Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Non-Pun Involving Word "Standard"

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

It seems like the season took forever to get going, and now all of sudden its end is nearly upon us. The loss of Anoop and Lil, neither of whom had the faintest prayer of winning, seemed to register upon everyone still going, contestants, judges, Seacrest, and lighting designers alike. So expect (even) less graceful humor and (even more) deadly earnest ballad stylings going forward.

Standards night, like disco night, is one you have to do, but I again question the timing. With a bigger field and earlier on in the season, we'd get to see more singers trying to do radical things with these weary old tunes. Kris Allen, for one, seemed like he had a lot more in him than a straight reading of "The Way You Look Tonight" that was good but not quite as good as the version done by the Vegas hologram on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine." But with everything to lose and only other four other options left to be low vote-getter, the safe play was irresistible. The whole night was like "American Idol" versions of moving the runner over to second, not an extra-base hit in the bunch. But also it has to be acknowledged that they've done a better job than usual with sending talent home this year. All five of the kids left can sing, and all are capable of putting together a real showstopper, flashing some gap power -- Danny alone might need a wind assist.

Kris Allen Kris got the pole position slot for the evening, which is not usually a good omen. You can't be merely okay when you're up first. Given his vocal abilities and the defensible decision we've already discussed to not attempt anything frisky with the arrangement, Allen did the best he could. His vocal was on key for the most part, although I didn't like everything after the dramatic key change towards the finish. He needed to take that kind of risk, having not really built up his vocal resume over the past several shows, concentrating more on burnishing his musicality. I go back and forth on whether Kris is a good musician who doesn't embarrass himself with his singing voice (like Scott MacIntyre) or whether he's got a genuine gift. I don't think he was ever going to prove himself with a melody this far out of his comfort zone, but he did get some good stuff in, even after the modulation. He kept some personality in his delivery, while a lot of "Idol" types can seem like they're reciting with their hands folded behind their backs when they do something this obviously unfamiliar. Kris was fairly charming, and (importantly) not old-fashioned. 7

Allison Iraheta Allison was the best bet to shake it up and stick some guitar feedback on her song, but she didn't. She did let her voice get some gravelly rock feel into it for emphasis at a few points, but for the most part it was the most subdued we've heard her all season. She's managed to justify belting something in every week up to this point, but it hasn't really seemed as if she's been repeating herself. And her "Someone to Watch Over Me" gave a new kind of evidence as to why: She's the most talented singer in this group. Her rare expression, control, and sustain remind you more of listening to a really cracking jazz soloist than the comparative bleating coming from the rest of the field. She seemed more isolated than ever before as the only female left, but bore up under the pressure. For the first time all season you felt some of that transcendent "Idol" magic in Allison's vocal, something Lakisha Jones and Melinda Doolittle were bringing with regularity a few seasons ago but has been nearly forgotten with all this newfound focus on "package" artists. Package, hell! All you need is pipes and this girl has them. I'm going to be super cranky when she doesn't win, however soon that may be. 9

Matt Giraud I certainly don't begrudge him getting a few more chances to prove his mettle at the expense of Anoop, but Matt looks and sounds like a zombie at this point -- it might have been better off for all parties involved if the judges had exercised restraint. I don't think there's anything in his entire body of work on "Idol" that suggests he has a real spark of musical originality anywhere in his desperate-to-please body. The Giraud take on "My Funny Valentine" had the same sort of stuff we've been harping on for months -- sour low notes half-swallowed in a garbled stab towards soulfulness, valiant but blue falsetto runs, no sign whatsoever of unique human spark. For some reason Matt's style inspired the band, likely unprompted, to head in markedly more lounge-ish direction than they went for the other contestants, for whom they erred on the side of taste. Ill-conceived and uncomfortable, as is par for the course for Matt. Perhaps he'll rebound by becoming the keyboard player in Adam Lambert's band, much as Chris Sligh did for Blake Lewis. 6

Danny Gokey Danny is Matt's opposite number, kind of. He has no musical ability whatsoever, yet he still has better instincts than Giraud, who's a fabulous pianist. For all Matt's study, he comes across like a witless clod. Danny? Well, he comes across like a witty clod, which is somewhat better. When Danny picks something he can sing, you know you're going to get a game effort with a few enjoyable moments, although his overall lack of consistency and professionalism never fully go away either. At least Danny seems less aggrieved by the whole thing than Matt, and that's to his credit, although he's gotten fluffy-pillow treatment from the judges the entire way through (and I'm pretty sure he's never been in the bottom three). This is all going a long way to say Danny deserves to last one more week than Matt, even though his "Come Rain or Come Shine" was another pretty mediocre shout-a-second vocal from the most perplexingly well-received crooner of Season 8. Standards suit him less well than others, as he seemed stiff and overcharged for the atmosphere of the song. Guest coach Jamie Foxx, by the way, was genuinely impressed by the talent of the other four singers... but worked out a comedy number to sidestep having to give his honest opinion of Danny. 6

Adam Lambert I'm working my way into accepting an Adam coronation in the upcoming finale, but I have to say his song choice -- "Feeling Good" -- has had more than its fair airing on "Idol" by now and has been found wanting. No more, please. It's wild how much more effort the producers put into Adam's performances than everyone else's; it looked like Laser Floyd out there while Adam was singing. For Allison I think they used a bare 60-watt Sylvania on a desk lamp duct-taped to a broomhandle. Adam battles his demons of theatricality every week. This time, his first few bars, before the band and the lights and the whole nine yards kicked in, were fantastic. Captivating, like his "Mad World," and not a note given the least bit more force than needed. Then he got the main body and started shrieking again. What can you say? The judges tell him everything he does is genius, especially the extemporaneous falsetto screeching, so he keeps giving them what they want. At some point you have to imagine they're going to put him in a studio with a real professional producer, and the poor S.O.B. is going to be tearing out his hair getting Adam to stick to the melodies as written so all of the backing vocals will line up right. Adam's very long, held climax note was a little much -- not a lot of call for that sort of thing in pop music -- but it was impressive. 8

I think Matt has to go this time. I mean, he was given a second chance to prove the voters were wrong when they sent him packing two weeks ago, and what has he done? A transparently desperate "Stayin' Alive" and a pedestrian "Funny Valentine." Allison meanwhile is super awesome and Danny, Adam, and Kris have been judged far more positively. If I had to pick another, Danny would be my surprise choice. He's never been in danger, but... I mean, come on, line up those five singers and listen to them all for ten seconds. Which one is the least good, not counting deceased spouses?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Compelling Wreckage

"The Unusuals"

I have my own pace when it comes to absorbing new shows, and I just have to accept that critics who get screener DVD's with three or four episodes well ahead of the season premieres are going to reach the same conclusions sometimes weeks and weeks ahead of me. Tim Goodman, my favorite newspaper TV critic, has been on a roll lately -- his thoughts about a bunch of midseason replacements, from "Better off Ted" to "Parks and Recreation," have basically parallelled mine, only in a more timely fashion.

Goodman's piece on "The Unusuals" pretty much nailed all of the problems inherent in that new cop show's pilot -- bad casting, running jokes that aren't funny the first time, constant shifts in tone that are too abrupt for the audience. I taped the first couple episodes because the cast had promise (Amber Tamblyn from "Joan of Arcadia" and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Harold Perrineau from "Lost," Adam Goldberg from The Hebrew Hammer) and I was ready for a new cop show after the untimely demise of "Life on Mars."

