–they’re absolutely part of the show’s appeal, especially in the way that it needles Simon and brings out the best in him. But along with the appeal of her partial insanity comes the fact that there’s never any telling when she’s going to go completely off the reservation, and it certainly behooves FOX to have a backup in waiting just in case she should ever make her position on the show completely untenable. And that seems to me to be the only reason to have Kara in there–to bring her along slowly and allow her to get her reps in case the fateful day should ever come in which she is called on to step into that third judge role.

I do hope, though, that she goes back to being a backup if Paula can hold herself sufficiently together for the rest of the season. Even numbers of judges just piss me off.

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TV O.D.: VH1’s 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 4, 2008

You on point, Toure? All the time, Kaleefa

Golly gee gosh, I still just love a good VH-1 Countdown. One thing I continue to have to give ’em credit for, despite all the increasingly whorey celebreality shows, the ruination of Best Week Ever, the white guys (mostly chicks now, I guess) with pianos, and the cancellation of my 15 minutes of fame, is that every six months or so, they’ll still manage to trot out a half-decent top 100 countdown. They’re not controversial, they’re not educational, they’re not even particularly interesting, but they’re as safe and comfortable as a warm blanket on a sunny spring morning. And though you wouldn’t know it if you don’t pay as much undue attention to these things as I do, but their lists have gotten a little bit better–more diverse, less pandering to the core AC demographic, and even slightly less hopelessly stuck in the past.

Their latest effort, a list of the top 100 hip-hop songs of all-time, is even more compelling if you remember how not that long ago, VH1 refused to even acknowledge the existence of hip-hop–the Pop-Up Video for Blondie’s “Rapture” claimed that it was the only rap video currently in VH-1’s rotation. About the turn of the century, rap became too big a commercial force for the channel to ignore entirely, so they made a sort of compromise–they still wouldn’t play more than a handful of rap videos, but every couple of months, they’d do some sort of public hip-hop celebration. So now we get History of Hip-Hop documentaries, lifetime Hip-Hop award shows, and for one beautiful TV season, Ego Trip’s The (White) Rapper Show. To watch a channel once so reactionary about the genre embrace it so enthusiastically, though, probably feels the same way my old friends feel when they hear me talking about sports now.

Still, to the channel’s credit once again, even if their love is insincere, they don’t do a terrible job of faking it. The list makes for a pretty respectable hip-hop canon, hitting all the real high points in the last 30 years of the genre. You could probably guess at least seven of the top ten, and those that you couldn’t would mostly make you nod and say “hm, fair enough.” The list does a good job of not repeating artists (only LL and Run-DMC have multiple songs, not counting guest or group appearances), and the songs they choose per artist tend to be more thoughtful than simply choosing the artist’s most popular song (“Juicy” over “Hypnotize,” “Tha Block is Hot” over “Lollipop,” “Stan” over “Lose Yourself,” and most impressively, “Hold It Now, Hit It” over the dozens of better-known BBoys songs). And through the sexy middle hours of the list, VH1 even manages to come up with a couple pleasant surprises–songs like the LOX’s “Money, Power & Respect” (#53), Lil’ Kim’s “Crush on You” (#75), Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” (#39) and Cam’Ron’s “Oh Boy” (#89)–songs which you don’t normally associate with all-time hip-hop lists, but when you think about it, are pretty darn good songs.

That’s not to say that VH-1 has exactly solved hip-hop, though. The list, while not being as embarrassingly populist and ageist as the channel has been in the past, still has an obvious pro-crossover, pro-old school bent that means certain classic street anthems of recent-ish years that didn’t really burn up the pop charts–Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Pt. II),” The Clipse’s “Grindin’,” M.O.P.’s “Ante Up”–are left out in the cold. In their place are a bunch of chartburners that look pretty out of place on such a list (sure, “O.P.P.” and “The Humpty Dance” are timeless classics, but “U Can’t Touch This” at #26? “Gangsta’s Paradise” at #38? Ma$e’s “Feel So Good” anywhere? Fucking Kid n Play? ) and a couple too many historically significant selections that really aren’t very good songs (Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way,” Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now?,” Ice-T’s “Colors”). Also, if you’re going to have a Fugees song in the top 25, shouldn’t it be one that actually has some rapping in it (beyond Wyclef going “One time, one time”)?

Petty complaints, though, for what is ultimately another solid, unchallenging VH-1 countdown. It’s stuff we’ve all heard before, from the same people in the same contexts (though I can’t help but wonder what Hip-Hop-Honoree to be Too $hort feels about not having a song on this list), but hey, watching and talking about great music never really gets old. Where else have you seen testimonies to the brilliance of the narrative structure of “Regulate” recently? The tearjerking beauty of the video for “Tha Crossroads”? The cinematic quality of the pencil-scribbling sound effects in the beat to “Stan”? Hell, they even sorta agree with me about PM Dawn. I can’t think of a more fun way to spend my TV watching late-nights.

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