Because I read Goodman's stuff compulsively, even when it's likely to spoil stuff I've been queuing up on the DVR, I knew well in advance of the time I actually sat down to watch "The Unusuals" that the SF Chronicle critic hated it. And I hated the pilot, too. If I had only taped that one episode, I probably would have instructed the recorder never to tape it again and left it at that.

But I had four episodes of "The Unusuals" lined up, and although I didn't watch them all in one sitting, I eventually got around to working my way through the series' first month. There's some worthwhile elements to Noah Hawley's self-consciously quirky drama, and a lot of the annoying elements from the pilot are not impossible to correct as the show develops. A lot of the things that really get on your nerves about "The Unusuals" are totally exterior. The quick-cut montages of New York City traffic and architecture are straight out of "Friends" and could just be axed without affecting the show at all. The clumsy, generic alterna-riffing employed as score could be improved by either switching to a more traditional synthesized orchestra soundtrack or hiring the brilliant music supervisor from "Life," since that much better police show has evidently been cancelled already. And a few of the castmembers who are dead weight could easily be transferred or simply killed -- this is a cop show after all.

The two partnerships at the show's core, Tamblyn and the ingratiating Jeremy Renner as Shraeger and Walsh and Perrineau and Goldberg as Banks and Delahoy, show some promise. The first two episodes have a too-earnest habit of forcing impressions of these characters into our minds by having them repeat recent plot developments in their life until you start to think, "Oh, no, here come dead-at-42 guy and brain-cancer guy again." But this has faded to an appropriate level in the next two episodes, as it's the storytelling that gets genuinely weird and interesting rather than continuing to overload the regulars with cutesy quirks. The dispatcher, an annoying disembodied voice in the pilot, becomes a real character in the fourth episode, and just that little gesture makes the show so much better.

In order to take the place of "Life" as network TV's representative wacky cases, lifelike characters show, "The Unusuals" needs to get rid of several misbegotten cast members -- the actors who play Cole and Beaumont stand out for their incompetence in a cast mostly consisting of pros, and the whole Eddie Alvarez character is just an annoying douche. Just because all of the other cops say so to his face and are constantly playing jokes on him and being mean to him doesn't mean we want to have to follow a whole plotline for him each week. Then again, in the fourth episode Eddie got to show a bit of depth, so perhaps this is another area Hawley and his writers are working on redeeming.

It's not clear whether "The Unusuals" has much, if any, chance for renewal. "Life on Mars" died an inglorious death in its same timeslot before "Lost," a show people generally need to take a few moments to prepare themselves before beginning anew. I like "Life on Mars," and indeed "Life," way more than I like this new show. But "Life on Mars" has already aired its finale (very cool, didn't copy the ending of the British original) and according to none other than Tim Goodman "Life" is dead. So if we can only have one of the three I suppose I would rather see "The Unusuals" than nothing, if only because it's nice to see Tamblyn playing a grownup and Adam Goldberg is a complete delight in anything he's in.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sit Still It's Disco

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

They threw an "American Idol" disco night, but someone forgot the funk. More than half the field opted not to perform their numbers in their original style. Without question, the producers made another mistake in holding off the disco theme until this late in the competition. With the pressure of only seven remaining contestants (all save Lil and Anoop with a least a little argument towards the crown) and the drama of Matt Giraud's save last week, the show didn't have the lighthearted, pressure's-off feel that disco nights in years past have boasted. A lot of folks were forcing it, some to better effect than others. Somehow even disco night managed to get polluted with elevator ballads, something it genuinely appeared "Idol" was weaning itself off of in the last two seasons.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the missed opportunity for Adam Lambert. Adam alone among the field has chosen to do a disco number of his own free will, and the Internets have been abuzz about his sexual preference since January. Wouldn't it have been awesome if he'd done "YMCA" or "In the Navy" with a chorus line of pretty L.A. boys dressed in hot pants and little white hats? I will answer that for you. Yes, it would have been awesome.

Lil Rounds Lil is at least two weeks past her sell-by date, and by placing her in the pole position the producers have more or less assured her expiration will arrive tomorrow. Her vocal form continues to be quite laudable but she's simply not savvy enough to add anything other than pinched emphasis to the original versions of diva tunes she inevitably chooses for herself. Having grown short with the judges last time and possibly won herself a little respect and a few needed votes in doing so, she was clueless and graceful this time. She really thinks she put a new spin on "I'm Every Woman," she really does. It's up to the listener to decide and this informed listener thinks it was karaoke all the way. It seems as if the judges are being fed putdowns through earpieces at this point. 7

Kris Allen Kris hasn't quite put it all together yet. His less-innovative-than-at-first-glance "She Works Hard for the Money" didn't effectively assume a new perspective in changing the song's narrator, something David Cook was consistently able to do in his winning run. I do appreciate Kris's skill and ease at leading a small band with his guitar playing on stage, and he was due for a performance where his guitar was something more than a prop. While his creativity has trended up in the last few shows, I don't feel as if Kris is singing as well as he was further back. Maybe the shift in focus away from pure vocals has cost him. It was an obvious night for Kris to make a move like this to prove his seriousness and good for him for handling his business. 8

Danny Gokey I have no bigger disconnect with the judges this year than I do with them regarding Danny. His range gets praised endlessly, along with his pitch correctness, and I wonder often if I am hearing the same performances. Perhaps it really is true that the judges base their comments on the warmup numbers. During "September," a pretty weak song, Danny resorted to yelling a lot at a few points where the natural course of the melody didn't agree with him. Rather than going up in pitch he would simply shout the previous note much louder, which -- I assure you -- is technically incorrect. Also, not as much contradicted by the judging panel as sidestepped, what is Danny's commercial relevance? Yeah, the dead wife could get him a gold record, with a tasteful enough photo in the album sleeve and an intelligently directed video. But what's his second act? Sometimes I think the band puts in more effort with the arrangements for some less musical contestants (Danny) than for others (Allison). Maybe they all lost their wives too. 6

Allison Iraheta "Hot Stuff," perhaps three-quarters converted into an arena rocker, was an unpredictable choice from Allison. But she can sing anything, and she was easily better than most yet another week. She's the most consistent singer on the basis of every time we've seen them all sing this year, bar none. Well, excluding the group numbers in the results shows, through which I fast-forward aggressively. She moved and sang comfortably given that it was the boldest re-arrangement of a song she'd done in some time. I like how she maintains an appropriate cool but chaste high school-girl style. The judges did not like how she slowed her song's tempo, but I appreciated how the increase in space let her voice simmer in the proper juices. 9

Adam Lambert It's through the looking glass and back again for Adam, who wailed his way through a Saturday Night Fever album track in his worst outing since desecrating "Ring of Fire." Adam started from the top in an unpleasant, junior varsity spring theater workshop style and, outsinging the band, went hugely out of pitch for just about the whole second half of the song. This went unnoticed by the whole panel of judges. Kara and Simon checked out mentally of their own accord weeks ago, Randy Jackson has suffered a stroke only no one has noticed because his outward behavior is so little changed, and Paula's shaking hands after Adam's caterwauling suggested she might need to book a six-week lie-down somewhere quiet starting right after the season finale. 5

Matt Giraud Says Anna: "A lot of them are dumb this year." Matt's "Stayin' Alive" was so crude, witless, and stupid that it utterly devastated whatever momentum Giraud might have had coming out of the judges' save show. He got away from the piano and pranced around like he was Justin Timberlake for Halloween. He delivered a flat and uninspired, occasionally piercing version of a song that 1) mostly depends on vocal harmonies and not a single voice and 2) has even so been performed on "Idol" way, way better. The song, slowed down a tiny bit but otherwise much the same, didn't suit Matt's personality, musicality, or physicality. And he sang it pretty badly to boot. You're outta here! 4

Anoop Desai I'm of mixed feelings about Anoop's "Dim All the Lights." On one hand, he has leaned very heavily towards the ballad end of things since the country episode. On the other, he sounded fantastic Tuesday when the song started spare and slow, and lost much of his mojo when it shoehorned into an ill-fitting, radio-modern electronic beat. He was due for a number that won him back a little of his "My Prerogative" R&B cred, but disco week might have not been the right time to force it. If he'd kept it a ballad, he still wouldn't have gotten the unmerited praise that Danny and Adam got, but he might have won over a few more votes. I think he's a keeper for now, even though he seemed to have responded to a bottom-three placing last time in charmingly transparent fashion. He had facial hair, and a three-piece suit with a pink vest! I mean, go Anoop! Way to hold it down for the engineering students. 7

Postscript, Thursday morning: I forgot to write it down official-like at the end of the original post, but I think it's implied by the reviews that I had Lil and Matt for what Tony Kornheiser so emphatically calls "Go Night." Lil was a lock, but it was Anoop's neck that took the other axe. It wasn't quite deserved based solely on the performances from the night before, but Matt Giraud has a slightly more lively overall body of work and perhaps will prove us all wrong with a signature performance next week. The judges' save swings the season, sorta. As I wrote before the results show, Anoop and Lil were the two left with no chance of winning. So it should have been obvious. But I think I'm more down on Matt than most, since his song choices continue to show a lack of artistic feel and original musical notions. He did do a crowd-pleaser, and it didn't suck. He's got to bring the goods now.

Undesirable Sandwich Combinations

Role Models
DVD via Redbox

I saw Role Models a few weeks ago, just after I Love You, Man, and the contrast was so unflattering that I was left without much to say about the earlier Paul Rudd vehicle. By rights, Role Models ought to take its place among the new classics given the combination of talents on display -- Rudd, Chris Mintz-Plasse from Superbad, Jane Lynch, big huge chunks of "The State," Stifler already -- but as it turns out, it's an ineffective and draggy blend of styles that don't complement. David Wain, who directed one of my favorite unseen comedies ever (Wet Hot American Summer, with Rudd and many others who reappear here), has a particular absurdist style. His jokes often depend on odd mid-sentence shifts in theme, lists of three subjects where the second one is the punchline and the third makes no sense at all, or actors speaking out of character and trampling over the fourth wall.

In short Wain excels in scripted comedy, the sort where every syllable and preposition is sweated over to equal maximum funny. The screenplay he wrote with Rudd and Ken Marino for Role Models was clearly full of the sort of weird humor that made Wet Hot and TV's "Stella" such memorable, love-them-or-hate-them propositions. You can hear some of the original jokes in the movie, but they don't land, because the tone is borrowed from Judd Apatow and thereby most scenes are slack in pace. One of things that made Wain (and Ken Marino, and Joe Lo Truglio, and Kerri Kenney) so funny on "The State" was the gonzo, postmodern editing style, which undercut funny lines and directed attention to things that at first airing didn't seem to be jokes at all. Wet Hot American Summer, one of the most knowingly deliberately badly made movies ever, gorged on the vine with this sort of stuff.

Role Models doesn't work because the critical spirit of the filmmaker gets lost in all of the agreeable improvisations and shaggy-dog scenes. If you mostly improvise a movie, it's just not going to come across as satire. Knocked Up might have a lot of naughty language, but it's undeniably a romantic comedy, and one with pretty conservative values at heart. Ditto 40-Year-Old Virgin. The difference is, Apatow and Seth Rogen aren't conflicted about making mainstream romantic comedies. In a way they're remaking the comfortable favorites of yore, in the same fashion that Kevin Smith "crafted" Mallrats as the symbol of his willingness to make mainstream teen fare of the John Hughes school. But David Wain isn't a genial midwestern (or Canadian) everyman, he's an odd duck, an NYC intellectual whose work can often be genuinely disturbing (the not entirely successful The Ten, also with Rudd, is a much more honest expression of his style).

So Role Models, with the budget of Wet Hot American and made before Steve Carell became a massive box-office draw, could have been a really great, and really creepy, dark comedy. As it is it has the right lead, Rudd doing his guy-who-has-everything-and-hates-everything bit, some cute kids (Mintz-Plasse shows some range, he plays younger and less spazzy), and some great lines for Seann William Scott. Scott is an interesting case here; I don't think he can improvise, and as a result it often seems like he's in a completely different movie than everyone else. His scenes with Rudd don't work at all, because they're just not on the same wavelength. But paired with Bobb'e J. Thompson, who plays his little buddy, he's absolutely hilarious. By contrast a lot of Wain's buddies, including Marino, Kenney, Ken Jeong, and A.D. Miles, get long ad lib scenes that simply... aren't... funny. Lynch does her bit as the completely terrifying matron in charge of the charity Rudd and Scott's characters are forced to work for, but she gets a little too much screen time and the screenplay doesn't know what to do with her at the end.

Likewise, what's to be made of all the live-action role-playing? Everyone on the cast and crew seems to be taking care to show respect for the Mintz-Plasse character's obsession, but too much so -- I mean, we are supposed to be laughing at them. They just sort of go about their business and it's not really funny or interesting. Compared to the "Home Movies" episode set at the Renaissance fair, Wain finds no funny characters or scenes in this major chunk of the film. I guess it's cool for LARP people that their hobby is being so well-represented on film; for those of us who think it's kind of silly and pointless, Role Models is not going to win any converts.

One of the many things that doesn't land right in this film bothered me in particular seeing as how soon I saw it after I Love You, Man, which included as a major subplot a funny and appropriate riff on the band Rush. Scott's character in Role Models is supposed to be a major KISS fan. He even has the pinball machine. But when the central foursome inevitably dress up as KISS at the climax, Scott gets stuck with the Ace Frehley makeup. Come on!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Toe-Tappingly Tragic

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

Quentin Tarantino is the biggest reach for a guest critic in the history of the show. But, if they're going to run out of legitimately famous musicians, way to go picking random celebrities who will actually give criticisms. It makes perfect sense that trash-culture nut QT would be an "Idol" junkie. I only wish he was coming into things earlier in the process, because it was clear from his footage that the contestants were already locked into their song choices by the time Tarantino came into the picture. As a result, we were forced to sit through the single worst hour of the "Idol" season so far -- nonstop unbearable treacle, save one beautiful Kris Allen vocal and a surprisingly stirring Danny Gokey performance. I'm not writing much this week because I want the misery ringing in my ears to go away.

Allison Iraheta Allison despite her youth and inexperience has been doing an amazing job of finding ways to kick ass without forcing it through every theme week but this was a complete disaster. "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," the foul work of Satan's minion Diane Warren, is one of the worst songs in the history of the planet. It castrated Aerosmith, and it totally stole Allison's impressive thunder in the same fashion. Any moron would sound terrible singing this horrible song, but having a good singer sing it is like making Yitzhak Perlman play the ukelele. She tried to overpower it, but it's a limp piece of crap and it just sounded like a limp piece of crap being woefully oversung. She was out of key a lot because she was straining to make an offensively stupid melody not offensively stupid. What a fiasco. Of course, now that she's doing generic commercial garbage the judges are all over her. 6

Anoop Desai Anoop picked "Everything I Do (I Do It for You)," leading me to warn the room that if the evening was going to keep going like this, I was going to physically assault somebody before the end of it. These are some of the worst songs to which mankind has ever been exposed, sung in lukewarm commencement-ceremony style and washed over in trademark "Idol" blue light. It's really difficult to critique Anoop's performance because I wanted to punch him in the face for making me have to listen to this bowel movement of a song again. Was it gooey and desperate? Yeah, but a lot of that could be the song. I really hate this week. 5

Adam Lambert Adam's Achilles heel is that he doesn't understand the concept of irony -- he thought "Play That Funky Music" was a saucy choice one week. He did "Born to Be Wild," which seemed unnecessary -- certainly he doesn't need an excuse to wear leather. He did something with the arrangement, parts of which worked and parts of which didn't. I've gotten a little tired of his habit of not singing any of the original melody after the first two lines, but this was the sort of song that really calls for that treatment if you're going to do it on "Idol." Interestingly, he could have done the exact same song he did last week and it would have counted under the theme. The annoying thing about his favorite status nowadays is that he totally deserves it. I liked watching him rock it out a bit, and his command of the stage is becoming more original and less theatre-derived, but the mounting gay subtext of everything he does needs a final act. 7

Matt Giraud Two Bryan Adams songs in one show? What did we do to deserve this? "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman" is even worse than "Everything I Do," as if such a thing was even possible. Matt never had a chance of not sounding like a dope singing this one, but he also sounded less in control musically than usual. Some of his falsetto notes were wildly off and a lot of the song got stuck in his higher, raspier range and just sounded bad. His looks to the camera were stupid and creepy. This whole week makes me want to never watch "Idol" again. Kara, meanwhile, was in heaven; her definition of musical quality is profitability first, last, and everything. 4

Danny Gokey It would have been way better if Seacrest had credited Danny's song, "Endless Love," to Happy Gilmore. The nice thing about Danny when he does a big ballad is he can't shout the whole time, and this was the best he's sounded in a good long while. One of the better renditions of a hopelessly sappy song on the evening. He looks better without his glasses, and Tarantino gave him good advice about moving his hands around less. The judges were down on his performance, but I thought it was one of his better ones. He's not terrible. 8

Kris Allen Finally in "Falling Slowly" Kris gave us a song that's contemporary AND good! I like that Allen put down his guitar to concentrate on singing the song, which is difficult but really rewarding. Sometimes he can seem a little nonchalant about his vocals but he really nailed this one. I just wish that he had done it in a more stripped-down style. This was one of the few performances of the night that had more syrup than the original recording. I love that Kara called it "obscure." Way to go, Kara. The Frames are one of my very favorite bands, one that's languished in genuine obscurity in this country since the early 90's. Their singer Glen Hansard's appearance in the minor indie hit Once was what passed for mainstream vindication for them. But if it didn't sell 7 million copies, in DioGuardi world it's crap. 8

Lil Rounds Incredibly sleepy and boring. My girlfriend and I had totally tuned it out and were having a conversation about an entirely different subject fifteen seconds in. Lil might think she's an artist and put her own stamp on her tune, but she's exactly like about twenty other black female "Idol" losers past, only dumber and not as gifted. She can go away now. 5

Things have gotten predictable at this point in the season. The judges have been prompting voters as to how to behave, even beginning to prep losers a few weeks in advance for their inevitable departures. Until we break from script, I'm continuing to follow their lead. That means Lil goes this week, and probably Matt Giraud next week. Simon even went out of his way to dis Lil in his critique of Allison, just in case the show went long into "Fringe" again and DVR viewers missed him reaming Rounds later.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Watered-Down Less Good Versions of Your Old Favorites

"Better Off Ted"

They canceled "Undeclared" and "Freaks and Geeks" and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" and "Arrested Development," but at least a few people saw them. Now we have less good descendants scattered across network and cable. You can see the work of the same writers, actors, and directors, recombined and watered down into new shows that are less original, less funny, and somehow considered better bets for long-term survival.

"Better Off Ted" is getting at least a fair shot and a good timeslot from ABC even though its single-camera, satirical style doesn't fit in with any of the other original comedies on the network. ("Scrubs," salvaged from NBC for a final season, is the only other thing on schedule the least compatible and accordingly provides the lead-in.) It's pretty funny and has a terrific cast -- Portia De Rossi from "Arrested," Jonathan Slavin from "Weeds," and the fine Malcolm Barrett, about whom I have written before. Jay Harrington, who seems to have been cast because he resembles (and has identical initials to) Jon Hamm, is adequate with an option for likable as the lead.

"Ted" was created by "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" mastermind Victor Fresco, and the quirky casting and certain peculiar touches (like the fake ads that sometimes serve as act breaks) reflect that late, lamented show's style. "Ted" isn't as edgy nor as surreal as "Controls," taking more cues from the heightened reality of shows like "Arrested Development" and "Malcolm in the Middle." It also borrows from "Malcolm" the device of the lead frequently addressing the camera directly, which is less effective on this new show. On "Malcolm," the impassioned pleas of Frankie Muniz made sense, as the hyperintelligent teen's only escape valve from his unapologetically lower-middle-class family. Harrington's Ted should be less self-centered and more on the ball, and it's one of the things about the show that makes the character less appealing than he could be. Internal monologues like those of "Scrubs" would work better, but what would really improve "Better Off Ted" is if they dropped the concept entirely. It works better when it's an ensemble show rather than focusing on the lead, as De Rossi and the dynamic scientist duo of Barrett and Slavin get most of the laughs.

It's hard not to hold "Better Off Ted" to the high standards of "Arrested Development," because that's clearly the gold standard for Fresco and his writers. There's elements of Michael Bluth in the Ted character, the only sane man in a world of eccentrics, although Ted interacts more with his coworkers than his family. Fresco's first sitcom covered similar ground, although on "Controls the Universe" his lead was as weird as the wackjob supporting cast (which included Jonathan Slavin), imagining conversations with the hundred-years-dead builder of his office complex. "Arrested" was good, indeed great, from its first episode, and "Ted" lets half-baked concepts from its pilot continue to slacken the pace in later episodes.

Andrea Anders simply isn't very funny as the other "normal" in the office with whom Ted plays out a tired will-they-or-won't-they chemistry that's way too played out for a writer with Fresco's imagination to be trotting out. Even if Anders was effective in the role the interplay between Ted and Linda has a 50's screwball comedy timing that doesn't gel with the rapid, modernist pace of the rest of the cast. Besides, De Rossi needs more screen time as Veronica, Ted's deliciously insincere superior. She's doing another riff on the same character she played on "Ally McBeal" and "Arrested Development," but her experience on the latter really perfected her deadpan style. She's as funny here as you've ever seen her, although the show needs to introduce a foil for her -- the science guys are (correctly) too terrified of her to engage in witty repartee, and Harrington isn't on her level. The "commercials" also don't work. They're too subtle and don't get any laughs coming out of the main body's more sledgehammer-like gags.

The best thing about "Better Off Ted," and the chief sign of its potential, is its ability to handle controversial material. The fourth episode, "Racial Sensitivity," had an over-the-top plot regarding the motion-detecting lights in the office not registering the presence of black people. This logically led to some scenes that could have been deeply offensive if the tone was not exactly right. A sign next to the motion-sensing water fountain reads "Manual Fountain (For Blacks)." A white character is even heard to say, "Man, I got the worst black guy" (after the company hires minimum-wage white people to follow the undetectable blacks around, so the lights will turn on and doors will open for them). But the show is so ridiculous that it plays this material strictly for laughs and gets away with it. It's not skin-crawlingly awkward like the racial stuff on "The Office" or "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." Not that there's any problem with that approach -- sometimes direct confrontation is good. But "Better Off Ted" takes the somewhat more difficult task of presenting these jokes in a noncontroversial manner and largely succeeds. Part of the continuing racial healing process in this country is the ability of people of all backgrounds to laugh at stuff that's just completely ridiculous.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Kumar and the Werewolf Are Partying in Nepal

Fox via DVR

Wow, can you believe they killed Kutner? Who saw that coming?

Everyone, really. Not least the "House" producers, who went as far as to set up three separate red herring storylines to make it appear as if it would be Taub, Thirteen, or even Foreman leaving the group of regulars in order to relieve the enormous overcrowding pressure that has troubled the show ever since the fourth-season premiere. As the biggest star among the new cast additions, Kal Penn seemed relatively safe. Everyone knew from the beginning that his character was going to make it out of the fourth-season "reality show" competition. The question was whether it would be Amber or Thirteen taking Cameron's babe role and who the third would be. The writers, I think, surprised even themselves by landing on Peter Jacobson's Taub.

But it all paid off in the best "House" episode in quite some time, certainly since the last major death of a recurring character, Amber's swan song in the two-part Season 4 finale. And the episode's emotional linchpin, while all the other regulars were focused on House's disturbing reaction to his employee's sudden suicide by gunshot, was Jacobson's extraordinary, wordless outpouring of grief towards the close. In a long, unbroken shot, Taub poured it all out for the enigmatic Lawrence Kutner, possibly the best friend he made in his entire adult life. Meanwhile the relationship between Thirteen and Foreman, clumsy and forced when first introduced, gets more likable as it becomes more underplayed, more of a part of the background of the show rather than a minor two- or three-episode arc (which Cameron and Chase's relationship, before their exile at the end of the third season, always felt like).

The story behind Penn's decision to leave the show, and how the producers prepared for it, is an interesting one. It reminds me a lot of when Seth Green left "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" after the sixth episode of the fourth season, after more or less the same service time on the show as Penn had on "House" -- one season as a recurring guest, one season as a regular. Green was terrific on "Buffy" and although the role hardly resembles anything he's done since, or the effusive actor's own personality, it in no doubt put Seth Green in the minds of a lot of casting directors and kicked off his subsequent rise to B-list stardom.

He was an asset to the show (although at times in the third season, his only full one as a regular, the writers struggled and didn't always succeed in finding realistic ways to force his basically passive Oz into the weekly storylines) but he wasn't necessary to its continuing in any way, and with the first Austin Powers hugely raising his profile as a movie actor, it was only a matter of time until he bowed out. Joss Whedon and his team accordingly worked out a whole season-long storyline for Oz and Willow that would give Green a suitable sendoff. Then, he quit after six episodes, forcing them to telescope an entire season's worth of subplots into about three episodes. This is one of the many details about the chaotic fourth season of "Buffy" that makes it many fans' least favorite -- and, for much the same reason, my very favorite.

Rather than working out relationship drama for the entire season, "Buffy" reacted with a series of episodes -- really four or five solid ones in a row -- that made Willow's grief over Oz's sudden departure (he cheated on her with a girl werewolf, then ran off to the Far East to learn better how to control his lycanthropy) a major plot point. This was really interesting, as grief is usually something that lasts on television for about a scene or two, or an episode tops, before the ever-forward demands of plot take over. And it also led to the writers' either organic (if some are to be believed) or utterly calculated decision to give Willow a different, er, orientation immediately afterwards.

So the show lost a strong actor and a good character but emerged much the better for it. The focus of "Buffy" was always on not the heroine by herself but the close-knit foursome of the slayer, Giles, Xander, and Willow. If it had taken the whole of the fourth season for Oz and Willow to end, it would have been much more about Oz's problems than Willow's, and despite everyone's best efforts Oz remained a peripheral character to the end. (He was only ever mentioned once, in a throwaway Xander line, after Green's cameo in the fourth-season finale.) The fifth season of "Buffy," my least favorite besides the totally awful last year, was dragged down by a relationship decision that went the other way. Buffy and Riley's breakup dragged on for half the season, even though it was obvious from the first episode that they were toast.

That brings us to Kal Penn and Lawrence Kutner and, most novel, Barack Obama. Penn was hyperactive on the campaign circuit for the president, leveraging his minor celebrity into big rally crowds on college campuses. To his credit, he got on the bandwagon early, over a year before the general election, and accordingly he's now reaping the spoils. He's going from network TV star to midlevel Executive Building functionary, in what I'm fairly certain is an unprecedented career move. It's surprising that Penn is leaving for this specific reason -- and it maybe the least little bit disingenuous, since the Democrats generally have a hell of a time keeping appointed staff in place for more than six months or so, and I highly doubt we've seen the last of Penn as an actor, even until the Obama administration ends. He'll probably have another movie out by the end of next year. But in any event, he told the producers of "House" he might leave at any point during the season, and like Green's early departure from "Buffy," I think the show's narrative is much the better for it. Not knowing exactly when the axe was going to fall kept the writers from being tempted to spread clues. The lives of all the other characters continued to develop in their own ways and all of a sudden, they're all blindsided by this shocking loss. That's how suicide works in real life.

Although the jobs they left for diverge -- Seth Green just couldn't keep himself locked into a supporting role on a TV series, not with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do "Four Kings" and Idle Hands and Without a Paddle, while Kal Penn might actually have to do some legitimate hard work in the White House press office -- the logic works the same in both cases. Both were too big for the parts they played, marquee talents who were utterly inessential to the overall dramatic health of their series. The delicious irony in Penn's stunning, memorable exit from "House" is that in death, his character becomes roughly a billion times more interesting than he ever was in life. Kutner was a genial cipher, with only the barest hint of a backstory and a very lean list of memorable moments on a show that's pretty good about spreading them around among the main cast. The one thing that really stuck out about him before was the way he was completely unaffected by the death of his peer Amber.

And that's probably what took Kutner out in the end, if I had to guess. "House" didn't allow any solid conclusions about his reasoning to enter into the narrative, even though his suicide was revealed in the first act and Dr. House himself spent the entire episode trying to figure it out. But although he became expert at hiding it, from his coworkers and his adoptive parents, Kutner was a guy touched by death. His fascination must have overwhelmed him. I don't think he was necessarily depressed, at least by the usual definition. I just think his curiosity got the best of him, as in the episode where House deliberately electrocuted himself just to see what would happen. Whether the show ever articulates that is something that remains to be seen.

Personally, my interpretation is that House can't figure out Kutner because the two were, on the inside, quite alike. They acted out their philosophies in different ways externally, but both had an essential darkness, a basic hopelessness, House due to his constant pain and Kutner due to his irreconcilable early loss (the shooting death of his birth parents). When alive and in differentials, Kutner never reached the same level of electric interplay with the boss as Taub and Thirteen both did. In death, however, he returns the focus of the show away from the battle for relevance between an overbooked slate of supporting characters and back squarely to where it always should have been, the title character. House has seemed off his game, predictable even, this season. We were supposed to be caring about Cuddy's adoption, Wilson's new wariness, and Thirteen's self-destructive behavior, but it was hard to when Hugh Laurie wasn't being quite as acidic, quite as peeved as usual. Now he's going to go totally off the rails again and it makes me excited to watch "House" again in a way I haven't been since Penn first started his run.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Art Is Theft

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

Even though there haven't been many surprise eliminations or hilarious train wrecks, this "American Idol" season is beginning to distinguish itself, if only by its pure weirdness. In the absence of any truly compelling contestants, the judges have taken it upon themselves to create drama. This means playing favorites to a degree that's shameful even for this show, engaging in mostly staged little on-air scuffles, and occasionally getting into formation, Voltron-style, to let a particularly unsuspecting wannabe have it. Last night it was Lil Rounds who absorbed the full force of a choreographed tongue-lashing, probably too late to keep the clueless Lil alive in the competition.

The combination of contradictory advice and different sets of rules for different contestants (anything Adam or Danny does is good, Allison and Matt are disgusting and should be shunned despite usually being better than either Adam or Danny) is playing out like cruel psychological experiments. What possessed Scott MacIntyre to attempt playing guitar? What will Kris do next, when the judges are simultaneously encouraging everyone to show their own musical personalities and savaging anyone who does so who isn't Adam Lambert? How outrageous an outfit will Allison have to don before the judges will acknowledge she indeed has a personality and is in fact the best singer in the remaining field by a colossal margin?

All of these competing pressures might make "Idol" more exciting, rather than less so, as it begins to kick for the homestretch. The final result might be predetermined -- if Adam doesn't win, I'll be gobsmacked, as not only has he gotten far more coddling than last season's presumptive producers' pet (David Archuleta), he's actually kind of good. Not great, and certainly not as good as the judges would have you believe, but certainly capable of being in the final and earning it.

This ended up being an extra weird show for me because the live performance went long and the last song of the evening, Adam's, ended up being cut off by my DVR. I stopped taping "Fringe" a very long time ago so I had to wait and check out Lambert's "Mad World" on YouTube this morning. I wrote everything else beforehand, and knowing what I now know might have changed everything else. Adam was a) plagiarizing and b) way below his standards. I probably would have subconsciously adjusted a few folks upwards to account for this, given the insane levels of Adam favoritism in which the judges, producers, and crew are indulging.

Seriously, the judges let Lil have it for like five minutes (thus leading to the show running long and Matt Giraud getting cheated out of the fair share of praise his best performance in ages should have earned him) for doing the exact same thing Adam did. No fooling, exact same thing. Lil just picked a tune everybody knows to get all karaoke on, and Adam proved better at selecting something at the right level of relative obscurity. Whether he got it from Donnie Darko or (more likely) the TV commercial for the XBox game Gears of War, I don't see how there's any difference between Lil channeling Tina Turner and Adam ripping off Gary Jules. Except Lil actually was in key more.

Danny Gokey I just don't get this season at all. Danny would have been semifinal-round cannon fodder any year before this one, but this is the year the producers decided to go for storylines, storylines, storylines in the editing of the open-audition shows. So he got a ton of camera time, America fell in love with his dead, tragic young wife, and the producers and judges decided to simply ride his wave of unmerited popularity. A vaguely inspirational crooner at his best, Danny is simply a shouting goony mess most of the time. What's the deal with his doing "Stand by Me?" "Stand by Me" didn't come out the year Danny was born. It would be nice if just once Ryan Seacrest would announce, "We're making up the rules as we go along. Just don't worry about it." Or they had a printed disclaimer of sorts. Danny's take on the standard started in the sub-elevator music basement and then "busted out" with the dippy scatting and awkward dance moves Gokey does every week. He still has yet to show even a smidgen of commercial potential, which is one criticism you can't say of Adam Lambert. And yet Danny is going to keep wasting our time, ninety seconds at a go, for another several weeks. When and if Allison gets the boot before him, I'm really going to start hating him. Right now I'm not filled with malice towards Danny, really I wish him the best, but he hasn't been interesting since "Hero." The big climax was musically random and didn't have much at all to do with the song. He was in pitch for the most part, but even in key his voice isn't all that pleasant to listen to. 5

Kris Allen I like Kris now more than I used to, but he's not consistently showing the kind of inventiveness he would need to blitzkrieg the final, Blake Lewis-style. "All She Wants to Do Is Dance" was not a super brainy song choice, and an odd candidate for a rather ill-fitting world-funk arrangement (sort of like Naked-era Talking Heads, which by itself is a cooler reference point than you'd think Kris capable of). The more aggressive tempo of the song and the muscular horns made Allen sing in a more gritty tone than his usual whispery-smooth vibe. That I liked, but he should find a less busy way of showcasing that side of his personality. For my part, I think channeling Trey Anastasio's solo stuff is cooler than Kris's old Jack Johnson trip, but jazz fusion is a losing proposition on "Idol." I'm a more sophisticated music fan than the vast breadth of the "Idol" audience (my vain hope is that one year they'll bring Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in as mentors, which would be surreal and probably hilarious) and I think Kris has to continue in this direction if he's going to last. He's not going to win on sheer vocal talent alone, but he obviously has a leg up on most others when it comes to musical education and original ideas. Lil, Danny, and Anoop have none of either; Allison is pure unspoiled talent; Matt and Scott are both fine musicians with stupid, trite ideas. And Adam is really a misplaced theater performer taking an advantage of a field with no one else who has even close to the right idea about how to present themselves. 7

Lil Rounds I never really cared much at all about Lil's fate in the competition, good or bad, she's another version of a singer who makes a solid run in every "Idol" season, the "urban diva." That means "black girl with chops," for those of you scoring at home. As such she's not really one to draw much sophisticated analysis, given that her fate will be just the same as Melinda Doolittle's or Jennifer Hudson's. Early on it seemed like she might be the winner by default, but that was true of Doolittle as well. Only a week or so into the finals it was clear that Lil was neither smart nor self-aware enough to be a threat to win. After the judges raked her over the coals for a technically fine but woefully unoriginal "What's Love Got to Do With It," I felt sorry for her for the first time ever. Perhaps the firing-squad approach will backfire, as it usually does on this show. If sympathy votes save Lil at the expense of Allison, I guarantee you I will not feel sorry for her next week. This particular performance really shows the limitations of my scoring system, because on a technical level it was one of the better outings of the night. As far as artistic effect is concerned, it could be a career-ender. She gave it a strident, slightly harsh character that showed a serious lack of connection to the material. So long Lil, see you again in a slightly different guise next season. 8

Anoop Desai You never know what to expect from Anoop, a guy who I suspect has like 150 songs on his iPod shuffle and that's the entire extent of his pop music knowledge. The "year you were born" theme -- which with this group equated to 80's night -- took Anoop out of his shallow comfort zone. Thus the odd timing of the verses and the unflattering exposure of certain weaker bands of Desai's range were to be expected. Anoop genuinely seems to be unaware that you're allowed to change the key of a song if it will make you sound better. But, hiccups aside, "True Colors" as interpreted by the Tar Heel was thoughtful and heartfelt. Its imperfections were way more interesting than Lil's rote musical correctness. It also unexpectedly found its way into a very contemporary R&B groove and at times sounded for all the world like a current radio single. That's one area that has been a weakness for Anoop and I'm glad to see him gaining strength. Five more Anoop outings would be way more fun than five more Danny Gokey shoutfests. 8

Scott MacIntyre Boy, Scott has come a long way in terms of style and working the camera, after his own fashion. He finally got his hair fixed, too. Thing is, his voice is not all that good, and with Megan out of the way, he just seems like the odd man out talentwise. He looked out of place with an electric guitar; and he played it with the same competency I would show on the piano. It was sort of a cool idea to come out with just an axe and a big amp, but it didn't work because it's not his personality. He also had that eerie look of brainwashed sincerity in his eyes as if singing about God, and that's never good. Cheers for trying to show a new side, but he was showing one he doesn't actually have. His singing continues to decline, although I liked the part at the beginning before he started in with the clubhanded barre chords. 6

Allison Iraheta As the youngest contestant remaining in this year's "Idol" cast, last night Allison was a spooky omen of all the "Year You Were Born" episodes that are yet to come. Do you realize that in three or four seasons every single contestant on the show will have been born either in the very late 80's or the very early 90's, home to much of the worst music ever made by humans? Stuff that sounds like the fashion of that time smelled, half Aquanet, half unwashed flannel. It would take a deeply terrible song to suck all the fire out of Allison, but "Can't Make You Love Me" came very close. It was nice hearing her take a bit off of the accelerator and work soul into the longer, meatier midrange notes, but it was an underwhelming outing for a dark horse who needs to be radical every time out just to survive, thanks to her minimal exposure the first two months of the season. Still, it's super obvious she's the only alternative to Adam as winner. She's got that talent that shines through in the foggiest of arrangements. She inhabits songs beautifully and with an unteachable ease. 8

Matt Giraud The a capella intro to "Part-Time Lover" was absolutely brilliant and I was holding my breath waiting for Matt to make me see him in a whole new light. But then the band kicked in (they've been way off all season) and it was pretty marginal. His mannerisms, vocal and facial tics, and body movements are all wrong and vaguely offensive. The big note at the climax was way off. It was the most original he's been in some time but the bar was not set high. I wonder if the show's being short for time and the judges having to curtail their praise of him proves fatal. 7

Adam Lambert Fake arrangement-stealing controversy didn't hurt David Cook, who nicked a Chris Cornell reinvention of "Billie Jean" and won the whole thing last year. But Cook's "Billie Jean" had a lot of the singer's own style infused. Lambert's "Mad World" honestly seemed as if he was performing as Gary Jules in the theatrical adaptation of the making of the Donnie Darko soundtrack. I'm a big fan of the Jules/Michael Andrews recording, and with the exception of a couple of ad libs here and there, Lambert was doing a very clear impersonation -- except it wasn't a very good one, as he kept losing pitch. Lambert is utterly immune to criticism but in their rush to crown him the "Idol" brain trust are missing the forest for the trees -- who's going to buy a whole record by this kid? And how are you going to sell him to the Disney Radio crowd when it's pretty obvious that Adam isn't suited for the traditional heterosexual puppy love subject matter of Hanson and the Jonas Brothers? I think he's probably too young to be the new Holly Johnson, although I have to give him some props just for giving me the opportunity to name-check Holly Johnson in the context of an "American Idol" review. 6

I think if the judges had taken it easy on Lil, this would have been her turn to get the boot. But perversely their nastiness will end up winning her a sympathy boost, and that leaves Scott as the most exposed contestant. He wasn't any better or worse than his established standard, but he's got to go sometime.

The Mother Hood

"How I Met Your Mother"

"How I Met Your Mother" is what passes for a hip network sitcom these days, and it's standing right at the precipice. In its fourth season, the show needs a full-season renewal to reach the magic number of 100 episodes and thus syndication and eternal life. There it could join a growing subgenre of sitcoms like "Seinfeld," "That 70's Show," or even "30 Rock from the Sun" that started slowly only to blow up thanks to being particularly suited for being on every weekday at 5:30 or 10:30, perhaps after "The Simpsons." CBS could use a late-blooming hit that appeals to anybody below 50, and they've shown a lot of patience with "Mother," leaving it in a timeslot in between the more successful "Big Bang Theory" (which is both a better and more broadly accessible show) and the still-going "Two and a Half Men" (which is just broad).

Now would be the time for the show to reach a wider audience, given that CBS just had most of its target demographic captive for a whole month. Promos during the NCAA tournament pumped "Mentalist" and "Big Bang" pretty heavy, but a few quick-cut montage shots were all the creatively sagging "Mother" was afforded. The show has already tried a couple of times to draw in new eyes with event episodes, to ill effect. A dumb Super Bowl episode was followed a season later by an even dumber "bracket" show.

The trouble is, like most sitcom writers the "How I Met Your Mother" majordomos are East Coast intellectual types and don't know even the very least little bit about sports. Their male characters reflect this -- Ted is the kind of guy who might watch the Super Bowl and the Final Four and the World Series every year, but has no idea who's on any of the teams, Barney is too white-collar and self-focused to connect much with team sports (although he does have a gambling addiction, which doesn't necessarily have anything to do with enjoying or following sports). Marshall should and nominally does like sports, but he talks about them like a New Yorker imagines Minnesotans talk about football and hockey.

Even with Jason Segel's film career on fire and the unforeseen Neil Patrick Harris comeback roaring ahead full steam, "How I Met Your Mother" seems to be losing its juice as it pushes for that syndication finish line. Part of it is the writing, as noted above -- "Big Bang Theory" has a cast of four physicists and a babe, and yet it has five fully-developed characters; "How I Met Your Mother" still seems like Harris's Barney (an admittedly delicious comic creation) and then just mouthpieces for guy jokes and girl jokes, except Cobie Smulders (girl) is allowed to tell guy ones. Josh Radnor's milquetoast lead has never grown on me. I thought Segel was doing good work here, but then his hysterical, edgier stuff in I Love You, Man and Forgetting Sarah Marshall reminded me of how much riskier and well-rounded he made his role on "Undeclared" in only a handful of episodes. As Marshall, he's a big, soft dummy, with sitcom stunt-cast parents and watery eyes for old 80's movies, as if Craig Thomas and Carter Bays were skimming old Bill Simmons columns for material.

The biggest problem with the leaden fourth season, though, is something over which the writers and producers had no control whatsoever. Somehow, both Alyson Hannigan and Smulders got pregnant this season. The already weak writing for Lily and Robin has become all too painfully obvious now that the women have to do all of their scenes seated, draped in shawls, hiding behind laundry baskets, or oddly crammed into the frame as if you were watching the panned-and-scanned version. Smulders, naturally, looks absolutely radiant; poor Hannigan has been discolored and blotchy since about her second trimester. Both really suffer from the loss of their physicality. Hannigan is a born ham who likes to act every line with her whole body, and Smulders has a nonchalant way about her sexuality -- as if she forgets every now and then that she's a hot babe, but is always knowingly pleased when reminded -- and neither are really free to express themselves nonverbally in the ways to which they've become accustomed. Absent these subtle but important countermeasures, Lily seems hectoring and hypocritical and Robin seems like a ruthless ice queen.

Over on NBC, "Life" approached the problem of Sarah Shahi's pregnancy with an alternative strategy. Dani Reese is taking a couple of cases off, with Gabrielle Union stepping in as... I dunno, Detective Substitute. Of course, "Life" is a show like "House" with a lead and a supporting cast and "How I Met Your Mother" is an ensemble comedy. Perhaps Bays and Thomas could have brought in Steve Railsback to throw Robin and Lily in the trunk of his car and drive them to a rendezvous with the space aliens. Then they could have had an exciting season 5 premiere where Ted, Barney, and Marshall had to climb out of a moving cable car all while confronting the treachery of Agent Krycek.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Smell the Artistry

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

This has been my least favorite season of "Idol" since I started watching, because I have no real rooting interest. Allison has become my favorite by default, but I hardly think I'll be downloading her album at some future point. It makes it more difficult to listen to the performances objectively, because all of the contestants are beginning to bore me. Everyone seems to have a fatal flaw that holds them back visibly each week -- Adam's theatricality, Lil's rhythmic inflexibility, Anoop's laziness, Matt Giraud's misguided equation of popularity with artistic merit. Allison is the lone exception. She took a bit of a beating for her weird outfit and hairstyle this week, but she was due to do something to mix it up and I kind of liked her 80's rocker look. She's not much of a guitar player, but she's the only contestant who's both following her instincts and making the right choices.

Anoop Deai Anoop was in key and dressed and moved around in the most stylish way he can. He's not convincing as a player, but he has enough confidence to fake it for an evening. The choice of an Usher song didn't give him a lot of chances to show off hig high range. A sort of chops-flexing peak is expected of "Idol" outings at this stage and Anoop lacks the proper sense of drama in his arrangements. His lackadaisical approach will catch up to him. 8

Megan Joy I don't know where the judges precisely turned on her, because by my estimation Megan's been doing the exact same performance since Day 1. I don't know how they can tell when she's better or worse that she always tends to warble around key on 50-60% of her notes. As far as picking a number to which her particular style is suited, I thought "Joy" did fine with "Turn Your Lights Down Low." She had less fortunate run-ins with more technical vocals in weeks past. The vague theme for this episode ("Top Downloads on iTunes") made for a disjointed episode. With all that leeway, Megan could have picked something much more likely to make her stand out, if she had such competitive spirit. I don't think she does. 6

Danny Gokey Danny's limited appeal becomes more obvious each time he delivers roughly the same performance again; although he went left-field and picked a modern country hit it still sounded like much the same mildly impassioned shout-a-thon as his "Hero" early on in the contest. Danny picked a better song this week to shout than last; he's more convincing when he plays the pity card than when he tries to party hard or boogie down. I'm not totally sure if this one translates as another tribute to his Dead Wife but it's worth noting that he fluffed the grace note badly and and one of these weeks he's going to shout his way out of relation to pitch on the bridge of some inspirational ballad and never get it back. 7

Allison Iraheta Not a fan of Allison's clunky guitar stabbing or No Doubt's serious side, but she really won me over with her belting in the second half of "Don't Speak." More of a rocker would have been nice. I think she got an unfair beating on the subject of her outfit. Since Allison isn't exactly a quote machine, it was a good time to do something radical with her dress to get noticed. I don't think it hurts her at all. 8

Scott MacIntyre Scott's run seems destined for a good-feelings end a week or two from now safely in place for the "Idol" tour and an album deal with a Christian label. He's over as a possible winner, though, and the judges are beginning to get their knives out for him for when there are no other weaker sheep left in the flock. They're getting less nice about Scott's obvious limitations as a singer, although his piano playing continues to impress. A Billy Joel number, "Just the Way You Are," was right up Scott's alley, although I don't think that Top 40 radio is on the brink of a resurgence in piano-man hits. Scott's voice is harsh and glitchy whenever he moves out of a narrow comfort band, and the ideas he's imperfectly executing remain essentially conservative. 6

Matt Giraud We don't like The Fray much here in the greater Denver area, where the band rose up to national prominence seemingly without playing anywhere or working with anyone else in the city. Matt Giraud is young enough and dumb enough to be moved by their bland ballad style, and vain enough to think he can inject soul into a lifeless song via whimpering. Matt desperately wants to appear current but he has no idea how to do it. If this is his reaction to the wake-up call of facing elimination, he's in deep trouble. 7

Lil Rounds Lil has been losing traction rapidly. For a while I thought she was holding herself back to really bring some reserves in when she needed them, but now I believe she's not the natural musician she once seemed. For "I Surrender," not at all an R&B tune, Lil was plagued by the same issues of pitch and meter that arise every time she moves away from Mary J. impersonation. She did quite a bit to win me over after a weak beginning with some power vocals at the climax, but I don't really see the marketability of this combo of singer and song. They could pick basically anything, and she went Celine Dion? Very odd. 8

Adam Lambert Adam, to his credit, has reacted in just the right way to the limitless praise his favorite status afforded him at times when he really didn't deserve it in the earlier rounds. He's taking bigger risks still and yet he's getting better, really displaying the power of his vocals in many different styles and showing a musical taste that's surprisingly eclectic, one that puts the older Matt Giraud to shame. No one could have predicted "Play That Funky Music" from Adam out of this theme, but he sold it, howling and wailing his way through the best time of the "Idol" slate. I'm not sure if it was his most modern or savvy choice, or if he'd put it on his debut album, but he's sure not sticking to script. 9

Kris Allen Kris plays the piano better than he plays the guitar -- didn't see that coming. It was an unsually interesting and alert performance from a fellow who could be accused of crusining on his looks. I don't know where Kris got the idea to do "Ain't No Sunshine" from, but showed a level of musical engagement we haven't seen out of Allen before. His vocals were correspondingly tighter, as well. A cliffhanger-like closer to this episode, as Kris has a bit of a new dimension as we begin to separate wheat and chaff. He's got new life. 8

It's going to leave Allison and Lil and a bunch of dudes, but I think Megan "Joy" gets the boot tonight. The judges all but rolled out the carpet for her walk out the door. I wonder if they'll even pretend to deliberate over whether to use their save on her weak behind?